Friday, July 13, 2012

THE LISTS: Best below-the-line elements in Christopher Nolan's films

It's rather easy to underestimate how suffocating the cloud of hype for "The Dark Knight Rises" can be, even if you're trying to ignore it. Fact of the matter is that they simply didn't have a midnight screening for "Alps" for me to get excited about, so what else is a man supposed to do with his life except delve back into Nolan's filmography? Plenty ideas crossed my mind when deciding on where to focus my energies, one being the performances across Nolan's now eight films, but that's really something that requires much more time and further films in order to pick out the best. It's inferred that Nolan has plenty left in him.

At this moment, what seemed rather appropriate to do was go below-the-line with Nolan's films, especially considering how "The Dark Knight" achieved a rather difficult across the board perfection of sorts which this sequel hopes to continue. Nolan has worked with a lot of the same people across his career, switching up partners every once in a while when it seems prudent, and he's rather likely to find even more collaborators over the rest of his career, as well as continue the ones he has made. Given that we don't know what the future holds for him after "The Dark Knight Rises", which more and more is seemingly like a cutting point in Nolan's career, now is a rather good time to consider his collaborations thus far.

You'll find a couple of trends running through this list in terms of films featured heavily or films not featured at all. Indeed there were one or two films that just did not factor into the debate. Unfortunately I didn't find anything from "Following" that screamed for inclusion, except maybe the more experimental sense of cinematography. As for excluded elements of included films, the cinematography of many a Nolan film was considered before narrowing on one, the dizzying editing and effective sound editing of "Insomnia" were certainly in consideration, and the makeup and production design of "The Dark Knight" had a major effect on how that film came to be. In the end, it comes down to ten.

10. Opening Titles of "Insomnia" (Edited by Dody Dorn; 2002)

You won't find "Insomnia" at the top of many peoples' list concerning Nolan's history of films, due to a screenplay that shoots it in the foot very early on, to no fault of Nolan. But there are many aspects of the film that build to one of Nolan's most mystifying aesthetics, and they're all rather earnestly on deck for the unsettling opening titles of the film, with the images of blood seeping through fabric speaking both psychologically and hinting at prominent plot point. It's a mix of David Julyan's morally ambiguous and tonal score, Wally Pfister's alternatively blurred, sweeping, and cringe inducing cinematography, and a barely corporeal title text, the mood is set for a film that, flaws aside (or included), will hold you till the end with a fixed gaze. The fact that you see the film has problems is a testament to the united strength of its other elements.

9. Original Score of "The Dark Knight" (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard; 2008)

The first of, you should know up front, many inclusions of Nolan's sixth film, it was genuinely a complete piece of the largest scale of filmmaking. The score was already building off of solid work by Zimmer and Howard in "Batman Begins", but they really brought it to a new level with introducing the sound of The Joker to the mix. Heath Ledger inspired something more out of the music, and Zimmer raised himself to the task with a sound compiled of razor bladed and pulled strings on the edge of breaking, and that achievement alone merits mention. The punk influence has such a nasty and awesome effect in both the loud and quiet moments. Add onto that the already dread inducing notes of Zimmer's craft and we have a body of work that's difficult to surpass in nearly any year.

8. Production Design of "The Prestige" (Nathan Crowley; 2006)

In spite of inclinations to pass the rag to "Insomnia", I really feel like "The Prestige" is Nolan's weakest film to date, which is in a way a backhanded complement to it. It's got many admirers, but it simply doesn't find enough emotional or moral crevices in its characters, beyond Christian Bale's obviously. All the same, one still has to acknowledge Nathan Crowley's thorough work on capturing the feel of turn-of-the-century London, as well as Colorado at the time. The sets say more about who these characters are than the script will, with wide open spaces in Nicola Tesla's workshop being contrasted by the ordered mess of Alfred Borden's place. Perhaps the period aesthetic comes in the way of the film's more intimate meanings, but it does offer one of Nolan's most complete and quietly ambitious design elements.

7. Editing of "Inception" (Lee Smith; 2010)

Ask anybody and they'll tell you it's a crime that "Inception" was snubbed from the editing race back in early 2011. Indeed I am in something of a lesser camp to that, seeing some easy and overtly noticeable cuts in the more simple and plot explaining of scenes. But in general editor Lee Smith is commendable for his grand scale juggling act of three to four levels of dreaming going on at one time. The ambition of Nolan's time-altering construct allows for some brilliant tension, but it would all have been for nothing if it wasn't handled with care. The action flows between each of the dream levels, carefully entwining parallel narratives to a rather nail-biting countdown experience as the van falls ever slower and ever closer to the water. It's a crucial element in building the suspense of one of Nolan's more thrilling endeavors.

