This is the first in my new series, 21st Century Masters, a collection of director profiles specifically on directors and their films from the year 2000 onward. With some exceptions, films made before 2000 are not the subject of these profiles. These are attempts to understand the legacy of filmmakers here and now, not of the past.
There are three steps to Christopher Nolan’s directing process.
- He shows you something ordinary, which it probably isn’t.
- He takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
- But you wouldn’t clap yet, because he has to bring everything back.
Conveniently, this is the same model Michael Caine explains in “The Prestige.” A good “magician,” he says, tries to do something new, but not everyone can. A good “magician” gives total devotion to his art.
This is Chris Nolan in a nutshell. He begins with a film that demands your patience and attention, one that feels gritty, realistic and serious but has a little something more. Then, he astounds with monumental twists, stunning special effects, sweeping vistas and a screenplay that ever so slightly bends what’s possible. But Nolan’s real game is in showing you how its all done. He arranges elaborate procedures for his characters with strict rules and principles for them to follow. Then they’re confined to boxy, talky and methodic scenes of dialogue to lay the exposition open for scrutiny.
By doing this in each of his eight films, Nolan has been able to take over the world. No director in the 21st Century has emerged as a more distinctive, important voice for film as a popular art form than him. Other directors have been more critically acclaimed and others have slightly larger box office receipts, but no other director to make his or her mark in the last 12 years has come close to uniting adoring fanboys and appreciative film buffs than Nolan.
Nolan’s films are about singular ideas. His legacy comes from getting modern audiences in the multiplex to obsess over their films, study them with scrupulous attention and adhere to them as important texts made to be discussed.
Like Batman himself, Nolan is a symbol more than a director. He currently has the clout to take on any project he pleases and the fervent belief by many that he can do no wrong. And if through his audience he can transcend the idea that his film is just a movie made for entertainment value, he can become a beacon for something better than what we have in the movies today.
“You take it away… to show them what they had.”
Christopher Nolan began his fascination with filmmaking when he was just 8 years old in London. He shot films with action figures on Super 8 cameras and eventually started using his friends. But he never attended film school, and his early short films were low rent and surreal, most notably his 3-minute short “Doodlebug,” about a man obsessively chasing an insect around his house.
He directed his first feature in 1998 about an unemployed writer who takes to following people simply for the sake of learning how they spend their day. The aptly titled “Following” was filmed for only £3000, used all non-actors and was directed, written, produced, shot and edited by Nolan himself.
I always said that it’s hard to see how this indie, black and white neo-noir could ever come from the same guy who gave us one of the largest franchises in all of film history, but the core elements and traits that carry through all of Nolan’s films are all right here.
“Following’s” protagonist Bill first lays down a set of rules for the audience to understand. He’s just fascinated, not sexually aroused or deeply disturbed. Don’t follow women into dark alleys at night, never follow the same person twice, and most importantly, don’t follow anyone that isn’t random.
Every Nolan film is dictated by a complex scenario or a strange way for a character to behave, but it’s always boiled down into a strict method to the madness, usually explained directly to the audience in voice overs or monologues. Think Lenny’s fact-based tattoo system in “Memento,” the pseudo-science of “Inception’s” dream worlds or the aforementioned three-step procedure in “The Prestige.”
Nolan loves doing this as a way of building suspense and surprise for the twist he surely has coming. In “Inception,” the film is so dense that we hang onto certain details, like the rules of The Kick or the sedative, that get in the way of more important ones like Cobb’s dark past. Like Cobb, we’re not supposed to be able to keep all our memories straight at once, and they come back to haunt us later.
Here in “Following,” Bill’s rules are established such that they can be broken. He begins tailing a thief (not coincidentally also named Cobb) who also has his own unique game and set of rules. He breaks into people’s houses but doesn’t steal valuable items, only peace of mind. “Everybody has a box,” he says, the keepsakes that tell who a person are and what’s special to them. Cobb rifles through them and makes snap judgments about his marks. When one couple walks in on them invading their home, he calls the woman out for having an affair because of the way they reacted to their presence.
This is all engaging discussion of human nature, but Bill and Cobb’s behavior is really just a plot device. It’s driven only for fascination and personal principles, not physical or moral motivation.
Which brings us to our second point about Nolan’s filmmaking. Armond White pointed out in his review of “Inception” that Nolan’s characters have no morality. This is not necessarily a problem, as it’s hard to pin down the morality of many characters in the movies, such as in films by Bunuel and even some Kubrick and Hitchcock (who Nolan deeply admires). But it’s an important observation that guides nearly all of his work.
In addition to having a set of rules, all Nolan characters have a fervent belief or philosophy. They act not out of being right or wrong but because they are motivated by this one idea that they hold deeply. We’ll delve into the specifics of each film later, but understanding this helps us to realize that Nolan’s films are not about emotions, or even characters really, but about behavior, ideologies and how those factors drive people to act.
In “Following,” this voyeuristic fascination naturally gets Bill into trouble. But before that, Nolan has fun leaving us obvious visual clues that will return later, in this case an earring. He also leaves room for some sharp wit as Cobb jumps to hasty conclusions and coolly infects these livelihoods. It’s also engaging in black and white, something Nolan should definitely return to if given the opportunity.
