Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything: Christopher Nolan

Planners and Schemers, 
Madmen and Dreamers

Christopher Edward Nolan (born July 30, 1970) can pretty much do anything he wants in Hollywood now. He could film the phone-book (out of order, probably) and there would be no lack of investors to throw cash at the project. His last few films have been extraordinarily expensive epics, a far cry from his humble beginnings as an experimental film-maker.  His ability to make more movie for less budget in his early career vaulted him pretty quickly into Hollywood's A-list, as his limited budgets (for Following and Memento) made him a good risk with studio funds. His ability to keep the reins on a story-line, but also evoke feelings of dread and disorientation have made him a director of down-beat and uniquely crafted movies. And with the exception of one film, all of them have one shared quality.

Storytelling dictates a linear approach; you're supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The shortest distance between "Fade from Black" to "The End" is a straight line, or, if you're of the bent, a story-arc. But if you look at a Christopher Nolan film, it looks more like a
möbius strip.

Stitched together by

"In Media Res" is the term for one of his films, the lens aperture opening for a limited amount of time, and closing with events still in flux, the world changing and the future uncertain. One has the sense of a Nolan film merely stopping, with the story-line continuing past the audience's part in it, again leading to a lack of fulfillment...or dread. In either case, one exits one of the director's films dis-oriented, uneasy...but not often dis-satisfied.

Following (1998)
This is Nolan's first film success, a short caper/character study that feels a bit like a "Mamet" filmed by the BBC, with the same deliberate cadence of the dialog, but with one major difference--it's presented out of sequence and with no sense of linear construction. The only clues you have to when things work out in the timeline are the lead character's appearance. Sometimes he looks like a slob (he's an unemployed writer) and sometimes he's dressed like a sharp (he's been given sartorial tutoring for a particular line of work) and sometimes he's spitting out teeth (he's been beaten up).

The story itself is a trifle; a writer, suddenly single, begins a bad habit of picking people out in a crowd and following them home--nothing kinky, just research. But random chance brings him to one person who notices he's being followed and, as they say, things get complicated. One wonders why Nolan's elaborate editing scheme is there in the first place, as the plot resolves in the same way in either order (the DVD gives you the choice of viewing options). The only real reason to do it is obfuscation. An interesting exercise, but a bit pointless, unless it can be rationalized as the film being bracketed by a police grilling and the writer is remembering the story in pieces. But if it was obfuscation the director wanted, one would think there was a more interesting way to do it than relying on post-production.

But it did put him in the proper mind-set for his next film, where the editing structure is far more rigid, and is part and parcel for the film-concept.

Memento (2000)
As opposed to the scrambled editing structure of FollowingMemento has a diabolical editing scheme, going two linear directions at once, forward and backwards: the black and white sections heading for the future, and the color sections retreating to the past. It tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance-fraud investigator, who we learn suffers from anterograde amnesia--he can't make new memories--due to injuries suffered in a home-assault which killed his wife. Despite the fact that he forgets what he's learned in his investigation every five minutes, he attempts to hunt down the second man in the assault for revenge. Because of his condition he's forced to leave clues to himself via instant Polaroid's, tattoo's, and notes, and depends on the help of accomplices Natalie (Carrie Ann-Moss) and Teddy (John Pantoliano) to form a through-line in his unstable quest. The film begins with a murder, and it ends with another one, and we are left with the scenario of a human loose-cannon, pursuing his empty clues whereever they may lead.

It's a fascinating idea for a film, and the conceit is a great one. Not unlike a classic murder mystery played backwards, with all the clues that have been building, revealing the actual events at the end to the viewer. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the film is not revelation but helplessness-there is no satisfaction gained from the answer, only a sense that there is no mystery, just random acts of violence. One feels hoodwinked.

And ultimately, like Following, the film would be pointless if not for the backward chronology; if it weren't for that construction, the film would be completely unsatisfying, and, like the classic murder mystery chronology, or any film whose weak story-line is propped up by starting with the consequences, the manipulation of time is its one strength.

Still, its an interesting experiment. And the performances by Pearce, Moss and Patoliano are expert in themselves, Pearce, revealing all that he can know at any given time, and Pantoliano and Moss being deliberately obtuse, not to reveal too much.

