Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clash of the Cults - Nolan and Fincher

At any given point on the internet, chances are pretty good that someone will be deconstructing a director or film while others support or detract, usually in large and vitriolic numbers. When this happens I find myself generally disengaged from the discussions, debates and diatribes taking place, usually because I'm a little late to see the movie. Other times I simply lack the energy to get in the middle of another 1,000 comment forum fight. However, just because I don't get obsessed about debating the merits of one director or film over another doesn't mean I don't appreciate the folks who do.


And when it comes to obsessively arguing the merits of one director over another one can hardly do better, or worse, than the cults of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. It's not enough that they make good movies or excellent ones and sometimes mediocre or bad ones, no, that won't do. It must be proven that one is a cinematic genius (Fincher) while the other is an incompetent fraud (Nolan). Fortunately, this is one of the few debates or discussion or whatever the hell you want to call it on which I can authoritatively opinionate as I have seen every movie, save Following, that both directors have ever done. So far, just that one eludes me and maybe I'll watch it this week just to get it out of the way.

I will admit, here and now, that if I was forced to choose one over the other I would, without hesitation, choose Fincher. He seems to me the better director. I will further admit that I agree with many of the criticisms of Nolan, the principal being that he is visually clunky, or to put it another way, I find his films utterly lacking in visual grace. Action sequences can often feel visually awkward to say the least, what with all the going back and forth and coming in from the wrong angle after position has already been established. This means, in the movies, that when you establish a plane is flying from the right side of the screen to the left because it is going to California, you then show it from left to right when it is returning, only Nolan would show it going the same way both times and claim he was filming the plane from the other side on the way back so it was still correct, but visually clunky, awkward and confusing. That's pretty much Nolan visually. Sometimes, it really does feel like he's a blind man behind the lens.

But!

I would not go so far as to say Nolan's films are, on the whole, much better or worse than Fincher's. In fact, my main beef with Nolan is his visual clunkiness but I'd say he gets good performances out of his actors and paces his films well. Now, I know, having a strike against your visual ability as a director in cinema is a bit like having a strike against your throwing ability as a quarterback in football. It's kind of the main thing you're expected to do, and do well. However, Nolan can throw well, just not consistently.

His sense of visual consistency seems fine in movies like Memento and Insomnia and The Prestige so I'd have to restrict my criticism to say his main visual clunkiness seems relegated to action sequences, and, as a director, that's an acceptable level of incompetence, especially if you're not in the habit of making action movies. Of course, Nolan is in the habit of making action movies and that's the problem. He keeps making movies that exploit his primary weakness as a director. It seems a very odd thing to do, consistently return to your weakness, but in all fairness, plenty of modern filmmakers don't shoot action very well so Nolan's not even that unique on this front. And so, even though I think action's a problem for him, I find "takedowns" of his work to be generally unconvincing, hence the scare-quotes.


This "takedown" of Inception by A.D. Jameson, a movie I didn't like, works a lot better if you haven't seen the movie. Once you've seen it, many of the 17 points don't seem to work. Now, don't misread me here: I don't think Jameson is being dishonest at all in his piece, nor do I disagree with it on the whole (I'm about half and half in agreement/disagreement with the piece). I think Jameson honestly sees all of these things but I question how much of it could also apply to a director Jameson liked. Rather than go through the entire piece (please go to the link and read the whole thing for yourself) I will discuss the first six points and then jump to some points with which I agree rather than continuing to deconstruct all the points with which I disagree (five of the first six).

The first point is how much dialogue there is which leads into the second point about how "relentless" Nolan is with expository dialogue. He criticizes Nolan for using too much dialogue, in which the characters explain everything, and writes, "His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception."

I didn't get that watching the movie. I watched it and found it had as much, or as little, dialogue as any other movie, including long sequences with no dialogue. He then provides this fairly weak example of how characters explain everything for the audience:

the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.

First of all, the way Cobb phrases it is obviously meant to signal that he knows Caine is full of shit when he tries to say Cobb could be extradited. Like if someone said to me, "Greg, I just caught the latest Pixar movie. Can't wait to see the review on Cinema Styles," and then I responded, "Now, you know I don't review Pixar movies on Cinema Styles." Of course they know, that's why I said, "Now, you know..." It's a common colloquialism. If that's the best example Jameson can come up with, and he alludes to the fact that it is, then you have to put a hash mark in the Nolan column on that one.


Then he complains that Nolan's characters repeat everything three times for the audience, you know, like in The Godfather, where Sonny and Tom are talking about how Sollozo must be dealt with and then Michael repeats this and explains how he will deal with it and then when they've decided on it, at a later time, Sonny goes over it with Sal and then Sal with Michael until the audience has been notified four times that Sollozo will be killed. You know, like that. Or how the director/reporter in the screening room in Citizen Kane says not once, not twice but three times that they need to find out what "Rosebud" means. Oh, but wait, those are two universally acknowledged great films, I probably shouldn't have used those examples. Or maybe those example are fine because it's only bad when Nolan does it. Again, I didn't notice this "flaw," a historically common enough device in cinema, any more here than with any other movie.

