Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #4 - Christopher Nolan

-Batman Begins
-The Dark Knight
-The Dark Knight Rises
-The Prestige



If I had to come up with one word that sums up Christopher Nolan's filmmaking its "respect."  I have never encountered a director who respects his audience enough to expect them to fully engage their intellects in a movie.  Of course mystery movies do this, but Nolan makes more than whodunits.  And you can watch any movie written by Aaron Sorkin and have hyper-jargon thrown at you which sounds smart, but is there more to show off the intellect of the writer than enlighten the audience.

Nolan doesn't try to show off in that sense.  Instead, he thinks of his audience as intelligent men and women who desire not simplicity, but complexity.  This does not mean that his movies are cold logic puzzles.  He also as an incredible knack for pulling at the heart strings at the same time he is stretching your mind.  He is one of the few directors that is a master of being evocative and provocative all at once.  Nolan makes you struggle with the big questions of life.

His worst movie is Insomnia.  But even that movie was incredibly well made.  It was bright with a dark atmosphere.  He also made the audience struggle with truth dilemmas.  Can you lie to bring about a greater good?  And if you do, will that greater good ever come about.  The movie's main weakness is that Pacino's main character is so unlikeable that it is difficult to care about him.  And his weariness as the movie moves on is potent, but it translates too much to making the audience feel weary.

His first major movie was Memento.  This fantastic film is one that I've rewatched many times.  In fact, the first time I rewatched it was immediately after I finished it the first time.  A lot has been made about the gimmick of the story structure: the movie is told in reverse chronological order.  And that truly is a wonderful feat of writing.  But I would like to concentrate on the directing.  Rather than filming at night with shadows, Nolan made a daytime noir.  But he replaced the darkness with receding colors like blues and tans to pull this sets and characters away from the audience, to give them that hard-edged emotional distance.  I love his use of subtle and not-so-subtle changes during the "flashback" scenes where Leonard is not only in black and white, but begins to speak in a stream of consciousness, documentary-style cadence.  All the while, he carries the strong emotional thread of revenge at his terrible loss while making you contemplate the nature of memory itself and how it can be manipulated.

The Prestige is probably his moodiest piece.  It is a wonderful character study about obsession.  The story, about two rival Victorian Era illusionists whose vendetta turns murderous, is incredible because Nolan has you root for both sides.  All the while you root for Hugh Jackman's character against Christian Bale's.  But at the same time you root for Christian Bale's character against Hugh Jackman's.  This is no easy trick, because the audience needs someone to get behind and it is much harder for them to root for someone if it means rooting against the other.  But as both of them slowly descend into darkness, we feel less anger at them and more pity and sadness.  We know them as good men who have been caught up in dark magic of their own making.  And the implications of the ending stay with you for a long time.

Many people point to Inception's multi-layered, trippy plot as its salient feature.  I respect that, but I think they overlook once again the emotional component at work throughout the movie.  Ultimately its a story of a man lost by tragedy trying to return to the ones he loves.  DiCaprio's performance is one of maturity and anguish, covered by professional training.  And visually, it is a stunning movie.  Nolan always prefers to use practical effects over digital.  This lends a tangibility to his dream world that makes it feel solid, like it could really hurt you, and not some mental illusion.  The spinning hallway fight is such a delight to watch.

And of course there is his Dark Knight Trilogy.  Much has already been said about this franchise: its grimness, the performances, the real-world grounding, etc.  All of this I concede.  But watching them back to back you notice a giant change between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  If I didn't know any better, I would have said that there were different directors for each movie.  The first is heavy on sound-stages for hyper-stylized atmospheres.  The second has much more grounded visuals set against a real-world backdrop.  In other words, there are no ninjas in The Dark Knight.  That isn't to say one is bad and the other is not, but I find it so fascinating that he made 2 movies of such different flavor in the same universe.  And The Dark Knight Rises is a melding of both types successfully into one.  Nolan, famous for eschewing 3-D, maintains that the film already gives you three dimensional cues.  He knows how to fill up your senses and take your breath away.

Christopher Nolan has not made a bad movie.  I don't know that he can.  His next movie is still years away from release.  And I can't wait to see it.

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