Amoeblog

Ranking Christopher Nolan's Films

Posted by Billy Gil, December 11, 2012 06:48pm | Post a Comment

In celebration of the recent release of The Dark Knight Rises on DVD and Blu-ray, I decided to go back and explore Christopher Nolan’s filmography, rewatching bits or all of the films, as I usually couldn’t stop myself from watching the things all the way through once I started. Nolan has directed and written or adapted eight films (not including his short films) in the past 14 years, making him not only one of the best (or arguably the best) of directors of the 21st century, but also one of the most prolific.

Starting from the bottom and working up to the best, this is my personal list of favorite Christopher Nolan films.

(All of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies are available in a box set, on DVD or Blu-ray.)

 

8. Following (DVD, Criterion DVD or Criterion Blu-ray)

Christopher Nolan’s first film represents the chrysalis of ideas Nolan would explore in later films. A lonely writer who follows people on the streets of London for research has the tables turned when one of his subjects asks why he is following him. The writer discovers the suave man he has followed is a burglar and invites the writer to come with him on a job. The ensuing movie, which weaves elements of classic film noir (Diabolique comes to mind), is notable for its new wave feel — black-and-white, naturalistic acting — as well as its non-linear plot structure. It also introduces subjects over which Nolan would seem to obsess throughout his career, such as that of duality and unreliable narrators. Some elements feel contrived — the writer’s willingness to engage in burglary and violence isn’t entirely convincing — and it suffers a bit from having had the superior and similarly minded The Usual Suspects released near it. But it would have been an ambitious, exciting first film for any director, and it features some of his best dialogue, something similarly strong in Memento but that I felt was a weak point in the otherwise masterful Inception, for instance. And for Nolan fans, it’s essential viewing to see how his ideas would be shaped better once he had more money, for starters — Nolan also photographed and produced the film himself, taking the money out for the expensive film stock from his own salary. Side note: look for the bat symbol in the movie, a funny bit of foreshadowing that, given the layering in Nolan’s films, you have to wonder about.

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Holy Terror, Batman! Some Thoughts on Violence in The Dark Knight Rises

Posted by Charles Reece, July 22, 2012 11:56pm | Post a Comment

There are plenty more insipid cartoons about the recent "Batman shootings" where Jeff Korteba's came from. I don't use it as an example of the decrepitude of political cartooning (it's always been the world's lamest artform). Rather, the cartoon exemplifies a certain misreading of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy*: the vigilante Batman displaces real world law and order in the superheroic fantasy. In which case, the films' audience needs a reminder of who we should fantasize about, namely the guy who really puts his life on the line. However self-critical his films are, Nolan is too much the well-ensconced liberal advocate to ultimately use the character as anything more than an imaginary supplement to the status quo. There is a reason, after all, why the revolutionary violence in all three films is treated as pure chaos for chaos' sake. Batman doesn't represent change, but a much needed (or so the narrative goes) restoration of order.

Sure, the Joker scores some good points against hypocrisy when he sounds like Walter Benjamin in advocating "divine violence," a resetting of cultural values to zero, destroying the occluded underground byways of systemic violence that capital requires to continue (just think of the modern sweatshops used in manufacturing the iPhone, for example).** And Catwoman sounds like Bertolt Brecht as she gleefully portends what Bane's about to do to Gotham's stock exchange (e.g., "robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one"). Nevertheless, these are the villains of the trilogy, not the heroes (Catwoman only becomes a hero when she fights to restore order). That's why Ben Shapiro over at Big Hollywood has it right: this is a conservative trilogy.

The hero is the one who preserves the tradition against the radicals, who uses violence (what Benjamin called "mythic violence") to maintain the order, not abolish it. There is no real meditation on the French Revolution's choice of liberty or death here, but a decisive alignment with the pragmatico-realist's belief that the corrupt impurities in the devil you know is always better than the irrational radicalism of the devil you don't. When Batman proves incapable on his own of dealing with Bane's tyranny, he's aided/supplanted by the collective body of Gotham's finest, who heroically face off against the enemy's superior firepower. Just in case you might miss the point, Nolan cuts to a battle-worn American flag. As Bruce Wayne explains in The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman could be anyone ... anyone, that is, who willingly fights for the status quo -- never, of course, the demonic Other represented by Ra's Al Ghul, the Joker or Bane (those guys are just batshit crazy terrorists). 


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[*] This misreading is based on the common moralizing assumption that specular violence doesn't have content, that it doesn't say different things in different contexts. To wit, Dana Stevens' analysis of the possible relation between Nolan's films and the actions of terrorist du jour, James Holmes:

To discuss the meaning and motives of his crime, of course we have to at least talk about why he might choose The Dark Knight Rises as a backdrop (and possibly a template) for whatever private fantasy he was enacting. And maybe there should also be conversations about what it means that the economics of the film industry are driven almost entirely by the fantasies and desires of young men, and what effect that kind of over-representation in pop culture might have on … the fantasies and desires of young men. All I know is that, when I heard the news about the Aurora shootings, my first thought was very clear and very scary: “Of course this was going to happen sooner or later.”

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My Interview with Hans Zimmer, Film Composer for Inception (and Many Others)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 6, 2010 03:54pm | Post a Comment

Dig them socks. I discussed Inception here.

Inception: A Borgesian Heist Film?

Posted by Charles Reece, July 18, 2010 08:34am | Post a Comment
He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres -- much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting a coin of the faceless wind.
-- from "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges
 
 


Christopher Nolan's Inception is another one of those sci-fi tales confronting the problem of infinity lurking behind subjectivity. Because it uses dreams instead of virtual reality, the film is structurally closer to the short story quoted above than the cyberpunk-influenced Matrix (although the action puts it closer to the latter). In Borges' tale, a sorcerer spends years dreaming a man into reality only to learn that he, too, was given life via the same method. And it's just as likely that the dreamer of the sorcerer is himself being dreamed, etc., ad infinitum. This is the old phenomenological problem of the Transcendental Ego.

In order to have a collection of intentional states (which are always regarding some mental or physical object) cohere as a self (the 'I' that's doing the believing, desiring, etc.), Edmund Husserl posited a transcendent pure subject that couldn't be objectified. This I was pre-reflective, the guy who was there each time an intentional state was being reflected upon (the I thinking "it is I who likes pizza" at one time and "It is I who hates the rain" at another). As with all such metaphysical "buck stops here" explanations (cf. the final cause argument for God), the question soon arose as to why this Ego didn't require another, more transcendent one to ground its reflective relations.  And since then, many theorists from various disciplines have been perfectly happy with the notion of a fractured self, that the I is nothing but a comforting mask for deterministic forces (cf. the death of the author, social Darwinism, or connectionism). Causal language is more scientistic, but problematic for suggesting the possibility that we humans have free agency, that there is something of a self not purely reducible to objective control, or material determinations. Thus, philosophical libertarianism sounds suspicious to many, like a new agey charlatanry.

There is a real world practical implication to this question of self-determination, namely that to be without agency makes morality (presumedly a very human characteristic) dubious. How responsible is a member of the Borg, or one of the inhabited human bodies in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (All of this is much more complicated than I'm making it out to be, see here or particularly here.) While it's true that most people haven't spent much time reading about mind-body dualism, the fractured self, or determinism, they have experienced what it feels like to be treated as a product, which is ultimately what the death of the subject adds up to.  Modern-day capitalism relies on such an instrumentalist reduction; like the Borgesian dreamer of the dreamer, it creates the world which makes the reduction possible and even tolerable (the oneiric creation of a "real" man can only work if reality is illusion; capitalism only works if we accept its spectacles as reality). I suggest therein lies the intrinsic allure to Inception, a heist genre reworking of Borges, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard (to my mind, three of the most relevant writers to the 21st century). Some spoilers will follow.


