Posted on 08/05/10 09:51 AM | Last edited on 08/05/10 09:51 AM
I've decided that when I go through a director's complete filmography that I'll try and link the films and their general themes, styles and structures together to put the old Auteur Theory to the test. Having seen "Inception" and "Insomnia" for the first time in the last week and "Memento" for the second time in the week before, Christopher Nolan has become the first director whose entire filmography I've actually seen, starting with 1998's "Following" and ending with 2010's "Inception". So here goes....(I'll warn before spoilers too)
The first word that comes to mind when one hears the words Christopher Nolan is possibly the word "Architect". His films generally have plots that feel very meticuloulsy constructed and designed to create the ultimate cinematic experience. From a narrative perspective Nolan is something of a pioneer. His first feature "Following" showed the director's promise in this area. With three overlapping narratives set within a tight period of time we follow a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who follows people in the hope of being inspired to write a novel. We learn at the beginning that the young man is being accused of murder and then we slip back in time to learn how he came to this position. The jumping narrative style is easily comprehensible as we see three different appearances for the protagonist, earliest: Scruffy and long-haired, second: haircut well-dressed, and third: like the second only with noticeable facial damage. This narrative structure consistently changes our perspective of the protagonist, an impression which begins quite expectedly with us assuming the protagonist is a murderer and a pervert and that shifts constantly to show his more vunerable characteristics.
Similarly, in "Memento", the narrative structure is quite unusual. The story begins with Leonard (Guy Pearce) killling a man and then works its way backwards, usually starting with something that happened an unspecified amount of time earlier and ending with the first image of the previous scene. Here, there are two narrative continuities, one beginning with Leonard killing a man and going backwards, the other with Leonard talking on the phone about Sammy Jankis. The "gimmick" of the backwards narrative is in fact crucial to telling the story of Leonard because he suffers from a condition called anterograde amnesia which means that he can't create new memories, but remembers everything about himself before the event that damaged his brain occured. The cryptic mementos he keeps on him are the only link between his present and his immediate past. This means that when Leonard appears confused as to why he is in a certain place at a certain time, so is the audience, as we don't know how he came to be in this position.
Finally, the new film "Inception" has a narrative structure that is perhaps as revolutionary as that of "Memento" (because the details of the film are quite important to your first reaction I'll lable this entire paragraph as a spoiler, so skip ahead if you haven't seen it...or better yet just go and see it, what are you waiting for???). A great portion of the film takes place in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), with sceneries constructed by Ariadne (Ellen Page), and this is where Nolan's narrative ingenuity comes into play. Four narratives (plus the airplane, or real world narrative) take place at once, with each one affecting the one that comes after it. The first is set in a city where the team realise Fischer has been trained to fend off invaders, and so a tense chase begins. The second takes place in a hotel room with more security men to defend against. The third level is a fortress in a wasteland, where Fischer is killed, sending him into the forth level, the subconscious or "limbo". To escape the dreamworld, the characters must all be woken from the dream they are in by the one before, and so on. When the first dream has the characters cascading off a bridge, the next one has a sense of zero-gravity. When the fortress begins to collapse Fischer and Ariadne are taken from the subconscious and brought back. This continues until the characters are back on the plane and the idea that Fischer's father doesn't want him to continue his empire has been planted seamlessly in his mind.
From these above three examples it becomes clear how Nolan's ability to construct a complex narrative and maintain an audience's concentration has grown dramatically since his earlier attempts. The analogy Nolan himself uses to describe this is that of a maze. The audience is almost always shown the story from the perspective of one character, generally being only fed extra bits of information such as in "Insomnia" when (spoiler) Ellie (Hilary Swank) becomes suspicious of Dormer's (Al Pacino) account of his partner's shooting (/spoiler) or certain scenes in "The Dark Knight" which include The Joker (Heath Ledger) or Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), although that film more than any of Nolan's other could be said to focus as much on the characters of The Joker and Harvey Dent as they do on Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), just as "The Prestige" follows two, rather than one characters. "The Prestige" itself is yet another starkly different take on "the maze" analogy as (spoiler) both Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) have secrets behind their magic that the audience doesn't know, respectively a twin and a cloning device. The audience here is given both characters' uncertainties about the other, and so is the deprived of both character's personal secrets effectively experiencing this maze twice (/spoiler).