But Nolan cheats ever so slightly. SPOILER AHEAD! We have no reason to suspect that Cobb is actually scamming Bill along with the woman known only as The Blonde. And when the twist is revealed to us, it comes from an otherwise little seen policeman who tells us everything we know is wrong directly to our face and Bill’s. SPOILER DONE. It’s a twist not achieved through visual storytelling but more methodic dialogue.
This is yet another troublesome trait of Nolan’s style. Initially, it seemed to be a mark of an amateur, someone who couldn’t tell his story through his camera and defaulted to his words. Now it seems to be a trend, and it’s something some critics still frown upon. But we begin to get a better sense of why he cheats the way he does in his follow up film, “Memento.”
“There are things you know for sure.”
The first shots in “Memento” take place in reverse. A hand holds a Polaroid snapshot that is developing backwards, with the image becoming less clear the longer we see it and the more he shakes it.
This is Nolan telling us everything we need to know about “Memento” right in the first frame. We know the timeline is jumbled, we know we’ll be going back in time, and we even know things are going to get hazier the more we puzzle over it and the more he shakes things up.
We know how this ends, and what we want to know is how we got here. Often in film, this is not the case. Even his characters seem unsure when Lenny wonders why his wife would read the same book over again.
“I’m interested in making films to watch them a second time, and hopefully you’ll be interested to watch a second time,” Nolan said in a 2001 interview with Indiewire. “You don’t see how it’s stuck together; it actually can sustain that scrutiny and become something a little bit different when you see it again. Because I feel like I’ve got three years to work on this thing and as a viewer you’ve got like two hours to watch it, so it ought to be functioning at some level of greater sophistication than you can absorb in one viewing.”
People often place “Memento” in the “mind-fuck” category. When it was first released, it was simultaneously a critical darling and a cult staple. It seemed to toy with our sense of space and time as well as our expectations, and yet Nolan admits himself that “Memento” is no more complicated than “Following.”
The methodical system in “Memento” is two-fold. One is Lenny’s creepy tattoo system on his chest, arms and legs. The second is the film’s structure. It alternates between color and black and white and different moments in time. We’re confused because we usually associate black and white with a flashback, but here it’s obvious that’s not the case because the first shot of the current color sequence always matches up with the last shot of the next one.
As Nolan says in the same Indiewire interview, this is actually an extremely linear film. But he gets that truth past us by immersing the audience in Lenny’s perspective. We hear internal voiceover constantly, we see his memory in color as though it were true, not in black and white like the story of Sammy Jankis, and our field of vision is restricted to his face and what he sees immediately in front of him.
This is the start of Nolan’s most irritating trademark as a filmmaker. Nolan cannot, or more likely chooses not, to do more than close-ups when it comes to viewing his characters in conversation.
“Memento” was the first film in which Nolan paired with his since permanent cinematographer Wally Pfister. Pfister’s style finds him rarely including more than one person in a shot at a given moment. Almost always in a Nolan film, if someone is talking, we see a close-up of the speaker alone. If he or she mentions an object or interacts with an object in some way, we’ll get a close-up of it. Think the beer coaster that Carrie Ann Moss slaps down in front of Lenny, or the dozens of individual photographs he carries with him. When he reads the line, “Don’t Believe His Lies,” he always reads it aloud too.
He doesn’t do medium shots to allow his characters to breathe, he doesn’t have multiple people interacting together in the same frame, and he always keeps his camera steady, if not motionless during the shot. He’s capable of wide vistas that look impressive in IMAX, but these are set dressing, not back and forth exposition.
Some critics have cited this very reason as why they’re disappointed with Nolan’s work. Not only are his films not visually engaging, trudging through lengthy dialogue sequences rather than tell the story visually, this approach can get confusing and clunky when it comes to Nolan photographing action.
It appeared to be the mark of a rookie, someone who over time and a few more films would grow. But now eight films in, he’s only continued this approach if not mastered it. Nolan keeps our minds strictly focused on the character’s perspective so we can analyze their thought process and the story’s rules. Only later does he move away from the small screen to surprise us that we’re looking at a big one.
What I admire then about “Memento” is how smart and self-aware it is. Everything Lenny says either tells us more about the themes (memory, how we lie to ourselves to survive) or it digs a deeper hole for him in this hapless predicament. Occasionally it’s actually hilarious, like Lenny drinking the beer with spit in it or earlier catching a gun that’s travelling backwards in time. At other times, we develop a sense of pathos for him, even if his actions don’t warrant it. “The world doesn’t just disappear,” Lenny says, but for him it does every few minutes. We’re sad that he lacks the context to love, make friends and grow. The end goal is really not the only thing that’s pulling us along in this story, and it is part of the reason Nolan devotes more time to the set-up than the payoff.
The mental tropes Nolan was establishing here would follow him into every one of his films since. Unlike the socially awkward Bill in “Following,” Lenny was particularly disabled, even if his disability is also a plot device. All his characters carry a similar mental burden and similar rules, methods and principals. Bill was destroyed when he broke his rule. Lenny, and for that matter most of his characters again, were destroyed when they followed theirs.
“Small things, remember?”
