Alex MacKnight – Christopher Nolan and the Film Auteur
In this paper, I aim to explore the theory of auteurism within popular cinema. My paper will be focusing on the director Christopher Nolan and will discuss and analyze his works in reference to the concept of auteurism, making the argument for his existence as a film auteur. The basis for this paper relies on the assumption that the film auteur is a tangible and achievable status for a director, screenwriter, or producer, and will be evaluating many of these films with a disregard for the fact that they were created by collaborative means. Due to the nature of cinema, popular film auteurs cannot exist with COMPLETE control over their work, however I believe Nolan can still be credited and analyzed using a lens of auteurism. The style of this paper will resemble the case study of Quentin Tarantino, as seen in Jill Nelmes’ Intro to Film Studies (pages 157-161). However, before we start dissecting Nolan and his films, we first need to establish a more precise definition of a film auteur.
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What is an Auteur?
The film auteur is a concept and term that was first introduced into film studies in the 1950s by the French film journal, Cahiers du Cinema. It was created to refer to directors who “infused their films with their distinctive personal vision through the salient manipulation of film technique… to study film as if it were the creative expression of a single individual, usually held to be the director…” . Based on this definition, the idea of an ‘auteur’ can be understood as a single person who exists as the sole creator and author of a film.
Essentially saying, a film exists only as a reflection of that individual’s artistic vision. This unique personal vision and goal is achieved through the alleged auteur’s “manipulation of film technique”, and once these manipulations become obvious through the comparison of the same auteur’s filmography, then they are virtually ‘proven’ as an example of a film auteur. David Tregde states, “The traditional ‘low-tech’ method for auteur analysis involves examining a director’s work ‘until patterns begin to emerge’” (Tregde, 7). These patterns and manipulations of film technique can be called stylistic signatures, or the characteristics of auteurism (as we discussed in class). They exist as a visual “stamp”, marking the influence of the auteur and creating an atmosphere of familiarity for the film viewer, overall claiming ownership of the film as an expression of the auteur alone. By looking for these stylistic signatures within Nolan’s films, I hope to prove his role as an auteur and explore the reasoning behind some of his unique patterns.
As we discussed in class, the stylistic signatures simply exist as repeated tendencies of an auteur within their work. They are often recognized through an auteur’s unique and consistent way of developing their film’s mise-en-scene, or visual landscape. By this definition, stylistic signatures can be repeated camera shots, visual stylistic tropes, director appearances within a film, visual effects, color tones, and lighting. In addition to the mise-en-scene, further stylistic signatures can exist in choices of genre, recurring collaborations (e.g. same actors), similar characterization of film’s protagonists and antagonists, music choices, the format of the film, and the theme of the film. Many of these signatures can be observed within Nolan’s work, and can more importantly be used as evidence in support of his role as a film auteur.
The first area of the mise-en-scene that I will be focusing on is visual style and practical effects. Within Nolan’s work, his creation of a scene and visuals always adheres to a rigid set of signatures. These signatures are defined by Nolan’s firm stance on the power of practical effects, and his belief that a director should capture as much as physically possible within the camera, before relying on visual effects. He states in a 2010 BBC interview with Stephen Smith at the BFI London Film Festival, “In my films I try to shoot as much in camera as possible… Trying to do these things for real, trying to use real locations, there is a feeling of reality… we try and always achieve what we can in camera, and have as good of a time as possible doing it.” This leads to his frequently reliance on huge, over the top set pieces, on location shooting and use of natural lighting. This signature can be seen in the majority of Nolan’s works, but some of the most impactful examples are shown in Interstellar (2014), Inception (2010), and The Dark Knight (2008).
Interstellar tells the story of an astronaut father (Cooper) and his daughter (Murph) and follows both of their lives after they separate in Murph’s youth. The setting of the story primarily takes place in a spacecraft which travels between several planets and locations. When commenting on the shooting of these scenes in that same interview, Nolan stated “we didn’t use green screens, we were shooting inside a ‘spaceship’ so we had views outside the windows… we would produce all that material and achieve the effect in camera before using any visual effects”.
