Christopher Nolan as auteur
Written by Sarah
Christopher Nolan is the only working auteur today.
At its simplest level, the auteur theory states that a director is the principal author of a film, despite the inherently industrial nature of filmmaking, in which dozens of parts must work together to create the whole. This is usually borne out by a cohesive creative vision evident throughout a director’s body of work.
I’m not a huge fan of the auteur theory because there are legitimate arguments to be made on behalf of screenwriters and producers, even actors, editors and cinematographers, as individuals whose vision can significantly determine the style of a film. However, I do think that it is the director’s job to unite these separate visions to serve his greater idea, so as a tool for judging directors, I believe the auteur theory is a good place to start.
One quality of a true auteur is the construction of a workshop. Because of the exclusive nature of the auteur theory I have a hard time measuring directors who write their own films against those who don’t. It’s the extra measure of control the writer/director exerts over his idea, and it gives him an edge over other directors in the auteur debate. Also, Nolan uses the same collaborators film to film. Since Memento, cinematographer Wally Pfister has shot each of Nolan’s films. Nolan has written or co-written each film except Insomnia. He is a frequent producer on his films, as is his wife, Emma Thomas. As for editing, the unsung hero of filmmaking, every film since Batman Begins has been edited by Lee Smith. Like Pfister, Smith seems well and truly entrenched in Nolan’s workshop. Recycling key technicians is the simplest way to build a cohesive style and tone, and Nolan’s aesthetic owes a lot to Pfister and Smith.
The word “auteur” gets thrown around way too much. To truly judge an auteur, you need a director’s complete body of work, which means the director should no longer be directing, which typically means the director needs to be deceased. It’s a lot easier to spot historical auteurs than contemporary ones. Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example of an auteur. Think of Hitchcock and you know exactly what one of his films looks like. And Hitchcock’s raison d’etre is clear throughout his body of work: the imaginings of the mind are the most terrifying thing. Hitchcock’s horrors were not monsters but the terrible things a human can conceive—dread, betrayal, and murder.
Being a true auteur is more than just having a distinct style; it’s about having an overarching theme that unites a body of work. Nolan is the only working director today who is consistently pursuing such a theme. I can think of several contemporary directors who have distinct styles and consistently work on a higher plane of filmmaking than most—Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Masaki Kobayashi, Werner Herzog, Pedro Almodovar, P.T. Anderson, and recently Jason Reitman.
But for each of these, and others too numerous to name, I can’t identify a distinct raison d’etre. Jeunet perhaps comes closest in his exploration of magical realism and how the imagination helps one cope with traumas big and small. But for the rest the work is ongoing, the ideas still developing. Only Nolan has, from the very first of his feature films, built consistently on one singular idea. It’s an idée enorme: identity and memory, specifically how the known versus the assumed creates an identity.
His first film, Following (1998), kicks everything off when a young man is enthralled by a burglar, Cobb, into learning his style of thieving. Cobb breaks into people’s houses and finds the “box” in which people keep their most treasured mementos. Cobb shows the victim what they truly had by removing the object which signifies the memory. Inception features another Cobb, also a thief, who breaks into people’s minds to locate the guarded place where secrets are kept. Once located, Cobb can then manipulate these secrets and ultimately, through the act of implanting an idea in one’s subconscious—inception—alter that person’s identity. Identity in Nolan’s world is wholly susceptible to outside force.
Memory, too, is a fragile construct to Nolan. Consider Memento, the film which brought Nolan international notice. The protagonist, Leonard, is a man with no memory, whose entire identity is dictated by one fact: his wife is dead. Everything else is subjective to Leonard’s here-and-gone memory, and while he can tattoo other facts on his body, such as a license plate number, it’s dependent on context that Leonard can’t remember. Therefore, he goes in unending circles, forever trying to solve his wife’s murder, forgetting he’s solved it, and trying to solve it again. Like the paradoxical stairs in Inception, Leonard will keep lapping himself, but with no memory of having done so.
Throughout his films Nolan explores memory and identity as four types: absolute, divided, non-existent, and dislocated. Insomnia dislocates Dormer’s (Al Pacino) identity through parasitic guilt over his memories and a bad case of insomnia. Cobb in Inception is cut off by guilt, too, whereas Memento’s Leonard is adrift due to his lack of memory. Nolan’s absolute identities are often the unimpeachable secondary characters who never falter on their paths—Inception’s Ariadne for instance. The Prestige pits two magicians, the dislocated Angier (Hugh Jackman) and the divided Borden (Christian Bale) against one another. Ultimately we see that Angier’s dislocation, also fueled by grief and revenge (definite subset to Nolan’s concept of identity—negative memories have a greater impact than positive ones) leads to the ultimate division, and Angier has been subsumed by an indefinite number of iterations of his self who literally fight each other to the death to possess not the body or even the life, but the identity.
There is only one film in Nolan’s canon that perfectly utilizes Nolan’s identity archetypes, the film that stands as his best, even in the face of Inception’s greatness: The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne (Bale) is the ultimate divided identity, a man defined by two memories: his parents’ murder and his father’s belief that people want to be good. Though Bruce wants to avenge his parents’ death, ultimately he chooses to use Batman to keep alive the flame of hope of which his father spoke, and he willingly splits his personality in order to compartmentalize that huge capacity for violence contained in Batman.
Meanwhile, The Joker (Heath Ledger) has NO identity—no name, no history, no context, no subtext. He values nothing, admires nothing, and wants nothing except more chaos. He is so without identity that even his clothes are unlabeled, and in a bit that plays comic but really signifies The Joker’s complete lack of a persona, he cross-dresses as a nurse in one scene, thus eliminating his gender as an identifier. The Joker is an horrific character, not because the things he does are horrific (for as he says, he is just a dog chasing cars), but because he is nothing. He is pure id, no morals or ego to guide him. Only impulse, unhindered by control, a completely non-existent identity.
Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is the incorruptible civil servant, but his identity is the one that fractures. His dislocation is represented literally by the damage to his face, one half perfect and handsome, the other charred and damaged beyond repair. When faced with this dislocation, Batman turns Dent’s face to the undamaged side so that Gotham City remembers its hero, and Batman sacrifices his own reputation to preserve that of the man Bruce put all his faith into.
That was Bruce’s fatal error, a mistake Batman doesn’t make. Throughout The Dark Knight Bruce is shown with Dent—a romantic rival and reluctant friend, the patron and the politico forming an alliance. But when Batman meets Dent he is surly, short tempered, and quick to take his leave. For Batman entrusts his faith to Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the absolute identity in the series. Gordon is unwaveringly loyal to Batman, and Batman exploits that loyalty, knowing he can trust Gordon to always do the right, brave thing.
Inception’s solid box office and critical praise have already lead to talk of a sequel. As much as I loved Inception, and I really loved it, I want Batman 3 (which had better not be titled “The Caped Crusader”) first. How does Nolan top The Dark Knight? Where does he go from Inception, his most visually daring film to date? Expectations are so high for Batman 3 as to induce a nose bleed. They were high before Inception, now they’re just ridiculous. Nolan is a careful craftsman--he’s already delayed the project for a year because he isn’t yet satisfied with the script, and he’s still realizing his full potential as a filmmaker. Giving him the extra time to plan can only enrich the final product. I expect a lot from a Christopher Nolan film these days, but I do so because he has never let me down.
Attached – Nolan working on Inception last year.
Written by Sarah
Photos from Wenn.com