The cult success of “Memento” allowed Nolan free range to tackle a bigger, Hollywood studio production. That film was “Insomnia,” a remake of a Norwegian film and one he didn’t write the screenplay for. His previous film had the big name stars of Guy Pearce, Carrie Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, but never had Nolan worked with actors as high caliber as Al Pacino, Hilary Swank and Robin Williams.
And yet “Insomnia” isn’t suddenly exacerbated in scope. It’s the story of a veteran L.A. detective who travels to a small town in Alaska to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. In this town, the sun never sets, and his inability to sleep represents his inability to deal with the many bad choices that have made him guilty over time. Pacino’s character ends up cutting a deal with the killer to prevent his own scandal from getting out, all the while believing he’s acting nobly.
The problem with “Insomnia” is that his guilt and his deals with the killer are all part of some elaborate psychological game, but really it just seems like he’s a washed up old cop making horrible mistakes. And for a film about the dreary feeling of insomnia, it’s pitched at this intense level of ferocity, with delusional flashes of lights and colors to amp up the psychodrama.
What I admire about the film more than the story are the performances. Pacino does about his best work of the 2000s in “Insomnia,” presenting himself as an actor and a character who has really done the rounds and seen the worst. When he uses Nolan’s crime procedural rules and tactics, its because he’s a guy that can now see through the bullshit of punk teenage witnesses, subduing them by using his language calmly instead of losing his temper.
But what’s more, Nolan uses fog, shadows and Foley effects to play up the creepy noir aspect of the story rather than the action. “Insomnia’s” signature scene shows Pacino wandering in a foggy purgatory searching for the killer. I won’t reveal what happens here, but Nolan erases our sense of space and coherence and tickles our other senses with the accentuated plodding of footsteps and resounding gunfire.
“Insomnia” may not be an essential film in Nolan’s repertoire, but it shows growth. We can see how he can handle a studio production and add his own flavor to it. He was going to need it to prepare him for his next project.
“As a symbol, I can be indestructible.”
The League of Shadows plays an important role in “Batman Begins.” “We step in every time a city reaches its decadence.”
Following 1997’s abominable “Batman & Robin,” Warner Brothers had exhausted one of its most lucrative franchises, and at just the worst time. “Spiderman” would explode into the popular culture just five years later, and they were yet without a superhero franchise to answer the call.
The decision then to bring in Christopher Nolan was a gamble. It was his job to essentially usher in a new kind of superhero film.
“Batman Begins” did just that. The movie brought in nearly $400 million, it put Christian Bale on the road to being an A-list star and it quickly made Nolan the luckiest man in Hollywood.
Passionate or lukewarm, critics everywhere talked about how “Begins” was “unexpectedly good” and helped “breathe new life” into a dead and gone franchise. Roger Ebert said, “This is at last the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “”Batman Begins” is the seventh live-action film to take on the comic-book legend and the first to usher it into the kingdom of movie myth.” Nolan’s film was, “Conceived in the shadow of American pop rather than in its bright light,” she added.
Dark and dour superhero movies are hardly seen as a breath of fresh air not even 10 years later. Nolan’s film operated on a level of myth and symbolic stature that comic book movies should not only be taken seriously but should be the driving factor in our cinematic popular culture.
How did Nolan become the poster boy for this movement? He had made a film specifically about symbols and legends. “Begins” is filled with mantras designed to inflate your stature in the eyes of the public.
“You become something more: a legend.”
“You must be more than a man in the eyes of your opponent.”
“As a symbol, I can be indestructible.”
This isn’t subliminal messaging designed to stimulate demand for superhero movies. Batman is a character grappling with his own identity, one who can do good when he battles his own fears and becomes a monster to project his fear onto his enemies.
People have admired Batman for being a superhero without any powers, but Bruce Wayne’s strength is that his alter ego is superhuman. Batman is a legend, a myth and a god capable of anything in the eyes of the public who fears and admires him.
Maybe Nolan is joking in “The Dark Knight” when copycat Batmen try to help and question what the difference is between them. “I’m not wearing hockey pants,” Batman bellows, and neither are all the other DC and Marvel comic book movies that have taken themselves way too seriously.
Most superhero films now share the epic scope and manufactured darkness that “Batman Begins” created, but Nolan has a special touch that other directors lack. Walk in a minute late to “Begins” and you might not even know this is a Batman movie. Nolan makes a mockery of the origin story by pulling resources and iconic gadgets completely out of its ass, something that in another movie would warrant an Easter egg.
He even turns the action into an incoherent blur, granting us the idea of an indestructible force without actually allowing us to see anything. When Batman disappears mid conversation with Jim Gordon, this is Nolan using his methodic cinematography and editing style as a visual gag. What if through the magic of editing the subject of the next shot was replaced with nothing? Now Nolan has a character that can help him do that.
Even the mantras work because Nolan is treating them like singular ideas that need to be methodically explained through rules and order. It’s not enough for Nolan to just provide a training sequence montage. He needs Liam Neeson to coach you through these subtle extensions of the same philosophy. Another director would bluntly repeat them.
Like Batman, Nolan had performed a deft-defying rescue and was a figurative legend. He now had the clout to take up a more personal project on a bigger scale, and it was only a matter of time to see what trick he would pull out of his hat next.
