Examining the Christopher Nolan Backlash

Christopher Nolan has become one of Hollywood's most successful filmmakers, as well as one of its most contested. We examine why...

In case you missed it, the Oscars were this past weekend and Birdman was the big winner. The Academy’s choice to award Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fever dream was a genuine shock, not least of all because it actually was my favorite movie of the year. Nonetheless, some things never change, and in that vein it’s certainly a non-surprise the Academy also hardly noticed the most ambitious blockbuster of 2014: the Christopher Nolan space epic, Interstellar. Indeed, I use the phrase “non-surprise,” because how could it be a winner when it was only nominated for the bare minimum of five Oscars in technical categories that are reserved as consolation prizes?

This is by all means par for the course with a film that has experienced a mixed reaction amongst filmgoers and critics in addition to the mainstream-opposed AMPAS. Also, I admittedly stand somewhere along the favorable half of the Interstellar divide: for my money, Christopher Nolan again crafted one of the most thought-provoking films of its year, “big budget” kids table qualifiers be damned. Interstellar might be a Hollywood tentpole, but it is also a stunning one that welcomes speculation about its Secular End Times Mythmaking, as well as scientific scrutiny since it is now considered a resource on the visible structure of black holes in relation to light.

Nevertheless Interstellar, much like Nolan himself, seems to be facing an increased backlash that is all too familiar, despite the director being one of the most respected talents in Hollywood.

Generally speaking, it might appear ludicrous to suggest that one of the most lucrative studio moneymakers is experiencing serious blowback, be it critical or populist. After all, Interstellar—a film that has a climax revolving around an elephantine visualization of fifth dimensional theoretical physics—earned over $670 million worldwide and mostly positive reviews. Mr. Nolan’s previous “original idea” blockbuster, Inception, grossed $825 million worldwide and was nominated for Best Picture; and in between those efforts, he finished off The Dark Knight Trilogy, which when combined earned about $2.5 billion worldwide and even a few Oscars, including a posthumous Supporting Actor trophy for Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Joker.

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However, it is exactly because of this success, both critically and the far more grievously financial, that Nolan faces a rising tide of Academy snubs. How the Interstellar director didn’t qualify for a Best Director nomination in a year that gave a quizzical nod to Bennett Miller’s lethargic Foxcatcher is puzzling. In fact, Nolan’s success places him at a familiar if rare position within Hollywood filmmaking: at its epicenter. And when one finds that elusive sweet spot where art and commerce first intersect—craft and showmanship—it can  lead to resentment on all sides.

Unlike other foreign markets, Hollywood has long been a tug-of-war between lofty aspirations and the industry’s need to entertain. Filmmaking may be a business almost everywhere else, but in the U.S., it has always been an extension of show business—as in the Ethel Merman variety. Dating back to the earliest Hollywood moguls all the way to the more diverse landscape of independent American filmmaking and its 1990s golden age, this give-and-take has always been present.

In such an environment, there is a distinction between the showmen and the artists. Long before the auteur theory existed, there was still a line in the sand separating the producers or directors that made the crowd pleasers, and those that made the award winners. If there was any overlap, it was when a Western pioneer like John Ford got political with The Grapes of Wrath or How Green is My Valley, rather than when he was calling John Wayne a sonofabitch in Monument Valley while filming Stagecoach or The Searchers.

Yet, there have still been those rare filmmakers that paradoxically enjoy exploring the center of studio moviemaking with large budgets, large audiences, and even larger ambitions. While I would never call directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg of the same temperament or persuasion, they all have familiar beats in their professional biography:

Alfred Hitchcock was a successful English filmmaker who was invited to Hollywood. His first American film was Rebecca (1940), a picture that had a compromised ending due to the creative control exerted by Hitch’s producer, David O. Selznick—who had just come off the legendary Gone with the Wind. However, it was with few Hollywood movies afterwards that Hitchcock ever faced that kind of creative restriction again.

