I once told a girl my favourite director was Alfred Hitchcock. I remember her telling me that she thought his films "were clever, but..." That "but" of course signified the emptiness she probably sound in Hitchcock's work. This relates to a problem I have with some film criticism today, which is the tendenacy for some critics to act with condescension towards films and filmmakers that are clever in how they are plotted. We accept that films can be multiple things at a time. We can accept a film as funny and dramatic, epic and intimate, romantic and funny, but it seems that cleverness and thematic depth or resonance are mutually exclusive for some people. I think Hitchcock, despite his status as a great filmmaker, still faces this problem. I also feel another, contemporary, filmmaker suffers from this kind of condescension: Christopher Nolan.
Nolan of course is the director of Memento, the last two Batman films, and most recently Inception. He's a director who has achieved both commercial as well as critical success, even being compared to Stanley Kubrick. This type of success almost always leads to some kind of backlash for filmmakers, and unfortunately it has happened to Nolan. I think the backlash started some time after The Dark Knight opened in the summer 2008. The Dark Knight was the sequel to Nolan's first Batman film Batman Begins, and while Batman Begins was well recieved, the hype for The Dark Knight was extraordinary, particularly due to the excitement over Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, a role which would turn out to be the actor's final complete performance. I was swept up in the hype and definitelty taken in by The Dark Knight's immersive Gotham landscape as well as haunting ending.
Jim Emerson on the other hand, who is the editor of rogerebert.com and runner of the blog scanners, was not taken in by The Dark Knight, and in the months following The Dark Knight's release, wrote numerous blog entries on the film. Many of them were critical of the film, particularly its formal aspects. Emerson is a die hard formalist. As a filmmaker, the way to his heart is to make each shot, perfect, and make the shots last long. Emerson criticized the way Nolan shot the bus escape at the end of the bank heist which opens the film, dedicating quite a few posts to the topic.
I feel I'm digressing a little bit. While I have some issues with Emerson's formalist critisms of Nolan's work, I think my main problem with Emerson's criticisms of Nolan is his condescension towards Nolan. My god, the condescension. The Dark Knight hasn't been the only Nolan film Emerson has targeted. Inception has also gone under Emerson's microscope. Emerson has been critical of that film's literal mindedness in terms of how Nolan presents the dream worlds. In his first post on the film, Inception: Has Christopher Nolan Forgotten to Dream? he concluded with this statement:
"Nolan makes crafty little puzzle boxes (and sometimes big ones), but they never quite get beyond merely clever. Like "Sleuth" or "The Usual Suspects," they're not about characters or emotions or ideas or human experience at all; they're just self-contained gadgets, amusing but mechanical."
This statement reeks of condescension. I know, I know, I use that word too much, but its central to this entire post, so bare with me. I think its okay for Emerson not to connect to Inception, or any of Nolan's films, and he could have said that, but what Emerson does here is basically look at a man's work and say there's hardly any worth to it. Now, to be fair, Emerson has said he enjoyed Memento and Following, and even elements of The Dark Knight, but I don't think that's strong enough of a defence when you begin saying things like this. I mean, it's a little insulting and even lazy to say there's absolutely, no ideas, no characters, emotions, or ideas in any of Nolan's work. It generalizes Nolan as a fillmaker and I think that goes against what film criticism should. More on this later.
I want to look at some of Emerson's word choices. First, "mechanical." This is one of Emerson's buzz words that he's used often when describing certain kinds of films. I believe what he means by mechanical refers to the feeling he gets when a movie is driven too much by plot mechanics, and not enough by human emotion. It's think its interesting that Emerson's favourite film of the last decade was the Coen Bros's No Country For Old Men, which can be argued to be a cold and mechanical film itself, a film more concerned with formal perfection than human experience. Aren't the Josh Brolin and Woody Harrrelson characters as much chess pieces as some of the characters in Inception? How do any of the thriller elements in the film relate to what it means to be human? Critics Michael Phillips and A.O Scott, when they discussed the Coen Bros's work, actually dismissed No Country for Old Men as nothing more than a good serial killer film. Emerson, when the film was first released, wrote a post about how certain critics couldn't approach No Country For Old Men's formal elements and content as a single entity. I think Emerson's problem was that by seperating, the film's form and content, critics could praise the formal aspects of the film, without really going in to the film's deeper meanings. In another entry on the film, he says just praising the formal elements without any connection to what they represent, was meaningless.
Again, I'm digressing. I was playing devil advocate's earlier when I was talking about No County For Old Men. I do have a problem with Scott's dismissal of the film and do feel that beneath its thriller exterior, No Country For Old Men is quite a haunting film about an old man asking himself if he can confront indescriable evil. The point I want to make is that it's strange how one of Emerson's favourite films could be praised by some critics for it's plot and formal mechanics and fall under the same type of criticism he directs at Nolan's work, the "nothing more" criticism. I think Emerson probably understands the frustration of having a film or filmmaker you admire dismissed so flippantly.
Ironically, I think Emerson does with Nolan's work what he criticizes other critics for doing with No Country For Old Men, seperating Nolan's form from his content. It is true that several of Nolan's films do have a puzzle like structure but I think separating the puzzle structure from the films' deeper meanings misrepresents Nolan as a filmmaker. One has to look at the puzzle structure and see what its doing thematically or emotionally. How does the fractured narratives of Memento and the Prestige affect the way we watch the events on screen? How does their structures reflect what the films are about? One can say by moving backwards, Memento puts us in the same mindset of its amnesiac main character Leonard Shelby, not knowing how we got to a specific or why we're there. The structure of The Prestige can be argued to reflect the structure of a magic trick. One can also Nolan wants to create a more impressionistic story than a straightforward plot, though plot is alway important in Nolan's work. I see the dream-within-a-dream structure of Inception, as well as the whole film, as a reflection of how movies can be like dreams, with their shifting perspectives internal logic. Inception is also about having to go deeper in to the subconscious in order to confront one's demons, which does happen to the main character Cobb in the film.
Is there a mechanical quality to Nolan's films? Yes. But there's also a fludity to the way the narrative moves in The Prestige and there is genuine sense of epicness to Inception. To me, mechanical strikes me as more of a descriptive term than a term that's either positive or negative. Emerson certainly uses in the negative sense. For me, it depends on the mechanics. Nolan's films have plots that go in different directions so even if the mechanics can sometimes override the human elements of the films, I'm grateful Nolan is not interested in reguritating the same old plots. I believe he genuinely likes to surprise the audience and wants to them to keep us guessing.
Emerson's use of the word "self-contained" is the one that really gets me. Aren't movies by definition self-contained? Don't certain directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Hitchcock, David Lynch, and yes, the Coens, create self-contained universes in their films. How does The Big Lebowski relate to the real world? I'm sorry, now I'm picking on the Coen Bros! Certainly, Nolan's films aren't slice of life dramas; they often take place in a heightened reality and can be very maze like. This doesn't mean they can't relate to the real world. The point is to look underneath the clockwork of Nolan's films and find the actual heart at their center. When one puts aside the backwards structure Memento, it's a film about the uncertainity of memory and trying to create meaning in a life that's been disrupted. The Prestige is about the obsession that goes in to being an artist. It's a Faustian tale which only completely reveals its Faustiness near the end. Nolan's arguably most epic and personal film Inception is a story about a man letting go of the memory of his deceased wife, as well as his guilt about being responsible for her death. And The Dark Knight? Wow, arguably more than any super hero film to date, that movie is just dense with ideas about the political and soical landscape of America.
I'm not out to bas Emerson. He's an intelligent critic and I've quite a bit from him. I just feel he's been a little too harsh on Nolan. Hopefully Emerson will eventually make peace with Nolan's filmmaking as Nolan develops as a filmmaker. I think the ''nothing more" should be banned from every critic's vocabularly. As a critic, you should always be willing to enagage a work on its deeper levels. The statement from Emerson which I've quoted strikes me as contrary to how a critic tells us why a film is great, good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. Emerson just tells us there's nothing there and ends his post with that. To be fair, he has gone in to detail about what he doesn't like about Nolan's work but I still feel he's too dismissive of Nolan as a filmmaker. As I said, I hope Emerson can come around to Nolan eventually. It's unfortunate that as critics we sometimes hate the people who try to entertain and move us.