Monday, January 26, 2015

Miles Runs the Voodoo Down: WHIPLASH and The Myth of the Great American Tyrant

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The most exhilarating action sequences of 2014 don’t involve flying superheroes, or exploding robots, or Tom Cruise.  They’re simply composed of one man and drum kit.  Miles Teller going to war with the snare, the kick, the ride.  And himself.  Always himself.

The ferocity that Teller’s Andrew Neimann brings to these scenes is, in many ways, the syncopated heartbeat of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, one of the year’s most emotionally intense films and one of the great anti-fables of the canon.  During his bid to establish his core spot in the Studio Band, the elite jazz competition squad helmed by the maniacal Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Neimann routinely punishes his shortcomings by ensconcing himself in a closet-like private rehearsal room and whaling away at his kit in precision speed drills that serve as both self-improvement and self-flagellation.  A series of tight close-ups, but also a string of would-be emotional exorcisms, these scenes are both thrilling and disturbing in their focused intensity.  The rewards for his drive and dedication are ruptured blisters on his hands, the blood from within spattering his sticks and cymbals.  And a sense that it’s still not good enough.

The ambiguous matter of that possessed drive and determination, and its rewards, is the central question of Whiplash.  Teller is an ideal actor for this role.  His natural baby face has always allowed him to play younger than his age, but there’s a steely reserve in his eyes that also allows him range beyond the boy next door.  The private interior war of Andrew Neimann, the tormented tumult between his family’s middlebrow existence and the transcendent glory to which he aspires, his hero worship of the legendarily mercurial Buddy Rich running smack dab into the immediate powder keg of rage that is Fletcher, his struggle with romance vs. ROMANCE….it all requires the ability to nimbly shift between a broad gamut of conflicting emotions.  It requires an actor who can win over the audience’s sympathies, while shattering them in the next moment.  We’ve seen this character before, the idealistic young man (or maybe the proper formatting at this point in cinematic history should be Idealistic Young Man) running the gauntlet to greatness, emerging on the other end a little older, a little more bruised, but a little wiser.    

Whiplash’s summoning of the question of glory’s price situates it in a timeless tradition of such stories.  But it also serves as a stinging critique of that most beloved and worshiped of all cultural archetypes: the tyrannical genius surrogate father.  Anthropologically speaking, this character stretches back throughout the annals of history.  But Americans have always had a special affinity for such brilliant bullies.  R. Lee Ermey has made a career out of riffing on Full Metal Jacket’s Sgt. Hartman (itself a riff on Ermey’s own past as a drill instructor.)  Several generations of young men have latched onto his profane insults as call and response goofs, but more often than not there’s also a sense of enjoyment for the power that such diatribes imbue (or, at least, that was the case amongst my Boy Scout friends in 1988.)  Bobby Knight is still lauded as a college basketball legend; how many former players still praise him as a great molder of young men, the tough love that they needed at that critical point in their growth?  Sure, he may have been ultimately fired for crossing the line of intimidation one too many times, but we’re not that far removed from decades of Knight’s tirades, chair-throwing, etc. filling up highlight reels. 

It’s no coincidence that these two men made their mark in the military and the sporting world, fields ruled by their dedication to rule, order, and power dynamics.  Their mutual philosophy trades in breaking down the green recruit, depriving him of any shred of an ego, and then building him back up into a sleek and disciplined machine.  It’s admirable at heart, yet exploited too often in the name of tradition.  But the love of the tyrant goes even further.  It explains the grudging admiration that Dick Cheney still enjoys, the same one that Jack Nicholson aspires to in A Few Good Men.  Christ, how many times in the last decade plus, when another torture revelation, another illegal wiretapping scandal emerges has “You can’t handle the truth!  You need me up on that wall!” been replayed ad nauseum on the news?  We’re told that we might disagree with the methods themselves, but that we need villains like them to make the world run.  And hell, with the cowered manner of a post-9/11 country in tow, it’s not a surprise that such bromides continue to be thrown around.  But we’re straying a bit into improve territory here.  Best to get back to the charts.

J.K. Simmons is just one in a long line of cinematic genius tyrants, his Terence Fletcher a physical coil of muscle and tendon, a psychological coil of rage and brilliance.  His sarcastic, profane tirades are stiletto knives of aggression, but they’re also darkly hilarious (he’s easily the most eloquent character in the film.)  Indeed, Neimann and his fellow Studio Band members so often come across as feckless that the viewer is almost driven to siding with Fletcher.  These Millenials!  And their lack of anything resembling standards!