Insomnia (2002)
Following and Memento were both made on shoe-string budgets, but this remake of a Norwegian film has an all-star cast of Oscar winners, and something Nolan hasn't tried before, a linear timeline.

Two homicide cops under investiagtion by their department are sent to a friendly district in Nightmute, Alaska to cool off and help in a homicide investigation. The partners are a bit wary of each other, not sure of what the other will tell, and since the charge involves planting evidence--who do you trust? One thing Detective Will Dormer
(Al Pacino) doesn't factor in is the perpetual sun-light all day above the Arctic Circle.* If he was having trouble sleeping before, now he's suffering from full-on sleep deprivation and his judgement, along with his already questionable ethics, are making him slip up. And given that the killer (Robin Williams) is at least as smart as he is, the results could be fatal. Nolan has fun with the chases evoking the same sort of "French Connection"-style" philosophy** but turned on its fishing-village ear. Pacino and Williams crackle in their scenes together, though fellow Oscar-winner Hillary Swank, with less meat and scenery to chew on, has less to show for it. And Nolan, sticking to the clock, compensates with atmosphere and intriguingly shot set-pieces that keep you guessing. Appropriately, this is the only film that has a definite ending, with Dormer finally achieving a rest of sorts in the only blackness the environment can provide.

Det. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) in several fogs

Batman Begins 
(2005) After Insomnia, Nolan was handed the keys to Warner Brothers' staked-like-a-vampire "Batman" series to "revamp" the franchise back into fighting strength. He's aided immeasurably by a good cast, particularly Christian Bale using George Bush boorishness for his portrayal of Gothan City billionaire Bruce Wayne, who dresses as a bat to carry on his murdered father's legacy of helping the down-trodden and oppressed. But the top-heavy cast also includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson (and Katie Holmes). Like the old joke goes: "Any 'names?'"

But that origin story. That one always gets in the way--
starting with the Wayne kid's parents being murdered? Not even Tim Burton led with that. No, Nolan juggles the time-line a bit to start with us--and Bruce--off-guard and a bit lost, fighting for his life in a foreign prison. He's recruited by Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Assassins to maximize his potential and leave his past behind--a past that is slowly released by Nolan in dribs and drabs for viewing. Then his pilgrimage and training complete, it's back to Gotham for acquiring "all those wonderful toys."

Nolan and scripter
David Goyer have a lot of ground to cover with a lot of characters--two villains (maybe three), Gordon's story and Alfred's, the fate of the Wayne fortune, and Bruce's childhood girlfriend, and oh, yeah, the intertwining plots of the villains. They keep everything moving and even pull off a surprise or two, but the final attack on Gotham City is an over-extended and splintered mess that focuses on too many characters for its own good and too much property damage for the city's. You begin to wonder what's been saved. But there's enough promise to whet one's appetite for the inevitable follow-up.

"Batman" begins

The Prestige (2006)
Written about more extensively here, The Prestige is a good-looking period film that sets up a perfect crime and the perfect revenge in one fell swoop as two competing magicians devote their careers and lives to out-tricking and out-illusioning the other. But illusions are in the eye of the beholder, and it all comes with a cost. Like all magic tricks, you feel a bit disappointed when the secrets are revealed, and the film leaves one with the same sense of vague let-down, even with the extraordinarily creepy and resonating final image. Nolan's set-ups in this film are terrific, but in time one realizes just how self-destructive this competition has been.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star with strong supporting turns by Michael Caine and David Bowie (as electrical innovator Nicola Tesla), and a perfunctory "girl" role by Scarlett Johanson, that could have been done by anybody, frankly. But Nolan knows how to get the maximum out of his performers, including Jackman in a good performance in something that doesn't involve claws.

The Dark Knight 
(2008)  Nolan's second "Batman" film raises the stakes for the entire cast, adding Heath Ledger's trickster Joker and Aaron Eckhart as D.A. Harvey Dentwho has taken up with Wayne old flame Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhall). Ledger's unique take on The Joker grabbed all the attention—and the Best Supporting Oscar that year—but the extremely well-integrated storyline combining The Joker, Two-Face, Batman, and Rachel and the intertwining of their fates makes this one the most cohesive of Nolan's latter films; it's a puzzle that fits together intricately and inelegantly, creating a satisfying whole despite the chaos
 (and a couple large eyes of a plot-hole or six) that churns in its center.