“Are you watching closely?”
A magic trick is often so simple to detect if you know what you’re looking at. But the magician’s job is diversion. He demands our attention on something other than the obvious tell.
“The Prestige” is Christopher Nolan’s elaborate illusion of a film. He asks us to watch closely, to follow the three steps (The Pledge, The Turn, The Prestige) of the magician’s performance and to piece together the screenplay’s endless web of betrayal, love, hatred and devotion.
But Nolan puts all the clues in plain sight. We’re watching so closely that we ignore the film’s other stylistic choices. Like “The Prestige’s” characters, we become obsessed with the wrong thing.
“The Prestige” is the twistiest film Nolan ever made. It’s a complicated whodunit between two rival magicians, one who wants revenge for the accidental death of his wife and the other who wants the same success and support for his family as his rival.
Nolan was smart to make a film between the two Batman movies, but it underperformed at the box office and wasn’t entirely well received by critics. It first had the unfortunate luck of being released in close proximity to another paranormal magician film, “The Illusionist.” But what’s more, critics saw “The Prestige” as empty entertainment value designed to mess with your head and nothing more. The experience is so complex and the characters so morally corrupt that it’s emotionally draining. A review of “The Prestige” by Film Threat’s Mark Bell echoed the most common criticism of all of Nolan’s work, saying, “When all is said and done and you get the full explanation of what meant what and who did what to whom, it’s not fulfilling at all. It’s a magic trick that’s all showmanship and craft, but lacking true whimsy, ultimately failing the audience.”
But think about it. Doesn’t a magic trick always lose its appeal once you know how it’s done? If “The Prestige” was all about its ending, that would defeat the purpose. You want to be fooled.
“That feeling of bafflement and wanting to know the secret behind it, that’s a great feeling. I wanted to make a film that embraced that feeling,” Nolan said in an interview with Spike TV.
Why otherwise would Nolan leave so many dead giveaways? SPOILERS AHEAD! We know Tesla’s machine is capable of making duplicates, and we know it makes them away from the machine itself, so why should we be surprised that Angier was making copies of himself all along? We see him with a gun when he first tests it. And what else could he have been doing with those water tanks? We even know Angier drowned in one at the beginning. As for Borden, the movie keeps telling us that the only way he could possibly do the trick is with a double. And we know that Tesla made a machine for Borden already. We even get an idea of Borden’s split personality when he says he doesn’t love his wife today. SPOILERS DONE.
Nolan wants to wrap us up in the mystery of the film, and he does that by constantly repeating the film’s main idea that you must give yourself fully to your art. He shows it and tells that one idea as many ways as he can until it’s the only thing you’re focused on, not the many plot holes.
And it’s even the reason Nolan cheats in his twist. It’s safe to say that the twist in “The Prestige” is not altogether possible. In a movie that otherwise considers itself a gritty, ruthless depiction of an older time in London, Nolan incorporates a twist that adheres to the paranormal.
Here again we see similarities in Batman’s use of a sonar device that allows Lucius to map all of Gotham City, the fact that Lenny in “Memento” had always been lying to himself, that Cobb could just disappear off the radar in “Following” in just a stretch of dialogue, or that the villain in “The Dark Knight Rises” comes completely out of left field.
Nolan cheats because he wants you to know that these acts of magic, as it were, are totally conceived by someone.
This is Nolan’s primary innovation. He can make absurd science fiction or action films and pass them off as reality, and yet he can take that formulaic blueprint of reality and let you know just who drew it up.
Granted, in “The Prestige” he does all this in the guise of another stylistically uninteresting film. For a movie that devotes so much time to period detail, Nolan spends a lot of it studying Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman’s faces. It’s other cheat is in finding a way for Borden and Angier to always show up onstage as the assistant from the audience just so that they can sabotage one another. This seems to me a less intentional flaw in the screenplay, but I digress.
To really make something great, Nolan needed to achieve something more. He had always attracted fierce acting talent to his projects, but the films were always bigger than the actors. If he had someone who could carry the film away on a wave of energy, then he could make something people would remember.
He needed something of a wild card.
“And… here… we… go.”
Heath Ledger died in his bed on January 22, 2008. The cause was an accidental prescription drug overdose.
The effect was much greater.
Christopher Nolan had not yet begun editing on “The Dark Knight” when news of Ledger’s death came in. Suddenly his job was not just to make a film but a tribute.
“When you get into the edit suite after shooting a movie, you feel a responsibility to an actor who has trusted you, and Heath gave us everything. As we started my cut, I would wonder about each take we chose, each trim we made,” Nolan wrote in a eulogy article for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “I see him every day in my edit suite. I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly.”
If “Batman Begins” had become a symbol for what a superhero movie could be, “The Dark Knight” became a symbol for what a superhero movie should be, and it had happened before the movie was even completed.
The anticipation for the film had achieved mythic proportions in a way I had never known in my lifetime. I saw Ledger’s face hidden under the Joker’s makeup every day when I worked at a movie theater, the trailer repeating every hour as though the film’s power beckoned. For an 18-year-old still learning to appreciate great film, the best movie I had seen that year prior to “The Dark Knight” was “WALL-E,” so there was absolutely nothing I was anticipating more.
When the movie finally arrived, I was working concessions for our theater’s midnight showing. It was the busiest two hours I’d ever worked, and our theater was just one of the 3,040 theaters nationwide that helped “The Dark Knight” earn $18.5 million overnight, a midnight screening record for the time.
Ledger’s death impacted the way “The Dark Knight” was received in a way Nolan could’ve never controlled. The film made $533 million domestically and over a billion worldwide. Audiences trumpeted its greatness so loudly that it rocketed its way to the number one spot on the IMDB Top 250, ousting “The Godfather.” It also won a posthumous Oscar for Ledger’s supporting actor work. Something about The Joker dangling on the end of Batman’s harness was ambiguous enough to cement Ledger’s permanent legacy on film.
But Nolan was never the same either. For an emerging 21st Century talent to achieve such critical and financial success (and for of all things a comic book movie) figuratively placed him into a directors’ pantheon. At the moment, he was untouchable. Soon, an unexpected wave of analysis and criticism were thrown at the director and his entire line of work. Nolan was now not only one of the most respected new directors but also the most polarizing.
I myself have read much of this criticism, and I wondered if four years later “The Dark Knight” could still hold up to its legacy and its place beside what I felt to be a disappointing finale to the Batman trilogy.
“The Dark Knight” is and was always the film I wanted from Nolan. It’s his best work by a mile and still encapsulates everything I’ve discussed about him so far. It’s a monumental achievement.
This time around, we see Batman before Bruce Wayne, the symbol before the man. His legacy has created tainted vigilantes fighting with guns and getting people killed, and the Gotham once riddled with organized crime is now a cesspool of chaotic violence.
“It had changed in three years. Bigger. More real. More modern. And a new force of chaos was coming to the fore,” Nolan recalled in a foreword to the book “The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy.” “We’d held nothing back, but there were things we hadn’t been able to do the first time out—a Batsuit with a flexible neck, shooting on Imax. And things we’d chickened out on—destroying the Batmobile, burning up the villain’s blood money to show a complete disregard for conventional motivation. We took the supposed security of a sequel as license to throw caution to the wind and headed for the darkest corners of Gotham.”
The success of “Batman Begins” and the symbol it created in popular culture allowed Nolan to run with whatever story he had in mind, and he used a new symbol, The Joker, to convey a theme that seemed to combine both “Begins” and “The Prestige.”
What if a symbol could inspire madness and bafflement? How could our minds be twisted if we believed things were in a state of anarchy?
The Joker is such a mystifying, impossible figure as seen in “The Dark Knight.” He has a sadistic presence and somehow appears to have unlimited resources to create any social experiment he wants. Through using only mental patients, he can rig thousands of barrels of explosives in warehouses and on boats without anyone noticing. He appears to have no altar ego and his backstory, as told by him, is a lie. He’s not altogether supernatural, but he’s a symbol too.
He says to Harvey Dent that he just wants to introduce a little anarchy into the world, and we believe it in the same way we believe Cobb’s intentions in “Following.” But that’s not entirely true. It’s a lie firstly because we know The Joker is a compulsive liar, and secondly, his plans are always several steps ahead from what anyone can anticipate.
Like Nolan, The Joker is all about rules and order, but he wants them for different reasons than Bruce Wayne does. His goal is not to create anarchy in Gotham but to replace the symbol of Batman with a new one. He asks Batman to remove his mask to reveal he’s just a man, not a symbol. That doesn’t happen, so when Batman has just upended The Joker’s truck, he stumbles out and stands in the middle of the street bellowing, “Hit me!” Had he done just that, Batman’s reputation as a hero who doesn’t kill people would be destroyed. Failing that, he transforms Dent himself into a demon, the opposite of the likeable DA the public envisioned.
All of these set pieces, including The Joker’s ferry experiment, are all elaborate plot devices for Nolan to emphasize his philosophies. They work as thrilling stunts firstly because they’re tangible and done without CGI. But what’s more, Nolan layers multiple timelines of chaos (Batman and The Joker’s interrogation, the man with the cell phone in his chest, Dent’s kidnapping) in classic action movie fashion. Layered timelines are a staple of Nolan films going back to “Following” and continuing through “Inception,” but here with a thousand things going on at once, The Joker seems to be an omnipresent force pulling all the strings.
None of this would be possible without Heath Ledger in the role of The Joker. Watch him slick back his hair as he approaches Maggie Gyllenhaal or smack his lips as he explains how “the box’s” plan to the mobsters is just a bad joke. If the movie itself doesn’t have a sense of anarchy, Ledger himself brings such an element of surprise to every moment. Ledger had the acting sensibility of a young Marlon Brando, a sort of awkward masculinity that made his emotions and his façade ambiguous and impenetrable. The Joker then is one of his most perfect roles. He can make a line like “Why so serious” instantly iconic because he shares the dialogue’s mystique.
If you ask me, Batman did not need to be a trilogy. The myth continues endlessly when Batman rides off into the fog, and I didn’t need anything resolved. If Nolan had followed the same unfortunate route of both Ledger and his title character and disappeared, he would be heralded as a master. He would’ve been a young talent who could’ve been so much more and left it at that.
