Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk arrives this weekend and it’s arriving to predictably good reviews. His poorest reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes is Interstellar at 71%. He has four films (including Dunkirk, so far) reviewed in the 90s. As a director, his movies have grossed more than $4 billion, making Nolan one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. His films are master classes in storytelling, and this is all the more impressive when one considers that, for the most part, he’s making all of his films about the same thing.
Christopher Nolan is perhaps the purest of storytellers. All of his movies, over and over again, are stories about storytelling itself. Perhaps this arose when he was yet a boy, at an age somewhere between nine and twelve, when he decided that he wanted to make movies professionally. Perhaps this decision at such a young age is the reason that he can’t perceive the world through any other lens than as a movie maker, a creator of fiction, and so every film that he releases is just another attempt at his telling a story about not just the subjects in the film, but a way in which he expresses himself and who he is to his audience. He is, as he repeats through sci-fi, superheroes, and heist flicks, a father-creator, and movies are his offspring. We, the audience, are the everyday, the everywhere, the target and container of his medium of choice.
Nolan cannot seem to help but to put storytellers at the center of his films. More interestingly put, he is a creator of elaborate fiction whose characters participate in elaborate fictions. It is noteworthy that all of his main characters are men and intimately engaged in the crafting of stories. This thematic reliance of his began in his very first film, Following, a movie that I am sure the fewest readers of this site have bothered to watch. Its low budget and black-and-white aesthetic are completely opposite to what we expect from a Nolan film, yet it is just as significant as all of the others when examining Nolan’s work.
Following is the story of a young man who begins to follow people through the streets of London hoping to find inspiration for his first novel. That’s an obvious nod to fiction writing, and Nolan barely adjusts from this for his next film, Memento. That movie’s main character, Leonard Shelby, sets off the film’s plot at the very beginning by narrating the line, “We all lie to ourselves to be happy.” If you’re unfamiliar with the movie’s reversed structure, this is seen at the end, but the point is that Shelby concocts a lie so that he has a purpose in life. The character is incapable of going day-to-day without a narrative structure–find his wife’s killer–even when he is aware in some moments that his quest is pure fiction. In addition, Shelby uses another story, about a character named Sammy Jankis, to help define who he is and how he relates to the world around him. Shelby is the perfect cipher for Nolan, the filmmaker, because without these stories, Shelby ceases to exist.
Continuing on, Nolan is perhaps best known for his trilogy of Batman films. Nolan’s Batman doesn’t see himself as a man in a mask, though. To the Bruce Wayne in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman is a symbol, “more than a man,” since a man can be killed. Symbols live on because they are ideas, and what is an idea but the seed of a story? More interesting, and pertinent to this discussion, is in the follow-up to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the character of Joker. Joker himself, a sworn enemy of Batman early on, veers from his original intent and even becomes a fan of the Batman mythos. He emulates it, taking over the criminal underground because the criminal overlords to that point hadn’t provided enough meaning to their followers, something granted in spades by a true storyteller. Just like Memento‘s Leonard Shelby, Joker gets by day-to-day telling stories, and while these are horrific ones about the origin of his scars, they all help to define him to the people around him. I can’t help but watch The Dark Knight and picture Leonard Shelby beneath the Joker’s makeup, albeit without Shelby’s characteristic anterograde amnesia.
The young man in Following, Leonard Shelby, Batman and Joker–they are storytellers using their stories to define their very lives, a poignant picture of a young director whose very livelihood revolves around his ability to tell tales. Even The Prestige, his movie about two dueling magicians, begins with the pair, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, searching for an elder magician’s trick, his fiction that helps him perform his magic. In that film, it was the elder magician who lived a fake life as a much more crippled man than he really was in order to help sell his act’s illusions. It is in The Prestige that Christopher Nolan really ramps up his tales of anxiety over filmmaking, even as he himself has finally found a place in the world he long sought after.
Nolan was born in London, but because of his American mother, he grew up splitting time living in both England and America. As a burgeoning filmmaker, he attempted to follow his dreams in the very robust British industry but, despite his best intentions and practicing of the craft, could not penetrate the very chummy inner circle of the group. In a 2013 interview with the British news site, The Guardian, Nolan would decry the industry in England and complain about the stack of rejection letters he had received. Despite the pain this must’ve caused him, Nolan could not do anything but keep pursuing his dream career. A storyteller must tell stories.
This attraction to filmmaking despite the possible hurt it could do him played out in a fashion in his early film, Insomnia. That film follows Al Pacino’s Will Dormer, a detective who is being investigated for the fictional story he told about a previous crime, a lie which may have put the wrong man in prison. While haunted by this, Dormer is required to investigate a murder and learns it has been committed by the writer of a crime novel. The pieces in place, Nolan tells the story of a fictionist who pursues a more deadly fictionist, the former dodging his previous story while the latter attempts to compose a new one.
