Christopher Nolan: A self-serious mannerism

19 July 2010

Part 1

Since the release of his first film
Following twelve years ago, Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the film industry's most influential names. Shot at weekends on an estimated 'shoestring budget' of $6,000, Nolan's relatively under-seen debut feature seems a distant memory in the wake of his latest effort, Inception, which opened this weekend for an estimated $60.4 million return.

Nolan's present industrial power – which allowed him to conceive Inception with much creative freedom – surely stems from the fact he was responsible for rejuvenating the Batman franchise, first in 2005 with
Batman Begins and then in 2008 with The Dark Knight. The films made almost $1.6 billion between them; the latter is the sixth highest grossing film of all time.

Such box office momentum has been matched by critical reception, not only in the blogosphere but professionally too. Nolan first came to prominence with his 'psychological thriller'
Memento in 2000, which he co-scripted with brother Jonathan from a short story by the latter. That film's original narrative premise rightly drew attention to the director, who followed it up with the solid Insomnia in 2002, a remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 Norwegian noir.

It was in 2005, with the release of
Batman Begins, that Nolan's growing critical weight was seemingly magnified by a fan-boy hysteria who took to the director as the saviour of a franchise long thought dead. Both Batman Begins and its sequel were two examples of a growing commercial trend of revamped comics book superhero films that has included X-Men and its sequels, Sam Raimi's Spider-man films and two films each for The Hulk and Iron Man, among others.

The Dark Knight in particular, though, seemed to take the superhero film beyond its summer blockbuster status when it sparked a curious wave of unanimous praise as a 'serious film', a 'superhero film-for-adults', one that could be discussed in the same breath as, say,
The Godfather. In today's Telegraph, Will Lawrence endorses a theory that's already found some critical sway: Nolan is compared to Hitchcock (elsewhere to Kubrick).

As such, Nolan's films deserve further attention. What is at work here? What is the general fuss all about? What are his films saying or telling us that merit praise as serious art?

Common to all of Nolan's films is an interest and investment in narrative, in how a story is told. Following,
Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige (2006) and Inception all have non-linear narratives. But even Insomnia and The Dark Knight are interesting in this respect because the former is a re-envisaging of another film and the latter is a re-envisaging of a character and universe already familiar to us.

Despite the obvious gulf in budget between Nolan's first film and his latest film, they are bound by an unusual storytelling approach, where the concept or premise of the stories are their drawing point. Even with his two Batman films, the selling point became not just Batman the character we love, but 'Batman as told by the director of
Memento': how was Nolan going to present the superhero, what nuances was he going to give Bruce Wayne, and so on. (Interestingly, given the initial reception Inception has received, Nolan's third and final instalment of his Batman trilogy may well be sold on the back of his latest film, not The Dark Knight.)

If the recurring choice to tell his story non-linearly isn't out of mere gimmickry – and much of Memento's storytelling power lies in its double-chronology – one does wonder if Nolan would struggle with a more straightforward drama, in the same way we might cringe at Nick James's summation of Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film and first without conspicuous asynchrony,
Biutiful, in the July issue of Sight & Sound: 'In order to make us sympathise with [the protagonist], Iñárritu gives him terminal cancer, a bipolar ex-wife, two needy kids, a murderous business partner, a failing illegal business – oh, and a supernatural gift that he's abusing, and a multiple-death accident.'

How much does approaching your film with a need or tendency for conceptual uniqueness hinder actual substance? More importantly, though, how much does such conceptual uniqueness
disguise this potential lack of substance?

Whatever, Nolan's tendency to approach his projects with a conscious eye on narrative, on how his stories are to be told, may account for why his films have always been brilliantly edited. Working with film editor Lee Smith for
Batman Begins onwards, Nolan has developed a strong sense of what works and what doesn't work in terms of narrative pacing.

In his last four films especially, the moments that linger from Nolan's films are sensory, to do with the actual experience of watching something unfold – not only this, but of watching something unfold with purpose, with drive, with an air of 'things happening'.

This is most obvious in
The Prestige, perhaps Nolan's only genuinely great film, in which he masterly combines two interweaving viewpoints – essentially, two mutually opposed fictions – shaped together by someone else's envelopment of them. That this all unfolds seamlessly and cohesively is quite remarkable; the film as a whole is enthralling to watch – add to this a self-reflexive element that deals with cinema as an act of magic, and it becomes an intellectually engaging work.

The same, however, cannot be said of Nolan's other films.

The second part of this article can be read here.