Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Christopher Nolan & The Cruelty Of Time
1. THE TICKING CLOCK
It's the first image that comes to mind.
For the ticking clock has been a staple of most of Nolan's career. Not just in the rhythmic, pulse-pounding aesthetics and Zimmer scores that define his work, but it's often part of the very text itself. And now with Dunkirk, it all comes crashing front and center yet again. That punishing, deep, visceral cost of time itself. For in this film, time is responsible for the most harrowing of losses, for the luckiest of connections, and the desperate yearning to transcend time as if it were a cage. For in the waiting, we rush to come out of this hell intact. With this film, and so many of Nolan's others, outrunning time seems motivated by survival itself. But why? This notion of survival is neither the root expression nor core feeling of Nolan's films. For underneath the poise, the sullenness, and the quiet stoicism, there is one expressed emotion deep at the heart of his work...
2. THE FOUR CRITICISMS
One of the things that always gets missed in my ongoing conversations about Christopher Nolan is how much I like his work. And not just with the films of his that I love. I think that even at his most frustrating, Nolan is someone who is completely driven toward making ambitious, thoughtful, entertaining, idea-driven films. And he's somehow able to do this in mainstream Hollywood, which is a miracle. So this is not some mere checkmark in the positive column; this is perhaps what matters more than anything. For he's one of the few filmmakers who makes Hollywood itself want to be better. And he is one of a handful of people on earth who gets to do this.
I also think a lot of his critics have him wrong.
You'll see four popular criticisms pop up regarding his work: 1) too many logical nitpicks 2) too much exposition 3) too reliant on puzzle narrative and 4) he's too cold/cerebral. Look, anyone can have their own personal reasons not to like something and I can't begrudge you. But I never thought any of those criticism had much weight or more importantly, insight, especially given how well his films work for large scale audiences. For when Memento, Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight first erupted onto the scene it seemed general audiences couldn't stop vomiting up their praise. But then the backlash always comes, and is always loudest regarding logical nitpicks. Sadly, I think that sentiment has unfairly stuck with some of those films (maybe it's just the fact that heist films tend to lose their luster after first viewing, because once someone gets the trick, there's no more trick). But I think all four films are bonafide masterpieces. Not just for their incredible highs, but because I have yet to see a logical nitpick involving them that can't be answered by its obvious inclusion with the films' thematic points (or heck, it can even be something that is outright addressed in text). I mean, I practically wrote this plot-hole column so I would never have to argue about the "logic" of these films ever again.
The "too much exposition" argument rankles as well, but for different reasons. Largely because it's one of those criticisms that stems from common sense screenwriting guidelines that people treat like hard-and-fast rules. Like "don't use voice over" or something. But that just leads to all these single-minded dudes getting angry at the device itself and thus they end up criticizing masterpieces like Days of Heaven for doing something "wrong" instead of looking at the bigger understanding. In truth, we often criticize exposition scenes because 1) they're really hard to write and 2) a lot of writers tend to do them horribly and thus cheapen the dramatic articulation by simply "telling" you the movie. Thus, we think that the sin of exposition is the sin of abuse, when really it's the sin of misuse. Because newsflash, folks: exposition and conveying constant information is fucking critical to your narrative. It's just that most good stories are great at imbuing it or even hiding it within conflict between characters who are arguing and create compelling scenes. If you think about it, every chamber drama is just an exercise in the constant evolution of pertinent information.
To all that, I would argue that there is no popular filmmaker as good as Nolan at making exposition entertaining (though there are some who are better at making it invisible). Hell, the first hour of Inception isn't hurt for being pure exposition; it's a masterclass in how to execute it properly. Look at the way he constantly conveys points through character conflicts and argumentation. Look at the way he obfuscates certain motives and secrets to maximize tension. Look at the way he constantly uses visual information and dramatic trials to paint a portrait of deeper understanding. He delights in explanation with causation and purpose, all while keeping the ticking clock of dramatic pressure applied the whole way through. And in the end, you come to a place of understanding the rules of the universe, rules that will be critical to the visceral action that follows. For the hour of exposition of Inception is precisely what allows the second hour to simply "go" with rip-roaring action. But if you stick to the simple logic that exposition = bad, then you just become a clear case of how a little bit of knowledge can be a bad thing.
The criticism of Nolan's puzzle obsession is a bit more complex, if only because it absolutely skews more into personal taste. For as many people don't like his mind-game puzzle approach to plotting, there's just as many who find it the primary way they connect to his artistry (more on this later). And when his puzzles come together in a satisfying way, they really fucking work. Like, The Prestige was one of those rare birds of narrative that had the integrity to put a good puzzle in front of you and actually let you try and solve it. It never once cheats, opting to just hide all the clues right there in plain sight. And for as many people criticize the Joker's endless, confusing puzzle of a plan, it's all part of the core function of both his character (chaos embodied/a dog chasing cars) and the movie itself. Because while I admit the other two entries take some luster off the franchise, I think The Dark Knight actually gets better with subsequent viewing, largely because it allows you to see the film's plotting operate strictly in terms of theme, meaning you can see how every single scene is part of "the battle for the soul of Gotham." In fact, this puzzle issue actually slides us right into the most popular criticism of all...
