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Christopher Nolan: What Are We Watching, Exactly?

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Christopher Nolan: What Are We Watching, Exactly?

“The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds.” —The Joker

Christopher Nolan is an artist. Just what kind of artist, and how much we should praise him for it, is another matter. No matter what anyone may say, he is no Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s films, despite their objectivity and reputation for coldness, were studies of characters. Nolan’s films, by contrast, are studies of plot. Indeed, you could say he’s an artist of plot.

This is both his great strength and great weakness. There is much to be frustrated about with his oeuvre: his incoherent action sequences, the endless Hans Zimmer percussion compositions, and his apparent inability to not kill his female characters. But there is no denying the extreme popularity of his films, both in box office grosses and the passion of fans. Indeed, the intense love of Nolan on the Internet is something both frightening and fascinating. Jim Emerson gives the summary of the brouhaha over Nolan’s latest film, Inception (see also Dennis Cozzalio and Roger Ebert). Essentially, a vocal group of fans believes it is wrong and ridiculous to suspect that Nolan is anything less than a genius.

It’s easy to simply write off such intense fandom as displaced Batman nostalgia (no one was up in arms when The Prestige opened to mixed reviews), but it feels like something more. Franchise films like The Dark Knight may have built-in fanbases, but Inception is being praised not because of an established property but because of Nolan himself. (Heck, it may even save the movies!) We can talk about how such hype is excessive, as much a product of Hollywood’s terribly efficient marketing machine as legitimate anticipation. We could discuss how Inception is actually just a pretty fun action movie, its importance probably elevated by the fact that decent summer action films are slowly disappearing beneath tent-pole behemoths and the rapid-fire editing styles of Michael Bay.

Instead, I want to stop and look at Nolan for what he is. I acknowledge that he is flawed. I would not place him in the pantheon of currently working directors. But he is not a hack. His films are careful and deliberate. In fact, their very “deliberateness” is the key aesthetic quality which defines him, and which makes him popular. He is a filmmaker for people who love plots.

Let’s not forget that Nolan is a major commercial filmmaker. He may have gotten his start with a low-budget 16mm independent film, but he is not Richard Linklater. That is, he is not a man working in Hollywood who retains an independent-minded aesthetic, who wants to use his films to explore the human condition. Nolan wants to entertain. Any ideas which pop up throughout his films are secondary.

With that in mind, I’m going to survey Nolan’s films, looking at what works in each of them and what they have in common. I think by both taking Nolan seriously and putting him in perspective we can see what is good about his movies, what we can take away from them, and why, perhaps, they inspire so much passion.

Batman Begins

Let’s begin with Batman Begins (2005), his first big-budget hit. (Nolan’s career can be divided into pre-Batman and post-Batman. I’m starting with the chronologically later post-Batman section, since I believe the excesses here will help to better illuminate his pre-Batman work.) The keyword in this film is “fear.” Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has lived in fear since his parents were killed and now wishes to bring that fear to the criminals of Gotham City. Not justice, mind you, but fear. This contradiction—that Batman’s crusade is less about putting away the bad guys than about his own private frustrations—would seem to lie at the heart of the character and, indeed, the Batman ethos. But this is not what Nolan does with the material. His Batman is rational and calculating. He does not, in fact, appear to be afraid of anything. If he has any flaws, it’s because he pushes himself too hard. All that “fear” business is but a means to an end, a way of rationalizing behavior. (And in the film’s last act, it turns out be the secret weapon of the enemy. Literally in the form of a poison fear gas.)

But the film is still effective because it lays this out so deliberately. The first hour shows Wayne training in Asia with the League of Shadows, an *ahem* shadowy terrorist organization. This is intercut with scenes of Wayne’s childhood and young adulthood. After deciding that the life of a terrorist is not for him, Wayne returns to Gotham and begins planning his role as Batman: building the Batcave, making the suit, buying the Batmobile.

