Thursday, November 13, 2014
Dispassionately and exactingly ranking the films of Christopher Nolan by their utilitarian value, nos. 6-4
The Internet asks, "Is Christopher Nolan the greatest director alive?" And the answer is, "No, of course he's not. Are you high?" But if the question were, instead, "Is Chris Nolan the most consistently excellent director working today?", there are nine films to consider, and the answer might be quite different. (Okay, the point is, I marathoned his movies, and now you're just going to have to deal with it.)
Spoiler alert: well, I don't spoil Interstellar, anyway (certainly at no more than a moderate level)
In the waning days of the species, a group of humans visits a black hole sun, and we are made to understand that all this makes them feel things.
Having just reviewed it, I have little else to say on the subject. So forgive me if I cannibalize myself a little. I taste great.
Interstellar is Chris Nolan's single loudest movie, and I mean that on every level. It is physically loud—not quite painfully, despite my hyperbole, but annoyingly. That's mainly an IMAX sound mix issue, a technical problem, though, that probably doesn't even exist in regular screenings of the film. No, no, as bracing as that sound mix is, Interstellar is thematically and emotionally deafening. Nolan is infamous for shouting his premises, his message, and his characters' feelings from the rooftops—but Interstellar is his brand new megaphone, and he wants to come inside to have a chat with you about how it works.
But there's no use denying that Nolan communicates the beauty of fake outer space in his cosmic compositions. And there's an immediacy to his space action surpassed only by a few other films, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity. And since there are a few minor things I liked in Interstellar that I didn't have the space to mention earlier, I'll do that now. Firstly, I'm always happy to see Topher Grace, bless his heart. He should just be in every movie.
Secondly, the robots TARS and CASE are wonderful, too, weirdly graceful in their clumsiness, if that makes even the beginnings of sense, and so actually fun (in a Chris Nolan movie?!) that one might reasonably wish the whole film were about them. TARS is, almost inarguably, the single best character Interstellar has. The only problem I can even begin to articulate is that the two robots' names are a little dull, especially when anyone with any sense would have named them something like VINZ and MAX, because Interstellar sure as hell doesn't shy away from all its other obvious references... and because, honestly, Interstellar needed to do something to make its naked theft of the HAL 9000 and Monolith iconography used in TARS and CASE's conception go down a bit easier. After all, if Nolan had widened the ambit of his graceless homage to movies of which Interstellar is not a vastly inferior imitation, he might have helped that happen.
I guess I can't even be nice to Interstellar even for a minute, can I? And I'm not well-disposed to be: the most interesting aspect of the film, by far ("Plan B"), is burnt on the dual altars of family values and dumbassed science fantasy spectacle, probably because to have pursued it would have required something like an imagination, which Interstellar doesn't possess. But, don't take my boundless negativity to heart. Interstellar's no wash; it's a very good movie, in spite of its weaknesses. By the end, I'd even stopped caring how ungodly tone-deaf and overwrought it was. Nolan doesn't have anything new or particularly meaningful to say with Interstellar, but, damn it, he's saying it with conviction, and at the least he's earned our attention.
No, the disappointing thing was never that Interstellar turned out bad (though parts of it certainly are) but that it's the first original film of Nolan's professional career that is not great.
5. THE DARK KNIGHT
Batman and his allies Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent are on the eve of victory in their war against crime, but they are forced into a far greater battle when a surprisingly well-organized agent of chaos arrives to challenge Gotham's heroes for command of their city's soul.
It is with with utmost reluctance that I consider The Dark Knight anything like a great film. But if Batman Begins' flirtation with microwave death rays and ninja cults couldn't pierce the armor of "realism" that had been cast around the Nolan Trilogy through nothing more substantial than cinematic artifice and a hilariously grim tone, then I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that the insane turns in the sequel didn't break the spell either. Nevertheless, the sheer preposterousness of every single major event in this movie made a deep impression on me at the time, and continues to do so. I am still wracked with frustration every time I watch the Joker blow up that hospital with a perfectly-controlled demolition that so very obviously required weeks of planning and hundreds of manhours to accomplish. And once Harvey Dent is running around Gotham with half his head falling off like it ain't no big thing, I've already begun to foam at the mouth.
But I've backed off a bit from the sterile literalism of my early twenties. I no longer demand that everything in a movie be explicable—even in a movie as committed to phony realism as The Dark Knight. Today, I can finally enjoy it as the moral fable everyone else already fell in love with six years ago.
Let's be honest, though: they fell in love with Heath Ledger. It's needless to say that everything good about The Dark Knight hinges on his performance. He's the fucking life force of this movie, not just the reason it's great, but possibly the reason it has any right to exist at all. Ledger bleeds his energy all over the film, and every frame is animated by his performance—whether he's in it or not. Certainly, it's not animated by Christian Bale's bored and largely tedious turn as Bruce Wayne, and Bale should count himself lucky that Michael Caine was around to drag him around bodily in Dark Knight, just like he does through the whole damned trilogy (but you know he probably doesn't).
However, to push back a bit against the still-echoing hype, Ledger's Joker is not the best supervillain performance of all time. Claude Rains shall always be the Systeme International standard by which all other pure evil must be judged, and, well, Tom Hiddleston made me cry. But, is Ledger the best Joker? Good Lord, of course he is. Look, I'm glad that Mark Hamill got to keep a roof over his head, and it's nice that you were seventeen when Batman '89 came out—but please. Let's get real, okay?
