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 æsthetic 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.
MINDS ARE SUBJECT TO WHAT SHOULD BE DONE. PROBLEMS SOLVED, TIME CANNOT BE WON.
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.
YESTERDAY'S DREAMS ARE TOMORROW'S SIGHS
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.
SOME TRY TO TELL ME THOUGHTS THEY CANNOT DEFEND. JUST WHAT YOU WANT TO BE, YOU WILL BE IN THE END.
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.