Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Directors: Recent memories

So, I thought I might look at a director who's been more relevant recently. There are certain people who stick with me out of a sense of nostalgia, in that they were the first to really open my eyes to a certain style or approach in filmmaking. I haven't become as attached to many in more recent years because, in many ways, the Hollywood approach has continued to further poison the well of American cinema (get off my lawn.) There are, of course, standouts as there always have been and Christopher Nolan is one of those.

From his insider-hailed debut, Following, to his groundbreaking wide-release hit, Memento, to the blockbuster Batman films, and through to his pet project, Inception, Nolan has demonstrated again and again that he's not only willing to take risks with his stories and his audience, but to do so with an excellent sense of style.

My first exposure to Nolan was via Memento, which I saw mostly for Guy Pearce, who was great in LA Confidential (and who possesses much the same flair as Nolan; while the film, Lockout, was a rather dreadful re-imagining of Carpenter's Escape from New York, this trailer has everything that you can ask from an actor in Pearce), as I had no idea whom the director was. The story was co-written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, from an idea by the latter. Jonathan would go on to co-write most of Nolan's projects and Christopher's wife, Emma Thomas, would also frequently co-produce them with him through their company. Memento is a story about a man whose head injuries render him unable to form new memories, so he's forced to rely on flashbacks to events that took place prior to his injury and a series of markers and notes that he leaves to himself every time he wakes up. Consequently, the story can't be told in a normal linear progression, but has to be relayed out of sequence and, largely, backwards. This in itself requires a great deal of trust between the director and his audience. The fact that Nolan was doing so with his first major release bespeaks someone who has great confidence in his own vision; an aspect that he has continued to reinforce throughout his career.

In the following scene, we're just getting introduced to the chaos that is Lenny's life, as he acts in ways that seem familiar but which have little foundation for him. He fails to understand much of what is going on, which places him in the same boat with the audience, but the method by which it's portrayed is just intriguing enough to keep most hanging on for the ride:

The shift from black-and-white to color, the lighting changes, the isometric viewpoint; all of these are part of Nolan's style of storytelling, so that you can often tell where you are in his films without having to listen to dialogue or have any groundwork laid by exposition. They're also redolent with a comic book-esque approach, which probably explains some of his appeal to me. The importance of memories and how they can be shaped and used is also a theme that Nolan explores in great detail in his other films and, again, is a topic of some considerable interest to me.

In 2005, Nolan launched what would become a trilogy of films with Batman Begins. Obviously, the character has become archetypal in its own right and has been the subject of various media for the past half-century. Rather than overload the character with his own stylistic interpretation a la Tim Burton, Nolan decided to return to the roots of the character and expand on them. In doing so, he borrowed heavily from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and some of the classic storylines laid down in Steve Englehart's eight issue run on Detective Comics in the mid-70s which has long been lauded as "the definitive Batman" and was used in development for Burton's first film. Nolan's determination to explore the psychological motivations of a man who, with the world at his feet, would dress up as a bat and beat people senseless in order to combat his own personal demons is another example of his willingness to depart from the standard and focus on the mind of his characters. His representation of the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) as more psychiatrist than super-villain is an example of that same approach:

Nothing much happens in this scene other than people standing around looking at the ceiling. Just the same, the tension is thick and we never get tired of waiting for something to happen. Nolan's grasp of the material was stronger than any director of the Batman to date, as he was willing to use some relatively arcane details from the character's past (Ra's al Ghul was, until recent years, a relatively unknown villain even to Batman readers; certainly not in the same class as the Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, etc.) Also, he demonstrated his own knowledge of the character by having others refer to him as THE Batman, which makes him more force than human, which is the whole point.

What followed was the most well-received superhero film made to date (although The Avengers may have changed the equation): The Dark Knight. The interesting thing about it is that I don't think it's quite as strong a film as Batman Begins. Christian Bale's performance is a bit on the contrived side, but that's certainly outweighed by Heath Ledger's stunning turn as The Joker. The script is actually more interesting and less linear than the first film, but we're also handed far more and larger explosions and fireworks and gadgets. So, everything is kind of ramped up and it seems like that makes the movie lose a bit of the soul that it had with Begins. But, by the same token, The Dark Knight moves in ways that Begins simply couldn't and the tight pacing and delivery of Nolan's signature style is still plainly evident, as in the opening scene:

Everything works in this scene. The mysterious and ominous music; the rapid but seamless transitions; the exposition presented as shop talk amongst the thieves; and the final, "anti-ironic" (the face behind the mask is still the mask) appearance of The Joker. This is Nolan at his best: it's an action scene for an action film, but shown with so many intriguing hooks that the audience is left wanting more and laughing at the audacity of what is, at its root, a simple bank heist. The same kind of touch holds true in the first clip that began the post; the famous "pencil trick" scene. While, again, I think Batman Begins may have been the better overall film, I think Dark Knight had the better script and the more interesting (and elaborate) story, the credit for which, of course, goes to the director. While it's often an open question as to whether an actor's performance is of his/her own creation or is inspired by the director or both, I think some credit has to go to Nolan being able to extract a performance from Ledger that I thought he was largely incapable of making before I'd seen the film. It was one of the worst moments in recent film history when we discovered that the actor would not be able to reprise this role or continue with any other.

Making a complex story function for the general audience was a hallmark of the other film Nolan released in 2006: The Prestige. While I think the performances were average for most of the cast other than Michael Caine and Bale, the intimacy of the emotional struggles between the two competing magicians was portrayed well and fell short of melodrama most of the time, even if the nominal lead, Hugh Jackman, isn't a strong enough actor to convey all of the intensity that I think his role required. The great camera work of the following scene was emblematic:

As the film audience, we're behind the scenes for much of the story, so we stay intimate with the characters via the handheld camera as Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen prepare to sell the illusion. This is different from this scene, when we're left wondering how Bale's character pulls off his new trick and are, thus, left in the audience. Bale's properly emotionless performance leaves us distant as, for his character, it's all about the mechanics. OTOH, in the Jackman trick, the response is the thing, so we spend a few seconds below the stage while he tries to drink in the applause that should be his. Again, the contrast in lighting and music for the two scenes shows off Nolan's storytelling approach, in that both could be shown almost absent of dialogue and still convey the meaning that the director wants. (It's unfortunate, of course, that the latter scene misses the prestige...)

Finally, we come to Inception. Nolan had written a treatment for the concept in 2001, but felt he needed more experience in production before approaching a project his ambitious (this from the man who presented Memento as his second film...) It's interesting to find someone with that much restraint. There are numerous stories of films that have been sitting in a drawer for years on end because the person wanting to produce them didn't have the right conditions (typically a studio willing to take the project, such as Robert Duvall's The Apostle, which he wrote in the 80s and which finally hit the screen in 1997.) But there are few films that were held back because the producer, with solid credit and support to his name (and a writer and co-producer in the family), was conscious of his own potential flaws. It resonates with me the same way that the story about Orson Scott Card's Ender series does; in which Card had the concept for the third book, Xenocide, well before considering Ender's Game. On the advice of his agent, he decided that he wasn't mature enough as a writer to do the former and, thus, wrote the latter to huge critical appraisal and success.

Inception, of course, is almost solely based on the mind and how it functions. Oneirology and its use in fiction has been a favored topic of mine in similar bent to Nolan's approach. The fact that he chose to combine it with a tense story of corporate espionage markedly similar to William Gibson's New Rose Hotel (which uses the theft of people who have the "edge" gene) but takes it one step further into ideas made it an instant draw to me. Once again, Nolan takes a complex plot and makes it easily understandable for those that are willing to listen (the question of how many appreciated the film for its story rather than its stunning action sequences is up for debate.) Even in scenes that demand exposition, the overall feeling of tension and moodiness in the film is maintained by the anguish and intensity of the lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, as in this scene:

Capable performances by DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and Tom Hardy sell a scene that is a completely foreign concept to most audiences but which feels more natural after it's explained to them (just like a dream?) Inception also had the most frequent examples of a director's conceit that Nolan displays often in previous films: a love for wide-angle establishing shots (big halls, theaters, warehouses, Batcaves, etc.) They serve this film because of the magnitude of the idea that he was trying to convey. While there is some room to criticize Inception for the rapid pace and trend toward explosions even while dealing with a very dense and cerebral (heh) topic (in the same way that the Dark Knight could be criticized for not spending even more time with the fascinating Joker and, instead, spending millions on Batpods and rocket launchers), I think Nolan made the decision to keep the action fairly frenetic for fear of losing the audience that would find a lecture on the meaning of dreams soporific, to say the least. It reminds me of Rick Veitch's venture from innovative work on titles like Swamp Thing and his own Bratpack into meandering around the meaning of his own dreams with Rare Bit Fiends. Incorporating those ideas into other stories would be great. Trying to make a story out of random symbolism and personal anecdotes relevant only to close friends is about as interesting as it sounds. While Nolan could have gone more in a Philip K. Dick direction with the story, I think he made the right choice with a story less about ethical choices than about mysteries that we're all still trying to unravel.

Needless to say, I'm excited about seeing The Dark Knight Rises in a few weeks to see if Nolan continued in the direction of more slam-bang or instead brought the trilogy to a close with a more introspective story about the impact of the character's motivation on the world around him (something which has been handled with lesser and greater acumen by writers of the Batman since the 1930s.) Regardless, I have a hard time seeing how I'll be disappointed. Nex time, I think I'll go back into the past with another "fallen hero", as it were.

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