Archive for the 'Directors: Nolan' Category
The Lego Movie.
Another guest blog this week, this time from Jeff Smith, our colleague in the department here at UW–Madison. Jeff is one of America’s experts on movie music and sound technology. He contributed an entry on Atmos last year. He has written many articles on film sound, along with two books: The Sounds of Commerce and Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds. He’s also our collaborator on the eleventh edition of Film Art: An Introduction.
‘Tis the season for Oscar buzz, and the media glut of award prognostications is already upon us. Most of the attention will go to the above-the-line talent who’ve received nominations (actors, directors, and screenwriters). The craft categories tend to get much less scrutiny, but the work of cinematographers, editors, and composers plays an equally important role in making their films award-worthy.
Today I offer some observations about this year’s nominees in the music categories: Best Original Score and Best Original Song. By using the nominees as examples, I hope to illuminate some of the ways that music continues to contribute to cinema’s narrative functions and its emotional impact on viewers. I’ll also offer my predictions for who will win at the end of each section.
Best Original Score
Even before this year’s nominees were announced, one of 2014’s most distinctive and innovative film scores was declared ineligible by the Academy. Antonio Sanchez’s driving percussion score for Birdman was disqualified under Rule 15, which states that scores “diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible.” Apparently, in the view of the Academy’s music branch, Birdman’s use of substantial excerpts of concert music by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, and John Adams weakened the impact of Sanchez’s score. That explanation, though, probably doesn’t pass the eyeball (or eardrum) test of anyone who has seen Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film. Sanchez’s drum work adds verve and energy to several of the director’s elaborately choreographed (and seamlessly stitched together) long takes.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electronic score for Gone Girl was also a notable snub, especially since their bold, pathfinding music for The Social Network took home the top prize just four years ago. The fact that both of these scores failed to secure nominations may be a sign that the Academy’s music branch is returning to the verities of good old-fashioned melody and harmony as the basic tools in the composer’s kit.
That being said, the absence of Sanchez, Reznor, and Ross from the list of nominees doesn’t mean that the remaining scores are dull or unadventurous. Quite the contrary. Several of them push film composition in new and exciting directions. Their scores fulfill traditional functions but employ innovative scoring techniques and orchestrations.
Old sounds, new sounds
Take, for instance, Gary Yershon’s score for Mike Leigh’s biopic, Mr. Turner. Bypassing the conventions of orchestral writing for film, Yershon composed for a chamber-sized ensemble. Some cues combine a saxophone quartet with a string quintet, a musical choice that seems deliberately anachronistic. (As Yerson himself says in the soundtrack’s liner notes, Adolph Saxe’s invention wasn’t even patented until 1846, just a few years before Turner’s death.) Other cues add flute, clarinet, harp, tuba, or timpani to the mix. But these embellishments simply add color to the basic sound of Yershon’s twin string and saxophone ensembles.
Yershon says he was attracted to the saxophone due to its ability to glissando – that is, bend pitch from one note to another. Yershon certainly exploits this element of the instrument’s sound by building his melodies from long sustained notes that slowly take on serpentine shapes. Saxophone glissandi have an almost iconic function in the idioms of jazz and pop music . (Think of the opening phrase of Wham’s “Careless Whisper.”) In this case, though, the technique gives Yershon’s score a minimalist, modernist edge.
Yershon’s inclusion of a saxophone quartet departs from two norms: the period music of Turner’s time and the symphonic orchestrations that have characterized biopics for decades. The saxophone was never a major component of the Hollywood sound crafted during the studio era. Composers like Max Steiner and Victor Young occasionally included saxophones in their arrangements of music played onscreen by dance bands, but for the most part, their wind arrangements were for some combination of flutes, oboe, English horn, clarinets, and bassoons.
Is Yershon’s score inappropriate on historical grounds? I don’t think so. By modernizing the sound of Leigh’s period biopic, Yershon’s score adds a contemporary resonance, perhaps encouraging viewers to see parallels between Turner’s painting and the work of modern-day artists. Indeed, as Guy Lodge noted in his Hitfix review of the film, “It’s tempting, even, to view the film as biopic-as-self-portrait, revealing shades of one life through another. Leigh has a reputation for prickliness and resistance to self-explication; perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s long been fascinated by Turner’s allegedly gruff, taciturn genius.”
Yershon’s use of contemporary instruments may not in itself suggest those historical parallels. Indeed, most viewers probably have no idea when the saxophone was invented. But it certainly invites us to think about Leigh and Yershon’s reasons for opting for such a modern sound. And with its smaller instrumental forces, Yershon’s score resists some of the sweeping emotionalism that is found in other examples of the genre.
Zimmer pulls out all the stops
Hans Zimmer’s nomination for Interstellar is the tenth of his long and distinguished career. With all apologies to John Williams, Zimmer is arguably Hollywood’s leading film composer and his work is emblematic of a larger industry turn toward emphasizing musical tone and texture rather than big memorable themes. Zimmer’s score for Interstellar is no exception to this rule. In this case, though, much of the tone and texture is provided by the four-manual Harrison & Harrison pipe organ found in London’s Temple Church.
Director Christopher Nolan says that he liked the sound of the church organ as something that added an element of religiosity to Interstellar. But the organ contributes other things as well. For one thing, the organ’s booming bass register adds mass and heft not only to the music, but also to the astronomical bodies shown onscreen. The sheer size of these lower frequencies enhances the sense of scale in Nolan’s imagery. Thanks to the organ’s huge pitch range, the instrument’s upper register provides the quieter, swirling arpeggios needed to suggest the story’s filial bonds between father and daughter. At the same time, the instrument’s big, fat bottom end adds the musical bombast needed to convey the film’s epic visions of distant planets, wormholes, and alternate dimensions.
More important, despite the church organ’s strong association with sacred and liturgical music, Zimmer’s score never sounds like a Bach toccata. Rather, due to its repetitive, but intricate arpeggiations and simple, but affecting harmonic structures, Interstellar’s music has the kind of trippy, drone-ish, psychedelic feel that suggests both Terry Riley and Iron Butterfly. Zimmer’s score does not contain anything that is an obvious quote from the music of Stanley Kubrick’s “thinking man’s” sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, in its own way, Zimmer’s music recalls the period where such films were being produced, indeed the very kind of film that Nolan self-consciously tried to recreate.
In developing the score for Interstellar, Nolan and Zimmer also departed from the norms for director-composer collaborations. Most composers begin their work at a fairly late stage in the filmmaking process. In some cases, they may work from a completed script. In most cases, though, a composer starts with a rough cut of the film, making his or her contribution felt only during post-production.
In contrast, Nolan acknowledged that he has gradually been bringing Zimmer into his production at earlier and earlier stages. Nolan dislikes the practice of temp tracking, a technique that involves slugging in preexisting music that temporarily serves as a guide to the production team during the editing process. Says Nolan, “To me music has to be a fundamental ingredient, not a condiment to be sprinkled onto the finished meal.”
For Interstellar, Nolan asked to meet with Zimmer well before production began. As Nolan recounts in the liner notes to the soundtrack, he gave the composer an envelope containing a one-page summary of the fable that sat at the heart of the story. The description did not contain any details of the film’s genre or plot. Rather the summary simply laid out the narrative’s emotional core. Zimmer then took the summary and retired to his studio to start composing. Several hours later, Zimmer brought back a CD that contained about three or four minutes of music. Nolan listened to the new piece: a simple piano melody that nonetheless captured the feeling of what the director says he was “already struggling with on the page.”
When Nolan began shooting, he frequently listened to Zimmer’s simple piano piece, which functioned as a kind of “emotional anchor” for the film. Eventually, Zimmer returned to the studio and created the huge musical canvas that captures Interstellar’s heady exploration of space and time. Underneath it all, though, is the humble melody Zimmer wrote prior to production, the modest edifice upon which the rest of the score is built.
More songs about buildings and food service
Like Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat has several previous nominations to his credit, including those for the scores of Best Picture winners The King’s Speech and Argo. Unlike Zimmer, though, Desplat has yet to win. Among Hollywood’s current A-list composers, Desplat has shown extraordinary versatility. He’s at home writing for foreign art films, American indies, animation, and studio genre pictures. Desplat’s score for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is the third he has done for the director, following earlier collaborations on The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom.
