Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Profile: Christopher Nolan

Ahead of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Reel 6 re-evaluates the career of one of the world's most talented filmmakers

There have been few directors as obviously talented as Christopher Nolan. The simple fact is that he has never made a bad film. His least good film is Insomnia, and that is a very watchable, solidly put together thriller: not poor by any means. The man has the consistency of a metronome.

Yet, it is fascinating to look at how this filmmaker has developed. The former English Lit. student at UCL never went to film school, and has described himself as learning by going out and making films. Certainly, this is borne out by how his movies have developed and improved.

Nevertheless, there are some central styles and motifs which recur from film to film. Most intriguingly, when one goes back to his very first film, Following, a micro-budget thriller, you can see that all of the definitive Nolean elements are there: visual style, non-linear narratives, and clever, well-thought out plot-twists are crammed into the film’s relatively brief 70 minute runtime (by contrast, The Dark Knight Rises comes in at comfortably over twice that length). It was so obscure upon its release that the BFI cannot find a film print of it in the UK, but this tiny thriller is the cinematic equivalent of Nolan’s DNA: there’s even a thief called Cobb and a Batman symbol on show at one point.

Nolan went from that to a film which was described as a “masterpiece”. Not bad for a second feature. There is no denying Memento’s intellectual endeavour and achievement. The plot follows a man who has no short-term memory, meaning that he cannot form new memories and quickly forgets recent events. The film is told in reverse, starting with the man (brilliantly played by Guy Pearce) shooting the person who raped and murdered his wife. We work backwards and slowly see how he came to be in this position.

The film’s innovative approach to the narrative is what made it an instant classic, and something which students of film can analyse for years to come.  As a film, its plot machinations (though undoubtedly brilliant) do form something of a barrier, preventing true emotional engagement. It exhibits one of the few problems with Nolan’s work. Good though all of his films are, his ambition in every piece forces him to perform balancing acts. The various elements of his films excite the mind, the heart, and the adrenal glands, but he often struggles to get the balance of these elements exactly right, with one of those areas being over and under stimulated in comparison to the others. This prevents many of his very excellent films from being true masterpieces, and Memento is the first example of this: the mind is delighted, but the heart is left a little ignored.

His next film, Insomnia, was a shift for Nolan. Here, with a decent budget, Nolan is forced into a position where his natural creativity is pinned back. It does feel like he is slightly subdued, with only flashes of his distinctive style being apparent. There is no multi-faceted plot, but rather a run-of-the-mill affair, focussing on Al Pacino’s cop who can’t sleep amidst the unending light of the Alaskan summer and the torment of his guilt. The only distinctive Nolean element to it is the brilliant and inventive visual style, brought to life by his long-time director of photography, Wally Pfister.

This trip to the mainstream was, however, clearly essential for Nolan’s development. Insomnia does nothing terribly remarkable (though that doesn’t stop it from being a good, enjoyable thriller), but if you did not have Nolan working out how to satisfy the demands of the mainstream, whilst developing his own style, you would not have Batman Begins or its sequels.

Batman Begins is an amazing achievement: a film which is entirely accessible for a very broad audience, with a clever plot (that jumped between different times with ease) and a great visual style. It’s also fantastically funny and features several fine performances. The ability to construct such an intelligent film with narrative complexity and dexterity that is still accessible for a mainstream audience is a direct result not just of Nolan’s experimentation in Following and Memento, but also of his time in the shackles of a “big” budget in Insomnia.

The commercial and critical success of Begins gave Nolan a platform to increase the scale of his ambition. Indeed, it has to be said that his first Batman outing, though really quite something at the time, has been seemingly dwarfed by Nolan’s subsequent work. Begins was the turning point, when Nolan’s narrative creativity and visual style met with bigger budgets. What Nolan struggled with at this point was satisfying the mainstream demands that are consequent from greater financial investment.

A pattern also emerged. The success of an instalment in the comic-book franchise earned Nolan the right (and the budget) to make a pet-project next. The first of these was The Prestige. It did not have the sort of budget which Nolan may now be accustomed to, but The Prestige was a good test case for how film which demands a lot of attention from its audience would fare at the box office without the financial protection afforded by a franchise. Thank God, it was sufficiently successful.