Hitchcock became a theatrical favorite for the American moviegoing public with his taut genre thrillers that usually starred the biggest names of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and Cary Grant again with Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. Until 1964’s Marnie, Hitch didn’t really miss once with audiences at the box office, save for Vertigo (1958), a Stewart vehicle that is now considered one of Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, showcasing a sense of composition and psychological framing that is still haunting.

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During this ascension, Hitch also made himself a star at a time when most Americans couldn’t tell Frank Capra from Billy Wilder. But Hitchcock’s corpulent profile was unmistakable thanks to his shameless self-promotion on the 1950s TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It also was a great springboard that allowed movie lovers to recognize Hitch when he would cameo in his films.

In this 25-year Hollywood success story, complete with masterworks like Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder, and Psycho, he never won a competitive Oscar. Sure, he received a lifetime achievement prize in 1968, but his “genre” pictures full of sex, murder, and adventure were rarely accepted as high art until near Hitch’s death in 1980.

Stanley Kubrick also only ever won a single Oscar…for his contribution to visual effects in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite being nominated repeatedly for direction and/or writing on Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick was mostly ignored. 2001 wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. For that matter, neither were Paths of Glory, Spartacus, or The Shining.

Conversely, Steven Spielberg has won two Oscars for direction, and one for Best Picture. However, the Academy might have been contractually obligated to hand them over since while inarguably masterful, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan‘s World War II backdrop made them instant Academy favorites. Prior to Schindler’s List, Spielberg experienced the same recognizable disdain for making very artful, and very successful, populist entertainments for over a decade. These supposedly mindless diversions, which I’ve heard described as “puppet’ showcases, include Jaws, which Spielberg is famously on film at the moment when he realized he wouldn’t get a Best Director nomination, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

None of these directors, or Nolan for that matter, have a similar aesthetic. Indeed, Kubrick and Spielberg are diametrically opposed since one filmmaker is considered by cinephiles to be the greatest artist in the medium, hailing absolutely from a coldly intellectual perspective, and the other was the Baby Boomer equivalent of Walt Disney with his unashamed embrace of sentimentality. But both knew better than anyone at how to seduce, dazzle, and entertain the audience—and they did so in separate ways that the other famously envied. Kubrick’s sensibility to make personal, cerebral meditations that could become box office success stories, and Spielberg’s crowd pleasers that could also feature transcendent sequences like the USS Indianapolis moment in Jaws, was the reason the two finally collaborated on A.I.

But also like Nolan, backlash could always be imminent. Consider that while A Clockwork Orange made over $20 million on a $2 million budget, it was also rated X and eventually banned in the UK (on Kubrick’s request) after a year of protests. Two films later, Kubrick’s The Shining was a sleeper genre hit in 1980 that got no Oscar love, but received two Razzie nominations. Now both films are considered deconstructionist classics.

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All this brings me back to Christopher Nolan, a director who after Following and Memento was the toast of art house theaters. He then was hired by Warner Bros. to remake a Norwegian film called Insomnia and never looked back.

Since going to Hollywood, Nolan has become synonymous with blockbusters, explosive budgets, and high concept projects like the Batman franchise and “dream machines.” After almost every effort, critical and box office accolades have followed, but so has a rising chorus of discontent, which grows only louder the more successful he becomes. Obviously, all opinions are fair, but more than any filmmaker of his generation, Nolan has been able to move the paradigm of Hollywood moviemaking, for both the elite and mainstream franchising. And the more that he becomes an industry leader, the more noticeable the backlash waves on both ends of the culture rise.

For example, consider the most successful film Christopher Nolan has helmed to date, 2008’s The Dark Knight. As the only superhero movie to ever enjoy serious award consideration, its Best Picture snubbing was so insipidly received that the Academy forced itself (with much inside aggrievement) to raise the number of potential Best Picture nominees to 10—which noticeably did little to help mainstream favorites last year like Interstellar or David Fincher’s Gone Girl.

On the other end of the cultural spectrum, The Dark Knight and its less famous predecessor Batman Begins rewrote the playbook on franchise films. For starters, we can thank (or blame) Begins for introducing the term “reboot” into the studio lexicon. Without that successful relaunch of the Batman series, it is hard to imagine Casino Royale, Star Trek, The Amazing Spider-Man, or Man of Steel turning out the way that they did. And concurrently, the ponderous post-9/11 tone that made The Dark Knight so uncomfortably relevant has also been duplicated to positive effect (Skyfall) and far lesser ones (Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel). 

