Thursday, February 25, 2010

Modern Maestros: Christopher Nolan

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors.  In the past ten years or so the Hollywood summer blockbuster has been steadily improving in quality.  Now don't worry, there's still lots of trash reinforcing the fact that studio execs never lost a buck aiming for the lowest common denominator.  But there's been a resurgence in good big budget films (Can I say resurgence?  Was there ever a surgence?).  Christopher Nolan isn't singularly responsible for this.  Others were making good action movies before him, but he has come to represent all that can be right about blockbusters if the right director is given the right material.

Maestro: Christopher Nolan
Known For: Dark and moody thrillers and occasionally Batman.
Influences: Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, not comic books as much as you might think.
Masterpieces: High marks all around, but none yet (With my genuine apologies to those who disagree.  Let's not have that conversation again. Let's argue about Avatar instead.)
Disasters: definitely none
Better than you remember: I'm not sure I want to get caught up in the ongoing argument about how Nolan's films have compared to the hype.  Let's just say that I suspect history will remember all of his films accurately.

Box Office:The Dark Knight made a few cents here and there.  Over 533 million.
Favorite Actor: Both Christian Bale and Michael Caine have been in three films but once Inception opens, Caine will officially take the crown.


When Christopher Nolan was awarded the Batman franchise, reaction was hopeful and surprised.  But in fact this wasn't a new studio tactic.  Finding a promising new filmmaker and signing them to a franchise deal has always been part of the process. Rumor has it the Coens were originally offered Batman after Blood SimpleBurton fit the aesthetic so he eventually got the call.  Bryan Singer was courted after The Usual Suspects and though hardly new, one has to assume Hollywood had been ignoring Sam Raimi for decades before it finally discovered him and gave him Spider-Man.  But two things made the Batman/Nolan match more exciting.  First was the utter state of disrepair the (possibly most beloved and iconic of all comic franchises) franchise was in.  And second was just how closely the Batman myth aligned itself with the themes that Nolan loved most.  Nolan makes movies about desperate men and the moments that drive them to extremes.  In most cases it's the death of a loved one (wives or parents) but more than that I think it's a sudden and violent realization of the chaos present in the world.  This often results in the "rebirth" of an individual.  Bruce Wayne is reborn as Batman, Harvey Dent as Two-Face.  Leonard from Memento is, in a way, continually reborn every few minutes.  The Prestige also delves into the topic of continual rebirth but I won't spoil it.

 Two sides of the same coin.

Tied into this is another favorite Nolan topic: the duality of man.  Characters in Nolan films are often reflections of each other.  Consider Batman and his Rogues.  Both Ras Al Ghoul and Batman believe the world to be full of evil, but one thinks the solution is saving it, the other destroying.  Two-Face is another parallel.  He's reflection of what Bruce Wayne could have become if his tragedy propelled him toward evil.  The Joker though isn't so much a reflection of anyone as much as he is a personification of that ever-present chaos in the world.  This phenomenon isn't just limited to Batman.  The two men in The Prestige are mirror images of each other surging toward the same goal, one with emotional abandon the other with precise calculation.  There are further examples of man's duality in The Prestige, but I won't spoil it.

It's this perfect match of man and material that has resulted in such success.  But there have been other factors too.  Much has been made of Nolans insistence on realism and how it has served his films well.  Of course any film where a man dresses up as a bat isn't realistic but his determination toward a realistic universe has allowed the strange and supernatural to be that much more clearly punctuated.  Other comic book films like Spider-Man or Iron Man (both very good) exist in comic book reality and the difference is noticable.  Some have noted that Nolan's action sequences and plots are often too opaque.  But I maintain that audiences really aren't adverse to elements of mystery or confusion (people are still watching Lost aren't they?) as long as the excitement level stays high.

