Archive for the 'Directors: Nolan' Category
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.
Heading cross-country from Chicago in Dad’s old Honda Prelude, we’re no further than Wisconsin on the first day when Jonah turns from the passenger seat and tells me he’s working on something.
Christopher Nolan, on the origins of Memento
We were driving my dad’s old car from Chicago to Los Angeles. It must have been the second day of driving–we were past Minnesota.
Jonathan Nolan, on the origins of Memento
It’s rare when a filmmaker confirms hypotheses put forward by critics. But that seems to have happened to us.
An enormous amount had been written about Inception, both on the internet and in print, before we wrote our blog entry last week. For the most part, we avoided reading about the film, fearing spoilers and statements about the film that might influence our own initial take on it. Since then, we’ve read Jeff Goldsmith’s in-depth interview with Christopher Nolan published in Creative Screenwriting (not yet available online). There Nolan broaches several ideas about his approach to the film, and some of those square with our analysis. Today we highlight a few of those remarks and tease out their implications. We end with comments from some readers.
My contribution to last week’s entry concerned the film’s dependence on nearly continuous exposition, which I thought of as a major formal device across the film. In the Creative Screenwriter interview, Nolan says that exposition was a particular concern of his in making the film.
Ten years ago he envisioned the film as a heist caper:
“One of the fascinating things about the heist movie, and one of the reasons I took this as the model, is that the type of exposition that in most films is problematic, boring, tricky, hard to get through—in a heist movie becomes the meat of it,” Nolan says. “It’s part of the entertainment simply because the process of a heist movie and that sort of procedure, the way they put things together, becomes the reason you’re watching the story.”
Usually in a heist film we get a big dose of exposition as the team’s leader explains the plans for the crime to his colleagues. Then we watch the plan unfold, with exposition added well into the film as needed. In Inception, however, the heist explanation becomes nearly continuous. Goldsmith comments, “Nolan smartly flipped this conceit on its head and instead of keeping the audience at a distance, he decided to take them along for the entire ride. The subtle re-configuration allows for the audience and the characters to sweat together whenever any hiccups arise in the well-thought-out plan.” In fact, the “well-thought-plan” unfolds only as we watch the film.
Nolan also comments on this idea of the audience being active, saying that he wanted to involve viewers alongside the characters:
“Exposition is such a massive demand,” he admits.” It’s something you have to just try and imbue in the relationships of the characters. You never want to find yourself in a scene where characters are passively receiving information in some way, because you don’t want the audience passively receiving information. You want them engaged with that dramatization.”
The implication here is that the audience becomes involved in the plot not through learning about the characters’ backgrounds and traits, as most spectators seem to expect in standard Hollywood films—even blockbusters. Instead, our relationships with the characters (apart from Cobb) come through learning new information along with them and being attached so closely to them while they work through the mechanics of the plot.
The result, at least for many viewers, seems to be a feeling of dissatisfaction at not being able to get close to the characters in a more conventional, detailed way. The advantage, if one wishes to consider it as such, is that we are forced into a struggle to understand the workings of the plot.
Yet we are not entirely with the characters in their achievement of the mission, because we move back and forth among the levels of the dream, as none of them does. Thus we may be attached to the characters in the parceling-out of exposition, but we know much more than they do at any given moment once the second dream (the hotel) begins. The result comes through further experimentation on Nolan’s part, this time with intercutting.
In our earlier entry I argued that Inception uses the dream subject matter to set up a heist plot and to motivate a pattern of embedded narratives. Normally, embedded stories are presented as sealed off from one another, like concentric circles. One interest of the film, I thought, lies in the freedom with which Nolan crosscut among these nested tales.
After further reading and re-viewing, I’m forced to ask: Which is the real center of his interest–embedded stories or crosscutting? And this question leads me to think about his development as a filmic storyteller.
In college Nolan studied literature (a good model for aspiring filmmakers, who too often focus only on movies). To this training he attributes his interest in form. “I wrote Memento very much as a puzzle box. I was fascinated by the idea of structure.”
For Nolan, I think, form has centrally to do with the sorts of juxtapositions you can create by crosscutting. You could say he treats crosscutting the way Ophuls treats tracking shots or Dreyer treats stark decor: an initial commitment to a creative choice, which in turn shapes the handling of story, staging, performance and other factors.
Moreover, his fondness for crosscutting favors actions taking place in different time frames. Traditionally, a crosscut sequence switches between lines of action taking place at the same time. While Smith walks his dog, we see Jones stalking Smith’s wife. The Dark Knight has many sequences that crosscut simultaneous lines of action. When crosscutting isn’t presenting simultaneous actions, it’s often alternating between present and past. An influential example is Hiroshima mon amour, in which the female protagonist’s memories of occupied France are juxtaposed with her visit to Hiroshima in the present. Here, as often happens, the switch to an earlier time is motivated as a character-based flashback, an expression of the persistence of her memories.
Nolan’s interest in crosscutting various time frames doesn’t quite square with tradition. He was much influenced by Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland, as he has pointed out over the years. Here is what he says in the CS interview.
“It opened my eyes to something I found absolutely shocking at the time,” Nolan says. “It’s structured with a set of parallel timelines and effortlessly tells a story using history—a contemporary story and various timelines that were close together in time (recent past and less recent past), and it actually cross cuts these timelines with such ease that, by the end, he’s literally sort of leaving sentences unfinished and you’re filling in the gaps.”
What initially intrigued Nolan, it seems to me, is the idea of taking a story that could be told in straightforward chronology and breaking it into two or three discrete phases. He then cuts among scenes within the phases, without motivating the shifts as character-centered flashbacks.
The story of his first feature, Following, could have been told in 1-2-3 order. Instead, within a framing situation of an interrogation, the plot breaks the protagonist’s tale into three phases, all quite close in time, and then cuts among them. Within each phase, the action is chronological (so far as I can see), but the three “eras” are intercut. Nolan is careful to keep us oriented as to which time zone we’re in through things like the protagonist’s appearance (sloppy, well-groomed, bruised) and a burst of black frames that signals a shift to a different zone. Eventually all three phases get linked up, so, for example, the last thing we see of phase one leads smoothly to what we saw as the first imagery of phase two.
