Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Another Look at Christopher Nolan: Genius or Master of Contrivance (or both)?

With Inception working its way toward number one on the list of this summer’s blockbusters, Christopher Nolan is, for the moment, the world’s hottest director. As someone who expects great things whenever I see Nolan’s name attached to a film, and have yet to be disappointed, I guess I must also be a fan. But after last week, I have begun to wonder just how good Nolan really is.

Nolan’s fame started ten years ago with Memento. After watching (and loving) Memento, I immediately got hold of Nolan’s previous film, Following, a short film which, in its own way, seemed worthy of a director like Nolan – dark, twisting and engrossing. Then came Nolan’s remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia, starring Robin Williams, which was quite good for an American remake, followed by a rather brilliant and hugely popular revisioning of Batman called Batman Begins. The Prestige came shortly thereafter and I also enjoyed it very much, though I have a knack for immediately seeing through disguises and this lessened the surprise factor for me. Nevertheless, it was another worthy Nolan film and certainly fit his dark and twisted mould. Then came The Dark Knight, yet another dark and twisted outing, which got so many great reviews that I felt compelled to like it. And now we have the possibly brilliant Inception, which blew me away on first viewing. All of Nolan’s films got at least ***+ from me and two of them got ****, so for me Nolan is as consistent a filmmaker as they come. His films are intelligent and complex thrillers, a favourite genre of mine (yeah, I know, it probably means I’m rather dark and twisted myself), so I look forward with anticipation to whatever he is doing next.

But then, last week, between viewings of Inception, I decided to watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (only the second time I have seen the latter). I wasn’t surprised by how much I still liked Batman Begins (Batman was always my favourite superhero as a child) but I was surprised at how disappointed I was with The Dark Knight. I found many scenes distasteful and inexcusably violent (especially for a PG film) and found the darkness anything but compelling. In the brief reviews I wrote about The Dark Knight, I can recognize an undercurrent of uncertainty about my appreciation for the film, and I complained a lot about the action scenes, but the WOW factor kept me from complaining too much. With my second viewing, however, I can clearly identify what had bothered me the first time (there are hints of this in my earlier reviews), namely that the convoluted plot makes absolutely no sense. I remember commenting on how much I disliked the big underground action scene in the film, but did not clearly state why I disliked it, which is that it is utterly ludicrous. It is based on the most intricate of plans of both Batman and The Joker, plans that rely on endless unpredictable factors and are therefore completely useless. None of those plans had even a 1% chance of succeeding and yet both plans somehow succeeded in their own way (a chance of about a hundred billion to one). And this time I noticed that this ludicrous planning is found throughout The Dark Knight. Because I sensed this subconsciously as I watched, I kept shaking my head in what I thought was confusion. But it wasn’t confusion; it was a feeling that things did not make sense based on a gut reaction to the intricate but impossible level of planning throughout. In film critic jargon, we like to use the word ‘contrived’ to describe a film which strays too far beyond believability. The Dark Knight is, in its own way, the most contrived film I can recall, and yet where are all the reviews which point to this?

Thinking back to Batman Begins, I was able to find many examples of similar contrived plot elements, but they were more subtle and I was able to overlook most of them, at least before re-watching The Dark Knight. Needless to say, when I went to my second viewing of Inception, I was alert for signs of this flaw in Nolan’s Batman films. Did I find these signs? Does a bear ... (you know the rest)? By the very nature of Inception’s dream plot device, it is absolutely teaming with intricate plans, especially in the last half of the film. Because the film is so overwhelming (in this case, so WOW), and because of the fact that we are dealing with dreams, it is much harder to be bothered by these plans, but because I was watching for them, I found them quite distracting. I certainly enjoyed the film less the second time around, despite understanding it better (as opposed to, say, Star Wars, which I watched four times in one day (the first day) and enjoyed as much each time, despite its countless flaws).

One could correctly argue that most films have contrived plots and that the secret is to minimize this and find a way to not draw attention to it. If one is dealing with an inherently unbelievable superhero story, one has to work even harder at making the plot imaginable. The fact that critics have not highlighted the contrived plots in Nolan’s films suggests he has succeeded. But I found the plot of The Dark Knight completely unimaginable (ludicrous, as I said) and have therefore lost interest in the film. And I am now led to wonder whether Nolan’s films will stand the test of time. To do this, they have to offer something deeper than just thrills. At first glance I thought the Batman films did this (e.g. with their treatment of means and ends and the various emotional struggles Bruce Wayne goes through, with the help of his two wise counsellors, Caine and Freeman). But even here I have begun to wonder how much we can learn from these potentially thought-provoking themes. The same is true with Nolan’s others films. Inception forced me to think about dreams and the subconscious but how much did it really offer by way of insight. I have tried to start discussions about Fischer and his father and what we can learn about ourselves and psychotherapy through that central plot element, but it fizzled out fast both times.

I am now going to go back and watch the rest of Nolan’s films again (needless to say, I own all of them) to see if Christopher Nolan’s genius is deeper than knowing how to make the kind of absorbing thriller which will bring in the masses. I’m not giving up hope, and I’m still grateful that he’s making intelligent thrillers, but I’m worried that real substance may be lacking and that Nolan’s genius lies in covering up his ludicrous plots with overwhelming complexity.

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