Christopher Nolan’s rise from obscure art house mechanic to Master and Commander of the Hollywood blockbuster is the stuff of legends and textbooks, behind-the-scenes featurettes and film festival Q&A panel banter. His connection with audiences from all walks and interests has catapulted his career to one of the most influential and commercially successful filmmakers of the last decade, if not of all time. Heavily influenced and readily sampled, conventional and experimental, his approach is often at odds with itself, conflicted and convoluted giving way to big budgets and endless writings, reviews and conversations. He chooses grand over nuance, drives his points forward with all the subtlety of a bull in a china cabinet but somehow it always pays off. All of his films have returned a profit – a rarity for any career. He gets at your internal need to know and problem solve in concept driven spectacles, big screen theatrics with mainstream appeal. Nolan’s films have explored broken misanthropes and wounded nobodies, followed sleepless psycho dramas to the ends of the earth for perpetual daylight revelations, made dreams come true and blown them up, explored the mysteries of magic and breathed life into fallen heroes. He’s larger than life and flesh and blood, magnificent and flawed and fans, followers, critics and everyday moviegoers seem set on loving him and fighting for him no matter what. In 2003 he got the keys to the kingdom of Hollywood heaven, an invitation to resuscitate an American icon and in the process solidified his place as director of the people, auteur and visionary elite.
Christopher Nolan’s bold voice is second only to his undeniable bravado, his masterful command of the cinematic no better illustrated than in the films he made before his revisionist’s dream of the Batman franchise. Long before the now of his successes, his do-no-wrongfulness, he spent a year of weekends making his first film, painstakingly crafting every shot because he didn’t have money to waste. He made that film by the seconds, devoured every frame and set it just right to tell the exact story he was after. It was this structure and confidence that attracted producers, his love of characters and their troubles and the scaffolding to build a world around them that is a celebrated hallmark of all his films. It surprised a lot of people when Nolan was announced to make Batman but not those who knew his glimmering visions. At that point Nolan’s films were artful diatribes on obsession and paranoia (The Following 1999), high stakes deconstruction of a man’s fractured memory in tableau (Memento 2001). If Memento ensnared producers, tantalized money lenders, it was his third film that made him a commodity, a sleepy police procedural at the top of the world with Al Pacino and Robin Williams inside dangerous minds (Insomnia 2002). At casual glance you might not see the bigger picture brilliance of Nolan’s assemblages, his insistence on the weight and value of minutiae as places for an audience to latch onto, carry us into troubled places and take us on careful plots to explore archetypes and universal truths. For as much as Nolan is an original, a structuralist, he is also a revisionist at heart and an adventurer in spirit. He begins with basic building stones, makes a path or sets a foundation to begin even if he throws them to the wind midway and you have no choice but to hang on.
Nolan’s debut film Batman Begins to start the franchise in 2005 was a smashing success, surprising in the amount of praise from gushing fans and doting critics, earning him high marks across the board in the review aggregators. He set out to humanize the mythos of Batman, reshape it and make it as much about the broken souls in us as the one of high kicking action heroes. He wanted to return to the comic book heroes earliest beginnings in an effort to revitalize and remunerate audiences who watched helpless as their beloved character fell victim to a well-intentioned, but no less inept Joel Schumacher in 1997. Nolan blurred the line between what’s possible and what we’ve come to expect from escapist fantasies, deconstructing Batman in order to distinguish the dual identities of Bruce Wayne and Caped Crusader as separate and equal, two sides of the same coin that while necessary together would eventually have to be taken apart. His articulate, driven and flawed Batman gave us a hero that reflects our own troubled times of political corruption, criminal overlords and broken citizenry. In the darkness of Nolan’s films lives a part of us struggling against insurmountable odds so when Batman falls we all fall. It is there in that rise from utter ruin that we see him rise again like the title of the movie, to transform from individual Bat-“man” to Dark Knight of the many and he brings us along. Chivalry and morality are key themes in this world, a champion of the people who must win for all us losers instilling in us the deepest kind of love, respect and adoration. But creating myth and fantasy this close to our world of the scattered and the wounded, of the poor and the ruined does not come without a price. People have grown protective of this new everyman hero, found him as answers to their needs in ways no one could have imagined or predicted coming from a comic book. Negative reviews of the films have been met with death threats, a disenfranchised individual stumbled into murder in the name of some message he found or manufactured from the films. But how much responsibility for the consequences of a film should be put on the filmmakers? How much of what is there are we bringing to it, when should we avoid too many mirrors held up to catch our own dead and dying? In an era of such animosity and uncertainty where are these films and how do they speak to us or is that too much to ask of cinema? What is this paradox, this sense of an unstoppable force of fiction wrapped in non-fiction fantasies slamming a thousand-miles-an-hour into the unmovable forces of our society and does it say anything about inevitable conclusions and forlorn misinterpretations? If the consequences and collateral damages are outside our movies, not part of record-breaking box office accounting, not about people pushing and pulling to find the meaning in so much intending, maybe there are no answers at the end of the films when the lights begin to rise and the credits shake us back to here – sitting there or walking out early having escaped our now, we are talking about the movies after all.
Christopher Nolan is by definition an auteur, an “author of cinema” and it was this exacting command of story and character that caught the attention of studio execs back in 2003 when he was called in by Warner Bros. and left with a three picture revisionist’s dream. Teaming up with David S. Goyer (DarkCity, Blade franchise) Batman Begins earned him the sequel, The Dark Knight followed surely in success and congratulatory excess, then his latest endeavor in theatres now, The Dark Knight Rises. With a franchise that has become the most praised and commercially successful movies in history, Nolan has pulled ahead in the race to greatness, by far leading the pack of blockbuster directors with plans to tackle another epic iconic character – Superman. The trailer suggests more of the same and most likely a whole lot more. His mastery has been described as intelligent and direct, one-on-one with audiences willing and wanting to see complex issues without the insolent pessimism found in typical big budget spectacles. Nolan’s pictures have touched a world audience, sparked commentary and controversy, inspired and detoured with films that represent the greatest triumphs in technology and commodity while paving a path to and from our movie house churches and holy temples to escape and imagine and we’ll pay attention because deep down inside we have to.