For years people have thrown around words like "cold" or "cerebral" to describe Nolan, especially at the heart of trying to describe his less successful work. And I fully understand why they do because he doesn't seem to have an ear for the sentimental. But honestly, I never quite felt right about these descriptors. While they certainly describe the most undramatic elements of the puzzle approach and perhaps the "leaving you cold" affectation the films have on the audience, I don't feel like it accurately describes the psychology of the films themselves. Nor, more importantly, how they define Nolan's artistic identity.
Now, as is always the case, I have to issue a million caveats any time we start talking about "the mind of the artist" and who they are because, for all we know, Nolan could be a radically different person than the worldview offered in his films. But we always also have the right to make semiotical deductions about art and artist. Besides, connecting to another's mind is precisely why we have art in the first place. But I want to be very careful nonetheless because the idea I'm about to present is a tricky one. At the heart of Nolan's work, I do not think he's simply unemotional or uncaring...
It's that he might be incapable of communicating it.
And that is something different altogether.
3. THE LOVELESS
So there are two particularly revealing sequences in Interstellar that I can't stop thinking about.
The first scene occurs after the disastrous first attempt on whatever the big wavey planet was called. All the crew members are not only very sad because Wes Bentley died, but it turns out that 23 years have passed and now their kids are old and it's pretty heavy stuff (we'll come back to this scene later). But in the scene immediately after that, they all try to decide what to do next because they only have enough fuel to go to one of the remaining planets. Anne Hathaway's character begins to argue for a planet that has better resource options, and yet it also happens to be where her boyfriend is. When pressed on this issue by Matthew McConaughey's character about how her heart/emotion is likely getting in the way of making the decision, she retorts with a weird, rambling monologue about the scientific quantification of love that makes almost no sense whatsoever (a few people even laughed in my theater). She finishes the weird monologue and then McConaughey is like "Yeah, no we're going to this planet where my smart dude/mentor is because he's still transmitting."
This scene fascinates me for a number of reasons. I know that Hathaway is later proven "right" in a way, but the in-the-moment thematic messaging here does not get called out in any way. The first obvious problem is McConaughey criticizing her for making an emotional decision (even though it was the better option in terms of resources), and he argues he is picking this dude because he is still transmitting (read: alive), but more importantly: a super reputable awesome male leader and "the one who got them there." Does McConaughey's character seriously not realize he's making an emotional choice too? I genuinely have concerns when stuff like this isn't contextualized because it so freely floats into a double-standard. The vocabulary readily codifies male choices into non-emotional ones. Meanwhile, her smart choice for a better planet is rendered into flightiness cuz she loves her bf, and thus forces her to try and put love in logical terms they can understand.
I admit this concern is relatively minor. It's also instantly obscured because McConaughey's plan backfires horribly when it turns out smart venerable dude is just jerk-off Matt Damon and he tries to kill them all. But the film never makes any attempt to highlight the "emotional" problem of McConaughey's choice, nor re-contextualize that point in the narrative. But what is way more confusing is that McConaughey's decision is effectively punished by the film's universe - so much so that Anne Hathaway's nonsensical explanation of love being a scientific constant or something (just like gravity) is what Nolan is essentially trying to prove is a true statement.
Okay, beyond the fact that this is just a really weird way to confirm Hathaway's point (it's sort of like we end up at "love is the answer!" through the process of elimination) - the thing I want to convey is that I'm actually down for the abstract notion of love being a scientific constant in the universe. Heck, I usually eat that rainbow crap up. But with this film, it falters. Largely because Anne Hathaway has to explain love like a robot explaining it in an astrophysics lab. And at virtually no point is love and true joy seemingly demonstrated in any real way. We don't even see the effect of love (until much later and in a weird esoteric way), so the speech and its meaning have no effect on us in the moment. And when I think about it in comparison to, say, the Joker's pitch-perfect and horrifying explanation of his motives in The Dark Knight, I can't help but notice how Nolan's cinematic understanding of love comes off as deeply abstract, lacking in real meaning, and less emotional than his explanation of perfect nihilism.
And for a movie that is ostensibly about how love can save us all, this becomes a huge, huge problem. Even when there's a lot of great performances that invoke sympathy, they still don't manage to invoke empathy (which often requires careful dramatization). Instead, it feels like love is part of an answer to a riddle that will eventually allow us to become fifth-dimensional beings and transcend past all this emotional bother... And when you put it all in these stark terms, I can't simply call the treatment of love as being "wooden" in this film. I would instead use that dreaded word, "incapable." But don't take my word for it, let's look at Hathaway's actual speech about love and how she defines it:
"Maybe it means something more, something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension we can't consciously perceive, I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it yet."
