Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Memento

The Battle of Dunkirk

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During my junior year in college, I saw Christopher Nolan’s Memento at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for no other reason except that I’d heard it was great. Since then, I’ve seen all of Nolan’s movies on their initial release, which is something I can’t say of any other director. At first, it was because I liked his work and his choices intrigued me, and it only occurred to me around the time of The Dark Knight that I witnessing a career like no other. It’s tempting to compare Nolan to his predecessors, but when you look at his body of work from Memento to Dunkirk, it’s clear that he’s in a category of his own. He’s directed nine theatrical features in seventeen years, all mainstream critical and commercial successes, including some of the biggest movies in recent history. No other director alive comes close to that degree of consistency, at least not at the same level of productivity and scale. Quality and reliability alone aren’t everything, of course, and Nolan pales a bit compared to say, Steven Spielberg, who over a comparable stretch of time went from The Sugarland Express to Hook, with Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the Indiana Jones trilogy along the way, as well as 1941 and Always. By comparison, Nolan can seem studied, deliberate, and remote, and the pockets of unassimilated sentimentality in his work—which I used to assume were concessions to the audience, but now I’m not so sure—only point to how unified and effortless Spielberg is at his best. But the conditions for making movies have also changed over the last four decades, and Nolan has threaded the needle in ways that still amaze me, as I continue to watch his career unfold in real time.

Nolan sometimes reminds me of the immortal Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, of which Thomas Pynchon writes: “Statistically…every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this one’s still around, burning brightly.” He wrote and directed one of the great independent debuts, leveraged it into a career making blockbusters, and slowly became a director from whom audiences expected extraordinary achievements while he was barely out of the first phase of his career. And he keeps doing it. For viewers of college age or younger, he must feel like an institution, while I can’t stop thinking of him as an outlier that has yet to regress to the mean. Nolan’s most significant impact, for better or worse, may lie in the sheer, seductive implausibility of the case study that he presents. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a succession of young directors, nearly all of them white males, who, after directing a microbudgeted indie movie, are handed the keys to a huge franchise. This has been taken as an instance of category selection, in which directors who look a certain way are given opportunities that wouldn’t be offered to filmmakers of other backgrounds, but deep down, I think it’s just an attempt to find the next Nolan. If I were an executive at Warner Bros. whose career had overlapped with his, I’d feel toward him what Goethe felt of Napoleon: “[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” Nolan is the most exciting success story to date of a business model that he defined and that, if it worked, would solve most of Hollywood’s problems, in which independent cinema serves as a farm team for directors who can consistently handle big legacy projects that yield great reviews and box office. And it’s happened exactly once.

You can’t blame Hollywood for hoping that lightning will strike twice, but it’s obvious now that Nolan is like nobody else, and Dunkirk may turn out to be the pivotal film in trying to understand what he represents. I don’t think it’s his best or most audacious movie, but it was certainly the greatest risk, and he seems to have singlehandedly willed it into existence. Artistically, it’s a step forward for a director who sometimes seemed devoted to complexity for its own sake, telling a story of crystalline narrative and geographical clarity with a minimum of dialogue and exposition, with clever tricks with time that lead, for once, to a real emotional payoff. The technical achievement of staging a continuous action climax that runs for most of the movie’s runtime is impressive in itself, and Nolan, who has been gradually preparing for this moment for years, makes it look so straightforward that it’s easy to undervalue it. (Nolan’s great insight here seems to have been that by relying on the audience’s familiarity with the conventions of the war movie, he could lop off the first hour of the story and just tell the second half. Its nonlinear structure, in turn, seems to have been a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to intercut freely between three settings with different temporal and spatial demands, and Nolan strikes me as the one director both to whom it would have occurred and who would have actually been allowed to do it.) On a commercial level, it’s his most brazen attempt, even more than Inception, to see what he could do with the free pass that a director typically gets after a string of hits. And the fact that he succeeded, with a summer box office smash that seems likely to win multiple Oscars, only makes me all the more eager to see what he’ll do next.

