Thursday, November 13, 2014
Dispassionately and exactingly ranking the films of Christopher Nolan by their utilitarian value, nos. 3-1
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
In the future or something, heists are in the mind, and Cobb and his team of crackerjack dream-robbers prepare to ghost dive the cyberbrain of the world's richest man at the behest of the world's second richest man to do the impossible: inception. (Seriously, it takes like an hour to explain it in the movie, and I'm really just assuming you've seen it.)
To get the obvious out of the way: Inception is the most straightforward, the most straitlaced, and (until the end) maybe even the most visually unimaginative way to go about setting most of your movie in a dream. It's a movie "about" unbounded imagination where the most fantastic imagery seen is an Escher staircase and most of the dreams are explicitly presented as video game levels from a middling first-person shooter, and it's a movie "about" the wilds of the subconscious where human sexuality is alluded to only by the fact that the protagonist has children, presumably the result of fucking, and by Joseph Gordon-Levitt tricking a lesbian into a chaste closed-mouth kiss. The unavoidable conclusion is that it's not really about those things at all.
One suspects instead that Inception is foremost about playing tricks with time in-universe, without resort to any external structure; and I think one would be half-right. It's no surprise that by Interstellar, Nolan's next original film, he's cut out the middleman and replaced differences in the mere perception of time with physical differences in the procession of time, courtesy the general theory of relativity. I don't think Nolan looked into the biological feasibility of a human brain processing an experience 10,000 times faster than normal, any more than I think he did any equations when he wrote Interstellar, but let's not join the ranks of the nerds who pretended that any of this was ever intended as hard sci-fi, rather than as a crazily-conceived caper film.
But you know what? It's a Goddamned blast at being a crazily-conceived caper film, full of beautiful slow motion action and anti-gravity spider-fights and all that breathtakingly-effective cross-cutting between reference frames. Some of Inception's greatest joys come from just letting go and trusting Nolan to guide you steadily around the structure he's built, through all the levels of his dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream (at least, I think that's right). Not that it is, for the most part, inexplicable—nor so hard to explicate that you need a giant wallchart to follow it, like Primer. No, Inception is a medium-difficulty LSAT question. If logic games are how you live, you can glean a medium satisfaction from unraveling its unravellable mysteries.
Aware of its own structure and wearing this awareness like a badge of honor, Inception can't help but be a little bit about storytelling in general and about movies in particular. Yet unlike virtually every other Hollywood Sucks picture you've ever seen, Inception lacks the typical curdled cynicism. It slyly acknowledges that cinema is an art form impeded upon by serious commercial considerations—not unlike all these corporate empires waging war in dreams in order to control reality. But the idiosyncratic thing about Inception, that could probably only come from someone who's enjoyed such a charmed life working for Hollywood studios, is that it's convinced that the act of storytelling itself is incorruptible. In Inception, capitalism and art aren't opposed to one another: the money comes when the film (or "the dream") does what it is supposed to do. (When it doesn't, you are hunted down and killed by an anonymous mob, but Nolan seems to be basing this on third-hand accounts of his fellows.) This aspect of Inception was long-ago identified, has been acknowledged by Nolan, and has been talked about, ad infinitum, since the damn thing came out. So I'll simply remark that the scene where they talk about how to make Robert Fischer feel feelings, echoing the crass psychological calculations of script meeting, has to be counted amongst my favorite moments even in a tremendously eventful film.
Inception's about something else beyond structure, though, and it's what Nolan's movies are always about on a character level—the exception being, oddly, Interstellar, which may explain why that one feels so hollow and desperate for something to say. Despite its weak protestations to the contrary, Inception is laughably unconcerned with dreams as dreams. But it is endlessly fascinated by the human ability to deliberately construct false realities where pain can have meaning.
