The Edge of the Labyrinth
What distinguishes good crafted filmmaking from a superficial one? I know that everyone of us has his own answer to this question, and it couldn’t be otherwise. After all it’s a matter of taste. People are hooked by different stories and themes, but beyond the taste, we cannot ignore that there are filmmakers who are really good at their job; they have a spark of pure virtuosity, although they may offer chances for harsh and fussy reviews. Christopher Nolan is definitely one of them.
Nolan demonstrates how someone with a daring originality and willingness to risk for his creative ideas, can pass from independent low budget films to multimillionaire major productions in Hollywood. Nolan’s envision is spottable in his entire body of work, which is permeated by elements such as meta-fiction events, temporal paradoxes, elliptical cutting, philosophical and emotional dramas, and non-linear storytelling.
Nolan moved his first steps in the entertainment industry shortly after graduation from UCL in London, where he played a major role in the development of the university film department. His early shorts contributed to enlarge the thin collection of films that the University owned by that time, and one of them, Larceny, was selected for Cambridge Film Festival in 1996.
Few years later, Nolan’s first feature, Following (1998), gave the audience a first bite of his style which is perhaps one of the most recognizable among the crowd of contemporary filmmakers.
With a budget of only 6000 dollars, and a very stylish independent look, the movie is an atypical kind of noir describing the life and the craze of Bill. He is a young writer who looks for inspiration by following people in the streets, to get to know the place they head to. His shadowing has a turning point when he meets Cobb, a thief who involves him in his robberies. Bill and Cobb team up for several heists, and for one of them, they decide to rob the house of a young lady, with whom Bill has an affair. What Bill doesn’t know is Cobb’s real goal, a secret that put in serious doubt the entire Bill’s existence and identity. This film portrays a story of mystery, love and crime, trying to dig in the obsessions of a man who drools after them up to a point that the layers of reality and imagination overlap and get confused. The last shot is memorable, giving all the feeling of blurriness, doubt and creepiness due to the uncertain epilogue.
Memento (2000), Nolan’s second feature, matches the same sense of ambiguity and jeopardy that Following was evoking. The project is inspired from a short story written by his brother Jonathan Nolan, a screenwriter who will often collaborate with Christopher in future. The plot is simple. A man’s wife is murdered and since that day the man, whose name is Leonard, cannot assimilate new memories. He remembers who he is but he cannot register any new event since that tragedy. In order to find his wife’s killer, Leonard conceives a smart system to help him remember things. He scribbles notes anywhere he can, and he covers his body with tattoos containing information that hopefully will lead him to find the man who destroyed his happiness. As Following, this film proposes a non-linear structure, which allows the audience to leap on different footages without an ordered narrative flow. At a first glimpse the different shots don’t even seem connected to each other. Only after a while, a viewer is able to put all the pieces together and sort Nolan’s jigsaw out. In the case of Memento this is particularly hard, as the film moves from the end towards the beginning, in a pattern that involves that each scene is antecedent to the scene that follows it. For a story like Memento, this choice is absolutely winning, and it increases the empathy with Leonard, as if the audience was afflicted by the same amnesia and loss of memory that afflicts the protagonist.
Both these films, even though they’re affected by the typical flaws of a novice filmmaker, already convey the main core of Nolan’s tones: his passion for intertwined and elaborated structures, in which picks of intellectual and visual concepts contribute to the cinematographic experience. Nolan likes to create paradoxical worlds, mazes and rebus tricks where the audience can swoop and pick its own tread of interpretation. What’s important for him is not only to supply his own solution to his stories. He wants the audience to have a dialogue with the dramatic actions on the screen. He invites them to play a mathematical game throughout which the epilogues can differentiate from viewer to viewer.
Memento was a box office success for an independent film, catapulting Nolan towards a prosperous international career. In 2002 he directs Insomnia, with a stellar cast including Al Pacino, Hillary Swank, and Robin Williams. This film is maybe the less personal work made by the British Director, but his taste for noir, detective and mystery stories with unexpected twists, widely transpires in any minute of this movie.
Regarding unexpected twists, straight after the completion of Insomnia, Nolan convinces his brother Jonathan to work on the adaptation of a novel that stunned his mind. In such manner The Prestige (2006) sees the light. With this film, Nolan’s attention for obsessive and paranoid personalities is brought to the excess. Two young stage magicians, who were once friends and colleagues, start getting involved in a mischievous competition in the attempt to create the ultimate magical trick, the best illusion ever performed for a paying public. Over the course of the scenes, we’re transported to a land of illusions and misunderstandings, in which it’s hard to believe in anything we see or touch, as the plot unfolds and tears its blade inside the hearts of the two protagonists, condemned by their passion to live a life always precarious and burdened by secrets. The dramatic pace is full of gimmicks and subtle contents, crossing obsession and ambition with ethic and love. Eventually, the ambiguous and synchronized turning points reverse the direction of the story, making us wonder till the very last shot.
