Friday, 6 August 2010


From Memento to Inception: Christopher Nolan takes on Hollywood.

In the last 10 years Christopher Nolan has inserted himself as one of Hollywood’s most important directors; a firm ‘one to watch’ branding has rested upon his soul since his breakout movie Memento confused millions of viewers worldwide. Since his phenomenal success reinventing the Batman franchise, he has reached explosive levels of stardom with recent dream-espionage thriller Inception. In light of his new-found ├╝ber-stardom I thought it fitting to have a posting about the director and a couple of his best works.

Quite befittingly it would seem that Nolan started and ended the decade with arguably his most personal films, Memento and Inception. Nolan takes the time to insert moments of humanity, a delicate action showing an emotional tug. The scene in Memento where Leonard re-enacts a bedroom scene with a hooker in place of his wife is possibly Nolan’s most personal moment in his filmography, a truly astounding piece of acting from Guy Pearce. In Inception Cobb witnesses his wife’s suicide as she jumps from a hotel ledge despite his pleas and begging her not to. In this scene Cobb is the antithesis of his master-thief persona, he is unable take control in the real world (also reflected by his inability to return home), despite being completely au fait in the dream world as the guru of manipulation. Nolan uses contrast to tweak audience expectations - Cobb is hardly of the same calibre as DeNiro’s sleek criminal mastermind Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s Heat; the latter being in control at all times, maintaining a manly sense of discipline and a code by which to live by. This self-reliance and code of honour is something of a regular trait with the criminal anti-hero; most living on the fringe of society and avoiding the constraints and limitations posed by family. Cobb on the other hand is a man desperate to regain the family he has lost. He relies heavily on others to achieve his potential, which can not be done without his team of dream-thieves. This reliance on others is shown when he blames point-man Arthur for not thoroughly checking the dream possibilities prior to entry, “that is your responsibility” he accuses after a street shootout and runaway freight train interrupt their course of action. Nolan’s courage to play with the status quo is admirable and also makes for more delicate and interesting cinema; using emotional touches and stark contrasts he enables the viewer to be pleasantly surprised with each of his outputs.

Memento and Inception are also Nolan’s most similar works (aside from the Batman movies): we follow a man with a tortured soul as he battles his way through a personal task with vehement persistence (Leonard hunts down a killer; Cobb has to insinuate an idea within a dream) whilst simultaneously coming to terms with the demise of their spouse. The most intriguing plot point is that Nolan made these anti-heroes responsible for their spouse’s death; Leonard unwittingly overdoses his wife with Insulin, whereas Cobb blurs his wife’s perception of dream and reality until suicide releases her from madness. The significance of the dead spouse could be any one of a thousand options, but it would seem in both films Nolan is inducing a sense of melancholy in his lead which is ultimately (and contradictorily) the driving force behind their accomplishments. After all, both Leonard and Cobb are looking to complete a mission that will separate them from their guilt, but as with all fragile men, they must confront their past to accomplish their goals.

Although Nolan hasn't drawn on “personal” experiences in either production (unless he was an amnesiac dream-thief during his time studying English at UCL), the personal affectations lie in his freedom of ideas - it was these two films that allowed Nolan complete artistic licence; at the beginning of his career he was free from studio-intervention after the film festival success of Following, and at the present stage in his portfolio he has earned the artistic freedom to make a film like Inception (without it being a sequel or having comic book source material so ubiquitous with all major new blockbusters). As opposed to all the comparison's with the late Stanley Kubrick, I would prefer to draw similarities from famous British director David Lean: both directors maintain emotion in their films, no matter the scale; they have both garnered enough success to allow themselves studio freedom (to an extent) and they also have a penchant for epic character arcs - see Nolan's creations Dom Cobb, Bruce Wayne, Robert Angier and Leonard Shelby versus Lean's Col. Nicholson, T.E. Lawrence, Yuri Zhivago and Ryan Shaughnessy. Nolan still has some brass to shine before he reaches the intensity and genius of Lean's works, but there is promise that he will, and if Inception is Nolan's Doctor Zhivago, then I can't wait for his Lawrence of Arabia.

Over the last decade Christopher Nolan has submitted some of the naughties’ best films, Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark knight and Inception, and with the likes of his latest taking over the blockbuster realm where Avatar left off (yes, I'm a big fan), Nolan proves his worth as one of the most exciting and anticipated filmmakers today. Now the hype surrounding Inception has began to subside, there are only a handful of film-makers capable of filling the void left in its wake, namely Guillermo Del Toro, Michael Mann, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, unless that void remains unfilled until we are once again drawn into the darkness with the third Batman outing.

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