NOTE TO READERS on 7-16-10: Click here for the full Inception report and review.
In preparation for the release of Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated and much ballyhooed Inception this Friday (stay tuned for a full report following the Thursday night 11:59pm advance showing I plan to attend), I decided to hold a mini-marathon here at the ‘Spin and take a look back on three of Nolan’s non-Gotham related works: Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige.
I make no apologies, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, that Nolan is one of my favorite working directors. It’s been uncanny how well he has been able to work within the mainstream studio system and deliver the type of dark, twisted, psychologically complex, crowd-pleasing and zeitgeist-tapping films people crave in the new millennium. It’s always interesting to do retrospectives of auteurs as you can witness over the course of a few nights the birth of their art, the refinement of their techniques and the emergence of their recurring themes.
First, we shall look at his breakthrough film, Memento (2000). This film was ranked rather highly in my look back on the best films of the 2000’s, but it’s also one of those films that never holds up as well as my memory of it, which is rather fitting, as it’s a film all about memory and the false ones we create for ourselves. Watching it the other night, what really stands out (aside from the gimmick of being told backwards from the point-of-view of a protagonist with short-term memory loss) is how tightly Nolan controls the narrative and constructs the film. For a film with a plot so jumbled, it’s shockingly linear (spare for the interwoven “telephone” sequence), and the way in which Nolan uses different shades and coloring to indicate the veracity or location of a moment is next to brilliant. If his first film, Following, set the template for the types of stories he wanted to tell, then Memento set the template for his constant strive towards perfection. He didn’t reach it here, but, man, what a rock-solid little indie film this is, and what a perfect harbinger of what was/is to come.
Short-term memory quickly fades, and what lasts is that long-term memory of my first watching Memento in the theater and thinking, “Whoa.” When our antihero Leonard closes the film with his internal monologue stating, “I just want to know that when I close my eyes, the world around me won’t disappear,” Nolan revealed to us his ever-evolving obsession. At one point, Leonard refers to his condition as something like a dream…and, well…Nolan always planned on dreaming big.
This brings us to a film about the absence of dreams and being haunted by waking nightmares…Insomnia (2002). Here, Nolan showed he could work within the Hollywood studio system, get a pair of nearly washed-up A-listers (Al Pacino and Robin Williams) to deliver their last great performances before diving into the abyss of “what happened to their careers?” and set the template for how remakes should be done. Adapted from a Norwegian thriller about a world-weary cop hunting down a tricky killer during a nightless summer near the arctic circle, Nolan changed the locale to Alaska and married the themes to mirror his own obsessions – mainly coming to terms with sins of the past by examining one’s own falsification of evidence and memories – in a place where the light of the sun and the light of truth shines on everything and everyone.
When Pacino’s detective comes clean to Maura Tierney’s hotelier about the lengths he went to secure justice, it’s quite possibly the most emotionally charged and soul-purging scene Nolan has ever delivered. Often dismissed because of its adherence to rote cat-and-mouse theatrics and hampered with the remake label, Insomnia, with all of its overt symbolism and gorgeous Alaskan scenery, is Nolan’s most underrated film. It also set the template for how Nolan would accept the assignment of rebooting a comic-book hero franchise. By showing Hollywood how a remake should be done with Insomnia, he was setting the stage for making Batman his own.
Bookmarked between descents into the Batcave was The Prestige (2006) which has developed a rather rabid following in the four short years since its release and was recently a surprise pick in Allan Fish’s top ten films of the decade over at Wonders in the Dark. And what a fitting name that blog is when considering the themes explored here by Nolan. The most striking thing here is how much Nolan reveals to the audience about himself, how much he enjoys being the magician, the filmmaker, the one who can elicit…”that look on their faces…even if to fool them for just a second, to make them wonder.”
Nolan’s mysterious and brooding tale of dueling magicians hangs on the notion of fooling the audience and that big twist, but it’s in the mechanization of the turns where fans have found what is to be truly relished on repeat viewings. Part of the film’s success in that regard relies on Nolan’s faith in his audience, faith in our desire to be fooled, to want to wonder, in our ability to suspend disbelief. There are great performances but also some dodgy acting, the menacing (all those water tanks) combined with the silly (all those hats), and the tightly wound turns choking any sign of plot holes and the ultimate simplicity of the prestige.
It is here where Nolan announces himself as an auteur in complete control. But he only has that control if the audience is willing to work in tandem in a communion in the darkened theater.
We must dare him to fool us. And he must not disappoint.
Written by David H. Schleicher