The same concern to break up a linear story is at work in Memento. Again, different phases of the same tale are intercut. But now a forward-moving module is accompanied by one moving backward. Again, these are kept distinct through time markers (color footage vs. black-and-white), and the reverse-chronology one is filled with tokens and echoes that remind us that what we’ve already seen actually took place after what we’re seeing now.
The Prestige expands crosscutting in another direction. Christopher Priest’s original novel is based on the discovered-manuscript convention. Adam Worthy, a publisher, begins reading a book by Alfred Borden, Secret Methods of Magic. What follows are several other memoirs, treating events at different points in history, with some going back as far as 1866. These texts are not intercut or even nested. They stand as solid blocks, presenting overlapping time schemes and varying points of view on the central rivalry between the two conjurers Borden and Robert Angier.
For the film of The Prestige Nolan and his screenwriter-brother Jonathan again create a basically linear chronology. Once more it is fractured into discrete phases. There is a present (Cutter showing a bird trick to the little girl Jess), the recent past (Alfred arrested for killing Robert and awaiting trial), a more distant past (Robert visiting Nicolai Tesla in Colorado), and thanks to Alfred’s journal, the most remote days when the two became competitors and Alfred created the Transported Man illusion.
But The Prestige treats its time zones somewhat as if they were embedded stories. I think that this is partly because we have two protagonists and a split point-of-view pattern. The biggest cue, however, is the way that the Nolans absorb the discovered-manuscript convention into the film. In a classic embedded structure, a character recalls or recounts a string of events with its own integrity, and sometimes the frame story involves a character reading a letter or memoir. In the film, this situation is provided by journals kept by the rival magicians. Now Nolan can cut freely among nested stories. At one point we have Alfred, jailed for murder, reading Robert’s journal, in which Robert tells about reading Alfred’s journal in Colorado. Alfred’s version of events is embedded in Robert’s version, which is in turn embedded in the moment of Alfred’s reading in prison.
Moreover, instead of Following‘s rather mechanical demarcation of phases (black frames signal a shift between phases), the narration of The Prestige is quite fluid, joining distant periods through smooth hooks of imagery and sound. Sometimes the sound comes from one period but the shots are in a distant one. We’re introduced to this strategy in the very opening: Cutter’s voice-over is in the present, but the image is two layers into the past.
So it seems to me that in The Prestige Nolan’s interest in crosscutting different timelines became more audacious, working with not only linear events but embedded stories. The interest in nested stories emerges much more explicitly in Inception, as I suggested in the earlier post. But what I didn’t see then was that using dreams to motivate embedded plotlines changes the time game.
A dream within a dream can’t be said to be taking place earlier than the surrounding dream, the way a flashback or discovered manuscript necessarily presents past events. The dream realms can’t be ironed out into a chronological structure as the phased plotlines of Following, Memento, and The Prestige can. In fact we find our old friend simultaneity at work among all the phases (dreaming while dreaming while, etc.). And Nolan’s film invokes the convention of the climactic deadline (actually, four of them). So in a perverse way, Inception‘s formal gambit is more traditional than the time-scrambling of the earlier films. But because we seldom see embedded stories intercut, the result is also pretty daring–something akin to that abstract filmic time that Griffith creates by intercutting four historical epochs in Intolerance.
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. What can he do next?
Letters, we get letters (and links)
We’re grateful to several people who linked to our posting, especially Jim Emerson at Scanners, who continues to compile ideas about a movie he doesn’t like much. Other people wrote us directly to share some ideas. From Jason Mittell of Middlebury College:
I really appreciate and agree with the idea that the motivation for the film is to tell nested or embedded stories, with the shared dreaming device essentially as a framing convenience rather than thematic imperative. One parallel I was surprised D&K didn’t raise was with the embedded narration of The Prestige. I teach the latter in my narrative theory course as a case study specifically to explore how the film plays with storytelling levels, with the dual journals/letters, voice-over, flashbacks, etc. Inception makes this layering more literal in terms of parallel worlds, but I do see some important precedents forged in Nolan’s earlier work.
I agree with Jason’s suggestion about The Prestige and decided to develop the point he suggested. I didn’t dwell on the film in the earlier entry beyond noting that it’s discussed at some length it in the ninth edition of Film Art: An Introduction. It’s good to know that Jason (who maintains an excellent blog here) finds the film a lively way to introduce narrative concepts in his teaching.
Jim Healy pointed out another example of a film with several nested story lines.
As for complicated embeddings since The Matrix, I was a big fan (maybe the only one) of Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, which has, I think, a flashback within a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback.
James Kreul wrote with another example of nested-goal crosscutting schemes:
You might consider looking at Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, or at least the segment available on DVD called “The Order.” “The Order” has simultaneous action on 5 different levels of the Guggenheim Museum. If you watch it linearly, it seems very much like a video game, as the protagonist has to achieve certain goals on each level. The DVD also gives you the option, however, of toggling between the different levels across the duration of the segment, so that even if the protagonist isn’t on level 1, you can watch level 1 (there was a variation on this for the multiple-screen video installation version of the piece).
“The Order” itself is nested within the larger narrative of the protagonist (Barney, the “Entered Apprentice”) working his way up the Chrysler Building to confront “the Architect,” and there is a parallel between the climax of the Order and the climax of the action with the architect. The website synopsis describes “The Order” as a “choric interlude,” and even though the Barney character is called the Entered Apprentice in the both the larger and nested narrative, the nested version is a “fantastical incarnation” of the character. But there’s nothing to mark it explicitly as a dream or the subjective experience of the character (as far as I can remember). The two versions of the character are instead connected by the fact that Barney plays both of them and by certain motifs (he loses teeth in the larger narrative, he has a bloody mouth in “The Order”).
In any case, it might be a useful example if you return to the idea of narrative strategies within a nested structure. “The Order” also has various thematic connections with the other films in the series (each level in the Guggenheim references the 5 films in the series) so that this “middle film” both looks back and looks forward to the other films in the series. It was released last.
Jim’s reference to Barney’s Cremaster series reinforces our sense that Nolan is exploring some avant-garde techniques but anchoring them in familiar genres, plot patterns, and the like. Motivation, in other words.
