The cinema of Christopher Nolan | Daily News

The cinema of Christopher Nolan

Classical yet contemporary, Christopher Nolan’s films belong to another universe. Nolan is the first real postmodernist auteur. His work has spanned more than two decades and two generations. His films continue to entrance and enchant, but also divide and polarise. This is, of course, another way of saying it’s hard to have an opinion on them. As with the cinema of Terence Malick, there is very little dialogue or conversation in these films. The visuals don’t really prevail over the words, but when very little is spoken onscreen, and a lot left to one’s imagination, it’s difficult to build a consensus about any objet d’art. Even in as conventional a work like the Batman Trilogy, Nolan hence brings audiences close to the narrative, yet also alienates them from it. This is the most difficult auteur since Stanley Kubrick; perhaps it’s no coincidence that he made his first film at the time Kubrick made his last.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about a Nolan film is that despite the dizzying heights which they aspire to, and usually reach, they are actually conservative and classical. Here, I think, a distinction can be made between directors who question and subvert the norms of narrative and filmmaking, and those who do so with a certain reservation. If I am to take the Nouvelle Vague directors here, Godard would belong to the first category, and Truffaut to the second. The difference between these directors is quite simple, really: Godard imbibes conventions and norms to reject them, whereas Truffaut does so to absorb them. Despite his criticism of directors of the Old School, Truffaut nevertheless let the works of these Old School directors influence if not inspire his own movies. Godard did not; hence in questioning those directors and rejecting them, he came up with a new film grammar and language.

Nolan falls somewhere in between. It’s difficult to discern his influences in his films, unless we hear about it in his words. For instance, he sought Steven Spielberg’s advice in Dunkirk. The most obvious Spilbergian analogy that comes to mind when watching Dunkirk is Saving Private Ryan. Yet this is because Nolan has told us he sought its director’s advice. Unless we crane our necks and squint hard, we’ll find it difficult, if not impossible, to see where exactly Spielberg’s influence comes out in Dunkirk. This is not a film Spielberg would have done; it is fragmentary, it works on well more than one layer, and it brings many storylines together. In his entire career, Spielberg has not imbibed this style. His touch is thus missing in Dunkirk; if Nolan did not acknowledge him, we wouldn’t have known he had any hand at all.

Conscious decision

There are directors who bother with the details and directors who don’t. Nolan bothers with the details, but he takes great pains to show he doesn’t bother about them. This might be a conscious decision on his part, but regardless of whether he wills it or not, it’s discernible in every film he has made since Memento. Like the most unique iconoclasts the arts have ever known, he tells very little but shows us much. The sculptors and painters of the Renaissance did not tell us how they drew and crafted; they told us about themselves through what they drew and crafted. A muscle twitching, a raised eyebrow, an upturned lip: unless you observe these details with your own eyes, you’ll learn very little about those who sculpted them. It’s roughly the same story with a Nolan film: unless you delve into it, you won’t appreciate, still less understand, the idiosyncrasies of the man behind the camera.

This is not the only reason why Nolan falls somewhere between Godard and Truffaut, and why he can show us so much while telling us so little. The history of the movies has, in one sense, been one never-ending debate between those who argue that film owes more to the theatre and those who argue it owes more to literature. In two seminal essays Susan Sontag tried to mediate and resolve the debate, suggesting there are as many differences as there are comparisons between these three mediums. But debates surrounding the cinema have never really ended, and usually double up as a polemic between those who rooted for one point of comparison (cinema as theatre) versus everyone else (cinema as literature). Hence the Cahiers du Cinema critics derided directors who exuded a literary élan, while Gore Vidal took those critics to task by arguing that films are rooted in the written word.

It’s hard to take a side in this debate, and perhaps for good reason it will never end or be resolved. But there is a sense in which Nolan, like Stanley Kubrick and Terence Malick, do not take sides with one school or the other. Kubrick’s and Malick’s works exhibit a distinctly visual approach to the medium. Pauline Kael’s snide assertion that Kubrick is literary minded may be true in the sense that Kubrick was inspired by literature and philosophy, but false if we take it to mean that he worked with words and not images. The same goes for Malick: in his films, what is seen transcends what is spoken. Thus Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Malick’s Badlands, released two years between each other, work so well because the directors don’t let dialogues tell the story, much less guide it. These films are neither theatrical nor literary, in that they transcend both categories and occupy a world of their own; Barry Lyndon might be taking place in Napoleonic Europe, and Badlands in 1930s America, but for all intents and purposes, they look and feel contemporary. They almost belong to our world.

Urban dystopia

To a considerable extent, this explains Nolan’s ability to transcend if not defy the limits of his material. He doesn’t just think outside the box, as that cliché runs: he constructs a whole new box. He refuses to think in terms of genre, space, or even time. This is why his Batman trilogy – The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises more than Batman Begins – stumps you so well: he does not conceive it as a comic book fantasy, but makes the material conform to his understanding of it all. If the villains in Batman generally seem human, all too human, he goes one step further: he exhibits their weaknesses for all to see. This is the main difference between his Batman and Tim Burton’s Batman. Burton’s Batman belonged to the cinema of Fritz Lang. He transformed Gotham City into the set of Metropolis, an urban dystopia chock-a-block with jagged spires, claustrophobic interiors, and Dutch angles.

Nolan’s Batman occupies a different world. The smart tailored suits, cocktail lounges, and corporate rhetoric should not deceive us for a minute: this is a deeply divided society, and Batman is a vigilante hell-bent on convincing the villains, and with them us, that it doesn’t take a cataclysmic adjustment to correct it. The villains of the Burton films – the Joker and the Penguin – revelled in the chaos and the disarray of Gotham City. They did not want to destroy Gotham; only to conquer it and be its masters. Nolan’s villains, on the other hand, have a more messianic view of things: they want to deliver Gotham from the depths which it has sunk to, and the only way to do that is to destroy it. They are false prophets, hellbent on cleaning the rot by killing us all. Bruce Wayne’s issue is that he finds it difficult, as the caped crusader, to convince everyone that he will do things better than them.

Christopher Nolan is that rare kind: a classical postmodernist. Very few directors have aspired or can aspire to his level. This is not because he works on huge budgets and opts for actual effects to CGI, but because it’s hard to emulate his style, which remains both hard to resist and difficult to define. In Tenet, which I saw on the big screen last year, he goes out as far as he can without totally alienating audiences. Tenet is his most polarising work yet, and to go beyond what he has achieved in it would be to polarise them further. It is also perhaps his most Kubrickian film. Halfway through 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rock Hudson walked out of the theatre, demanding an explanation for what he had just watched. I felt the same kind of frustration seeing Nolan’s latest work. It’s a sign of his agility, though, that while some of his audiences were vocal about their frustration, they still return to him. Nolan is the Stanley Kubrick of our age. Yet, unlike Kubrick, he continues to win popular audiences.

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