He’s probed the far reaches of space. He’s delved into the world of dreams. He’s resurrected superheroes from death at the hands of comedians and rubber nipples. He’s overcome debilitating memory and sleep disorders. He’s killed more wives than Henry VIII. He’s inspired a fanbase so rabid they single-handedly got the review comments feature disabled on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s by far the most well-known filmmaker in the world, and earlier this month he stopped by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Christopher Nolan, the world’s most famous filmmaker, appeared live, presumably in person and not cross-dimensionally or burrowed deep within the audience’s psyches, at an event that most of you could not attend because it was sold out moments after tickets went on sale. The series for which he appeared is called “Christopher Nolan: Moving Through Time,” and will continue showcasing Nolan’s films (though not Nolan himself anymore) through May 24th.
The Dark Knight filmmaker’s influence, especially among younger genre fans, is absolute on a level unheard of since the height of Quentin Tarantino’s popularity. And even Tarantino never filled seats like Nolan does. For sheer name recognition in regards to someone who never steps in front of the camera, he is matched only, perhaps, by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Alfred Hitchcock. His films play equally well on the coasts and the Midwest. They cater to action junkies and cineastes alike. And whether you love him or just think he’s okay (though be careful who you admit that to), his films are so ingrained in culture that they demand a response.
So for Minnesota fans who have had the chance to revisit all his films the last two weeks, now is the perfect time to discuss how they stack up to the hype. Below is a ranking of Nolan’s admittedly impressive oeuvre. And remember, this is a totally subjective list. Everyone has their own opinions, and I’m sure yours are equally correct. My address is not on the Internet so do not bother looking.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
*Gulps* Okay, look, The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad film. I don’t think Nolan has ever made a bad film, but this one more than the rest has some serious issues. Many people wondered how Bruce Wayne got back from the underground prison to Gotham with no money or contacts in a matter of a few days, or why he wasted precious hours before an impending nuclear explosion painting a bridge with gasoline for a fiery bat signal. Those kinds of things honestly don’t bother me. You have to suspend disbelief with superhero films.
I think the changes made to the Batman franchise were mostly for the best, but one consequence was that audiences today take big budget entertainment really, really seriously. There’s something kind of narcissistic about the Batman myth (best expressed here). While Nolan seriously dialed back the Hollywood cynicism, he also stripped any layer of distance between viewers and this troubled wish-fulfillment fantasy of vigilante justice. I like a little silliness in my ridiculous action blockbusters, in part because they do kind of fall apart under close scrutiny.
And no movie has ever scrutinized the hero myth more than TDKR. Believe me, I’m totally game for a billion dollar blockbuster making allusions to Dickens, Kafka, and Jung. I guess this is just the first superhero film that felt like it was too good for its own genre. I started to wonder why there was a guy in a bat suit on screen (and admittedly, that bat suit wasn’t on screen for much of the almost three hour runtime). Maybe that’s why, of the most popular 2012 summer superhero films involving a war in a city held hostage by a weapon built under the pretense of “sustainable clean energy” where the most popular hero ultimately had to fly a bomb away from the city to save the lives of everyone else, this one fell a little short.
Reportedly shot on the weekends over a year on a $6,000 budget with only house lights, Following is an effective low budget mystery that shows a storyteller with a real knack for sensationalism. People underrate that quality in Nolan’s work. Yeah he can make a pretty explosion. Yeah his plots are heady and complex. But really what got people to the theater first was his mastery as a showman. His early work involves the kind of airtight pacing and dynamic structuring more common in great short story writers.
The details are deceptively simple. A lonely man feels like a bystander in society. He begins following people on the street, just for recreation. He means nothing by it. And then one day, on the faintest of impulses, he decides to follow the same woman twice. This one offense, which he promised he would never commit, is all it takes. It’s classic dime novel detective story logic where a simple human desire to be connected explodes into something heinous. The non-linear storytelling is really just an efficient way to keep the most compelling parts of the story at the forefront while tantalizing us with both causes and explanations.
In style it borrows from French arthouse films like Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. Those two filmmakers like to drain all the emotion out of their actors’ performances, and already here Nolan is showing that he’s more interested in the intellectual than the emotional. His tendency toward non-linear storytelling pushes the characters’ motives to the back of the story where most screenwriters would say you should put them front and center so we can empathize with the hero. He wants his audience guessing, not relating. Our active brains are the real protagonists.
7. Batman Begins
I know it’s a weird thing to say about a film that not only grossed $200 million domestic but was arguably as influential as any movie in the 2000’s, but Batman Begins could be the most underrated film on this list. I harped on the things Dark Knight Rises did wrong. Well, part of that disappointment comes from my taking for granted all the things Begins does right. Nolan’s hypercritical eye took a look at the Batman mythos and singled out what was compelling. Bruce Wayne is the good guy, but he’s scary. He’s a rich kid, but he’s tough. He’s a vigilante on a quest for order. He’s a sociopathic playboy with a heart of gold.
In a stellar casting trick Nolan went out and found the one actor who could embody all of those qualities in a glance. Nobody talks about Christian Bale’s performance in these films anymore (except for jokes about his Batvoice), but he’s not just the unassailable new model for Batman: his stylishly untethered performance set the stage for Daniel Craig’s Bond and the slew of “gritty” reboots and antiheroes that followed.
That’s part of the problem with the two sequels and, I think, one of the reasons Bale ceased to be a talking point. Both Dark Knights are about something. They explore larger issues in society like terrorism and economic equality. Batman Begins is about Batman. And even though Nolan still hadn’t developed as an action filmmaker (seriously, I’ve seen it ten times and I still don’t know what’s going on in those fight sequences half the time) I think this is the most cathartic, dare I say exciting chapter in the series because we understand the character, we get the stakes, and we have a genuine rooting interest in the hero. It’s the most familiar sure, but probably more things work in this film than either follow-up. In fact, if not for one major element in The Dark Knight, I’d say this is the best Batman film.
If you don’t mind following me down a rabbit hole for a moment, I have a theory: what if every Christopher Nolan film was structured to do the same thing to the audience that is being done to its characters?
The obvious one, for instance, is Memento. The character has short-term memory loss. The story is told backwards to induce a similar forgetfulness in the audience. Next consider The Prestige. As Michael Caine says, every magic show is split into three acts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. If you examine that film’s three acts, you will uncover a similarly structured magic trick occurring under the audience’s nose with the big reveal at the end. More obliquely, The Dark Knight is really oddly paced for a summer blockbuster. Rather than follow a conventional hero’s journey, it seems to build to major climaxes, then die down, then build to even larger climaxes. The word commissioner Gordon uses is escalation. The Joker does something. Batman responds. The Joker does something bigger. Batman responds in kind. It’s narrative escalation.
By this logic Inception should be structured like a dream, right?
No actually. Who implanted that idea in your head? The dreams in Inception are controlled, targeted specifically at manipulating their subject into a specific type of action. The dreams in Inception are most comparable to movies. That’s why it’s maybe okay that they look like Michael Bay-directed James Bond films. I have some serious gripes with this film, some stemming from the way all its characters are the same person, some stemming from the seeming hours of exposition. But one thing Nolan does better than anyone is submerge the audience in a world. There are long periods of this film where I just completely check out, but there are moments where I really do feel like the theater has been transformed into its own surreal universe. Nolan never more directly (or didactically) looked at his own process, and the results are as fascinating as they are maddening.
This is by far the weirdest film in Nolan’s oeuvre, and by that I mean it’s the most conventional. Its pleasures don’t come from labyrinthine plotting or state of the art effects. They come from simple, unadorned shots of Alaskan scenery and a pair of stunning performances from Al Pacino and the late Robin Williams. Pacino plays a detective looking for the killer of a young girl. Even that answer reveals itself pretty quickly. Williams plays said killer, and the movie is all about the difference between the two characters: that’s characters, not ideas the characters represent or roles the characters play in a larger chess game the filmmaker is playing with the audience. You look into a person’s eyes, wonder what they’re thinking, and their motivation drives you forward.
And I think one of the greatest testaments to Nolan’s skill is just how good he is when he has to discard his usual bag of tricks. Even if you wouldn’t immediately recognize Insomnia as a Christopher Nolan film, it is very obviously the work of an enormously skilled filmmaker; one who could probably do just about anything he sets his mind to, even if that means just doing what everyone else does but better.
