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by Bill Gibron

15 Jul 2008

With only a half dozen films in his little over a decade old canon, Christopher Nolan stands at the crossroads of artform greatness. Not just being the best of his kind, but as an auteur worthy of names like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Lumet. He’s no “next Spielberg” Shyamalan or foot draggingly difficult David O. Russell. Instead, he’s the bellwether for a new kind of filmmaker, one that successfully merges Hollywood classicism with the best of the post-modern revision. Looking at the six films he’s made since emerging in 1996, one can witness the development and growth of an innovative icon, someone schooled in the old ways of working while finding novel means of making his far reaching, philosophical points. With The Dark Knight about to signal his ascension into undeniable importance, let’s look back over his oeuvre to see just where it all started - and how he earned his new illustrious rank.

Following (1996)
Offering an initial glimpse into what would soon be a full blown motion picture aesthetic, Nolan’s no-budget debut is a celebratory shape of good things to come. Few have seen this minor monochrome masterwork, a combination of the best that noir and the post-modern approach to film has to offer. Intercutting between a writer’s unusual obsession (he follows people inconspicuously as they go about their daily life) and a pseudo crime caper involving a burglar and a babe, Nolan acknowledges his limits while simultaneously using every deception he knows in the language of film. Filming with amateurs over a year of weekends, the resulting 69 minutes stand as a blueprint for what would soon be a career to be reckoned with.

Memento (2000)
With its eccentric cast - Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Guy Pearce - and equally unusual premise and presentation, Christopher Nolan declared his artistic worth with this wildly successful indie effort. Built out of his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, and applying a backwards story structure that bested Pulp Fiction for narrative ingenuity, the filmmaking novice vaulted past many other outside amateurs to step front and center into the critical limelight. While some argued that the movie was more gimmick than engaging, others find the mystery in reverse tactic more satisfying than the standard whodunit. Even today, eight years later, many marvel at its unique structure and cinematic daring.

Even more telling, Memento suggests the specific elements that would come to make Nolan a true directorial talent. The painstaking attention to details, the unbridled character depth, the desire that everything onscreen, from the smallest moment to the biggest big picture pronouncements, make sense are literally encased in his creation. Many miss the fact that Nolan is a brilliant writer as well. He has had a hand in every screenplay he’s ever filmed, and you can see the connection and consistency up onscreen. A movie like Memento could easily go perplexing and pear-shaped, especially in the hands of one of Hollywood’s journeymen. This is one time where high concept met even larger ability - and the result was magical. 

Insomnia (2002)
It’s never easy adapting a popular foreign film for Western tastes, especially when said movie is this laconic, spellbinding thriller from Sweden. The original starred
Stellan Skarsgård as a sleep-deprived detective on the case of a murdered girl. It exposed director Erik Skjoldbjærg to audiences worldwide, and was so well considered that the Criterion Collection gave the film one of its well-deserved Special Edition DVD treatments. So Nolan definitely had an uphill battle, especially with this being his first studio feature. Saddled with a cast that included a peak Al Pacino, a rising Hilary Swank, and a misplaced Robin Williams, the filmmaker fashioned a kind of sunlit noir, a world where the darkest elements exist within the never-ending Alaskan days. 

It’s not just that the former stand-up turned middling actor is horribly wrong for the role of a sleazoid killer. Nor is it the oddball juxtaposition of European angst coming out of the mouth of high profile Hollywood faces. No, the true issue with Insomnia is one of “why bother”. Sure, Nolan seamlessly weaves the worlds of memory and immediacy, effortlessly swinging between flashback and fact, and he makes the most of his frozen tundra location. But Skjoldbjærg’s version was just as good, and Skarsgård gave a heartbreaking performance. So a remake was merely a matter of foreign film snobbery. No matter the genius of the man behind the lens, this version of Insomnia still seems unnecessary.

Batman Begins (2005)
It was a monumental task that any director would find daunting. Warner Brothers, desperate to revamp the Caped Crusader after Joel Schumacher and his day-glo frightmares more or less killed him off, was looking for some fresh new talent to take over the franchise. While names like Tarantino and Aronofsky were tossed about, Nolan got the nod. From the very beginning, he put his stamp on the project. He hired Christian Bale to play a decidedly tormented Bruce Wayne. He focused on less famous villains like Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. He wiped away the cartoon sheen suggested by the material and set all the action within a dire, depressively realistic Gotham City. This new approach clicked. Audiences adored Nolan’s aggressive update, and critics applauded his originality and artistry.