Speaking of motivation, I wrote in an aside in the original post: “Likewise, the backward progression of Memento’s plot is partly justified by the clinical condition of short-term memory deficits. I grant you, why this ailment supports a reverse-chronology tale is a bit puzzling.” In reply David Wigram wrote to point out that most movies want to align the viewer with the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Accordingly,
In Memento Nolan needs to keep the audience as clueless about the recent past as Leonard is, otherwise this identification is lost. The only way to do this is with the looping reverse form that was used. All the other aspects of the conceit flow from this necessity. I seem to remember interviews in which Nolan talked about trying to find the technique required to tell this story, and how everything fell into place when he did. But even if it was reverse-engineered, even if the filmmmaker simply wanted to make a fractured-time narrative and needed a story – any story – to tell, I think story and storytelling in Memento (of anterograde amnesia in the protagonist and a looping reversed chronology) are perfectly and elegantly matched.
I find David’s point persuasive. It illustrates how an overarching formal commitment confronts you with a cascade of obligatory choices, and how those choices can be motivated.
If you want to restrict the plot to Leonard’s range of knowledge, you have a problem because he forgets what happened to him a few minutes before. Then our knowledge will always be greater than his, creating a very externalized, objective narration. In other words, if the events are told chronologically, then we see what Leonard will soon forget. But a reverse-order plot suppresses our knowledge of the recent past, thus approximating the character’s range of knowledge in any particular scene.
This creates a new problem to solve, however, because we now still have knowledge outside Leonard’s ken—knowledge of the future story events. For instance, we know that he will be betrayed by Natalie and will shoot Teddy. Yet in a way our future knowledge doesn’t hurt the plot’s unfolding, because this is a film noir. In a noir we often sense that harm is destined to befall the protagonist. This sense of fatality is sometimes specified by a frame story anticipating the protagonist’s end, as in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Here, instead of using a flashback, Nolan conjures up the doom scenario by reverse-order presentation. Motivation again, this time by that quasi-genre we call film noir. Would the structure work so well with a Western?
Like Inception, Memento finds a structure that meets Hollywood’s demand that the presentation be motivated by appeal to genre and character psychology. A good counterexample is provided by Gaspar Noë’s Irreversible, in which the 3-2-1 ordering of scenes isn’t justified by such factors. As often happens outside Hollywood, a play with form doesn’t need such motivations–or alibis, if you like.
The Nolan brothers’ memories of Memento are taken from Christopher Nolan, Memento and Following (London: Faber, 2001), p. 233. In the same volume (pp. 97-99), Nolan offers some comments on structure echoing those we quote here. The remarks on Inception come from Jeff Goldsmith, “The Architect of Dreams,” Creative Screenwriting (July/ August 2010), 18-26. CS is well worth subscribing to, and its free podcasts are very informative. On Memento, Andy Klein’s careful reconstruction from 2001 remains admirable. On Christopher Priest’s reaction to the film version of his novel, see The Magic: The Story of a Film; see also our entry here. For a discussion of the sort of audiovisual hooks Nolan employs in The Prestige, see this web essay. Another entry on this site considers Nolan’s visual storytelling in The Prestige. We also have a post discussing Barney’s Cremaster project.
P. S. 2 Sept: Sean Wietner makes this point about how Nolan motivates slow motion:
In an interview with Elvis Mitchell on his KCRW program The Treatment, Nolan mentions that he’s had a hard time being comfortable with the aesthetics of slow motion — he’s never known what it’s best used for. So he was quite chuffed about the falling van in Inception — finally, a good reason to use slow-motion. He makes similar comments about cross-cutting that echo your blog post; he’s so pleased to be “forced by” (my paraphrase) the narrative to cut parallel action like this.
This is one of the things about Nolan that sticks with me, and I think it’s related to the perception some have of him as chilly. I think it speaks to a larger issue that touches on ideas like Hitchcock’s plausibles, and their Body Snatcher infiltration of audience mores. There are times when Nolan comes across as the King of the Plausibles, the overplanner who can’t deal with being painted into a corner, so rather than deal with that messiness he erects massive scaffolding. He requires a time-dilation mechanic so he can have the freedom to play with the classic cinematic device of slow motion!
Thanks to Sean for his comment.
Inception reminds me of the common claim that Hollywood films are no longer character-centered. Special effects and slam-bang action supposedly have replaced character traits as the basis for storytelling. Now, here is a contemporary film released as a summer tentpole film and definitely successful in box-office terms. It crossed the $200 million domestic gross figure on Tuesday, August 3. Yet the nearly universal complaint, for those who don’t like the film, or some aspects of the film, is that we don’t get to know the characters.
If modern tentpoles have generally neglected characterization, that must be a convention by now. Why would people expect to find rounded characters? Is this complicated/complex (take your choice) intellectual film aimed at adults ironically going to prove that the critics of modern Hollywood blockbusters have been right all along?
I agree that the characters in Inception, apart from Cobb, the protagonist, are barely assigned traits. Ariadne, for example, does not return to join Cobb’s team as its architect because she has some personal goal or trait that inclines her to want to do so. It’s just that everyone who experiences the possibilities of shared dreams gets hooked.
But if there’s little characterization, is Nolan substituting something interesting in its place—apart from the usual computer-effects and spectacle? The first time I saw the film, I suspected he is, but for a long time I couldn’t figure out what. As a result, I did not really enjoy it until the point where the van breaks through the railing on the bridge and starts to fall. That’s pretty far into the film, 104 minutes in a roughly 140-minute film, not counting the credits. The van’s beginning to fall also marks the end of what we’ve called the Development portion of the film and the beginning of the Climax. (See here and here and here.)
At that turning point, it dawned on me that Nolan has elevated exposition of new premises to the main form of communication among characters. Discussion of their personal relationships, hopes, and doubts largely drops out. As the Russian Formalists would say, exposition, usually given early on and at wide intervals later in a plot, becomes the dominant here. That’s an unusual enough tactic to warrant a closer look.