Here again, Desplat’s score for The Grand Budapest Hotel departs from established norms of Hollywood orchestration. Although he uses a slightly smaller version of the wind and brass sections usually found in older Hollywood film scores, he avoids the normal violins, violas and cellos. Instead he opts for a string section comprised of balalaikas, cimbaloms, zithers, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. This choice is intended to reflect the vaguely Mitteleuropean setting of the film. Just as the story is loosely inspired by the writings of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, the music reflects the social and geographical milieu of Zweig and his characters during the 1920s and 1930s. Eastern European and Russian folk melodies inspired much of Desplat’s. This combination of instrumentation and idiom creates a harmonic and timbral palette that proves to be enormously flexible in the composer’s hands, enabling him to add classical, modern, and jazz touches wherever they are needed.
Although Desplat employs unusual orchestration in The Grand Budapest Hotel, his score is fairly traditional in other ways. There are leitmotifs for several of the main characters, such as M. Gustave, Zero, Madame D., and Ludwig. An eight-measure theme is also linked to situations of adventure or danger. These themes and motifs tighten up the film’s structure. Such cues for patterning are particularly important when one considers The Grand Budapest Hotel’s “Chinese box” or “Russian doll” narrative construction, which nests stories inside stories.
Desplat’s score also captures the film’s dark yet whimsical tone. In interviews, the composer acknowledges that Bernard Herrmann and Carl Stalling were important influences on his work. At first blush, Herrmann, who composed several iconic scores for Alfred Hitchcock, and Stalling, who wrote crazy, almost manic music for Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, would seem to occupy opposite corners of the universe. It’s to Desplat’s credit, though, that he is able to blend these diverse influences in a manner that is perfectly attuned to Wes Anderson’s imaginary “snow-globe” world. Indeed, the cue for the scene where Gustave is hanging from a cliff features harmony that would not be out place in Herrmann’s score for North by Northwest, an obvious inspiration.
But the mood is much lighter and airier in Anderson’s cliffhanger, partly because of the tenor established by Desplat’s music.
Scoring the Beautiful Minds of Cambridge
Ironically, Desplat’s chief competition may come from himself. Besides The Grand Budapest Hotel, Desplat also received a nomination for the fact-based espionage thriller, The Imitation Game. It was the fourth time in the last fifteen years that a single composer received two Oscar nominations for Best Original Score. And like the other nominees discussed here, Desplat developed an unusual compositional technique for the film, allowing for an element of randomness to determine his score’s final musical shape.
Whereas Sanchez deviated from compositional norms by improvising beats for Birdman, Desplat’s score for The Imitation Game pushes the envelope by featuring three computerized pianos, which sometimes play random patterns of preprogrammed music. According to the composer, the pianos’ fast, complex combinations not only underscore the urgency of the Bletchley Park team’s search for a solution to the Nazis’ Enigma code, but they also function as an musical correlative of cryptanalyst Alan Turing’s thought processes. As director Morton Tyldum put it, he wanted the music to seem subjective, as though it was conveying the mental operations inside the head of an awkward, but brilliant mathematician.
Desplat’s use of rapid scales and arpeggios to represent Turing’s genius actually recalls Philip Glass’ score for Errol Morris’s documentary about Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. To be fair, Glass’ compositional style has employed these kinds of musical textures in many other types of cinematic contexts. Glass’s work not only appears in other Morris films, but also in biopics about Japanese writer Yukio Mishima and the Dalai Lama, and even in horror films and dramas, such as Candyman and The Hours. Given the constancy of his compositional proclivities, it is perhaps easy to make too much of Glass’s ability to depict the depth and brilliance of Hawking’s intellect. Yet there is little question that Glass’s music adds both a sense of mystery and majesty to Morris’s imagery, which itself explores such imponderables as the nature of time and the origins of the universe.
Because of this precedent, it is perhaps doubly striking that composer Johann Johannson took such a different tack in his music for the Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. With long sustained string lines and simple piano melodies, Johannson aims for a soft lyricism that is intended to add both pathos and subdued passion to the film’s depiction of Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane. Since the film is based on Jane’s account of their marriage, it is probably not surprising that Johannson’s score plays her point of view even more than it does that of its putative subject. As the composer explains, the “heart of the film is the love story: Stephen and Jane, Jane and Jonathan. That’s really what the music needed to capture.” Thanks to Johannson’s use of harpsichord, celeste, harp, and guitar, the tone colors of the music remain light, making his score for The Theory of Everything a modern counterpart to the work of the Georges Delerue.
All five nominees are quite worthy of the award for Best Original Score. But, if I had the opportunity vote, I would probably cast it for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not only is Desplat’s score perfectly attuned to Wes Anderson’s distinctive style, but it would be nice to see the composer recognized for the overall quality of his oeuvre. Desplat’s fans, though, probably split their votes between The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game, thereby increasing the chances that he’ll once again go home empty-handed.
In underlining The Theory of Everything’s romance plotline, Johansson’s score is perhaps the most traditional among the five nominees. I don’t believe, though, that its adherence to longstanding film score conventions will hurt it on Oscar night. Johansson’s sweet lyricism already carried the day at the Golden Globes, an award that has correctly predicted the eventual Oscar winner four out of the last five years. Although there could be an upset in this category, I expect we’ll see Johannson triumphantly hoist the little gold man over his head come Sunday night.
Best Original Song
If recent award ceremonies are any indication, this is a category that has fallen a bit on hard times. At least this year, there are five legitimate nominees. Last year one of the nominees was disqualified, and in 2012 and 2011, the category fielded only two and four nominees respectively.
One potential reason for the paucity of original songs may be the previously mentioned turn toward tone and texture in contemporary scoring practice. In the old days, many of the best-remembered and best-loved songs from the movies were crafted from themes specifically composed for the score. This was the case with tunes like Alfred Newman and Frank Loesser’s “Moon of Manakoora” from The Hurricane, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” or even James Horner and Will Jennings’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Since current film composers are turning away from big themes, it seems there is less opportunity to adapt a musical motif into something that works as a theme song. (Of course, there are occasional exceptions. In 2013, Adele and Paul Epworth took home the Oscar for Skyfall, updating the established formula for making Bond theme songs.)
This year’s nominees also lack anything resembling last year’s heavyweight battle between Frozen’s “Let It Go” and Despicable Me 2’s “Happy.” All of the nominees seem quite worthy. None of them, though, has created the kind of cultural ubiquity enjoyed by Idina Menzel’s and Pharrell Williams’s chart-topping singles.
Two of the nominees have the misfortune of appearing in little seen films: Beyond the Lights and Glen Campbell: I’m Not Me. Diane Warren is one of the industry’s top songwriters and her “Grateful” is featured in the former of the two films. Warren also is a seven-time Oscar nominee, and although I believe her time at the podium will eventually come, it seems unlikely this year. Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is a moving ballad, made all the more poignant due to the singer’s ongoing struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. Campbell’s battle, which is the subject of James Keach’s documentary about the singer’s farewell tour, makes the song a counterpart to other epitaph numbers, such as Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” or Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart.”
The third nominee is “Lost Stars” from Begin Again, director John Carney’s belated follow-up to his earlier indie sleeper, Once. “Lost Stars” was written by two members of the nineties band the New Radicals: Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois. The latter has come a long way since her days as a seventies child star appearing in Broadway’s Annie and television’s All in the Family. Starting in the 1990s, Brisebois remade herself as a successful songwriter and producer, penning tracks for Donna Summer, Natasha Bedingfield, Kelly Clarkson, and a host of other top female performers.
“Lost Stars” is heard several times in Begin Again. The first time Gretta (Keira Knightley) performs it in a spare singer-songwriter arrangement featuring acoustic guitar, piano, and strings. It underscores a flashback of Gretta’s arrival in New York with her skeezy rock-star boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5′s Adam Levine). Later, we hear it as a track on Dave’s CD. Here he gives it an up-tempo stadium-pop sheen. Near the film’s end Dave again performs “Lost Stars,” this time as an arena-rock power ballad.
