Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Appreciation of Christopher Nolan

There have been some very good directors emerging in the cinema with the coming of the new millennium, but only two directors whose work I most eagerly anticipate have emerged as exceptional. Jason Reitman and Christopher Nolan. Reitman is one of the most talented comic directors, but two of his three films have been adaptations (albeit brilliant ones) of other novels. Nolan, therefore, has a secure place as the most original filmmaker of the last decade.

So when this years Academy Award nominations were released, and Nolan's Inception received eight nominations, but none for best director, one can not help but think that Nolan is being unfairly regarded by the film industry, much in the same way that Steven Spielberg was disregarded early on in his career. To understand why the Oscars have been remarkably unfair to Nolan, one must consider his body of work, and see that there is some prejudice.

Nolan first came to the attention of the film world with his 2001 film noir Memento, a very small independent movie that deeply split the film industry: while most critics acknowledged that it's method of storytelling was ground-breaking, some, like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin, were very hostile to it. Considering that this was one of the most complexly layered films--- one that reads just as well backwards as forwards--- one can understand why some people didn't get it. And because it opened in January of 2001, by the time Oscar nominations came around, it was clear that Leonard Shelby wasn't the only person in that world who had really problems with their short-term memory. (The Independent Spirits had an easier time, and awarded it Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. ) It remains one of my favorite films of the last ten years, and set the tone for the challenges that Nolan was willing to take.

His next film was Insomnia, a remake of a Norwegian mystery. If Memento demonstrated how good a craftsman Nolan was, this film showed how good he was at getting performances out of actors. Al Pacino gives a masterful performance as a New York City cop trying to solve a murder in Alaska, while suffering from the complete inability to sleep. By the end of the film, he's teetering on the brink of exhaustion, and can barely keep up with the killer he's trying to catch. The film also demonstrated once again how wonderful an actor Robin Williams can be when he's underplaying everything, and the first real proof that Hilary Swank's work in Boys Don't Cry had not been a fluke. A well made thriller is a thing of beauty, and this was a near gem.

After choosing such fine films to start his career in Hollywood, one might be able to see the path that Nolan's career might take, which may have been the reason that so many people were appalled that Nolan's next project was to take over the Batman franchise. One that Tim Burton, a director whose talents who have seemed perfectly suited for, had tried to master and failed creatively. Further efforts to try and carry on with the project had led to the film sinking further and further into camp. Which is why a lot of people--- myself included--- were so astonished when Batman Begins came out.

The reason it succeeded was because Nolan used his individual gifts to make the film work. Rebooting the entire series was a good idea, but given the direction the last two films had been in, anything would have been an improvement. What made this film work was that for the first time Nolan explored the psychology of Bruce Wayne. By now, everybody and his mother knew why Wayne was driven towards this --- the murder of his parents. But this time the event was given breadth and depth, and one could get the idea of loss. The movie also did something it's predecessor had almost completely ignored--- they made Bruce less of an island. Burton's Wayne is almost isolated from the world, Schumacher's is more convivial but the relationships are more rivalry than they are anything else. Here, Alfred the butler is given far more depth and access. Jim Gordon, just a sergeant in this movie, seems to be the last bastion of decency in a corrupt Gotham police. And Lucius Fox, basically ignored, is shown to be the brains behind all of the gadgets and toys that will eventually come to be Batman's stock and trade. Of course, it helped matters immensely that Nolan had cast Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman in these roles ---- none of those people are actors that you can ignore, and they seem to fit perfectly into the film.

Also, we get the feeling that everything is being done by steps. The Batcave is an actual cave. The Batmobile looks more primitive than the humming vehicle that will become his trademark. Bruce is clumsy as he does his first acts as the Bat. The eventual Batsignal looks foggy and out of focus.

And you can't have a good comic book without villains, but here Nolan was especially cagey. Knowing that all of the canon villains had been used in the previous movies, he chose to put to the front and center characters who were a lot smaller tier than some of the others, and perfectly cast them. Liam Neeson as Ras Al'Ghul, the man who basically gives Bruce his start as a hero, shows himself to be as ruthless and merciless, even though many of his aims are similar to that of Wayne's. Cillian Murphy is also very impressive as Jonathan Crane, the doctor who runs Arkham Asylum, and who takes on the alter ego of Scarecrow by the movies end. (Even here, there is a sign of primitive-- the mask Crane uses seems like it could fall apart at any moment.) By the move's end when the hints of what was coming in the last ten minutes, one could look forward to the franchise as one with a future, and left filmgoers breathless with anticipation.

To call The Dark Knight the best comic book movie ever made, or even the best sequel ever made, would seem to be damning with faint praise --- how much effort would it take to make a better movie than Superman Returns or Daredevil? It might even be considered one of the best films of the decade, and while that might be a little extreme, let's examine the evidence.