We grasp most of the characters by the types of premises they provide. Yusuf is the man who understands how to manipulate the sedatives that will allows the team to progress deep enough into Fischer’s subconscious to plant the idea. Oh, yes, and he has a cat. Robert Fischer is the man who thinks his father despised him, so he is susceptible to the team’s machinations to plant the idea in his subconscious. (Saito says that Fischer has a “complicated” relationship with his father, but it’s actually just the opposite: a single trait, which is all that’s needed to establish his part in the action.) He also seems to be very concerned with security, since his subconscious conveniently peoples the dream levels with bodyguards who provide obstacles, fatally wound Saito, and force the van off the bridge, among other functions.
The characters’ goals, apart from Cobb’s, arise from the premises of the dream-sharing technology. Of course, they want to get paid, but that’s assumed. Their actions all arise from the need to keep doing what they must to sustain the dreams and later from the need to improvise solutions to unforeseen problems that seem to violate the rules they have previously known. Why they need the money, whom they go home to when off-duty, how they got into this business, and all the other conventions of Hollywood characterization, are simply ignored. Even Saito’s claim that Maurice Fischer’s corporation is dangerous to the world because it controls so much of its energy sources is simply assumed to be true. Our possible suspicions that Saito himself might really be the more dangerous tycoon, out to eliminate a powerful rival, might add a little complexity. The film, however, never hints at such a possibility.
Ariadne is somewhat different in her function. As in so many Hollywood films, there are two lines of action. First, there is the attempt to perform inception in Fischer’s subconscious. Second, there are Cobb’s related goals of getting back to his children but also of holding onto his dead wife through his visits to his projection of her in dreams. No one besides Ariadne fully understands Cobb’s obsession with Mal and hence she alone sees the danger it poses to the team. Ariadne lives up to her ancient namesake, guiding us through the maze of the Cobb’s obsession by acting as an expository figure in that storyline.
That is presumably why she doesn’t simply tell Arthur, who is much more experienced than she is in sharing dreams, about Cobb’s dangerous obsession. Instead, she decides to go into the dream levels as part of the team to keep on eye on Cobb—thus allowing her to continue as a privileged witness and transmitter of vital information about that storyline.
Each new premise creates a link in the chain of actions, and for the most part the actions are governed by the rules, or apparent rules of the dream-sharing machine, the sedatives, the levels, the characters’ respective skills, and all the other factors.
The narration constructs its causal chain by being nominally omniscient. For short stretches of the film we may be “with” Ariadne and Cobb or Mal and Cobb and witness them having personal conversations, most dramatically when Cobb fails to talk Mal out of leaping to her death. These moments provide the main alternative to the exposition-ridden dialogue, and they are a very small portion of the overall speech in the film. Yet the narration arches over all, stitching together the series of causes by moving us among the levels, catching at exactly the right moment the critical action (Arthur is putting a stack of dreaming people into an elevator) or dialogue (Cobb is asking Ariadne where she designed a route bypassing the labyrinth in the hospital).
Once I realized that this film’s plot concerns fiendishly complicated action that requires almost constant exposition from the characters, I enjoyed the rest of it. I saw it a second time and enjoyed it even more. I certainly don’t understand the entire plot, and I suspect that’s partly because, despite the nearly constant revelation of premises, there were a few left out. For one thing, just how does Eames, the “forger,” manage to change into other people? (No mention of polyjuice potion or anything else.) I can understand how he might do it in his own dreams, but the one dream where he doesn’t change is his own. Even the guides to Inception that have already been posted on the internet don’t answer every question. (Here and here are two examples of many.) Perhaps when the DVD comes out, the answers will be forthcoming—more of them, but probably not all.
In the meantime, I don’t see why we should get annoyed because Inception doesn’t contain rich, fully rounded characters. It’s clearly a puzzle film that takes the usual complicated premises of a heist movie and pushes them to extremes. Accepting the flow of nearly continuous exposition may remove some of the frustrations viewers face. After all, there’s no rule against it.
When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, “It’s in the script.” If he says, “But what’s my motivation?”, I say, “Your salary”.
Forget dream stuff for a while. Yes, Nolan says he was interested in dreams, especially lucid dreaming. Yes, he claims that the precision of detail in the film was an effort to suggest how “real” dreams feel when you’re having one. And yes, critics have defended the films’ dream worlds as realistic, or attacked them as phony substitutes. All interesting points and worth exploring, but not my focus at the moment.
And forget videogames. I leave that stuff to the experts, such as several members of our Wisconsin Filmies listserv. They have kindly pointed out many analogies and disanalogies. (See the coda for specifics.) And of course there’s no shortage of commentary about the film’s ties to gaming, or dreaming, on the Net.
My focus instead is motivation. Not the sort that Hitchcock and Bergman talked about, but rather the idea that any artwork needs to justify certain elements or strategies it presents.
Motivation beyond Bergman
You want your movie to have musical numbers. How to justify them in your story? Many early musicals simply make the characters show-business types, so we see them rehearsing and performing numbers for the audience. Other musicals cast that “realistic” motivation aside and let the characters sing and dance wholly for one another. But then those films were appealing to a sort of motivation familiar from opera, where characters simply burst into song or dance without realistic motivation. We accept this type of artifice too because that’s just what this genre of film permits—the way that horror films include monsters that are unlikely to exist in the real world.
The notion of motivation turns a lot of our usual thinking about cinema inside out. Usually we think that something is present in order to support what the film “says.” But actually a lot of what we find in films is motivated, either by genre or by appeal to realism, in order to give us a particular narrative experience.
For a couple of decades, some American cinema (both Hollywood and indie) has been launching some ambitious narrative experimentation. We’ve seen “puzzle films” (Primer), forking-path or alternative-future films (Sliding Doors), network narratives (Babel, Crash), and other sorts. This trend isn’t utterly new—there are earlier cases, especially in the 1940s—but it seems to have been accelerating in recent years, particularly after Pulp Fiction (1994). Christopher Nolan has participated in the trend as well, with Following and Memento.