None of this material is really all that surprising to anyone even remotely familiar with the Batman origin story, and that’s precisely the point. It feels like we’re watching the opening of a chess match, the various pieces moving into position. These opening moves are done with precision: the pace is quick as we transition from young rich kid to ninja fight training to the first appearance of “the Bat Man.” It’s like watching the the Star Wars prequels all happen in under an hour, and with more focus and clarity. Hans Zimmer’s drumming works here: it’s propulsive. The film moves.

Of course, in the second half the plot becomes way too complicated and the focus slacks. There are several bad guys, each more deadly then the rest, and nobody really knows who they’re working for. The origin story basically stops altogether so that these various villains can be dispatched. By the time we get to the dreaded poison fear gas, the film’s emotional thread is somewhat lost, and Liam Neeson has to remind us:

“Over the ages, our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens, such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job.”

Oh, right. So now it’s personal? Or was it personal this whole time?

Despite the climax’s silliness and incoherence, the film ends with the reveal of the Joker as the next threat to Gotham. It’s a great moment, but it works for the same reason the ninja-training sequence worked: it feels part of a deliberate plan to create the legend we already know. When you step back, of course, you realize the film shows you virtually nothing about Bruce Wayne or his personal struggles. (You’re told that he’s a tortured soul, but never shown.) It becomes clear that the parts of the film that work are those where the plot is humming along with purpose. When the plot breaks down, or when the film thinks it’s developing the characters, it falls flat.

The Dark Knight

At the heart of the 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, is a character out of control from both society’s mores and the film’s plot: Heath Ledger’s Joker. By now enough ink has been spilled on the performance that I won’t spend much time discussing it except to say that he’s magnetic and enthralling because he feels so out of control in a film that is otherwise so deliberately constructed. If the rest of the film were as crazy as the Joker (if it had been directed by, say, Tim Burton) then some of his energy may have been lost. All the other characters, Bruce Wayne chief among them, spend the film looking sad and depressed. The many shots of Gotham at night just look glittery; there’s no dirt and no danger there. The plot is ineffective, too. Without the myth-building of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight starts as a typical superhero tale, with Batman flying to Hong Kong to bring down the mob. It takes the Joker to destroy the plot before it gets interesting.

Nevertheless, as has been discussed endlessly on the Internet, the Joker appears to be the best plot-planner of them all. The Joker has back-ups plans to back-up plans, contingencies to fail-safes. Anything that goes wrong is actually right, because the Joker planned it that way. Even when the Joker loses he is actually winning. When he’s arrested halfway through the film, for example, it may seem like a mishap, but it’s not. Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes have already been kidnapped and strapped to explosives. The Joker’s henchman has already had a bomb implanted in him. Had he not been caught, would this all still have happened, even though the Joker would have lacked an audience?

The fact that none of the Joker’s plans actually make any sense can all be explained away with a simple “He’s crazy! Of course he plans for everything!” But that feels a little cheap. No, the Joker is crazy. It’s the screenplay that’s deliberate. It’s not organic at all. It has places to get to and things to accomplish, and so it goes about accomplishing them in a very matter-of-fact manner. The Joker may be unpredictable, but he’s predictable enough to allow the film to get to its next big beat. Only the insanity of Heath Ledger’s performance makes any part of the film feel unplanned. Without an origin story to hold it together, The Dark Knight lacks a propulsive energy to move it along in a way that feels fun. (Also, Christian Bale seems to have more scenes with the Batman mask on than with it off. This is never a good thing.)

The Prestige

The Prestige (2006), the film that came between Nolan’s two Batman efforts, combines the best and worst of its bigger-budget cousins. On the one hand, the film’s central premise (dueling magicians in turn-of-the-century London try to outwit each other) is compelling enough that when the script steps aside and simply lets Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman perform increasingly dangerous magical feats, it works. It moves with purpose the same way the first hour of Batman Begins moved. In the scene below, Robert Angier (Jackman) and his associates are planning a new trick. The patient explanation of how it works, the difficulty of finding a suitable double, and the final presentation are all compelling.

If this was most of the film, it could be very rewarding. However, the plot twists pile up, the non-linear storytelling becomes excessive (there are a series of lying diaries), and almost all emotional investment in the characters evaporates by the end. Angier’s rival, Alfred Borden (Bale) is, in fact, two people. Which leads to all kinds of questions about who, exactly, we’ve been watching for the previous two hours. It’s the sort of detail which, had the audience learned it in the first 10 minutes, could have been explored in much more depth. Two brothers, both so obsessed with success, that they destroy their lives and families for a chance at fame? I’d watch that. The same goes for Angier’s science-fiction teleportation device, which makes a copy of whatever you put inside of it. The fact that this is “unrealistic” doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that the implications are kept hidden until the end of the film: in order to successfully perform his trick, in which Angier appears to be teleported to the theater balcony, he must kill the “original” copy of himself. In essence, this means every time he performs the trick he must die. Again: a magician so obsessed with success that he’d actually drown himself after every trick? I’d watch that. But Nolan turns both of these into surprise “twists” at the end of the movie, thereby ensuring that they’ll go unexplored and that he has nothing of value to say about obsession or fame.

Nevertheless, the film is superbly constructed, and the ending’s “wow” factor is up there with the best of M. Night Shaymalan. The plot is ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in such a well-done way. If you don’t care about what it means for the characters, then the film’s last shot is really striking.

Inception

The ending of Inception now seems to be headed for a similar reaction, even though its final shot is much more gimmicky and predictable. Nolan’s most recent film continues the trend of his previous three: an intriguing concept (corporate spies sneak into people’s dreams to steal their secrets) is used simply to set up cool action and plot beats. It’s all expertly done, of course. The second half of Inception, in which the team of extractors attempt to implant an idea in the subconscious of corporate heir Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), is a stellar action sequence. I was captivated the entire time. The ability to throw up to five simultaneous sequences in the air and juggle them for what must be at least an hour is certainly an accomplishment. Of course, I cared nothing about any of the characters or even the stakes of their assignment. It worked on a purely visceral level. The last shot only confirmed this. “Har, har, har…Did the top fall or not? We’ll never know!” There are easily a dozen films in the last decade with similar endings. (If you have not seen the film I will not try to tell you what the top is or what it means. It would take more words to explain than will fill the rest of this article.) Inception, in other words, is following Nolan’s trend of being a fun film when the plot is fun, but uninterested in much beyond that.

Following

Although this trend has intensified in recent years, it was always a major part of Nolan’s work. Following (1998), Nolan’s first, self-financed feature film, contains in miniature most of the elements he’s returned to since. It’s a crime story, told non-linearly, focusing on a tortured man. This unnamed protagonist is a writer, and he starts following people for no particular reason, just to see where they’ll go. He ends up catching the attention of a burglar named Cobb (also the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception) who brings him along on his jobs. Cobb isn’t much interested in the homes’ possessions. He just wants to scare people out of complacency: “You take it away, and you show them what they had.” He sounds more than a little like the Joker.

It turns out that Cobb is actually using the writer as a patsy. He frames him for his girlfriend’s murder (a plot his girlfriend, in another strange twist, is also a part of). This, of course, is another favorite Nolan device: the trick ending, or the revelation of something “important” in the film’s final minutes. It isn’t detrimental to Following as it is to The Prestige since it becomes clear early on that the writer is being used by Cobb for some unspecified end. Most of the film is dialogue, and Nolan lets it build slowly to the big finish. Following is by no means a game changer, but it bodes well and exemplifies Nolan’s best and most defining trait: his deliberate pacing and style. The film is not in a rush to get anywhere, but Nolan is sure that it’s going exactly where he wants it to.

Memento

Memento (2000) makes such careful plotting its mission statement. The film famously tells its story backwards, as it follows amnesiac Leonard (Guy Pearce) on a quest to find the man who killed his wife. It’s a gimmick, yes, but an effective one. On a first viewing, you’re as much in the dark as Leonard is, and you struggle to keep up with the action. On a second viewing, you’re able to take a step back and realize how Leonard is being taken advantage of by basically everyone around him, from the hotel clerk who charges him for two rooms to the police officer Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who uses him to kill drug dealers. I think the film’s innovative (though not unique; see Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or the Seinfeld episode it inspired, “The Betrayal,” for other examples) storytelling style tends to mask that the movie is mostly just a character study of a very sad and lonely man, but it’s nevertheless Nolan’s best use of plot in the service of character. In the future, his plots will merely be used in the service of more plot.

