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Why Christopher Nolan Is Cinema’s Reigning Rationalist

Why Christopher Nolan Is Cinema's Reigning Rationalist

This post features spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s films, including “Interstellar.”

Over the past ten years, Christopher Nolan has gone from promising young director to one of the most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood, not to mention the director with some of the most fervent (read: psychotic) fanbases. Not everyone is enamored with Nolan, however, and the surprisingly divisive “Interstellar” has only further irritated his detractors. At The Film Stage, Peter Labuza writes that the greater themes of love, family and survival are as tedious as the mounds of exposition, and expresses irritation that even the film’s most theoretically wondrous set-pieces are frustratingly logical. At To Be Cont’d, Keith Uhlich goes further and says that none of the compositions have the “magic” required to make it truly awe-inspiring, that “Nolan is loathe to let us take any of it in with genuine horror, wonder or awe.”

They’re not totally wrong: Nolan is a purely functional visual stylist, and each image in “Interstellar” is more about how it functions as a part of a whole than it is a work of poetry unto itself. This might make those hoping to find something “magical” in space-travel rend their garments in frustration, but to Mike D’Angelo, who has called Nolan the best filmmaker working Hollywood right now and named “Memento” as his favorite film of the past decade, argues in favor of Nolan’s dogged committal to finding realism in even the most fantastical concepts. D’Angelo argues that Nolan is a die-hard materialist, one who’s all about finding the whys behind things that seem unsolvable and distrusting things that aren’t rational, starting with memories in “Memento”:

Leonard doesn’t actually haul out studies demonstrating how badly people can fool themselves, and “Memento” isn’t even remotely a social-issue drama, but its skeptical take on the nature of memory reflects the work of groundbreaking researchers like Elizabeth Loftus concerning the ease with which we confabulate. In the real world, dozens of innocent, loving parents and teachers wound up in jail in the 1980s and ’90s because authorities took hazy recollection as gospel. In “Memento,” Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy is killed when Leonard intentionally misleads himself, planting a false clue while knowing he’ll almost immediately forget having done so. Memories can’t be touched, weighed, dissected, verified. For Nolan, therefore, they aren’t to be trusted.

That grand unifying theory of materialism applies to Nolan’s Batman films as well. After all, Batman is the most (relatively) rational of superheroes, one whose powers come not from genetically-engineered spiders or cosmic powers, but from unbelievable wealth. That separates Nolan from other, earlier superhero directors like Tim Burton and Sam Raimi, more naturally expressive filmmakers who throw themselves into their heroes and villains’ outlandish worlds with gusto. 

Where Nolan skeptics get their most powerful ammo, however, is when the director tackles themes and ideas that aren’t just reserved for directors with that kind of magic, but ones that seem to actively beg for directors that aren’t hard rationalists: dreams in “Inception,” the inexplicable wonders of space in “Interstellar,” and magic itself in “The Prestige.” Again, D’Angelo argues in favor of Nolan’s rationalist approach, here for “Interstellar”:

From Nolan’s materialist perspective, though, the movie’s worldview is reflected in the dual revelations of the fifth-dimensional climax… Coop suddenly realizes, as he communicates with [Murph], that the beings facilitating this exchange are a distant-future incarnation of the human race. Not that aliens would qualify as anti-scientific — it’s entirely possible (some would say hugely probable) that we aren’t alone in the universe. At the moment, however, there’s zero evidence of any other life form out there, so Nolan concocts a temporal loop in which humanity manages to save itself, even though that almost inevitably results in the familiar “bootstrap paradox.”

And here for what’s arguably Nolan’s most personal film, “The Prestige,” which D’Angelo argues is not just an argument that there’s rational explanations to magic, but a hidden expression that God does not exist:

Angier insists that the illusion is too “complex” to admit to such a simple solution. “You only say that because you don’t know the method,” Cutter insists. Later, after Angier gets hold of Borden’s secret and asks Cutter to read it first, Cutter says again “I already know how he does it, Robert. The same way he always does; the same way that we do…It’s just that… you want something more.” This conversation deliberately echoes the debate between proponents of Intelligent Design, who insist that aspects of nature are too complex to admit a purely naturalistic explanation, and the evolutionary establishment, which can often only reply to specific attacks, pending further research, with some variation on “You only say that because you don’t know the method.” People who refuse to believe in evolution desperately want there to be something more. “The Prestige,” even as it turns Tesla into a sci-fi wizard, is firmly resolute that there is not.

Yet again, this is territory that irritates those looking for a little mystery in their films, something Nolan is resolutely uninterested in. In a conversation with D’Angelo about “The Dark Knight Rises” (which, to be fair, neither of them liked), Uhlich said he disdained how “The Prestige” seemed intent on “pummeling the belief out of me. There is no trick. There is no God. There is no magic,” and that he denies the magic of the movies by using their “coarsest mechanisms to make his mostly facile points.” But there’s some “magic” to be found in mechanisms, D’Angelo would argue, wonder in the natural world and the way it functions.

I’m a pluralist at heart, as appreciative of essentially realist cinema as well as films with a little more mystery. I love film noirs by Fritz Lang, whose style externalizes psychological terror, but I’m just as enamored (if not more so) with the noirs of John Huston, whose formalism is defined by narrative economy and function. That explains the appeal of Nolan’s films to me (though, granted, Huston is a more accomplished visual stylist). “Memento” shifts from color to black-and-white in key scenes purely for reasons of utility, not expression, but there’s something exhilarating about the way the pieces fit together and support the film’s mood (and central theme) of distrust. “Inception” rarely manages the type of Lynchian wonder its dream-centric story might suggest, but Nolan’s parallel editing between one level of dream and the next expertly keeps all of the balls in the air while showing every step of the way how they relate to each other.

Watching “Interstellar,” I was rarely awed by the images themselves, but I was struck by their function (especially in a set-piece involving a docking spaceship, which requires our seeing all of the pieces in order to work) and by several of Nolan’s juxtapositions, like a cut between Matthew McConaughey struggling for life as his adult daughter (Jessica Chastain) chooses not to give up on humanity in both a macro sense (a search for an answer that could save them from extinction) and a micro sense (a way to force her stubborn brother out of his doomed committal to earthly pursuits). That pure function in form is appropriate for the story here, as well, which stresses the need to explore and exhaust every possible scientific avenue (not mystical or intangible avenue) in order to save humanity, with even an intangible like love boiled down to, as David Ehrlich argued in Little White Lies, Darwinian terms. There might not be mystery in Nolan’s universe, but that’s only because he finds reasons to be awed by the rational.

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