The film industry encourages some degree of innovation. Novelty can attract attention, and perhaps audiences too. Yet, as I argued in The Way Hollywood Tells It, such innovations are counterbalanced by traditional storytelling maneuvers. These make sure that audiences aren’t entirely lost. For example, Memento’s backward structure requires very explicit signposting of the transitions, highlighting objects or gestures we’ve seen in the previous time-slice to link them to the next one we see. At the same time, these experiments can pay off financially: a complex narrative that balances enigma and understanding can lure audiences to revisit the multiplex or buy the DVD for further scrutiny. Remember, we are all nerds now.
Memento illustrates a couple of ways in which Hollywood efforts at innovation are controlled by tradition. First, you can motivate a film’s formal play through genre conventions. A science-fiction film, for instance, can invoke time travel or alternate universes. Doc’s time machine in the Back to the Future series motivates a fairly unusual play with cause and effect, particularly in the second installment. Likewise, mystery and detective stories pioneered the “lying flashback,” when people give false testimony about a crime (as in Crossfire). The possibility that a film noir will encourage complicated narration (an optically subjective first-person narrator in The Lady in the Lake, a dying narrator in Double Indemnity, a dead one in Sunset Blvd.) helps us recognize that Memento is an experiment in that tradition.
Second, you can motivate formal experiment through the movie’s appeal to some widely-believed law of life, a common-sense realism. Uncanny coincidences in movies like Serendipity and Sliding Doors are justified by the notion that fate or spiritual harmony can bring soulmates together. Six Degrees of Separation’s plot exploits the idea of social networks. Likewise, the backward progression of Memento’s plot is partly justified by the clinical condition of short-term memory deficits. I grant you, why this ailment supports a reverse-chronology tale is a bit puzzling—but that may only suggest that we’re ready to overlook flimsy justification if the novelty is piquant enough. A little motivation can go a long way.
So we ought to recognize that Inception is relying heavily on motivation from these two sources, genre and commonsense realism. Science fiction grants the possibility of entering people’s dreams through a futuristic technology. Likewise, we have all experienced dreams, so the film can appeal to folk wisdom about them. I suggest, though, that the purpose of the film not to explore the dream life but rather to use the idea of exploring the dream life to justify creating a complex narrative experience for the viewer. That is the purpose of the film; the dreams operate as alibis.
Interestingly, traditions outside Hollywood don’t require these sorts of motivation for narrative experiments. Last Year at Marienbad is perhaps the supreme example of a purely artificial construct, which can’t be justified by genre or subject/theme. I’d argue that Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, Buñuel’s Obscure Object of Desire, van Dormael’s Toto le héros, and other films of a highly artificial cast either ignore or cancel both realistic and generic motivation. They present themselves as experiments in storytelling, pure and simple. Another art-cinema motivational ploy invokes psychological realism, as in Fellini’s 8 ½. This is less daring than the blunt-artifice option, and so has been more easily adapted to mainstream storytelling.
One more point about the New (or now Not-So-New) Narrative Artifice. Strategies that seemed striking in the pioneering films are quickly mastered by others. Innovations are copied, and the learning curve is steep. By now anybody can create a fairly coherent network narrative or forking-path tale. Artistically ambitious filmmakers want to press further. So how can you create fresh experiments in storytelling today?
Architecture beyond Ariadne
If you decide to organize a film in sharply distinct plotlines, you have two problems. First, how do you combine them? What will be the overall architecture? Second, how do you fill in the chain of actions?
Consider combination first. You can create parallel plotlines, as in Intolerance’s assembly of four different historical periods or in Vera Chytilová’s Something Different, in which two women living at the same moment lead very different lives. You can create branching or forking-path plotlines, as in Run Lola Run. You can link stories through a simple overlap, as in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, or by letting them pass through the same place; the inn in Wong’s Ashes of Time functions as a sort of node that gathers together the destinies of different characters.
One sort of plot construction that hasn’t been explored deeply in recent years is actually one of the oldest. The embedded story, or the tale-within-the-tale, dates back at least to The Odyssey. In the standard case, we have one level of story reality, and in that a character tells a story that takes place earlier and elsewhere. Typically the embedded story is pretty extensive, with its own structure of exposition, development, crisis, and climax. You can of course multiply the stories, as in The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales.
Sometimes the framing story is merely a backdrop, though usually that has its own dramatic impetus: Scheherazade tells a story each night to postpone her death. Often, though, the framing situation carries the main interest. In Don Quixote, readers are tempted to skip the tales told by people whom the knight and Sancho encounter, in order to get back to the real story, the relationship of the central pair.
The “discovered manuscript” convention of nineteenth-century fiction was an equivalent of this pattern, a sort of novel-within-a-novel. Some experimental fiction has exploited the embedded story; I think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The principle of embedding has been found in cinema too, of course. Citizen Kane is the classic example, since it embeds recounted stories (most of the flashbacks), a written text (Thatcher’s memoirs), and even a film-within-a-film (News on the March). Many of the embedded stories we find in films are presented as flashbacks, and those are usually motivated by a character recalling or telling another character about past events. (See our blog entry “Grandmaster Flashback” for some more discussion.)
The task of the author is to motivate the story’s presence through relevance to the framing situation. Why insert the tale in the first place? Most commonly, it involves some of the same characters we find in the surrounding story world, as in a flashback. In that case, the embedded tale supplies new information about plot or character. It may also provide a parable or counterpoint to what’s happening in the surrounding situation. In The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), a woman is about to leave her husband, but she changes her mind when a family friend tells her, for the bulk of the movie, about the sacrifices made by the husband’s mother.
Some researchers might argue that the purest instance of this format is one in which the characters of the overarching frame story don’t participate in the embedded tale. Classic instances like the Mahabhrata are often studied as compilations. A partial instance in cinema is the country-house frame story of Dead of Night, in which some characters recount stories that didn’t involve them. Here the frame story arouses considerable interest in its own right.
Once you allow the possibility of an embedded story, some storyteller will ask: Why not embed a story into the embedded story? And so on. Calvino’s novel does this, suggesting the possibility of that infinitely extended series we see when somebody stands between two mirrors and the image is multiplied forever. (Inception gives us such an image when Ariadne summons up mirrors on a Parisian street.) Hollywood filmmakers experimented with multiple embedding in some flashback films of the 1940s. In The Locket and Passage to Marseille, there are flashbacks within flashbacks. More daring, and closer to Calvino, is Pasolini’s Arabian Nights, in which one character recounts a tale in which he encounters another character, who recounts his tale, and so on.