The more that other filmmakers emulate Nolan, the more he resembles in this writer’s mind Steven Spielberg’s 1980s success. There are some noticeable differences, such as Spielberg producing many of his disciples like Tobe Hooper with Poltergeist and Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future under the Amblin banner, but it was still a decade of influence that only increased a resentment from the Academy, even when Spielberg aimed for a higher brow with pictures like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.

Similarly, as the “gritty” style attributed to Nolan becomes common, the more evident the backlash appears in even the fan community that used to worship the director like a British pagan deity. Where once his Batman films were lauded as “masterpieces,” many of them are now dismissed by the same online websites for being too much of the director’s aesthetic, and too unlike the new shiny toys of Zack Snyder or Kevin Feige, which incorporate words like “world-building” and “six-film contracts” and “unending oblivion,” as opposed to concepts like “trilogies” and “endings,” and “complete stories.”

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Prior to Interstellar’s release, an entertainment site that I respect and admire ran a record-breaking 11 negative articles about the film before anyone outside of the press had seen it. Again, opinion is opinion, yet this reeks of an editorial disdain for a filmmaker’s influence on pop culture. It causes one to wonder if the dialogue of Howard Hawks, Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino is subject to the same “naturalist” scrutiny. Or for that matter, if there are online critics who sit in every screening from Guardians of the Galaxy to The Grand Budapest Hotel with a pen and paper poised to jot down “plot holes.”

Ironically, I suspect a previous Nolan film has already addressed such aggressively capricious hate-watching: as Leonardo DiCaprio said in Inception, “It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.” Being able to spend hours studying an illusion to find the wires after the fact can be a fun pastime, but it hardly is a discredit to the magician if you are fooled in the theater. Like the dueling illusionists in another Nolan film that acts as a mission statement, such mania might even be welcome.

But personally, what I find most ingratiating is a filmmaker that both knows how to dazzle and challenge audiences. I would argue that almost every film in Nolan’s catalogue to date features him grappling with personal anxieties, either as a storyteller (Inception), parent (Interstellar), or simply a westerner during the endless War on Terror march (The Dark Knight). Yet, none are afraid to either blow up buildings or use special effects to enrapture the audience. For a filmmaker to treat “superhero cinema” as exactly that, and not just disposable fast food, should be savored. And incidentally, Nolan’s ability to tap into every form of recent anxiety in the name of entertainment is perhaps his greatest feat. One no longer needs to remember Fallujah to find discomfort in 2015 while watching masked men hang captives from the George Washington Bridge in The Dark Knight Rises. Nor is one allowed to shrug off the dust bowl of Interstellar as pure science fiction fantasy when NASA predicts that we will likely see a 20-40 year megadrought in the 21st century.

This ability to play to the eyes and the intellect, be it through IMAX cameras or storylines borne from the musings of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, is a rare sensibility that will likely still impress decades after awards gatekeepers and pop culture enthusiasts feel less threatened by a style that they currently cannot avoid.

Several years ago, while discussing his own filmography with Star World, Steven Spielberg paid the highest compliment to The Dark Knight films when he said, “For me, the Chris Nolan Batman films are art films. Very successful, well told stories, but also with beautiful visual art.”

This surprised even me, a fan of the Batman films that didn’t mind questioning whether their hero could outgrow childhood traumas and adolescent aspirations (like dressing up as a bat). But Spielberg, no stranger to making pop culture masterpieces of his own in spite of plenty of Academy Award snubs, still felt obliged to offer the kind of praise many film aficionados would hesitate penning, including myself at one time.

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But perhaps that is because Spielberg, like several other infamously Oscar-ignored filmmakers, understands a secret first coined by Oscar Wilde: “Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular, one must be a mediocrity.”

Nolan has had a hell of an effect on Hollywood and the Academy as of late.

***You can follow me @DCrowsNest.