Director Profile: Nolan Rises

Talent in filmmaking is an immediately recognizable attribute. It does not take a while to develop or mature (although your results may vary), but if anything in the history of cinema has taught us, it is this: many of the very best filmmakers displayed their exceptional filmmaking talents typically within their early works. Of course, some have gone on to greater achievements later on in life, but one can still find the roots of genius in their early efforts. One needs to look no further than Disney, Eisenstein, Godard, Welles, Truffaut, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Scorsese and countless others to affirm this. Talent is an unaccountable quality, an inherent nature that can be nurtured, yes, but never fabricated. Such is the case with Christopher Nolan, who, with only eight features to his credit, rose from obscurity to become one of the most sought directors working today. Though he remains firmly within the studio system, he consistently displays an intelligence for challenging audience expectations and creating cinematic experiences that are as abundant of the true art of cinema as anything that has flourished from Hollywood.

Following – 1998

To start at the beginning, Nolan’s rise began with as obscure and intriguing a film as one could imagine at the genesis of his career. Following, released in 1998, displays many of Nolan’s interests and ideas told on a miniscule scale. Manipulative in its narrative structure as well as providing an unreliable protagonist, many of Nolan’s future thematic explorations take seed in Following. Shot in grainy black and white over a period of a year (due to the fact that Nolan had difficulty coordinating schedules during production), the film remains something of a marvel for its minimalism, when judged in the context of the rest of his filmography. Nolan’s interest in architecture is also on display in his first feature, as his protagonist skulks through an urban labyrinth that serves as both his home and his hunting ground. Though it is likely that Nolan shot in black and white due to the unavailability for him to purchase color film stock, the choice serves him nicely since the genre Following most subscribes to is the noir.

Memento  – 2000

In fact, one could cite the noir as a primary influence on the Nolan filmography. His emulation of the genre arrives to absolute perfection in his second film, Memento. Having broken through the underground and into the independent world with Following, Nolan gained a valuable ally in his cinematic arsenal by teaming up with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has gone on to lens everything of Nolan’s since. In Memento, Pfister’s contrast of sun soaked reality with black and white flashbacks keeps the film firmly within the mold of noir, and serves a key role in the psychology of Leonard Shelby. In fact, Shelby’s state of mind is sublimely communicated through every facet of cinema. From the look away and you’ll miss it cutting, to the brilliantly written script that starts at the end and concludes with the beginning, it has no right to work, and yet Nolan pulls it off in spades. For all of its subtle cinematic brilliance, the heart of Memento lies with Guy Pearce, whose performance as Leonard Shelby is among the very best portrayals in Nolan’s cinema, communicating fear, anxiety, certainty, uncertainty, and ultimately, apathy. Nolan may have been criticized in some camps for gimmickry in his cinema, but this is far from the case in Memento, which, in my estimation remains the best of Nolan’s films to date.

Insomnia – 2002

The first studio effort of Nolan’s may be my least favorite of his filmography, but Insomnia is nevertheless a fine film in its own right. A remake of a Swedish film by the same name, Insomnia stars Al Pacino as a Los Angeles detective sent to the fringes of Alaska to investigate a grisly murder, whose perpetrator seemingly knows no bounds. When an unforeseen event occurs, the detective’s ability to discern the truth from the lies becomes even more difficult. The plot certainly sounds by the numbers to be sure, but Nolan makes up for an otherwise humdrum tale by focusing on his protagonist’s subjectivity, a narrative device that is a touchstone in his cinema. Nolan toys with the idea of the unreliable narrator, through whom the audience experiences the story, yet is unlikely to provide a complete narrative picture. Such is the case with Pacino’s detective, whose unfamiliarity with the patterns of daytime and nighttime in Alaska prove his increasing difficulty with sleeping and waking. To some degree, Nolan dips his toe into the ocean of subjectivity that he would later navigate in Inception, but in this case his interests are intentionally atmospheric.

Batman Begins  – 2005

With his next effort, Nolan truly announced himself on a global stage, and, with a title like Batman Begins, its no wonder why. Having proved himself a meticulous and psychologically motivated director, Nolan took the reigns of a franchise that had drained into the sewers below campiness. Not many directors have had as strong success graduating from low budgets to big budgets, and for comparison, the budget of Batman Begins exceeded that of Insomnia by over $100 million. Of course, Nolan turned out to be the ideal fit. In retrospect, the shift in the superhero genre towards realism and thematic complexity may have found its genesis in Batman Begins, whose opening forty-five minutes feel as if the film was based upon literary sources and not comic books. Indeed, this first act offers so much in terms of character complexity and motivation to couple with its unapologetic realism, that the rest of Batman Begins, good though it is, does not hold up quite as strongly by comparison. Where the first third is brilliant in depicting the true tragedy of Bruce Wayne’s past and present struggles, the continuing plot in Gotham feels slightly more procedural. With his first big budgeted film, Nolan’s action scenes don’t always cohere, but his thematic interests and other cinematic tricks more than make up for the film’s faults. Continuing with his noir influences, Nolan’s Gotham feels like a completely real American city caught up in the sweep of corruption, and his choices of casting, including Christian Bale as the haunted Bruce Wayne, bolster the material. In a decade saturated with sequels and reboots, Nolan’s formula had all of the right ingredients.

