Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Inception, Memento, and Christopher Nolan as an Auteur

“Let me ask you a question. You never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on,” is the description of the beginning of a dream given by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the film Inception. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Inception (2010) are, in a sense, Nolan’s thoughts on the relatively unknown subjects of dreaming and memory visually manifested on the screen. These films have intriguing structures and interesting underlying ideas about psychology and philosophy, which act to bind both films in a deeper ways to Nolan’s distinct filmmaking. Nolan’s creative direction as both a director and writer played a large part in both films and his auteur characteristics are apparent.

Nolan is an expert at throwing the viewer right into the middle of a situation, much akin to the dream. At the beginning of Inception, viewers are put unknowingly into the middle of a dream. While an intense firefight commences it is quickly established that the scene is taking place within a dream, there is some sort of espionage involved with a safe and papers, and there is some sort of device allowing the dream to be shared. In Memento, the first scene is that of a picture un-developing as time progresses in reverse then a man is shot. One only later discovers that this scene actually occurs at the end of the timeline of events of the film. There is no narrator as the concentration is on the diegesis, pulling the viewer in with ideas, actions and an accompanying atmosphere. Nolan has the uncanny ability of being able to introduce many unknown and interesting elements while keeping everything coherent and letting the audience uncover and discover answers scattered throughout.

Nolan seamlessly adds mysterious elements to both films. One must use some degree of deductive reasoning to discover what is occurring through interpreting conversations and finding the small clues Nolan provides. For instance, noticing small details like in Sammy Jenkis’ story in relation to Leonard can give the audience a different perception and insight of the film. It can determine if the viewer believes Leonard or Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) near the conclusion of the film. Nolan uses elements of mystery in both films to raise the tension and give the viewer a sense of discovery and a feeling of investment in the film as the narrative progresses. Some of the mysteries are left open ended without giving conclusive answers. Like Leonard, Nolan himself has specialized in setting puzzles that can’t be solved. It’s not only the case that Nolan’s work is about duplicity; it is itself duplicitous in the sense of both deception and doubling, drawing the audience into labyrinths of indeterminacy (Fischer, 37).

Both films share formal and thematic characteristics which lend to the idea that they were both heavily influenced by Nolan’s design. There are repeating elements in both; a traumatized hero and his antagonist; a dead woman; a plot involving manipulation. Both use primarily medium shots of the characters and both contain realistic looking environments and colors. The “rules” established in both films are crucial to Nolan’s method which determine restriction on the characters. In addition, a physical symbolic element of great importance and meaning is also present in both. The totem in Inception is what allows one to differentiate reality from a dream, it becomes representative of reality. The Polaroid pictures Leonard uses to determine who is who and how he makes decisions, they become a physical representation of memory and a representation of the truth according to Leonard.

Ideas about psychology and philosophy are of great importance to both films and the unique structure of each film plays to this point. Inception explores issues of the conscious and subconscious mind through a form of a new dream sharing technology. It involves various mentally constructed settings shown “spatially” discontinuous in the progression of time. Entire new and malleable realities are created through using the completely blank canvas of dreaming. In the scene where Cobb is teaching Ariadne (Ellen Page) what it takes to be a dream architect and she subsequently alters of the surrounding world it induces the viewer to ponder the very fabric of reality and physics and different realties which could exist. Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the train are projections from Cobb’s repressed memories and like Freud hypothesizes, these repressed thoughts are expressed in dreaming. Inception challenges the viewer to think of grand, universal ideas in addition to specific ones.

Memento is shown as two separate timelines in a discontinuous fashion which are eventually linked together in a consistent, logical way and deals with memory. Leonard is completely unsure of reality and due to his inability to make new memories his reality has similar characteristics to that of a dream. Thus, in a film such a Memento, the past/present/future are no longer in any semblance of succession, but are implicated simultaneously. What Nolan achieves is a utilization of the concept and feel of memory without impoverishing it by simply making it the object of flashbacks (Gargett, 4). The unique structure of the film, in a sense, places Leonard’s disability on the audience. Nolan aims to involve his audience in an overtly disorienting experience analogous to short-term memory loss, emulating the condition suffered by Leonard. How Nolan proceeds to do this can only be through the assembling of a system of relations which once unfolded chronologically and thereby become the objects of memory, but these objects continually fall from under the viewer via the very structure of Memento's presentation: an inversion of time with effects preceding their causes (Lyons, 127-128). Leonard lives his life in discontinuous segments of time for which his memory allows and the film progresses in a discontinuous fashion. Also, the short length of each scene in Memento illustrates Leonard’s short memory span. Leonard attempts to connect these unconnected instants in time by writing down events on the back of Polaroid pictures. Feeling the need to assert his own sense of power and control over a threatening world Leonard constructs repeatedly theories from inadequate information and these theories are invariably at odds with the actual situation, making him ultimately responsible for the disaster that concludes the action (Gargett, 6). Thus, the unique structuring of each film plays an important role to the perception of the movie itself. The boundary of filmic narrative structures is expanded by both films.

Nolan’s films are preoccupied with, to paraphrase Teddy as he says to Leonard, “the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy” (Fischer, 38). Leonard’s desire to get revenge for the murder of his wife was what keeps him going and gives him passion and meaning in life, so that’s what he continued in searching to do even if he must lie to himself after killing other men. At the ending of Inception Cobb did not care whether his totem fell or remained standing as what he desired to be true, to be with his kids, superseded the absolute truth.

The 10 years of time between when Nolan made Memento and Inception and the large budget disparity between films (~$155 million) did not effect the creative aspirations of Nolan; his ideas continued to thrive. Nolan maintains that, however intractable or ambiguous his films might appear, they are always based on a definitive truth (Fischer, 37). These films contain creative, philosophically and psychologically thought inducing narratives through structurally innovative methods which have clear connections to Nolan’s impact and style. These qualities, by definition, command Nolan to be designated an auteur.

Gargett, Adrian. "Nolan's Memento, Memory, and Recognition." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 4.3, 2002 Web.

Fischer, Mark. "The Lost Unconscious: Delusions and Dreams in Inception." Film Quarterly 64.3,2011: 37-45. Web. 
Lyons, Diran. "Vengeance, the powers of the false, and the time-image in Christopher Nolan's Memento." Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 11.1 (2006): 127-135. Web.

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