But this version of the tyrant comes along at an intriguing cultural turning point.  Modern society has rallied against bullying like no other time in recent history, so the social acceptability of loving this type of character is becoming more and more taboo.  It certainly lends added heft to what are already queasy confrontations between Fletcher and his charges, as he draws a bead on every ethnic, economic, and sexual insecurity that they possess.  At the same time, there’s truth to be had in Fletcher’s criticism of young people who are only satisfied with comfortable mediocrity, of a generation of Millenials who have been insulated against suffering and failure by parents desperate to atone for their seemingly painful childhoods.  Irresistible force, immovable object…you know the game.      

Whiplash’s power lies in the almost surreal extremes to which the plot is pushed to enhance its refutation of the genius tyrant image.  Some have criticized the film for not getting jazz right (whatever that is) or for ignoring the inherent joy of musical performance.  But despite the semi-autobiographical aspects of the story (Chazelle was a high school drum prodigy), it’s a mistake to think of this as a jazz film.  Or as a fully realistic one, at that.

 For me, Andrew’s car crash on his way to a major competition seems to provide the key to much of the film’s aim.  Having been physically and mentally thrashed by Fletcher in the run up to this contest, he’s now a brilliant set of frayed nerves, deeply proficient but petrified of making another mistake, of losing his spot.  After the crash, as Andrew jogs to the performance hall and beyond, the film takes on a disjointed, somewhat hallucinatory tone.  The story is told from his point of view, so it’s not too much of a stretch to theorize that some degree of psychological break has taken place, that much of the remaining plot is a slightly enhanced version of what the real events might be, the traumatic results of whiplash both figurative and literal.  
The viewer might go into Whiplash looking for the emotional reassurance that often comes from this type of melodramatic, Manichean conflict.  But catharsis is not what Chazelle is aiming for.  That would be too easy of an endgame.  Throughout the story, he constantly subverts the audience’s expectations for a traditional payoff.  When Fletcher is brought to tears after receiving the news of the death of former student Sean Casey, it seems to be that moment when the monster is revealed to be a softie hiding behind a gruff exterior.  But Fletcher merely doubles down on his histrionic intimidation of the Stage Band.  When Andrew attacks Fletcher onstage, it’s the moment of glorious revenge that a hero is supposed to have.  Only it ends in his expulsion from the Shaffer Conservatory and a conflicted moment in which he agrees to anonymously testify against Fletcher in a lawsuit involving the Casey’s death (which, in opposition to Fletcher’s car crash version, is revealed to be a depression-related suicide.  It’s doubly interesting that even though the lawyer nails Fletcher for creating the environment that eventually led to Casey’s demise, the film offers no final evidence.  There exists the very real possibility that this was who he already was, that Fletcher offered him a moment of stability and strength before he returned to the long goodbye of his life.) 

Months later, Andrew and Fletcher seemingly reconcile when they meet in a jazz club, the former now a deli clerk, his teacher fired from the Conservatory.  Fletcher offers him his old gig, playing “Whiplash” and “Caravan” at the JVC Festival, and for a moment the audience expects this to be that feel good resolution to all of the psychological warfare.  But Fletcher ups the ante by betraying Andrew onstage with a piece for which he’s totally unprepared, final revenge for ratting him out to the college board.  Finally, Andrew bolts offstage in the consoling arms of his father; “Let’s go home” Dad says, in a line drawn from so many family dramas of yore.  But Andrew is too deeply entrenched in this private war to give up, his final fuck you delivered to Fletcher as he hijacks the concert with an extended drum solo of such primal anger, force, and skill that it serves as the emotional exorcism that he sought for so long in his speed drills. 

And yet, the final shots of the film are of Andrew and Fletcher exchanging a smile.  The teacher and the pupil.  The devil and the object of temptation.  The villain and the hero.  Both caught in an ever-regenerating contest of wills.  Shades of the famous Rich-Gene Krupa drum battle, two prodigious talents soloing against each other in tandem.  No easy answers.  No reassurance.  Drum roll.  Curtain.

Friday, January 23, 2015

BLACKHAT: A Girl and a Gun and a Laptop

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This is the story of a film that you probably haven’t seen.  And another film that you probably haven’t seen because you pigeonholed it into a prison of mediocrity.  And a director who everyone wants to be one thing, when he’s clearly something else.  And maybe what all of this says about the modern state of moviegoing…and life…and all of that other stuff.

The creation story of Jason Staebler is Dead, the erratically updated literary e-venture that you’re feasting your eyes on right now, claims Michael Mann’s Miami Vice as its Genesis Chapter 1.  Like many would be authors, I felt like I needed a tangible prompt to motivate any kind of regular output from my quill.  And being a confirmed teetotaler, following in the decadent, self-abusing footsteps of Fitzgerald and Burroughs was sorta out of the picture.  Instead, in the late summer of 2006 I turned to the nascent services of for this here free web home.  As most of you faithful readers can see, that prompt hasn’t quite worked out as I intended.  But hey, it’s a start.