But I believe in Harvey Dent. “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
“I’d hate to see out of control.”
What do we know so far about Christopher Nolan?
1. We know he likes his films to adhere to rules. His characters incorporate systems into their livelihoods (Bill’s following, Lenny’s tattoos, Dormer’s crime scene investigations, Bruce Wayne’s pledge to not kill anyone, the three steps to a magic trick, The Joker’s games). Some characters break their rules, and others follow them blindly, but both paths either literally or figuratively lead to their destruction.
2. His characters have no morality. They operate on one philosophy, one principle or one goal (Cobb’s mental robberies, Lenny’s dead wife, Bruce’s pledge to not kill anyone, Angier’s dead wife, The Joker’s dream to watch the world burn).
3. In addition to having no morality, they are so obsessed with their goal that they are often mentally or emotionally disturbed protagonists (Lenny’s short-term memory loss, Dormer’s insomnia, Bruce’s fear of bats and his guilt over his parents’ death).
4. He’s a poor visual storyteller, or at least he doesn’t try to be a conventionally stylish storyteller. All of his dialogue compositions are one-shot close-ups, and he often focuses in on exactly what the characters are talking about as they’re saying it. Critics have complained that Nolan’s action sequences are clunky, if not without flow entirely. Stephanie Zacharek went as far to say that Nolan’s images are “disconnected from one another.”
5. The stories Nolan tells are often more about the buildup than the end. We want to know the little bits and pieces to Lenny’s psychosis, Borden’s Transporting Man trick and The Joker’s elaborate schemes.
6. And yet Nolan still chooses to incorporate complicated twists into the screenplays. He cheats with talky twists and paranormal devices to let you know that he’s constructed this particular twist.
7. He layers timelines one on top of the other to create an illusion of complexity. “Memento” operates in two timelines, “The Prestige” in three, and “Following” in four, but only intercutting between three at one time.
8. Nolan makes films that are preposterous in terms of action and even story, but he portrays them in such a way that they appear realistic (see: all of the above).
Oh, I’m sorry, did you not enjoy my laundry list of points I’ve already made clear, my dozens of examples and my ordered group of traits that feel like homework?
That’s the way I feel watching “Inception.”
“Inception” is Nolan’s “masterpiece” in the sense that everything we need to know about Nolan as a director and how he operates is here in excruciating, literal detail.
Nolan apparently worked on the screenplay for nearly a decade, and “Inception” began as a heist film. This is one of the few genres where exposition and explaining every step of the process is part of the fun of watching the movie. But Nolan realized he needed a way to introduce an emotional element into the story, and this is what complicated the screenwriting process for so many years.
So it really struck audiences as a brilliant, complex, multi-layered labor of love. This film too rocketed to number one on the IMDB Top 250, and because it came from the director of the previous “best movie ever,” suddenly teenagers and cult film enthusiasts had a masterpiece and an auteur director to call their own.
Rarely had a blockbuster epic been this structurally complex and surreal, and audiences were drawn to that complexity whether or not being complex was actually admirable. (See: College Humor poking fun at “Inception’s” plot)
And yet, Nolan does start with one simple idea that he continues to expand upon throughout the movie: “Once an idea is fully formed, it sticks.” (you know, like, don’t think about elephants) In this case, the idea is that reality may not be all that it seems. The world you are living in may be a dream, and you may no longer be able to grapple with reality.
This is nothing new to film. Lots of films have posed questions about reality, even dreams. Do movies like “The Matrix,” “Blade Runner” and “Mulholland Dr.” ring a bell?
The difference is Nolan pulls out his whole arsenal of tricks to get you to embrace this possibility. As we know, his vision of a film that gets its point across is not tidy, nor is it simple. Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote, “Nolan successfully made the film he had in mind, and shouldn’t be faulted for failing to make someone else’s film.”
He started with the rules. “Inception” has plenty. Dream worlds adhere to rational stretches of time, such that five minutes in reality gives an hour in one dream, a week in the next level, and so on. When constructing these dreams, it’s important to never construct from specific memories. There are more. But break any of these rules, and the “projections” of the dreamer’s subconscious will come to attack you, alerting the dreamer to the intruder’s presence.
Next is Cobb, a man with a goal to get back to see his children again. He’ll do anything to get there, including sabotaging a multi-million dollar corporation so that another wealthy CEO can claim a monopoly on the market. Cobb acts on his principles, not his morality.
Cobb of course is mentally distraught, and after being in Scorsese movies for a solid decade, no one is better at playing emotionally tormented individuals than Leonardo DiCaprio. After visiting the dream world known as limbo, Cobb no longer has a perfect hold on reality. His wife killed herself and is haunting his dreams and the dreams of those he invades. And what naturally make Cobb suffer are all the rules he breaks. Don’t construct from memories. He returns to his dark past regularly. Don’t use someone else’s totem. He uses Mal’s. Again, the list goes on.