There's every reason to believe that Nolan will keep the excitement level high.  His next film, Inception is among the most anticipated of this year.  And it was recently announced that he'll be overseeing a new Superman film and directing a third Batman.  It's still something of an unknown whether Hollywood will heed the right message from Nolan's success.  Thus far they seem to have wrongly interpreted it to mean everything needs a "reboot."  And Nolan's films (as is now the case with all big budget pictures) must go through a prolonged series of internet-fueled stages (hype, backlash against the hype, backlash against the backlash, and finally acceptance).  All of that should be secondary to the movies themselves which remain solid and entertaining.  If Nolan really does come to represent the state of the Summer Blockbuster I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't be perfectly happy with that.

17 comments:

jahs34 said...

Memento is a Masterpiece, and you could argue The Prestige and The Dark Knight were close too.

BrianZ said...

Nice piece. Especially like the breakdown of man's duality, which brings to mind Michael Mann.

Memento is a total masterpiece in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

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Andrew R. said...

Dark Knight and Memento are masterpieces.

Prad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prad said...

The Dark Knight and Memento were pure GEMS.. Nice Blog..

NATHANIEL R said...

great piece.

I guess I'm a little cool on Nolan (i don't think he has a masterpiece yet either) but only in the sense that I'm not one of they hypesters.

But I do think he's genuinely talented and very very consistent. Which is more than you can say for most gargantuanly successful directors.

I like the duality of man as a theme. It's universal enough for everyone to respond to but it's also so flexible in terms of genres and characters and plots.

Robert Hamer said...

Put me on the "Memento is a masterpiece" train as well. The Dark Knight comes sort of close, also.

Glenn said...

Yeah, no masterpieces yet for Nolan. Memento has definitely subsided in my mind since the start of the decade and Insomnia was never that strong to begin with. I really adored The Prestige and perhaps even prefer it to both of the Batman movies. Definitely looking forward to Inception, although could Leonardo DiCaprio really be starring in two movies in a 6mth span that have to deal with stuff "inside the mind". I haven't seen Shutter Island but that's sorta what it appears to be and Inception is all about "the mind is the scene of the crime". Hmmm.

GJB said...

I think no masterpieces is a bit of a joke.
And so is Avatar.

notanotherblog said...

My Nolan masterpiece is The Prestige. Such a flawless mind fuck of a movie, just the way I like it.

Daniel Armour said...

I seldom call any film a masterpiece so I'd say Memento is Nolan's closest thing to that title. This isn't a knock against Nolan, however, as he was my second favorite filmmaker of last decade and is definitely a filmmaker I look up to in terms of my own aspirations.

To make a long story short, I'm a big fan of his work; with Memento, The Prestige and The Batman Films being among my favorite films (Memento being in the Top Ten or Twenty). Wasn't a big fan of Insomnia, though, and Following was an okay first film but little more than that. I can't wait to see Inception, by the way. I don't have a clue what it's about but that's what makes it so appealing.

Mike Lippert said...

I guess I`ll play Devil`s Advocate: Memento is not a masterpiece. It is an interesting, entertaining, modern day film noir told backwards. Don`t think there is much more to it than that. It`s still enjoyable though.

Henry said...

I would qualify Insomnia as Better than you remember it. Recently rewatched it and was surprised at how tense the situation was made and how Nolan turned the standard detective thriller on its head. Hopefully, Inception does the same.

I really think that, while I consider The Dark Knight to be a true masterpiece, I'd include The Prestige in that category. Each time I see the film, it gets better and better. I understand it better with each viewing. Plus, Memento doesn't qualify as masterpiece?

Jef said...

Am I the only one who's cool on Nolan's Batman flicks? But yes, I love Memento and The Prestige. The latter one is so underrated.

Anonymous said...

No Jef - I'm not a fan of the Batman movies either.. I'm sure you'd find plenty more like us too. I think The Prestige is my favorite Nolan film. It just seems more polished than the others (I guess considering the plot, it needs to be..)

Robert - I love these Modern Maestro pieces :D keep em coming..

sandra said...

voww.... Christopher on top...what a brilliant films he makes.i found top 10 thriller and he on top
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