6. Costume Design of "The Dark Knight" (Lindy Hemming; 2008)

"And by the way, the suit wasn't cheap. You ought to know. You bought it." So sneers Heath Ledger's The Joker in a line that could be rendered pointless if the design of it weren't simply rather brilliant. The purple-coated, green-vested, and hexagon button-up wardrobe is clashing spectacle of many amazing costume choices. The Batman suit is upgraded into expert armor quality to fit Bruce's specifications, sure. But there's also a way to Harvey Dent's clean and spotless suits, Rachel's more tasteful elegance, and Gordon's hefty and stacked on coats, as if to fit his own type of armor. The costumes may indeed be overlooked, but they play a major factor in giving cues for these characters to follow.

5. Production Design of "Batman Begins" (Nathan Crowley; 2005)

Gotham has always been an intriguing environment to be represented on screen, with the different directors taking different creative liberties in representing it. As much as the Gotham represented in "The Dark Knight" is a gritty and massive realization, the first film really did more to create the sprawling world Nolan's films would inhabit. It's a piece of more exterior specificity, because there are many relevant sites in terms of the story. Arkham Asylum is given a certain rundown grubbiness to it, as if a drop-off point for the scum of Gotham to rot even further. Wayne Manor is shown both in full elegance and active retirement. The narrows are put together imposingly upon itself, and Wayne Tower is a prominent figure of the city. Apparently the attack on it meant they had to redesign in the sequel.

4. Original Score of "Memento" (David Julyan; 2000)

Before Zimmer came along, David Julyan was Christopher Nolan's main collaborator, having worked four films together, including "Following", "Insomnia", and "The Prestige". Their most creative and rather astounding work to date, assuming they reunite at some point, remains the deeply soulful work on the psychological mystery thriller "Memento". Julyan's music has an ethereal feel to it that can be best described as ghostly, which has worked for nearly everything he and Nolan have done. Here, it takes on some greater meaning, like the memory is still there, but faded. It can turn on a dime to click aggressively at the change of pace when needed, adding to the intensity of a film that's already happened. It's a truly gorgeous score that goes by so unfortunately underrated.

3. Special Effects of "Inception" (Chris Corbould; 2010)

A list like this cannot go without bringing up the man chiefly responsible for the scale Nolan pulled off with his most recent three films. As much as I am more exhilarated by the work done in "The Dark Knight", this list demanded a higher calling and so I had to submit to his brilliant and Oscar-winning work on "Inception". There are seven different action set pieces in the film, in the broadest terms of production. That's not including the numerous effects needed to pull off in each of those. They span from simple shakes and turns of an entire set to a complete assault on a snowbound fortress. The rotating hallway and illusion of anti-gravity are two of the most astounding effects in modern action cinema, and the deep and powerful thrill they elicit onscreen goes to show the effort that put into creating it.

2. Cinematography of "The Dark Knight" (Wally Pfister; 2008)

Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister feel so conjoined at the hip now that it's hard to imagine them parting ways anytime soon. Pfister's work has been consistently crisp and stunning across all six (now seven) films he's worked with Nolan on, but their most complete collaboration to date rendered several of the most definitive shots in the superhero genre. I feel hesitant on digging too deep into it given that I have a certain column that this film seems prime for, but it's worth stating that the cinematography throughout is so tonally on the nose with what Nolan is doing. Gotham is a darker place, and that gives Pfister so many opportunities as a visual stylist. After all these years, I'm kind of hoping Chris returns the favor by doing cinematography on Wally Pfister's debut!

1. Editing of "Memento" (Dody Dorn; 2000)

Dody Dorn deserves to have a lot more credentials to his name than than he's had thus far in his career. He worked twice with Nolan on some editorially ambitious films, the other being "Insomnia", but there was something about the way he edited "Memento" that quite simply cuts like razors. The transitions between scenes aren't masked, but made extremely evident by the intersecting structure of the film. The cuts between B&W and colour at once fracture the flow and keep the audience in the loop. They can build the intensity where it is most needed, but on the simplest level, they are a conveyance of Leonard Shelby's tormented perspective, destroying itself so miserably as he tries to get a hold on what's going on. It's an absolute marvel in what continues to be, for me, Nolan's most complete cinematic achievement.

1 comment:

  1. What a excellent list, very well done.
    Memento, Inception and The Dark Knight had so much of technical greatness to them, his movies are marvelous, out of this world.