It is unusual to hear an Oscar-nominated song played in such wildly different styles, and even more unusual for one of those versions to be served up in a manner intended to seem excessive and distasteful. Tellingly, the end credits list Dave’s rendering of the song on CD as “Lost Stars (Overproduced Version).” The contrast between them, though, provides important character motivation for the film’s resolution. Dave’s indifference to Gretta’s creative vision of the song shows that he is ill suited to be her romantic partner. It also reveals producer Dan as a much more kindred spirit for Gretta’s professional ambitions. She gets to keep her coffeehouse, folkie purity even as her coffers are filled by the filthy lucre earned from sales of the soulless version featured on Dave’s major-label CD.
Interestingly, on Oscar night, Adam Levine will sing “Lost Stars” as part of the broadcast. If the producers wanted to stay true to the spirit of “Begin Again,” they might have opted for Keira Knightley to perform the song. Yet the fact that Levine was the first performer announced suggests that his star power was simply too much of a draw. Despite the film’s critical view of Dave’s talent, sales of Levine’s version of the song appear to have outpaced Knightley’s. Begin Again may be cynical about the music’s industry’s overinvestment in mainstream tastes, but Levine’s “overproduced” version of “Lost Stars” has done a great deal to give the film much-needed media exposure.
The fourth nominee, The LEGO Movie’s “Everything is Awesome!!!”, arguably displays an even more mind-bending degree of complexity in its relation to the popular music marketplace. The song appears quite early on in the film introducing us to a “utopian” animated world where citizens happily play their part in serving Lord Business. As my colleague Jeremy Morris pointed out in a campus symposium on song “hooks,” “Everything is Awesome!!!” is a tongue-in-cheek anthem to teamwork, conformity, and the dominant ideologies regarding labor and consumerism. Think of it as Adorno and Horkheimer for the toddler set, or better yet, as part of the Frankfurt Pre-School.
As an element of internal critique within The LEGO Movie, “Everything is Awesome!!!” is pretty effective. In a particularly naked example of Marx’s “false consciousness,” we see the characters’ submission to corporate control even as we recognize that all is not awesome in Lego Land.
If only the song weren’t so damned catchy. Like the film, the song appears to be crafted to appeal to both the kids who make up its target demographic and the parents stuck in the theater with them. The melody is deliberately simple with a pitch range and structure that any three year-old could sing. However, the song’s “four on the floor” rhythms and electro-flavored instrumentation also make it palatable to adults as well. The end result is an earworm that insinuated itself into my brain for days at a time.
Much of the song’s success derives from its ability to play it both ways. On the one hand, as a theme song for The LEGO Movie, “Everything is Awesome!!!” gently satirizes the unholy marriage between business and government that structures the Lego universe. On the other hand, though, the song appears in what is essentially a feature-length commercial for toys. Moreover, it is so hooky and memorable that it also helps promote The LEGO Movie in various ancillary markets. Still, if that sounds even more cynical than Begin Again’s depiction of corporate sellout, I can’t think of another song that would better fit what The LEGO Movie tries to accomplish.
The final nominee is “Glory” by John Legend and Common. The song is featured in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. A soulful, gospel-inflected ballad, the song was written as a tribute to the members of the Civil Rights movement who worked tirelessly in their fight for equality, especially their efforts to help passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It appears during an epilogue underscoring a montage that mixes fictional scenes with photographs and archival footage of the real-life Selma marches. The sequence also relates the fates of the various historical actors depicted in the film, reminding us of the sacrifices they made.
With its soaring chorus and rapped verses, “Glory” is decidedly contemporary fare. Yet it remains a worthy successor to the rhythm-and-blues classics heard in the film, such as Otis Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble” and The Impressions’s “Keep on Pushin’”.
Like the other four nominees, “Glory” displays the kind of multi-functionality that is the hallmark of great movie songs. Its style reminds viewers of the important role played by black churches in the early years of the Civil Rights movement. The song’s uplifting tone also provides a satisfying emotional climax to the film, providing a sense of triumph over the physical and political challenges faced by the film’s characters. Lastly, Common’s lyrical reference to the protests of Ferguson also reminds us that the struggles for civil rights continue.
The historical parallels between current events and protests portrayed in Selma have earned considerable commentary by pundits and journalists. And one doesn’t need to hear the song or even see the movie to understand the reasons why the phrase “Black lives matter” resonates across these different generations. Yet Legend and Common’s song makes perhaps the film’s most concrete and explicit connection between past and present. By linking the literal and metaphorical dimensions of Selma’s historical allegory, “Glory” achieves an associative richness that very few recent movie songs can match.
Entertainment Weekly characterizes this as a two-horse race. The magazine suggests that “Everything is Awesome!!!” and “Glory” each give voters a chance to right a perceived wrong, honoring a film snubbed in some of the other categories.
As I indicated earlier, I find the pop panache of “Everything is Awesome!!!” undeniable. More important perhaps, the filmmakers adroitly weave the song into particular scenes in The LEGO Movie. Still, I don’t think that will be enough for “Everything is Awesome!!!” to take home the top prize. In underscoring Selma’s import and its timeliness, “Glory” does something that none of the other nominees does. By drawing together African-American musical styles, both past and present, “Glory” is imbued with a political and historical resonance that strives for higher ground. For that reason, I expect John Legend and Common will add Oscar to the other accolades they have received.
First, many thanks to Jeremy Morris, my colleague in the University of Wisconsin’s Communication Arts Department, whose thoughts on The LEGO Movie have unquestionably shaped my own. A shout-out also to Jon Burlingame, whose coverage of film music topics in Variety is second to none. Burlingame has surveyed the best Original Score nominees, and the Best Original Song nominees.
On Desplat, see Burlingame’s article “Alexandre Desplat’s Twin Takes on WWII: ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘Unbroken.” Additionally, Matt Zoller Seitz’s companion volume to The Grand Budapest Hotel contains an interview with Desplat and an analysis of the score that reproduces excerpts from certain cues. More on Seitz’s book can be found in this promo film. The Grand Budapest Hotel’s entire soundtrack is on YouTube. Earlier entries on The Grand Budapest Hotel on this site are here and here.
For those interested in the development of Interstellar’s score, there’s a short video on J. Bryan Lowder’s blog containing interviews with both Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer. Lowder offers a thorough overview of Zimmer’s score here. John Legend offers comments on his song for Selma.
In The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, 1951), Howard Tyler has drifted into crime under the guidance of a breezy sociopath. They commit a string of holdups, culminating in a kidnapping. Howard’s partner bashes in the skull of their young captive. Wandering drunk and despairing, Howard ends up in the apartment of Hazel, a lonely manicurist. As Howard lolls on the sofa, she turns away to switch off the radio.
The next move is up to us.
If we’re alert, we can spot, on the end table in the corner of the frame, a newspaper with a headline that may be announcing the police investigation.
At first Hazel takes no notice. Will she? She does. She lifts the paper and is appalled.
Hazel turns toward Howard. Now we can see the entire headline as she reads aloud: Police are intensifying the search. She hasn’t made the connection between her guest and the boy’s disappearance.
Panicked, Howard lunges at her and crumples the newspaper.
Will this display of shattered nerves tip Hazel off?
As in the bomb-under-the-table model of suspense, at the start we know more than both characters know. She’s unaware of the kidnapping, and he’s unaware that the cops have found the victim’s car. In addition, the arc of suspense around the headline is quite small, though it leads on to something larger: Will Howard give himself away to the unsuspecting Hazel?
I’m impressed by the economy of presentation. Hitchcock might well have treated this moment in point-of-view shots, and a fairly protracted series of them. Or imagine how several filmmakers today would have handled this scene. There’d be a slow a track-in to the headline, then a circling camera movement that first concentrates on the woman picking up the paper, then racks focus to Howard on the sofa in the background.
Instead, director Cy Endfield makes very small changes of framing and staging matter a lot. The camera simply swivels, the actress simply comes to the foreground and pivots. The entire action, crucial as it will prove in what follows, consumes only twenty-five seconds.
Some stretches of a movie tend to be simply, barely functional: connective tissue or filler. Shots show cars driving up to places where the real action will take place, or characters striding down a corridor before going into a doorway. Other images want to engage us more deeply, but they do it through immensity. They try to awe us with majestic swoops over the sea or into the sky. (Recent example: Interstellar.) But other films engage us through detailing. They train us to notice niceties.
