Moving Pictures
Jul 11, 2023, 06:28AM

Feeling Nolan

Christopher Nolan's pedestrian inversions on reality are what make him a populist.

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Perhaps the most common criticism aimed at Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking isn’t the silliness of his storytelling, his boyish worldview, or his over-aggressive faith towards the captured image; it’s that the audience can’t hear a thing the characters are saying. Characters don’t just conceal their faces with masks, but their voices. Tom Hardy’s roles as the big baddy Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and the doomed Spitfire pilot in Dunkirk are the most cited examples, where his voice squeaks through caverns and megaphones or vibrates violently in a fighter plane that feels like it’s held together with staples (many have pointed out these are probably in part inspired by David Lynch’s bug-like transformation of Dennis Hopper Blue Velvet). By the time we get to Tenet, where the characters have to wear masks feeding them inverted oxygen while they move backwards in time, it feels like he’s doing a parody of himself. According to Tom Shone’s biography, when Nolan first presented the Tenet script to his brother Jonah he asked if he was retreading ground, but Jonah assured him the film was more an apotheosis of everything he’d built. Nolan went all-in.

What many critics miss about Nolan’s sound design is it’s one of the director’s favorite parts of filmmaking, and unlike most of his high Hollywood peers he oversees the mix personally. That use of muffled dialogue is an effect—what the characters are saying isn’t as important as the texture of it, the way it becomes part of the symphony of the sounds and scenes. This comes into conflict with the fact that Nolan’s films are very talk-y and explain-y, trying to win a mainstream audience’s favor for concepts like dream-within-a-dream heists and temporal pincer movements. It’s an impossible balance, and Nolan’s films can end up being a simple trick played repeatedly, like in Memento, a condescending experience like in Interstellar, or a film moving too fast to settle into an explanation like with Tenet. However in that film, possibly out of frustration, Nolan gives the audience a plain explanation for how he’s always wanted people to watch his movies: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”

Every aspect of Nolan’s filmmaking, from his large-format film stocks capturing practical visual effects to his industrious sound mixing fusing objective action with subjective musical loops, point towards a director emphasizing experience above all else. It harkens back to the earliest filmmakers, a collection of inventors, magicians, and vaudevillians hawking the latest you’ll-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it show for the wondering eyes of the world. In Nolan there’s a child-like excitement to see a spaceship dwarfed by a massive planet or the way human lifespan interacts with the scale of space-time. They’re often not as heady of concepts as the seriousness of his tone suggests, but his pedestrian inversions on reality are what make him something of a populist.

The come-up of Nolan’s career happened at an opportune time, not because of the way the independent market fed into mainstream filmmaking, but if he had gotten his start a decade later his cinema of experience would’ve fallen on the deaf ears of laptops and Smart TVs, with his name not big enough to fill the theaters he so desperately wants to show in. Nolan has always wanted to make “big” movies, and even now his “small” movies, like the war epic Dunkirk, are big. His first foray into the huge was the start of his Batman trilogy with Begins, whose seriousness and comparatively realist aesthetics would be a paradigm shift for the industry (and would go on to inspire the 2008 Iron Man, itself a catalyst for the horrible paradigm that was solidified by The Avengers), presenting a world not of superheroes, but where ours could have someone transform into one. It’s a nakedly fascistic world, but it’s one that’s visually compelling through its banality, heightening the everyday into a place of possibility for excitement and superheroes. It’s not hard to see how a young Nolan could be driving around downtown Chicago with his family, imagining a Batmobile jumping from car parks to tiled rooftops or slipping past police helicopters on high-speed highway chases, or even him and his younger brother sitting in traffic, entertaining themselves by pretending to blow up cars before Batman brings the fantasy to life as he roars by. Everything about the experience of the Dark Knight trilogy is in service of this feeling because, after all that’s said about his silly comic book movies being “gritty” or “socially relevant,” these are movies made to excite children, and they’re often good at it.

