No one has had as impressive of a career as Christopher Jonathan James Nolan. His films have earned $3. 3 billion at the global box office, and the total is still growing. This British/American screenwriter, director and producer’s most popular films include The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Remarkably, many critics have lined up as well, embracing both Nolan’s more offbeat productions, like Memento (2000) and The Prestige (2006), and his blockbusters (Price and Dawson, 2009). Nolan is now routinely considered one of the most accomplished living filmmakers.
This essay will analyze the types of techniques he has used to create heart-stopping films, and will more specifically look at his methods used in creating Insomnia (2002), his first studio film. I will also be analyzing the defaults in some of him major productions, and how his films can be improved. Despite his blockbuster hits, many critics fiercely dislike his work. They regard it as intellectually shallow, dramatically clumsy, and technically unskilled (Price and Dawson, 2009). As far as I can tell, no popular filmmaker’s work of recent years has received such harsh criticism as Nolan has.
People seem to disapprove of his continuity errors and patchy plots, but this severe attack on his films are probably due to his elevated reputation. Personally, I admire some of Nolan’s films and see him as an innovative filmmaker although critics sometimes believe his techniques are weak. His film history gives us an occasion to look at some issues about creativity and innovation in popular motion pictures. There are four main ways that a filmmaker can be innovative; by subject matter, themes, formal strategies and level of style (WordPress, 2011).
Out of all four innovation techniques, Nolan seems to be lacking a level of style the most. This evidence can be found in Insomnia (2002), his first studio film; A Los Angeles detective and his partner come to an Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. While chasing a suspect in the fog, Dormer shoots his partner Hap and then lies about it, trying to pin the killing on the suspect. But the suspect who is a famous author who did kill the girl, knows what really happened. He pressures Dormer to cover for both of them by framing the girl’s boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Dormer is undergoing scrutiny by Ellie, a young officer who idolizes him but who must investigate Hap’s death. And throughout it all, Dormer becomes bleary and disoriented because, the twenty-four-hour daylight won’t let him sleep. Nolan said at the time that what interested him in the script was the prospect of character subjectivity, “A big part of my interest in filmmaking is an interest in showing the audience a story through a character’s point of view. It’s interesting to try and do that and maintain a relatively natural look. This is because he wanted to keep the audience in Dormer’s head. Having already done that to an extent in Memento, he saw it as a logical way of presenting Dormer’s slow breakdown. But Nolan wanted to keep his work subjective and as a result chose to break up scenes with fragmentary flashes of the crime and of clues—painted nails, a necklace. Early in the film, Dormer is studying Kay Connell’s corpse, and we get flashes of the murder and its aftermath, the killer sprucing up the corpse. At first it seems that Dormer feels what happened by noticing clues on Kay’s body.
But the film’s credits started with similar glimpses of the killing, as if from the killer’s point of view, and there’s an ambiguity about whether the images later are Dormer’s imaginative reconstruction, or reminders of the killer’s vision—establishing that uneasy link of cop and crook. Similarly, sudden cutting is used to introduce images that get clarified in the course of the film. At the start, we see blood seeping through threads, and then shots of hands carefully depositing blood on a fabric. Then we see shots of Dormer flying in to the crime scene.
We learn in the course of the film that these are flashbacks to Dormer’s framing of another suspect back in Los Angeles. Once again, these images are more or less subjective, and they echo the killer’s patient tidying up. Nolan’s style seems to tie into rapid cutting passages. For example, Insomnia has over 3400 shots in its 111 minutes, making the average shot just under two seconds long (WordPress). This type of fast editing can suit bursts of mental imagery, but makes the dialogue hard to understand.
In the scene in which Dormer and Hap arrive at the Alaskan police station as an example of the over-busy tempo that can come along with a style based in “intensified continuity. ” In a seventy-second scene, there are 39 shots, so the average is about 1. 8 seconds—a pace typical of the film and of the intensified approach generally (Ressner, 2012). Apart from one exterior long-shot of the police station and four inserts of hands, the characters’ interplay is captured almost entirely in singles—that is, shots of only one actor.
Out of the 34 shots of actors’ faces and upper bodies, 24 are singles (Ressner, 2012). Most of these serve to pick up individual lines of dialogue or characters’ reactions to other lines. Fast cutting scenes like this are not supposed to break up spatial orientation. In many of this movie’s scenes there are a couple of bumps in the eyeline-matching, but all in all the shot is continuous. As I watched the DVD commentary, Nolan explains that he tried to anchor the axis of action, around Dormer/Pacino, so the eyelines were consistent with his position.
The scene’s development and the actors’ line readings are emphasized by the cutting. In contrast, the lighting and framing remain almost unchanged. The editing-driven approach to staging and shooting is clearly Nolan’s preference for many projects; he storyboards only the big action sequences. We can find this loose shooting and abrupt editing in most of Nolan’s films therefor they don’t seem to display innovative, or skilful visual style. I believe his chief areas of innovation are in theme and form. The thematic dimension is easy to see in his films.
There’s the issue of uncertain identity, which becomes obvious in Memento and the Batman films. The lost-woman motif, from Leonard’s wife in Memento to Rachel in the two late Batman movies, gives Nolan’s films the recurring theme of vengeance. There is also the theme of the man doomed to solitude and unhappiness, always grieving. This obsessive circling around personal identity and the loss of a lover carries emotional conviction in most of Nolan’s current films and the success of these films owe a good deal to the performances of the actors such as Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
It can be argued that these psychological themes aren’t very original, especially in mystery-based plots, but the Batman films offer something fresher. The Dark Knight trilogy has attracted attention for its search to find real world significance in comic-book material. Many have 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 (Price and Dawson, 2009).
Nolan and his colleagues have sought to reply to this cliche by adding in plots of heists, fights, chases, explosions, kidnappings, ticking bombs, and pistols with sociopolitical problems. The Dark Knight mainly raises ideas about terrorism, torture, surveillance, and the need to keep the public in the dark about its heroes. It is easy to see that Nolan and his colleagues are undoubtedly giving the superhero genre a new importance in the film industry. Nolan’s innovations seem strongest in the area of narrative form. He’s fascinated by unusual storytelling strategies.
Those aren’t developed at full stretch in Insomnia or the Dark Knight trilogy, but other films put them on display. In the Batman trilogy, subjectivity is put on hold. Nolan’s first two films reconcile subjectivity in more unusual ways; instead of expanding our range of knowledge to many characters, nearly the whole film is confined to what happens to one protagonist. Likewise, Memento confines us to a single protagonist and skips between his memories and immediate experiences; one series of incidents is presented as moving chronologically while another is presented in reverse order.
While ambitious filmmakers are competing to create cliche narratives and complex films, Nolan raises the stakes by bringing breath-taking cinematic storytelling to life. His movies, unlike any other living filmmaker, are motivated through dreams and modernized with a blend of science fiction, fantasy and action pictures. Above all, the dream motivation allowed him to create unforgettable stories that are now embedded in the minds of millions of viewers.
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