And it is chaos. Some critics have made too much of Ledger's Joker saying he's an agent of it, while also concocting elaborate plots that require a lot of preparation, seemingly belying the words. Yet, he is chaotic, and not just in the results he produces.  The very idea that he does one thing and says another shows him to be inconsistent, undependable, untrustworthy, mercurial, as changble as the stories he spins for his smile of scars. He's just the guy who will blow away any elaborately arranged house of cards, the opposite of Wayne's predictable planner and schemer, a man not unlike the director.
Heath Ledger, sure.  But The Dark Knight is Harvey Dent's story (played by Aaron Eckhardt)

Inception (2010)  Oh, yeah. It looks good. It looks great, and its elaborate set of rules and regulations provide some consistency in a shaky foundation of dream-scapes and the even more tremulous ones of character. That's the conflict of dream-team-leader Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)—keeping things dependable, despite the vagaries of personality. He runs an industrial spy ring that does "Mission: Impossible"-style invasions into targets' minds while they sleep, creating whole worlds to maneuver through. As in most of these stories, the best laid plans go awry and the crew has to punt in order to  accomplish their goals. For Cobb's team, he's their weakest link; his guilt over the death of his wife (Marion Cotillard) on a previous job threatens to unravel the sturdiest of missions—an element of reality that betrays the unreality of the various scenarios his group puts together.

The structure of Inception is fun—dreams within dreams within dreams within a movie, which is, as its a product of imagination, just another dream, revealed puckishly by Nolan by playing the "safety" song "Non, je ne regrette rien" over the credits in the final few minutes of the film, gradually being replaced by the awakening thrum just as the film...ends. Cute. And Nolan's flash-backs, forwards, and brief interruptions and insertions are further complicated by an elaborate nested-dream sequence that dominates the last half of the film.  Even though played in deadly earnest by another terrific cast, it's Nolan's lightest film, as he plays with the form (necessitating repeated views) of how we watch movies, stretching the rules of film-watching...if not film-making.
Folding space and time in Inception

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)  Nolan's third (and presumably final) "Batman" movie ends the story quite definitively, by providing "The Dark Knight," eight years in retirement, with one last challenge that in many ways reflects his origins. It's a good full circle approach, and makes one suspect that Nolan may have had this as a grand design, rather than, say, just pulling out elements of Batman Begins to tie everything in a nice thematic bow.  

But those elements feel like after-thoughts a bit, hanging threads that mar the look of a nice design.  The most interesting aspect of TDKR is Tom Hardy's Bane, a hired thug, with several masters, but who appears to be working on his own.  Bane is another "Dark Knight" opposite--where Bruce Wayne is enmeshed in armor, Bane is pretty much organic, less of a construct. Stronger and faster than Batman, he can best him in a fair fight...and cruelly take advantage of the loser's injuries so he'll never get up again.  Where Wayne's face is exposed in his disguise, Bane's is covered with a morphine breather, where Wayne tried to protect Gotham City, Bane wants to level it. That central conflict provides the momentum of the movie, but there are many side-trips for the rest of the cast, including a young beat-cop who was inspired by Batman as a child (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and another creature of the night—Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)—who seems to have as many loyalties as lives.  And the film ends with things still in a state of flux, as Gotham City needs to rebuild and the fates of many of the characters in question.

The only thing definitive is Batman, after a career of working in the shadows, had been forced into the light and ends his work with a blinding flash.