If a friend sat down and told me that exact definition of love, my heart would break for them. Even in just using the word "perceiving," I would see such painful lack of understanding and experience. And more importantly, a lack of connecting to the deeper feeling that is so intrinsic and obvious and true to so many. Simply calling Nolan cerebral and cold is one thing, but because Interstellar is a film about the power of love, it becomes devastating to its core functionality. Because it doesn't really want to be, nor understands how to be about love. And once we get into the final messaging and him going back off into the stars, I see a film that wants to be ABOVE love. And ultimately, it wants to transcend love like the confines of a prison...
It's safe to say that's a thematic problem for the film.
Now, let's go back to the second scene that I can't stop thinking about. It comes earlier, when McConaughey first decides to go into space. He has a pained, strange goodbye with his daughter Murph, who is upset with him for leaving. The best way to characterize his attitude is "really fucking weird" because it really should be a heart-wrenching goodbye scene. And the actors are doing their damnedest to sell it, particularly as he drives away in tears. But the scene is written and directed so strangely and loses the audience's anchor in connecting to the decision being made. The honest text of the scene is that McConaughey is pretty-much being a dick to his daughter because she isn't being more understanding of him leaving to go into space to save the human race or whatever. He's not connecting, really he's just trying to calm her down. But 1) there's no empathy and understanding toward her and the fact that she's sad because she realizes she might never see her dad again so 2) there's no empathy toward him and us wanting to believe in his mission. He's just leaving and saying "c'mon Murph don't do this to me." So again, it really comes off more like this supposedly-loving dad saying "You're being a real dick about this, Murph!" Yes. I understand that McConaughey is going to regret these same decisions later (for, like, a second), but in terms of what it executes and why, it is just so lacking in understanding of what endears us to a difficult human decision. This disconnect is stunning. McConaughey even drops weird lines about how cool it will be when they're the same age (who would ever actually say that to their kid with enthusiasm???). It's so miscalculated, you can't help but think this is the worst parent/child relationship ever.
But then he goes off into space and instead of seeming pained by the choice, he honestly appears relieved to put it out of his mind and focus on his mission (while seemingly reserving no awe for finally going into space, AKA the one thing he's always wanted more than being with his daughter apparently?). So yeah, he goes to the planet where time is super slow and he comes back 23 years later to a Murph who is now Jessica Chastain - cue her leaving an annoyed message because they're the same age now. The scene is actually pretty heartbreaking, but again it's all about McConaughey's performance and the strong sympathy stuff. What comes off more emotionally confusing in terms of the drama is how Murph still openly resents him, and yet this whole time she's been working to find/help him. Yeah I get what it's saying conceptually. It's the duality of her feelings, but writ large into something dramatically confusing and unstable.
So let's jump forward to a later scene, this time to the fifth-dimensional portal wherein McConaughey finally gets to regret what he did in leaving, so he tries to get her attention, pleading not to let him leave. Realizing there is no stopping it, he then sees that it was him behind the communication, so he uses the books to communicate information to her in Morse code to allow all this time sequencing to happen. This is the evidence of "the constant of love," but also please think about the strained relationship that got him to this conclusion and how jacked it really is at the moment, complete with what really spurns him into those certain conclusions. It's as if "the constant of love" only arrives through this fatalistic, dictated understanding of events.
Let's jump forward one last time to what I find to be the only really, truly problematic part of the movie. And that would be when he and Murph finally do reunite at the end. Murph is now an old woman on death's doorstep and he's pretty much the same age he was when he left. The scene is cathartic in a number of ways, not just in mere reconciliation, but because the figures have been at such odds, that there is alleviation of the tension. And the performances are good, so again, more sympathy - but the larger story of meaning here is still completely bonkers. Because she basically tells him that he was right to do all this. And then she tells him now to go away because he shouldn't have to watch his daughter die (or meet any of her new family apparently?). He is, effectively and dramatically, not only absolved from all sin, but it removes the sin. He then gets a ticket to go off and do exactly what he did with this first (supposedly wrong) instincts and leave humanity behind so he can go be awesome in space (and, as it hints, be with Anne Hathaway? With whom he has anything but a functional, empathetic relationship with?). It's just so strange and false and weird for even Nolan, who is usually at least coherent in his themes all the way through.
