Christopher Nolan: A self-serious mannerism, Part 2

21 July 2010

This is the second part of a two-piece article. The first part can be read here.

Part 2

Christopher Nolan is obviously a very talented, careful craftsman. Technically, he also has a fine editorial instinct. Together, these elements combine to create slick, polished films; they sweep us along, they impress us on a vague, surface level. Often, they move at such a pace, with such confidence, that we can overlook certain flaws.

Such confidence isn't surprising. Nolan isn't new to film-making. From an early age he has had access to filming equipment. In Monday's Telegraph, Will Lawrence notes that “Nolan’s first fumblings as a film-maker came courtesy of his father's Super 8 camera. Together with his older brother Matthew, he made mini-epics starring their Star Wars action figures.”

The same article begins with a conscious comparison to Batman himself: “At his home near the Hollywood Hills, a single-storey abode protected by a black iron security gate … [Nolan] works in a cavernous garage, his own version of the Batcave, which is brimming with top-of-the-line technology: his edit suite.”

The picture painted here is quite revealing. The article goes on, contextualising Nolan's career against the backdrop of relative wealth and the ease with which he's been able to pursue a career in the industry. His father was an advertising copywriter and his mother a flight attendant; he grew up in Highgate, London and Chicago; he has joint citizenship of the UK and the USA.

All of this doesn't mean much in itself, though it might account for why there is a certain vacancy in Nolan's work. We should note at the outset here that not being working class does not necessarily preclude an investment, artistic or otherwise, in working class issues. Nevertheless, there seems to be a tendency in Nolan's films, conscious or not, to set about rather vague issues quite removed from material life.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but at times there is an undeniable air of self-importance at work in Nolan's films – especially in his biggest three earners, his two Batman films and now Inception. The Dark Knight, the film that announced the director as a kind of hip intellectual for mass consumption, may be the most self-serious, artistically pretentious film made in recent memory.

Batman is a character whose fundamental qualities – the very things that make him Batman – are the stuff of fluff, of non-seriousness, of unavoidable and indisputable silliness. Nolan, however, thinks he can make plausible psychological drama out of a multi-millionaire who dresses as a bat at night to defeat petty street criminals. This is simply not reasonable.

There is of course nothing culturally inferior or invalid about Batman, neither as a character nor as a multi-media phenomenon with a loyal cult following. That is not to say, however, that psychologically serious art can be made of him.

Similarly, Nolan's Gotham City purports to parallel our own real world. It seemingly hasn't occurred to the film-maker that, like its protagonist, The Dark Knight's setting cannot possibly represent any kind of material life with any sort of seriousness, because the very things that make Gotham City what it is are devoid of social complexity. There is no flux in Gotham – crime is a constant and so Bruce Wayne is able to wage perpetual war on criminals without any sort of serious concern for the social and historical conditions that affect crime and everything else in society – which is why even on an allegorical level the film falls flat.

Many films do not hold up to rigorous analysis, but then many films aren't meant to. Tim Burton's Batman films, Batman (1966) and Batman Returns (1992), were stylish and dark, while Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), which were criticised for camp overkill, were removed from reality even further; none of these four films took the character or the universe seriously, none of them ever presented Bruce Wayne as a psychologically nuanced character, a tortured superhero, etc.

The Dark Knight is all mannerism; following the success of its predecessor, it expands upon the more diluted pretentious elements of that film. Beyond its careful, commercially judged bleakness and surface cynicism, the film is intellectually bankrupt. And regardless of the character's appeal to people, Batman ought to be intellectually bankrupt; he cannot be otherwise, so silly are his core prerequisites.

But Nolan will have us think differently. In an interview in October 2008, he remarked, “It’s funny, I’ve been asked a lot about the politics of the film. I dismiss all such analogies. It really isn’t something we think about as we put the story together.” This may well be true, but with any work of art there are elements that find their way into the final product that in some way reveal certain agendas, conscious or not. This is because the process itself of making a film is not removed from material commercial and social pressures. In the same interview, for instance, Nolan notes the “heightened reality” of The Dark Knight and “the gritty realism in the textures of it”.

Then there is the film itself. Shot on location – primarily in Chicago – the film makes use of real-life cityscapes, presenting them in grand, epic fashion (Nolan has become fond of extreme aerial establishing shots). There is no attempt to distance the fictional world of Gotham from material reality. This is in stark contrast to the Gothic excess of Burton's films or the cartoon camp of Schumacher's. (Interestingly and tellingly, the most faithful and perhaps finest screen adaptation of Bob Kane's 1939 creation is the 1960s series and film, Batman, starring Adam West.)

In July 2008, Cosmo Landesman wrote in The Sunday Times that “the clean-cut minimalism of monumental buildings and glass skyscrapers” in The Dark Knight evoked “the deathly pall of 9/11.” Listing several examples, Landesman goes on: “This heavy-handed, wearisome 9/11 connection is the artistic equivalent of a fake tan: it provides the film with instant, spray-on seriousness. For art-house chaps such as Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan, it’s a way of showing that they haven’t just made a big, dumb summer blockbuster: oh, no, they have made a big, thinking blockbuster that engages the masses in important issues.”

This is entirely true. But as would be expected from a film-maker who claims these kinds of things are not conscious, in an effort perhaps to encourage ambiguity or simply skirt the issue – box-office success buys more than anything the power to keep schtum about your own work – the film is confused, as a result of both the unavoidable flaws a serious treatment of silly material will bring and Nolan's general outlook as a whole.

