Friday, July 20, 2012

The Misguided Ambition of Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight Rises

Our enjoyment of anything under the sun will always depend on our expectations. Even when we go into a movie knowing nothing about it we still work off our expectations. We generally know the genre i.e.  a sleek, savvy european thriller, so we can adjust accordingly. However, attempting to parse through all of the expectations I bring to the TDKR would take too long and yield few edifying results. We can say that as a baseline, we expect the world from this movie. It must serve as a fitting end to a story that has defined this cultural decade.
    Before I attempt to delineate Nolan’s glaring weakness both as a writer and director, he deserves his due. Let’s discuss his absurd talents. His cinematic scope remains unparallelled in Hollywood. His thematic ambition knows only the boundaries of his talent, not his will, and he knows the emotions of storytelling with the wisdom of a genius. The images of beauty that he creates, designs, places him on the top tier of directors. He understands, perfectly, how to manipulate our expectations, our emotions, but with subtlety. His cinematographic arsenal comes almost fully equipped: thriller, suspense, romance, action etc. he can do all of it. The fact that he can do all of this on the largest scale makes him all the more thrilling to watch. (I cannot think of a more engrossing action scene than the bank heist from TDK.) To that extent, his new movie, TDKR works perfectly as an ending, a coda to his great magnum opus. It satisfies everything we could have wanted from this trilogy, ties thing into a neat bow, revisits and closes themes from the first movie, and even leaves room for a future. But it leaves me intellectually bored, cold, and plain old unsatisfied. The only thing I am left to think about is why I have nothing to think about at all. The only Nolan moving that left me reeling was TDK, but that mostly stemmed from the otherworldly performance of Ledger.
Inception, through all the smoke and mirrors and heavy handed ambiguity, lacks intelligence, especially given the materials to work with. (A dream world, the equivalent of a blank page and somehow most of the dreams look like James Bond videogame levels. Nolan should have listened to Hardy’s advice from Inception, “You mustn't be afraid to dream larger.”) After all the pseudo-intellectual mazes, after all the layers the movie sounds and look intelligent, but lacks anything to chew on. I believe we can say the same about pretty much every Nolan movie. All of his movies have that same tone of freshman dorm room, late at night, a few beers and you begin to discuss “weighty” issues. Ever notice how so much of the intellectual heft of Nolan’s films work off aphorisms. Sentences that sound brilliant, but when inspected, when pushed sound empty, bordering on the simplistic cliche - “It’s not who you are inside that counts, it’s what you do.” “Not the hero the city deserves but the hero it needs.” “You either live to see yourself become a villain or die trying.” “What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate.” 
 Sometimes I go back and try to parse through all the Hallmark cards from these movies to see if they even make sense. You can only conquer your fear by embodying that fear for that true, does that even make sense? Often, I get the feeling that Nolan sees life on the grand scale that negates intimacy. He rarely seems to care about the small details of life, whether inter or intrapersonally. He thinks on the scale of mythology and thereby creates stilted husks of phrases that sound bombastic, laden with meaning, but ultimately devoid of true content.
    So much of his dialogue flags itself as the inspirational quote, one for the movie poster, or one for teachers to use in their lessons about morality - the scene on the boat from the second movie plays over and over again in NCSY/Jewish Youth conventions around the world. For all the darkness that Nolan supposedly captures, for all his ability to capture the paranoid apathy of our time, he sure does lay it on thick with the cheap platitudes about believing in yourself, about justice, about facing your fear. Nolan relies much more on spectacle or gimmicks than on content. Look at Memento, a movie that clearly challenges the viewer stylistically, but looking back, what stays with you is the style, the ingenuity and the grand stage he can execute upon. I’ve never left a Nolan film feeling the need to think something through, but I generally leave a Coen bros. film with just that experience. (Oy vey, The Prestige. I felt embarrassed by the end of that movie. It serves as the example that proves Nolan’s true gifts: a master of expectations, but a novice in thought, in the punch at the end. Also, when Batman tells the Joker that the people of Gotham showed him their true colors, I wanted to vomit, just a bit. Way to go humanity!)
Sometimes, ambitious artists buckle under their vision. They take too much on and create an onslaught of themes: fear, justice, trust, but density has never been his problem. Rather, behind all the stunts, the convoluted plots on plots, the different threads, they all lead to nowhere, to meager thoughts. Not that this disqualifies a movie in any sense, but Nolan sets himself up as the reigning king of intelligent Hollywood films when instead he panders to our simplistic moral sensibilities. (There must be more to Catwoman...). Deep down, when it counts, people will not disappoint you. Life Lesson Learned! You can make the claim that movies, or stories in general should not be judged by their moral complexity.
Regardless of the truth of this statement, Nolan always asks us to expect more. He never speaks of his movies as about Batman fighting Bane in a bad-ass manner, rather he speaks of his movies as an exploration of themes. Yet he explores themes the way a dilettante explores the academic world of The Revolutionary War: fumbling through weighty and heavy themes with fat fingers. Without any spoilers, Nolan in this movie attempts to tackle the topical issues of Occupy Wall Street, of economic inequality, the stagnancy of politics, the desire for revolution. He also attempts to flesh out more universal themes of civic responsibility, of individual sacrifice, and as always, of redemption. Yet, his large, expensive set pieces add nothing to our cultural conversations about any of these topics. He still lives in a comic book world in which simple ideas, and symbols hold real weight. To his credit, he takes a comic book story and makes it believable, but it still remains a comic book story full of moral clarity, not ambiguity. I never fully understand the struggle of the protagonists. Bruce always does the right thing, even with Alfred the preacher telling him otherwise. Most of Alfred's speeches are not only paternalistic, but misguided. The enemies are never relatable human beings, which works well for the Joker but makes everyone else annoying. The League of Shadows, which plays the evil roles in two of the movies, is a ridiculous conceit only because who would ever thinks like that. It sounds like the Protocols of the elders of Zion, or some conspiracy theory about rich republican billionaires from the Simpsons putting Aids in the chicken nuggets. (That speech when Liam Neeson talks about how the League of Shadows sacked Rome and London... Yikes.)
Even the most fascist propaganda attempts to hide behind a clever conceit. It wins the hearts of its people both through fear and scapegoats, but also through a heavenly utopian vision to rise out of all this despair. Bane somehow convinces a city to believe in him, I think, when it's clear that he is no more than a powerful thug. Nolan always feels so close to intelligence. He hangs around genius to the extent that he can mimic its structure, but not its essentials. Bane’s storyline, especially given the cultural wars we find ourselves in could really have been scenes for the ages. But Nolan never fleshes out what this new revolution looks like for a normal family. Do they loot as well? He focuses so much on moving his plot forward that he forgets to give meat to his ideas, to relationships. 
Logistics in these convoluted movies never bother me (Oh, but how did Batman get stabbed if he wears a kevlar suit that Lucius Fox said specifically stops knives!) Sometimes, you need to accept the rules of the created world, but gee whiz, when will Nolan stop thinking that effects, style, and that cool wow factor can take the place of actual thought.
Even his earlier films, take Insomnia for example, works much more off effects and acting than dialogue or plot. It creates a perfect mood of a sleep deprived cop who slowly loses his mind in the haze of the forest, but their ends its merits. Its plot, prosaic, mimics other movies. Pacino redeems the movie in a similar manner that Ledger redeems so much of the platitudinal nature of the Dark Knight. Given his genius, I would love to see Nolan take on a movie that works more on dialogue than twists and turns. Theatricality and misdirection are indeed powerful tools to the uninitiated, but are the initiated. Deception and illusions are indeed powerful tools, but for a magician, or maybe for a crime fighter, but less and less so for one of our most talented directors. Maybe I expect too much from the person who changed the face of movies, but why should we set our standards low for genius?


