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The Most Taxing People in Film: Christopher Nolan

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By Jim Emerson
Special to MSN Movies

In his landmark auteurist critical reference "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968," Andrew Sarris constructed a personal pantheon of great directors, relegating lesser lights to categories such as "Strained Seriousness" and "Less Than Meets the Eye." If I were to make a Venn diagram to represent the overlap of those two classifications, Christopher Nolan would be right in the middle.

Let me say up front that I don't think Nolan is a bad or thoroughly incompetent director, just a successfully pedestrian one. His Comic-Con fan base makes extravagant claims for each new film — particularly since Nolan began producing his graphic-novel blockbusters with "Batman Begins" in 2005 — but the movies are hobbled by thesis-statement screenplays that strain for significance and an ungainly directing style that seems incapable of, and uninterested in, illustrating more than one thing at a time: "Look at this. Now look at this. Now look at this. Now here's some dialogue to explain the movie's fictional rules. Now a character will tell you what he represents and what his goals are." And so on ... You won't experience the thrill of discovery while looking around in a Nolan frame. You'll see the one thing he wants you to see, but everything around it is dead space.

To me, Nolan's movies seem more like business proposals — PowerPoint presentations for hypothetical pictures that somebody might flesh out one day — than works that live and breathe on their own. That's because (to switch metaphors) Nolan can sometimes hit the right note, but he gets only one at a time. He doesn't do chords, and he can't make the music resonate. As AD Jameson demonstrated in an essay about the piecemeal opening of "Inception": "Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do! (His closest rival here is, once again, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Bryan Singer.)"

That may sound "technical," but we're talking about directorial style, and how a movie is visualized has everything to do with how it plays. Nolan's sensibility is like a beginning language student who is still translating every word individually: One. Word. At. A. Time. This isn't just a matter of directorial efficiency, though that's part of it. It has to do with fluency in the medium, with making use of a cinematic vocabulary — composition, rhythm, flow — to create meaningful associations across space and time. Next to, say, David Fincher or the Coen brothers or Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg (all quite different stylists), Nolan resembles the author of those Dick and Jane books for young readers: "See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Run, run, run." Fine for first-graders, but a bit rudimentary for adults.

If Nolan's visual style were more engaging, perhaps he and his brother Jonathan's shortcomings as screenwriters would be less taxing. They rely almost exclusively on expository dialog to move the stories along, so the characters spend most of their time spelling out how they intend to get from A to B to C in the plot, and what obstacles they will have to overcome in order to do so. Listening to the straight-from-the-operating-manual speeches from "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," I can't help but think of Terry Gilliams' bridge keeper from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": "He who approacheth the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, e're the other side he see." At least Tim knew how to rhyme.

In "The Dark Knight," characters announce the movie's themes in the form of lectures to the audience while the movie is playing. "Inception" has no discernible themes because it consists of nothing but game rules, most of them arbitrary. Since the movie's "dreams" aren't dreams at all, and have little connection to the ways in which the human mind actually works, what we're left with is an overblown, complicated (but not complex) version of 3-D tic-tac-toe. We're constantly reminded of the regulations and restrictions the game master has put in place for operating on and between the levels... but so what? What does it all signify? I'd much rather watch a movie that's actually about something. 

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