Inception, Nolan's latest film, took $60.4 million in its opening weekend. It isn't quite as self-important as its director's Batman films. Carrying the promotional baggage of a 'thriller set in the mind itself', it deals with information retrieval via dream-penetration in a futuristic setting. Leonardo DiCaprio heads a terrific cast that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marillon Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy; Tom Berenger, Pete Poslethwaite and Nolan regular Michael Caine all have smaller roles.

As mentioned in the first part of this article, the most effective moments in Nolan's films are to do with the sensory experience of watching a narrative unfold with a certain sense of purpose and drive. In this respect, Nolan's films are at their best when expositing or concluding a lot of information at once, which would explain his recurring tendency for parallel narratives, the kind that require much cross-cutting – think of the enthralling, involving momentum with which the narrative hurtles towards Christian Bale's “Abracadabra” moment in The Prestige.

In narrative terms, Inception isn't as rich as that film, dealing instead with a fairly linear Chinese box structure that works well in the context of the film's dream-within-dreams theme. But at times it feels just as exhilarating; its action set-pieces might be problematic in themselves – Nolan has much to learn in simplified choreography – but there's an engaging sense of rhythm and tension as the key moments of each all intertwine: the otherwise banal moment of a motor vehicle falling into water is given much significance in the wider context, and Nolan reminds us of it often.

Montage is Nolan's greatest asset. It's key to both the narrative structure and therefore the thematic fabric of The Prestige and, it must be said, it often helps disguise the vacuousness of his Batman films and Inception, and perhaps even the flaws of Memento, by making those films easier viewing.

In this way, Nolan's films are for the 'thinking man' in the same way a jigsaw or a word-search puzzle may require some lateral thought. But this does not make his films any more serious because of that.

Inception has its own problems. From its outset, it courts lofty airs of ostentation; part of this is actually due to the way it is edited, but a bigger part of it is the same confused artistry that was at work in the Batman films. Nolan might have a certain degree of cleverness about him, but he's not a genuinely great thinker. His limitations as such inevitably affect his art.

The Dark Knight offered confused mutterings on its Joker character being described as a terrorist, as an anarchist, as chaos personified and therefore the 'pure embodiment of evil', when in fact terrorism and anarchism are grounded in complex histories and ideologies and therefore quite beyond the nebulous notions of good and evil. It consciously includes comments on, but ultimately skirts over – because indeed it has nothing concrete to say on any of them – the police, vigilantism, crime as social disease, etc. Its alarming conclusion is the need for a Batman figure in society, for a multi-billionaire whose wealth funds the arms trade as well as his own personal vigilantism; the film offers no stance on or even a critical investigation of crime. With any kind of serious look at this kind of material, it isn't difficult to see the sorts of problems and contradictions that manifest as a result of a lack of proper thought.

In the same way, Inception is about retrieving information from people by illegal methods. The central spin on this has its protagonist plant information, in its 'purest form', by burying it into an unsuspecting person's subconscious, thereby changing their entire outlook on life. This is getting into the frankly foggy notion of consciousness being removed from material life, but regardless of that, the film sanitises criminality at a government and corporate level. The central mission in Inception is conceived and carried out to serve the interests of a ruling elite; that it plays essentially as a larger Maguffin to DiCaprio's personal arc doesn't change that.

All of this unfolds with a mild, irritating air of self-importance. Peppered throughout the film are observations regarding the idea of dreams and ideas. “You never know how a dream starts,” a character says at one point. At another point: “Once an idea grabs hold of you, it's almost impossible to stop it from taking over you entirely.” These are quite banal offerings from a so-called intellectual or serious thinker. No real analysis is made of how ideas emerge and catch on; the vague conclusion it seems to come to is that ideas are somehow contagious and therefore dangerous, and can be planted on a personal level; wider questions of social context are conveniently ignored.

Indeed, Inception is at its best when dealing with fluff, with impossibly clever, imaginative dream-thieves in conversation with one another, portrayed in slick fashion. Its cast perform with a great deal of panache – there are several convincing chemistries going on here, most notably that between DiCaprio and Page, and Gordon-Levitt and Hardy – and there is a humorous touch missing in Nolan's less unassuming works. (The film's best recurring gag has its characters awaken to the sounds of Edith Piaf while the ghost of Marillon Cotillard, star of La Vie en Rose, haunts their slumber.)

In themselves, the special effects are also very impressive. Oddly, though, even here Nolan's artistic assumptions strike a rather confused cord. Justifying the film's $160 million budget, Nolan said, “What I found is, it’s not possible to execute this concept in a small fashion. The reason is, as soon as you’re talking about dreams, the potential of the human mind is infinite. And so the scale of the film has to feel infinite. It has to feel like you could go absolutely anywhere by the end of the film. And it has to work on a massive scale.”

This is fair enough, but at times it seems Nolan, much like his protagonist Dom Cobb, has quite a tame imagination. For all his words on the potential of the human imagination, Nolan's Inception feels oddly flat and unimaginative – its more impressive set-ups are derived from Escher and elsewhere. More importantly, though, on the matter of a work that deals with the human imagination logically translating to a big budget, Nolan is simply wrong.

Due to the nature of the script, all of the film's action set-pieces take place in dreamland, and so it doesn't seem a stretch to say that Nolan has constructed his narrative around them; or in other words, the dreams seem there only to allow for big-budgeted spectacles. A. O. Scott in the New York Times writes, “Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness.” Inception is undone by its own premise, then, or more specifically, by its maker's own limitations.

Alongside the likes of the Brothers Quay or David Lynch, alongside Jan Svankmajer or even Michel Gondry, Inception is decidedly one-dimensional in its visual texture and narrative power, and perhaps telling of an artist not quite as imaginative or clever as he thinks.