The Prestige – 2006

Taking a brief detour before falling head first into Gotham City once more, Nolan turned to science fiction and fantasy, with his flawed yet underrated character piece, The Prestige. Drawing upon a repertoire of actors with whom he had previously worked, Nolan’s ensemble is effortlessly guided through a labyrinth that is as much determined by Nolan’s narrative structure as it is for his brilliance in editing. As two magician friends become bitter rivals due to their growing animosity, the secrets behind their best work become increasingly complex and deadly. Nolan continues to prove his strengths with ensembles here, balancing the strengths of his leads, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, with those of the other actors, including Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and even David Bowie. Where the film excels most is in its parallel editing, conveying multiple chronologies simultaneously as the characters are spun further into a stickier web. Also notable is the production design, for The Prestige represents the only period piece of Nolan’s filmography to date. Due to the subject matter of magic, the film does have a tendency to move into gimmickry, it wields more freedom to explore facets outside of realism. In any case, The Prestige is still fascinates for its narrative intricacy and represents another transitional stage for Nolan’s growing prowess as a filmmaker.

The Dark Knight – 2008

How does one take a newly revived franchise to a higher level of legitimacy? For Christopher Nolan, the point is to make an entirely different film from what the previous film began, only allowing for a few bare threads from the first to connect to the sequel. Indeed, one could likely watch The Dark Knight without needing much of the exposition and development from Batman Begins. Also, let’s get this out of the way: Heath Ledger’s Joker is one of the towering villain roles in cinema history, so much so that his presence is felt throughout the entire film, despite the fact he probably has less than an hour on screen time. The point of The Dark Knight is how different it looks and feels from its predecessor. If Batman Begins is an intimate origin story, then The Dark Knight is a crime saga, placing Batman’s actions within a moral and political context. What makes the film’s thematic explorations most compelling is Harvey Dent. As memorably portrayed by Aaron Eckhart, Dent’s character arc provides the film’s fulcrum and symbolizes the Joker’s victory and Batman’s failure. Outside of its narrative brilliance, The Dark Knight does suffer from a bit of an exposition blitz from its first thirty minutes, but once it begins to rely on plot and less on story, it never looks back. Exceedingly well shot by Wally Pfister, and often characterized by extraordinary, Godfather-esque instances of crosscutting, The Dark Knight brought Nolan closer than ever before to becoming a master of cinema, but his next film would catapult him over the top.

Inception – 2010

After earning a $1 billion for Warner Brothers, Christopher Nolan was given the keys to the kingdom, and he emerged with what many consider to be his masterpiece. Based off of a script a decade in the making, the resulting film is pure cinema. What I mean by this is that no other medium of art could ever communicate this narrative as cinema does. Every single aspect of cinematic language is vital here. At once his most epic and most intimate film, Inception represents a culmination of Nolan’s cinema up to this point.  With a crackerjack cast behind the script with Leonardo DiCaprio at the helm, Nolan’s skill with ensembles is once again in evidence. On a technical level, he sets an absolutely new standard for himself and contends with the best of action cinema. Featuring Academy award-winning cinematography with characteristic sun soaked flashbacks and eye popping visuals, in addition to a narrative entirely dependent on editorial, Inception has every right to the title “state-of-the-art.” If pressed, I would concede to a few nitpicks, but in the grand scheme of things, Nolan has never been as masterful as he is here. This especially extends to the film’s thematic concerns: love, loss, guilt, paranoia, among many others. Although the film’s ambiguous final shot had the filmgoing world analyzing any shred of evidence Nolan may have purposefully left behind, the point is not whether or not the top veritably falls. It is whether or not you want it to.

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~ by romancinema on May 8, 2012.

One Response to “Director Profile: Nolan Rises”

  1. I never knew Insomnia was directed by Nolan!

    He is an interesting director in the fact that his “experiments” are still masterpieces. Some directors have trial and error where as Nolan has trial and Oscar. After each experiment, one wonder’s how to improve and he does that seamlessly. The best example of that is Batman. He revived the series with an astonishing reboot. Then created a sequel even better in ways that I personally cannot explain. (Perhaps, instead of trying to make something better from the mold of the first, which most directors do, he had the insight to start from the ground up and treat is as a new movie altogether?) In less than a week, we will find out how the trilogy concludes. As time has told us all, 2nd sequels are terrible 99.9% of the time. This will be another achievement Nolan can add to his wall. (Not killing a series.)

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