David Bordwell has mounted a strong defense of Christopher Nolan’s status as a preeminent director against naysayers like Jim Emerson. (Check out the rest of Observation on Film Art’s Nolan entries.) The long and short of it is that, while Nolan might not be particularly daring or sophisticated in his raw technique, he does flex the boundaries of mainstream cinema in order to create enjoyable films that reward critical appreciation.
Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them. In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like P. G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. From Burroughs and Doyle to Stieg Larsson and Michael Crichton, we forgive a lot.
Similarly, Nolan’s work deserves attention even though some of it lacks elegance and cohesion at the shot-to-shot level. The stylistic faults I pointed to above and that echo other writers’ critiques are offset by his innovative approach to overarching form. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions. When he mobilizes visual technique to sharpen and nuance his architectural ambitions, we find a solid integration of texture and structure, fine grain and large pattern.
Note that Bordwell doesn’t argue that Nolan’s filmmaking is flawless or terribly polished in the way of many of the more critically lauded auteurs. He spends a great deal of time showing that most of Nolan’s technique has deep, conventional roots while ruminating on how well (or poorly) Nolan utilizes these forms. The gist of his argument is that Nolan’s detail work isn’t quite as meticulous or graceful because he is so focused on the big picture — but the big picture is usually captivating and meticulously constructed in its own way. (In my discussion of Emerson’s critique of The Dark Knight’s chase sequence in relation to film editing, I referred to Nolan’s technique as “gestalt,” which isn’t the same thing as Bordwell is arguing, but the intersection between Bordwell’s appreciation of structure and the way Nolan accumulates moments within that structure is worth further investigation.) At the risk of putting words in Bordwell’s digital pen, Nolan may not be one of “the greats,” but his shortcomings are not necessarily fatal flaws. And those shortcomings are compensated for by the ambition of his narratives and the serendipitous places where Nolan’s craftsmanship operates at the level of his vision. Please read the entire article, especially if you’re invested in the critical discussion of mainstream cinema and Nolan’s place within it.☕