Here, I think, is the accomplishment of Nolan’s film. The general absence of complicated embeddings today (at least since The Matrix) presents an opportunity for an ambitious moviemaker. Inception constitutes an extended experiment in what you can do with a nested plot structure, motivated by the dream-invasion premise.
The Dream team
Nolan adds a new wrinkle. Instead of recounting or recalling stories, the characters enter worlds “hosted” by one of their number and furnished by another. The movie introduces this strategy to us obliquely. After the prologue in which Cobb confronts a very aged Saito in Limbo (which I think you can take as either a flashforward or a symptom of their collaborative dreaming at the moment), we are plunged into layers of embedding. In the real world, Cobb, Arthur, and the architect are dreaming with Saito on a train; we later learn that this is an audition to test Cobb’s extraction skills. They dream that they are in an apartment where Saito meets his mistress. But in that apartment they are sleeping, and dreaming that they are in a luxurious mansion where Cobb is trying to discover Saito’s secrets. That effort is disrupted by Mal, Cobb’s ex-wife, and the dream world collapses.
What’s tricky is that Nolan doesn’t establish these layers of embedding in customary order. The flashback tradition leads us to expect to move from outside to inside, like peeling an onion: from the train to the apartment to the mansion. Instead, we are first shown the mansion, and we get glimpses of the apartment. That tactic hints that the apartment is the primary level of reality in the fiction. But in the apartment Saito notices discrepancies in the carpet, making him realize he’s dreaming. Only then does Nolan shift to the external frame, the four men on the train, minded by a young Japanese passenger.
This has been our first training exercise, and it turns out to be based on surprise: We weren’t aware of how many embedded plotlines were in play. In the film’s terms, the dream session on the train went down two levels. Cobb says he can go down three, and that forms one goal for the team.
Later exercises are simpler, involving only shared dreams rather than embedded ones. That’s because these dreams operate as tutorials, as when Cobb shows Ariadne how dreamworlds are constructed and populated (though the framing situation is deleted at the outset–another, if milder, surprise). The dreams also function as psychological probes, as when Ariadne learns that Cobb’s unresolved problems with his wife are expressed in her eruptions into whatever dreamworld is conjured up. These études have to be relatively transparent if we’re to understand all the premises of this game. Similarly, our introduction to Limbo is given not through dream-penetration but through a good old flashback, when in the first-level dream world Cobb confesses to Ariadne that he and Mal built their own dreamscape there. Limbo changes the rules of the game to such an extent that we shouldn’t have to worry about who’s dreaming what for whom; a straightforward piece of visual exposition does the trick.
The most intricate embedding takes place in the final seventy-five minutes, most of the second half of the film. Instead of a train, a plane. Instead of four dreamers, six: the target young Fischer, plus all the members of the team, including Ariadne, who will monitor Cobb’s subconscious. Each team member hosts one story world, the other members enter it, and Fischer gets to populate it. Yusuf the chemist hosts the rainy car chase that leads to the van’s descent to the river. Arthur the point man hosts the hotel scene in which Cobb accosts Fischer. Eames the Forger (or rather the imposter) hosts the snow fortress siege, in which Fischer is induced to confront his dying father (thinking he is entering the dream of the family confidant Browning). Finally, to pursue Mal, Cobb and Ariadne plunge into the beachfront/ metropolis zone of Limbo constructed by the couple during their dream days. It’s then revealed that Cobb brought about his wife’s idée fixe by planting the idea that dreams could become reality; this showed him, with tragic consequences, that inception could work.
So we have five levels: the plane trip embeds the rainswept chase, which embeds the hotel, which embeds the snow fortress, which embeds the Limbo confrontation. The nested structure is recapitulated in the burst of shots showing Ariadne snapping awake in each level up to the submerged van (dream level 1).
Indeed, I think that one prime purpose of Nolan’s fancy structure is to foster such little coups. The Ariadne passage is cinematically simple—just a string of quick, graphically matched close-ups—but in context arresting. Of course that context displays a clockwork intricacy. What Nolan has done is created four distinct subplots, each with its own goal, obstacles, and deadline. Moreover, all the deadlines have to synchronize; this is the device of the kick, which ejects a team member from a dream layer. With so many levels, we need a cascade of kicks.
The last forty-five minutes of the film become an extended exercise in crosscutting. As each plotline is added to the mix, Nolan can flash among them, building eventually to four alternating strands—with additional crosscutting within each strand (in the hotel, Cobb at the bar/ Saito and Eames in the elevator/Arthur and Ariadne in the lobby). Each level has its own clock, with duration stretched the farther down you go. One thing that has long struck me about classical crosscutting is that in one line of action time is accelerated, while in another it slows down. The villains are inches away from breaking into the cabin/ the hero is miles away/ the villains are almost inside/ the hero is just arriving. I wonder if Nolan noticed this aspect of the crosscutting convention and built it into his plot, supplying motivation (that word again) by stipulating that different dream levels have different rates of change.
Another clever touch is what Nolan doesn’t include in the orgy of crosscutting: the framing situation in the first-class jet cabin. Once we leave that, we don’t see it again for about seventy minutes. I think we tend to forget about it, so that Cobb’s startled expression upon finally awakening mimics our own realization that all the intense physical action has been enframed by this quiet, stable situation.
I think that structurally, if not stylistically, the climax is a virtuoso piece of cinema. It recalls Griffith’s Intolerance, which also intercuts the climaxes of four plotlines, and supplies crosscut lines of action within each line as well. Here, one might say, is one way to innovate in the New Narrative Artifice: Create something like the Intolerance of the twenty-first century.
Possible, and not that unstable
The film is shameless in its regard for cinema, and its plundering of cinematic history. What’s fun is that a lot of people I talk to come up with very different movies that they see in the film, and most of them are spot-on. There are all kinds of references in there.
