chris nolan

Favourite Films on Fridays: #42, Memento

How the hell did I get here? It’s thrilling to be tested in this way. The logical evolution of the detective story. Not: can you solve the mystery, but: can you even stand to keep up? At times, Memento really starts to make you feel like Lenny. You, not quite able to follow because the plot is moving backwards too fast; him, not able to remember anything because of his condition… How did I get here? Just about keeping up in the moment, as the plot rattles past, but as you nod along with the dialogue to show you understand, wondering: Where exactly am I now? As the scenes, and the links between them, become less clearly marked, you’re asking yourself a lot of questions: ‘Wait, how did we get here? What am I looking for? How will this scene end?’ By opening with the plot’s conclusion, but obscuring what it means, the film is able to pull you straight into its plot with the first few scenes. Having already won you over, with the clarity of its original scenes and central mystery, Memento begins to blur the lines a little. Eventually, it all gets too much, about three-quarters of the way in. You’re trying to juggle too much. It might be sloppy film-making. It might just be that the experiment, of saying ‘c’mon keep up’ and testing the audience, gets pushed a little too far. The problem with shuffling a plot around, so that each scene comes chronologically directly before the last one, is that it’s easy to be gratuitous. Merely writing something in order and then sliding the pieces around doesn’t work. (Trust me.) It has to be designed that way. Of course, Christopher Nolan is a master craftsman, and a great loss to the world of puzzle games. Memento starts out exceedingly tight, as it lays out its premise on the table. This man can’t remember further back than five minutes ago, and every five-minute scene will take us to the beginning of the last. This isn’t easy to grasp, and so the first hour of scenes are clearly marked at their start and end by contrasting locations, or a key line, anchors as carefully chosen as Inception’s totems. One scene will start in a busy diner and end in the same darkened woman’s bedroom the last scene started in, with Lenny’s anonymous motel room acting as a palette-cleanser. Discussing Memento‘s genius, people tend to talk about the mind-expanding reversed plot. It’s a story of vengeance that opens with the successful killing, and works backwards. But the true brilliance in Memento, what brings everything together, is the one story that runs forward: there are black-and-white scenes interspersed between these backwards scenes. This is Guy Pearce’s Lenny in his motel room – the neutral space of the film – narrating the story of Sammy Jankis, whose amnesiac plight reflects his own. Memento is the kind of perfectly-constructed puzzle that Nolan took to the blockbuster with Inception. But far better: it’s smaller and more personal, and the form is more fitting to the content. This is, after all, the story of a single character with a very particular problem, and about getting the audience inside of his head (as opposed to Inception, which was about getting all of its characters into as many heads as possible). Because Lenny can’t remember more than five minutes back. He’s got a condition… Wait. Have I already told you about it? Memento is here at least partially as a represent of the kind of muscular, intelligent thrillers in my formative film-watching years. The Usual Suspects; Se7en… born out of first viewing a film on this list, #2. Last week’s film, Wristcutters, represents the best of the other side of the family, oversoon by the powerful matriarch of our #1. There’s a family tree in this list, one that will only become clear once it’s all done. Ha, fitting, right?

Can I (not) Take U 2 The Cinema, pt. 1

So … I went to the cinema twice in two days. Understand that this is, at certain times of year, as much as I’ll attend* in three or four months. The last time I did it was … well, a day of Chris Nolan’s previous film – called The Dark Knight, you might have heard of it – and Pixar’s Wall.E. This time it was Inception – Nolan’s new film – and Toy Story 3. This, clearly, is the kind of stuff I get off the sofa for. Thanks to that symmetry, the two seem a bit inextricably linked, so I’m going to write about them, in the exact opposite order to that in which I watched them. And, oh yeah, if you haven’t seen either those and you want to – and if you don’t, frankly, what the Charles Freck is wrong with you? – I wouldn’t read these till afterwards. …First, Inception. Inception. You know what my dream is? To be able to go to the cinema on my own. No disrespect to any of the people I saw either film with – Tom, Dom, Zoe, I like at least two of you – but when you’re sitting in the cinema, having someone next to you can be unnerving. You can’t help but register small movements, wonder what we’re thinking of the film, whether they’re bored or uncomfortable… This is people I choose to go with. Strangers next to you who decide to spoil the end of the film you’ve managed to avoid any and all information on three minutes before it ends? Fuhgeddaboudit. …This is my dream, and until the kind of tech on display in Inception (part-Eternal Sunshine, part-Matrix) exists, those dreams will be unreachable. Fact is, you have to go with other people, and it’s just not socially acceptable to want the seats next to you, let alone the entire cinema screen, empty unless you’re Mark flipping Kermode.** Inception is the kind of film that suffers from this phenomenon particularly hard. The film’s kind of cold, and requires a certain level of attention and immersion: when someone next to you hisses “is there really still half an hour left?”, you can’t help but notice, yeah, it is going on a bit. Nolan is, fittingly enough, a bit of a paradox: I will rush to see anything he puts out, but I enjoy all of his films in a particular way: approving, generally impressed by the craft, but rarely overwhelmed. I always mean to get round to watching them again but never quite do – with the exception of Batman Begins, probably my least favourite of his work but defintiely the one I’ve seen most. It’s because of that coldness. It’s not necessarily there in the best moments of Memento, or The Best Moment of Dark Knight. But Nolan’s films generally tickle the brain, not grab hold of the heart. But that coldness is definitely playing to strength – Nolan’s emotional scenes tend off a little schmaltzy – and in Inception, it seems particularly intentional. Inception is a puzzle game: the old-fashioned variety, before computers and everything. All sliding pieces and rotating sides. The ideas involved are those big ones: time, layers, dreams. The human mind; not the human heart. It begins to reach beyond that, into concepts of the afterlife and, well, just life – like a secular version of the final season of Lost, actually – but those are a little beyond its remit, requiring a fusion of emotional and conceptual storytelling that neither example fully managed. But where it succeeds best – and it succeeds exactly – is as a film. The action and posing and posturing is very post-Matrix (remember the early 00s where every film was the new Matrix or the new Memento? This is, of course, both). It’s full of floating and slow motion. But, this is the thing: Nolan manages to find sweet justification for each and every chunk of spectacle. It plays with the action-movie cliché of those last few impossibly slow seconds before the bomb goes off and, again, justifies and finds purpsoe for them. Which mirrors the time dilation of coming out of a long film into the real world (it’s a film which, yes, people sitting next to me, feels longer than it is) and that’s all part of the plot as well as the atmosphere. It’s a film about films, just in the sense that it’s such a shining example of a film that understands films. Inception’s basic premise, and the early reveals, are based around the most obvious narrative cliche in the world: …and it was all a dream. The twist becomes not oh it was all a dream but rather, already knowing that’s in the deck, will they play that card? And where? …It is, essentially, a film I could write about all day. All my actual conversations on the matter, however, have been much more closed. That’s the other thing about seeing a film with people: I never want to say anything after the film. I need a little digestion time, a little time to try out thoughts and come up with something intelligent to say. The first thing I said about this film, which will probably remain the most true, was that the the more people say they loved Inception, the less I’ll love it. And every time someone comes home from the cinema, showering it with praise, true enough, I resent the film (and the people) just a tiny bit. Why wasn’t that it how it was for me? I can tell you why: I watched it with a different audience. And that’s how it’ll always be. (In conclusion: courtesy of this here tumblr, via Miles) *’attend’ seems like the right word. For all the holiness I feel music holds over other cultural forms, going to the cinema is the one that feels most like going to church.**Hmm. I feel a plan forming…