As The Dark Knight Rises wends its way to our cinemas, we assess the filmmaking pros and cons of British maverick and master technician, Christopher Nolan.
It's something of a happy coincidence that London’s BFI Southbank are laying on a retrospective of Christopher Nolan's small but fastidiously sculpted cinematic oeuvre ahead of its party bus-sized celebration of Alfred Hitchcock. Both directors made their name in these blessed isles before being spirited away by voracious American studios and duly lavished with resources, respect and an unprecedented level of artistic independence.
Plus, Nolan's little-seen, micro budget debut feature, Following, is a cautionary, London-set examination of voyeurism as an extreme sport whose every monochrome frame worships at the altar of Hitch, specifically Vertigo.
Even though you could hardly see the guarded, taciturn Nolan taking on the role of rotund japester, as Hitch did so zealously with his popular branded TV spin-off Alfred Hitchcock Presents, there is a similar sense of mythology at play – self-made or otherwise – surrounding these two high-rolling mavericks.
Hitchcock seemingly had no scruples about manipulating self-image and would exploit his distinctive personal iconography almost as a promotional tool. Nolan achieves a similar feat by doing the exact opposite: his sets are intensely secretive; he rarely heads off on the the junket or festival circuit; he seldom discusses anything to do with his personal life; and according to a 2010 newspaper profile, he doesn't use a mobile phone, have an email address or look at the internet.
From his early TV appearances where he sensibly discusses work from his pre A-list era (Memento, Insomnia) Nolan is clearly a dangerously intelligent and precise guy who knows his craft inside out. That he is working within the Hollywood mainstream is truly a gift. Though would it be wrong to think that this hermetic lifestyle may be holding back his cinema from ataining true greatness? Would it be wrong to want more from him as an artist?
Where Nolan and Hitchcock part ways is that it's tougher to pin down themes, ideas or expressions that lend Nolan's work some kind of basic cohesion. Of course, it's hard to level charges of inconsistency at a director who graduated from making impressive, hard-nosed thrillers to personally ushering in a new era of the 'dark' blockbuster (‘blackbuster’?) with his box-office trouncing trilogy of Batman movies. But Nolan's most prominent interests appear to be of a technical and stylistic nature rather than anything relating to themes, ideas, emotions, concepts.
The throughline between his best film (Memento) and one of his most successful (Inception) is easily identifiable, as both films employ an intricate, layer cake narrative structure which playfully pummels at the the bounds of perception. They offer a suggestive and innovative dismantling of how the mind works that are packaged as easy-to-read and stylishly designed brain manuals. But where the former said something very specific and moving about what it means to have one of our most basic human functions irrevocably impaired, the latter jettisoned the humane baggage at the service of empty, ultra-svelte plot pyrotechnics.
And that is perhaps why – and this is by no means a bad thing – Nolan has yet to produce a completely satisfying piece of work. Constricted by his dexterous, though essentially schematic, storytelling instincts, he is a progenitor of spreadsheet dreams, of cerebral ballets that have been choreographed and calculated to a level that undeniably inspires awe while not quite managing to bear close scrutiny. Masters like Lynch, Buñuel and Svankmajer are still operating on another plateau when it comes to celluloid approximations of dreams, the inner workings of the mind and how they might affect our view of the world and those close to us.
In addition, more so than someone like Akira Kurosawa, Nolan has thus far displayed an almost myopic interest in male anxieties. Though his forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises may yet swing the gender balance with a meaty role given to Anne Hathaway as Cat Woman. The women that feature in Nolan's films are usually peripheral, or there as springboards for the male characters – Carrie-Anne Moss in Memento, Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige or Ellen Page in Inception – and have precious little bearing on the outcome of the stories.
It's almost as if women have no place in his implacable, glassy cinescapes. It's like Nolan is adopting the role of the demure English gentleman and would think it entirely out of bounds to be passing judgment on the better sex. It’s also an extension of the idea of someone doing such astounding work in one area that the bigger, fuller picture is lost on them.
Cinematically speaking, Nolan's films are highly reflexive and are much more concerned with the illusions, pressures and mysteries of filmmaking than they are with messy, unfathomable humanity. The Prestige – his most sorely underrated film – is an erudite study of the severe psychological burden of being number one in your professional field. As a Hollywood director whose daily undertaking involves taking simple illusions of light and shadow to strange and beguiling new levels, the film has more than a tinge of tragic autobiography.
Insomnia sees Al Pachino's grizzled detective on the trail of a murderer (an expertly counter-cast Robin Williams), the twist being that his entire investigation takes place under the piercing midnight sun of Nightmute, Alaska. Apart from being a terse detective yarn of the sort he has admitted in interviews to being influenced by in his formative years (authors like Jim Thompson, films like Tourneur's Out of the Past), this is a movie about what it's like to be denied the ability to dream.
He says that dreams are an important part of life, even though he has yet to satisfactorily introduce us to a dream world that doesn't lend itself to easy and full interpretation. The day when Nolan throws in a shot that's equivalent to a suppurating donkey corpse sandwiched into the workings of a grand piano will be a great day indeed.
Where Nolan is at his most enjoyable as a director – and whatever gripes you may have with him, he has more than earned his prized position within the mainstream filmmaking pantheon – is when his fixation with understanding process makes it onto the screen. The scene in The Dark Knight in which Christian Bale flips over an articulated lorry is all the more satisfying for pointedly showing us the complex knotting arrangement he makes with his souped-up motorbike.
As well, with Batman Begins he has given us arguably the definitive superhero origin story with Bruce Wayne's violent trials in a savage Bhutanese prison camp. It's the architecture of the dreams in Inception that is impressive, not the content of them.
You might think that criticising Nolan is counter intuitive considering how many paid-up hacks and bearded, gut-busting turds currently fug-up the Hollywood firmament. But this is a case of yearning for a top-tier director to make something that tips him over into greatness. Though he is very much a child of Hitchcock, you'd probably be inclined to see David Fincher as his older, wiser brother-in-arms. Both make films with an instantly discernible personal touch that, technically, are very difficult to fault.
But Nolan has never made a film like Zodiac, a work which speaks in profound metaphorical tones about the sombre universal tragedy of time passing. It’s a film that is perfectly imperfect, and it would be truly thrilling if Nolan were to allow some of that imperfection into his art. Yes, we are asking the world of this amazing director, but only because he has proven to us so often that he has the world to give.