A long block-quote and an attempt to revisit some of these arguments about contemporary aesthetics I seem to be returning to...

Emphatic co-sign:

I find Christopher Nolan films to be like big-budget art films that a very clever teenager has been allowed to make who has read a lot of existentialism.

They lack for me an emotional resonance, and not in a Kubrickian way that is deliberate; they just feel hollow. Fleshed-out character relationships are a very distant second or third to how cool the film looks or how twist-laden the plot is. Like, The Prestige: "Ah ha! The trick was that you didn't notice this film made almost no sense because WOW this twist and look at that dog with a fluffy tail!" There are vast tracts of The Dark Knight that make no sense; there feels like a whole reel is missing from the section where Commissioner Gordon disappears from the narrative, for instance.

My issue with all these big Hollywood action/sci-fi films that are supposedly "brainy" is that they are not. The Dark Knight, Inception, Prometheus, none of these make any narrative sense, but apparently they bamboozle us with their sheer cleverness and the crazy metaness of their concepts and set pieces that we aren't meant to notice? We aren't meant to catch that they say nothing thematically, but rather dangle a bunch of sorta-cool but mainly ponderous ideas in front of the audience and then do nothing whatsoever to explore them meaningfully?

Aside from the unjustified swipe at existentialism (Kierkegaard could eat Christopher Nolan's lunch several times over), I agree. The defense that's offered in the dialogue as well as in the comments is that there is a significant depth to the themes which Nolan explores in his movies. Except no one specifies what these depths are supposed to be; or we are told that, e.g., Memento is quite profound about identity. The substance of this profundity is, at all events, left unstated. For the doubters, myself included, this is assumed to be because there is no depth to them. However, I have begun to think the actual reason for both the cursory treatment of themes in contemporary aesthetics and the inability to recognize that treatment are both symptoms of a collapsed critical vocabulary: 'art films' now are those that simply recognize the importance of deeper content, regardless of whether they can deliver that content (this is how the 'arty' comic-book movie can come into existence); the remainder hardly even try.

In writing this I found myself thinking of Wild Strawberries, which gives over much of its middle third to a discussion between two young men about the existence of God. Leaving aside that it would be strange to see a movie today in which two people discussed ideas, any ideas, they held with conviction, the conversation manages to thematically mirror the central journey of the movie, and indicate the way in which the old man has transcended the petty arguments of youth but also suggest that their argument is conducted in no small part through their desires, and that the absence of desires which makes his old age comparatively peaceful does not give him any answers to the questions the young men are asking; and those questions must be answered. And are, by the end of the film.

This brings about another thought: our profound meditations, wherever they come from, are often praised, but rarely is the question asked: profound compared to what?

1 comment:

William said...

I talked this over with a friend, and we speculated that something like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence might be a good point of comparison for something like The Dark Knight. It's entertaining as a Western, consistent on the level of plot, and yet it still manages to touch on some interesting threads in politics and history. Is it the most profound thing in the world? No, but it's pretty coherent on two levels. Nolan's flashy and even entertaining on both levels, but I agree with you that it doesn't hold together on examination.