But it all comes back to the misunderstanding of love. I rarely like to take this angle and usually just judge a film on its own emotional language, but there is so much here that doesn't make sense in terms of people's actual behavior. I get it in terms of textural emotion and catharsis for a weirdo story about time and loss, but it's wholly erratic to the central themes of the movie. Because it can't help but render the notion of love's constant and reconciliation as mere lip service. A thing we're obliquely resigned to before we get rewarded for what we really want. If the film is about crossing the annals of time to love his daughter, why does it immediately go to, "Now get the heck out of here and let me spent time with all this family you don't know and shouldn't meet for some reason!" If this is ostensibly parental love, then I can't identify with this father and daughter in a way that makes any real empathetic sense to me.
It is also impossible to separate this from what Nolan is trying to say thematically about parenthood, and specifically, the likely anguish he feels in being away from his kids. Make no mistake, this anguish is probably real. Filmmaking is a zillion-hour-a-week-job and it has outrageous personal cost. And we see it not just in the parental heartbreak of the 23 years later scene, but it crops up in most of his work, like being away from kids in Inception. Which is why the final message of the film is so damn weird and concerning. On the thematic level, it argues, "Yeah our love and connection saved all of humanity! But in the end, I was right to go, wasn't I? Now, time for me to go away again now that you're old and cool with it and without much real regret, so I can go be a Space Boy! See ya!'" Which is like this weird reflexive argument to trying to make a point about being right. I can't help but watch this movie and see a filmmaker saying "Sorry kids! Dad's busy! We'll meet when you're older and tell me I was right!" Again, I'm not saying Nolan was consciously arguing this. I'm saying that's what the movie weirdly seems to argue... It is one of the strangest films about love I've ever seen.
But this problem at the center of Interstellar reveals something deeply important about Nolan. Because love is usually a powerful, unifying force in movies. Even pulse-pounding thrill rides like Mad Max: Fury Road arrive at moments of catharsis that are about the most sincere acts of love. But you ever notice how most of the main characters in Nolan films hold these weird, angsty, absolutist motives at the center of their character? Really, if I had to use a word to explain Nolan's characters on the whole, it is that they are "driven." Often by grudge, loss, pain, or regret, but they always seem to go off on a heavily-mechanized, un-empathetic quest because of it. And that's when you see the catch...
This is what Nolan thinks love is.
"Love" is simply the logical thing that makes people go and do other things. It's the thing he knows has to be there. It's the thing that, try as he might, doesn't ever quite make sense to people watching along. And as much as I love his films and the way they imbue pace with plot and ideas, I would be hard-pressed to identify a single pre-Dunkirk character who really comes off like a complete, normalized human (and even Dunkirk gets there through minimalism), which is weird for a director who is praised for making their work feel so "grounded" and "real" (that's just his aesthetic). In truth, his brand of love has always seemed like a form of shorthand. It's always something alluded to. It's always something a character said they once carried around in them, now gone or simply misplaced. Something talked about in rambling monologues about its scientific values. Something removed from goodbye scenes where it should really be front and center. Something thrown into these larger movie mechanics in obligatory fashion. And it's the wording of that last one that helped me realize...
"Love" is just Christopher Nolan's MacGuffin.
It's also something much worse.
4. THE PINWHEEL
The most emotional, cathartic, cry-inducing moment I've ever had watching a Christopher Nolan movie was during Inception. It concerned love.
No, it wasn't Cobb returning home to his kids (who were purposefully abstract figures anyway). It came at the crescendo of the giant heist itself. In the film, we see Cobb and his team executing this massive plan to get into Cillian Murphy's brain and implant an idea that will make him want to break up his mega-corporation, all so his business rival can overtake him. And over the course of the heist we get the sense that they can achieve this by directly gnawing at his relationship with his father (who pretty much hated him and is disappointed he is leaving the company to such a pitiful son). Along the way, the film keeps playing up this picture of him and his father where he is carrying a little pinwheel, representing an innocent moment where he actually felt a connection to his father. What is perhaps important to realize is this is not only one of the most dramatized and realistic relationships in the entire movie, but weirdly it is one of Nolan's best dramatized relationships ever. Perhaps it's clarity stems from the fact that movie's literal heist text wholly depends on it? Anyway, when the big moment finally comes and in the third dreamscape, when Cillian Murphy finally goes into that vault, when he goes to see what his father has kept locked away inside all these years... It is the pinwheel.
It's a really beautiful moment. The score dins just so. Cillian is overcome with emotion. It combines the "A-ha!" Nolan gusto of reveal with something that is genuinely cathartic for the character experiencing that moment. This is what he's wanted his whole life. And it is total make-good on this huge gamble of a story, something strong enough for us to believe it would really make Cillian Murphy want to go off and be his own man. As such, we are elated. The heist has succeeded! And even Cillian is given the closure he needs (as The Brothers Bloom argues, all great cons are when everyone walks away happy). But after it all settles, there's a moment where you maybe realize something about this, one of the strongest emotional moments of the entire Nolan oeuvre: the pinwheel is a lie.
