Saturday, August 11, 2012

Is Christopher Nolan the bane of 9/11 pop? (Part 1)

Why . . . so . . . serious, Mr. Nolan?
Was anyone really surprised when a masked figure stood up at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, and opened fire on the packed auditorium?

I wasn't.

When I saw the news flash across my computer screen the next morning, I only felt a flicker of - well, recognition.  Something like: I thought this was going to happen. I had always known it was only a matter of time before the morbidity of Christopher Nolan (at left) leapt right off the screen and into "reality" - or whatever medium it is that the American public is experiencing these days.

Nolan's bleakness - or rather the persistence of his bleakness - is unusual in blockbuster pop; in Nolan's movies, generally the boy loses the girl (sometimes he even kills her), and society is viewed as completely corrupt - indeed, the very texture of reality itself is not to be trusted.  This is usually the stuff of fringe horror franchises, not billion-dollar tentpole events.  Yet overwhelming commercial success almost seems to stalk Mr. Nolan, even though there's little doubt that among the unhappy white boys who make up the latest generation of hip filmmakers (Tarantino, Fincher, Aronofsky), he is the darkest directorial knight around.

The general explanation for this state of affairs is that Nolan has tapped into the ethos of the 9/11 generation in a way that no one else has (in something like the way Tarantino channeled the fears of fatherless children of divorce back in the 90's).  And I think that's true, as far as it goes - certainly Nolan himself, you get the idea, wants us to get the idea that he is bravely working through the neuroses of a nation under terrorist assault.  Indeed, he's probably the king of what I've dubbed "9/11 pop."  But as his pop has literally gone pop, shall we say, the way that semi-automatic weapons do, I don't think it's too much to wonder - in the cultural marketplace, is Nolan actually conjuring the spirit of his hero - or his villain?

In short, is he more like Batman - or like Bane?

To answer that question, I think you have to look more closely at Nolan's appeal, at why loners like James Holmes might be attracted to his premieres for their last stands, at why his movies seem to attack and induce terrorism at the same time.  For while Nolan is constantly cuing us in to the meme that his movies are about a communal response to 9/11 - in fact some scenes from The Dark Knight Rises feel almost like reminiscences from that fateful day - they are also rather obviously absorbed in the kind psychological isolation that makes communal response, even community, period, all but impossible.

I mean just look at his heroes - they all live in hidden lairs, and operate behind masks of one kind or another - and trust in his films is (almost) always a booby trap.  Indeed, of Nolan's eight movies, I can't think of one that isn't drenched in an atmosphere of threat that bleeds into pathological paranoia; Nolan essentially pirouettes, like the little top in Inception, on that line.  What's more, his heroes' psyches - or psychoses - inevitably end up expressed in grandiose technological fantasias.  Batman in particular has access, thanks to Morgan Freeman, to a virtual armory of the very latest military high tech - a panoply of death devices that found its sad counterpart in the actual armory amassed by James Holmes.

It's Nolan vs. Nolan at the multiplex.

Now obviously the mood of the typical Nolan hero resonates with the movie-going public, which, as someone noted years ago, now bowls alone, and socializes most often through a variety of screens, apps, and avatars.  More than ever, "communities" are now artificial constructs, in which no one is necessarily who they appear to be, and in which the idea of a successful "politics" - which would depend on shared concerns - has been slowly but subtly undermined and invalidated.

What online communities turn to instead of politics, of course, is gaming (it's much easier to compete with an avatar than cooperate with one), and a number of critics are now pointing out that Nolan's scripts are best understood as games rather than narratives.  (I explained this years ago, btw, but it's nice to have the other critics catch up.)  And of course the kind of games Nolan's movies are most like are video games, in which players blast their way through battlegrounds of zombies or aliens (or car thieves), and which open up, as the player's skills increase, to progressively higher "levels" of menace and threat.

This moment of transition is, I believe, Nolan's basic cinematic trope; his movies are built on such jumps, they essentially cycle through chains of threat recognition.  The structure is clearest in his first hit, Memento (which rather than "moving backward," as many people thought, basically opened outward instead), but he and his screenwriters are clearly still depending on it.  Over and over again in The Dark Knight series, the hero achieves his "objective" (to borrow from game-design terminology) only to have the tables suddenly turn on him - that objective was actually a form of bait, and his achievement has only lifted him to a new level of danger.

What's more, I have an idea that the key to the popularity of Christopher Nolan lies in a strange parallel between the shock of 9/11 and this general M.O.  Indeed, I'd argue that consciously or unconsciously, Nolan and his collaborators have made a subtle connection between the crystallizing moment of that fateful day and the tropes of their cinematic games.  After all, on September 11, at the instant that the second plane smashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center, it was if the entire nation had jumped from one level of a game to the next.  Suddenly a whole menacing new level of play - the one on which Osama bin Laden had been operating all along - heaved itself into public view.

Now I personally don't feel the sensation of that moment, intense as it was, "means" much aesthetically or even politically; I don't think Osama bin Laden was some maniacal mastermind (surely the way he died contradicts that!), nor do I think he represented some sort of cosmic principle. And frankly, I don't think Nolan thinks so, either.  But I still think that moment cast a long, long shadow through pop culture.  And I am quite certain Nolan knows that it resonates with the cinematic tricks at the core of his appeal.  Indeed, I think he has been rehearsing (and nursing) that terrible epiphany for something like a decade.

But we'll explore that notion further - as well as the idea that perhaps The Dark Knight Rises reveals a flicker of light at the end of Christopher Nolan's neurotic tunnel - in the second part of this series.


  1. oh, i love this post.

    I have an interesting story about my experience at a midnight screening for The Dark Knight Rises. Some "idiot" pulled the fire alarm after Bane released Gotham's prisoners and I couldn't help but think that some other "idiot" would be outside the movie theater's exits ready to shoot. We didn't finish the movie that night and while driving back home, I couldn't get a sinking feeling out of my heart that something was up. The next morning twitter was ablaze with #theatershooting and I really wasn't surprised and I think that's very sad that I wasn't surprised. Those thoughts are still with me which speaks to this element of fear and a hyperawareness of evil(?) post-9/11...

    I did catch the movie a second time. And then a third. I truly like the film. I like the film for some reasons more than others (ahem, Tom Hardy). I don't love it. Ach, I could discuss this trilogy for hours...

    In the meantime, I'm still stuck in Nolan's game and enjoying these headlines that highlight all the holes in the movie:

  2. Thanks for the link, Obehi. Those hilarious "headlines" underline a point I'm going to make later on - that The Dark Knight Rises doesn't work as a logical plot, or even as a narrative. But then few Christopher Nolan movies do - of the Batman series, only Batman Begins adheres to the usual (loose) rules of Hollywood storytelling. But then the "holes" in Nolan's plots aren't really "holes" in the old-fashioned sense; they don't invalidate the story, because the movie isn't a story; instead it's a kind of program. But I'll go into all that in further detail in the next installment of this series.