The prime impetus for the timing of this blog’s creation was that August’s release of the Miami Vice film.  Like many, when I first heard the pitch of Mann rebooting the tv show that he famously helped to shepherd along, that 80’s paean to feathered hair and pastel suits, that seemingly outdated cultural chestnut…well, yeah, of course I followed along with the opinion that most people with TASTE held.  Seriously, was Colin Farrell with a mullet supposed to be taken seriously?  Weren’t we as a culture waaaay past the electrosynthetic allure of Vice’s cokey noir?

Being a confirmed Mann enthusiast, I still went to see Vice on opening day.  And what I saw convinced me to start this blog.  Because here was a major work of art, an expressionist take on the crime film that was probably going to flop at the box office and be ridiculed by the commentariat.  And who was going to preserve any conversation of its worth?  Yep, that’s right: this guy.  Hey, it was 2006.  I had only been online fulltime for three years.

Thus, in my maiden essay for the blog(which you can read here…it’s pretty decent, but a bit dry and shallowly informed) I asked the question “Is Michael Mann the Terrence Malick of Testosterone?”  I was pretty proud of myself for that one.  Here and there, I still envision meeting Mann and addressing him as such.  Obviously, I’ve watched too many films about Hollywood parties.  But all joking aside, I still think that there’s worth in that neophytic essay’s philosophical thrust.

And that philosophy is even more in the foreground with last week’s release of Mann’s newest crime epic Blackhat.  Starring part-time Norse god Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway, the MIT schooled super hacked who’s furloughed by FBI to assist in a joint U.S.-China hunt for another super hacker hellbent on disrupting the world, Blackhat is ostensibly a globe-trotting techno thriller.  Now by this point, you’ve probably ingested the general boilerplate judgments that the film has received.  “It doesn’t make much sense.”  “The computer science is wrong”  “Hemsworth is toootaly miscast!  The hacker with muscles!  HA!”  It doesn’t help that Universal dumped the film into the mid-January wasteland, essentially leaving it for dead with a dodgy series of pre-release trailers and almost no major print advertising leading up to its opening day.  In some ways, I can understand this stance, because for almost ten years, the studios and the moviegoing public have been pining for a Michael Mann who doesn’t really exist anymore, only to be disappointed at every turn by the director he’s become…or, maybe more appropriately, the director he was all along.

In many ways, Mann is a victim of his own success.  With his 90’s run of The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Ali, he garnered much acclaim for his deft melding of critical examinations of codes of masculinity with classical narrative structure.  It didn’t hurt that he was working with members of the Hollywood acting pantheon.  I mean come on, this is the guy who followed up directing Method master Daniel Day-Lewis by bringing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together in one scene for the first time.  True, in its time Heat didn’t possess the critical status that it has today, but its signature long form action sequences have always been regarded as genre landmarks.

2004’s Collateral marked a major turning point for Mann.  The contemporary press marveled at Tom Cruise playing a villain (gasp!...although to give him his due, his feral Vincent is a marvelous turn…and remember, this was when Cruise could still lay claim to the status of biggest box office star in the world) in a tense two character voyage through the existential darkness of one Los Angeles evening.  But more important to the arc of Mann’s career was his full embrace of the possibility of digital cinematography.  Although he had begun experimenting with digital on Ali, Collateral was where he and co-DPs Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron pushed a technology that was still the exception to its fullest limit.  As Beebe notes in an insightful ASC interview, “With Collateral, we suddenly saw on the screen the night sky that we could see with our eyes, and that was revolutionary. Nobody had captured that in that way before.” Such a daring representation of the urban nightscape was complemented by the burnt ash lighting of the nocturnal Los Angeles streetlights, a stark visual scheme that seemed shocking at the time, but that would prove to be a roadmap for where Mann was going.

Miami Vice and 2009’s Public Enemies followed a similar digital strategy, but both were met with critical and audience apathy.  There are notable visual differences between the two films, the former luxuriating in quasi-Brakhageian impressionism (I still love A.O. Scott’s line about Vice being "an action film for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa”) while the latter embraces the pinpoint resolution of the RED camera.  The bigger point of commonality, though, is how cinematic style becomes a character in and of itself, possibly the lead character.  There’s pleasure to be had in watching Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, and Marion Cotillard smolder, but Mann’s prevailing concerns are with exploring the limits of archetype and form.  And that’s not necessarily a popular concept in the modern big budget film landscape.

That preoccupation with the abstract continues in Blackhat.  After all, a film whose most visually dynamic action sequence is a CG-rendered flight through the interior workings of a hacked computer that occurs in the first five minutes probably isn’t going to win over many current action fans (who, let’s face it, are the target demographic that Blackhat was being pitched to.)  Most modern action films give the audience the pomp and violence that they’ve been trained to expect from decades of the genre’s dominance, but here Mann makes the daring choice of presenting the true action film of the modern world, a world where ground wars are losing their currency and cyberattacks are the wave of the future (he’s admitted that the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear system was an inspiration).  The infamous North Korean Sony hack was, in many ways, cataclysmically damaging, but the most readily accessible drama involved leaked celeb nude pics, barbed and dishy e-mails, and the temporary cancellation of The Interview.  No Audie Murphys to be found in this conflict.

And that’s an off putting concept for a film supposedly built on suspense and intrigue (cue this response).  But Mann seems to be hinting at something bigger than the labyrinthine techno-plotting.  Indeed, he’s once again gone back to his wheelhouse: cool studies of conflicted masculinity.  The audiences who grew to love the Michael Mann of the ‘90s could be lulled into forgetting his deeply lyrical duet of Thief and Manhunter from the ‘80s.  Those two thrillers are also ostensibly about hyper-talented professionals driven to the brink, but they’re also loving tributes to the noir loners of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  And both are ultimately oblique tone poems to the radical nihilism of classic masculinity, thrilling and sleek in their form, gorgeous in their visual audacity.

The Michael Mann of today has simply come full circle in his artistic obsessions and ambitions.  This time working with DP Stuart Dryburgh (who also lensed the pilot of Mann’s late, lamented HBO existential racing drama Luck) he continues to explore the beauty in the mundanity of the urban environment.  Blackhat’s Hong Kong is alternately a sterile architectural battleground and a neon jungle, the perfect embodiment of the conflicting nature of our world. 

Those who criticize Hemsworth as being miscast sorta miss the whole point, the one that Hathaway lays out when he tells Chen Lien that surviving prison is a matter of making their time your time to devote to your mission: improvement of the mind and the body.  Nick Hathaway is nothing less than a modern day samurai, operating in a digital world but still driven by a timeless code of honor.  His physical prowess is the armor that he needs to guard his nimble mind.  And make no mistake, it’s his story and his alone.  Devious as the chief villains may be, they don’t possess the charisma of a classic Mann villain…which may be the whole point, the encapsulation of an encroaching computer-driven threat that is so often anonymous. 

Much of the film’s charms, then, lie in the very zen concept of removing the ego form the viewing experience, dropping the classic dramatic expectations to bask in the pure cinematic possibilities of the form.  After all of the convoluted cyberplotting, Hathaway’s story ultimately concludes with a very analog standoff, as he confronts the main villain and his henchmen with but a knife and his own will.  This visually stunning sequence, set amidst a densely populated night parade in Jakarta’s Papua Square, engulfs the three principles in a sea of torches, their battle reduced to its most primal form.  When Hathaway finally confronts his enemy, his motivation for following through on the kill is not any hope of regaining the promised commutation of his prison sentence, but in avenging the murder of his friends.  In a world bound by Silicon Valley-inspired naked self-interest, the super hacker turns out to be the most moral and honor bound character in the film.

Not that Mann's art film aspirations are for everyone.  But it would be a shame if his late career excursions into the deep recesses of the form continue to quickly fade out of the theaters.  In a tentpole driven cinematic landscape, they're ever more vital and important markers of a still rewarding filmic past combined with the exciting technological possibilities of the future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED: Christopher Nolan, INTERSTELLAR, and Life's Waking Dream

(SPOILERS throughout)

Can awe exist in the modern era?  I’m not talking about what might be passed off as awe, the ubiquitous exchange of “awesome” in the modern vernacular as catch-all signifier of everything from great to okay.  And you can throw out the breathless sense of poptimism (as Saul Austerlitz discussed in the Times) that dominates the cultural conversation, the bastard child of corporate brand cheerleading that deems anything presented as good to be life-changing.  No, what we’re getting at here is awe in the truest sense of the word, that feeling of total reverence, of standing before something far greater than you, of witnessing (to borrow an old biblical turn of phrase.)  I think back to the breathtaking passage from the final page of The Great Gatsby, in which a deflated and disillusioned Nick Carraway, reflecting on Gatsby’s lost dream, opines that  “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an ├Žsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In a celebrated 2011 essay for the Daily Beast, Bret Easton Ellis argues that we’re living in a post-empire age, one in which a combination of factors (the internet, the increasingly fractured streams of media, the natural evolution of society) has brushed away the old rules for how we treat stars and celebrities (and, by extension, any authority figure.)  He uses Charlie Sheen’s epic meltdown as the impetus for his theory, that in past decades Sheen might have been blackballed from the industry, but that our new expectations for someone like him require far less reverence than that which might have consigned him to the cultural dustbin years ago.  Ellis has also discussed how Madonna and Miley Cyrus epitomize the pre- and post-empire dichotomy.  Ms. Ciccone ruled the cultural conversation for several decades, in part by cultivating an imperial imperial air of regal dominance, whereas Miley offers a much rawer, erratic sense of pop royalty.  To Ellis, a codified sense of tawdry, airless elegance was part and parcel of the sexuality that Madonna sold.  Miley’s bizarre, awkward stabs at selling sex to a mass audience completely abandoned that icy veneer, thrusting her sexuality into consumers’ faces (sometimes literally.)