There is no mistaking it: it is an outright manipulation. Cillian's father never loved him, nor wanted him to be his own man. The heist-pullers aren't actually trying to help him. It's just a natural byproduct of getting him to do what they want. And maybe they aren't even helping him. Maybe stepping up and taking care of the company itself would have been better. We don't actually know, and we don't even really care. Ultimately, it's all a way to make a person get closure he never actually had. It's a lie. A falsehood. The trick of a devilish reveal.
So, of course, the heist is also on us.
While it's not my primary or sole reading of the film, it is commonly accepted that Inception doubles as a movie about making movies. The theory absolutely works on a semiotic level. You have Cobb the rather Nolan-ish looking director, Hardy your actor, Arthur your producer, Page your writer or set designer, etc. Every character so overtly facilitates a specific role in making these dream worlds come to life that the parable to filmmaking is undeniable. And throughout the film, they specifically talk about the way that dreams (I.E. stories or movies) can make moments full of iconography, gestures, and ideas that give the dreamers (I.E. the audience) what they want and need. Nolan is effectively communicating how to craft story to an audience. And in the pursuit of that, in giving us what he thinks we need and seek, "love" is just a pinwheel.
Love is a lie being putting into movies to create a conditional response and pull off the heist in question. Catharsis itself is a lie. A fabrication of something that is missing. That you do not have, but long for. And that probably makes Inception the saddest and yet most honest version of Nolan's love that we've seen. In most of his other films we might get brief snippets, or expressions of this kind of cathartic love, but they're mostly used to drive the point home.
To be fair, there is probably a nicer way to put the expression of this idea. Like one could argue that Inception is arguing that "the pinwheel" is the act of giving us the emotional resonance or catharsis that we might not be able to get in real life. So it's the con in a good way because of course movies aren't real, just constructions. So maybe the fact that it's "a lie" doesn't matter at all. And maybe with this flowery version of the pinwheel we can think of Nolan's brand of love with a kind of duality that actually helps us get to the heart of the matter. Because maybe the fact that it goes both ways for Nolan can tell us a whole lot about his worldview. Maybe all the "pinwheels" in his movies are just things that aren't felt, but still needed. Maybe they are about giving someone relief even when it's unbelievable. Or does Christopher Nolan actually see all this cynically and believe the world has a black heart and thus needs the meaningless exercise of an emotional want to go forward? In essence, I'm asking a deeper question: what is his emotional truth?
For that, time to go another level deeper.
5. THE FRIDGE
So Nolan really, really likes "fridge stuffing."
This expression refers to a specific screenwriting/storytelling tactic in which some character in the narrative dies or is recently dead (usually a wife), thus spurring the main character into some kind of grander action. It basically defines their motive. Now, some movies do it rather elegantly, and some stories do it rather conventionally where'ts often just some lazy stock trope where they assume your empathy. There's a reason it's virtually the cornerstone of the revenge genre. But at least John Wick had the brazen audacity to double-down on the fridge-stuffing by killing the main character's dog that had been given to him by his dying wife (turns out it was the necessary over-the-top motive creator to the fuel a perfectly over-the-top movie). But the reason fridge-stuffing happens so much in storytelling is because it's easy. It's an instantly "gettable" choice to a make audiences immediately sympathize with someone who is sad because they lost someone. We all understand the pain of loss, or at least the idea of it. But, like all tropes, fridge-stuffing takes a little more care than most artists give it. For one, if you want us to care about a character losing someone maybe you should take a little time to dramatize so we as an audience feel like *we* lost something, too. Again, it's the crucial difference between sympathy and empathy: we have to experience the loss.
And yes, Nolan is fridge-stuffing to the point that it gets a little ridiculous. Let's go through the oeuvre, shall we?
Memento - Leonard has a dead wife. He is pathologically going after revenge, literally off a series of notes telling him he is supposed to. But it turns out he got the guy a long time ago and his partner has been feeding false info so he can keep killing new dudes for hire. So Leonard just invents a new clue to hint that it's his partner who killed his wife, so he can just keep the cycle going.
Insomnia - In this adaptation, Detective Dormer is riddled with guilt because he falsified evidence on a pedophile he knew to be guilty and then accidentally shot his partner who was going to spill the beans about it. This guilt has serious ramifications including not sleeping. It also fuels his megalomania in going after the real bad dude. This is only mildly-fridge-stuffy. But regret still hangs over everything.
Batman Begins - Batman is, of course, forever motivated and defined by his dead parents being dead and all. So he, of course, has to sacrifice all hope at a meaningful, emotional life in order to fuel constant revenge on society. In the process he seems to almost get off on sacrificing to this cause.
The Prestige - Two aggrieved magicians! The angrier one blames the other for possibly tying the wrong knot in a stage trick that causes his wife's death (one of the rare ones that happens as a dramatic surprise instead of an original condition to the movie), forever locking them in a fierce battle of Magician one-uppery, where more gfs keep dying or being sacrificed or whatever in their pursuit of pulling off the great trick.