Insomnia

I’ve saved Nolan’s Insomnia (2002) for last because it is both his best film and the least Nolan-esque. This is probably because the screenplay is not Nolan’s own: it is by Hilary Seitz, and is based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. The film is linear, with no complicated plot mechanics to understand or unravel. It has no pretensions to say anything about “memory,” “fear,” “free will,” or whatever other themes Nolan sprinkles throughout his filmography. It’s a fairly straightforward police procedural: L.A. detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner are called to Nightmute, Alaska to help with a murder investigation. Dormer is under investigation by Internal Affairs back home and under a lot of stress. During a stake-out where they have the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), cornered, Dormer accidentally shoots and kills his partner, who was set to testify against him. Dormer covers up the killing and eventually, with the help of Finch, tries to pin the case on a local teenager.

Like Ledger in The Dark Knight, Pacino elevates the material simply by showing up. He effectively conveys the torment Dormer is under. (Note to Christian Bale: Frowning is not the same thing as having inner demons.) Filmed in British Columbia, it’s also the best-looking of Nolan’s films. Furthermore, it has something that no other Nolan film besides Following seems to have: a number of quiet dialogue scenes which don’t feel rushed. No pounding music, no heavy plot exposition, no urgent story beats to hit, just characters talking and interacting. This doesn’t mean the film is slow, by any means, but it shows a consideration of story and pacing beyond merely making things complicated and tricking the viewer.

Insomnia also contains an action sequence unlike anything in Nolan’s other films. The aforementioned stake-out scene takes place on a foggy, rock-strewn beach. As Dormer chases Finch, he has to contend with the number of large rocks protruding from the ground. The many quick cuts of his feet navigating the terrain and the sound of his shoes scraping against them are surprisingly tactile. It feels physical in a way no other Nolan action sequence does. The characters are not just interacting with their environment by jumping off of it; they’re contending with their environment, forcing themselves to maneuver in unexpected ways. It’s also a key detail for the scene: because Dormer becomes distracted in the course of the chase, he mistakes his partner for the killer and shoots him.

Compare this to an early scene from The Dark Knight, in which Batman is able to travel just about anywhere and do just about anything.

Again, the defense is that The Dark Knight is fantastical, while Insomnia is not. Fair enough, but the latter scene lacks any tension, any sense of danger. What’s the point of watching Batman when there’s no chance harm will come to him?

It comes down to this: Nolan may be not a great storyteller, but he is a great constructer of moments. When Batman first appears in Batman Begins or when Leonard decides to fake evidence that Teddy is his wife’s killer in Memento the “Holy Crap” feeling is genuine. I believe this is what attracts people to Nolan. He plots his films in such a way as to give maximum exposure to the handful of “awesome” moments throughout, allowing them to feel earned in a way they probably aren’t. In an age when Michael Bay can deliver an instinctual or visceral thrill, Nolan offers something just a little bit more: the sense that it’s not all chaos, that the story at least appears to be planned. Thus, when a big moment occurs, you feel the rush of being taken for a ride. It’s not quite the same thing as being told a well-crafted story: almost all of Nolan’s films fall apart or become scrambled at the end. But it’s better than being on a roller coaster with absolutely no sense of direction. In today’s blockbuster environment, that may be enough to turn you into an auteur.

The problem is that as Nolan’s career has progressed, he’s lost sight of how to make those moments feel organic. The moments are there, but how do they connect to the larger film? Nolan’s filmography can perhaps be summed up by the iconic shot of the Joker in The Dark Knight, sticking his head out the police car window, oblivious to the dangers around him—an image of freed chaos. It’s a small, lyrical moment, and it feels like it happened by accident. The shot is surrounded by so much plot detritus that it feels like a scream from a smarter, better film. Alas, such fleeting moments are perhaps the best we can hope for from Christopher Nolan, the plot-master.

The Dark Knight

Tom Elrod is a graduate student in English Literature at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.