Moving Pictures
Jul 04, 2023, 06:29AM

An Oppenheimer in the Family

On the films and preoccupations of Christopher Nolan.

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On March 6th, 2005, American financier Robert Cohen was abducted in San Jose, Costa Rica by a man with the alias “Matthew Oppenheimer.” On March 10th, Cohen’s body was discovered by Costa Rican authorities, apparently succumbing to injuries sustained during tortures and beatings. It was alleged that this was revenge by Florida gem merchant Robert Breska, who believed Cohen had stolen more than $5 million from him. This would come to light in February 2009 when the FBI arrested the man going by the name of “Oppenheimer,” although it wasn’t until later that a jailbreak attempt would make the headlines: “Holy Busted Jailbreak, Batman!” and “Batman Director's Brother Sentenced.”

Matthew Nolan, the eldest of three brothers is the least famous, with the youngest, Jonathan, a successful screenwriter and showrunner, and the middle brother, Christopher one of the most unique of the $100 million+ directors working in Hollywood today. He’s also releasing what advertising is hyping as one of the biggest movies of the summer, Oppenheimer, which has nothing to do with the nom de guerre his older brother chose to trick his hit into thinking he was a member of the South African family that runs the De Beers Diamond Consortium. Strangest of all, Matthew doesn’t have much to do with Christopher—at least not as far as his movies are concerned. He’s an anecdote in an empty ocean.

How can that be? Is it guilt or trauma that Nolan isn’t yet ready to explore, or merely a family secret, an embarrassment in an otherwise successful collective? Auteurism is a theoretical approach often criticized for the shortcomings of how much could really be revealed about a person based on not just what they’re interested in, but the narrow works they’ve been able to express those interests in. When examining Nolan over multiple films, a number of preoccupations always reiterate, and yet nothing genuinely informative about the filmmaker or the world in which the films exist seems concretely gleanable. In fact, most criticism regarding the themes of Nolan’s work are more interested in extrapolation rather than examination.

There’s something disorienting at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s films, and it has nothing to do with weaving narratives or high concepts. Instead, it has everything to do with an authentic physicality being at odds with ultimately abstract puzzle box exercises of the films’ structures, and their use of psychological archetype in place of character. It’s this disharmony of the physical and mental, both as could be understood from the films themselves but also Nolan’s relation to them, that create an unintentionally distanced experience in an attempt to build a kind of experiential cinema. This is part one of a three-part series examining the inescapable contradictions within Nolan’s work. First, I’m going to look at Nolan and his films not as detached museum objects, but as what exists within context—products of the real world that somehow, despite their filming methods, don’t seem related to the real world at all. In part two I’ll examine the experiential cinema that Nolan is trying to make, as well as the craft behind it, versus what actually is felt through the final products. Part three will circle back around, applying how the machinations of the films actually do or don’t tell stories, and what, if anything, we’re left with. But first, some context.

There’s an aphorism that Michael Mann throws out from time-to-time that there are two types of filmmakers from Chicago: ones from the inner city, like him and William Friedkin, who make the hard-hitting stuff, and then there’s the kids from the suburbs, embodied by John Hughes, who make comedies. Oddly, this would place Mann’s friend and aspirant Nolan in the latter category. While born in London to a British ad executive father, his mother was a flight attendant from Evanston, Illinois. The Nolan boys had their upbringing split back and forth between London and the States, in particular Evanston when Nolan was in his formative pre-teen years. Firmly Hughes country (Sixteen Candles was shot there in ‘83) Nolan would live a comfortable upper-middle class life, riding his bike around with friends all summer in a place he found “liberating.” When Nolan did go into the city, it wasn’t the urban collapse that went on to inspire Hill Street Blues or the dingier parts of Gotham in Batman Begins, he’d only see that through car windows. He was captivated by the sprawling modernist masterpieces of the downtown architecture.

Chicago would also present the young Nolan with a fork in the road of identity: whether to be American or British? His younger brother Jonathan (or Jonah as the family calls him) chose to conform his accent to something more suitable for the local school system, whereas Christopher chose the opposite path—British boarding school. While usually seen as a proto-Orwellian institution, boarding school suited Nolan. The place he called a “Darwinian environment” was one of rigorous systems, and whereas the more rebellious types might’ve found its extraordinary methods of discipline and punishment cruel, Nolan found its rules a game to be mastered. It’s no surprise that this boy would develop a storytelling style that’s more grounded in logical calculus than human emotion.