The Dark Knight - Tested more than ever by a vicious terror-anarchist in the Joker, Bruce Wayne is tempted to give it all up cause his ex is going to marry someone else - but she ends up getting killed! Fridge-stuffed! And so he re-commits double to stopping Joker and willingly takes on the brunt and sacrifice of being "the bad guy" in order for the white knight image of Harvey Dent to stand tall.
Inception - So there's this guy and he has a dead wife. But her memory and his responsibility for her suicide haunts him and prevents him from doing his job properly, which he needs to do so he can get back to his kids... Who he cannot see anymore and barely gets to talk to over the phone.
The Dark Knight Rises - Parents and a dead ex still hang over the proceedings, but Commish Gordon almost gets fridge-stuffed and Talia is getting revenge for her own stuffed-fridge cause Batman pretty much killed her dad (even though she hated him or something? It's pretty unclear). So she wants to complete his work and kill all the people of Gotham for some reason.
Interstellar - So this time, the main character's wife is dead. But the earth is also dying. So he goes into space, leaving his kid behind, to save the world. Plus Anne Hathaway's boyfriend is dead.
So yes. There is a lot of fridge-stuffing going on here. Specifically the ongoing joke that he's facilitating the dead wives club (often leading to concern over whether his producing partner and wife Emma Thomas has ever raised an eyebrow to the ongoing fixation on this particular trope). But in all seriousness, there is a curious thing going on with how Nolan keeps coming from this angle. The first observation is that they often start from the onset of the film and serve a very mechanical, plot-forwarding motive to main characters. It's almost like they're ciphers, the sort of super-MacGuffins not built on evidence of showing us love, but simply the anguish of a love lost. Which actually reveals an interesting wrinkle in terms of how Nolan defines love. It rarely seems like a beautiful thing shared among people. Instead, Nolan seems to equate love with regret, guilt, blame, and cost. Love is can even be obsession to regain one's sense of normalcy. And this? This is a version of love I do not truly understand.
But I still understand the anguish they feel.
They might be stock characters and obvious motives, but Nolan can articulate the anguish within it all quite well, along with their character's sense of fixation. And I think that expression of anguish ties into a larger piece of the puzzle, specifically to the kinds of characters Nolan can articulate brilliantly.
6. THE INHUMANE
If you've ever seen Nolan's first film Following, it's about a young writer who follows people around looking for inspiration and stories because he feels he does not have his own (he subsequently falls into a life of crime). In Memento, Leonard's motive is effectively a place holder. I've already talked about all the fridge-stuffing, the lying pinwheels of Inception, and the weird scientific nature of love in Interstellar. And if you look at the bad guy plans of the first and third Batman movies, it seems that they want to blow up the populace for being miserable garbage A.K.A. regular human beings...
It paints a portrait of a rather hollow humanity, doesn't it?
Especially when I look at Nolan's best characters in comparison. Because his best characters tend to be villains, robots, or the inhumane. No, I'm not saying that Nolan is villainous. I'm saying that perhaps it's the thing he most understands. I don't think it's an accident that his main characters are at their most compelling and human when they're actually being inhumane. I think of Hugh Jackman's incredible slide to all-consuming vengeance, a man obsessed with pulling off the perfect trick and entertainment and thinking this will somehow satisfy him, but he only kills himself over and over. And in a weird way, the robot T.A.R.S. comes across as "the most human" character in Interstellar because he knows how to make him funny and there is empathy for his robotic nature. That is not to say Nolan even aims for the robots to be the most human, but simply the most engaging and compelling. I think of his weirdos. I think about Bowie's eccentric, understated quick few scenes as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. I think about Bane's goofy and endearing cadence and posturing. But most of all, I think about the most compelling character in the history of Nolan's oeuvre: The Joker.
If you had told me that Nolan would commit the most seminal and transformative iteration of the character to screen, I would have doubted you. But his Joker is terrifying precisely because he is absolute. He is nihilistic glee incarnate. He is a foil for all that is good and decent. We have nothing to hurt him and that makes him more powerful than we fear. He sees people's misery and horrific choices. He exists only to prove we are capable of our worst. And he is utterly hilarious in this pursuit. Thus, he frightens us in the deepest corner of our psyche. Even now, what he tapped into genuinely scares me. Recently, I wrote about how crystalline his understanding was of "the big joke" and what it woke up in a litany of young men who wanted to feel more powerful by putting themselves beyond the cares of the world. And for all this, I can't help but wonder how much it actually reflects how Nolan sees the world.
