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Entries in christopher nolan (2)


In Which We Really Want To Return To England

War of the Ancients


dir. Christopher Nolan
106 minutes

Bane (Tom Hardy) is an English fighter pilot during World War II. After a sound thrashing, British and French troops decide to flee back to England instead of mounting a final stand. In contemporary British military history, this is the biggest win Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) has on hand to glorify. Just wait until he finds out about Admiral Nelson.

Nolan's last decent movie was 2010's Inception, although watching it back is something of a chore, especially the last hour. Nolan took Batman very seriously, perhaps even more seriously than Bruce Wayne himself did, but those movies are tough to watch now, too. 2014's Interstellar was an amusing mess, but it posed more questions than it answered. For example, what sort of actor does Nolan work well with other than Tom Hardy? Is it really necessary for Mr. Nolan to keep making movies that barely have women in them? And why does Tom Hardy do the Bane voice in the loud torrent of moviegoing experience that is Dunkirk?

Dunkirk is supposed to be thrilling, if a bit exhausting to experience. Sitting through it feels substantially longer than the stated running time. The first thing it made me think of is the bravura sequence that opens Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant, where we are thrust in the naturalistic midst of a battle. At times, when Nolan gives Dunkirk over to some of that inspired chaos, we feel that same sense of immersion. War seems a terrible, random tragedy.

This is a fleeting sensation, however, since Nolan is compelled to give us some semblance of a glimpse, but only that, into the mindset of these men. Their main driving emotion, across the board, is complete and utter fear. The only really determined member of the cast is Dawson (a particularly intolerable and affected Mark Rylance), a civilian slowly traipsing over to France in order to ferry soldiers back to the only island they know.

Substantially more charismatic is a British private played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who is only intent on getting off the dangerous beach, where 400,000 could have been crushed by Adolf Hitler's slightest impulse. Meanwhile Bane flies a plane intent on providing cover for the evacuation. Tom Hardy does more acting with his eyes during these gorgeous sequences of flight than others do with their entire body.

Nolan's trademark has always been total control of the action and cinematography of his projects, but he works against that tendency in Dunkirk. The issue is that if he turned something necessarily chaotic and random into a smooth interplay of unlike elements, he would be sacrificing the integrity of this recreation. As a result, Dunkirk only intermittedly coheres into moments of pure beauty.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is completely naturalistic. Violence is naturally condemned by not identifying the perpetrators or their motives, since it denies us the chance to empathize with the opposing force. Near the end of Dunkirk, we view a few Nazis for a only moment – just as quickly they are gone. I am not completely sure whether their exclusion is a weird sort of pardon, since the reason Hitler did not slaughter the English at Dunkirk was probably because his closest female friend was from that great country.

The best part of Dunkirk is the time dilation that Nolan thankfully does not overly explain. It means that the narrative jumps around in its chronology, and since there is not a whole lot of caring about the actual characters involved in this escape or a focus on the significance of their deaths, the only thing to do as a viewer is figure out why exactly Nolan opted for this approach. Given time, I couldn't think of a reason other than to make war more compelling through inception.

I saw Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX. The sound was completely overdone — there is such thing as overwhelming the senses, and another thing where you completely decimate the long-term hearing of your audience. Visually, if you compare it to films of ten years ago, Dunkirk looks substantially more lavish than all of them in its loud and oversized playpen. But if you compare it to, say, the preview of Justice League, it appears rather restrained and muted. Christopher Nolan continues to awkwardly straddle the line between action blockbuster and art film. I wish to God he would simply pick one of the two.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which Inception Dreams Of Us Beneath The Surface

Blind Night Errand



dir. Christopher Nolan

148 minutes

Movies are often talked about as though they’re America’s dreams, like surveillance tapes of the collective unconscious. Movies are analyzed to find out who we are today, and what’s brewing beneath the surface of daily news (maybe journalism is to fiction as waking life is dreams). The liberal arts student in me finds this take compelling, but I’m also skeptical, since movies are of course designed to make money and tend to be financed, produced, and directed by people of extraordinary privilege and wealth. Avatar, for example, probably reveals less about America’s unconscious concerns than it does about James Cameron’s. It’s unclear whether the “dream interpretation” approach to movies is a useful way of understanding ourselves.

If movies are windows into the American psyche, then what to make of those that dramatize the unconscious mind at work? A bunch of recent examples spring to mind (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus; Synecdoche, New York, Pan’s Labyrinth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but of course it’s a legacy dating back to The Wizard of Oz (spoiler alert, sorry). One theory: just as movies are metaphorical dreams, maybe dreams are metaphorical movies, and the postmodern refractions of Gilliam, Gondry, et al are attempts to represent the uniquely contemporary experience of daily life crowded with alternate experiences, with scenes and stories from other people’s lives. Movies about dreams might be dreams about movies.

Inception has been called both a masterpiece and an object of delusional hype. If you’re reading this, my guess is that you’ve already read some other review somewhere, so I won’t go too far into explaining the premise: a group of very well dressed, good looking “extractors” (con artists who specialize in sneaking into people’s dreams to steal information) are tasked with “inception,” the implantation of an idea, which sets in motion a Mission Impossible-type heist caper set in Cillian Murphy’s subconscious. Meanwhile, lead extractor Dom Cobb (Leo) is tormented by visions of his dead wife, who routinely tries to sabotage his missions within dreamland.

Peevish reviewers — and point-missers everywhere — have observed that it technically should be unconscious mind, not subconscious. Even Wikipedia gets all sassy about it, reporting that “the term subconscious is used in many different contexts and has no single or precise definition. This greatly limits its significance as a meaning-bearing concept, and in consequence the word tends to be avoided in academic and scientific settings.” But I’m glad that the term “unconscious mind” isn’t used, because that is clearly not where the movie’s action unfolds.

The unconscious mind, as Freud had it, is the seat of desire, fear, instinct, appetite, trauma, and so on: it’s a wilderness, swampy and overgrown, its inhabitants feral, its images distorted and surreal. That’s not what Inception imagines: the artificially-induced dreaming that the movie depicts is a technology, not an organic process, and the “subconscious” of its shared dreamscape is orderly and realistic, clean and spacious.

The setting of the movie inside the mind isn’t arbitrary, but it is a means to an end. Apparently dreams play by Narnia rules, where minutes in the real world amount to hours in the dream, and days in the dream-within-a-dream. Due to this conceit, the movie is a structural marvel, and its method of storytelling is dazzling: the narrative arcs are strung from one another like the balanced wires of a hanging mobile, and all of the (seemingly unending) exposition serves to create a space within which this unique and intricate structure can take shape. (Grammar nerds: if conventional narrative is paratactic, Inception is hypotactic.)

These strengths are more or less uncontested. The movie’s detractors complain that Inception has no heart, that it’s a mere action flick rather than an emotionally mature work. But the whole tortured-by-grief widower thing totally had me, and was less contrived than anything else onscreen. It’s central to the plot, it includes Inception's cleverest twist, and it holds plenty of emotional wallop: a sudden image of (significance-laden) billowing curtains made me gasp in the movie theater. It is pretty crummy that the two female leads (Marion Cotillard as the specter of Leo’s dead wife, Ellen Page as the extraction n00b who needs everything spelled out) are moreso plot-advancers than people; but they’re much richer characters than the merely instrumental roles played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, etc, all of them tools in the purest sense.

Hardy makes the best of his part, trying his damnedest to charm the audience into looking up his name on IMDb when they get home. Murphy, skeletal cipher that he is, delivers his few flat lines as though hypnotized. But flimsy as the parts are, the women have the most to work with after Leo. It’s Page’s character (Ariadne) who enters Dom Cobb's mind, and repeatedly confronts him about his derangement; these scenes are played with a dark, weird intimacy. They don’t know each other very well, but she’s toured some of his most personal memories.

Somebody once said that Buffy the Vampire Slayer's satire is based on literalizing metaphor — that when a student remarks that the school principal is a monster, the principal does then turn out to actually be a monster. Inception is up to something similar, making the mind a stage and embodying the tormented memory of a dead loved one as an antagonist. It's typically considered bad writing when characters "speak their subtext," declaring aloud the motives and feelings that should be conveyed through the actors' performance. But Inception is about subtext as text.

I have a theory about why some critics might not be moved. In photography (I’m told), black-and-white images work best when they include both “true black” and “true white.” If the image’s shades only span the spectrum of grays, then it’s un-anchored. Black appears darkest, and white brightest, when juxtaposed with the other. The same is likely true for drama: the low notes of guilt, fear, and conflict are felt much more fully when set against the high notes of levity and humor. Inception takes itself very seriously, and deserves to; but if audiences aren’t moved by the hero’s tragic romance, it’s probably because Inception’s emotional range is narrowed by the absence of jokes. I can only remember two.

One of Inception's key tropes is the maze, and keeping up with the puzzling story is just challenging enough to resemble playing a game. Several reviewers have remarked that Inception needs to be seen twice to be understood. I disagree, but I would totally go see it again.

Ben Lansky is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Portland. This is his first appearance in these pages. You can find his website here.

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