Our hero, Cobb, has done this in the most literal way possible, even more literally than Memento's poor Leonard Shelby. Indeed, the entire inception scheme is based upon foisting just such a false reality upon the heir to the Fischer empire, where his crushed self-worth is healed by a forgery that he wants to believe is true. There's evidence of an underlying unreality to the whole proceeding, even outside Fischer's mind—though when there are dozens of long scenes with Cobb nowhere in sight, one is compelled to accept that the entire film is, probably, not supposed to be his personal dream, despite his dead wife's ghost's rather compelling suggestions to the contrary.
The end, however, as has been endlessly and fruitlessly debated, could be a dream. I won't argue the merits of either side, since it's the ambiguity that interests me (though if I had to choose, I'd choose a dream). Either way, the last shot of Inception isn't just a fuck-you to the audience—though it is an enormously effective and gratifying one—but a potent visual symbol for grieving itself. When you've lost something, you can never know when the top will fall—if it ever shall.
Inception is the film to point to like an angry monkey whenever someone gets up on their soapbox and declares Nolan a cold, emotionless filmmaker. Not that his other films were ever cold, or emotionless, or even tone-deaf in any serious way—not until Interstellar, anyhow—but Inception is easily one of most human summer blockbusters to arrive since Spielberg was making movies about friendly aliens. Or maybe it's just me: I think TRON: Legacy is a wonderfully warm story about fathers, sons, daughters, and artificial life forms, and I'm usually called an idiot for thinking that. All I know is that I can't help tearing up every time I watch Fischer reconnect with his father, even though I know it's fake.
Before you think me silly, recall that it's a movie—it's always fake. That's what makes it important.
Detective Will Dormer and his partner are sent to Alaska to solve a murder, but when Dormer kills his partner and blames it on the suspect, he finds himself forced into an uneasy alliance with the man who knows his secret—the man he was sent to catch.
What's so great about Insomnia? Unfortunately, that's not a rhetorical question, and I have to answer it to your satisfaction. That's going to be difficult, because, twelve years after its release, Insomnia is Nolan's least-discussed movie; thus I can't just repackage other people's ideas and present them as my own. Worse, you're already against me, insofar as the reason no one talks about it anymore is because consensus has already condemned it as The Mediocre One. Sometimes even The Bad One. And always, it's The One He Did For Them.
Truly, it is the clearest example of journeyman work in Nolan's whole filmography. Insomnia is an English-language recapitulation of a Norwegian film of some repute. The story goes that Steven Soderbergh had the remake rights and a script by Hillary Seitz, but he was uninterested in helming the project himself. So, since he had seen Memento, he suggested to some decisionmaker or another, "Hire this guy." They did, and Insomnia was mildly praised, mildly successful, and proved that Nolan could do a capable job with name actors and other people's money, which is what they needed in a Bat-director, and, at least in that franchise's first iteration, that is exactly what they got.
Well, the part of that story that gets left out is that Nolan approached Warner Bros. first, and had Soderbergh fight for him to get the job. We can speculate about his motives—he was a young, ambitious director whom we now know enjoys a nice, big budget—but the point is he wanted the remake of Insomnia, specifically. Still, Nolan wanted Batman Begins too. So none of this really suggests that Insomnia is a great movie, yet it is. So what's so great about Insomnia?
At the risk of continuing to avoid that increasingly urgent question, I'd never seen the original until last night. But that is what finally threw the qualities of Nolan's Insomnia into high relief. Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Insomnia is the kind of film that begs to be remade, and almost never is: hugely promising... and not very good. Each begins in earnest with the same great hook—the cop protagonist's slaying of his partner and the secret knowledge of the crime by the murderer they were chasing—but whereas Insomnia '97 is content with observing its premise, Insomnia '02 is actually a proper movie, with a story and act structure and everything.