Especially when you consider how often the happy "catharsis" scenes of Nolan movies, well, don't quite work or feel earned. I already talked about the strangeness of Interstellar, but the moments of anguish ring so true while the most cathartic moments tend to ring false. The triumphant final moment of The Dark Knight works because it is one steeped in the notion of sacrifice, but the happy ending of The Dark Knight Rises, with Batman going off with Catwoman and Alfred just leaving them alone, despite the heavily constructed set-up, just feels so weirdly tone deaf and lacking in understanding of where those characters' relationships actually stand. It's this weirdly assumptive narrative move, another unearned pinwheel. I also think about the forced strain of levity in his work. Batman's quips pale in functional comparison to the Joker's bone-cutting asides. This reveals a kind of evident misanthropy that showcases a filmmaker more comfortable with the earnestly inhumane than the earnestly joyful.
I'll harken back to a discussion I had here regarding Fincher with a friend we called "Film Crit Zippermouth". To understand the humanity of an artist, you have to effectively ask "what are they in awe of?"
I think Nolan's in awe of some very specific things. There's clear reverence for the venerable Michael Caine and his natural gravitas. There's awe for the power of cinema itself. Awe for Zimmer's music, in all its visceral, pulse-pounding glory. There's awe for the medium of film and his steadfast commitment to its preservation, which I happily support. But admittedly, when he talks about the merits of film vs. digital he sounds exactly like the kind of guy who doesn't use email. Largely because Christopher Nolan doesn't actually use email. And while analog approach to filmmaking certainly doesn't hurt him or his artistry one iota, it ends up revealing a lot about his temperament. Like, I'd argue that if you're going to crap on the digital process you kind of have to know what you're talking about (I've been looking like hell for this one interview during the Interstellar period, where he talks about something you can do when editing film, which is not only bizarre and untrue, but he proceeded to throw some of his editorial crew under the bus in the process. If any of you can find it, thank you). When you look through the scores of Nolan interviews, you get these little windows into who he is. Erudite. Insanely thoughtful. And while I would argue he's never smug, he has inadvertently come off snide a number of times. It sort of reminds me of the way Jonathan Franzen will talk about Twitter with a sense of authority, even though he doesn't really understand it. There's a kind of distant certainty to it all.
Please understand that none of this actually bothers me. I do not think Nolan has bad intentions, nor do I think it reveals a genuine misanthropy. What I think it reveals is a person with a lot of inadvertent disconnect. Interstellar represents so much of Nolan's spectrum. It's grand. Ambitious. Calculating. Visceral. Cerebral. And it's full of Anguish. Despair. Regret and all the familiar calling cards. But when it comes time to don the Spielbergian cape out of pure narrative necessity, it shines a direct light on all that has been off in his career. Because it shines a light right on his disconnect. And thus Nolan inadvertently made a movie that's more in awe of space and our ability to transcend human limitations than it is in awe of parenthood. And if all movies are ultimately about relationships, this is a pretty pesky obstacle, one that I believe is the root of all the "cold" and "unemotional" designations.
But I do not think he is either of those things. I think there is something deep underneath all these flaws. Something that leaves me wondering about where his humanity, his empathy, where his sense of understanding truly lies...
As it turns out, there's an answer.
7. THE CRUELTY OF TIME
Somehow, Dunkirk changed everything in my head.
On the surface, there's so much to like about the film. It probably features the best "action" of his career, not just because it's his most coherent, but because it is genuinely harrowing (good granola the two scenes of flooding in the boat). There's the most organic and natural performances in his entire filmography. And fuck, Tom Hardy does more with several glances at instruments than most actors do in their entire careers. I even think it's his most beautiful movie, awash in sparse frames and the gray, dreary hell of a home that can almost be seen. But going in, I suspected many of these things could be true. So I only had one real question underneath it... what is it about?
Even with a stripped down narrative, it turns out Dunkirk is an organic, loving document about the mere merits of survival. A rare war movie that solely aims to show you what it's like to be a proverbial fish in a barrel. In many ways, it's the anti-D-Day. A movie about being invaded and stuck on a coverless beach as the walls of the enemy close in on all sides. It's a film about helplessness. A film about soldiers being cornered in their own terrifying limbo, all as a constant series of punishing waves of death come time and time again. Especially as that word, "time," lives in every inch of the film. Not just in the film's three layer "one week, one day, one hour" construction, but in every result and moment of chance. Who lives? Who dies? It's all just a result of the cruelty of timing. Infinitely random and yet seemingly defined by the smallest gestures of bravery and cowardice therein. But gone from this narrative are the fixating, grieving heroes who are ever focused on the puzzle box. Instead, I see a legion of young boys dying on a beach. And coming from Nolan, it might be the most inherent display of empathy we've seen in his entire career. And what's more is the stunning empathy for every character in this film, no matter if they cause good or ill. And, as I looked at Fionn Whitehead, our young, blank, well-meaning, terrified everyman, I actaully saw something that startled me.