The awe that Nolan offers is somewhat conditional, though, and maybe I didn’t like Dunkirk the first time I saw it on the back of an airplane seat merely because I wasn’t in one of the handful of theaters in North America running horizontal 70mm IMAX film with “resolution” beyond digital comprehension. That immersive soundscape of planes rattling and bullets cracking through old metal is only as good as the speakers you hear it on. Perhaps the problem that people were taking with Nolan’s sound all along is that the elements don’t stand on their own, that they have to be all playing in harmony with each other. It would be wrong to say that film elements have to be complete in and of themselves, but what’s revealed in Nolan’s work is the lack of depth to any of his atomized bits when they’re held on their own, and if one doesn’t work in the symphony (which, again, is dependent on the physical quality of the presentation), then all of the other parts start to give way too.

When Interstellar was first getting released on to home video, in the DVD version the ship traversing Saturn’s orbit completely disappeared in the wide shot and it had to be digitally inserted back in—there was too much awe in scale for it to be translated out of the palaces of the silver screen and into a living room LCD. Six years later Tenet came out to empty theaters at the height of the pandemic. There was a push to get it on to streaming as soon as possible, but Nolan resisted, arguing that it was meant to be seen in the theater. He was right, he more than anyone understands what he’s making, the full experience he’s trying to bring. Yet while a similar big-screen spectacle, Top Gun: Maverick, was delayed a year in order to ensure massive box office returns, Tenet languished in its short run, turning it into the closest thing one of the most successful filmmakers contemporary filmmakers could have to a cult film. Its reputation is a bit of a meme, with the flat delivery of non-sense one-liners like “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago” or the memory-of-a-Bond-film MacGuffin plot, it’s like some strange joke put together in service of a strange yet constantly compelling sensory experience as action moves forwards and backwards at once, and all back again. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”

Nolan doesn’t make IMAX nature films or documentary poetics like another of his heroes (and Lynch’s AFI classmate) Terrence Malick did with Voyage of Time. Nolan’s weapon of choice is the genre film which, while it can be loosely or even hackishly composed, is always meant to deliver a certain kind of reaction out of the audience, one that does necessitate moving from one point to the next, what Nolan struggles with cohering the most. There’s an interesting comparative study to be done between Nolan’s 2002 remake of the 1997 Swedish detective-thriller Insomnia, in which a big city cop heads to a small sub-arctic town trapped in perpetual daylight in search of someone who killed a teenage girl. Nolan’s film is both longer and less intricate, he cuts out any of the ambiguity towards character and narrative in favor of a direct experience. While the original plays around in the meaninglessness of the world, Nolan’s focuses on how its setting of a remote Alaskan town can be a playground for set pieces. One of his additions is a chase sequence where the detective pursues the murderer over a series of logs streaming down an icy river. The detective goes under and enters a world of bass sound and sharp clacks as the massive tree bodies collide with each other and keep him pinned under the surface. It’s incredibly visceral, yet simultaneously a psychological space.

If you watch both versions of Insomnia back-to-back it’ll be clear that one is meant to linger and the other to entertain. There are no open questions or loose threads at the end of Nolan’s film, just a series of set-pieces driven by a tight structure where everything in the physical world exists in service of the internal battle in the protagonist’s head. At its best it’s interesting as a sensory experience, at its worst it’s throwing out anything that made the original compelling and getting too excited about its Twin Peaks-pilot setting and Michael Mann star. Yet while Insomnia may have Al Pacino playing a detective, the influence from Heat extends more little quirks rather than anything of substance. A good way to understand the void in Nolan’s films is by looking at the ways in which he is precisely not the filmmakers by which he’s interested. Pacino’s detective in Insomnia is wracked with guilt that’s personified by the murderer he’s pursuing, a guilt he can only overcome by them both dying, leaving him with redemptive dignity in the end.

Pacino’s detective in Heat, however, and his respective foil aren’t so much psychological mirrors, but two humans that recognize themselves in another that societal position makes them fundamentally at odds with each other. These men don’t have to kill each other out of some narrative completeness, but because that’s what the world and the path they’ve chosen through it forces them to do. They chase each other across the inhuman tarmacs of LAX, dwarfed by a world built by people but not for them. When Christopher Nolan films along the nighttime runways of some distant airport, it’s nothing more than a space for action to occur.

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


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