Christopher Nolan Becomes “Controversial” for…Speaking Truth?

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A year ago, director Christopher Nolan was still considered the most bankable auteur filmmaker around. But in the Bizarro world of 2020, he’s now been cast as the crazy uncle everybody avoids at holiday gatherings. 

Why? Well, first, he dared to maintain belief that there was a place for cinema in a post-COVID world, standing firm in debuting his latest film, Tenet, in theaters. Then, in just the last three weeks, he made a few logical observations about film markets and consumer tastes. The nerve!

On releasing Tenet during the pandemic, I’ll only say I saw it in (a socially distanced) theater myself, and I thoroughly enjoyed this quote from Forbes’ Scott Mendelson (whom I don’t always agree with): 

“I’m not going to lecture you about attending movie theaters, since we’re all adults.” 

As far as Nolan’s remarks, here ya go:

1. On Tenet’s box office performance, LA Times Interview

“I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release — that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-COVID expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words.” 

Nolan is exactly right. Despite making “only” $56.3 million in the U.S., Tenet has wracked up a global total of $353.7 million at the time of this writing. The U.S. may be locked down and shy about returning to theaters, but clearly, there are viable markets elsewhere around the globe.

2. On his much-maligned sound-mixing, The Nolan Variations (Book)

”I was a little shocked to realize how conservative people are when it comes to sound. Because you can make a film that looks like anything, you can shoot on your iPhone, no one’s going to complain. But if you mix the sound a certain way, or if you use certain sub-frequencies, people get up in arms.” 

Look, I have as much (if not more) trouble hearing dialogue in a Christopher Nolan film as the next guy. But I’m fairly sharp, and I also go in knowing that Nolan flicks are crafted to be taken in over multiple viewings. So, I buy the home video release and put on the subtitles. Then, after 600 screenings, everything finally makes sense. Mostly. 

But Nolan is making a larger point about the inexplicable, irrational double-standard in media consumption among audiences. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has stuck a cell phone up to my face to show me a poor-quality viral video, on a microscopic screen, with the low quality sound playing through worse quality speakers. And I’m the crazy one for not wanting to watch it. (I would watch it on my TV, but then it’s a vertical image on a horizontal screen, which may be equally annoying.)

Yet, attend a theater with a high-quality picture and the sound mixed a certain way and “everyone loses their minds!”

But let’s not stop at movies. The same baffling phenomenon happens in music.

When I was editor for Southern Senses, we received an album submission from a band that was making serious moves in the indie scene. I was excited they had contacted us…until I listened to the material. There’s a difference between being intentionally lo-fi and just recording badly, and to this day, I’m not sure which of the two I was hearing. 

But recording quality aside, the musicianship and singing were just not good. I sent the record to another of our reviewers, and he agreed. Yet, the band is still going strong five years later. Meanwhile, somewhere, another poor talented slob loses all his money on a polished studio record that nobody will listen to.

But let’s take it a step further with social media. If I had a dollar for every articulate, clever, succinct post I’ve seen that was generally passed over for illiterate, profanity-laden rants, we’d be having this conversation on my private island in the Caribbean. (Well, actually, no, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you at all.)

I can’t explain it, and neither can Nolan.

3.  On making The Dark Knight Trilogy, EW Interview

“The other advantage we had was back then you could take more time between sequels. When we did Batman Begins, we didn’t know we’d do one, and it took three years to do it and then four years before the next one. We had the luxury of time. It didn’t feel like a machine, an engine of commerce for the studio. As the genre becomes so successful, those pressures become greater and greater. It was the right time.”

For those remarks, Nolan is being lambasted for criticizing the modern comic book movie genre (which would mainly be Marvel, since DC has had a rough go of it since Nolan left.) Well, he’s not criticizing. He’s merely observing that he had more freedom with Batman because the superhero genre had yet to become a corporate process. And once again, he’s right.

The superhero genre a decade ago was not what it is today, and Nolan is simply happy that he was able to make his films in the less restraining environment. Why wouldn’t he be?

It is amazing to me how innocuous, apt, and accurate comments can become sources of controversy, but, alas! Such is 2020! Or perhaps, such is 21st-century humanity. 

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