The Sound of Fury moment creates its detailing through visual space. What about time? And what about auditory factors? Our old friend, the telephone call, can furnish some examples.
Clay Pigeon (1949).
Filmmakers must always decide how much of any action to show. Sometimes that allows the director, the cinematographer, and the editor to create fine-grained delays. These might not build up a lot of suspense but they can make us uneasy, and prepare us for a surprise later down the line.
As we mention in Film Art, and discuss in a related blog entry, a telephone scene forces the filmmakers to choose among clear-cut alternatives. Do we see both parties? Do we see only one and simply hear the other? (And is the voice of the one we don’t see futzed?) Do we see one and not hear the other at all? Most films don’t ask more than simple functionality, but even a B man-on-the-run feature like The Clay Pigeon (1949) shows what can be done with details of timing in setting up a phone call.
Jim Fletcher has war-related amnesia. He doesn’t know why he’s about to be court-martialed for treason. After escaping from the hospital, he learns that he is accused of betraying his best friend during their time in a Japanese POW camp. After convincing Martha Gregory, the friend’s widow, that he’s innocent, he searches for proof. The Clay Pigeon sticks mostly with Jim, but like most suspense films it slips in bits of unrestricted narration as well. Jim’s quest is tracked by mysterious men, and brief scenes give us glimpses of the forces pursuing him: agents of Naval Intelligence, and a gang of counterfeiters protecting the Japanese soldier who tortured Jim in the Philippines.
It’s the familiar structure of the double chase, dosed with minor mysteries. For example, when Jim gets a lead from a management firm, he leaves the office but the narration stays with the secretary who notifies her boss that Jim has been asking questions.
Cut to the executive’s office, where the camera reveals many stacks of wrapped bills on his meeting-room table. Something sinister is going on here, but what?
The decision to insert information addressed to us alone has more subtle consequences in two telephone scenes. Jim calls Ted Niles, another veteran of the POW camp. During these scenes, the filmmakers had the option of showing only Jim and never revealing Ted at the other end of the line. That tactic would have enhanced mystery, but it would have thrown suspicion on Ted. If he’s Jim’s friend and ally, why not show him?
So the filmmakers show Ted replying in his apartment. But later it will be revealed that Ted is working with the gang. The task is to introduce this important character in a way leaving open the possibility of his treachery. The solution the filmmakers hit upon is to show Ted just before he picks up the line. Here is the first instance, when Jim cold-calls him.
The camera shows Ted innocuously answering the phone and learning, to his surprise, that Jim has tracked him down.
At first Ted seems annoyed, but then he smiles and agrees to help.
The scene ends on Jim hanging up. If we wanted to plant more suspicion of Ted, we’d show him hanging up too and reacting to the call.
A later scene starts much the same way, with Ted coming in to answer a ringing phone and getting a message from Jim.
Both scenes show Ted answering the phone in a completely innocuous way. Yet the very fact of dwelling on his action of coming to the phone can be seen as planting uncertainty. In the second scene, for instance, where is he coming from? And in both scenes, Ted frowns at certain points. Perhaps he is pondering ways of helping Jim, but the expressions leave open the possibility that he is plotting against him. Ted’s duplicity is fully revealed only at the climax. (See image surmounting this section.)
In a mystery situation, a few seconds showing Ted alone gain a force they wouldn’t have in another genre. Some viewers will be surprised, some will say they knew it all along, but either way the detailing of a moment here and there has opened the possibility.
The Clay Pigeon telephone scenes show the speakers in alternation. The give-and-take of the conversation is presented by cutting back and forth. Another option is simply to show one speaker and let us hear the other without seeing him or her. As we’ve noticed, though, that would tend to make Ted a more mysterious figure.
Yet another possibility is the silent treatment: One speaker is shown talking, and we don’t hear the other at all. This option forces our attention wholly onto the reaction of the person we do see, and keeps us in the dark about the words and tone of voice of the person at the other end of the line. If the Clay Pigeon telephone calls presented Ted this way, that would be another tipoff.
Still, suppressing one half of the conversation can pay dividends when we already know the characters. At the climax of Humoresque (1947), detailing involves not a prop or a passing moment. Instead, a simple cut accentuates the shift from one sound space, that of violinist Paul Boray’s dressing room, to another, the luxurious living room of his lover Helen Wright. When he gets her call, he can’t understand why Helen isn’t at his big concert. But she is distraught because her own worries about keeping Paul’s love have been reinforced by Paul’s mother, who insists that she’s no good for him. And Helen is drinking again.
The scene’s tension is ratcheted up by first presenting only Paul’s angry questioning. We don’t hear Helen’s replies. When the dramatic momentum shifts to Helen’s desperate excuses for missing the concert, we concentrate on her meltdown more intently because now we don’t hear Paul’s replies. Her emotional response is magnified by the yearning climax of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture on the radio broadcast–another reason to suppress Paul’s voice.
The scene has been split between Paul’s end and Helen’s. By not seeing Helen’s reaction to his urgent questions, we wonder what is keeping her away. Like Paul, we’re unaware of her torment. But then we see and hear her, and our inability to know what he’s saying makes his pleas seem ineffectual. Whatever he’s saying doesn’t seem to matter. A simple speaker/listener cut raises the scene to a new pitch, which will build still further when we follow Helen out onto the terrace. One more detail, brutal: We don’t hear Paul’s voice, but we do hear the click when he hangs up.
One thing that links all these Little Things: What the filmmakers did not do. Cy Endfield did not indulge in camera arabesques or POV cutting. Richard Fleischer and his colleagues did not suggest Ted’s duplicity with music or a noirish shadow. Jean Negulesco and company didn’t yield to the temptation to crosscut furiously between a panicked Paul and an anguished Helen. These directors did something rare today. They presented the situation with stylistic simplicity. That way the big moments–the revelation of Ted’s treachery in the train, the frenzied mob in The Sound of Fury, the all-enveloping climax of Helen on the beach–become more vivid. Big things need little things to seem bigger.
Thanks to Jim Healy, who introduced me to The Sound of Fury and The Clay Pigeon.
For more on the bomb under the table, see the followup entry here.
Lest someone think I’m dumping on Nolan, let’s just note that he can, when he wants, summon up niceties. (By the way, thanks to readers for hustling to our Nolan vs. Nolan entry, but they should read the one on The Prestige and our Inception series here and here to get a fuller sense of our estimation of him. All of these are put into reader-friendly order in an insanely inexpensive ebook…..)
Several other blog entries consider detailing in performance: Henry Fonda’s hands, Bette Davis’s eyelids, and the facial expressions in The Social Network. I’m still mulling an entry on eyebrows, which are terribly underrated. For another Joan Crawford tour de force, there’s this.
Earlier I’ve described our site as a series of experiments in para-academic writing—a strategy for getting our ideas and research to film enthusiasts both inside and outside educational institutions. Once we had created the site and mounted essays and blog entries, we pushed on to other possibilities.
Could we create a print book out of blog entries? Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we did.
Could I post as an e-book a revised version of a published book, with expanded text and color stills? You bet!
Could I post a new e-book based on blog entries? Done.
Today we launch another experiment. Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages is offered to you as an e-book. It revises, reorganizes, and expands on several earlier posts. What’s the new wrinkle? For the first time we offer film clips “baked into” the text. A version without extracts is also available. The cost for either one is $1.99.
You can acquire either here, along with more information. What follows provides a little background on the project.
Is Christopher Nolan a good filmmaker? A bad one? Good on some dimensions, bad on others? What about the faults and virtues of individual films?
These are questions people consider typical of film criticism—questions turning on evaluation. Then there are questions of personal taste. Even if his films are good, do you dislike them? Even if they’re bad, do you enjoy them? Most people don’t distinguish between evaluation and taste, but I’ve argued before that this is an important distinction.
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages grants that along certain dimensions Nolan’s films can be faulted. By some criteria, his technique occasionally falters. Along other dimensions, the work is valuable. But the primary concern of the book isn’t to evaluate Nolan. Kristin and I want to analyze some ways in which his narratives have been innovative.
Innovation isn’t inherently a good thing, of course, but we think that Nolan has fruitfully explored some fresh options in cinematic storytelling. Contrary to common opinion, we don’t think that the Dark Knight trilogy is a significant part of this tendency. We concentrate on Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and especially Inception. We see in these films a consistent inquiry into how multiple time frames and embedded plotlines can be orchestrated in fresh and engaging ways.