Nolan’s international establishment led him to the top of his career from 2005-2006 onwards when, besides The Prestige, he started working on the new version of one of the most popular comic character: Batman. Nolan’s idea for Batman is noteworthy since the early stages of the project. The British director desired to empower his hero with the feelings, weaknesses and passion of a real human being. This approach was very distant from the iconographic and gothic image that Tim Burton used in his films (Batman 1989; Batman Returns 1991).
The new portrayal of the Dark Knight is utterly pop and the character buys new connotations yet turning into conflicts and dilemmas. In the Dark Night’s trilogy, the filmmaker managed to sketch an elaborate character’s arc of transformation and shifting. With Batman Begins (2005), we come to know Bruce Wayne’s past: how his life was tormented by the premature loss of his parents, and how Wayne left the comforts of a rich life to duck into a hive of shadows, where the harsh training with an oriental master finally turns him into a vigilante. In The Dark Night (2008) Batman faces his most dangerous and insidious enemy: The Joker performed by an extraordinary Heath Ledger. This fool maniac pushes Batman’s psychology to confront his exact opposite, to learn the worth of sacrifice and the wounds that this makes bleed for long time ahead. The Dark Night Rises (2012) opens with a Bruce Wayne isolated from the world, bound to his pain and fear. Antagonists such as Bane and Catwoman bring him back to action, but this time, in order to win, he’ll need to leave the past behind, accept his own nature, and reinforce his limits and capacity towards the final epic fight. Throughout the trilogy Nolan plays with these comic characters, squeezing and stretching their flaws and emotions, with the result of a building a scenario in which fantasy and human realism correspond to each other with a perfect symmetry.
In 2010 Nolan can bring to life a project he worked on for more than ten years. According to his purpose to risk in order to impress both visually and emotionally, he creates a huge cinematographic experiment, which he entitles Inception. The premise is hooking enough for a wide amount of viewers: how would the world be if it were possible to break into someone else’s dreams and steal ideas and thoughts from there? The film follows the actions of a group of thieves, specialized in extracting ideas from people while they’re dreaming. Cobb is the best dream thief ever appeared, but he has a problem: he cannot go back to USA where his children live, due to some charges which convict him in the homicide of his wife Mall. Cobb sees a possibility of redemption when an established Asian businessman asks him to perform an inception. Rather than entering in someone else’s subconscious to steal an idea, he has to plant an original thought that will modify permanently a multimillionaire businessman’s believes. In a heist science fiction story, Nolan leads us to discover the realms of the subconscious and the imagination, where fears, nightmares and regrets lie deep beneath. Through an upsidedown pace, we come to know Cobb’s life and job, his powerful relationship with his wife, which is a line of desire that for Cobb is destructive but also rewarding, getting him through his demons and shattered hopes. In a rough race, Cobb’s team go down into three different dreams, structured in a top tower that goes even deeper and deeper in the subconscious, up to a place where reality and imagination become the same thing and where the perception of time enlarges and shortens lives and existences. Making a film about dreams is a great challenge for a filmmaker, the kind of challenge that a guy like Nolan goes for. The elaborated and gripping cinematography composes visually impressive sequences that in combination with a very tense and cunning atmosphere and a precise scenography create a perfect marriage between cinematographic technique and artistic aesthetic. Moreover, with this film Nolan continues his personal exploration of obsession and of the consequences that this generates. This time his research goes further, seriously investigating on the line between reality and fantasy and remarking the central role of emotional conflicts, the primary clay he kneads all his stories with. Inception is after all the story of a father who wants to leave his past behind and go back home to his children, being re-accepted in his ideal community of love and family.
Inception is a perfect mixture between a noir adventure, and a tale about the heart-breaking limits of the human mind and soul. This playing with different genres produces a hybrid movie that combines science fiction, crime and sentimental narratives.
With the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, Nolan fully achieves his artistic ambition: combine the powerful powder all his stories are made with and his capacity to always bring the cinematographic art to its edge, to push it beyond its limit.
His last work, Interstellar, repeats this scheme, representing a spectacular show for a viewer’s eyes and heart, making him wonder, reflect, mourn or simply dive into an extreme kind of reality, into a vivid dream made of colours, noises, and characters’ choices. In Interstellar, Nolan shows us a father who challenges space and time only to find a way back to his daughter. This family and sentimental element is constantly tied to a perilous and unbelievable situation and it makes the whole story resonate like a chorus of voices into an iron bell.
This is what Nolan’s cinematography means: adventures and emotions lived so intensely and profoundly to become worlds and dreams that give us hope and fulfilment.