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  2. I had the exact same issues with his films-except to say that your critiques are what entirely ruined his films for me. I was bored to tears with Dark Knight. So heavy-handed and always felt forced with its "profound philosophical" ramifications. Nothing screams forced and heavy hand as that dinner scene of Bruce Wills and Harvey with their girlfriends, that nothing felt genuine. Inception took all of that to height. I remember seeing Dark Knight first time and felt so underwhelmed that I thought maybe it was because of watching it on slightly blurry TV. Nope, it was that bad.

    I think Memento is his best film because it didn't rely on exposition nor laced with heavy-hand superficial philosophy parceling his later films.

    Another critique of mine that is not appearing your post is that of his editing. I found his editing highly manipulative to the point detracting from the whole experience. Almost MTV style. You never really get a sense of the space surrounding any event or within the scene. He never allows camera to pan out to let the audience take in the scene. Instead he kept everything completely close-up. In every single scene, you rarely take in the whole scene/scenery. When two characters are talking to each other-they are often not even in the same frame, so that you knew that they need not even be in actual scene together. For instance, you'd see Batman and police chief in separate frames when having conversations.

    But TDK's bank heist the most exciting bank heist? Are you serious? That was a lame scene. You had no sense of this being a bank heist (refer to editing manipulation and lack of space above).