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[Article] – Nolan And The Art Of Subjection


Posted August 28, 2017 by

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Christopher Nolan is back with his tenth feature, Dunkirk, a film being hailed as one of his best and tipped for Oscar success. It is not only a film that highlights Nolan as one of the most powerful directors working today, but is a development and continuation of a theme that runs throughout his career, subjection.

Throughout Dunkirk’s press run, Nolan has repeatedly addressed how the film is to be experienced rather than watched, aiming to drop the audience right amidst the action, from a subjective, and often first person viewpoint. This is achieved not only visually but via narrative as well, both techniques Nolan has been deploying since the beginning.

After his debut Following, Nolan found fame with breakout hit Memento, a story of an amnesiac hunting his wife’s killer and a prime example of subjective storytelling. On paper that plot outline may seem fairly simple, but it’s manipulation through Nolan’s narrative device is where it comes into its own.

The Amnesiac, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) suffers from short-term memory loss, in order to let the audience experience this, Nolan presents the story in two interwoven narratives running parallel and separated by their use of colour. One presents events in forward motion, the other in reverse, the dual direction narratives then join up at the end to deliver a rather sobering denouement.

The narrative strand that travel backwards through the plot allows the film to mimic Leonard’s mental state, subjecting the audience to his struggles, unable to hold information for more than a few minutes at a time. Throughout the film, Leonard carries several key items that act as memory triggers; these are items that change meaning as the story progresses, or regresses in the case. There presentation to the audience in a backwards motion means they never know more than Leonard, if presented in a forwards motion this effect would be lost.

The subjective experience is also enhanced by the visual presentation of events,

the forward and backwards narratives are structured like a lattice-weave, one follows the other concurrently. When one scene ends it will fade to black, before cutting to the beginning of the next, visually representing the feeling of falling asleep and waking suddenly, which is happening to Leonard continuously throughout the film.

To further emphasize the subjection, scenes will start on details and objects, often from Leonard’s point of view, rather than opting for wide or establishing shots. Accompanied by Leonard’s voiceover, questioning where he is and why he is there, creates a constant state of confusion, keeping in line with the characters mental discord.

Nolan realises that subjection is key in creating the best version of this story, told from Leonard’s perspective; it creates a fascinating and engaging piece of cinema, but told chronologically, when the narrative strands are untwined, the story become much, much darker. The sobering revelation at the end of Memento is that Leonard has known the truth behind his wife murder, and choosing to lie to himself in order to deal with it. By writing down false information on his memory trigger photographs, he creates a reality for himself based on lies he has forgotten.

Presented in a chronological fashion, the films story is almost unrelentingly bleak, not to mention cruel as well, a man that functions under his own false pretences who ends up killing the only person who tried to help him, potentially killed his own wife via an Insulin overdose, and is taken advantage of throughout due to his inherent forgetfulness. But Nolan’s manipulation of the story on both a narrative and visual level allowed Memento to overcome what could have been a much more unenjoyable experience.

Nolan’s next feature, Insomnia, whilst not as narratively complex as Memento, continued the visual representation of subjection. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) an LAPD officer sent to Alaska, begins to suffer from the eponymous condition; in a bleary-eyed film with no night-time to speak of, the audience is given an insight into his experience, mainly during the chase sequences. In a scene set in heavy fog, the camera inhabits Dormer’s space, often showing his point of view, emphasizing the sense of disorientation as he hunts for the killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams) and helps us understand his actions in events that lead to him shooting his own partner.

In a subsequent chase, Dormer falls under the water whilst crossing floating logs, again the camera shows his point of view as he claws away, trying to reach the surface, escalating the panic of the situation.

Also notable is the representation of Finch, throughout his chases with Dormer, he is seen from behind and with fleeting glimpses. There are no archetypal chase shots of the villain running towards camera then out of frame, then repeated by the following character, we only experience him as Dormer does. This subjective representation is continued in the rest of the film, the audience is not given any omniscient view of events, there are no scenes that show Finch going about his own business, like say In The Line Of Fire. The scenes where Finch does appear, Dormer acts as a mediator to his existence.

The small matter of the Dark Knight trilogy served as Nolan’s biggest undertakings in the following years, and while not being as focused on subjection, they contained important developments in how he would later develop the theme.

Batman Begins was another film whose narrative proceeds out of chronological order, with scenes depicting Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) childhood, disillusioned adulthood and current-day Gotham City as he masquerades as the caped crusader appearing non-sequentially. Due to the blockbuster nature of the material and the necessity for action, Nolan’s structuring of the narrative allows the audience to understand Wayne’s motivation to don the cape and cowl in the most entertaining way possible. This means that emotional heft and character development isn’t eschewed for fight scenes, freeing the film from potentially fatal genre trappings.

As the trilogy progressed, Nolan’s scope increased, The Dark Knight became the first feature film to shoot sequences on the large-format Imax cameras. The huge 70mm film format with a native resolution of 18K, much larger than standard 35mm and its digital counterparts, captures images in a almost hyperreal quality, and when projected onto gargantuan Imax screens creates an incredible experience of visual immersion.

But the technical problems that come from shooting Imax – it’s loud, heavy and expensive – limited its use to select sequences in the film, notably the action sequences, giving them unheard of scale and scope, along with incredible physical heft. The Dark Knight’s success though allowed Nolan to incorporate Imax more into The Dark Knight Rises, where he began to push how it could be used and experimenting with its capture of the human face, rather than just using it for grandiose action scenes and sweeping vistas.

Nolan’s use of the huge Imax frame for more intimate imagery and situations on The Dark Knight Rises started a new level of visual experimentation that continued with Interstellar. Whereas Memento was an exercise in subjecting the audience on a psychological level, Interstellar aimed to create subjection on a visual level, the film, following pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and crew as the travel to a distant galaxy, aims to put the audience right alongside them.

In prepping for the film, Nolan and co. watched old NASA Imax documentaries, which influenced the visual language used throughout. The camera is often mounted to the various spacecraft, not letting the audiences view venture further than the characters inside, establishing shots and wides are used sparingly with outside phenomenon’s viewed from the characters perspectives, obscured through greasy portholes.

These effects are all enhanced by the deployment of Imax, which brings a new dimension of physicality to the images, a living, breathing quality where objects are tangible and the other-worldly events of wormholes and black holes are awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time. But it is also used more intimately, employed for close-ups and in the claustrophobic interiors of the spacecraft, the huge scale of the Imax imagery going a long way to remove the barrier of the screen between the audience and the action, allowing them to experience rather than watch. In one sequence that borrows from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s stargate, The camera remains attached to Cooper as he ejects from his craft and gets drawn into a Tesseract, creating a first-person experience, a necessary point of view for something whose existence is known only theoretically.

For a film that travel to new worlds and sees new wonders, going “further than any human in history,” Nolan clearly feels it is important for the images to be presented as if they are being seen for the first time, new experiences rather than an a premeditated and all knowing view point. While the cutting between different time strands may allow the audience to know more of the plot than the characters, like in Inception, here the film’s visual and physical representation is the means of the subjection.

Nolan’s latest, Dunkirk, is the culmination of his use of both mental and physical audience subjection. A stark telling of events at Dunkirk, featuring seemingly disparate narratives, is Nolan’s biggest attempt to put the audience right into the events on screen, cinema which he has described as “experiential” and that is an all out assault on the senses.

With Dunkirk Nolan pushes Imax to its limits, the camera’s unwieldy nature has seen it limited to static shots, or movements that require mechanical assistance. But through development and an extremely willing DP in Hoyte Van Hoytema, they have been able to use the large format much more freely, key in creating the subjective nature of the film.

Given the subject matter, the films visual style is suitably down and dirty, its approach reactionary, while the geography of scenes is well established, events are often shot from the soldiers perspective. Large parts of the action are captured handheld, from over the shoulder of another soldier, or indeed from a first person perspective, creating a sense of immediacy, throughout being sprayed by water, hit by sand and smoke and also delving into the icy water on many occasions. Combined with the thunderous use of sound, aircraft sound almost demonic and gunshots ring out like explosions makes for an incredibly physical experience, all heightened by that Imax sense of hyperreality. Again Imax close-ups are more frequently used, characters reactions are often the go to angle to define scenes rather than capturing broad swathes.

This effect of allowing the audience to physically experience events is most evident during the aerial sequences; dogfights are largely presented from a pilot’s point of view. Shots from the cockpit, through gun sights and of wing mirrors effectively convey the dizzying and death-defying nature of aerial combat, the approach, as with Interstellar, where the camera stays within the confines of the aircraft is perhaps Nolan’s best way of creating an actual physical presence for the audience in relation to the action on screen.

With 75% of Dunkirk shot in Imax, it marks Nolan’s most visually subjective film to date, but he also experiments again on a narrative level. Following on from a style used on Batman Begins, Nolan weaves varying time strands to create the most entertaining version of event possible, necessary given the blockbuster nature the film must aspire to due to it’s budget. The approach is not only used to entertain, but also to ramp up the tension, continually rising throughout, the unfolding of events does a remarkable job of keeping audience guessing as what is going to happen, despite knowing how it will end.

The narrative combines three separate plot strands of varying lengths of time and presents them concurrently, giving the audience of omniscient view of events in a physical sense. But their arrangement allows the strands to unfold simultaneously, so they can be viewed in the present, rather than chronologically, subjecting the audience to each timeline’s immediacy and experience them first-hand instead of a straightforward telling of events.

Nolan’s rise from small budget director to blockbuster giant has seen the content of his output change over the years, but subjection remains a running theme throughout, a theme he has been able to develop as his budgets broaden. His love affair with Imax has pushed visual techniques to new levels, and his foray into blockbuster territory has led him to experiment with complex narratives that are not only mentally stimulating but also entertaining. Nolan remains loyal to the art of subjection, on both a cerebral and visual level, he strives to create not just films but experiences.


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Written by:

Sam May
Freelance Contributor

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