His third point chides Nolan for using too many insert shots, i.e., when Cobbs wife is mentioned we see a shot of her or when he's talking to his kids on the phone and when they speak we see images of them. Well, sorry, but insert shots are as common in cinema as the closeup. I can see to a small degree Jameson's point, which is that Nolan uses too many, but frankly, complaining about insert shots in cinema feels a lot like splitting hairs.

His fourth point is about the quality of Nolan's dialogue and here we fully agree. I was never engaged by the characters and much of this was due to all of them speaking like characters in an action movie rather than like people in the real world.

Point five is the weakest, I think, of all seventeen. He starts by saying, "Herr Wunderkind Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do!" and then outlines the fourteen shots used in the opening scene ("1.slow motion pan of waves crashing against a rock 2.slow motion shot of waves 3.close-up of Cobb’s face as he lies on the shore 4.point-of-view shot of a boy on the beach making a sandcastle 5.reverse shot of Cobb’s face..." etc).

Again, I read this and immediately thought, "Fourteen shots doesn't seem like a lot for establishing an opening scene." Not every movie can start with a clean unbroken crane shot, ala Touch of Evil. In most cinema, cuts are pretty common. I went to Netflix Instant and started going through classic movies from the fifties and before, a period known for slower pacing and longer shots and I'll be damned if everybody still didn't use multiple shots to set up an opening sequence.

As an example, I picked one I felt would be unassailable, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. It sails so far past fourteen it's not even worth counting. Let's see, first Dean Martin opens the door and looks in. Then, we see what he's looking at (the bar). Then we see him walk along the back of the saloon. Then he looks at the bar again. We see what he's looking at (Claude Akens, taunting him by pouring whiskey he knows Martin wants). Then we see Martin again. Then Akens again. Then Martin, again! Then Akens, AGAIN! Then. Martin. A-G-A-I-N! Then Akens... AGGGGAIN!!! Now, from this point until Akens shoots and leaves, we have fifteen more shots to come. That's a total of twenty-six shots, way past fourteen. So does that mean Howard Hawks was incompetent or this kind of thing is beyond common in establishing story and character? That's a rhetorical question by the way.


At point six ("Much of what is mechanically and prosaically explained to the audience throughout the film’s first hour—the set-up—turns out not to matter.") he quotes Jim Emerson asking why Nolan puts all the amazing visuals up front and then go prosaic during the climax of the actual dream sequence? Emerson asks, "Why would Nolan intentionally stick the movie’s most tantalizing images up front, instead of saving them for when the real action gets underway?" This isn't a bad question but, for me, I'd say it's because it would confuse the action too much (I know, I know, Nolan does that anyway) and as explained very clearly in the film (remember, apparently one of Nolan's faults is that he over-explains things) Cobb wants his dream architect, Ariadne, to create a realistic environment, not a dream environment. They make that pretty clear and the early phases of walking her around the surreal environments is a way of getting it out of her system in one regard and using the valid teaching method of pointing out what you shouldn't do, in the other.

In other words, what was "mechanically and prosaically explained" in the first hour does matter. The second half looks as it does because it HAS been explained in the first half. That was the point of the exposition and if one followed the exposition, one wouldn't ask the question that Emerson asked, which is a puzzler because Emerson described it in enough detail to prove he did pay attention. So, yeah, you got me on that one.

Now, this could go on but I should get to some more of Jameson's points that I agree with as well. Number four was one, number twelve is another, in fact, the biggest one for me, which is Nolan's too literal-minded storytelling. Jameson writes, "as is always the case with his movies, disappointingly, one can bank on things moving toward the simplest solution." Again, read the whole piece to get a better idea of that but, basically, Nolan doesn't go in any unexpected directions. For those who haven't seen the movie, here's a general example. Let's say you're watching a mystery. At the start, a body is found and the butler is seen standing over it with a bloody knife. Now, the story could provide all kinds of twists and turns and multiple characters with motive, were it in the hands of someone like Agatha Christie. However, in a Nolan movie, a detective shows up, asks a bunch of questions and then arrests the butler who, in fact, was guilty just as the opening sequence showed him to be.