Now whether you buy into Ellis’s theory or not, you have to admit that his main point has some validity.  As I discussed in last week’s essays on Birdman and Nightcrawler, Hollywood has slowly been abandoning the classic star system for the past few decades.  In part, this has been a side effect of the 24-hour news cycle, the mirage of transparency that social media bestows upon public figures, and the increased post-Nixon cynicism with which we view institutions of all stripes.  But deconstructing how stars are made also offers great financial benefits for movie studios which are now subsidiaries of multi-national corporate conglomerates.  Despite the occasional flare-up over the casting of, say, Ben Affleck as the new Batman, most modern blockbusters are no longer selling the star, but the concept.  Did everyone flock to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier because they’re in love with the mystique of Chris Evans?  Did it really matter to the bottom line of the latest Transformers film that Mark Wahlberg played the lead?  Not really.

Sure, there are still exceptions to the rule (Robert Downey assimilating Tony Stark into his own persona), and getting non-superhero films bankrolled still requires name recognition.  But the move toward a tentpole-centric film world has greatly reduced the need for the eccentric, oft-tempermental, brilliant star hierarchy of Nicholson, Cruise, Beatty, Streep, et al.  Toss in a press that is more splintered and far less reverential than in the ‘40s and ‘50s and you can see why there aren’t any Gary Coopers, Humphrey Bogarts, Lauren Bacalls, or Clark Gables before which we can stand in awe. 

And so, we exist in a modern movie landscape which paradoxically strives for awe at every turn, yet undermines much of that which established the mythology of awe for most of its existence.  The bulk of the industry is now defined by a feast or famine ethos, in which blockbusters (most designed to appeal to a worldwide audience, especially China, because that’s where the real money is these days) dominate the production slate, while anything smaller that gets pushed through the studio machine usually features a miniscule budget.  And because of that fractured media landscape, we have much fewer cultural commonalities, making it that much more difficult for any film, album, etc. to hold onto the mass conversation for a sustained period of time.

Which makes what Christopher Nolan has done in the since 2001 all the more impressive and intriguing.  In an environment where the ways of old media (as some might call it) are disappearing, Nolan has managed to tap into the zeitgeist like few other modern filmmakers with almost all of his cinematic creations.  Granted, a good deal of this has been due to his shepherding of the wildly successful Batman franchise reboot; redefining a character who despite his very non-superpowered status (but also very much because of it) has deeply resonated in the culture for 75 years now isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel.  But what Nolan has accomplished hasn’t just involved coasting along on Bruce Wayne’s billionaire back.  He’s consistently tapped into who we are and who we’ve become.  And why.  And much of that why dates back to the turn of the century and a scene from a blockbuster come to all too horrific life.

Before its release in 1997, I remember a local film critic, in casual conversation, describing the Nicolas Cage action vehicle Con Air as “Jerry Bruckheimer crashes a plane into the Las Vegas strip.”  In retrospect, that phrase sums up a lot of what the blockbuster mentality had evolved into: a signature setpiece or effect, surrounded by the journey to get there.  The fevered anticipation of how the dinosaurs would look in Jurassic Park, the masochistic romanticism of seeing the boat sink in real time in Titanic, the transgressive thrill of seeing aliens blow up the White House in Independence Day: all of them held the promise of the mind-blowing main event.  I’m also reminded of a Ringling Brothers circus tour stop I attended in the late ‘80s, one which promised, if you could sit through the already amazing feats of physical prestidigitation, the appearance of a real live unicorn!

Now when the real mind-blowing trompe le monde effect showed up on September 11, 2001 in the form of two jets obliterating the World Trade Center, even with all of our filmic training, we didn’t quite know how to react.  From a cultural standpoint, 9/11 arrived at the crux of the great transition to a post-empire world, and it provided one of the last great moments of awe that we’ve experienced in a mass sense.  As jaded by empire culture as we could be at that point, the sight of actual super-sized devastation and carnage couldn’t be easily processed or quantified.  Just talk to anyone connected with that day, especially those who were in Manhattan; they still struggle to express what happened in words.  As a pre-9/11 culture, we were chasing after the rapidly receding ability to experience true awe, and on that day, we got exactly what we wished for.  Nothing since then has been able to replicate its obscene spectacle.  Ironically, the proclamations of Bush administration officials that another mass attack was not a matter of if but when now seem to mirror the desires of the culture at large for communal transcendence, like the junkie’s desire to return to the magic of that first hit.  It was the eternal symbiosis of Eros and Thanatos come to life once again, the destructive tragedy of that September day intertwined with the fleeting unity that a country headed for even further fracturing in the new technological age felt.