Another common motif in Nolan's films, one that usually instigates the creation of the metaphorical maze, is that of obsession or some other form of mental problem. In "Following" the young man's voyeuristic tendencies lead him into his problems, which (spoiler) eventually leads him to be framed for murder (/spoiler). In "Memento" there is Leonard's amnesia, In "Insomnia" there is Detective Dormer's inability to sleep coupled with (spoiler) the guilt of killing his partner and his confusion in knowing whether or not he intended to do it (/spoiler), In "Batman Begins" there is Bruce Wayne's Chiroptophobia (fear of bats), in "The Prestige" Robert Angier's obsession with outdoing Alfred Borden, In "The Dark Knight" Harvey Dent's bi-polar disorder and in "Inception" (spoiler) Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) guilt over the death of his wife, which manifests itself physically in the dreamworlds (/spoiler).
These respective ailments are always crucial to how the characters interact with the world around them. In "Following", "Memento", "Insomnia" and "The Dark Knight" we see how the protagonists are lead astray by the people they meet who abuse their particular inflictions for their own benefit. In each case the characters are abused by the "villains" who manipulate them to do their dirty work for them, while making it appear as if they are helping the characters achieve their own goals. This is particularly fascinating in "Insomnia" as (spoiler) we begin to see similarites between the characters of Dormer and Finch (Robin Williams) which causes us to question the morality of Dormer's actions as much as he does, blurring the line between the so previously easily defined "good" and "bad" from the beginning (/spoiler). These ideas, as well as Nolan's insistence on flashing images onto the screen to mimic the character's thoughts, show what a cerebral filmmaker he is. Oftentimes it is easy to forget how much we know about what's going on in the film without having been told in words. Nolan's fascination with the human brain and its capabilities and variables is clear.
In his more recent films, Nolan has begun to put symptomatic meanings into his films, that reflect issues of modern-day society. Ironically, the three main films that deal with contemporary issues are "The Prestige", "The Dark Knight" and "Inception", set respectively in the past, an alternate reality and the future. Also these interpretations tend to be alluded to by Michael Caine's characters in most of these instances. In "The Prestige" the main observation the film makes is that of the dog-eat-dog attitude necessary to survive in modern capitalist societies. This desperation for success and renown, Nolan seems to suggest, means creativity will eventually and inevitably be replaced by cheating or personal success by any means. (spoiler) Borden's willingness to chop off his brother's fingers to continue the illusion and Angier's willingness to kill clone after clone personify this point. Caine: "Now you're looking for the secret. But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out; you want to be fooled." (/spoiler). "The Dark Knight" is an obvious allegory for the War on Terror and the actions of those whose responsiblity it is to protect the citizens from danger. (spoiler) Basic similarites can be drawn between Batman/Bruce Wayne and the US Homeland Securities actions, particulary that of the Bush doctrine and its allowing of phone tapping, similar to Bruce Wayne's use of radar imagery and the tapping of all of Gotham's mobile phones. The Joker here represents a threat, basic and simple, more than an ideology or more than represtenting any one individual. Caine: "some people just want to see the world burn." (/spoiler). Finally, "Inception" attacks the issue of personal privacy, one that is increasingly relevant in today's society. However "Inception" is not about reading people's minds or personal thoughts, it is a far more sinister and dangerous issue, one that the film studies quite seriously, and that is the idea of having an idea unknowingly implanted in one's brain. (spoiler) The film shows two different examples of the consequences of this, one in which Cobb's wife ends up killing herself, the other with Fischer deciding not to take on his father's empire. This particular idea is an important one when considering modern society and the absolute certainty that comes along with the Age of Information where things can take on empirical meanings for people while they actually could have originated on some lunatic's blog but end up affecting the way you live or treat certain people (/spoiler).
Finally, the one criticism levelled at Nolan's films is that they have no genuine emotional relatability. Of course this is debatable because emotional reactions are personal reactions, but it is understandable to feel this way, considering most of Nolan's protagonists have conditions that are not easily relatable to the general public. Also the Noir-ish way in which Nolan tends to leave his protagonists at the end of his films always leaves a final impression of the characters being ultimately damned. This adds ground to this particular line of criticism, but it overlooks what Nolan is trying to achieve, which is a wholly Modernist feel to the characters. In the end, the plots, although enthralling, are merely just there to show us why a particular character ended up the way they did. Their struggles are often hopeless and their heroism or overcoming of their conditions (if there is any) is usually personal and not celebrated. Think of the final image of any Nolan film and the uncertainty that is sure to follow for the characters or their reputations in some cases. When we are eventually torn form the maze, we are glad of it, because the protagonist's reality is usually too horrible for us to want to be in it anymore.
In conclusion, I must say that Nolan is an incredible director who has yet to put a bad film on his filmography. His next film will be the third and final Batman movie, which I hope will continue his run of cinematic gems. As a young director of only 40 years, I believe Nolan still has many fantastic films in his future and I will look forward to each of them as I hear of their announcement. Anyway, please, if there's anything you'd like to say or discuss about Nolan as a director I'd like to hear it. Thanks for reading!!