Monday, January 25, 2021

Christopher Nolan: The ‘That’s Clever’ Director

Christopher Nolan is the epitome of the That’s Clever director. Everyone knows and most acknowledge his strengths, so I’ll get that out of the way before this critique: he and his brother make a solid writing team, he’s visionary, his visual world-building and technical expertise is nearly unmatched, this all makes him one of the best prolific directors of the last 25 years, and his movies are interesting even when they fail, as they’re aiming high enough to make an engrossing spectacle.

Chris is brilliant but also boring, seemingly suffering from the same sort of issues as Alfred Hitchcock, in that his technical expertise didn’t necessarily correlate to strong story-telling. In Tenet, often called the most “Nolan” Nolan film, clearly all but his most devoted fans are going to have a problematic viewing experience. I wonder what motivates him. No one doubts Christopher Nolan is clever and can make a picture. I wonder if it’s as obvious and opaque as intellectual vanity. I question if Nolan’s real talent doesn’t lie more in marketing, not only of his movies, but of himself. Most care less about the movie promo than the fact he’s directed it, some refusing to watch trailers at all and having faith in the brand itself.

It’s clear from the critical and fan response people are less interested in his latest films. Tenet and Dunkirk’s most impressive accomplishment might be their exclusion in the IMDb top 250. If in the general population it’s well-understood Nolan is the holy grail, it stands to reason Nolan’s only remaining competition is Nolan, and hence the “most Nolan” praise (or criticism) is the natural conclusion as we reach Total Nolan: a Nolan film only Nolan himself, if that, can appreciate. It’s a real possibility. Tarkovsky, often touted as Russia’s Kubrick, created an almost entirely personal and autobiographical film titled The Mirror—it’s meditative and visual qualities make it a curious watch but the disconnect of the performer-audience relationship makes it vacuous. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan’s next project is similar, to try to tackle the lack of emotion and sterility of most of his films and try to capture a personal story and nostalgia through his rigorous use of time manipulation and precision. Undeservedly, he’s overlooked by the Academy, but also I understand a reluctance toward movies that appear indifferent to and detached from audiences. Part of this is explained in a brilliant YT video titled “Christopher Nolan’s Exposition Problem,” pointing out the dialogue in his movies often deadens the story-telling, leaving you nowhere to wonder, spelling out every minute detail before you can question it yourself.

 There’s often a missing human element. This divide is the pronounced difference between story-driven and character-driven movies. In being exercises in cleverness, I don’t care for the characters in The Prestige, Tenet, or Inception. They are no different than human set-pieces, the machinations necessary for enabling more stunning visuals. Even in Dunkirk there’s a detachment, each character and their motivations seems randomized and anonymous, and I recognize some value in depicting the valuelessness and facelessness in a war story. Do you care about Cobb seeing his kids, or Cobb seeing his kids allowing you to see some cool shit? Most people are so immersed in only the spectacle they fail to see the target in Inception is actually Cobb, years after its release. And yes, in that there’s a depth of cleverness, but that’s it. It doesn’t enhance the characters themselves or nor does it hint at anything profound. It simply makes it a better crossword puzzle, a better celluloid escape room, a better $10,000 puzzle box to solve on Youtube.

If Chris Nolan films were Youtube videos

Of course, any mention of Nolan that doesn’t acknowledge his material as next to godliness seems to inspire groveling fanboy backlash. But this criticism’s only aim is to offer alignment in how his work is perceived. The Kubrick comparisons are ludicrous. Yes, in a world with an increasingly diminished capacity for attention span the appeal is understandable. But this surface-level reaction does seem for people who haven’t seen a lot of films. You can’t have seen the story-telling efforts of Kieslowski, Kurosawa, Bergman, Miyazaki, Tarkovsky, and look at them in the same way. The antithesis of his work is probably 80s Albert Brooks movies, seeing the world through small subjects and keen insights on interpersonal relationships—an atomic approach to story-telling which is somehow more ambitious and telling. This is the counterpoint to Nolan’s galactic, bigger-picture approach where characters are tertiary. Perhaps that’s why they don’t completely work. When humans are secondary, and the zoomed-out, cosmic take of story-telling is in the foreground, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s so much we don’t know the only acceptable substitute might be the mysterious. So, by comparison, in 2001 you have the ambiguity of the stargate and the starchild, and with Interstellar you have the incredible tesseract setpiece and visual experience juxtaposed with the unfortunate voiceover of a robot explaining everything, an otherworldly sequence with the human element shoehorned in. This accessibility also placates the human desire for easy answers. It’s almost as if Nolan would be better if he picked a side, instead having a foot in either world. But with this pretense there are such high ambitions, the risk of failure is equally high.

To paraphrase James Watson: In order to break new ground you are almost by definition unqualified to do so.

And that’s my main criticism. With Tenet all his flaws become ever-more apparent. I mean, it’s so bare-bones and indifferent to anything but story mechanics the main character is simply called protagonist. That’s my takeaway for most Nolan films: "Well, that was clever." But that’s it. And that’s fine. But I would love to see his technical expertise in conveying visual events applied to psychological mood and human emotion like Scorsese did in Taxi Driver, or Demme in Silence of the Lambs, or Elem Klimov in Come and See. This too is a relevant factor in technical mastery. Or the use of subtlety and ambiguity like in 2001, the films of P.T. Anderson, Blade Runner, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, etc.. And as I’ve seen the director in recent times since lockdowns swept the world, he’s moving away from Amish attitudes toward media and embracing fans through podcasts and delving into the joys of cynicism by bashing HBO Max and fighting the death of cinema. I await him conspiring for artistic control and against the studios and finally being the fully-realized, god-tier director decades of hype have crowned him.

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