And it’s even more telling that his biggest takeaways from boarding school were an appreciation for its aesthetics and systems but no analysis towards either’s effects. There’s the superficial element, he will always have a penchant for old-world neo-gothic to stand in contrast to mid-century and brutalist modernism, but it’s just that, superficial. His filmic environments are often bereft of anything beyond the foregrounded. Nolan’s mise-en-scène is direct and functional, not out of ideological conviction but an apparent distrust that an audience could keep up with much else. No matter if he’s filming a neo-gothic manor or a glassy modern apartment, the environments themselves feel like wallpaper, they’re nothing beyond the most immediate meaning.

Possibly the most perfect Nolan space is the post-modern Batcave in The Dark Knight, an expansive concrete room lit wall-to-wall by fluorescent lights that turn on whenever someone enters, animating the big, empty room ex vacuo. There are no sharp details to it, and its contents are always fluid, filling itself with whatever gadgets the protagonist needs at that given moment. It’s less a physical space than a psychological one, a place where internal considerations become external conversations. It’s an unreal space, but then again, so is everything outside of it. Glassy skyscrapers, industrial ruins, expansive valleys in the far-off, ancient mountains—they’re all unpopulated. The environments may really be there in front of the camera, not some CGI morphing the world into the vision the filmmaker chooses, it’s just the filmmaker chooses a strangely desolate approach.

When Nolan shoots the beaches in Dunkirk, they’re empty. There’s a few columns of soldiers standing around on the white shores of a nice European town. It’s not the chaos of 400,000 men crammed into the tide waiting to find out if they’re to be obliterated like in the real historic event; it’s a weird limbo, not unlike the strange beaches of collapsing brutalist towers at the center of the subconscious in Inception. Limbo in Inception is an infinite lucid dream state, one we’re led to believe is the place where the imagination is limitless and all creation is possible, and Nolan chooses to create an ever-repeating series of modernist skyscrapers. All his landscapes embody this order, whether that’s the precise planning of the streets of Paris or jagged badlands of glaciers, everything exists with this kind of atomic order.

When making Dunkirk, Nolan references using German photographer Andreas Gursky as a visual guide. Nolan was drawn to Gursky’s way of obscuring individuals into these massive, terrifying crowds as inspiration for the soldiers huddled on the causeways that jut out to the sea known as “moles,” with thousands queued up to find out whether they’ll live or die. Gursky’s images are in many ways the opposite side of Nolan’s expansive images, where Nolan’s are orderly and barren, Gurksy’s are crowded, noisy, and always have detail ripping through their patterns. Those crowded men on the moles don’t have individuality shine through like they would in Gursky, they’re all instances of the same thing repeated. It’s not lost on Nolan; in an interview conducted for Tom Shone’s book on the filmmaker, The Nolan Variations, Nolan talks explicitly about this approach to an empty mise-en-scène, “The films I grew up appreciating were all about clutter and layer and texture… [Dunkirk] was always going to have to be very, very minimalist and stark, more about abstract imagery.”

One of the more overlooked keystones to Nolan’s spatial mindset is the work of the Brothers Quay, the eccentric pair of stop-motion filmmakers whose cinema exists out of any space or time. Animation is a term that for them can be applied both literally to what they do and symbolically, often bringing to life objects that have been exhumed from a Victorian child’s nightmarish and dusty bedroom. Importantly, these films usually exist within a confined space, whether that’s in the “wooden esophagus” of Street of Crocodiles or the black void surrounding the stage in This Unnameable Little Broom, their visions don’t leak into the outside world but instead are contained. Nolan’s films also take place in these kinds of voids, although instead of filming tiny constructions they’re often shot on real locations, lending his abstraction an unintentional surrealism at odds with itself. It’s simultaneously real and unreal, patterned like geometry but arranged with humans. This is how Nolan sets a stage, with systems as rigorous as a boarding school, but with jarring flares of the unpredictable real world shining through it. What he does on this stage is attempt to create an experience that is anything but abstract, but the level of success he reaches is an open question.

Part 1 of a 3 part series, read Part 2 and Part 3 here.


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