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Cinemasters: Christopher Nolan

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the films. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

As a self-taught filmmaker with no formal training, Christopher Nolan himself has stated that he was never a very good student. As a young man studying English Literature at college in London, the one positive was that it allowed him a gateway into the local film society. From there, it got him thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and why those rules couldn’t also apply to filmmakers.

Nolan is a massive fan of the works of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott and it is clear to see the influence that films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) has had on his body of work. It is from these film origins that you begin to understand where Nolan’s distinctive cerebral approach to filmmaking has spawned.

‘I always find myself gravitating to the analogy of a maze. Think of film noir and if you picture the story as a maze, you don't want to be hanging above the maze watching the characters make the wrong choices because it's frustrating. You actually want to be in the maze with them, making the turns at their side, that keeps it more exciting... I quite like to be in that maze.’[1]

The idea of becoming immersed in a maze is evident especially when talking about Interstellar (2014) - a film that really encapsulates that feeling of walking side by side with those characters as you unravel the story together. Anchored by Matthew McConaughey at his absolute best, you truly feel the gut punching emotion upon the realisation that Cooper has lost 23 years of time with his children. From there the maze succeeds in drawing you further in as the level of investment in the story intensifies with every passing moment.

The same can be applied to Inception (2010), which takes this idea and layers maze upon maze to create a structure that to this day is still a fierce debate to be had amongst film enthusiasts across the board. One could argue that we have not seen a cast this well put together since and it’s a testament to those actors and the writing that everyone is given a chance to shine. Impressive even more so when you consider that as the film reaches its climax, the characters are all reliant on each other to succeed and yet have no knowledge of what dangers are lurking in the different levels. For example, in the iconic hallway fight scene, no one from the team will truly know how pivotal Arthur’s actions were to their success.

‘Yes, to me that's one of the most compelling fears in film noir and the psychological thriller genre - that fear of conspiracy. It's definitely something that I have a fear of - not being in control of your own life. I think that's something people can relate to, and those genres are most successful when they derive the material from genuine fears that people have.’[2]

Sandwiched in between the release of Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), The Prestige (2006) tells the story of two feuding magicians who cannot bear the thought of the other coming out on top. Nolan’s fascination with conspiracy and the fear of lack of control is a prominent theme throughout as Bale and Jackman run the gamut of paranoia, jealousy and greed, all in the pursuit of controlling their own destiny. While The Prestige may not be the first film that comes to mind when talking about Nolan’s work, it is certainly one his most cerebral and thrilling, especially as we come to discover the twist that upon first viewing caused the same level of shock as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999).

‘I always felt Heat (1995) to be a remarkable demonstration of how you can create a vast universe within one city and balance a very large number of characters and their emotional journeys in an effective manner.’[3]

Especially evident in The Dark Knight (2008) but also throughout his much-loved Batman trilogy is a level of world building that is an incredible achievement within the constraints of three films. Superhero franchises are notoriously hard to tackle and it has taken the Marvel Universe many more chapters to sculpt a backdrop like Nolan does with Batman.

Nolan has always been attracted to the fact that Batman is in essence a human being with no superpowers: an intelligent but ultimately flawed character who carries the weight of Gotham on his back. In the end he knows that he cannot go on forever and that while he can be the catalyst for change, he cannot be a solitary pillar that props up the city forever.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) plays to that idea and Nolan has been quoted as saying that this was always the plan for him to have a definitive end to his Batman story. The idea that Batman is a symbol of the good that can exist in humanity and in turn foster change was a very important theme for Nolan to get across.

Not only for Batman but for Nolan’s interpretation of the character, it was important to have an ending to this chapter of his career. As a director who unashamedly wants to do things on his own terms, being able to craft a trilogy of films completely in his vision that will forever live long in the memory is about as perfect as it gets. As much as the idea of Batman acting as a symbol is prevalent throughout those films, indeed Christopher Nolan’s career will always have a bat signal shining bright and illuminating his undeniable talent for filmmaking.

- Chris Kumar, Film Programmer
4 July 2022

Cinemasters: Christopher Nolan

In this summer CineMasters season we’re delighted to showcase three of Nolan's most spectacular cinematic achievements on 35mm and 70mm presentations, alongside a full day of his Oscar-winning, bar-raising trilogy of Batman films.

Explore the Programme

If you have attending any screenings in our Cinemasters: Christopher Nolan season and want to share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email feedback@glasgowfilm.org and tell us what you thought.

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