We need to talk about Christopher

I haven’t yet seen Interstellar. I’m definitely curious about the film and looking forward to it – I’m still as much a sucker for gorgeous space imagery as I was back when I was eight years old and had a poster of the solar system and its planets on my bedroom wall. At the same time, I have to admit to some apprehension, and that’s due to two things: Christopher Nolan and his fans. There’s a lot of hyperbole about Nolan and his films, just as there is too much criticism that dismisses his films, or patronises them, due to his making genre cinema. It’s difficult to find discussion of, say, The Dark Knight or Inception that doesn’t treat the films as either cinematic masterpieces or as hollow and derivative, as the sort of genre movies that let some sci-fi and superhero fans go, “Look? That’s brainy, isn’t it? The genre’s all grown up now?” At its worst, Nolan fetishism brings forth silliness such as proclaiming the director the new Kubrick.

I like Nolan’s films, even The Dark Knight Returns for all its flaws. Nolan has proven that he’s a skilled, smart director who knows how to handle his material well. He’s also deeply flawed: several of his films, for all their complicatedness, aren’t actually all that complex. He’s too enamoured of Big Questions that aren’t actually all that big or relevant, and that have been done before. Nolan likes a bit of the good old “… ah, but is it?” at the end of his films, but try to answer those questions and there’s not all that much there. That spinning top in Inception, the question whether at the end of the film Cobb is still in the dream? That twist is already there in the film’s premise – it’s predictable. Similarly, Memento‘s conundrum concerning Sammy Jankis’ identity? It’s a twist too far, an example of Nolan not trusting his film to have made the same point about Leonard’s malleable identity in the absence of memory already, taking it to near-absurdity. If Nolan’s films, and especially his scripts, insisted less on their apparent depth (which often totters on the border to pompousness), they’d actually make a more convincing case for being deeper than your general genre fare. As it is, through his films Nolan doth protest too much that he’s making grown-up films for grown-up people with grown-up brains.

There’s something else that Nolan doesn’t do all that well, and that’s action sequences. Given the right conceit, his action can be amazing: look at the hotel fight in Inception, divorced from gravity. In the same film, though, you get the sub-Bondian mountain action, which is dull and generic. Look at The Dark Knight‘s truck sequence and it’s a confusing mess of direction, cinematography and editing, while the Heat-with-clowns intro works tremendously well. I remember seeing The Dark Knight at the cinema and loving some scenes while wondering in others whether we were being shown a version of the film edited (and badly at that) to be shown on planes.

At the same time, Nolan does excel at doing films about men who make convoluted plans to avoid facing the emotional wrecks they are. Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception: in all of these, Nolan finds striking images and interactions to show his protagonists’ helplessness and the lengths to which they go to deny just how lost they are. To my mind, these themes are much more interesting than yet another treatise on what is real and what is a dream, or that central question that mankind has faced for centuries: whether Batman can be broken. Nolan has been accused of making cold films that are thin when they try to be emotional, and I don’t think sentiment is something he does well, either as a director or as a writer: but give him characters, especially men, who don’t know how to deal when faced with their own failure and loss, and he’s riveting. This is a director who should do a modern version of the Orpheus myth – if he hasn’t already done so in various ways. His Orpheus, when told he cannot look back, would be likely to construct an ingenious device of smoke, mirrors and cameras to trick Hades, without ever realising that Eurydice is gone for good.

As I said at the beginning, I’m curious about Interstellar, and I’m sure it’ll be a visual triumph. The trailer worries me, though; it looks like Nolan is making his Contact, complete with daddy issues. I’m not sure I trust him as a director to handle sentiment head-on: he’s no Spielberg, and even Spielberg isn’t always up to the task. Nolan has been best so far when he had his characters approach emotion at oblique angles, because they’re rarely good at handling them. At his best, there’s an understated but effective undercurrent of emotion in his films. I’m very much hoping that Interstellar will prove more The Prestige than Contact, and that he didn’t try to be both Kubrick and Spielberg at the same time. It didn’t work for Spielberg either when he did A.I.

P.S.: For anyone else who has a yen for astronomy porn, there’s the upcoming game Elite: Dangerous. In space, no one can hear you become speechless at the sight of all those planetary rings.

It’s all backwards

Chinese boxes? Fuggedaboutit!