Also like Griffith, Nolan has hit upon some ways to make his innovation user-friendly. For one thing, as most viewers have noticed, he situates his levels in very different locales: rainy, traffic-filled city versus eerily vacant metropolis; cushy hotel versus more Spartan one; beach versus mountains. This allows us to keep oriented during even the most rapidly cut portions. More subtly, Nolan has, deliberately or not, respected the limits of recursive thinking, or metacognition.
As shrewd members of a very social species, we are all good at mindreading, figuring out what other people are thinking. I know that Chelsea admires Hillary. We’re good at moving to the next level too: I know that Chelsea believes that Hillary wants to monitor Bill. And I know that Chelsea believes that Hillary suspects that Bill is smitten with Monica. If you drew this situation as a cartoon, you’d have one thought bubble inside another inside another, and so on—like the Russian-doll structure of the climax of Inception.
It turns out that our minds can’t build these nested structures indefinitely. We hit a limit.
Peter believes that Jane thinks that Sally wants Peter to suppose that Jane intends Sally to believe that her ball is under the cushion.
Robin Dunbar, whose example this is, suggests that most adults can’t handle so much recursion. His experiments indicate that the normal limit is at most five levels—just what we have in Inception (four dream layers plus the reality frame). Add more, and most of us would get muddled.
The filmmaker’s second big problem with modular plotting, I mentioned near the start, is how to fill in the plotlines. Let me suggest a general principle, at least for storytelling aimed at a broad audience: The more complex your macrostructure is, the simpler your microstructure should be. In Memento, the high degree of redundancy between memory episodes and the unusually heightened transitions help us track the backward layout of scenes. Similarly, all four episodes of Intolerance culminate in a race to the rescue—a device that was by 1916 immediately legible for audiences.
Genre plays a role in simplifying the modules too. Our efforts to make sense of Memento are helped by film noir conventions like the trail of clues, the deceptive allies, and the maneuvers of a femme fatale. Likewise, Griffith used the conventions of current genres to fill in the plotlines of Intolerance. The Christ story can be seen as a recasting of the many pious Passion plays of the first years of cinema. The Babylonian story and the Huguenots’ story rely on the established conventions of the costume pictures, including the French and Italian features that were popular at the time. (Capellani, discussed in an earlier entry, was one master of this genre.) And of course Intolerance’s modern story is pure melodrama, showing a young family pulled apart by the forces of urban poverty and bluenose reform. Griffith wove together not only four epochs but several genres.
So does Nolan in Inception. He recruits the conventions of science fiction, heist movies, Bond intrigues, and team-mission plots like The Guns of Navarone to make the scene-by-scene progression of the plot comprehensible. The iterated chases and fights keeps us grounded too, though you might wonder why Fischer’s subconscious projections all seem to have leaped out of a Bruckheimer picture. And of course you’ve seen many of the other images before, from the Paris café to the luxury hotel bar. Shamelessly clichéd, the image of kids playing in the sunlight immediately evokes fatherhood and family in any film.
I’ve already argued that the comparatively transparent training and exploration sessions in the middle of the film help us keep our bearings. Another handhold is the convention of the new male melodrama, the husband or boyfriend trying to come to terms with the death of his woman. The simple action movie, from Death Wish to Bad Boys, uses vengeance to ease the man’s torment. The more “serious” plot makes the man responsible in some degree for the woman’s fate. The emotional temperature rises as the male protagonist tries to fight his feelings of guilt, turning it outward to a perpetrator (as in The Prestige) or inward (as in Memento, and Shutter Island). The under-plot of Inception, driven by Ariadne’s curiosity, gradually reveals to us that Cobb gave Mal the fatal idea of dwelling in dreams.
Moreover, the rise of fantasy, science-fiction, and comic-book movies has brought a new interest in creating “worlds” with their own laws. Once you have Superman, you need a secret identity and Kryptonite and well-placed phone booths, not to mention a host of constraints on what can and can’t happen. Comic books supply not only a world furnished with characters and settings but also rules about conduct, morality, even physics. George Lucas, in his youth more of a comic-book reader than a cinephile, took over this principle of construction for Star Wars. Of course this idea of richly furnished, rule-governed worlds has been elaborated more fully in videogames. My point is that contemporary viewers are ready to ride with this as another convention of contemporary virtual-world storytelling, and this habit simplifies our pickup of the rules governing Inception’s embedded stories.
In sum, 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.
I could find faults. As in The Dark Knight, Nolan’s action scenes are clunky and distressingly casual in their composition and cutting. He is much better at mind games than spatially precise physical activity. Some dialogue could be pruned too. (What are you doing here? He loved you–in his own way. Something is happening…as we speak.) And I haven’t even posed the interpretive issues. Find a sympathetic young woman to exorcise the demonic wife you can’t quite abandon. Find a new father figure (Japanese mogul) to replace the old one (Brit architect). Use the spinning top to exemplify both change and stability, childhood and maturity, and/or the unending flux of narrative. As Kristin hints, the whole thing might actually be complicated rather than complex; instead of a dense but coherent cluster of principles we might have a shiny contraption, bolting on new premises as it hurtles along.
Nonetheless, if current excitement about this movie is any measure, Nolan has pulled off the big balancing act. The film is redundant and familiar enough to let most of us follow the main trajectories on the first pass. Yet it’s enigmatic, elliptical, and equivocal enough to keep many of us talking about it. . . and watching it again. Recidivism, thy name is Inception.
Based on Uncle Scrooge? That’s rich!
Kristin back again:
There has been much suggestion on the internet, sometimes in jest, sometimes in earnest, sometimes half in jest and half in earnest, that Nolan got the idea for Inception from an Uncle Scrooge comic story with a shared-dream premise, “The Dream of a Lifetime!” Nearly all postings on this subject date this comic, created by Don Rosa, to 2002. Yes, “Dream” first appeared in 2002—in Norwegian. It came out in the U.S. in the May, 2004 issue of Uncle Scrooge (Gemstone #329). In 2006, it was reprinted in Rosa’s book, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion.
The entire comic is available online here, and the published volume can be purchased here. The online version does not include Rosa’s informative afterword, “The Making of ‘The Dream of a Lifetime!’” which appears only in the Life and Times reprint.
If Nolan got the idea from the Rosa tale, he certainly developed upon and changed it considerably. In fact, there are more significant differences than similarities.