Insomnia '02 is simply better, in every single possible respect. The original has its pastless protagonist, who seems to just barely exist even when the camera's on; the remake has a fully-formed human, clearly at the end of a long journey that we just didn't get to see. The original makes it tediously clear that his partner's death was accidental; the remake gives a damned good reason for the detective to have committed murder, and keeps us wondering, even once the credits roll, if that's what he did. The original slathers surface sleaze onto its protagonist, for no really obvious reason except that the screenwriter once saw Bad Lieutenant; the remake deals with grayer issues of good and evil, and asks whether corrupt means lead inexorably to corrupt ends, and asks it with such grace you scarcely notice, for it concludes without forcing an answer either way. The original barely even bothers with a supporting cast; the remake brings life to even the most thankless role. Even the setting is superior in the remake: the original happens in Shitsbergen, Norway, which has nice fjords but remains largely anonymous except for the midnight sun; the remake takes place in Nightmute, the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.
I could go on, it'd be easy: there's so much more of everything in the remake—character! themes! even pure filmmaking acumen! It almost seems unfair to compare them. And if space didn't constrain me, I would go on, about how tidily Seitz' script takes a pretty empty story of guilt and complicity, and turns it into one of the fullest screenplays I've ever seen. It's a tale of a man at war with his conscience, and it's a penetrating exploration of the nature of intent, and it's an examination of psychological deterioration under pressure, and, when it needs to be, it is every inch an engrossing Strangers on a Train-style thriller, too. (Brilliant editing by Dody Dord helps immeasurably in these last two regards: marking another contrast with the limply-cut Norwegian picture, which is never particularly exciting, and only occasionally insistent upon its titular condition.)
If Nolan's Insomnia is absolutely, quintessentially American in where it finally ends up, guns akimbo and everything—well, we like our action scenes, and we like our redemption tales, too. We don't much cotton to sad, introspective European anticlimaxes around here. Thank goodness.
Two things more have to be said. The first is that Insomnia, shot by Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister in Alaska and Canada, is very possibly his most beautiful film. It is, at least, his most consistently lovely, from the gorgeous boreal landscape to its immaculately-crafted action scenes (the confusion in the fog that leads to the partner's death and the evidently Frogger-inspired chase across the river full of logs are arguably the two most overtly thrilling sequences in Nolan's whole career). As impressive as anything in Insomnia, however, is the sense of desolation and loneliness that permeates the film's "night" scenes, which are so well-staged that they feel like a Twilight Zone episode and have more of the seeming of a dream than anything that ever happens in Inception.
The second thing that has to be said—and you'll see this coming—is that Robin Williams is at the very height of his powers. He doesn't show till nearly Hour 2, but it's Williams who dominates Insomnia opposite a surprisingly restrained (but not tamed) Al Pacino. Pacino is great. Williams is perfect: consistently creepy yet never outsized in it; friendly yet always threatening; and smart—far smarter than his nemesis, certainly. It's a triumph of casting, too, for Williams' persona lends his killer a certain credibility and we perceive him as somehow gentle even when we've seen what he's done. When he says he didn't mean to do it, he's frighteningly close to convincing. His body count may be low, but Insomnia's murderer is one of the very best in cinema.
Overall, Insomnia is a repudiation of many of our holiest articles of faith: that American movies are always dumber than foreign ones; that remakes are never better than originals; that Hollywood work-for-hire is always inferior to an auteurist vision. I'd love it no matter how it came to be, but Insomnia fucks with the snobs' order of things, and that makes me love it even more.
1. THE PRESTIGE
In an dystopian alternate 19th century where Nikola Tesla made useful inventions and the prohibitions on assault, battery, trespassing, kidnapping, and attempted murder were found by the highest court of England not to apply to working stage magicians, Robert "the Great Danton" Angier and Alfred "the Professor" Borden engage in a vicious professional rivalry.
Well, I doubt this comes as a shock to anyone, and not just because you are all cold logical calculators, too, capable of using the process of elimination to determine what the Number One Christopher Nolan Movie had to be. Indeed, outside of the nerds who get lost in the labyrinths of Inception and those weird guys who love Batman so much they want to marry him, The Prestige is the consensus pick for Nolan's finest work. It's the broken clock effect, I guess, but consensus ain't always wrong.