Separating the film from the work of Heath Ledger as the Joker is impossible to do. We will never know if Ledger would have received the same critical praise (or his posthumous Academy Award) that he did had he not died six months prior to the films release. But it is one of the most memorable and haunting portrayals of any villain anywhere. Like everyone else in the series, the Joker appears to be in his earliest part of his career--- his makeup seems and clothing seems in its initial stages. But there is an incredibly disturbed mind behind that mask, one who seems to have seen the darkest parts of the human race, and, unlike Bruce Wayne, seems determined to bring it out to fruition. The diabolical plans he makes are so ingenious. He doesn't want money or credit or even to destroy; he seems determined to creating a new kind of archetype--- the epitome of evil. It's a great shame that we will never see him in another movie, yet it is a great credit to Nolan in not trying to dilute the character with any other kind of performer.

Yet Ledger is not the whole movie. Aaron Eckhart may go down in history as one of the most undervalued actors of this generation, and this film is a prime example of his bad luck; had Ledger not so dominated the film, Eckhart almost certainly would have received an Oscar nod as well. The moment we hear the name of Harvey Dent, even the most casual follower of the Batman franchise knows that he is doomed. It is a credit both to Nolan and Eckhart that they were able to take Dent's fate, and give it one of Greek tragedy It is clear that Dent could have been the savior of Gotham, that he recognizes that there is hope in the city. Yet before his fall, we see the potential for evil in him, and even though it takes truly horrifying events, we know it wouldn't have taken much to bring out Harvey's evil side. There was a certain amount of ambiguity regarding his character's ultimate fate; I hope that somehow Nolan finds a way to bring Eckhart out again.

The movie featured so many virtuoso sequences --- Joker's chasing of Dent as he is transported by a police escort may have been the most brilliant action sequence I've ever seen--- yet it also raised great moral questions that other so called 'adult' movies wouldn't even dare to touch. The fact that Bruce Wayne is, at his core, not that different in how he wants to fight evil in the same way that the Joker wants to bring it out, is illustrated in a way that is frightening, and some of the questions of what happens have relevance to issues about how we fight the lesser angels of our natures. The fact that this film was not considered worthy of a Best Picture nod and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was is yet another reason that the Oscars are still not capable of recognizing intelligent blockbusters when they see them. Hopefully, when the third film in the series comes out, they might be inclined to see things differently.

Which brings us to Inception. I may have a very difficult time convincing my family and some of my friends that it was as brilliant as everyone said it was. And I will admit that the plot had several intricacies that may not have held water. But so much of the film was well executed that I think it deserves higher praise than it got.

I believe sincerely that one of the duties of the film as a medium is to take us to stunning new places both visually and emotionally. A lot of films that try to do so never get the recognition they quite deserve ---- Dark City and Minority Report are two of the most obvious examples of this work. Inception tried to take us inside the subconscious, and deal with some of the most stunning visual ways that only very great cinema can. The chase sequences, the constant spinning of the camera the deeper into the subconscious one went, the way that each level of the dream within a dream seemed to be having an effect on the other. These were the coming together of so many brilliant technical aspects--- cinematography, editing, visual and sound effects--- yet all of this had to come out of Nolan's ideas.

Nolan also has the gift to reach inside the interior of great performers and get work you wouldn't expect from them. Leonardo DiCaprio never quite gelled with his work with Titanic but while working with filmmakers as gifted as Scorcese, Edward Zwick and Samuel Mendes, he taps into a deeper well and brings out a hidden reservoir of pain. Nolan managed to elicit a fine work out of him, and I think he never got the credit for it he deserved. He also demonstrated the talents of Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy in their first mega-blockbuster, and that they, unlike so many so called big things, might actually have a deserved future outside the Independent film world.

Many blockbuster films are ethereal things--- they look brilliant and seem good when you're in the theater, but once you're outside it, you can't remember a single lasting image from it. Inception was the rare hit that not only benefited but almost begged for repeat viewings, not merely because the visuals were so stunning, but because looking at things from a certain perspective, there might be whole other ways to look at it. And considering that ninety percent (I'm probably being generous with this figure) of summer films are manufactured so that they don't tax your brain, to develop one that was stimulating and raised questions--- Nolan deserved a prize just for that. Nolan deserved a Best Director nod, and while I found the five films that were nominated were worthy, I can't help but think that the Coen brothers or David O. Russell would have been all right without being recognized if Nolan had been.

It is rare that a filmmaker can created a masterpiece with a million dollar budget; nearly as hard to do with a hundred million dollars. The fact that Nolan has demonstrated the capability of being able to do both shows that he may be the most dazzling talent to come out of Hollywood since Francis Ford Coppola. We know what his next film is going to be, but after that, I don't know which way he'll go. I only know that I can't wait to see it, and that is the mark of a true artist.