First, the similarities:
1. In “The Dream of a Lifetime!” several people enter the dream by being hooked up to a machine. Here it’s a radio-controlled device invented by Gyro Gearloose, who intended for it “to help psychiatrists examine the dreams of their patients.” (Gearloose was created in 1952 by Carl Barks to provide whatever wacky invention his plots required.) The receivers are metal colanders wired as antennae and worn on the heads of the people sharing the dream.
2. Waking up from visiting the dream is triggered by falling (see below).
3. Characters in reality can attempt to insert objects or situations into the dream by making sounds or presenting objects for Scrooge to smell, though this usually goes comically wrong. This somewhat resembles the premise that the jolts of the van in the first dream level of Inception cause earthquake-like rumbles in the second level and so on.
4. The characters frequently explain to each other how the shared-dream technology works. Rosa makes this humorous in part by starting the story with Scrooge dreaming and the Beagle Boys arriving in his money bin with the Gearloose equipment, which they have already stolen. He then makes the exposition deliberately clunky and obvious. One of the stupider Beagles asks, “Sure … uh … tell me again how it works?” There are then several panels of explanation as the group arranges the equipment to enter the dream. As they are about ready, one remarks, “But I’ll explain later” how they will get Scrooge to tell them the combination to his vault.
5. All of the characters who enter Scrooge’s mind are aware that they are in a dream, as is Scrooge, who has had each of these dreams many times.
Now, the differences:
1. There is a single dreamer throughout, and Scrooge remains in his own bed.
2. There is only one level of dreaming, and Donald, who enters the dream to foil the Beagle Boys, returns at intervals to the bedroom to report progress and plan strategies.
3. Spatially, the dream extends only a short distance around Scrooge. If the characters move too far from him, it fades out, which Rosa represents by having portions of the panels go white. The Beagle Boys exit the dream, one by one, by falling into the white void (see below).
4. Scrooge passes through a series of seven recurring dreams, all based on real adventures he has had in the distant past. Each of the seven dreams derives from situations in Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck series. (The one-volume edition of this series is out of print, but it still is available in a two-volume version, here and here.) These dreams take place out of chronological order, and Scrooge’s age changes with each new dream. (The stories are “The Vigilante of Pizen Bluff,” #6, Scrooge age 23; “The Dreamtime Duck of the Never Never,” #7, age 29; “The Master of the Mississippi,” #2, age 15; “The Empire Builder from Calisota,” #11, age 45; “The Buckaroo of the Badlands,” #3, age 15; “The Last of the Clan McDuck,” #1, age 10; and “Hearts of the Yukon,” #8C, age 31.)
6. “Dream” is designed to be funny, as when the Beagle Boys keep complaining that they’re in a nightmare, while Scrooge thinks of them as pleasant dreams. This is normal life to such an adventurous character.
It should be clear that the complexity of Rosa’s story originates not from the shared-dream structure, which is fairly straightforward. Rosa is more interested in finding a way to rework some of the scenes from his earlier biographical Scrooge comics. The whole Life and Times project originated from Rosa’s working method of teasing out minutiae about Scrooge from the original Carl Barks stories and then concocting sequels or prequels to them. Life and Times is an attempt to use all the mentions of past events, relatives, locales, and dates to devise a biography of Scrooge. “Dream of a Lifetime!” simply carries that modus operandi one step further.
The other big difference between “Dream” and Inception is that a reader who was not familiar with the seven earlier stories would miss much of what goes on in “Dream.” It was written for McDuck aficionados as a sort of game of recognition. For those who do recognize the seven situations referenced, “Dream” is quite easy to follow. For those who don’t, it must seem complicated and mysterious, most crucially since they won’t recognize Glittering Goldie, Scrooge’s lost love, in the opening “private” part of the dream.
In contrast, Inception is self-contained and tries for a very different sort of game of comprehension with the viewer, one which would not be aided by knowledge from other Nolan films.
“Dream” is also recognizable to fans as another of the “trick” stories that Rosa has written occasionally. These are not linked to Barks’s stories but develop some simple premise that allows Rosa to play with time and space in virtuoso fashion. These include “Cash Flow,” where the Beagle Boys buy an anti-friction ray-gun (Uncle Scrooge, Gladstone #224); “The Beagle Boys vs. the Money Bin,” (Uncle Scrooge, Gemstone #325), where the Beagle Boys find a map of the money bin; and my favorite, “A Matter of Some Gravity” (Walt Disney’s Comics, Gladstone, #610), where Magica de Spell buys a wand that turns gravity sideways for Scrooge and Donald.
In short, if Nolan ever saw “Dream of a Lifetime!” it could only have given him a few ideas out of the many that went into Inception.
For more discussion of the art of Christopher Nolan, see his category on the right-hand side of the page. We have an analysis of sound in The Prestige in the ninth edition of Film Art: An Introduction, and there we discuss the film’s narrative strategies as well.
Despite not caring for the movie, Jim Emerson has been assembling a wide-ranging and long-running dossier on Inception, with many comments. Scroll down the several entries here. Likewise visit David Cairns, who makes the necessary Anthony Mann comparison. The Wikipedia entry on the film is information-packed, and it includes several helpful links.
Our UW informants suggest that videogames having affinities with Inception include Assassin’s Creed II, Meigakure, and Shadow of Destiny. Thanks to Jason Mittell, Tim Palmer, Evan Davis, Leo Rubinkowski, Ethan de Seife, Edward Branigan, and Andrea Comisky for suggestions. See also Kirk Hamilton’s “Inception’s Usability Problem.”
On fourth-and fifth-level mindreading, see Robin Dunbar, The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 45-52. Dunbar’s study found evidence suggesting that women are better at tracking recursive mental states than men are.
Jan Simons offers an analytical survey of writing about New Artifice in an article here. For interpretations of particular films within the trend, see Allan Cameron, Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Warren Buckland, ed., Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). I try to lay out some narrative principles governing such films, including Memento, in The Way Hollywood Tells It and in the essays “Film Futures” and “Mutual Friends and Chronologies of Chance” in Poetics of Cinema.
PS (17 December 2010): We have a rethink of Inception in this later entry.