He explains how the set of the spacecraft was entirely real, and how he achieved the lighting he wanted by filming scenes within the spacecraft in areas that have similar lighting to the one he is attempting to recreate. Nolan refused to achieve his effects post-shooting, and instead created most of his mise-en-scene in real life. In addition to this example, Nolan also famously relied on practical effects in the ‘Joker Truck Scene’ in his second Batman film,
The Dark Knight. In this scene, the movie’s main villain, the Joker, is chasing the main protagonist/character Batman through the streets of Gotham. In the scene’s dramatic climax, Batman weaves tripwire between lampposts down the entirety of the street, tangling and locking up the truck’s front wheels and causing the entire 18-wheeler to flip completely onto its back. In the making of this scene, Nolan had an actual truck flipped in a city street, physically recreating the stunt in order to create a dramatic end to the scene that holds weight and feels entirely real. Similarly, in the film Inception, there was a scene in which several characters are fighting in a hotel, and the gravity is constantly spinning and shifting directions.
In one specific point in the scene, the gravity is “rolling” in reference to a long hotel hallway, with the characters grappling first on the floor, then sliding onto the walls, and even standing upright and fighting on the ceiling. In order to create this effect, Nolan built a set for a hotel hallway inside a giant rotating cylinder. During shooting, he had the actors create the fight scene in real time as the entire set shifted and rolled around them, gravity was actually shifting for the actors. With all these examples, it is clear to see Nolan’s recurring stylistic signature. He dismisses many popular film’s reliance on after effects and CGI, and instead opts to create as much of his mise-en-scene as possible “in front of the camera”.
In addition to this distinct visual style, Nolan’s films are almost always edited with a consistent “rule of three” regarding the film’s narrative climax. This rule pertains to how Nolan specifically cross cuts these scenes, often cutting between three plot points or characters during the film’s most exciting and significant moments.
This stylistic signature is most evident in Inception and The Dark Knight. In Inceptions final climax, the “rule of three” is shown through the cross cutting between “different levels of the characters’ dreams” (the concept with which the entire movie revolves around). The film cuts between these levels in rules of three, showing the fights and conflicts within each “dream level” simultaneously. Similarly, in The Dark Knight’s ultimate climax, the rule is shown through the cameras constant switch between the actions of The Joker (main antagonist), the actions of Batman (main protagonist), and the actions of Harvey Dent (a corrupted protagonist). The effect of this style of cross cutting seems to focus on keeping the viewer engaged in ALL aspects of the plot simultaneously, displaying the chaos unfolding within these moments and heightening the tension and action within these scenes. The “rule of three” can also be observed throughout many of Nolan’s other films, and the structure is used through the entirety of his 2017 film, Dunkirk, as he divided the story into three plot lines (the mole, the sea, the air).
Further Stylistic Signatures:
In addition to the signatures seen in the way Christopher Nolan develops his mise-en-scene, he also is consistent in his film format. Nolan is an avid supporter of the importance of physical film in cinema and has been a critic of digital filming for years. In his BBC interview, he stated “But for me, film will always have this wonderful richness, the analogue color, the superior resolution… and when film is projected, the way it was originally intended to be seen, there’s a very unique experience for the audience that they can’t get in their living rooms.” Similar to director Quentin Tarantino and other alleged auteurs that we have encountered in this film class, Nolan believes strongly in the superiority of shooting in film, and refuses to conform to the rise of digital recording. This view is shown through his devotion to film in all his big budget pictures, as well as in his frequent use of IMAX camera shooting in many of his more recent films.
Another stylistic element that can be observed in Nolan’s filmography is his recurrent collaborators. Nolan collaborates religiously with the same actors, composers, and writers in the making of his films. For actors, big names like Anne Hathaway (Interstellar, the Dark Knight Trilogy), Christian Bale (The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy), Michael Caine (Interstellar, the Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, The Prestige), Tom Hardy (Dunkirk, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, and Marion Cotillard appear consistently in his movies. In addition to actors, Nolan also collaborates often with the acclaimed music composer Hans Zimmer, who alone has composed the soundtrack to six of Nolan’s works. In addition, Nolan also usually cowrites the entirety of his movies’ scripts alongside his brother, Jonathan Nolan. Based on these collaborators, Nolan has established a clear pattern within his work. Tregde explored a related idea when he stated “…Alfred Hitchcock’s films are recognizable not only for their story and stylistic elements, but also for his standardized production method.” (Tregde, 6). Based off this, it is easy to see Nolan’s pattern of collaboration as evidence of his established production method. He builds his movies according to his own unique process, often relying on the same actors and composers for the sake of consistency and control.