It all amounts to the closest film in recent memory to what Omar Sharif once said of Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert—what would you say?” Dunkirk is half as long as Lawrence and consists almost entirely of action, and it isn’t on the same level, but the challenge that it presented to “the man with the money” must have been nearly as great. (Its lack of women, unfortunately, is equally glaring.) In fact, I can think of only one other director who has done anything comparable. I happened to see Dunkirk a few weeks after catching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen, and as I watched the former movie last night, it occurred to me that Nolan has pulled off the most convincing Kubrick impression that any of us have ever seen. You don’t become the next Kubrick by imitating him, as Nolan did to some extent in Interstellar, but by figuring out new ways to tell stories using all the resources of the cinema, and somehow convincing a studio to fund the result. In both cases, the studio was Warner Bros., and I wonder if executives with long memories see Nolan as a transitional figure between Kubrick and the needs of the DC Extended Universe. It’s a difficult position for any director to occupy, and it may well prevent Nolan from developing along more interesting lines that his career might otherwise have taken. His artistic gambles, while considerable, are modest compared to even Barry Lyndon, and his position at the center of the industry can only discourage him from running the risk of being difficult or alienating. But I’m not complaining. Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it’s also the latest chapter in the life of a director who just can’t stop advancing.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2017 at 9:21 am

My ten great books #8: Dictionary of the Khazars

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Dictionary of the Khazars

The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. They don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with the sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re prepared to read it on its own terms.

Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can just read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another for more than a decade, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #10: Inception

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Inception

Note: Four years ago, I published a series of posts here about my ten favorite movies. Since then, the list has evolved, as all such rankings do, with a few new titles and a reshuffling of the survivors, so it seems like as good a time as any to revisit it now.

Five years after its release, when we think of Inception, what we’re likely to remember first—aside from its considerable merits as entertainment—is its apparent complexity. With five or more levels of reality and a set of rules being explained to us, as well as to the characters, in parallel with breathless action, it’s no wonder that its one big laugh comes at Ariadne’s bewildered question: “Whose subconscious are we going into?” It’s a line that gives us permission to be lost. Yet it’s all far less confusing than it might have been, thanks largely to the work of editor Lee Smith, whose lack of an Oscar nomination, in retrospect, seems like an even greater scandal than Nolan’s snub as Best Director. This is one of the most comprehensively organized movies ever made. Yet a lot of credit is also due to Nolan’s script, and in particular to the shrewd choices it makes about where to walk back its own complications. As I’ve noted before, once the premise has been established, the action unfolds more or less as we’ve been told it will: there isn’t the third-act twist or betrayal that similar heist movies, or even Memento, have taught us to expect. Another nudge would cause it all to collapse.

It’s also in part for the sake of reducing clutter that the dream worlds themselves tend to be starkly realistic, while remaining beautiful and striking. A director like Terry Gilliam might have turned each level into a riot of production design, and although the movie’s relative lack of surrealism has been taken as a flaw, it’s really more of a strategy for keeping the clean lines of the story distinct. The same applies to the characters, who, with the exception of Cobb, are defined mostly by their roles in the action. Yet they’re curiously compelling, perhaps because we respond so instinctively to stories of heists and elaborate teamwork. I admire Interstellar, but I can’t say I need to spend another three hours in the company of its characters, while Inception leaves me wanting more. This is also because its premise is so rich: it hints at countless possible stories, but turns itself into a closed circle that denies any prospect of a sequel. (It’s worth noting, too, how ingenious the device of the totem really is, with the massive superstructure of one of the largest movies ever made coming to rest on the axis of a single trembling top.) And it’s that unresolved tension, between a universe of possibilities and a remorseless cut to black, that gives us the material for so many dreams.

Tomorrow: The greatest story in movies. 

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2015 at 8:27 am

My ten great books #7: Dictionary of the Khazars

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Dictionary of the Khazars

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. These promises don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that gracefully deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with a sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, which I finished last year after failing to get through it for more than a decade, comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re willing to read it on its own terms.

Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

Christopher Nolan and the maze of storytelling

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The release of the final trailer for The Dark Knight Rises gives me as good an excuse as any to talk once more about the work of Christopher Nolan, who, as I’ve said before, is the contemporary director who fills me with the most awe. Nolan has spent the past ten years pushing narrative complexity on the screenplay level as far as it will go while also mastering every aspect of large-scale blockbuster filmmaking, and along the way, he’s made some of the most commercially successful films of the decade while retaining a sensibility that remains uniquely his own. In particular, he returns repeatedly to issues of storytelling, and especially to the theme of how artists, for all their intelligence and preparation, can find themselves lost in their own labyrinths. Many works of art are ultimately about the process of their own creation, of course, but to a greater extent than usual, Nolan has subtly given us a portrait of the director himself—meticulous, resourceful, but also strangely ambivalent toward the use of his own considerable talents.

Yesterday, I referred to my notes toward a novel as urgent communications between my past and future selves, “a la Memento,” but it was only after typing that sentence that I realized how accurate it really is. Leonard Shelby, the amnesiac played by Guy Pearce, is really a surrogate for the screenwriter: he’s thrust into the middle of a story, without any context, and has to piece together not just what comes next, but what happened before. His notes, his visual aids, and especially the magnificent chart he hangs on his motel room wall are variations of the tools that a writer uses to keep himself oriented in during a complex project—including, notably, Memento itself. It isn’t hard to imagine Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the original story on which the screenplay is based, using similar charts to keep track of their insanely intricate narrative, with a protagonist who finally turns his own body into a sort of corkboard, only to end up stranded in his own delusions.

This theme is explored repeatedly in Nolan’s subsequent films—notably The Prestige, in which the script’s endless talk about magic and sleight of hand is really a way of preparing us for the trick the movie is trying to play on the audience—but it reaches its fullest form in Inception. If Memento is a portrait of the independent screenwriter, lonely, paranoid, and surrounded by fragments of his own stories, Inception is an allegory for blockbuster moviemaking, with a central figure clearly based on the director himself. Many viewers have noted the rather startling visual similarity between Nolan and his hero, and it’s easy to assign roles to each of the major characters: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the art director, all working toward the same goal as that of the movie itself—to transport the viewer into a reality where the strangest things seem inevitable. While Nolan has claimed that such an allegory wasn’t intentional, Inception couldn’t have been conceived, at least not in its current form, by a man who hadn’t made several huge movies. And at the end, we’re given the sense that the artist himself has been caught in a web of his own design.

In this light, Nolan’s Batman movies start to seem like his least personal work, which is probably true, but his sensibility comes through here as well. Batman Begins has an art director’s fascination with how things are really made—like Batman’s cowl, assembled from parts from China and Singapore—and The Dark Knight takes the figure of the director as antihero to its limit. The more we watch it, the more Nolan seems to uneasily identify, not with Batman, but with the Joker, the organized, methodical, nearly omniscient toymaker who can only express himself through violence. If the wintry, elegiac tone of our early glimpses of The Dark Knight Rises is any indication, Nolan seems ready to move beyond this, much as Francis Coppola—also fond of directorial metaphors in his work—came to both to identify with Michael Corleone and to dislike the vision of the world he had expressed in The Godfather. And if Nolan evolves in similar ways, it implies that the most interesting phase of his career is yet to come.

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2012 at 9:45 am

Nolan’s Run

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To continue my recent run of stating the obvious: I know I’m not alone in considering Christopher Nolan to be the most interesting director of the past ten years. In just over a decade, he’s gone from Memento to Inception, with The Dark Knight as one big step along the way, which ranks with Powell and Pressburger’s golden period as one of the most impressive runs in the history of movies. And his excellent interview with Wired last week, timed to coincide with Inception’s release on DVD, serves as a reminder that Nolan’s example is valuable for reasons that go far beyond his intelligence, skill, and massive popular success.

Nolan’s artistic trajectory has been a fascinating one. While most artists start with passion and gradually work their way toward craft, Nolan has always been a consummate craftsman, and is just now starting to piece together the emotional side of the equation. He’s been accused of being overly cold and cerebral, a criticism that has some basis in fact. But his careful, deliberate efforts to invest his work with greater emotion—and humor—have been equally instructive. As he says to Wired:

The problem was that I started [Inception] with a heist film structure. At the time, that seemed the best way of getting all the exposition into the beginning of the movie—heist is the one genre where exposition is very much part of the entertainment. But I eventually realized that heist films are usually unemotional. They tend to be glamorous and deliberately superficial. I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts. That took years to figure out. [Italics mine.]

Nolan’s masterstroke, of course, was to make the ghost that haunts Inception—originally that of a dead business partner—the main character’s wife. He also made strategic choices about where to keep things simple, in order to pump up the complexity elsewhere: the supporting cast is clearly and simply drawn, as is the movie’s look, which gives necessary breathing room to the story’s multiple layers. For a writer, the lesson is obvious: if you’re going to tell a complicated story, keep an eye out for ways to ease up on the reader in other respects.

In the case of Inception, the result is a film that is both intellectually dense and emotionally involving, and which famously rewards multiple viewings. In that light, this exchange is especially interesting:

Wired: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Wired: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. I think the only way to make ambiguity satisfying is to base it on a very solid point of view of what you think is going on, and then allow the ambiguity to come from the inability of the character to know, and the alignment of the audience with that character.

Wired: Oh. That’s a terrible tease.

Well, yes. But it’ll be interesting to see where Nolan goes from here. After Inception and The Dark Knight, he has as much power as any director in Hollywood. (Worldwide, Inception is the fourth highest-grossing movie in history based on an original screenplay, behind only Avatar, Titanic, and Finding Nemo.) He continues to grow in ambition and skill with every film. He seems determined to test the limits of narrative complexity in movies intended for a mass audience.

And he’s still only forty years old.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2010 at 7:39 am

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