The Prestige is Nolan's best thriller, best science fiction movie, and features his best Christian Bale performance (by a wide fucking margin, I think we'll all agree). It's one of the best movies of the Oughts, of the 21st century, and somewhere high in the running for best of my lifetime, and still in the running to join the best of all time. Some say it even has the best cinematography of any Nolan movie; I reckon that Pfister's work in Insomnia is prettier in a "lookit that waterfall!" sense, and also that it establishes a more palpable sense of overall mood, but I'll bow to others' wisdom on that count, too.
Incidentally, if you've somehow never seen The Prestige, get out and don't come back until you have three witness affidavits saying you have, because I am about to ruin it for you, you poor, benighted soul.
You could make a case that The Prestige is Nolan's best just on the basis of its central mystery. It's a film that dares you, that double-dog dares you, in express terms, to figure it out immediately. The secret of Borden's method is told to you in what barely amounts to euphemistic language about fifty times, and is sometimes even literally thrown in your face by way of close-ups of his "engineer," "Fallon." Oh, let's give Bale this much credit: you still might not have realized Borden's secret if this were, instead of a movie, a picture book. It's a ballsy move, but it accomplishes a trick hardly any film manages: the narrative and cinematic form of the story is functionally identical to its very point, which is that Borden's sacrifice is so impossible to imagine, so beyond endurance, that you don't want to see it.
Of course it helps that the film itself is also simultaneously engaged in a heavy bit of sleight-of-hand—it's easy, natural, and unavoidable that your attention will be focused instead on Angier's and Nikola Tesla's second act duplication machine, and why the hell shouldn't it be? That's sensible.
One of the beauties of The Prestige is that it is so frankly weird, and doesn't care whether you know it or not. I'm not sure I've seen a film like it, which so bluntly throws a science fiction premise into the middle of a period piece. Imagine if, halfway through, Dr. Zhivago suddenly turned into a movie about time travel. Well, if it introduced David Bowie in as magnificent a manner as The Prestige does his Tesla, you'd surely embrace every other excess it had to offer.
Beneath it all, though, it's the same old Nolan story: loss leads to an obsession which takes on such a vivid life of its own that the loss doesn't even matter anymore except as a starting point for revenge. Angier, who blames his wife's death on Borden's mistake, can say without thinking, "I don't care about my wife, I care about his secret." Hugh Jackman, as Angier, is doing career-best work, crafting a hollow man who nevertheless seems like a three-dimensional character because his desire to destroy Borden—indeed, his only real trait—is just so vivid. (Or perhaps I judge Angier too harshly, for aren't his final moments almost redemptive, in a twisted, vainglorious sort of way?)
The most extraordinary thing about The Prestige is that it is also Nolan's best non-linear narrative. You may think this contradicts what I said about Memento, but it doesn't; you may think this contradicts what I said he learned from Following, and, indeed, it does. Memento's structure, I said, was the hardest to accomplish and dovetailed the most fluidly with the protagonist's perception of his world. Following, I said, taught Nolan that you should have a reason to cut up your narrative into pieces and scatter them around your film, or else it looks like a gimmick. The Prestige does look like a gimmick.
And, truly, there is no real reason for The Prestige's fractured structure, not even to awkwardly obscure the pieces of the puzzle till they're ready—like I said, there's nothing really hidden from the audience. Angier's insane nightly self-destruction and Borden's dual nature are right there to see, from the earliest moments possible, and it's only the counted-on failure of observation (or nerve) that keeps them secret.
What is so exceptional about The Prestige is that its unconventional structure is just done so damned well that it has no need to justify itself when it decides where and when to go next. Nolan approaches the film like nothing so much as music, moving from scene to scene with an emotional, intuitive logic, rather than any particular chronological progression. Brilliantly, calculation remains allied to emotion here: not only is the plot never lost, but neither are the details. In the end, The Prestige is one of the most sublime directorial efforts I can name, endlessly rewatchable, appealing to the puzzlebox crowd and the more sensitive fellow, who savors feelings, alike.
Christopher Nolan: if only we were all so cold as he.
Christopher Nolan's other films dispassionately and exactingly ranked: