Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Film Snob Focus: Christopher Nolan

If you threw a broken stopwatch, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, a trick coin, a blindfold, and a bag of illicit shrooms into a cinematic blender, the resulting puree would be the career of British auteur Christopher Nolan.

With today's opening of Inception, the highly-anticipated sci-fi adventure film with Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as one of the few films this summer not based on any existing source material, Nolan will add his seventh feature release to his impressive resume.

Nolan's specialty is toying with perception and audience expectations. His weapons of choice are the darker regions of the human psyche and nonlinear storytelling.

Although some critics suggest Nolan overlooks character emotion in favor of his storytelling tricks, few would deny his ability to use said tricks to make films that, even if flawed, are far more interesting than most standard Hollywood offerings.

Following, Nolan's debut feature, is barely 70 minutes long, but is a taut neo-noir that hints at what's to come in his future work. A young out-of-work writer takes to following random people around London to get inspiration for a story. He quickly becomes entangled with Cobb (the name of DiCaprio's character in Inception), a robber with a fascinating perspective on his career of breaking and entering, which spirals out of control for the young man. Nolan's best trick in the film is when he reveals key information, how non-linear techniques are used to frame previous events, and how everything comes full-circle in the end.

Nolan's second feature, Memento, famously did not get any distribution deal until Newmarket responded to the vocal support of Steven Soderbergh. The film, starring Guy Pearce as a man trying to find the person responsible for the death of his wife, is structured around an affliction that prohibits Pearce from forming new memories. Memento is told mostly in reverse so that we experience life as Pearce, but as we get closer to the end, we can see the entirety of what's happened to him in the past 36 hours. The structure of the film won it near-universal accolades, and also afforded some humorous moments such as this:

Insomnia, Nolan's 2002 feature and remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name, didn't use non-linear tricks to toy with viewers; instead, he helped viewers feel Al Pacino's growing insanity that comes with not sleeping for days on end. One particular scene, that I can't find on Youtube, shows Pacino getting lost in the lazy rotations of a table fan at a police station as he inadvertently tunes out the officers he was brought to Alaska to help. The conceit of the movie is simple, but the film slowly intensifies as several murder mysteries become helplessly intertwined. Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank are all in top form, and the simple twists make for a satisfying departure from the typical detective film.

Nolan's fourth feature, Batman Begins, was perhaps his most conventional film to date, but he successfully rebooted the franchise with both a critical and financial success. Madness and mental illusions are touched on with the nerve gas employed by the Scarecrow and the League of Shadows. The story is mostly linear with only a few callbacks to the prologue with young Bruce falling down a well. The theme of fear is a constant throughout, and like Following, plot details that seem irrelevant at first come back full circle in the end.

The Prestige, a tale of dueling magicians based off the Christopher Priest novel, is a great metaphor for Nolan's body of work. As Michael Caine describes in the trailer, a good magic trick has three parts. First, the audience is shown something ordinary, then the ordinary thing is made fantastic, and the final part is something unbelievable. I liked The Prestige more on a recent second viewing than I did originally: like much of Nolan's work, you're able to find the clues hidden throughout when you know the entire framework.

Despite the inflated length and third-act drags, The Dark Knight was yet another critical and commercial success in the renewed Batman franchise. Although much of the film's power comes from Heath Ledger's incredible performance as the Joker, it really lands because of the way that the Joker character, Bruce Wayne, the Batman persona, and Harvey Dent are all shown to be different sides of the same insane coin. Even though Nolan is not particularly well-known for his action scenes, the opening bank heist and truck chase in The Dark Knight are two of the most memorable and striking sequences from any recent blockbuster.

Some directors distinguish their work by their visual aesthetic (Fincher or Woo), others by the subject matter they tackle (Scorcese or Lynch). Nolan is a cinematic magician whose greatest illusion is making us believe he uses a light touch. Although his films seem to emanate an appropriately restrained British poise, you can sense a sly smile throughout his work. If we were to liken him to a character in The Prestige, he's Christian Bale - perhaps he doesn't have the flair of Hugh Jackman (like a Tarantino, or heaven help us, a Shyamalan), but he presents his work with the reserved confidence that he's going to show us something we've never quite seen before.

Nolan's trademarks: non-linear storytelling, memory, madness, planted evidence, hand-held cameras, dark blues and grays, efficient exposition (such as the first ten minutes of Batman Begins), spoken quips to lighten the mood, Batman symbolism (in Following and Memento), technology, mystery, loner males, unrequited love, significant small objects, tragedy befalling females, "man versus self"

Nolan's people: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Mark Boone Junior, Ken Watanabe, Jeremy Theobald, brother and writer Jonathan Nolan, composer Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Wally Pfister

Some of Nolan's influences: The Shining (visible Jack Nicholson photos in Following), Blade Runner (according to interviews), Alfred Hitchcock

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  1. Another great post! I didn't connect with cobb as much as i wanted to but I still think Inception is hands down movie of the summer, potentially movie of the year.

  2. Agreed, Jon - Inception is first and foremost a heist movie, not a psychological thriller or character study. So far as heist movies go, it is expertly crafted and some of the most fun I've had at the movies in years.