The key problem is comprehensible complexity: How do you build more elaborate structures and still not lose your audience? How do you design a labyrinth that contains enough linkages to guide your viewer toward a unified experience? This is a problem that confronts any filmmaker who tries for ambitious storytelling within the tradition of mainstream American cinema.
So if one of your criteria for a good film is adventurous novelty, then there is a case to be made for Nolan. But maybe you don’t accept that criterion, or you resist the claim that he’s doing something intelligent with classical plot structures, or maybe his work just isn’t to your liking. Nonetheless, we hope that our analyses will shed light on his films—and more generally, on other films.
One of the goals of all our research, online and off, is to trace out broad tendencies. We’re interested in disclosing creative options that are available to filmmakers working in different traditions and at different points in film history. Other directors or screenwriters can push Nolan’s experiments in other directions. And we can study all these options and pathways while suspending evaluation and personal taste.
Old rules, and new
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages sticks to some of the rules I outlined with respect to Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies.
The original blog entries aren’t taken down. All the original blog entries will remain available online. To see them, click on the Nolan category on the right.
The book isn’t simply a blog sandwich. One reason I created this book was to revise and reorganize the somewhat diffuse blog posts into something tighter, with a smoother flow of ideas.
The book has substantial new material. Some points in the original posts are expanded, while we add some fresh ideas about Nolan’s significance.
It isn’t an academic book. It’s written in the conversational style of our blogs. Nonetheless, the text and a reference section in the back provide links to documents, interviews, sources, and sites of interest.
The book isn’t free… Again, I’ve had to pay for design and work on the video clips. So my hope is to recoup my expenses and even pay myself something for my effort.
…but it’s very, very cheap. Planet Hong Kong 2.0 runs $15, which I think is a fair price given the cost of designing a long book with hundreds of color pictures. Pandora is a lot simpler and has only a few stills, so it costs $3.99. The Nolan book, quite a bit shorter than Pandora but with many stills and several video extracts, is priced at $1.99.
And there will be video. One version of the book contains six short extracts from films that are analyzed. These are “baked in.” That is, you don’t have to be online to watch them.
So now, some specifics. These are also reviewed on the purchase page.
We offer a vanilla version of Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages that is a pdf file of 10 MB. It contains lots of stills but no clips. It will display well on any computer or tablet. It costs $1.99.
The audiovisual version of the book is a much fatter pdf file, nearly 300 MB. That one will take longer to download, of course, but it will enable you to play the clips anywhere, whether you’re online or not. It too costs $1.99.
All the clips play smoothly on laptops and desktops, whether PC or Mac. As far as we know, Android-based tablets will run the clips organically. Still, some operating systems on some devices may not natively display the videos. Most notably, the Adobe PDF Reader on the iPad will not run the clips. But there is at least one iOS-friendly application available, PDF Expert, that will play the clips. Probably other apps exist or will be developed. You may want to experiment for best results.
Payment procedure is via PayPal, funneled through PayHip. PayHip enables us to put a big e-book file on the Cloud. When you make your purchase, you will be directed back to the PayHip site to download the book. An email will also be sent to the address you provided, with a download link.
Once more, you can go here to order the book. On the same page you can examine the Table of Contents.
As I said back in 2012 when we introduced Pandora: If you decide to buy the book, we thank you. And again we quote Jack Ryan from the end of The Hunt for Red October: Welcome to the new world.
Thanks to our Web tsarina Meg Hamel, who did her usual superb job turning the Nolan blogs into this little book, and who has set up the payment process to be quick and easy. Thanks as well to Erik Gunneson for his work preparing the clips for our analyses.
All illustrations in this entry from The Prestige.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the Wachowskis, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and other directors who made breakthrough films at the end of the 1990s have managed to win either popular or critical success, and sometimes both. None, though, has had as meteoric a career as Christopher Nolan.
His films have earned $3.3 billion at the global box office, and the total is still swelling. On IMDB’s Top 250 list, as populist a measure as we can find, The Dark Knight (2008) is ranked number 8 with over 750,000 votes, while Inception (2010), at number 14, earned nearly 600,000. The Dark Knight Rises (2012), on release for less than a month, is already ranked at number 18. Remarkably, many critics have lined up as well, embracing both Nolan’s more offbeat productions, like Memento (2000) and The Prestige (2006), and his blockbusters. Nolan is now routinely considered one of the most accomplished living filmmakers.
Yet many critics fiercely dislike his work. They regard it as intellectually shallow, dramatically clumsy, and technically inept. As far as I can tell, no popular filmmaker’s work of recent years has received the sort of harsh, meticulous dissection Jim Emerson and A. D. Jameson have applied to Nolan’s films. (See the codicil for numerous links.) People who shrug at continuity errors and patchy plots in ordinary productions have dwelt on them in Nolan’s movies. The attack is probably a response to his elevated reputation. Having been raised so high, he has farther to fall.
I have only a welterweight dog in this fight, because I admire some of Nolan’s films, for reasons I hope to make clear later. Nolan is, I think all parties will agree, an innovative filmmaker. Some will argue that his innovations are feeble, but that’s beside my point here. His career offers us an occasion to think through some issues about creativity and innovation in popular cinema.
Four dimensions, at least
First, let’s ask: How can a filmmaker innovate? I see four primary ways.
You can innovate by tackling new subject matter. This is a common strategy of documentary cinema, which often shows us a slice of our world we haven’t seen or even known about before—from Spellbound to Vernon, Florida.
You can also innovate by developing new themes. The 1950s “liberal Westerns” substituted a brotherhood-of-man theme for the Manifest-Destiny theme that had driven earlier Western movies. The subject matter, the conquest of the West by white settlers and a national government, was given a different thematic coloring (which of course varied from film to film). Science fiction films were once dominated by conceptions of future technology as sleek and clean, but after Alien, we saw that the future might be just as dilapidated as the present.
Apart from subject or theme, you can innovate by trying out new formal strategies. This option is evident in fictional narrative cinema, where plot structure or narration can be treated in fresh ways. Many entries on this blog have charted possible formal innovations, such as having a house narrate the story action, or arranging the plot so as to create contradictory chains of events. Documentaries have experimented with a film’s overall form as well, of course, as The Thin Blue Line and Man with a Movie Camera. Stan Brakhage’s creation of “lyrical cinema” would be an example of formal innovation in avant-garde cinema.
Finally, you can innovate at the level of style—the patterning of film technique, the audiovisual texture of the movie. A clear example would be Godard’s jump cuts in A Bout de souffle, but new techniques of shooting, staging, framing, lighting, color design, and sound work would also count. In Cloverfield and Chronicle, the first-person camera technique is applied, in different ways, to a science-fiction tale. Often, technological changes trigger stylistic innovation, as with the Dolby ATMOS system now encouraging filmmakers to create sound effects that seem to be occurring above our heads.
I see other means of innovation—for instance, stunt casting, or new marketing strategies—but these four offer an initial point of departure. How then might we capture Nolan’s cinematic innovations?
Style without style
Well, on the whole they aren’t stylistic. Those who consider him a weak stylist can find evidence in Insomnia (2002), his first studio film. Spoilers ahead.
A Los Angeles detective and his partner come to an Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. While chasing a suspect in the fog, Dormer shoots his partner Hap and then lies about it, trying to pin the killing on the suspect. But the suspect, a famous author who did kill the girl, knows what really happened. He pressures Dormer to cover for both of them by framing the girl’s boyfriend. Meanwhile, Dormer is undergoing scrutiny by Ellie, a young officer who idolizes him but who must investigate Hap’s death. And throughout it all, Dormer becomes bleary and disoriented because, the twenty-four-hour daylight won’t let him sleep. (His name seems a screenwriter’s conceit, invoking dormir, to sleep.)
Nolan said at the time that what interested him in the script—already bought by Warners and offered to him after Memento—was the prospect of character subjectivity.
A big part of my interest in filmmaking is an interest in showing the audience a story through a character’s point of view. It’s interesting to try and do that and maintain a relatively natural look.
He wanted, as he says on the DVD commentary, to keep the audience in Dormer’s head. Having already done that to an extent in Memento, he saw it as a logical way of presenting Dormer’s slow crackup.