Thanks to Ledger, The Dark Knight really is an amazing film, despite everything it has going against it. But I still hate it, even though he's in it. Just like I'd still love it, even if he weren't.
This is the part where I tell you why I continue to rewatch Nolan's hysterically-apocalyptic, often-idiotic Bat-trilogy. It's because Nolan's Batman—the Batman crippled by juvenile morality and by a permanently stunted personality—really is the Batman from the comics that have been published for as long as I've been alive. This Batman, as The LEGO Movie rightly understood, is a joke. Batman is my least favorite major superhero—and my undying love for the genre means my definition of "major" includes such household names as Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. But he's still Batman. He's inevitable. For better or worse, Nolan's Batman is my Batman. And there's something comforting and right about that, even though it's kind of terrible, too.
Leonard Shelby has a condition, and don't get sore if he explains it to you every time you see him. He can't form new memories since what happened. The last thing he remembers is his wife dying before his eyes. Handicapped and in danger of losing his humanity, the only thing Lenny has left is finding the man who took his wife and his mind, and getting his revenge—repeat as needed.
So a [man/woman] is going to track down [his/her] [wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend's] [murderer/rapist/murderer-rapist] and [kill/torture/torture and kill] [him/her]? Hey, stop me if you've heard this one before.
Of course, I would never start out a discussion of a nice, formulaic revenge movie by pointing out how schematic it is, because it's a perfectly damned good scheme and like the mouthbreather I am, I enjoy nice, formulaic entertainment. But thanks to its protagonist's memory disability and its illustration through Nolan's backwards-facing narrative, Memento strays far, far from formula.
Of course, Memento's very premise is a film-breaking plot hole, but as it would be tremendously impolite to point that out, let's simply ignore it instead. Please, do not ask how a man who can't form new memories was able to form a memory about learning how he can't form new memories. Because the answer, naturally, is "Shut your horrible face and quit ruining this for me, Hunter."
What Memento is getting at wouldn't be terribly hard to decipher even if Chris' script (based on Jon's short story) did not require Guy Pearce to say it every twenty minutes, so I award myself no cookies for my analysis of its themes. Memento, as is made crystal clear, is dedicated to how the feeling of loss can distort one's perceptions of reality. Leonard can't move on, literally—and giving into the worst temptations of grief is the only way that he can even continue functioning like a human being. There's a pretty delicious irony in that notion. Memento is, by a substantial margin, Nolan's darkest picture.
However, like all great narrative metaphors, Memento works as itself first, and Pearce makes Leonard's nearly-unimaginable condition believable and tragic on its own terms. Leonard Shelby remains Pearce's signature role to this day, and not just because his career's been kind of an inexplicable train-wreck, constantly failing to break out as the super-Kilmer star he was clearly meant to be but somehow never was. (Also, dear God, does his glorious shirtlessness in this movie make me feel like a slob.) With Pearce, Memento could quite conceivably remain a great film without its thriller elements; with them, only ineptitude could have kept it from being perfect.
And that is, unfortunately, a little bit of the case. Memento's single biggest issue is that it goes about ten bridges too far when it reveals, in the last moments, that Lenny is not merely impaired by his condition, and not just willfully blind, but—in medical terms—completely fucking nuts. Lenny undergoing a complete break with reality is so much more boring than simply misinterpreting reality based on his blindered perspective. Moreover, it also takes an already-implausible premise and stretches it even further. It's no surprise that for some viewers, it completely snaps. Worst of all, it renders his anterograde amnesia an afterthought, even though it's the entire basis of the film's narrative structure—thanks to Leonard's psychotic delusions, we could plausibly have a Memento without amnesia at all, albeit probably a shitty one. This overreach is so pointless and stupid, that if it weren't so exciting in so many other ways, Memento might be counted amongst those films whose endings outright ruined them.
Yet despite this egregious flaw, Memento may remain Chris Nolan's personal masterpiece. Not his best film, of course—I credit you, dear reader, with the ability to count—but the one that is most essentially his. In terms of its thematic elements, it's no secret that Nolan has been remaking Memento for the last fourteen years. But more importantly, Memento is about its own structure in a way very few movies are, and even moreso than most Nolan movies are. If it's not his most complicated, it's still his most elegant narrative experiment—and perhaps his hardest. Syncing differently-moving timeframes, or merely telling a story out-of-order, each strike me as an order of magnitude less difficult than starting a story at the end, and nonetheless making a coherent, compelling, even beautiful structure out of a regimented retrogress in time.
Memento's backwards-spooling story is not only a gimmick, and this is what Following taught Nolan about his wacky exercises in structure: "Give us a reason to care." Nolan comes up with two.
The first is to place the audience in the dead center of Leonard's own profound confusion—every five minutes (or three minutes, or ten minutes, depending) we find ourselves in an unfamiliar reality, with only hints as to how we might have possibly arrived there. (And, yes, one might notice that Leonard's reboots are rather conveniently timed to coincide with the narrative's own beats—but let's not be unpleasant.)
The second argument for Memento's existence is that it functions as a question: can a mystery still work when it's been turned organs-out? Nolan discovers it can indeed. Memento skips ahead to the end, like a potboiler reader without patience. But it knows that the fascination of any good mystery is never the what, and rarely even the who, but the how—and, crucially, the why.
Christopher Nolan's other films dispassionately and exactingly ranked: