(Someone sent me an email asking if I thought Nolan had shot Batman like a monster in a horror film in the fundraiser scene. I replied that I had not. But when I taught Batman Begins last quarter I taught it as a horror film. What follows are lightly-redacted notes for that class. It may read a little staccato.)
Christopher Nolan spends the first ninety-three minutes of Batman Begins denying his audience what they paid to experience: the vicarious thrill of costumed vigilantism. The film opens with a violent tease (Wayne beating back multiple attackers in a Bhutanese prison) before settling into an almost leisurely sequence of expository flashbacks. That Nolan sustains any narrative tension while recapitulating the most famous origin story in comic history testifies to the talent that made Memento more than the sum of its gimmicks. He pushes the narrative forward on three fronts: from his childhood to the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne; from their death to his imprisonment in Bhutan; and from his release from prison forward (the narrative present). Setting the narrative pace so slow ensures that the first glimpse of Wayne in full regalia will bring the catharsis. Or would have had Nolan's direction not transformed Batman into a monster.
Cut to the docks. The corrupt Detective Flass and mobster Carmine Falcone oversee the delivery of a drug shipment. The stevedores load boxes into the back of a truck:
Cut back to Flass and Falcone discussing the drugs in a limo:
Then back to the stevedores. Note that the stevedores are directly beneath a cone of warm light of the sort being put out by the light in the background:
Nolan chooses a deep shot here because he wants you to know how far the stevedore must travel to deposit that box onto the back of the truck. He cuts back to Flass and Falcone discussing drugs (similar to above) then back to the stevedore carrying the box:
Only that is not the stevedore with the box. Nolan confounds the conventions of continuity editing by violating the 180° rule. If a car careens off the right side of the screen it should emerge from the left in the next shot. (Otherwise.) Figures moving away from us should continue to move away from us. But Nolan aims to disorient here. He crosses the 180° line and follows the hooded man who had been moving toward us. (Note that he had been under one cone of light in the shot above and walks toward another. The stevedore with the box also walked toward a cone of light. We now know that this stretch of warehouse is illuminated by three lights.*) By the time we realize where we are and who we see, the hooded stevedore has nearly traversed the fraught space between him and the storage unit:
Note the classic horror blinds to his left and right. One more cut to the stevedore with the box establishes the forthcoming reaction shot:
The hooded stevedore struggling to remove the next box:
Nolan keeps the camera still here. The stevedore cannot dislodge the box from the container. Frustrated grunts are heard. He works at it for three or four seconds before being violently sucked into the container by some unseen percussive gust:
Nolan stays with the dark empty space for a beat before cutting away to the reaction shot:
He lingered so the audience could peer into the ominous blackness of the bin. Now begins the classic horror scenario: the search for the thing that just went bump in the night. The camera follows this stevedore as he walks around the end of the truck and peers down the alley:
Nolan cuts to a point of view shot and for the first time the audience sees the entire distance the stevedores must traverse. The camera moves inquisitively toward the open container. The suggestion is that whatever bumped the other stevedore is still in the bin.
Nolan again flips the camera 180° and now we see the stevedore whose head we just occupied walking towards us. The camera is positioned a foot outside the cone of the light closest to the bin. And because the previous shot had an identifiable point of view we assume this one does too.
But it doesn't. If there was a perspective to embody a foot outside the (now) far cone of light it would be visible. Note though that we are now behind the man whose point of view we occupied not but three seconds ago. We are now seeing through the eyes of the man who followed the first guy. All this shifting of perspectives disorients cumulatively. Every time Nolan confounds convention we are less able to situate ourselves in the scene or predict where the next cut will land us. Will we be borrowing the eyes of the lead man? The trailing one? The disembodied whatever-it-is down the corridor?
Nolan sticks with the trailing man's P.O.V. as he and his companion cautiously traverse the space between them and the bin. When they reach it Nolan again reverses:
He lets us know where they are by showing all three lights in the frame. They lead man sticks his head toward the bin and shouts. Then whatever went bump in their night starts taking out our only means of orienting ourselves in the scene:
With those lights extinguished we will no longer be able to measure where we are relative to the truck or the bin. But at least we know who was responsible for all the bumping:
Note that the lights are shielded on the all sides. The only direction to throw something that will blow the bulb is from below. The stevedores know this. The first one looks left and right. While he tries to see what might be lurking in the blind alleys his companion hears something rustle:
The shallow focus is deliberately misleading. The man in front will learn nothing from his study. But Nolan doubles down on the misdirection here. Not only is what is out of focus in the frame more important than what is: the most important element in the shot is not even in the frame but above it:
All that attention on the length of the corridor pays off. The Batman is right behind him. He better run fast!