But how to go subjective? Nolan chose to break up scenes with fragmentary flashes of the crime and of clues—painted nails, a necklace. Early in the film, Dormer is studying Kay Connell’s corpse, and we get flashes of the murder and its grisly aftermath, the killer sprucing up the corpse.
At first it seems that Dormer intuits what happened by noticing clues on Kay’s body. But the film’s credits started with similar glimpses of the killing, as if from the killer’s point of view, and there’s an ambiguity about whether the interpolated images later are Dormer’s imaginative reconstruction, or reminders of the killer’s vision—establishing that uneasy link of cop and crook that is a staple of the crime film.
Similarly, abrupt cutting is used to introduce a cluster of images that gets clarified in the course of the film. At the start, we see blood seeping through threads, and then shots of hands carefully depositing blood on a fabric (above). Then we see shots of Dormer, awaking jerkily while flying in to the crime scene. Are these enigmatic images more extracts from the crime, or are they something else? We’ll learn in the course of the film that these are flashbacks to Dormer’s framing of another suspect back in Los Angeles. Once again, these images get anchored as more or less subjective, and they echo the killer’s patient tidying up.
Nolan’s reliance on rapid cutting in these passages is typical of his style generally. Insomia has over 3400 shots in its 111 minutes, making the average shot just under two seconds long. Rapid editing like this can suit bursts of mental imagery, but it’s hard to sustain in meat-and-potatoes dialogue scenes. Yet Nolan tries.
In lectures I’ve used the scene in which Dormer and Hap arrive at the Alaskan police station as an example of the over-busy tempo that can come along with a style based in “intensified continuity.” In a seventy-second scene, there are 39 shots, so the average is about 1.8 seconds—a pace typical of the film and of the intensified approach generally.
Apart from one exterior long-shot of the police station and four inserts of hands, the characters’ interplay is captured almost entirely in singles—that is, shots of only one actor. Out of the 34 shots of actors’ faces and upper bodies, 24 are singles. Most of these serve to pick up individual lines of dialogue or characters’ reactions to other lines. The singles are shot with telephoto lenses, a choice exemplifying what I called the tendency toward “bipolar” lens lengths in intensified continuity–that is, either very long lenses or fairly wide-angle ones.
Fast cutting like this need not break up traditional spatial orientation. In this scene, there are a couple of bumps in the eyeline-matching, but basically continuity principles are respected. As Nolan explains on the DVD commentary, he tried to anchor the axis of action, or 180-degree line, around Dormer/Pacino, so the eyelines were consistent with his position, and that’s usually the case here.
I can’t illustrate all the shots here, but despite its more or less cogent continuity, the scene seems to me choppy, uneconomical, and fairly perfunctory in its stylistic handling. Nolan makes no effort to move the actors around the set in a way that would underscore the dramatic development. Because of the rapid editing, characters’ lines and gestures are cut off or unprepared for. There is no effort to design each shot, à la Hitchcock, to fit the line or reaction of the actor. Most shots are excerpted from full takes, all from the same setup. The most obvious example is the setup that pans to show Dormer as he comes in, stops, and reacts to the conversation. Thirteen shots are taken from that setup (not necessarily the same full take, of course, as the last frame here shows).
In Nolan’s recent films, this avoidance of tightly designed compositions may be encouraged further because he’s shooting in both the 1.43 Imax ratio and the 2.40 anamorphic one. There remains a general tendency toward loose, roughly centered framings.
Somebody is sure to reply that the nervous editing is aiming to express Dormer’s anxiety about the investigation into his career. But that would be too broad an explanation. On the same grounds, every awkwardly-edited film could be said to be expressing dramatic tensions within or among the characters. Moreover, even when Dormer’s not present, the same choppy cutting is on display.
Consider the 23 shots showing Ellie greeting Dormer and Hap as they get off the plane. Again we have full production takes broken up into brief phases of action (it takes five shots to get Dormer out of the plane), with an almost arbitrarily succession of shot scales. When Ellie leaves her vehicle to go out on the pier, the action is presented in nine shots.
We can imagine a simpler presentation—perhaps after an establishing shot, we track with Ellie down along the dock (so we can see her smiling anticipation), then pan with her walking leftward into a framing that prepares for the plane hatch to open. Arguably, the need to show off production values—the vast natural landscape, the swooping plane descending—pressed Nolan to include some of the extra shots. They don’t do much dramatically, and the strange cut back to an extreme long-shot (to cover the change to a new angle on Ellie?) may negate whatever affinity with her that the closer shots aim to build up.
Want an up-to-date comparison? Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike has a quiet, clean style that conveys each story point without fanfare. Soderbergh saves his singles for major moments and drops back for long-running master shots when character interaction counts. His cuts are just that; they trim fat. He doesn’t resort to those short-lived push-in camera movements that Nolan seems addicted to. He doesn’t waste time with filler shots of people going in and out of buildings, or aerial views of a cityscape. Soderbergh can provide an unfussy 70s-ish telephoto long take of Mike and Brooke walking along a pier and settling down at a picnic table in front of a Go-Kart track while her brother Adam materializes in the distance. In a single year, with Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike, Soderbergh has confirmed himself as our master of the intelligent midrange picture. To anyone who cares to watch, these movies give lessons in discreet, compact direction.
For a more pertinent contrast case, we can go back Insomnia’s source, the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name written and directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg. Here a Swedish detective, vaguely under suspicion for an infraction of duty, comes to a town on the Arctic Circle for a murder investigation. The plot is roughly similar in its premise, but the working out is quite different, and I can’t do justice to it here. Let me mention just two points of contrast.
First, the cutting is less jagged. Skjoldbjaerg’s film comes in at ninety-seven minutes, about fifteen minutes shorter than Nolan’s, and its cutting rate is much slower, around 5.4 seconds. That means that many passages are built out of sustained shots, particularly ones showing the detective Jonas Engström walking or sitting in a brooding, self-contained silence. Also, this version finds ways to convey several bits of information concisely, in carefully designed shots. For a straightforward example: We see Engstrom’s eyes open, as he’s unable to sleep, and then he lifts his head. Rack focus to the clock behind him.
Nolan uses several shots to get across a comparable point.
As for subjectivity, Skoldbjaerg is just as keen to get us inside his detective’s head as Nolan is. At times he uses the sort of flash-cutting Nolan employs, so we get fragmentary reminders of the fog-clouded shooting. But Skoldbjaerg doesn’t tease us with unattributed inserts (Nolan’s flashbacks to Dormer’s framing of a suspect), and he never suggests, via images of the murder and its cleanup, that his detective can imagine the crime concretely. Instead, Skoldbjaerg often evokes his character’s unease through camera movements that upset our sense of his spatial location. The camera shows Engstrom striding into a room…and then swivels rightward to show him in his original location, as if he’s sneaked around behind our back.
Then Engstrom turns, and we hear a footstep. Cut to a shot showing that the sound is made by him, walking in another room.
I’m not going to suggest that Skoldbaerg innovates more radically than Nolan does, though most viewers probably are more startled by these devices than by Nolan’s. I think that the original Insomnia’s stylistic gamesmanship owes something to other precedents, going back to Dreyer’s Vampyr. What I find more interesting is that Nolan had available the prior example of these strategies from his Nordic source, and he still chose to go with the more conventional, cutting-based options.
The editing-driven, somewhat catch-as-catch-can approach to staging and shooting is clearly Nolan’s preference for many projects. He doesn’t prepare shot lists, and he storyboards only the big action sequences. As his DP Wally Pfister remarks, “What I do is not complicated.” Comparing their production method to documentary filming, he adds: “A lot of the spirit of it is: How fast can we shoot this?”
Throwing it against the wall
We can find this loose shooting and brusque editing in most of Nolan’s films, and so they don’t seem to me to display innovative, or particularly skilful, visual style. I’m going to assume that his strengths aren’t in the choice of subjects either, since genre considerations have kept him to superheroics and psychological crime and mystery. I think his chief areas of innovation lie in theme and form.
