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Soderbergh can provide an unfussy 70s-ish telephoto long take of Mike and Brooke walking along a pier and settling down at a picnic table in front of a Go-Kart track while her brother Adam materializes in the distance. In a single year, with Contagion , Haywire , and Magic Mike , Soderbergh has confirmed himself as our master of the intelligent midrange picture.
To anyone who cares to watch, these movies give lessons in discreet, compact direction. Here a Swedish detective, vaguely under suspicion for an infraction of duty, comes to a town on the Arctic Circle for a murder investigation. Let me mention just two points of contrast.
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First, the cutting is less jagged. Also, this version finds ways to convey several bits of information concisely, in carefully designed shots. Rack focus to the clock behind him. At times he uses the sort of flash-cutting Nolan employs, so we get fragmentary reminders of the fog-clouded shooting.
Cut to a shot showing that the sound is made by him, walking in another room. What I find more interesting is that Nolan had available the prior example of these strategies from his Nordic source, and he still chose to go with the more conventional, cutting-based options. I think his chief areas of innovation lie in theme and form. The thematic dimension is easy to see.
Umberto Eco once objected that Superman, who has the power to redirect rivers, prevent asteroid collisions, and expose political corruption, devotes too much of his time to thwarting bank robbers. The Dark Knight invokes ideas about terrorism, torture, surveillance, and the need to keep the public in the dark about its heroes. Nolan and his collaborators are doubtless doing something ambitious in giving the superhero genre a new weightiness. Let me recycle what I wrote four years ago. I remember walking out of Patton with a hippie friend who loved it. He claimed that it showed how vicious the military was, by portraying a hero as an egotistical nutcase.
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It was then I began to suspect that Hollywood movies are usually strategically ambiguous about politics. You can read them in a lot of different ways, and that ambivalence is more or less deliberate. A Hollywood film tends to pose sharp moral polarities and then fuzz or fudge or rush past settling them. For instance, take The Bourne Ultimatum : Yes, the espionage system is corrupt, but there is one honorable agent who will leak the information, and the press will expose it all, and the malefactors will be jailed.
Nor am I saying that an ambivalent film comes from its makers delicately implanting counterbalancing clues. Sometimes they probably do that.
More often, I think, filmmakers pluck out bits of cultural flotsam opportunistically, stirring it all together and offering it up to see if we like the taste. Patton grabbed people and got them talking, and that was enough to create a cultural event. Ditto The Dark Knight. Since I wrote that, Nolan has confirmed my hunch.
He says of the new Batman movie:. We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. The cultural mix on display in a movie can still exclude certain ideological possibilities, or frame the materials in ways that slant how spectators take them up. My point is only that we ought not to expect popular movies, or indeed many movies, to offer crisp, transparent visions of politics or society. One way to capture his formal ambitions, I think, is to see them as an effort to reconcile character subjectivity with large-scale crosscutting.
Nolan has pointed out his keen interest in both strategies. Techniques of subjectivity plunge us into what one character perceives or feels or thinks.
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Crosscutting typically creates much more unrestricted field of view, shifting us from person to person, place to place. The Batman trilogy has plenty of crosscutting, but as far as I can tell, subjectivity takes a back seat. Following takes a linear story, breaks it into four stretches, and then intercuts them.
Likewise, Memento confines us to a single protagonist and skips between his memories and immediate experiences. Again what might be a single, linear timeline is split, but then one series of incidents is presented as moving chronologically while another is presented in reverse order. In The Prestige , dual protagonists, both with a secret, take over the story, but the presentation remains steeped in subjectivity.
You can work it all out diagrammatically, as I tried to do in my notes on right. With Inception , subjectivity takes the shape of dreaming, and the crosscutting is now among layers of dreams. The embedding that we find in The Prestige is now carried to an extreme; in the long, climactic final sequence a group dream frames another dream which frames another, and so on, to five levels.
Once again, these all get intercut although Nolan wisely refrains from reminding us of the outermost frame too often, so that our eventual return to it can be sensed more strongly. Kristin and I have written at length about these strategies in earlier entries here and here. My point in the first essay is summed up here:. As ambitious artists compete to engineer clockwork narratives and puzzle films, Nolan raises the stakes by reviving a very old tradition, that of the embedded story.
He motivates it through dreams and modernizes it with a blend of science fiction, fantasy, action pictures, and male masochism. Above all, the dream motivation allows him to crosscut four embedded stories, all built on classic Hollywood plot arcs. In the process he creates a virtuoso stretch of cinematic storytelling. You can even measure the changes quantitatively.
Any more timelines and most viewers will get lost. Very few contemporary American filmmakers have pursued complex storytelling with such thoroughness and ingenuity. Nolan has made his innovations accessible, I argued, by the way he has motivated them. First, he appeals to genre conventions.
Following and Memento are neo-noirs, and we expect that mode to traffic in complex, perhaps nearly incomprehensible plotting and presentation. He has called Inception a heist film, and what many viewers objected to—its constant explanation of the rules of dream invasion—is not so far from the steady flow of information we get in a caper movie. In the heist genre, Nolan remarks , exposition is entertainment.
Further, the separate dreams rely on familiar action-movie conventions: the car chase that ends with a plunge into space, the fight in a hotel corridor, the assault on a fortress, and so on. But I should have mentioned another method of motivation—one that helps make the films comprehensible to a broad audience. In some cases the formal trickery is justified by the very subjectivity the film embraces. Once we accept the conceit of controlled dreaming, we can buy all the spatial and temporal constraints the dream-master Cobb sets forth.
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As with Memento , Nolan creates a set of rules that allow him to crosscut many different time lines. Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them.
In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like P.
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Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions.