A response to Akshay Seth's 'Interstellar' column

By Jamie Bircoll, Daily Film Editor
Published November 12, 2014

Warning: Major spoilers for “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “The Dark Knight Rises” and mild spoilers for “The Prestige” follow

Akshay Seth is a brilliant film writer; he is eloquent, thoughtful and can turn a phrase like no other writer I have ever met. Every other week his film column ranks among the top five most-read articles on The Michigan Daily’s website. For this reason, he will be referred to as Mr. Seth for the remainder of this article, out of my respect for him. I’ve been discussing film with Mr. Seth for nearly two years now, and each day brings new ideas. And after reading his most recent column on Christopher Nolan and “Interstellar,” I have never disagreed with him more, which is a new phenomenon for me. He writes of “Interstellar” as Nolan’s self-criticism, but “Interstellar” is the exact same shtick we’ve come to expect from the acclaimed director, and everyone knows it; it’s why an animated marshmallow-like robot beat him at the box office this weekend.

Nolan specializes in cerebral filmmaking — the kind of films that demand an active viewer. He works with concepts that possess an inherently complicated structure and can only really be made sense of after multiple viewings. These films are often advertised as such: “Interstellar” as tackling the very fabric of space-time, “Inception” as delving into the deepest recesses of the mind in an attempt to discern what is real and what is imagined, etc. That’s all well and good, and I, more than most, love a challenging viewing experience, but Nolan’s films so often get worked up in the “what” and the “how” that the heart of the matter is ultimately lost. There’s a reason why the masses are discussing Nolan’s use of black holes as mechanisms to warp space and time rather than the soul of his film: that love transcends dimensions. Mr. Seth has addressed this as Nolan’s attempt at cynical self-reference, but that’s giving Nolan too much credit.

Cynicism is not in Nolan’s nature; he is a cold, methodical, calculating, albeit incredibly successful director (and that term “director” as applied to Nolan is sometimes a stretch), but cynical he is not. Cynicism implies skepticism and, in a way, hopelessness; Nolan’s films, especially his more recent endeavors, are filled with hope, or at least they expect the audience to be hopeful and naturally curious, looking for answers, attempting (and failing) to figure out the puzzle that Nolan has laid before them. For Nolan, film is a magic trick, all the more fitting because back in 1895, film was nothing more than a magic trick (see “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”).

Nolan tackled this notion directly in “The Prestige,” a film about two warring magicians. Michael Caine tells us in voiceover at both the beginning and end of the film: “Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the pledge: the magician shows you something ordinary. The second act is called the turn: the magician takes the ordinary something and makes into something extraordinary. But you wouldn’t clap yet because making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back.”

Nolan is obviously the magician; his film is the trick, and every film of his follows the exact same format, the same acts, as any good magician should. For example, in “Inception” the acts are as follows: the pledge establishes the rules of Cobb’s world, including extraction (unorthodox rules, but rules nonetheless) and his detachment after the death of his wife; the turn upends the rules by the introduction of the idea of inception and the action that follows; the prestige: Cobb’s return to humanity (in the dream world or otherwise). The same logic can be applied to every other Nolan film starting with “The Prestige.”

Now the pledge of each of Nolan’s films tends to be the most interesting because only Christopher Nolan has the sort of intellectual power to take otherwise ordinary situations and make them extraordinary, as in “Memento”: a man must track down the murderer of his wife (ordinary, in film terms), except he has retrograde amnesia and loses his memory every few minutes (extraordinary). His setups are always fantastic; it’s the execution of his second and third acts that always falter.

The turn of a Nolan film tends to involve an extended action sequence or several more brief action sequences that more often than not are a cluttered assemblage of quick cuts that distract from the overall flow of the sequence and very often don’t abide by the rules of physics or spatial relations (there’s a great study of the car chase scene in “The Dark Knight” by Jim Emmerson on this). Nolan essentially uses edits to distract from these discontinuous flows, and the cuts are so quick that the audience doesn’t totally realize they’ve witnessed an illogical sequence, but their brains still register something as off. “Memento” took this quick-cutting concept and applied it to an entire film, resulting in a fragmented story mirroring that of our fragmented protagonist; the method can be forgiven here because a) it’s brilliant and b) the cuts occur so quickly and in such small segments that we try to piece the story back together instead of tackling the glaring plot holes. One cannot be so forgiving with “Interstellar” and Nolan’s latter works.

There’s a French filmography term called mise-en-scène that, while difficult to define, essentially refers to everything before the camera and how it is arranged within the shot of the camera; so a shot can really be broken down into that which is within the frame and that which is outside of it. Nolan focuses on that which is within the frame and tends to ignore that which is outside it (thus his incredibly limited shot palette consisting of mainly medium shots). He gets away with this by constantly cutting, with shots rarely lasting longer than four or five seconds but usually no more than three seconds. Nolan ultimately amounts to an editor-writer who gets to play with the camera rather than a director.

There’s this other French term (last one, I promise) called mise en abyme literally “placed into abyss.” It refers to a play-within-a-play or a dream-within-a-dream or dimensions-within-dimensions. It serves as a parallel to the film itself, a doubling of images. Nolan uses this quite often, whether in his entire set-up or placing his fight sequences on stage-like structures (as in “The Dark Knight Rises”). It’s another illusory effect, and it always plays into the third act of a Nolan film — in the Nolan method, it’s the thing that makes you question what you’ve seen.

The trick with the third act, the prestige, of a Nolan film is that twist he throws onto the end of every film: Cobb remains locked in a dream; Bruce Wayne survives a nuclear explosion, etc. In “Interstellar,” Coop’s activities within the multiple dimensions of the black hole and reunion with his daughter serve as the prestige. We’re led to believe that after the tesseract collapsed, Coop was left adrift in space — and then a fade to white, which is never a sure sign of survival for the protagonist. When Coop comes to, he looks out the window where he realizes he’s on the gyroscopic space station thing from Earth, which is itself an allusion to “Inception,” with it’s city folded on top of itself. We are left to contemplate if love or chance or intelligent design brought Coop back to his daughter or if the whole sequence was merely the final thoughts of dying man deprived of oxygen. This is supposed to be the prestige, the part where we start asking the questions, contemplating the themes, replaying the film over again in our heads. And for the first time in a Nolan film, I truly didn’t care.

There’s supposed to be a payoff; instead, the only part of “Interstellar” that truly blew me away were the breathtaking shots of Saturn, the black holes, the massive celestial bodies. They were more magic tricks, distractions to the chunky editing, minimally fleshed-out characters, often-spotty narrative structure, etc.

So Mr. Seth is correct in ascribing “Interstellar” as Nolan’s once again folding the film to his will, which admittedly he has always done. But he’s done the same thing time and time again. And as a result, whether or not Mr. Seth is correct in establishing “Interstellar” as self-criticism proves moot because Nolan merely reworked his system, doing what he always does, the same magic trick. That just won’t fly anymore.

The last line of “The Prestige” continues that aforementioned Michael Caine voiceover, “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out … you want to be fooled.” I do want to be fooled, and that’s why I see Nolan films, usually more than once — but not this time. This time, I know his secrets, his maneuvers; I saw the prestige before the turn had reached halfway; I’ve seen his sleight of hand, it’s not fooling anyone anymore.