Violate 180° again to show us that the Batman is not actually behind him. Then a series of quick cuts in which everyone asks themselves "What just went bump?"
Something moves and the man with the gun shoots in its general direction:
Note the shadow in the upper middle portion of the screen. That would be the Batman. Look where the man with the gun shoots:
That would be the lower middle portion of the previous shot. An eyeline match shows the audience a character looking and then what a character was looking at. The first shot contains no eyeline match. Its purpose is to show the audience what happened. The eyeline match in the second shows that the man with gun ready-fire!-aims at an incorrect assumption: that bats are land-based mammals. This bat might not be able to fly but neither is he limited to terra firma.
Cut back to the running man. Nolan's emphasis on the original alleyway again pays off. The audience knew that space. It also knew that there were blinds branching off to its left and right. Nolan takes advantage of this by cutting back to the hooded figure running down the familiar alley:
Then plunging him into down and between a series of identical looking alleys. He turns a corner and seemingly emerges back where he started:
Two significant differences: the lights are on and this alley is not neatly framed. The composition of the original shot breaks down: both the alley and the figure are off-center. The gyroscopically stabilizing steadicam has been ditched in favor of a jumpy hand held camera. Whose eyes (if any) are we borrowing here? Does the jumpiness of the camera simply correspond to the nervousness of the man running? Or are we occupying the head space of the thing chasing him? Where is he running to anyway?
To the man with the gun. Nolan puts us back into the head of the running man with another point of view shot so we can see the man with the gun point it at us. He had heard the running man bumping around in the night and—
Back behind the running man? But when we were just in his head the man with the gun was ten feet away. Unless we weren't in his head. Maybe we were in the head of someone else? Someone who dashed into one of those alleys on the side? The running man will check it out:
Nolan will now employ a shallow depth of field to make the Batman look really fast. Consider this diagram I snagged from Wikipedia:
In the previous shot the running man is within the depth of field. He is not so close or so far away as to be defocused. Nolan has him running away from the camera, but unlike the previous shots, this time the camera itself is not following him. It remains glued in one spot. As he runs away from the stationary camera, he is running toward that second line in the diagram—at which point he will be defocused. Nolan manipulates his lenses such that the second line corresponds with the back end of the shipping container. In this shot the running man is within the depth of field whereas Batman is beyond it:
Batman grabs the running man and pulls him into defocused territory:
Now both the chaser and the chased are defocused. Nolan banks on the audience confusing blurriness for speed. Had Batman idly strolled across the screen he would have been equally blurry. By having him move quickly and be blurry Nolan heightens the perceived speediness of the Batman.
All this running into and out of alleys got you confused? You're not alone. These previously-unseen thugs each think they heard something a different over there. You can tell because Nolan has them all in different directions:
Back to the man with the gun. He shoots to his left:
He hits nothing, but because he already fired to his left he assumes nothing can ever occupy that space again. The area on the left side of the screen has been swept and will remain clear for the rest of eternity. Time to inspect the right side.
What was that?
Where you incorrectly assume it will be will suffice!
Note that Nolan has again changed the angle so that it corresponds with the shooter's incorrect assumptions about his target. When Nolan cuts back to the shooter he switches to a close-up:
Two benefits here: the larger his face the easier it is for the audience to register the panic in it. The audience sympathizes with his fear even though it know he deserves to be punished. The second benefit: the tight shot leaves more of suggestively off-screen. He hears something and looks right:
He walks backwards he musters enough false bravado to yelp: "Where are you?" As he does this Nolan opens up the right side of the frame:
The audience expects that space is opening up on the right side of the frame because something is about to be revealed to be occupying it. But Nolan needed space to do a quick pan:
It would have been difficult to swung the camera with any suggestion of urgency if Nolan had centered the previous frames on his face. The pan makes it seem as if Batman has moved very quickly and suddenly appeared when the audience can plainly see he is just hanging upside down there. The space in the previous frames was Nolan's answer to the question: "How do you make a stationary object dangling from a crane look like it's moving really fast?"
*For the record: Nolan can't count and thinks two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Or slipped up. He shows you all three lights popped (here) then a fourth one directly above them blows (here). Which would be fine and all, were it not for the fact that that space is actually occupied by a crane-dangling Batman.