In The Prestige, our dueling magicians, Angier and Borden, learn that they must give their lives over to their acts. For Borden, this means sharing his life with his twin brother, each man taking on another identity while the other is the true “Borden.” Angier goes for something more sinister, using a science-fiction device to make continual copies of himself–a human photocopier, in a sense–and the growing dread that he’ll never know if he’s a copy or the original, but for both men, the act is the thing. Everything they do, all of the lies they tell and the lives they destroy in the process, is all in the name of putting on a good show.
By the end of Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, I began to wonder if he has had second thoughts about pursuing this life of movie making. I wonder if it’s something he pursued so avidly as a young man but then has begun to wonder if he can ever leave it behind. Inception, as many readers will know, is about a man who this time isn’t a storyteller, but someone who travels through other people’s dreams, their own personal stories. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is perhaps a stand-in for the audience, but I suspect he is still a shade of Nolan, even if Nolan has split his own identity in this film between Cobb and another character, Professor Miles, who assigns a “dream architect” to Cobb’s mission in the movie. This concept of someone creating a story in the dreams of another person to have yet more people travel through is incredibly dense, but worthwhile. It may be Nolan’s most prosaic piece on storytelling in his entire career, but by the end of Inception, we’re unsure if Cobb is ever out of the dream, if he ever gets back to his reality. Nolan himself cites the movie as the one about which he gets the most questions, and his own answer to these questions are that, regardless of the film’s true ending, they indicate that “reality is important.”
Nolan’s filmmaker angst is again on display in the final movie in his Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Batman has retired but the effect of his work has not–crime is almost completely abolished. It seems that the symbol, the idea, the story of Batman did its job. Despite this, the storyteller cannot rest long. Crime returns and Bruce Wayne must once again embody the cape and cowl to defeat it. He is, as most people know, soundly defeated. The Dark Knight Rises is interesting because, like the Joker, its villains repeat an origin story (are all origins stories?) that first seems to apply to the one villain, but in the end applies to the other. Ultimately, of course, Batman reclaims his status by living a version of the story the villains tell, and defeats them. He subsequently retires yet again, but puts his story in the careful hands of an understudy. The movie continues Nolan’s themes of crafting fiction and its effects on not just the audience (here, Gotham), but the writer. The Dark Knight Rises‘ most salient point is that stories have a legacy. They have the potential to interact and affect their audience long after the writer puts the story down.
So, The Dark Knight Rises lifted Nolan’s concept of the storyteller from someone drawn to create them, as in Following or Insomnia, and to the role of someone responsible for them. Interstellar, Nolan’s 2014 film, finds the director at his most subtle. We have no distinct story telling here, but Nolan finds his way into the film through Matthew McConaughey’s Joseph Cooper. Cooper is a pilot sent on a quest to save humanity, and the movie is trippy and scientific all the way through to the final act where Nolan’s themes then take over. Cooper, caught in a singularity, becomes the ultimate storyteller. Stuck in a science-fictiony object called a tesseract, Nolan fashions it into bookshelves (“wink, wink,” he seems to suggest). Like all storytellers, Cooper only has the power to create words and meaning for his subject, who in this case is his daughter, Murphy, playing the audience. He can navigate throughout time, but ultimately it is only his ability to send a message that saves all of humanity.
It is here that I would suspect Christopher Nolan of some hubris–storyteller as godlike being to the audience, but to label him as that, I would have to ignore how his subjects’ lives are often debilitated by the stories they are involved in. Following, Insomnia, The Prestige, even the Batman movies, all show storytellers harmed just as much, if not more, by their fictions as they are exalted in them. Recall also that Nolan is intently focused on reality. In 2013, he told the Village Voice that, “movies are one of the ways in which we try to see things from the same point of view.” Nolan, the pure storyteller, is telling stories not just about himself, the creator, but the collaboration with the audience and the common journey we all are on together. In Following, the audience is the crowd, providing inspiration to the creator. By the Dark Knight Trilogy, the audience is Gotham, the subject of the storyteller’s affections and purpose and finally, in Interstellar, the audience has become the receiver of the storyteller’s mission, but in the receipt of the message, the audience has all the power: save humanity or do not. Either way, the storyteller has done his job.
Christopher Nolan has become more and more understated in his presentation of himself and his perceived role in his films. I’m curious as to how his themes will be on display in Dunkirk, a war film without any pretense of being about fiction. War itself is an intriguing topic, an evil that must be avoided, and I suspect that Nolan will be attempting to induce his audience to understand their own role in perpetuating either goodness or wickedness. I’ll certainly be watching out for his message and for Nolan himself, surely hidden within the characters he trots out for us.
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