Ironically, Nolan prefigured the coming catastrophe and its aftermath earlier in 2001 when his second film Memento debuted in theaters.  In Leonard Shelby, a man haunted by his wife’s death (and by the possibility that he inadvertently caused it), he prefigured the profound sense of guilt that the culture would feel during that epic 9/11-centric struggle between Eros and Thanatos.  Leonard’s Sisyphean mission to find his wife’s supposed killer gives him meaning and purpose in a seemingly random and nihilistic world.  His quest mirrors the Fairbairnian level of splitting that consumed the American psyche after the World Trade Center attacks, and the pursuit of that grandest of all boogeymen, Osama bin Laden.  Before his death at the hands of Navy SEALS, bin Laden gave the country something long absent from the national conversation: a supervillain, one easily defined (or stereotyped) in the midst of a morally complex universe.  But like Leonard’s denial of his possible role in his wife’s death, we also failed to incorporate the long history of American imperialism and its bloody consequences into our understanding of where we now stood.  And like Leonard, we were all too apt to see an enemy around every corner, to fill our Most Wanted dance card with whomever might fill the description on that day.  As tortured as Leonard may be, his inability to form new long term memories also serves as the ultimate security blanket, complete and utter validation for his actions.  How we too found the same validation in our unwillingness to consider the darkness of our past; we seem to do this with every new disaster of the last few decades, mourning how we’ve “lost our innocence” again and again, becoming de facto born again virgins only to be violated again and again.

Memento was only the beginning of Nolan as the chronicler of our psychic condition.  Indeed, with Batman Begins, he firmly established himself as the premiere guilt artist of the 21st century’s cinematic landscape, possibly the artistic landscape.  For what is Bruce Wayne/Batman but a man who has defined his life by the death of his parents, the original sin that forever scarred a young boy with the notion that life cared not for any sense of order or justice.  Wayne’s philanthropy is one attempt to grant grace and order to the universe, but it’s only through assuming the mantle of Batman that he feels he can truly impose that order by force, even though (as the final scene of Begins implies) that escalation of justice only leads to an escalation of the criminal element.  The emphasis on gritty realism in its tone also marked Batman Begins as a reminder of post-9/11 sobriety, a rejoinder to the late ‘90s tech-boom decadence of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, and a parallel to the newfound worship of the supposed real heroes (the armed forces, the police) who did battle against the dreaded “other”, this time in the form of those foreign agents of malice.   

It was all prologue to the chaotic machinations of The Dark Knight, which confirmed Batman’s status as both agent of change and bringer of destruction.  The Joker serves as the very embodiment of our fantasies about bin Laden and his ilk, operatic antagonists wholly defined by nihilism, by their desire to, as Alfred puts it, “watch the world burn.”  There’s such terror in that blank moral notion, but also such a sense of reassurance.  Obliteration of that central villainous entity, distant as it may be, can only lead to ultimate redemption, right?  Cut off the head of the snake, etc. etc.  But as we were reminded when bin Laden retreated and the main sect of Al Qaeda crumbled, the legend remains longer than the man.  Al Qaeda was less Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (to mix my comic book metaphors), more prime franchise opportunity for the lost and disgruntled.  Nolan captures this conflicted mindset in the Joker/Batman dynamic, the Dark Knight pushing harder and harder to reestablish order, while his archenemy continually annihilates the rules.  Fans of the film know the mantra of legend that the film bestows on Batman, a mantra that was repeated until The Dark Knight Rises showed it to be the main thrust of the series.  But it’s easy to forget the final shot of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  As he hangs upside down from the framework of a skyscraper, it’s the camera that tilts upside down to accommodate his fleeting glee and laughter.  For even though he’s headed for the confines of Arkham Asylum (and, in lieu of Ledger’s real life death, an extended moratorium as a screen character), The Joker has permanently changed the conversation.  There’s no going back from the moral and ethical boundaries that Batman has transgressed in order to achieve what could lightly be termed as a win, and there’s no resurrecting Rachel Dawes or the other casualties from his crusade.  We’re all now in a world turned upside down.  It’s a point that many missed in their rush to define the film as a justification of the Bush-era torture program.  Batman may survive, The Joker may be temporarily harnessed, but the damage is done.  And the guilt that so motivated Batman has only been exponentially increased by the collateral damage of a righteous mission.