Just to be clear, Memento is not a profound or even particularly complex film. By the gold standard Nolan has set for himself in the last 15 years, it’s not that visually inventive. Memory-deficient Guy Pierce is a prototypical Nolan protagonist: straight-faced, unflappable, at his most vulnerable maybe frustrated or confused. Even the reverse narrative structure around which most of the discussion centers was done pretty effectively in a Seinfeld episode four years earlier (not to mention the Harold Pinter play that episode was named after). But that’s what the film doesn’t do.
What it does is tell a story with such uncanny wicked efficiency that by the end you the audience doesn’t know which way is up. Forget plot holes. Forget even the performances. From start to finish this is the lightning round in a game we didn’t know we were playing and will not want to stop. Every moment, every line, every framing decision is maximized so it hits with the addictive force of cocaine and it just keeps building and building until the final moments. Some of these films have more heft, so to speak, but that also means they have to take on weight. Beautiful and fascinating as they are, I can’t help but see the unwieldy plots and expository glut of films like Inception and Interstellar and wistfully imagine more films like this: narrative wonders told with an unapologetic theatrical flare; stories told for story sake by a master storyteller.
3. The Dark Knight
Everyone is pretty much in universal agreement that The Dark Knight is awesome. I had the chance to confirm that earlier this week. But why is The Dark Knight awesome? Let’s take it on a character by character basis. I’m going to assume you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t, welcome to the Internet. Here’s the Wikipedia page describing spoilers.
As an audience member, do you really care about Bruce Wayne and his wintery romance with Rachel Dawes 2.0? Does idealist Harvey Dent’s quick left turn to nihilistic evil actually work as more than a parable? Do you care about Jim Gordon’s refusal to investigate his own unit? What is the emotional journey for Alfred or for Lucius Fox? Taken alone, are any of these stories particularly compelling? As a matter of fact, I would like to suggest that for almost every story in the film, the characters expressly state their primary motivations out loud because the audience is not expected to track with it emotionally.
But The Dark Knight is awesome. I am not contesting that.
And it’s fitting that the film’s most interesting character by a million Batmiles directly states that he doesn’t have any motivation. Heath Ledger’s Joker, he without a plan, he who just wants to watch the world burn, effortlessly outpaces an all star cast of legends and Academy Award winners. And that’s the only relationship that really matters. “I’m an agent of chaos,” he says, while dressed in a Nurse outfit with an “I Believe in Harvey Dent” sticker on his pocket.
The only relationship that works—the only one that needs to work—is the clown’s relationship with his giggling audience. Hero movies, Nolan realized, are an audience dance with order and chaos. In a pre-recession political climate where the War on Terror and the Patriot Act were still the biggest op-ed talking points, the story of a city struggling with order and flirting with anarchy could sustain almost three hours of downright riveting drama. We want to see justice prevail. We also want to see chaos in the streets. Which do we want more? The Joker does some terrifying things that I’m still honestly shocked made it into a mainstream movie (Nolan was never one to underestimate America’s patience for violence or distaste for open sexuality). Ledger stages it like performance art, which by the way is what all terrorism is.
And just before western markets collapsed, just before the conservative culture war decidedly failed, as wars raged and politicians rose to the national stage, one movie dared to make our subconscious love affair with chaos a little more obvious, a little uglier, a little more conflicted. That we found it awesome might be the reason we’ll keep talking about it for years to come, for better or worse.
Confession: following The Dark Knight Rises I was worried about Christopher Nolan. The man captured the imagination of America, but in doing so he has also catered to some of its worst tendencies. His films are excessively violent, treating the parents who drug their five year olds to The Lord of the Rings and The Passion of the Christ as a litmus test for American tolerance on that particular brand of obscenity. They also lack any trace of sexuality. He seems to keep bringing Marion Coltillard back for no reason but to punish people for looking at her. I go back and forth on whether his films embrace this dichotomy because they’re strictly intellectual (you’re far less likely to channel your inner Einstein during more, well, sentimental moments) or whether he’s cynically increasing ticket sales by appealing to Midwestern values.
And then there are his scripts. His characters highlight every thesis statement and key vocab term like college professors on test week. For a film that claims to explore the mysteries of the mind, Inception leaves almost nothing to the imagination. His worlds, while interesting, are maddeningly grounded in the same basic outline physics. So when I first heard his next film was heading into outer space, I was unconvinced. What about the great, mysterious cosmos lends itself to that approach? With much apprehension, I imagined Matthew McConaughy postulating on the precise cause of wormholes and how they can serve as a metaphor for Anne Hathaway’s mental state.
Thank the Others I was wrong. For all its pseudo-intellectual posturing, Interstellar is just really darn weird. What is that scene where McCosmonaut returns from the water planet to find his children have aged twenty years while he was gone? It’s sad, and… and sweet even! And it’s really weird too! I’ve never seen a scene like that. The film’s dimension-spanning ending, scientifically accurate or no, is also one sweeping WTF. Hans Zimmer’s score is ghostly and intangible and probably the best thing he’s ever done. He never once lays on the horns to tell us now is the time to be excited.
And yet the movie never betrays its Nolanity either. In fact it does everything all of Nolan’s films do, but more effectively. The approach is exemplified in the moment when McConstellation has to dock with another space ship that is spinning out of control. It’s tense and exciting. The visuals are awe-inspiring. The scene serves as a kind of parable for every idea explored throughout the film, including “the problem of gravity,” the necessity of human ingenuity in moments of conflict, and the urgent need for a solution in response to the world’s impending crises. All these ideas raced in the back of my mind, but they were informed by the butterflies in my stomach. For a brief moment mystery and wonder and a bunch of heady ideas about human potential merged into one transcendent moment of IMAX-ready cinema. It was something only Chrisopher Nolan could do, and it’s the reason he’s necessary.
1. The Prestige
There are several Christopher Nolans at work in all these films. There’s the storyteller who can take a simple tale of two rival magicians and rearrange the details until every conflict and mystery sings. There’s the professor making heady proclamations about art and obsession and the human desire for wonder. There’s the technician experimenting with shadows and sumptuous mise-en-scene and the theories of Nikola Tesla. There’s the spectacle-maker who knows how to frame electricity, light, and fire so they enchant the audience like they’re seeing for the first time.
And there is the magician.
More than a little alchemy is required to unite these men into a coherent whole. The Prestige is Nolan’s best film because it pulls this trick (sorry, illusion) off right under the audience’s nose.
At the very beginning of the film Michael Caine tells us what to watch for. A magic trick consists of three acts. Act 1, The Pledge, shows us something ordinary. A man in prison reading a letter, a sweet daughter waiting for her father to come home, two young friends and their as-yet-unkilled wives: the kind of stories everyone cares about: love, regret, desperation, all that normal stuff. Act 2, The Turn, tears us from this comfort zone. Hugh Jackman’s Robert is seen dead, then later seen resurrected. Christian Bale’s Alfred (presumably named to confuse critics trying to make Batman comparisons) is a loving father and husband one moment, until his soul presumably disappears. The final act, The Prestige, purports to bring back what was lost.
The Turn is fascinating only because we expect The Prestige to follow. Consider The Dark Knight and our glee at the Joker’s unsubtle terrorism. We allow ourselves to be thrilled by deplorable acts because we know, ultimately, he will be defeated. We see news stories about famine, disease, basic human cruelty, and mass chaos, but we zone out because no Prestige is expected. Only in stories are we told that ultimately everything will be okay. Our trust is won back through trickery or complicated logic, and we’re assured of the world’s Panglossian sheen. In turn we give the storyteller the affirmation they desire.
That’s a familiar theme for Nolan, who can in moments be something of a misanthrope. But here he’s just bursting with ideas, and I can’t complain too much. His inspirations range from clever (the secret behind Alfred’s disappearing act) to gnomic (the back and forth between the characters on the experience of drowning) to geeky (David Bowie plays Tesla, because aw yeah!), to outright poetic (the shot of the water tanks at the end of the film, which is maybe the most heartbreaking moment in all of Nolan’s filmography).
There’s no way to explore all the film’s brilliance without spoilers, but it’s breathtaking how Nolan subverts his usual cleverness and makes it mean everything and nothing at once. He explores death, evil, pain, the human soul, and the forces that make the world run with intellectual ambition that dwarfs his recent strain of 200 million dollar art films.
I hate to sound cheesy, but the final product honestly feels like magic.
Photos courtesy of: Warner Bros.