The thematic dimension is easy to see. There’s the issue of uncertain identity, which becomes explicit in Memento and the Batman films. The lost-woman motif, from Leonard’s wife in Memento to Rachel in the two late Batman movies, gives Nolan’s films the recurring theme of vengeance, as well as the romantic one of the man doomed to solitude and unhappiness, always grieving. If this almost obsessive circling around personal identity and the loss of wife or lover carries emotional conviction, it owes a good deal to the performances of Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who put some flesh on Nolan’s somewhat schematic situations.
You can argue that these psychological themes aren’t especially original, especially in mystery-based plots, but the Batman films offer something fresher. The Dark Knight trilogy has attracted attention for its willingness to suggest real-world resonance in comic-book material. Umberto Eco once objected that Superman, who has the power to redirect rivers, prevent asteroid collisions, and expose political corruption, devotes too much of his time to thwarting bank robbers. Nolan and his colleagues have sought to answer Eco’s charge by imbuing the usual string of heists, fights, chases, explosions, kidnappings, ticking bombs, and pistols-to-the-head with sociopolitical gravitas. The Dark Knight invokes ideas about terrorism, torture, surveillance, and the need to keep the public in the dark about its heroes. Something similar has happened with The Dark Knight Rises, leaving commentators to puzzle out what it’s saying about financial manipulation, class inequities, and the 99 percent/ 1 percent debate.
Nolan and his collaborators are doubtless doing something ambitious in giving the superhero genre a new weightiness. Yet I found The Dark Knight Rises, like its predecessor, unable to bear the burden. It seemed to me at once pretentious and confused in a manner typical of Hollywood’s traditional handling of topical themes.
The confusion comes into focus when journalists, needing an angle on this week’s release, look for a coherent reflection of that elusive, probably imaginary zeitgeist. I think that most popular films don’t capture the spirit of the time, assuming such a thing exists, but simply opportunistically stitch together whatever lies to hand. Let me recycle what I wrote four years ago.
I remember walking out of Patton (1970) with a hippie friend who loved it. He claimed that it showed how vicious the military was, by portraying a hero as an egotistical nutcase. That wasn’t the reading offered by a veteran I once talked to, who considered the film a tribute to a great warrior.
It was then I began to suspect that Hollywood movies are usually strategically ambiguous about politics. You can read them in a lot of different ways, and that ambivalence is more or less deliberate.
A Hollywood film tends to pose sharp moral polarities and then fuzz or fudge or rush past settling them. For instance, take The Bourne Ultimatum: Yes, the espionage system is corrupt, but there is one honorable agent who will leak the information, and the press will expose it all, and the malefactors will be jailed. This tactic hasn’t had a great track record in real life.
The constitutive ambiguity of Hollywood movies helpfully disarms criticisms from interest groups (“Look at the positive points we put in”). It also gives the film an air of moral seriousness (“See, things aren’t simple; there are gray areas”). . . .
I’m not saying that films can’t carry an intentional message. Bryan Singer and Ian McKellen claim the X-Men series criticizes prejudice against gays and minorities. Nor am I saying that an ambivalent film comes from its makers delicately implanting counterbalancing clues. Sometimes they probably do that. More often, I think, filmmakers pluck out bits of cultural flotsam opportunistically, stirring it all together and offering it up to see if we like the taste. It’s in filmmakers’ interests to push a lot of our buttons without worrying whether what comes out is a coherent intellectual position. Patton grabbed people and got them talking, and that was enough to create a cultural event. Ditto The Dark Knight.
Since I wrote that, Nolan has confirmed my hunch. He says of the new Batman movie:
We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. . . . We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things. It’s just telling a story.
Just to be clear, I don’t think the just-telling-a-story alibi is bulletproof. The cultural mix on display in a movie can still exclude certain ideological possibilities, or frame the materials in ways that slant how spectators take them up. My point is only that we ought not to expect popular movies, or indeed many movies, to offer crisp, transparent visions of politics or society. Thematic murkiness and confusion are the norm, and the movie’s inconsistencies may reflect nothing more than the makers’ adroit scavenging.
Subjectivity and crosscutting
Nolan’s innovations seem strongest in the realm of narrative form. He’s fascinated by unusual storytelling strategies. Those aren’t developed at full stretch in Insomnia or the Dark Knight trilogy, but other films put them on display.
One way to capture his formal ambitions, I think, is to see them as an effort to reconcile character subjectivity with large-scale crosscutting. Nolan has pointed out his keen interest in both strategies. But on the face of it, they’re opposed. Techniques of subjectivity plunge us into what one character perceives or feels or thinks. Crosscutting typically creates much more unrestricted field of view, shifting us from person to person, place to place. One is intensive, the other expansive; one is a local effect, the other becomes the basis of the film’s enveloping architecture.
The Batman trilogy has plenty of crosscutting, but as far as I can tell, subjectivity takes a back seat. Nolan’s first two films reconcile subjectivity and crosscutting in more unusual ways. Following takes a linear story, breaks it into four stretches, and then intercuts them. But instead of expanding our range of knowledge to many characters, nearly all the sections are confined to what happens to one protagonist, and they’re presented as his recounted memories in a Q & A situation.
Likewise, Memento confines us to a single protagonist and skips between his memories and immediate experiences. Again what might be a single, linear timeline is split, but then one series of incidents is presented as moving chronologically while another is presented in reverse order. Again, the competing time trajectories aren’t presented as large blocks but are fairly swiftly crosscut.
In The Prestige, dual protagonists, both with a secret, take over the story, but the presentation remains steeped in subjectivity. Now much of the action is filtered through each magician’s notebook of jottings and recollections, translated into voice-over commentary. One character may be reading another’s notebook in which the writer reports reading the first character’s notebook! And of course these tales-within-tales are intercut, with one man’s frame story alternating with the other’s past experience. You can work it all out diagrammatically, as I tried to do in my notes (on right).
With Inception, subjectivity takes the shape of dreaming, and the crosscutting is now among layers of dreams. The embedding that we find in The Prestige is now carried to an extreme; in the long, climactic final sequence a group dream frames another dream which frames another, and so on, to five levels. Once again, these all get intercut (although Nolan wisely refrains from reminding us of the outermost frame too often, so that our eventual return to it can be sensed more strongly).
Kristin and I have written at length about these strategies in earlier entries (here and here). To recapitulate, Kristin found Inception‘s reliance on continuous exposition a worthwhile experiment, and I argued that the lucid-dreaming gimmick was simply a motivational strategy, a pretext for connecting multiple plotlines through embedding rather than parallel action. My point in the first essay is summed up here:
As ambitious artists compete to engineer clockwork narratives and puzzle films, Nolan raises the stakes by reviving a very old tradition, that of the embedded story. He motivates it through dreams and modernizes it with a blend of science fiction, fantasy, action pictures, and male masochism. Above all, the dream motivation allows him to crosscut four embedded stories, all built on classic Hollywood plot arcs. In the process he creates a virtuoso stretch of cinematic storytelling.
My later thoughts tried to survey the breadth of Nolan’s development of formal strategies. Here’s my conclusion:
From this perspective, Inception marks a step forward in Nolan’s exploration of telling a story by crosscutting different time frames. You can even measure the changes quantitatively. Following contains four timelines and intercuts (for the most part) three. Memento intercuts two timelines, but one moves backward. Like Following, The Prestige contains four timelines and intercuts three, but it opens the way toward intercutting embedded stories. The climax of Inception intercuts four embedded timelines, all of them framed by a fifth, the plane trip in the present. For reasons I mentioned in the previous post, it’s possible that Nolan has hit a recursive limit. Any more timelines and most viewers will get lost.
The Dark Knight Rises hasn’t dulled my respect for Nolan’s ambitions. Very few contemporary American filmmakers have pursued complex storytelling with such thoroughness and ingenuity.
Nolan has made his innovations accessible, I argued, by the way he has motivated them. First, he appeals to genre conventions. Following and Memento are neo-noirs, and we expect that mode to traffic in complex, perhaps nearly incomprehensible plotting and presentation. He has called Inception a heist film, and what many viewers objected to—its constant explanation of the rules of dream invasion—is not so far from the steady flow of information we get in a caper movie. In the heist genre, Nolan remarks, exposition is entertainment. Further, the separate dreams rely on familiar action-movie conventions: the car chase that ends with a plunge into space, the fight in a hotel corridor, the assault on a fortress, and so on.
