It’s been said that across his or her career, a writer is only telling one story. They deceive readers into thinking it’s a new tale, by dressing it up in different ways through changing the characters, structure, genre, and events. But the essence of those stories, the way the writer views people and the world, remains relatively unchanged. While I’m not convinced this is entirely true, I think there is truth in this notion and what can be said of writers can also apply to directors.
Nolan has offered many visions to us, presented in such a manner that even his adaptations carry the weight of being “A Christopher Nolan Film”. And these visions have elicited a variety of emotions from audiences, all coming from a variety of thematic notions. But if we were to look closer, perhaps we’d find that the themes in his different films are not independent, and what we’re watching is Nolan striving to find the perfect tapestry on which to display the essence of his one story.
*Spoiler Warnings Apply For All Entries
Bonus: Doodlebug (1997)
Themes: In its brief runtime, Doodlebug explores the very literal nature of self-destruction. This theme emerges in many of the features in Nolan’s career. Most often it’s the figurative form of self-destruction by willful ignorance, but sometimes it’s in the more literal sense (The Prestige).
Impact: The short’s use of a Twilight Zone-esque twist would become one of Nolan’s signatures. The actor in the short, Jeremy Theobald, would go on to star and produce Nolan’s first feature. Even within its small space and budget, Doodlebug displays Nolan’s penchant grappling with large ideas and memorable visual techniques.
- Following (1998)
Themes: Nolan explores the dangers and attraction of voyeurism in his neo-noir, Following. Given that filmmaking and audience membership is a type of voyeurism, Nolan allows us to be followers as well, but he makes our peeping a bit harder through the incorporation of flashbacks. While the present-tense story does most of the plot work, it is the flashbacks that do most of the character exploration and highlight the mentor-apprentice relationship between the burglar Cobb and The Young Man.
“Everyone has a box,” Cobb tells The Young Man early in the film. It is this idea of private, personal boxes containing the essence of a person (mementos) that come into play over and over again throughout Nolan’s career. Sometimes these boxes are physical, and other times they are mental. The flashbacks are these little boxes for the film, giving us glimpses into the characters, the same way that Cobb and The Young Man are getting glimpses of people by breaking into their apartments (the boxes in which they live). But these glimpses, as we discover don’t always have to be entirely honest or fixed.
We never get a look at Cobb’s box, he’s entirely a mystery aside from how he presents himself. We may think we know The Blonde because the characters spend a lot of time in her personal space and with her belongings. But she’s not completely who she presents herself to be and once she’s revealed, we see that her essence is distorted, but the objects and emotions that make up her box remain the same. And, our Young Man completely reinvents himself once Cobb tells him that his box is more or less empty, that he is simply playing at giving himself an identity. So the Young Man becomes more like Cobb in appearance, but not in terms of intelligence or motive. The Young Man can only see the box for its physical materials and not for what those objects represent or really say about a person (we first get a hint at this when upon breaking into an apartment for the first time, he is concerned with stealing the expense stuff—the things that seem valuable but don’t really mean anything to the owner). And because of his blind voyeurism, The Young Man is doomed to fail. Following allows us to play witness to a crime by deception, a feat that Nolan would make progressively complicated as his career continues.
Impact: Beyond being his first feature, Following was also Nolan’s first venture in non-linear storytelling that would become one of the defining traits of his career. The use of a twist ending, the mentor-apprentice relationship, and the “box” would be used again in his later films. While it is his lowest-grossing film, Following has the distinction of being the only Nolan film to be released on Criterion. And one final fun fact: the burglar and primary antagonist, Cobb, would later share his name and profession with the lead protagonist in Inception.