Theme and Characterization:
However, despite all the evidence of these ‘physical’ stylistic signatures within Nolan’s work, the arguably most important are his recurrent themes and characterizations. Nolan films nearly always revolve around themes of human existentialism, human degradation, the complex dichotomy of good and evil, the manipulation of time, and the unreliability of perspective. He sticks by these recurrent themes in all his films, often ‘marrying’ these dark core concepts with that of more popular, action blockbuster tropes.
Evidence of these themes can be seen in many of Nolan’s central characters. Even within his superhero movie series, the central protagonist Batman is grappling with his own morals, constantly teetering on the edge between vigilantism, heroism, and anarchy. An example can be seen in Inception’s main character Cobb’s own inner struggle with his late wife, and his guilt towards her death. Further examples appear in the degradation of morals in characters like Lennie from Memento and Harvey Dent from the Dark Knight, in which a seemingly flawless and relatable protagonist is soon unfolded and exposed in dramatic shows of human degradation; Lennie lied to himself in order to continue his unending story of revenge, Harvey Dent became an anarchist who believed only in the use of probability and chance as justice. In addition, themes of the manipulation of time and the unreliability of perspective are central to the plots of Nolan’s Memento, Inception, Dunkirk, and The Prestige, as they manipulate the organization of time within them and play off the viewer’s trust and familiarity with the main character. When asked about the presence of his many ‘dark themes’ in his films, Nolan stated (in reference to The Dark Knight) “… we (the screenwriters and Nolan) tried to be open to [the question]‘what are we really worried about? How does the world feel?
What would you be most concerned about in the case of The Dark Knight?’ It comes very much down to chaos and anarchy and the breakdown of society and so forth… you hope to resonate with the audience, something that will touch them” (BBC 2015). This quote seems to expose Nolan’s recurring obsession with these seemingly pessimistic themes. He aims to reflect the same recurring vision of society through his work, connecting with the audience’s own fears regarding themselves and others. This intentional connection between the film and the audience by Nolan seems to be a direct example of his unique authorship and justifies his role as an auteur to the core. It shows that he has a consistent artistic vision behind his films, and that there is intent and purpose behind his themes.
After analyzing and exploring the many different stylistic signatures within Nolan’s film, it is easy to gain a clear understanding of the unique “stamp” that he leaves on his films. His artistic vision and intentional alterations are noticeable enough to separate his works as expressions of his own understanding of humanity; they are consistent enough to justify his status as a film auteur. The general theory of auteurs within cinema, as first established in Cahiers du Cinema, is one that can be supported by this same process of analysis.
By simply observing the filmography of a certain director, producer, or screenwriter, a film critic can create a certain “lens” that takes note of a certain pattern and ‘stamp’ within these films. The conclusion that can be formed by this analysis of Nolan’s film is that the theory of auteurism can essentially be used as a tool in which critics explore the purpose, theme, and vision behind a film. This conclusion is one that was heavily utilized by the French writers of the Cahiers du Cinema as they began analyzing the works of famous American directors such as Alfred Hitchcock (Tregde, 6). This conclusion also aligns with the exploration of auteurism as seen in our Intro to Film Studies book, in which Nelmes stated “As we shall see, the emergence of authorship offered film critics a set of tools with which to: Interpret films as the creative expression of those who made them by shifting the critical focus away from narrative towards films style (Mise-en-scene and thematics).
Evaluate the relative artistic merits of both a film and its makers and make more precise differentiations between individual films and filmmakers.” (Nelmes, 148). I believe that it is reasonable to state that under the early understanding of auteurism, Christopher Nolan can undoubtedly be labelled as an auteur within his craft. It is important to note that the concept of true authorism within cinema is one that many film theorists label as ‘romanticizing the true process of filmmaking’, and that many would disregard the ability of any one director to ever be a true author of his own films. However, despite the clear presence of collaboration and other influences in the works of Christopher Nolan, it is still possible to discuss and value his films as if they are his own expression. Despite being fundamentally collaborative, evidence of his influence overwhelms his films to the point of blatant ownership. His work can be explored and exhibited as a clear example of early auteur theory within contemporary popular cinema. Nolan’s distinctive control over his craft perfectly displays the capabilities of artistic expression within film. As proven by the analysis of his stylistic signatures, he exists as a unique example of the film auteur and stands alone among many of his contemporaries as one of the few Hollywood blockbuster directors who can consistently leave their mark.