But I should have mentioned another method of motivation–one that helps make the films comprehensible to a broad audience. In some cases the formal trickery is justified by the very subjectivity the film embraces. It’s one thing to tell a story in reverse chronology, as Pinter does in Betrayal; but Memento’s broken timeline gets extra motivation from the protagonist’s purported (not clinically realistic) anterograde memory loss. (We’ve already seen a lot of amnesia in film noirs.) Subjectivity is enhanced by the almost constant voice-over narration, reiterating not only Leonard’s thoughts but what he writes incessantly on his Polaroids and his flesh.
In The Prestige, each magician’s journal records not only his trade secrets but his awareness that his rival might be reading his words, so we ought to expect traps and false trails. And in Inception, the notion of plunging into a character’s mind becomes literalized as a dream state. Once we accept the conceit of controlled dreaming, we can buy all the spatial and temporal constraints the dream-master Cobb sets forth. As with Memento, Nolan creates a set of rules that allow him to crosscut many different time lines. In each film, the subject matter—memory failure, magicians’ enigmas, controlled dreaming—serves as an alibi for both subjectivity and broken timelines.
Synching story and style
Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them. In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like P. G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. From Burroughs and Doyle to Stieg Larsson and Michael Crichton, we forgive a lot.
Similarly, Nolan’s work deserves attention even though some of it lacks elegance and cohesion at the shot-to-shot level. The stylistic faults I pointed to above and that echo other writers’ critiques are offset by his innovative approach to overarching form. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions. When he mobilizes visual technique to sharpen and nuance his architectural ambitions, we find a solid integration of texture and structure, fine grain and large pattern.
Here’s a one-off example. Nolan has remarked that he’s mostly not fond of slow-motion simply to accentuate a physical action, or to suggest some mental state like dream or memory. Inception motivates slow-motion by another of its arbitrary rules, the idea that at each level of dreaming time moves at a different rate. Here a stylistic cliché is transformed by its role in a larger structure, as Sean Weitner pointed out in a message to us.
Memento displays a more thoroughgoing recruitment of style to the purposes of guiding us through its labyrinth. The jigsaw joins of the plot require that the head and tail of each reverse-chronology segment be carefully shaped, because they will be reiterated in other segments. Within the scenes as well, Nolan displays a solid craftsmanship, with mostly tight shot connections and an absence of stylistic bumps.
He can even slow things down enough for a fifty-second two-shot that develops both drama and humor. Leonard has just shown Teddy the man bound and gagged in his closet, and Teddy wonders how they can get him out. In a nice little gag, Leonard produces a gun from below the frameline (we’ve seen him hide it in a drawer) and then reflects that it must be his prisoner’s piece. This sort of use of off-frame space to build and pay off audience expectations seems rare in Nolan’s scenes.
The moment is capped when Leonard adds, “I don’t think they let someone like me carry a gun,” as he darts out of the frame.
The straightforward stylistic treatment of Memento‘s more-or-less present-time scenes, both chronological and reversed, is counterbalanced by the rapid, impressionistic handheld work that characterizes Leonard’s flashbacks to his domestic life and his wife’s death (in color) and his flashbacks to the life of Sammy Jankis (in black-and-white). Nolan shrewdly segregates his techniques according to time zone.
If anything, The Prestige displays even more exactitude. Facing two protagonists and many flashbacks and replayed events, we could easily become lost. Here Nolan doesn’t use black-and-white to mark off a separate zone. Instead he relies more on us to keep all the strands straight, but he helps us with voice-overs and repeated and varied setups that quietly orient us to recurrent spaces and circumstances. Here Nolan’s preference for cutting together singles is subjected to a simple but crisp logic that relies on our memory to grasp the developing drama.
I’ve discussed these stylistic strategies in another entry and in Chapter 7 of Film Art. More generally, they serve the larger dynamic of the plot, which creates a mystery around Alfred Borden, hides crucial information while hinting at it, invites us to sympathize with Borden’s adversary Robert Angier (another widower by violence), and then shifts our sympathies back to Borden when we learn how the thirst for revenge has unhinged Robert. To achieve the unreliable, oscillating narration of The Prestige, Nolan has polished his film’s stylistic surface with considerable care.
Trying to specify Nolan’s innovations, I’m aware that one response might be this: Those innovations are too cautious. He not only motivates his formal experiments, he over-motivates them. Poor Leonard, telling everyone he meets about his memory deficit, is also telling us again and again, while the continuous exposition of Inception would seem to apologize too much. Films like Resnais’ La Guerre est finie and Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon play with subjectivity, crosscutting, and embedded stories, but they don’t need to spell out and keep providing alibis for their formal strategies. In these films, it takes a while for us to figure out the shape of the game we’re playing.
We seem to be on that ground identified by Dwight Macdonald long ago as Midcult: that form of vulgarized modernism that makes formal experiment too easy for the audience. One of Macdonald’s examples is Our Town, a folksy, ingratiating dilution of Asian and Brechtian dramaturgy. Nolan’s narrative tricks, some might say, take only one step beyond what is normal in commercial cinema. They make things a little more difficult, but you can quickly get comfortable with them. To put it unkindly, we might say it’s storytelling for Humanities majors.
Much as I respect Macdonald, I think that not all artistic experiments need to be difficult. There’s “light modernism” too: Satie and Prokofiev as well as Schoenberg, Marianne Moore as well as T. S. Eliot, Borges as well as Joyce. Approached from the Masscult side, comic strips have given us Krazy Kat and Polly and Her Pals and, more recently, Chris Ware. Nolan’s work isn’t perfect, but it joins a tradition, not finished yet, of showing that the bounds of popular art are remarkably flexible, and imaginative creators can find new ways to stretch them.
Box-office figures for Nolan’s films are compiled from Box Office Mojo. For detailed critiques of Nolan’s style, see Jim Emerson’s entries archived here; Jim’s video essay dissecting one Dark Knight action scene is here. A. D. Jameson’s essays on Inception are here and here.
Nolan discusses the background to Insomnia in John Pavlus, “Sleepless in Alaska,” American Cinematographer 83, 5 (May 2002), 34-45. My quotation about subjectivity comes from pp. 35-36. By the way, Insomnia does create a moment of tense quiet during the longish dialogue between Dormer and the killer Finch (Robin Williams) on the ferry: some sustained two shots give the adversaries time to size each other up (and Pacino gets an occasion to execute some business with an iron pole). Although the setup is broken by some irrelevant cutaways to the passing vistas, perhaps to cover faults in the takes, the sequence shows something of the sustained calm that we find in moments in Memento and The Prestige.
Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for the Wally Pfister link.
Umberto Eco’s 1972 essay, “The Myth of Superman,” appears in his book, The Role of the Reader. Portions are available here. One relevant passage is this: “He is busy by preference, not against black-market drugs nor, obviously, against corrupt administrators or politicians, but against bank and mail-truck robbers. In other words, the only visible form that evil assumes is an attempt on private property” (p. 123; italics in original).
Dwight Macdonald’s 1960 essay is available in Masscult and Midcult. A pdf is online here. Macdonald seems to have softened his demands a bit in later years. He praised 8 1/2, softcore modernism for sure, as Shakespearean in its vivacity. “The general structure–a montage of tenses, a mosaic of time blocks–recalls Intolerance, Kane, and Marienbad, but in Fellini’s hands it becomes light, fluid, evanescent. And delightfully obvious.” The essay is reprinted in Dwight Macdonald on Movies, pp. 15-31.
J. J. Murphy has a detailed analysis of Memento in his book Me and You and Memento and Fargo. I discuss the film’s contribution to complex storytelling trends in The Way Hollywood Tells It, pp. 74-82, where I also discuss the notion of intensified continuity editing. We analyze The Prestige‘s narrative, narration, and sound techniques in Film Art: An Introduction (ninth ed., pp. 298-307; tenth ed., pp. 298-306).
P.S. 19 August: Thanks to Guillaume Campreau-Dupras for correcting a film title.
PS 27 August: Thanks to the many bloggers and tweeters who linked to this entry!
The tireless A. D. Jameson has posted another probing critique of Nolan’s Bat-saga, this one concentrating on TDKR, here. While making serious points about Nolan’s use of expository dialogue and the confused politics of the film, the essay also contains some good jokes.