Introduction to The Directors Series – Christopher Nolan

Miguel Penabella | 21 July 2012

Darkness plagues the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, from the recent hate speech on Rotten Tomatoes from users angry with numerous critics’ negative reviews to the even more recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. But why specifically Christopher Nolan, this frequently applauded director hailing from London who since 1998 has released a total of eight films? Nolan is undoubtedly an important filmmaker, but not necessarily a masterful one, and each and every title in his filmography warrants deep critical analysis. As for the zealous fans who suspended the user comments section of Rotten Tomatoes, their narrow-minded fury against any dissenting critic stems from Christopher Nolan’s ascension to such godly heights, a designation bestowed on him from Internet culture. The issue of Internet groupthink mentality is one issue, but the far more distressing news from Aurora and the motivations behind the deeply mentally troubled James Holmes have complicated the issue of critical discussion even further. He, like many other filmgoers, recognized the status of summer blockbuster as a “movie event,” precipitating the emergence of larger and larger midnight screenings, pre-release forum debate and hungry speculation, and the media blowing such events out of proportion. Nolan’s statement shortly after the disaster reframes the cinema’s vital role in all these events, highlighting the complex nature between filmgoers and the movies itself. “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”

What does this say about our treatment of cinema? We’ve come to the point where media and Internet culture have heightened anticipation and loyalty to a single director to almighty levels, with many fans simply eschewing any form of critical scrutiny in favor of groupthink mentality. Both the Rotten Tomatoes fiasco and the Aurora shootings provide a sobering account on the potential for human barbarity (one cruelly mental, one destructively physical) and its relation to the negative impact of cinema culture. The former signals the dysfunction of critical thinking and the latter reveals the distortion of cinema as perceived by a mentally disturbed individual, perhaps even reflecting a greater pop culture decay. Nolan’s role in all this disorder has to do with his contribution to the cinema: a fixation on cynicism packaged for commercial consumption, or over a billion dollars worth of morose spectacle for impressionable, jaded post-9/11 audiences. So let’s rethink our perceptions of Christopher Nolan and introduce some healthy and amiable dissent. Having watched all his films, I disagree with his de facto role on Internet boards as a bizarrely godlike savior of the cinema. His films are surely nothing terribly new and groundbreaking, nor are they instant masterpieces from an innovative, cinematic genius. 

I do however, think of Christopher Nolan as a capable modern filmmaker, gradually approaching the role as a worthwhile artist. Many audiences and critics are giddy with delight over Inception and the conclusion of his Batman trilogy, but I want to view him with more honest dissent. Fans of Nolan often shout down eloquently argued dissent like a defense mechanism to defend their cherished director, or perhaps even more distressingly, simply overlook and ignore such nonconforming reviews with passive action. Christopher Nolan and his crew forge undoubtedly polished and efficient products, but whether or not such a director has potential for auteur status remains open-ended. Often exploiting the 21st century proclivity for dark, gritty antiheroes and the gray areas of ethical thinking, Nolan tends to sidestep a personal voice in favor of frustratingly detached motion pictures. Sometimes, the director executes his identifiable aesthetic and nuanced narratives well, and sometimes his works are muddled in condescending politicking as to lessen the worth of his craft. 

He’s not the second coming of Christ as the blunt, ubiquitous praise on forums almost seem to suggest nor is he as visionary as his forbearers whom he owes great debt to: Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and so on. However, his films do register with the stylish fluidity of Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville than anyone else, channeling his particular brand of contemporary cool, sharply dressed characters, well-oiled drama, and brilliantly cut crime action. Admittedly, Kubrick’s style rubs off at times, namely in Inception’s practical effects and overall aesthetic and The Dark Knight’s brilliant opening sequence that amalgamates elements from Kubrick’s The Killing and Michael Mann’s Heat. Over the course of his career, Nolan has forged an identifiable oeuvre with well-organized films populated with diverse, talented cast and crew. Combined with his traditional cinematography shooting on film, tightly controlled ellipses, and an economical means of presenting style and story, Nolan has an undeniable gracefulness about his films even when his events onscreen present controlled chaos, not unlike a rising fire. 

In the interest of heterodoxy, my critical reviews for Christopher Nolan’s films will not be intellectually censored for the sake of universal appeal. I do enjoy watching Nolan’s films, but the seriousness of the intellectual conversation he posits often comes off as pompous and shallow, and such issues will be heavily discussed in my upcoming evaluations. I’ll be starting off with his Batman trilogy, easily the most elaborate of films to talk about before analyzing his early mainstream successes in Memento and Insomnia. Finally, the Nolan special will wind down to my personal favorites: Inception, Following, and the criminally undervalued, often misinterpreted masterpiece that is The Prestige. But going back to the continually developing tragedy that is the Aurora shooting, these dark days also reveal humanity’s resilience in the face of affliction and sorrow. Despite all the violence, people will still line up this weekend for the chance to enjoy each other’s company in the midst of the big screen, revealing the reverse face of film culture: its unique power for recovery, uniting people in the darkness.

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