While the telling of the story is somewhat convoluted, the plot is pretty basic, and not all that different from movies starring Jean Gabin or Sterling Hayden: in addition to his long-term partner, Arthur, Cobb is to assemble a team of experts for one final score initiated by Saito. Cobb is to enter the subconscious of Robert Fischer, planting the seed of an idea, which will turn him against the dying wish of his father, Maurice, for global dominance over energy resources through their corporation. Thus, the theft results by leaving something. Inception is the name of this subliminal procedure, but also provides a certain irony in the film's title, since it's never clear where the dreamscape actually begins, as is constantly alluded to throughout (e.g., walls close in on Cobb as he's running, despite being in the supposedly real world; his children don't age or change clothes from the memory of the last time he saw them). The additional crew members are: the chemist, Yusuf, who provides the specialized soporifics needed to enter dreams; Eames, the forger, who can become dream simulations of other people; and the architect, Ariadne, who's responsible for mentally designing the Möbius labyrinthes that they'll work in/are trapped by. The oneiric architecture is something like a M.C. Escher print, or Ballard's "Concentration City," which creates the illusion of space, but when an inhabitant takes the subway far enough, he ends up where he started (as the global networks connect us, the world seems smaller, yet we increasingly lose the ability to get anywhere different). If the team succeeds, Cobb will be free to return to his children in America through a simple phone call by Saito (yet another sign that reality is artifice).


Mal framed Cobb for her own suicide years ago, and he's been on the lam ever since. After spending too many years in the dream world, Mal lost her grip on what was actually real. When she awoke (through Cobb's use of inception on her), she no longer believed that reality was anything more than the mental architecture of another dreamer (as is the case in "The Circular Ruins"). Rather than accept this, she believed suicide was the only way of returning to reality. The frameup was her attempt at forcing Cobb to join her. He turns to a life of crime, blaming himself for her delusional state. He tries to lock away a guilt-derived simulacrum of his wife in his mental basement, but she constantly escapes to interfere with his thought crimes (such as warning his victims that they're in a dream). Of course, it's not clear who's actually delusional here.

In Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Quaid's a bored construction worker who pays for a virtual memory implant of an adventure where he's a spy with a forgotten identity. Something goes wrong with the programming, so that either he's really a spy who's just been awoken by the implant, or he's losing his self-identity to the malfunctioning computer. When a doctor tries to warn him of the latter, Quaid kills him to remain in what is quite likely virtual reality. Analogously, Mal tries to warn Cobb that he's lost in mental limbo, but he's convinced that she's too imperfect to be his real wife.  She points out the ridiculousness of how he's supposed to see his kids again (why would a phone call free him of suspicion?) and how there's no clear beginning to any of the settings Cobb finds himself (there is no memory of how one gets to the beginning of a dream sequence). To increase the confusion and give the narrative a patina of unreality, Nolan de-emphasizes transitional sequences (the primary source for tension and pleasure in a heist film like Rififi) -- the characters seemingly pop up in one place and then another with little sense of time passing or distance traversed.

Furthermore, each member of the team has a totem, which functions as a reality anchor. A totem has to feel the right weight and function according to physical laws if the person is awake, unlike when he or she is dreaming. It should never be handled by another, since that could alter its functioning in a dream (an architect could otherwise account for the object's phenomenal qualities in his or her design so that it behaves as if it were really there). Cobb doesn't have one of his own, only the spinning top that was once his wife's, suggesting that his anchor is compromised. So when he decides to complete the mission and rejoin his children (which Mal tells him are nothing but virtual projections), it's possible that he's retreating from reality, deeper into his subconscious, which might be controlled by some unknown architect. Nolan leaves the ending ambiguous.
 