This is definitely not Tim Burton’s Batman. Gone are the Goth tinged tricks and A-list anarchy. In their place are real performances from actors doing everything to make this material feel fully realized and totally authentic. Bale is especially good, though his breathy ‘Bat whisper’ gets the occasional fanboy in a lather. Yet Nolan wisely surrounded him with a supporting cast including old world wonders like Michael Caine (great as Alfred), new school sages like Liam Neeson, and up and comers like Cillian Murphy (hauntingly creepy as Scarecrow/ Dr. Crane). With a clockwork narrative allowing all plot points to neatly fall into place, Batman Begins represented a new era for the comic book movie - one that Nolan would again redefine five years later.

The Prestige (2006)
In the year that passed after Begins broke through both critically and commercially, everyone wondered what Nolan would do next. While many wanted to see another installment of Gotham in chaos, they would have to wait for a future opening day. Instead, the director and his gifted screenwriter brother created a remarkable adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel. Oddly enough, of the two films centering on old world magicians to arrive that year (along with The Illusionist), Nolan’s was the lesser mainstream hit. But what it lacked in financial windfalls it made up for in motion picture artistry. In a year that celebrated Martin Scorsese’s Departed with an Oscar, and saw stellar work arrive from Darren Aronofsky in the form of The Fountain, The Prestige was the year’s best film. 

At its core, The Prestige plays with notions of fascination, dedication and deception. It starts out as a professional battle of wills between two talented men, and ends up a sad comment on how low mere men will go to best each other. Bale is back, becoming a seasoned member of the Nolan creative company with his turn here, and Hugh Jackman delivers yet another insanely good performance as the showman who’s more flash than onstage substance. While both parts offer their fair share of nuance, the Aussie bests his British rival, reveling in a snarky kind of smarm that makes your skin crawl as your heart breaks. A few years from now, when Nolan has settled into his multiple award winning career, The Prestige will be seen as his strong creative breakthrough. It stands as one of cinema’s strongest statements.

The Dark Knight (2008)
With his last film underperforming and the studio anxious for more Batmania, Nolan began the process of revisiting Gotham by looking for his next supervillian. At the end of Begins, Gary Oldman’s Sgt. Gordon (soon to be Commissioner) shows the Caped Crusader a piece of evidence - a playing/calling card for someone known as the Joker. With this dynamic already set up, the director started casting. Several people suggested Michael Keaton as the character, a nice bit of symmetry to the previous run of films. Others suggested Crispin Glover, Mark Hammill (who voiced the character in the cartoon update), and even an aging Jack Nicholson. Nolan went with Heath Ledger, the Australian actor best known for his work in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There. It turned out to be an inspired choice…and a tragic one. After filming was completed, Ledger would die of an accidental drug overdose.

A combination of menace and melancholy looms over The Dark Knight, painting its masterful crime epic sweep in uncomfortable shades of interpersonal doom. Nolan’s latest is indeed a masterpiece, albeit one that avoids all the pitfalls that come with being yet another Summer box office draw. Blockbusters don’t get much darker and demanding than this, a 150 minute descent into the fractured psyche of four unflappable men. Along with Bale and Ledger, Oldman returns for more Gordon drama, and just when you thought we’d found a hero to save Gotham, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent goes from conqueror to conquered in a literal blaze of g(l)ory. His Two-Face is just one of many amazing features in this Oscar worthy effort, a true indication that Christopher Nolan is the best director working in films today.

by Jason Gross

15 Jul 2008

Not so fast but it looks like the Mayor is at least considering it. Thanks to these decades-old laws that were dusted off by Giuliani, club life in New York took a severe blow and has had trouble recovering. Lifting this antiquated veil would go a long way to reviving an important part of the artistic life in what’s supposed to be a cultural hub. Now if only the mayor would also look into more affordable housing and practice spaces for artists and easing Visa restrictions for visiting artists…

by Nikki Tranter

15 Jul 2008

Kate Summerscale has won the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for her book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury). Summerscale spent the better part of two years researching and writing the book which details the investigation into the murder of a three-year-old boy at Road Hill House in England’s Georgian countryside. The book focuses primarily on the efforts of Jonathan Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective who solved the crime but destroyed himself in the process. Whicher and his investigations are believed to have directly influenced the detective fiction genre, and the case is credited with creating ongoing public interest in crime and criminal detection. Whicher was one of the first eight Scotland Yard detectives.

The Times reports on Summerscale’s win, quoting prize judge Rosie Boycott, who commented that The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is “a dramatic page-turning detective yarn of a real-life murder that inspired the birth of modern detective fiction. Kate Summerscale has brilliantly merged scrupulous archival research with vivid storytelling that reads with the pace of a Victorian thriller”.

