Writer/director Christopher Nolan has achieved a tremendous amount of critical and commercial success. He has helmed both celebrated art house films like Memento and major Hollywood blockbusters like the Dark Knight trilogy. Yet despite these accomplishments, his detractors remain -- people who not only dislike his work, but are violently repelled by it.
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And yet everyone except Harlan Ellison and me seems to love this guy ...
From my perspective, a lot of this animosity comes from people who want to see a movie other than the one Nolan is intent on making. You'd have to look to directors like Stanley Kubrik or the Coen brothers to find filmmakers who possibly exhibit more aggressive control over their movies. People are entitled to dislike the art Nolan has created, but to suggest he has somehow screwed up seems simplistic. More often, it appears detractors are simply turned off by Nolan's desire to make viewers feel like his movies' protagonists. Over and over, Nolan creates filmgoing experiences that mirror the sensations and subject matter of his films. Here are four examples, of Nolan films where we, the audience, experience the film's universe in the same ways the film's star does. And while the point of this article, is not to solve any debates about the meaning of certain Nolan films, it does contain A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF SPOILERS. EACH SECTION OF THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.
4Memento, a Film About Brain Damage, Creates a Sense of Cognitive Dissonance [CONTAINS SPOILERS]
Memento was Christopher Nolan's first major theatrical release. It tells the story of Leonard Shelby, a man with a condition known as anterograde amnesia, as he conducts an investigation to determine who murdered his wife. Like most Nolan movies, the plot is difficult, and it is not the purpose of this article to explain "what really happened" in any of these movies. For example, if you Google "Memento, Who Killed Lenny's Wife" you will see no shortage of theories -- some contradictory but fairly well-supported, others palpably ridiculous -- but the point is that Nolan makes you work. He does not tie everything up in a neat bow for you, unless it's a Batman movie. But that's the point. We know he can. Sometimes, he opts not to. Why?
Well, in the case of Memento, Nolan set out to do more than tell a noir story about an amnesiac seeking vengeance; he wanted to give the moviegoer the feeling of Lenny's amnesia. Accordingly, adding to the already layered and demanding plotting, Nolan tells the story backwards. Yes, the movie starts at the end and works it's way to the beginning.
And if you sync the movie up with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, it's, um, still backwards.
This backwards technique is more than just a cheap trick. Instead, it puts the viewer in the world of amnesia, receiving praise from medical experts in the process. Cal Tech neuroscientist Christof Koch called Memento "the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media." Clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale wrote that, "The fragmented, almost mosaic quality to the sequence of scenes in the film also reflects the 'perpetual present' nature of the syndrome."
In telling his neo-noir thriller, Nolan not only plots a story involving an amnesiac; he disturbs the audience's ability to process information. He creates a confused mental state, reflecting the main character's syndrome. We feel like Lenny.
3The Prestige, a Film About Magic, Is a Magic Trick [CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS]
I know I'm not blowing anyone's doors off with that Memento entry. It's obvious that the movie's going backwards, and only the most obnoxious half-wits wouldn't think to ask why. But the thing is that it seems Nolan never stopped employing this trick. His films usually reflect their subject matter in the way they're told. Spielberg is a genius, but you know you're watching a Spielberg movie, whether he's talking about Abraham Lincoln or Private Ryan. Nolan, however, creates unique cinematic experiences reflecting his topics.
In 2006, Christopher Nolan asked the question "who would win in a fight: Wolverine or Batman?"
Weird. I always thought Batman was taller ...
Actually, the movie is about a rivalry between two magicians in 19th century England. Jackman becomes obsessed with Bale's "Transported Man" trick, an illusion in which Bale enters one closet and emerges from another closet across the stage almost instantaneously. Driven to compete, independently wealthy Jackman ultimately travels to Colorado Springs and employs a financially-strapped Nikola Tesla to create for him a machine that will actually accomplish the trick for real. If Tesla is to be believed, his machine almost gets it right. Instead of transporting something, it creates a copy of the original and transports that -- or perhaps transports the original while leaving a copy in its place.
When people talk about the end of the movie, it's funny how often they talk about this scene, in which Bale reveals how he did his trick. Apparently, he had an identical twin, and the two men were never seen in public together. While one was the magician "Borden," the other would wear makeup and live as his assistant "Fallon." Even their wife, girlfriend, and daughter didn't know the truth. Conversely, Jackman explains how each night, he risked death performing his trick, as one of his Tesla-generated doubles had to be murdered, and he never knew if he would be the one.
I always loved The Prestige, but that ending never really worked for me. I didn't like the idea of a Tesla magic box, or the reveal of the ending: a warehouse of 100 murdered Hugh Jackmans, one from each of the times he performed the trick and had to dispose of his freshly-minted double. Recently, my friend asked me if I were of the camp that believes Tesla's box didn't work -- that Tesla, in financial need, just put on a show to create the illusion it worked, and that Jackman was merely trying to convince Bale of the same. "Impossible," I said. "We see like 100 Jackmans in tanks." That was my memory. But my memory lied. I was tricked. The movie shows only one murdered Jackman (and we know that Jackman used a double in an earlier version of the trick). What's more, the very ending of the movie contains Michael Caine's narration, which explains how as we look for the answer to a trick, we're not really looking, because we want to be fooled.
I don't pretend to have every nuance of the plot nailed down, but I do know that Nolan, in creating a movie about illusion, pulled off an impressive trick himself by creating the false memory of 100 dead floating Jackmans where there was only one.