Christopher Nolan: Auteur

The following is an article I wrote in 2015 as response to a prompt to describe a film auteur during my Film Criticism class at Full Sail University.

When I think of an auteur, I think of an artist with a particular signature. A visual, thematic, and/or tonal thread that is woven through each of the artist’s works and which can be easily identifiable by anyone who has exposure to any other work by that director.

One of my favorite directors, and one that I would consider a modern auteur, is Christopher Nolan. After graduating college in London, he created several short films and then gained some success with his feature length noir-thriller Following (1998) which allowed him the opportunity to make his first big success, Memento (2000), about a man trying to track down his wife’s killer, while struggling against short-term memory loss. His films often revolve around themes of how humans interact in the face of distorted time and space realities and are executed with a generally dark and reflexive tone. For this post I want to look at how Memento, Inception, and Interstellar (2014) all convey Nolan’s auteur signatures of surrealism, “time warping” for lack of a better word, and a “dark and gritty” tone, a term which has often been used to describe his Dark Knight series. This “dark and gritty” tone can be better described by Erin Hill-Parks in her essay Identity Construction and Ambiguity in Christopher Nolan’s Films. She says: “Nolan‘s films rarely take clear moral stands thus complicating the boundary between good and evil which in turn leads to a conscious absence of concrete resolutions. While the films are loaded with visual signifiers that often determine the sympathy of the (usually) male protagonist, Nolan does not actually allow the audience any clear allegiances.”

From the first shot of Memento we are introduced to all three of these elements.

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Memento, The surreal, reverse image of the polaroid starts off the film. Watch here.

We open on a close up of a polaroid photograph of what seems to be a body bag in a white tiled room that has been extensively soiled in blood. The color palate is dull and immediately we are presented with a dark and uneasy feeling. After a few seconds we start to notice that the polaroid is beginning to fade and that in fact the film is being “undeveloped.” Again, we know right off the bat that time is not going to operate in a traditional sense in this film. Both of these elements together with the flapping of the photo complete the surreal feeling and prepare us for the rest of the movie.

Again, within the first five minutes of Inception the audience is already getting prepared for the mechanics of the film.

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Inception, A shot of a watch in which time is ramped up to signify the changing of dream-levels.

The film opens with the main character, Cobb, washing up on a beach and being brought to a table in an ornate dining room with an extremely old man at the head of the table. A few cuts later, without explanation, Cobb is suddenly very nicely cleaned up in a suit, still sitting in the exact same dining room, but now with a man resembling the old man but who is much younger. They seem to be in the middle of a business meeting. The audience realizes this is flashback but the continuity of the characters and locations still makes it somewhat jarring. Not long after, the meeting goes bad and at some point there is a cut out to a hotel room where the characters in the meeting are apparently asleep. To bridge this transition is a shot of a watch (above) that shows time going faster. Now we know that time is not what it seems. In this hotel room Cobb is tied to a chair poised precariously over a bathtub filled to the top. As the scene progresses Cobb is tipped into the bathtub in slow motion and we cut to the ornate meeting building where Cobb stands powerless as the water gushes in from every side. We see now that we are dealing with some kind of inter dimensional space that recalls images of some of the earliest surrealist films. Of course throughout this the dialogue has explained that it is a dream but this is the first time we see how the dream levels can affect each other. Also throughout the meeting we are presented with characters being shot in the leg to induce pain, shot in the head to be “woken up,” a riot is beginning outside the hotel, and other elements that make the dark tone of the film inescapable from the start.

Finally, Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, as the title suggests, deals extensively with interstellar and inter dimensional travel with a backdrop of impending human extinction. To encapsulate his signature in this film I want to look at a scene near the end, which has already become an iconic image, but here’s your spoiler alert in case you haven’t seen it already. In this scene the protagonist, Cooper, has just traversed a black hole and ended up in a labyrinth of corridors composed of repeating images of his daughter’s room at multiple points in time (below).

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Interstellar, Cooper navigates a maze of space and time.

If you have seen the film I don’t think there is any contest that this scene ranks with some of the best surrealist creations to date. Also the fact that he is able to glide through space to find a different moment in time along the corridor brings us back to Nolan’s ability to warp time to make us think differently about the present. And of course the ominous nature of the conflicts in the film (humans running out of food, Cooper running out of time to see his family again, certain characters betraying the mission with disastrous results) again show Nolan’s dark and unsettling tone which causes us to think a little deeper about our own lives.

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