Though it serves as the triumphant climax to the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is even more a chronicle of guilt and lost dreams than its predecessors.  Time has not provided Bruce Wayne with healing, only the confirmation of his physical and mental deterioration.  Alfred laments his failed promise to Bruce’s parents to always take care of him, the righteous quest to which his charge has devoted so much of his life a no-win endgame.  Bruce’s would-be noble sacrifice at the conclusion of Dark Knight has only led to an escalation of the morally compromised version of law enforcement that he inspired.  And who finally steps in to replace him but the real champion that the people of Gotham need in Bane, the pied piper who leads the proletariat in their uprising against the city’s 1%.  An explicit reference to the Occupy movement, it still doesn't provide any kind of easy comfort to the real life social cause, as trading Batman for Bane only makes the protestors more susceptible to deception and manipulation.   So much is made of the possibility for reform in Nolan’s first two Batman films, the chance that the inherently corrupt Gotham can be saved from itself.  But despite small victories throughout, the future that Batman envisions can never truly be.  The most he can hope for is a respite from insanity, salvation from the city’s original sin coming in a diverted nuclear blast and the passing of his mantle to a younger crusader.  Even though the viewer is left on a high note at the film’s conclusion, it’s really a direct line (and partial tribute) to the dystopian Dark Knight of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, a broken man in a society ruled by anarchy (and the supposed inspiration for Affleck’s Batman in Batman v. Superman.)

But sandwiched in between the final two Batman films is Nolan’s deepest meditation on guilt, and what is likely to become the defining film of the early 21st century zeitgeist.  With Inception, he strains Vertigo through James Bond to illustrate the wrenching necessity of letting go of crippling guilt, no matter what heights it seems to lift you toward. (Even the usually unflappable Bond had his turn in the guilt cycle with Quantum of Solace.)  Stuck in that Hitchcockian spiral of shame, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb may be the master thief of master thieves, but his dead wife is literally the ghost that haunts his soul.  In the post-financial crisis atmosphere of 2009 in which Inception was released, it’s appropriate that Cobb’s crew has, as their central mission, the rewiring of another guilt-stricken man in order to prevent a monopoly that could destabilize much of the world economy.  Like Cobb, the nation had to come to some sort of peace with post-9/11 guilt in order to face the practical fiduciary disaster at hand. 

And yet, the film is still infused with an overwhelming sense of melancholia, the clinical status of vertigo (the concurrent repulsion and attraction to uncontrollable falling) figuratively exemplified in the doomed romanticism of Cobb’s obsession, literally so in a climactic sequence in which the center truly cannot hold, as the conjoined inner turmoils of Cobb and Robert Fischer send the physical space of the dream world into collapse.  Eros and Thanatos are allowed concrete manifestation in the subconscious, a safe psychic playground for the troubled.  But as the film’s conclusion leaves ambiguous, is it possible to come back from the whirlpool of existential dread, even when harmony is seemingly achieved?  If Nolan’s Batman films argue that there’s no return from some journeys, might Inception also posit that while necessary, our settling of the post-9/11 debt doesn’t necessarily equate a return to our old selves, let alone an achievement of the salvation that we seek?

So many lost dreams for these characters.  So many lost dreams for all of us.  The end of the 20th century brought with it the aspiration for what Francis Fukuyama famously dubbed “the end of history.”  No more cold wars.  No more communist threat.  The real possibility of global semi-harmony, or at least a workable hegemony by the major nations.  But beneath those dreams and aspirations lurked the monster at the end of the century, a two-headed beast of terrorism and financial collapse that we didn’t want to quite own up to, but that would eventually hold sway over all nonetheless.

The grand trick that Christopher Nolan has managed to pull off (gad, we haven’t even discussed The Prestige) is to engage the culture at large in a mass catharsis for the post-9/11 nightmare, while simultaneously chasing after the aforementioned lost sense of awe.  Taking the dual nature of intimate character study and action film that was the heart of Blade Runner as inspiration, he’s crafted blockbuster films that push for a certain cultural transcendence (apologies to Wally Pfister) while still telling intensely human stories.  As his career has progressed, he’s upped the ante with each film, the Batman series beginning as down and dirty creation story before reaching operatic proportions with its finale.  Inception seeks to reclaim the mantle of action blockbuster from the Bruckheimer school of empty spectacle by reversing course and going for the interior, an epic cinematic world of wonder that takes place entirely inside one man’s head.  It gives him full license to bend the laws of physics, to invoke the jaw-dropping awe that audiences might have once felt so long ago.  And he’s quested after this lost awe in a remarkably earnest fashion; his decidedly mass market films are free of the cynical manipulation that’s all too common in a hyper-focus grouped era.  They’re the work of a romantic, a dreamer seeking to resurrect the collective dream state that we all strive for when we gaze through the cinematic window for a few all too brief hours.

Which brings us to Interstellar, his latest salvo and most explicit attempt yet to summon forth an unbridled sense of awe.  It’s a film awash in dying dreams, lost dreamers and the possibility (once again) that we can reclaim those dreams, those forgotten futures in some way.  If Inception advocated for coming to terms with the ghosts of 9/11, Interstellar presents the world that we’re left with after that resolution.  As in real life, that once great symbol of transcendent human progress, NASA, has long since been gutted by budget cuts, partly so that the shrinking world can focus on the global food shortage that is slowly choking humanity.  In his most explicit nod to pastoral realism, Nolan presents a nightmare world where dreams of the future and dreams of the past are both verboten.  Long gone are the dreams of a science fiction future of streamlined spaceships, fashionable flight suits, and ray gun battles. Even the fully realized visions of the past are obliterated; officially sanctioned schoolbooks certify the moon landings as a total sham.  All that matters is the hustle of the moment, the need to figure out some way of prolonging our existence for at least a few more years.

In the tradition of guilt-ridden Nolan protagonists, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper laments his failures as a pilot, while yearning for the days when dreams were still possible, still sanctioned.  And as the story progresses, he’s driven by the guilt of abandoning his family in the name of chasing after those dreams of the past.  But the biggest difference between Cooper and Bruce Wayne or Leonard Shelby or Dom Cobb is in McConaughey himself.  Bale, DiCaprio, and Pearce all share matinee idol looks, but they’ve also made careers out of playing tortured protagonists.  With his effortless cool and quasi-zen nonchalance, McConaughey is the polar opposite of his Nolanverse contemporaries.  Even in heavier recent fare like Killer Joe and Dallas Buyer’s Club, his charm and confidence carry the day.  He’s the perfect leading man for a film that strives to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey in going beyond the infinite.

Kubrick’s film is a key text in placing Interstellar on the cinematic and philosophical continuum.  In describing his admiration for 2001, Nolan once told Empire magazine that “It just has that sensory stimulation of pure cinema that speaks to people of all ages”.  He’s clearly aiming for the same experience with this film, as once the crew of scientific saviors leaves earth, we’re bombarded with extended scenes of the wonders of weightlessness, and of the fascination of traversing the outer limits of space.  Nolan has been open about not using green screen technology for the space scenes, an attempt to recapture awe not only for the audience but for his actors as well.  He even tries to trump Kubrick’s vision by introducing a wormhole in the second act, then raising the stakes with a trip through Gigantor (!) the black hole at the film’s climax.  In the end, Cooper’s realization that our future, more evolved selves have been sending messages back to prompt us to raise ourselves up from disaster is a nod to Dave Bowman’s stargate voyage and subsequent attainment of the new flesh.  And like Bowman, Cooper’s consciousness-shredding black hole voyage begins with a macro vision of mind-blowing awe, before ultimately settling on the micro personal experience as final stop before the grand revelation.

But whereas Kubrick’s interest was in exploring the outer regions of the imagination with characters who remain ciphers throughout, Nolan’s aim once again is in telling a small scale story against the grand backdrop of epic adventure.  And that story, of fathers guilt-ridden over the betrayal of their offspring, closely mirrors the quandary of modern existence, where we must all gaze at the next generation, and the generation after, and tell them that we’ve strip-mined their future for our temporary gains. 

That’s not to say that the small scale story dominates the cinematic experience of Interstellar.  Nolan, ever the cinema purist, has once again shot and edited a feature on film, and heavily promoted its 70mm and 35mm advanced screenings.  His aspirations for the large format experience are on full display in a soundtrack (and, depending on the format, the sound mix) that is often overwhelming.  Some might call it harsh, but it jibes with Nolan’s artistic philosophy of requesting an equal effort from the audience, a desire to both engage with the film and to give themselves over to the pure cinema aspects of the production.  That’s a dangerous method in today’s instant fulfillment culture, but for the willing the experience can be deeply moving.

And it’s in this grandest of all his cinematic statements that Nolan finally comes out the other end of the wormhole with a message of explicit hope.  The flawed victories of the Batman films and Inception have become iconic, and their ambiguity leaves the films settled as some of the truly gigantic mass market thought pieces of this early century.  As Cooper jets off for a reunion with Brand (Anne Hathaway), Interstellar plants the seed of some of that previous ambiguity (or maybe just the seeds of a sequel), but the human race has still been undeniably saved from its own annihilation.  It’s only through connecting with who we may become some day, while also looping back through our dreams of old, that humanity in the film can aspire to progress, transcendence, a return to awe.  It’s the reclamation of dreaming as integral part of existence.  It’s a moral statement that the visions of the future that we once had aren’t completely lost to time.  It’s also proof positive that Matthew McConaughey just can’t lose.  But that’s another story for another day…and another space flight.