Jim Emerson and the British Film Institute ruined Christopher Nolan for me.
Well, OK. In all honesty, Christopher Nolan has more to do with my opinion of him changing than either of them, but they were the ones who pointed it out to me. So…here’s the deal. A few days before The Dark Knight Rises came out, I read Emerson’s “Preparing for The Dark Knight to Rise.” In it, he points out the flaws in Nolan’s filmmaking thus far. He says, “Nolan (in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) has dared to aim for ‘thematically ambitious’ superhero movies… that also, unfortunately, don’t have a very rich or sophisticated cinematic vocabulary. There’s no reason somebody can’t make a serious work of art using a superhero as a major figure, a comics-inspired movie that’s also a complex and resonant piece of filmmaking — or that it can’t be challenging and rewarding and fun and popular all at the same time. It just hasn’t quite been done yet.”
And that bold portion (emphasis mine) is what hit me like a ton of bricks. Nolan does the same thing with nearly all of his scenes. They’re static. Not the camera. The scenes. Picture any non-action scene from any one of Nolan’s movies. Now tell me, would it be difficult to perform that on a stage? And this in itself isn’t a huge problem. Look at 12 Angry Men! It’s 12 men in essentially one room for the whole film. But there is interplay between characters. Their faces matter, their posture, the things they do. The last scene when they all turn their backs on the angry juror is powerful in the way they all move away from the emotional center of the scene. But when does anything like that ever happen with Nolan? If there is action, the camera is moving with it, most of the time.
So I thought, Well, let’s see what happens tomorrow night when I see The Dark Knight Rises. About what you’d expect visually. But worse, I realized that it was just a superhero movie. The Dark Knight was incredible because of the nihilism of The Joker, and that intense dilemma that all of the main characters face of whether or not the truth is good enough. And I went in expecting something similar here. It had such potential, too. The Joker broke Batman’s moral code nearly to its breaking point, and Bane is well-known as being “The Man Who Broke the Bat.”
But I went in expecting the philosophical and moral dilemma that Nolan showed me he could produce with The Dark Knight and Memento. Instead, I got an admittedly satisfying and thoughtful conclusion to a wonderful superhero franchise.
Then a couple weeks after TDKR, I read the BFI article on Christopher Nolan, in which they call his movies, “superior airport novels with complex structures….” They speak as if his greatest strength were his dedication to bringing quality blockbusters rather than the painful Battleship-type crap Hollywood likes to give us. And you know, I think that’s about right.
Look, Inception wasn’t as good as you think it was. Don’t believe me? Think about the “big” blockbusters, the ones that started it. Jaws, Star Wars (the original), E.T., Indiana Jones, even Jurassic Park. Now tell me, strip down the shifting narration and unconventional plot structure, and is Inception really that much better than those movies? If those five movies had come out at the same time as Inception or The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, would they still look as great? I don’t think so. I think it’s an above average techno-thriller with some inventive and admirable narrative choices.
As the BFI points out, if you’ve seen one Nolan movie, you’ve seen them all. And I have seen them all, from his short, “Doodlebug,” to TDKR. They’re the same. They’re movies about how careful we have to be, or else reality will slip through our grasp and, by the way, sometimes you have to do things you don’t like.
I don’t hate Nolan. But the Coen Brothers are back to being my favorite working directors. He’s still a good filmmaker, and I’ll still watch and rewatch his films. I just don’t think I’ll look at them as if they were the only novel thing in movies the way I used to.