 


Yet, despite all of that, Inception is kind of  a bore to sit through. Cobb spends too much time spouting technobabble, an attempt to somehow make the fantasy sound more plausible. At least a quarter of the film is spent detailing arbitrary rules. A few writers can do this well (e.g., Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem) by using invented explanatory concepts to critique real world social structures (scientific, literary, political -- e.g., the way Solaris tells its story through fictional research articles), but here it's more like midi-chlorians. Relatedly, the dreams are too weighed down by a realistic aesthetic. Each layer of the constructed dreamworld (corresponding to increasingly deeper layers of the subconscious) is causally tied in with the other layers. When a van in one level is falling, the sleeping characters inside begin to float in the next dream within a dream they're collectively having as if there was some shared physical space with attendant nomological properties. Similarly, when Saito is shot on an upper level, he begins to bleed on the lower ones. And time behaves in standard linear fashion, only at different speeds depending on the layer (avatars age more slowly on the more subconscious levels). Not only does none of this make sense (in dream logic or the realistic kind -- e.g., we can fly in a dream regardless of our waking state, so why would such a causal connection obtain between two levels of dreaming?), but it serves to make the dream world mundane. Worse yet is that the majority of the mission involves bombs, machine guns and car chases. Maybe Nolan dreams of The A-Team, but mine look and feel more like Kwaidan.


"The Black Hair" from Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan.

Joker's Wild, or Batman Degree Zero: The Dark Knight (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 10, 2008 10:36pm | Post a Comment
The Joker


There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheel-barrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves ... -- Slavoj Zizek, p. 1, Violence

I just happened to start reading Slavoj Zizek's new book, Violence, shortly after I saw Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and found both to serendipitously complement each other. Zizek begins his book with the little tale of theft quoted above, which he uses as a grounding metaphor in analyzing our approach to violence. Too often we're concerned with its subjective effects (who was hurt and by what, i.e., what's in the wheelbarrow), rather than its objective status (the symbolic order that gives form and definition to the violent act, i.e., the wheelbarrow itself). For example, an anti-semitic remark doesn't constitute hate speech -- isn't violent -- for a Nazi who exists in a context where "the Jew" is defined outside of humanity, and thus moral concern. It is the functioning symbolic order that allows everyday people to exist in a system perpetuating violence on others without seeing how their own normality is defined by what it violently excludes. This is what the Joker is getting at when he says to Harvey Dent:
 
Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
 
Sure, we (represented here as Gotham City residents) might see the gangbanger's death as violent, but always as subjective violence, an act by an individual on another individual, not as a sign that the cultural system itself is violent. The difference between the violence against a gangbanger and against the mayor is that only the latter is perceived to be a threat to the normal order of things, whereas the former is already written into the cultural bill as the price of doing business as usual. The Joker is an agent of chaos, because he's the embodiment of pure objective violence. That's why he assures Harvey that killing his girlfriend, Rachel (Bruce Wayne's love interest, as well), and leaving him horribly disfigured as Two-Face was "nothing personal." As such, the Joker's actions can only be read as chaotic, senseless, or just plain nuts. He doesn't put Gotham's citizens (including its criminals) through a series of terroristic spins on the prisoner's dilemma for personal gain, revenge or as the result of some childhood trauma -- he's an ascetic without a real history. Rather, his only goal and source of pleasure is in making his victims face up to the abstracted violent substructure around which their culture is configured. Sounding like Jack Nance and looking like he's spent time in A Clockwork Orange and Ichi the Killer with fashion tips from Malcolm McLaren, the Joker provides a scarred face to the invisible logic of capitalism, with cracking make-up and a forced smile. He's pure desire without an object, paradoxically making the impersonal personal and invisible visible. Regarding this invisible and "fundamental systemic violence of capitalism," Zizek writes:
 
[M]uch more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their "evil" intentions, but is purely "objective," systemic, anonymous. [Some stuff about Lacan's Real versus reality that I will spare you.]  We can experience this gap [between the reality of people and what's being defined as reality by the logic of capitalism] in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist's report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country's economic situation is "financially sound" -- reality doesn't matter, what matters is the situation of capital ... -- p. 12-3, ibid.

Stocks wouldn't keep rising for a corporation that exploits third-world misery if that repressed misery took on a subjective quality for the investors. For capital to keep growing, said misery has to remain purely objective, an abstract cost that's been symbolically excluded out of our day-to-day concerns. The Joker is the same unbounded desire that drives capitalism. Without any object or goal to satisfy him, he exists outside of our rational system and can only be stopped with violence. He can't be beat, however, only beaten, because the solution to the problem he presents is the problem itself: repression of systemic violence. (Batman once tried to reason with him -- understand him -- in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke with miserable results.) At best, Gotham City can return to the status quo by forgetting him -- define him out existence as insane and lock him away in its local Id repository, Arkham Asylum. Or they could kill him, but Gotham's local hero of repression has only one rule: he doesn't kill.
 
The Batman


 
It is an enigma to me how a theologian can be praised because he has struggled his way to unbelief. The achievement that always struck me as most heroic and praiseworthy was struggling through to belief.  -- Karl Kraus, #421, Dicta and Contradicta

There's many parallels that Nolan uses to show Batman and Joker as two sides of the same systemic coin, with Two-Face serving as their dialectic. At a fundraiser being thrown for the still intact Harvey Dent by Bruce Wayne, the latter is shown throwing out champagne while pretending to drink it. When the Joker shows up at the party, he does the same thing, but stages the pretense for all to see. Bruce has to pretend to drink in order to hide his identity as the Batman and keep functioning within Gotham's high society, whereas the Joker wants nothing more than to lay bare all such pretenses. While the Joker has no determinate psychological beginning (he changes the tale of his scars with a change in victims), Batman is bound by his origin. Bruce would've never become the Batman without being from Gotham's wealthiest family. Conversely, Gotham needs him as a stopgap mechanism to continue functioning at all.  The city got the hero that it needs through an act of subjective violence on the Wayne family. In turn, Batman perpetually fights evil doers on a case-by-case basis, giving Gotham the illusion that something's being done about its pervasive corruption. As the always astute Dave Fiore says of the Caped Crusader:
 
All he wants to do is hang on. Exercise virtue and excise "corruption." Keep the money in the hands of the people that are already ("legitimately") rich, and the underclass in its place. The only "systemic" critique this concept is capable of generating is a law n' order screed against legal loopholes that allow the criminals to go free.
 
Bruce has to believe in his subjective cause, lest his whole origin be called into question. Just where do all those billions come from if not from the same rapacious practices of the real world's most successful capitalists? To help explain the Bruce/Batman duality, Zizek provides, once again, a telling example-- that of the liberal communist. The unbridled desire of capitalism is masked by the charitable communitarian deeds of many of its most successful practitioners. While remaining ruthless in their business practices, men like Bill Gates and George Soros find enlightenment and meaning by giving away much of their wealth to needy causes. The inspirational figurehead for the liberal communists is Andrew Carnegie, who gave away a good deal of his wealth to fund humanitarian causes while using a private army to suppress organized labor. Capitalism needs charity in the same way the Batman "justifies" Bruce Wayne's wealth.  Capitalism qua Gotham City creates the problems and then provides the repressive mask by which those problems are to be solved.
 
Gotham City


Reg
: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, pea... Shut up! -- Monty Python's The Life of Brian
 
Following Brecht, Michael Wood suggests Gotham City has to be a pretty miserable place if it needs Batman. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Gotham's repressed elements are always more on the verge of surfacing than in an average city, hence the reliance on a vigilante. On the other hand, like any capitalist center for civilization, there's going to be a good many people who are helped along, with all the repressive mechanisms in place to make their existence a fairly smooth one. People wouldn't have the time to earn doctorates and write for the London Review of Books about comic book characters without a certain level of bourgeois complacency. There is value, even a sense of existential heroism, in the Batman's Sisyphean struggle to return the city to a state of equilibrium (even if it's doubtful that Gotham has ever been in such a state). Gotham would cease functioning altogether if it could no longer hide the systemic violence that the Joker represents under Batman's mask of rationalization. The Joker's chaos might be "fair," but the have-nots wouldn't be helped in the slightest by reducing all the haves to their status. Therefore, Batman can't give in to the Joker's demand that he remove his mask in order to stop the latter's killing spree. This need to "keep the mask on" is demonstrated on multiple levels:

It's telling that the main criminal power brokers ultimately side with the uncorruptible (will to status quo) heroes Batman and soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon. Even Gotham's gangsters realize the Joker operates outside of their ratio-economic structure and has to be repressed. They choose Batman's law and order to a fellow criminal willing to burn their sole raison d'etre, money. The Joker is just plain crazy.  Crime wouldn't pay -- wouldn't make sense -- if the system of criminalization went belly up. What would be the point, for example, in being a drug dealer if all drugs were legalized? The criminal rationale is just as dependent as bourgeois comfort on the extant symbolic order.

In order to test the limits separating Gotham's law-abiding citizenry from its criminal underworld, the Joker rigs two ferryboats with explosives and gives the detonator for each to the other boat. On one boat are the citizens and on the other, a group of prisoners. If neither group chooses to execute the other by midnight, the Joker makes it clear that he'll blow up both. Batman manages to stop the Joker's ability to carry out the double execution before the deadline rolls around and neither boat has exploded, but why did neither group push the button? In the corniest example of his Eastwood growl, Batman claims it's because these people are "good." He wasn't privy to what we viewers got to see, however. On the criminal boat (a significant proportion of whose occupants were, in all likelihood, put there by Batman), a single black man cons his way into possessing the detonator, only to throw it overboard, determining the fate for all. Contrary to a popular religious myth, one lone martyr is hardly an argument for the good of all. On the law-abiding boat, the passengers take a vote, and overwhelmingly elect to kill the criminals. The button isn't pushed because of virtue, but due to a lack of resolve. Violence to restore stability is fine when done abstractly through a representative (an executioner or a soldier), but not when it takes on a personalized meaning. The "goodness" that saves Gotham's (or Batman's belief in Gotham's) dignity turns out to be cowardice.

Finally, when the Joker gives Batman the forced choice between rescuing Rachel (the girl he loves) or Harvey Dent (the white knight of supposed systemic change), Batman chooses the subjective. Because the Joker lied about the location of the two victims, Batman mistakenly rescues Harvey, while Rachel goes up in flames. The Joker has Batman's number. For all his scientific-detective rationality, all he really has to fight the problem of the Joker with are his fists. He continually pounds the Joker, to which the latter knowingly replies with something like, "you've got nothing on me." As I discussed with Iron Man, superheroes can only address systemic threats on a personal level. Their serialized nature requires such a palliative solution in order to heroically continue. (The one superhero story that does effectively address systemic change is the never completed fascistic-utopian Miracleman by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.)  Bruce Wayne pays lip service to possible systemic change by funding Dent, but as Batman he puts his subjective interests first. Thus, like DC Comics' stockholders, he doesn't really desire a Gotham without a need for the Batman.

As a heroic figure of repression, Batman remains unchanged by the Joker's games of pitting objective violence against its subjective counterpart. Like the Joker, he'll just keep on keepin' on. Harvey Dent, however, is thoroughly contaminated. With Rachel dead and his face now horribly disfigured on one side (dripping pustular goo all over his suit), he becomes the stochastic angel of vengeance, Two-Face, meting out violent retribution with a flip of the coin. The only system of justice left to him is chance, where everyone's (even Gordon's kids') guilt or innocence is determined randomly. Can there be any doubt that the Joker has won? Rather than allow the truth about Gotham's corrupted hero get out, Batman takes the rap for Dent's crimes, further perpetuating the illusory hope that real change is just around the corner.  Batman is certainly the hero Gotham needs, but Two-Face is the one it deserves.