All of this is presented as linearly as possible. “Inception” is loaded with talky exposition to drill these rules and ideas into your head, and it’s by far the strictest in terms to tailoring its shots to exactly what is being said in the screenplay. If a character discusses the rules of the totem, we get a shot of the top spinning. If a character is talking, we see him or her talking first. When Cobb reads aloud “I will break up my father’s empire,” we see it scribbled on a white board. Only rarely does the film actually speak for itself to explain the rules of the dream world or to advance the plot. A good example is the pinwheel hidden in the bedside safe, one of the film’s most emotionally poignant moments, or Eames raising a new, bigger gun from below the frame line as a brief visual gag.
“Inception” is a complicated film, and Nolan provides a complicated twist. The world seems to be ending outside of Mal’s limbo apartment, and Cobb still takes several minutes to describe just what happened to Mal when the two of them were in limbo before. Nolan does this to set the character up for his own questioning of reality, challenging the baseline moments that have given Cobb security earlier.
So when we reach the film’s final shot, the movie achieves a level of ambiguity. Cobb’s story is resolved happily, but we’re still left with the film’s theme in mind, nagging us that both the character and we may still be wrong.
Part of the reason I can’t enjoy “Inception” is because the film seems to be speaking about its own construction, constantly referencing what it’s doing and how it does it. Maybe “Inception” is really just a documentary for how Nolan makes all his movies.
To explain, let me start by saying this film is actually innovative for layering five timelines on top of each other and intercutting between four of them. We can piece together where each layer is in time based on the color palette and weather patterns within each scene. Any more timelines and we may be lost. Nolan has always used multiple timelines and layers to his films, but he overthinks his metaphor when he organizes Cobb’s dreams into literal layers, reachable through an elevator in Cobb’s mind.
Nolan loves rules in his films, and here he calls them that. Nolan loves exploring one simple idea in a film until it sticks, and his characters are on a mission to implant one simple idea into the mind of an audience member. The Mr. Charles plot device is designed to let the audience member know that it specifically is a plot device.
He even is a filmmaker who makes dreamlike movies into realities. And what does he say here? “It feels real while we’re in them. We only realize something is strange when we wake up.”
This is as close as we’ll ever come to understanding Nolan, and he delivers it to us verbatim. In fact, we begin to realize that “Inception” doesn’t feel like a dream at all. What dreams adhere to rules? In what dreams can we sense that actual time has passed, let alone a week or a month? Why is there no spontaneity in the dreams? Why are there no unicorns, naked women, people fighting with lasers or something stranger instead of just guns? Why can’t Cobb fly in his dreams?
But the bigger reason I dislike “Inception” is that I feel he’s tackling a theme he handled so much more elegantly, and more fun, in “Memento.” “Memento” is specifically about memories, but what are memories, really, other than constructed figments of reality that exist exclusively in our minds? Cobb is attached to his dark memories of his dead wife, and he is so certain that the life he’s living is reality, but he may be fooling himself. Lenny has a dead wife, and he is fooling himself. Both characters live with regret of not being able to do more for their wives, and both will grow old and be filled with it. We leave Lenny at the tattoo parlor knowing he’s stuck, but we have to follow Cobb down into the rabbit hole of limbo to learn and witness the same thing.
It’s a film that panders to you so much to let you know its brilliant, and it treats everything with such grave intensity that it forgets to be enjoyable. Its set pieces are remarkable, but are for their own sake. The only stunt we actually get to see repeated in the climax is the paradox stairs, not the folding city or the mirrors under the bridge continuing to infinity. The movie rarely has a moment of levity, save for Joseph Gordon-Levitt falling off a chair or stealing a smooch from Ellen Page. And all the action movie set pieces feel like clichés from Bond movies.
And yet “Inception” quickly became the most fiercely debated film of 2010. Some critics argued it was more fun to speculate over than to actually watch. That’s because countless theories sprung up online about what really happened.
“The end when Cobb returns home to his kids is really a dream! Have the kids aged? Are they wearing the same things? But didn’t the top look like it was wobbling? How will we know?”
“Maybe the entire movie is a dream! What about what Mal says to Cobb about how everything in his life seems too good to be true? And they keep saying to take “a leap of faith.” And we never really know how he ended up in Mombasa in the first place. It fits with the rules of a dream.”
“But wait! That’s how all movies are! “Inception” is really about making movies. It makes perfect sense, because Cobb is the director, Saito’s the producer, Ariadne is the writer, Fischer’s the audience and Eames is the art director! Does that make Michael Caine the stodgy film critic?”
“There should be more to it than that though, right? Maybe the whole thing is an ode to architecture. Nolan is always constructing things in his movies, and everyone seems to be building something here. Look at the top: it’s a pseudosphere, a structurally perfect object where every point curves away from the center.”
I personally don’t believe any of these, mainly for the reason that while all these theories are interesting, none of them really suggest what Nolan is actually trying to say or do with the movie.
(Side note: Also, all of these theories are wrong on a practical standpoint. Nolan used two different sets of kids, and they are wearing different clothes. Nolan did not intend to make a movie about movies. The top is really just something the prop department threw together so that it would stay spinning for a long time.)
He got his audience to do exactly what he wanted, which is to study and obsess over the details of the film and come away with a central idea.