Last evening’s session on film analysis went well, and the students enjoyed it too. It made me want to do an entire course on the subject. It also made me want to watch all three movies again.

Of the three, Memento is the one that startled me most when I first saw it. It’s intricately structured and plotted, but beyond this it’s beautifully presented, with a sparse melancholy and occasional absurd humour that strengthen it into something more than a well made puzzle.

It’s also got a fantastic, disorienting first scene that acted as the perfect hook for me. I got the impression that it also did so for the students yesterday; they seemed quite frustrated at me stopping the film after roughly seven and a half minutes. Well, guys, it’s in the department DVD library, I think – and if it isn’t, just pester one of the staff members ’till they get it. After all, someone also got the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the department, which justifies many an additional purchase, I think (Perhaps they could get Crossroads, that Britney Spears movie, scripted by Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy fame.)

I liked the effects of reverse chronology in storytelling, if done well. Memento definitely makes good use of having two narrative strands, one in normal chronological sequence, the other one reversed, putting us in Leonard’s shoes: we never know what went before, just like he can’t remember. It’s a structural strategy that’s also highly effective, and moving, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. (I’ve just read that there’s a Seinfeld episode, “The Betrayal”, that has the same structure and makes multiple references to Pinter – gotta see that one!) The focus is shifted from “What happens next?” to “Why did this happen?” I wouldn’t necessarily want my Die Hard or Aliens told in reverse chronology, of course, but every so often I get tired of “What happens next?” – mainly because what happens next isn’t all that exciting.

P.S.: It’ll be interesting to see what sort of visitors the tag list will bring in. Welcome, one and all! Even Britney Spears fans! And aliens, I guess.

Those who can’t, teach…

I’m about to be off and teach a two-hour colloquium on film studies. I’ve never studied the subject, but somehow the person who asked me to teach the session thought that a) having  a PhD in English and American Literature, b) being a film nut (and having 400+ DVDs to prove it) and c) having an opinion on everything qualifies me for this.

Hurm, as a certain psycho superhero might say.

Anyway, since I have to make a few last notes, I’m going to have to make this short. I’ll be analysing extracts from three films with them: The Talented Mr Ripley, Fight Club and Memento. Having re-watched the beginning of those three films, I was reminded again why I liked them so much in the first place. Ripley got a bad rap with some critics, but I still find it one of Anthony Minghella’s, Matt Damon’s and Jude Law’s finest movies. And for those who think the film lacks tension, I thought I could put a highly spoilerish excerpt in the blog. Those who haven’t seen the film yet, don’t click on the clip lest you do so at your own peril!

However, I don’t want to leave you with murder and mayhem (or soap – sorry, wrong movie…!), so here’s another, more peaceful clip from the same film. Dunno what it is about the song, but I always get an urge to snap my fingers and tap my feet when I hear it. Enjoy!

It happened at the movies… (3)

(… although technically that should be (4), since my entry on The Departed was also part of this tightly plotted, carefully laid out series. Ah well.)

I wish I could remember the title of this movie…

Christopher Nolan made an impression on me with his second film, Memento, which I thought clever, affecting and fascinating. Insomnia, his follow-up, didn’t do much for me, well crafted and acted tough as it was. It didn’t have the conviction of the Norwegian original, sitting uncomfortably between Hollywood thriller and harsh morality play.

The Prestige is probably Nolan’s best film since Memento. His reboot of the Batman franchise was good and intelligent, but its plot was predictable. The Prestige, a film about 2+ rival magicians at the turn of the century is at least as cleverly conceived and told as his amnesia thriller. Judging from the plot of the original novel (as given on Wikipedia), the film adaptation has been changed quite a bit, so it’s all the more surprising and impressive to find such an intricately structured, yet elegantly executed plot in the movie.

What struck me most was Nolan’s witty use of repeated motifs that, in a second viewing, might look like obvious hints at the twists in the movie. Every element is carefully laid out, and the film plays fair, yet when the viewer thinks he’s figured it out and smugly leans back, chances are he’ll realise half an hour later that he’s underestimated Nolan’s Chinese box.

And apart from The Prestige‘s cleverness (which has a slightly arch quality to it, just as some of the voiceovers), there’s something admirably goofy about casting David Bowie as an aging Nicholas Tesla, perhaps the truest magician of the piece yet the least mysterious, least self-dramatising character in the film.

Is there life after Mars?