In my hastily keyboarded notes after seeing Inception last weekend, I spent much time faulting Jim Emerson for his dismissal of Christopher Nolan and of the movie. Emerson made sweeping, unsupported generalizations in the service of his obvious dislike of Nolan’s movies. His pieces (and his responses in the comments sections) represented an attack rather than an argument.
It’s only fair, then, to praise Emerson for his essay yesterday, which restates his problems with the film but does so much more cogently and generously.
Out of context, the following excerpts probably still sound like attacks. (So go read Emerson’s piece.) There are three differences. First, they’re more incisive. Second, they’re based more on the text and less on Emerson’s expectations of what he felt the movie should/could have been. And third, they’re supported with specific examples and comparisons.
Emerson and I are obviously on different sides of the Nolan divide, but this time he convincingly articulates some of Nolan’s filmmaking shortcomings:
“Nolan hasn’t been able to connect the dots, to tie his images and his themes and his stories together so that they take on resonance. They just mean what somebody says they’re supposed to mean.”
I disagree in the sense that beyond their stated (and restated, and restated) subjects, Nolan’s movies also tend to have subtle, latent themes embedded in their structures. (E.g., Batman Begins and The Prestige.)
And I (mildly) disagree with this assessment, too:
“Nolan has not developed the shorthand necessary to create characters who register as individuals within the context of his movie-puzzles.”
Nolan is, it seems to me, very good at the shorthand of characters serving his movies. What he absolutely doesn’t do is create characters rich enough to register outside the context of his movie-puzzles; Leonard Shelby could snap a Polaroid of them, jot a few words of essential information (Cobb: “He will do anything to see his kids again”), and capture everything necessary for the narrative.
Nolan is very clever in making all his major characters obsessed. Because they’re so single-minded, they don’t require (and perhaps can’t shoulder) arcs or mystery within the writer/director’s stories. They are fundamentally at the end what they were at the beginning.
As a result, there’s little actual drama in Nolan’s movies. Like the films themselves, the characters operate within a set of rules, and any deviation from those rules would make the entire enterprise collapse.
I’m not taking Emerson to task (this time) for his views. I’m simply noting that our differences are largely matters of nuance (and sometimes merely phrasing). These are the problems that lead him to not enjoy/value Nolan’s movies; I like (and sometimes love) Nolan’s movies in spite of them.
Emerson ends with this hopeful note, which I’ll second:
“We know what’s within Christopher Nolan’s grasp. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that I would like to see him make a film that took risks beyond those of plotting and structure, that showed real nerve. Maybe he’s not the kind of filmmaker who can work without a net. But so far his dialog has hinted at ambitions beyond the grasp of his filmmaking.”