The Dark Knight the sun.
A LOT of masks in The Dark Knight Rises (some better than others)

Interstellar (2014) Interstellar was in development at Paramount for years (at one point, Spielberg was attached to it), but when Spielberg moved from Paramount to Disney, the film became directionless. Nolan's brother, Jonathan, was writing the screenplay and suggested him for director. Nolan's commitment to Warner Bros, created a high-powered collaboration between the two studios and Legendary Pictures to finance the film. They needed all the money they could get—Interstellar was a huge undertaking, with a lot of special effects commitment. It was an ambitious undertaking—to make a film about the science of black holes and their impact on space travel and on puny humans. Earth is suffering the severe effects of climate change, and a secret facility has already started exploratory missions for new homes for humanity accessible by a black hole in the vicinity of Saturn. A former astronaut, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited to pilot the ship Endurance to contact and bring back the solo astronauts who did the initial reccy's.

First off, the movie is gorgeous with images (designed by scientist Kip Thorne) that are truly out of this world. A lot of the concepts are mind-blowing. The story, however, is lacking, offering nothing more than a "humans can't be trusted" drama and a "love conquers all" conclusion. As committed as everyone is to the thing, it finally collapses on its own gravity, with too many sequences that are desperate to write themselves out of a jam. For me, Interstellar was a major disappointment while making my eyes wide.

Dunkirk (2017) "Dunkirk" was not just one "thing" in World War II, a singular event.It was a series of events that came together in desperation. The trapped British soldiers were there for a week, pushed to the sea by the Nazi's, with only the English Channel between them and home, the "mosquito squad" of ships to rescue them—a combination of military requisitioning and volunteers—took a day, and there was but an hour when cover from the air could be effective against the German planes strafing the scene. If you were to tell all those stories, you'd have a very lopsided movie—all the action pushed to the end—but you couldn't give ALL the stories their due. Nolan, always pushing the boundaries of visual story-telling, finds a unique solution: he divides the movie into three segments—land, sea, air—and stretches all of them across the 100 minutes of movie. It's up to the viewer to re-order the timeline, and "key" events and players are used to clue you in (if you choose to do so), but, in this way, he is able to raise the stakes on all sides, giving complete scope to the events. It is such a radical way to tell the story and puts a lot of faith in an audience's ability to puzzle out what's going on, but if viewers could work backwards to parse out Memento, the larger chunks of narrative that quilt Dunkirk should be a simpler process. Nolan refuses to "dumb down" his films, and challenges audiences as well as the very process of narrative to full dramatic effect. That's a unique gift for a story-teller and makes him much more than a "picture-maker," but an Escher-like manipulator of time and space.

Tenet (2021) "Seeing is believing" is the old adage. Nolan's Tenet challenges that conceit, while challenging audiences as well. This may be one of the more taxing movies in format than any film in history. It's story of a security agent (John David Washington) who, after he is "killed" in a mission is brought back to life and, being dead, he's a valuable asset. He is given a mission to go backwards in time (via inverted entropy) living his life (going forward) in reverse, so as to stop an adversary also moving back in time to a particular countdown...or count-back. He is going to do something no one suspects...because it hasn't already happened. Confusing? Sure. It gives you a head-ache and at some point, one should shut off their brain and just watch everything going backwards while out heroes go forward. It's Nolan's "James Bond" film, but with the added caveat that the plot is extra convoluted and what you are seeing is convoluted. At an early exposition scene about all this, some expert says "Don't think it. Feel it."

I suppose that applies to the confusion, as well.
We see this car flip forwards and backwards in Tenet.

Oppenheimer (2023) Nolan's 3 hour meditation on the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb" (and played in the film by Cillian Murphy). And it is, ironically, Nolan's least complex narrative structure about his most complex subject. Oppenheimer was a genius, and he knew it, but that knowledge can only take you so far. The man's career was about, and comprised of, chain reactions. But, just as he was unable to predict the specific outcome of his work, he was also unable to see the fall-out of what his research would garner for him personally. The achievement of his lifetime would lead to a lifetime of regret, where even the awards are, ironically, not really his own. He would help unleash the greatest power source known to the world, only to be powerless to contain it and his personal triumph would, ultimately, be a tragedy for the world. He would live in the terrible shadow of its mushroom cloud, even as the world did. And take no satisfaction in what he wrought upon this Earth.
With Robert Downey, jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Alden Ehrenreich, Tom Conti, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, and Florence Pugh.

* If you've looked at the map you know it isn't.

** That is, the bad-guys have free reign and the cops have to play by the rules.

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