Summerscale left her job as literary editor at the Daily Telegraph to write the book. The book is written in the form of a Victorian murder mystery, but Summerscale is quick to point out that her book is not a novel. She tells UK television’s Book Zone that everything in the book is pulled directly from her research from the clothing worn to the weather. It’s a great and lasting tribute to Mr. Whicher, a man Summerscale admits becoming rather fond of as she wrote his story. Her life-altering dedication to telling this man’s story is commendable to say the least. She tells Dan Vyleta at Raincoat Books:

The most interesting facts I gathered about his private life were hard-earned, the fruit of long hours in archives and records offices. His professional life was much easier to unearth. Thanks to digital archives, I was able to find accounts of dozens of cases on which he had worked, and from these I tried to deduce what kind of a man he had been.

On a personal note, I’m thrilled the book is now out in Australia. It’ll certainly make the wait for the next Erik Larson book a little easier to bear.

The books official website is here; read an extract here, and listen to Summerscale discuss the book at The Interview Online here.

Summerscale discusses the book on Book Zone:

 

by PopMatters Staff

15 Jul 2008

Tricky
Council Estate [Video] (from Know West Boy releasing 9 September in the US)

Saviours
Cavern of the Mind [MP3]
     

Melvins
The Kicking Machine [MP3]
     

Gentleman Auction House
We Used to Dream About Bridges [MP3]
     

Willoughby
Story [MP3]
     

Organized Konfusion
Stress [MP3]
     

Alexander Tucker
Veins to the Sky [MP3]
     

by Rob Horning

15 Jul 2008

At Slate, Michael Agger narrates his efforts to put a flattering picture of himself online. This strikes me as a topic that gets more and more depressing the more one thinks about it, because it ultimately forces us to recognize the arms-race quality of self-advertisement.

Remember for a moment how much attention people used to lavish on the perfect quote for their e-mail signature. Now that self-conscious energy is applied to a photo. There’s nothing inherently bad about the rise of Web head shots. They just turn what was once a space for burgeoning Cyrano de Begeracs into a space for burgeoning Brad Pitts.

When you expect to be judged by your photo—in the context of countless other such photos—and the technology exists to improve that photo, it becomes virtually incumbent on us to deploy that technology, present our visual selves in the most state-of-the-art way. We are forced to see our face as a brand or logo, and we must isolate and reify the qualities that we want to use to market ourselves, and in realizing we are marketing ourselves we must also recognize how we have devised these instrumental means of achieving our particularized goals. We say to ourselves something like, if I capture my face from the right angle, people will think I’m mysterious. If I relax while I take this picture, I might look natural. I might come across as authentic, as “real.” Until I get the right photo, I am in danger of being unreal. I don’t quite exist. And then you have to think about how sad that is, reducing our complexity to a pinpoint, or a desperate calculation, and having our being reduced to a lighting effect and a camera angle and a set of well-chosen props—ontology as mise-en-scène.

But it is probably true that how we look forms the basis, the starting point from which people will get to know us, and it supplies the framework into which are actions and behavior are integrated. Managing how we develop social relations online provides a stronger feeling that we can manage the entire process—provide the flattering picture as the launching point and then carefully groom the online profile to present ourselves as the attractive and appealing product we want to be. But then we are at the same time inviting people to consume us as a kind of reality-TV program, a well-edited entertainment product whose purpose is merely to please them and nothing more. When we objectify ourselves (with online photos and the like) we seem to be liberating others of having to conceive of a reciprocal responsibility toward us—we want to be looked at and approval rests in that, and when we look back at others, we do it in a different time, with a different mind-set altogether. That is to say, social relations online don’t occur in shared time; they are by definition managed, mediated exchanges even when the messaging is “instant.”

Agger mentions a new site called Facestat, on which you can post a picture and have people evaluate it through a series of questions that are vaguely research-like.

To date, Facestat has collected 16,818,344 judgments on 126,090 faces. The people behind the site, a group of programmers called Dolores Labs, have played with the data in fun ways. They noted which pairs of tags tend to appear together—athletic and driven, gay and cowboy, old and sour, young and uninterested. They’ve also built a graphical explorer, with which you can follow the webs of adjectives for an entire afternoon. The promise of accurate “market research” hasn’t been totally fulfilled. Looking around the site, I’ve found the crowd-sourced judgments to be fickle. For every person who thinks you’re “not bad,” there’s another that thinks you’re phony—or worse.

This seems to suggest that our efforts at face management are wasted. It may seem like we can better control how we will be perceived online, and it’s almost irresistible to make the attempt, but other people will see what is useful for them to see anyway. So it may be that the illusion of control is the lure of posting photos online, and it ultimately has nothing to do with the results the picture yields. This may be true of social networks in general; they let us pretend we are controlling something that is inherently slippery and fluid. They allow us to forget about the contingencies of friendship by making specific friends and whatever specific response they are having to you beside the point. The trick works because we are able to prevent ourselves from seeing how the pools of eyes in the networks we construct for ourselves become mirrors.

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