The film also deserved to be successful. It was clever, gripping, intriguing and stylish. The film’s plot focusses on two magicians who, after an unfortunate accident, become gripped by rivalry, each obsessed with the other’s tricks and personal life. It was not a blockbuster in set-up or style, but it was what could be described as mainstream in terms of funding and marketing. Despite this, Nolan (adapting a novel by Christopher Priest with his brother Jonathan), attempts a non-linear narrative with complicated plot-turns: the sort of thing studios are very scared of.

Nolan pulls this challenging structure off triumphantly and accessibly. Furthermore, he deals with the themes of obsession and revenge brilliantly all as part of the story. The result is a complete experience for the viewer: visual brilliance combined with terrific storytelling (helped by a great cast, with Christian Bale delivering a “best ever” performance of tremendous subtlety). The Prestige is Nolan’s first masterpiece. It is near perfect, and has been unfairly overlooked in the canon, seemingly because of its (comparatively) small-scale.

The word which keeps coming back when thinking of Nolan is ambition. He is constantly attempting new and more challenging methods and styles. With The Dark Knight, Nolan really did raise his ambition. The action sequences were bigger than he had ever attempted. The plot was more complicated than anything he’d attempted since Memento. The themes were grander and “higher” than any he’d approached before.

The result is a sprawling spectacle which, whilst messy, was instantly iconic. When first released, much of the focus was on Heath Ledger’s last completed performance before his untimely death. Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is the best thing in the film: gripping, terrifying, paradoxically repulsive and fascinating – whenever he’s on screen, he’s hypnotic.

Now, four years afterwards, the sense of collective grief has settled and the film can be viewed more clearly than ever. It is a monument to Nolan’s ambition, though it appears that, at this point, Nolan was still wrestling with the challenges he’d brought upon himself; still struggling with balance problems. In short, the film is so big and there’s so much going on in it that the audience, whilst gripped and thrilled, has little to hold onto through all the twists and turns. There is a surprisingly cold core to it (similar to the central problem of Memento), as no character steps up from the ensemble to be the emotional heart of the film, and the script gets a little wrapped up in its own narrative and philosophical complexities which (unlike The Prestige) feel more like they are being discussed as commentary to the plot, rather than being explored as part of the plot.

The question of balance between the mainstream and the Nolean lingers over it – a trip to Hong Kong sticks out like a sore thumb as something made for the trailer to please the marketing division. The question of balance between heart, mind and adrenaline is also prominent. The mind is intrigued. The adrenaline is pumping. The heart, however, is under moved.

This does not stop it from being an absolutely thrilling, spine-tingling affair. The sheer spectacle of it is worth much more than the entrance fee. It is simply that one knows that Nolan can achieve more balance and make something even better, truly masterful, and perhaps even touching perfection. We know this because, with his next film, Nolan did it.

Inception is the perfection of the Nolan breed: the complete fruition of everything that he had done before. This is perhaps down to the fact that the idea had been with him for years (he originally pitched it in 2003) and as he learnt through all of his films, the embryonic idea for the film benefited, and it slowly became Nolan’s second masterpiece.

Surprisingly, what makes the film so good is its innate simplicity. The truth is that beneath all of the breathtaking, mind-bending visuals (such as Paris folding in on itself), the complicated different levels of dreaming, and complex crash-course in the rules of shared dreams that we go through, the movie rests on the simplest of foundations. The central character, Leonardo Di Caprio’s Cobb, just wants to go home. When you strip it down, that’s all there is to it. That is what gives the film heart and makes it moving as well as thrilling and a treat for the mind.

The film has the spirit of Following, the ingenuity of Memento, the visual flair of Insomnia, the heart of Batman Begins, the complexity of The Prestige, and the scale of The Dark Knight. Inception could not have come to be without all of those, a testament to how this extraordinarily talented filmmaker has continued to learn throughout his career.

There have been points in this article when it may have seemed that I was being very critical of Nolan. This was not my intention. After all, the more challenges a filmmaker undertakes the more likely he is to miss the mark. Nevertheless, I shall take this opportunity to underline my first statement about the man: he has never made a bad film. He has given the comic-book genre the credibility it so rightly deserves. He has created some instantly iconic films, and two masterpieces.  Nolan is not just a great filmmaker: he is both the heir to Spielberg, and the heir to Hitchcock. He is a true modern master.

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