But he went too far. The audience that is in love with “Inception” has missed the bigger point. They scrutinized the ending to the point that they overlooked the film’s elegant ambiguity. Whether the ending is real or a dream does not really matter in the broader scheme of things, and knowing gets the viewer nowhere. (Again, see: College Humor’s take)
“I’ve been asked the question more times than I’ve ever been asked any other question about any other film I’ve made,” Nolan said in an interview. “What’s funny to me is that people really do expect me to answer it. There can’t be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake. It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something. But it’s not a mistake. I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me.”
The important thing to Nolan is that what is real and what is fake no longer matters to Cobb because he has his kids, the thing that matters most.
Now the things that matter most are less clear. Movies are epic, dark, wordy and complex because an ambitious filmmaker unintentionally fostered over-ambitious fans. Stephanie Zacharek feared that all movies will now only be “awesome” rather than “great,” and in the two years since, she may be right.
“Ah yes… I was wondering what would break first.”
A man can only continue to be seen as a symbol for so long.
Maybe that’s what Nolan is doing by throwing in the towel on “The Dark Knight Rises” and ending the Batman franchise. Bruce Wayne cannot sustain this kind of pressure any longer, and neither can Nolan. They have to move on, but first leave in a gigantic bang.
Following the surprise hype of “The Dark Knight” and the over-hype of “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises” could only go down in anticipation. It was already unlikely that lightning would strike three times. But then there was controversy over Bane’s inaudible dialogue behind his Hannibal Lecter mask, death threats started pouring in to dissenting critics on Rotten Tomatoes before the film had even been released, and worst of all, the tragic midnight movie shooting in Aurora, Colorado cast a gloom over the whole occasion that was even too dark for Batman.
What’s interesting about “The Dark Knight Rises” is that we see Nolan stepping away from the spotlight of yet another iconic, superhero epic. He chose to make a film about socio-politics and bleak ideologies of hope in the modern day. I myself wrote in my review of “Rises,” “’The Dark Knight Rises’ is more of an enduring challenge than some will expect. For others, it will even feel little like a superhero movie. But its heavy themes of untapped emotion and social anarchy dwarf the flimsy blandness of ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Amazing Spiderman.’ It does the Batman franchise proud.”
With this film, critics almost pre-emptively combatted the hype with lengthy analyses designed to put discussion of the movie into an appropriate context. And in the process, the Internet has produced such an engaging web of articles going all the way back to the beginning of Nolan’s career. To read about one film is to just start to absorb them all. You become obsessed with talking about his films even if you don’t particularly enjoy them.
So it pains me to not be able to discuss and debate the many unbelievably convincing contrarian viewpoints that successfully rationalize Christopher Nolan’s work, not just diminish it. Jim Emerson, Bilge Ebiri, Stephanie Zacharek, Andrew O’Hehir; the least I can do is link to them and urge that you see how polarizing and animated discussion about Nolan really is.
But the writer that concludes my thoughts on Nolan best come from a recent post by the great David Bordwell.
“Nolan is now routinely considered one of the most accomplished living filmmakers. Yet many critics fiercely dislike his work. They regard it as intellectually shallow, dramatically clumsy, and technically inept. As far as I can tell, no popular filmmaker’s work of recent years has received the sort of harsh, meticulous dissection Jim Emerson and A. D. Jameson have applied to Nolan’s films. People who shrug at continuity errors and patchy plots in ordinary productions have dwelt on them in Nolan’s movies. The attack is probably a response to his elevated reputation. Having been raised so high, he has farther to fall,” Bordwell writes.
Nolan is at the top of a new generation of directors in the 21st Century. They make films designed to be awesome, designed to be obsessed over and talked about not only as great works of art but as mind-shattering experiences on a widely accessible scale. It’s important to know if this is a direction worth travelling in. Bordwell continues:
“Nolan’s work deserves attention even though some of it lacks elegance and cohesion at the shot-to-shot level. The stylistic faults I pointed to above and that echo other writers’ critiques are offset by his innovative approach to overarching form. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions. When he mobilizes visual technique to sharpen and nuance his architectural ambitions, we find a solid integration of texture and structure, fine grain and large pattern.”
In “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman is no longer the mysterious figure. Wayne himself is the person we don’t fully understand. And until this point in his career, Nolan has been the white knight for movie critics and fanboys alike. Only now at the end of his biggest franchise do we get a glimpse of the man and director he is and the one he can be.
For more on Nolan, see:
Jim Emerson in any number of articles, but here are a few, and he has links to more.
“Dark Knight Quiz 1.5 ‘Look at me!’”
“The Dark Knight Rises: A hero ain’t nothin’ but a knuckle sandwich”
“A gamer’s view of Inception: Too much tutorial, not enough play”
“Following: Nolan in a nutshell”
“Inception theories: Two key shots and other thoughts”
“Inception: Has Christopher Nolan forgotten how to dream?”
Andrew O’Hehir’s “The Dark Knight Rises: Does Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” hold up?
“Christopher Nolan (Somewhat) explains Inception” in Collider, an article that very much helped with the many theories I explored in regards to “Inception.”
Bilge Ebiri’s “You Must Become a Terrible Thought: Nolan, Batman and Hope”
Bilge Ebiri again with “This is Probably Not the Last Piece I’ll Write About Inception”
Featured title photo courtesy of Screen Crave