Saturday, July 24, 2010

Black Sheep presents The Director Series


By now you’ve likely already seen it.  I’m sure you, like myself, rushed to catch Christopher Nolan’s much hyped summer thriller, INCEPTION when it was released.  And so by now I’m sure you’ve formed an opinion on the subject as it seems to be taking shape as rather polarized film.  Given that Nolan’s popularity only seems to be getting more and more impressive with each film he releases, I thought it best to take a look back at some of the work that has gotten him to this point.  Now, everyone already knows that Nolan is the man behind the successful revamp of the Batman franchise, BATMAN BEGINS, and that Nolan went on to make what some consider the greatest comic book movie ever made, THE DARK KNIGHT.  Considering the familiarity with these works, Black Sheep will be taking a look back at Nolan’s non-caped crusader films, beginning with the one that got everybody both talking and scratching their heads long before INCEPTION was even conceived.


After his first feature, FOLLOWING, garnered some solid festival response, Nolan’s next script was optioned for production for an eventual platform release.  Based on the short story, “Memento Mori” by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, a frequent collaborator, MEMENTO would debut to impressive critical praise and would go on to become a cult classic.  Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a man obsessed with revenge – if only he could remember what for.  I’m exaggerating but essentially, Leonard is not able to form any new memories so he forgets what has happened shortly after it happens to him.  He has suffered from this rare affliction since he was struck from behind when he walked in on the rape and  murder of his wife.  Through the use of a strict system using Polaroids of people and crude tattoos of the facts, Leonard spends all his time tracking down the man that took his wife and life away.

“Just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t mean my actions are meaningless.  
The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes.”

There is nothing particularly new about memory loss stories or stories about widowers bent on revenge so how is it that MEMENTO is best known for its originality? The answer can be found in the screenplay and the editing, fittingly the two aspects of this film that were honoured with Academy Award nominations.  Nolan tells us the story backwards, more or less, that is.  When Leonard kills someone just after we’ve met him, we have no idea why or whether he was justified.  Scene by scene, the events that led Leonard to this moment are revealed to us but at no point does the viewer feel comfortable enough to trust anyone Leonard comes into contact with, from his fast-talking, weasel of a friend, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) to the gorgeous but damaged bartender who is helping him, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss).  When your protagonist cannot remember anything, how can we trust anything he claims to know for a fact?  The approach results in Leonard trying to solve the mystery that is his own life while we are dragged down into the same madness that ensues from his attempts.


Naturally, Nolan had his pick of what his next project would be.  He decided to go the Hollywood route with the remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, INSOMNIA.  The cast was led by Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.  Albeit not officially credited – that honour belongs to Hilary Seitz – Nolan is said to have penned the final draft of this murder mystery.  Without the credit though, INSOMNIA remains the only film Nolan has been involved with where he does not have any writing credit.  The detachment does the director good as he takes what is essentially a very straightforward crime thriller and gives it class and savvy.  Pacino, a decorated police hero, has been summoned up to Alaska to consult on a case that has the local police baffled.  Pacino puts them all to shame when he gets there but it isn’t long before the round the clock sunshine starts to mess with his sleep and subsequently his head.

“A good cop can’t sleep because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle.
A bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won’t let him.”

It isn’t actually the light that is keeping Pacino up, even though it makes for a convenient excuse.  No, Pacino has a messy internal affairs investigation waiting for him at home and, unbeknownst to his fellow officers, he was involved in the shooting of another officer tied to the investigation.  Now, I happen to be someone who has on occasion battled with insomnia and I can say that Nolan gets the effect just right.  Pens tapping on a desk or fans rotating back and forth are ordinarily background noise but when you haven’t slept, they become isolated and exaggerated.  You become disconnected from what is happening all around you, missing moments and having visions.  Most importantly, when you haven’t slept, whatever it is that is keeping you awake has a tendency of creeping to the surface and driving you somewhat mad.  Unfortunately, this generally leads to more sleeplessness.  Albeit not as trippy as Nolan’s other works, INSOMNIA showed that Nolan could take somewhat generic material and make it compelling and memorable.


In 2006, Nolan was paired with two gentlemen that he would go on to work with regularly.  THE PRESTIGE, a period piece about two magician’s struggles to impress the masses while out doing each other, pits Hugh Jackman against Christian Bale and places Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson in between them.  I’m not sure if Nolan just didn’t get on with Jackman and Johansson (who oddly enough would go on to star in another movie involving what was supposed to be magic, Woody Allen’s SCOOP) but of course Bale would go on to be Batman with Caine as his Alfred.  It is another Nolan regular that would go on to earn his first of three cinematography Oscar nominations for THE PRESTIGE, Wally Pfister.  Pfister has lensed all of Nolan’s pictures (safe for FOLLOWING) and was also nominated for both of Nolan’s Batman features.  Something tells me we might be hearing his name tossed around again this year for INCEPTION too.

“Are you watching closely?”

When I first saw THE PRESTIGE, I enjoyed the tricks and twists but watching it again now, it seems an awful lot more like illusion instead of true magic.  As Caine explains early on in the film, there are three parts to every magic trick.  First, set up the trick; build the intrigue.  The next bit is called “The Turn”, in which case you pretty much turn your back to the audience and make something ordinary look extraordinary.  None of this matters without what the third part – The Prestige.  If you make something disappear, it only matters if you bring it back.  Nolan seems to be trying the entire way through to fit the film into these three sections but by the time his personal prestige is revealed, the steps he’s taken to get there have rendered it somewhat unimpressive.  It might have something to do with the completely unnecessary love triangle between Jackman, Johansson and Bale.  Then again, it might just be that Nolan isn’t as good a magician as he thought he was.

If you’ve read my review for INCEPTION, then you know I had mixed feelings about it.  Great or not though, there is no denying that Nolan is now a name and he has entered the ranks of contemporary auteur directors.  You don’t get on that list for being known though.  You get there for having a voice.  It may not have its full range yet but his voice is definitely distinct.

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