Like in The Prestige (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT), another of Nolan's films. Our lead character (Hugh Jackman) goes off to find Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) to discover the mysteries of teleportation. Tesla seems a bit flaky, runs some tests that don't work then, suddenly, is shown to have inadvertently created cloning. Our lead buys the technology and goes back to his show. Now, the audience wonders, has he been conned by Tesla? Did he kill that drunken double he used in previous shows to frame Christian Bale? If he did, how did he manage to get Bale to go backstage the night he killed him? Maybe the double killed the magician. Wow, that would be a turn of events! Oh my, so many questions, there's no way we can possibly figure this out. And then... it turns out he really was cloning, just like we were told. No surprises, no twists. In other words, everything - EVERYTHING - in a Nolan movie can be taken at face value. He is, to a fault, a literal writer. If a character says what his motives are, that's what his motives are. There is never misdirection. Never. So if you see The Prestige after knowing this about Nolan, the second you see Bowie produce all the hats and explain they were cloned, you know that cloning is real and that the solution to the murder frame-up is that Jackman is killing his clones each night. At the moment you see the hats, you can stop watching because you know that Nolan never misdirects. End of movie solved. Nolan just told you.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing but it is a dull thing. It means once you've seen a couple of Nolan's movies, you stop expecting to be surprised. When the characters say, "We want to get this guy to break up his father's company," that's what they want. They're not conning Cobb, there is no setup, there are no red herrings. There is no twist in which Cobb is actually the one having info extracted from by the bad guys but being made to think he's the one in charge. Nope, they are doing exactly what they say they're doing and when they're done, the movie will end, and does.

So, I agree that Nolan has his faults but none so overbearing as to warrant him being called out as vehemently and as persistently as is the case.

On the tail end of this coin is David Fincher. He has the opposite problem of Nolan in that I read all too many writers who see a lot of magical qualities in him as a director that I don't. As I said above, I'd pick him over Nolan anytime because I think Fincher is an excellent director but not a particularly ingenious one. I find that Fincher's fortunes rise and fall with the quality of his scripts more often than not. If the script is, say, Zodiac, everyone agrees, Fincher is a genius. If the script is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, not so much.


When I look at Fincher's credits (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Alien³), I don't see the resume of an all-time great but a skillful director with a lot of potential. And in The Game, he even uses the same literal, face-value storytelling that Nolan does (in other words, yes, it is, in fact, a game). With Fight Club I see immaturity (philosophy for people who never quite grew up or took on adult responsibilities), Panic Room a ho-hum thriller, Se7en, the same and so on. What happens with Fincher is exactly what happens with Nolan: the movies that don't fit the bias get forgotten. With Fincher, all those other movies are ignored in the face of, say, Zodiac and The Social Network, and with Nolan, any movie that doesn't quite fit his takedowns, like Insomnia, gets ignored too.

And, hell, I'm fine with all of that. But when Fincher gets a good script, suddenly he's a genius again. This piece by David Bordwell gives so much credit to David Fincher, based primarily on the making-of documentary on the DVD, I can't really take it seriously (although Bordwell does make excellent points about actors' faces and how they're used throughout the piece and I highly recommend reading it). Bordwell focuses on the eyes and eyelids and eyebrows of the actors in The Social Network and says Fincher guided how they used them. I did theater in Washington, D.C. that was performed for several different school groups who would get to ask questions of the actors after the production in an onstage forum. Let me tell you, in all shamelessness, actors and directors promote themselves and what they do to ridiculous heights and we all play along with it. I can just see Fincher and lead actor Jesse Eisenberg going on about how David said to use the eyebrows in this way and tone them down in that way and... har, har, come on! Bordwell sees actors doing things that, in reality, would ruin a good performance. If an actor really did decide to pay attention to every tiny, minute detail of their face while trying to give a performance they'd be as wooden as Sherwood Forest during the dry season.

Those eyelid expressions and eye dartings and everything else come from an actor who knows how to instinctively put a performance together and a director who knows how to let them do it. Once an actor starts thinking, "Okay, now, when I say this line I'll curl the left side of my lip and lower my right eyebrow. When I react to the response, I'll narrow my eyes..." he's sunk. Now, he may still do those things and in that exact order but not because he focused on them but rather because he is acting as he believes his character would and those things naturally come out of that performance.

So what am I left with, after all this back and forth over Christopher Nolan and David Fincher? Pretty much nothing except my opinion, which is this: I found Inception to be fairly boring and I didn't like it. But guess what? I didn't dislike it because I thought Nolan was incompetent as a filmmaker, I disliked it because it was an action movie with a lot of explosions (another thing Jameson and I agree on) and that will usually bore me every time.

Also, I liked The Social Network and Fincher's amazing eyebrow magic aside, found little in it that I would call startlingly innovative and, believe me, I expected to because its most ardent supporters treated this goddamn thing like the Holy Grail of Cinema. It's a very well-crafted film, much better than Inception but if next year, Nolan had a movie that was much better than a Fincher movie I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, nor dismayed. And yet I know, if that happens, the Nolan haters will ignore it completely or attempt to explain to those of us too blind to see why it really isn't very good at all, using arguments that could apply to everything from Casablanca to No Country for Old Men. And I'll show up, late to the party and with no horse in the race, still wondering why I care at all.

*************

I recommend, again, reading both pieces referenced here in their entirety, Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception and The Social Network: Faces Behind Facebook.

I also recommend this review of Inception by Ed Howard and this review of The Social Network by Bill Ryan. In both cases, they pretty much sum up my feelings on both films.