I saw the face of Christopher Nolan.
Not the face as he wants to be seen. Not as he oft postures. Not as the man who wrestles within a larger puzzle. Not as the unflappable hero driven by regret. But simply as what is underneath all of that. I saw the scared boy inside. Fionn walks the beaches of Dunkirk, gaunt, sunken, deeply afraid, and despite barely uttering a word, pressing on. Of course that's what's always under the surface of Nolan, for that's always the face of repression. I cannot explain the magnitude of this portrayal and my realization around it. Because we're talking about a film whose ultimate message is not about the vanquishing of our enemies or even the merits of "British Pluck," but a film that actually seeks to take a shot at the stiff-upper lip mantra and tell us that fear is more than okay. That tells us "surviving is enough." That seeks not to transcend our human limitations and emotions, but fully accept them. That understands that sometimes we do terrible things in the name of incredible fear and never once judges. And along the way, the anguish lies in our lonesomeness, our disconnect, and the inability to come home and into ourselves. Fionn's fear keeps him a shell of himself, but there is genuine love there. And it is not an alien understanding of love as theorem, but the innate love that exists within and for all human beings. That understands the ways we are all trapped in our own suffocating confines, all desperately struggling to get out. It is the anguish of genuine love needing expression.
And that's when I finally understand what "time" really means to Christopher Nolan. Within the world of repression, the ticking clock is human moments slipping by. Chances. Opportunities. Memories. All slipping painfully out of grasp. It is disconnect. It is the so-very-British notion of constant regret for the inability to seize the moment. It is the core of regret. It is the deepest anguish of a scene in which 23 years go by and your child grows and you can only feel utterly helpless. And now, for the first time in his career, I got the cinematic expression of a man who is not trying to outrun, outsmart, out navigate time itself, but accept that we are sometimes helpless in the face of its cruelty... For the cruelty of time is not only how much of it we spend feeling like we aren't really alive, but how much of it we spend in anguish. It is the fear of the young boy and the old man alike.
I use the word "repression" and suddenly my understanding of Nolan spills out like blood and guts. For as frustrating as a film like Interstellar can be, coming from that place of understanding flips the script on his motives so dramatically. His constant fridge-stuffing is not mere rote plotting, it is an outright fixation on his deepest fear. They are not stories of loss, but the fear of loss. And they can only come from true repression. Of being "incapable" to engage with the deeper truth. The Prestige is a director screaming out in anguish because he is trapped in his creative cycle. And Nolan is so good at creating the Joker because he feels the terror the Joker creates so intimately. Life itself is terror. It hits me so concretely as I watch scores of young boys lie in silent pain on the beach, waiting for a bomb to fall on their head. This is the experience of being alive. And in that truth, I've realize that Nolan wants the pinwheel to be real more than anyone. That as much as he battles, rages, and tries to outrun grief with the Cobb of his nature, he is more the Cillian Murphy character - the young man simply hoping for his father's heart. And on the other side of the spectrum, I see that I mistook the anguish of a parent who thought his child didn't get him. Instead it's the anguish of a parent who does not know how to really connect with a child. And when I re-watch that strange speech on love for the 20th time, I suddenly get past Hathaway's confusion and see the pained look upon her face. For it is not about about convincing us, but herself. She is in anguish because she doesn't understand love. and she so desperately wants it to be true.
And so for the first time in his career, I just felt outrageous empathy for Christopher Nolan. I want to reach out and give him the most overlong, awkward, and unasked for hug. Because the emotional shortcomings of his work are, in effect, the veiled expression of anguished shortcomings of self. For he is a man who has been desperately trying to figure out the puzzle of the world and longing to communicate, but instead trapping himself in his own deeper way. Which is why it's no accident his work so nakedly taps into the legion of young male fans who adore him and see the world as he does. In the end, Nolan does not offer any real catharsis or answer to this anguish. Only pinwheels, because the truth is he's still trapped. His films and Dunkirk offer the best possible thing instead: commiseration.
At the beginning of this essay I said his work was about anguish. But if we are going to take a look at the deeper, meaningful "awe" behind it - the thing Nolan is truly in awe of is our ability to somehow survive anguish. And for that we have to understand that underneath anguish itself, is simply pain. Pain as we all know it. The churning, human ache in our stomaches. Our wants. Our needs. And the costly paralyzation that comes from our repression and inability to engage with them. Which means his films, under all the artifice, are really just a desperate plea to not be alone in this struggle. So no matter how much Nolan gets trapped in puzzles he think will "solve" life, or is fearful of the things he could lose, or feels bound to the pressures and cruelty of time, there is not a single, solitary doubt in my mind that he is still the boy on a battlefield, who deeply yearns to transcend that intrinsic pain inside...
He's just not sure how to do it.
And I can think of nothing more human.