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10 Films That Had The Biggest Influences On The Films Of Christopher Nolan

26 November 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Christopher Seelie

christopher-nolan-films

When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”

Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.

Christopher Nolan makes blockbusters with the loving obsession of an auteurist director held close to the bosom of the cinaphilic community. His 9 feature films track an increasingly expansive canvas of human endeavor: from the tight, paranoid, neo-noir calling-card to the movie business that was 1998’s Following, to this year’s $165 million dollar, 169 minute long space epic, Interstellar.

Unlike many contemporary film directors adapting to a business model that runs on self-promotion, Christopher Nolan does not enjoy discussing his films and he refuses to talk about his family life. The portrait assembled from interviews with his collaborators and the instances where he discusses other directors’ work suggests a personality driven to perfection, emanating calm control. These ten films provide us with clues as to where Nolan’s understanding of cinema perfection originates.

 

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

2001-a-space-odyssey-original

Stanley Kubrick’s space epic begins at the inception of humanness: when one monkey beats its competitor with the aid of a bone. In the iconic jump-cut for the ages, the bone is replaced with a spaceship floating through the galaxy. What follows is a story of humanity and fate…at least that’s how some people have interpreted it. 2001 is a movie experience, more than a story.

For Christopher Nolan, this is the rosebud of a brilliantly flowering career. “I saw 2001 when I was about seven years old. They re-released it after Star Wars so my dad took me and my brother to see it at the Odeon Leicester Square on the huge screen. It was just a mind-blowing experience and I’ve been a huge Kubrick fan ever since. All my friends at the time saw it and loved it; we didn’t understand it, but we used to argue about what it meant. It just has that sensory stimulation of pure cinema that speaks to people of all ages.” (quoted from Empire Magazine)

Hallmarks of Christopher Nolan’s cinema passion are in the above quote. The huge screen suggests his future championing of IMAX and the continuance of film in the digital age. The mind-blowing experience suggests his own use of non-linear storytelling to wow audiences. The suggestion that all ages respond to the “sensory stimulation of pure cinema” could be the declaration of an ideal. For however personal the film might be for Christopher Nolan as a person, his loyalty is to the audience and to the purity of experience in a film story.

Memento and Inception have been criticized for being too complicated to understand. Critics of the Batman trilogy have taken umbrage with relocating Gotham to Chicago, and with the editing of action sequences. Interstellar is the first of Mr. Nolan’s 9 feature films to have significant screen time devoted to the emotional response of characters to events.

No doubt these movies are not flawless, but they are reaching for an ideal. Pure cinema for Christopher Nolan must dazzle while it thinks. An individual filmgoer’s understanding of the story is beneath the priority of giving the audience as a whole an experience similar to watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

2. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

A wave of crime plagues the city and the evidence points to the criminal mastermind of Dr. Mabuse, but he has been imprisoned in a mental asylum for ten years. A conspiracy is revealed and an obsession leads to a pathetic end. On the Criterion website Christopher Nolan calls this, “Essential research for anyone attempting to write a supervillain.”

Fritz Lang revived the character of Dr. Mabuse from one of his earlier silent-era projects to tell an exciting tale of brutality, conspiracy, and corruption in modern Germany. It has been supposed that the rise of Nazism was not coincident to the director’s intentions, especially when Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda banned it.

Fritz Lang dramatized the anxieties with technology and industrialism for 20th century audiences. The dream of progress quickly becomes the nightmare of oppression when considering the nefarious power of brilliant, immoral minds. For Christopher Nolan and his 21st century audiences, that anxiety has transferred to the realm of privacy and the threat of terrorism.

Dr. Mabuse might be the hypnotist exerting influence upon the will of dangerous men, but the Joker needs no willing minds to influence. He can construct situations that surface latent antipathies, egotisms, dark tendencies. Both super villains relish the collapse of civilization, law and order.

More prevalent in the whole of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is the power of obsession. The true instigator of the crime wave in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the victim of an obsession. Like the struggling writer in Following, he acts out of impulse, against his better judgment, and to his ultimate demise.

In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife despite an inability to form new short-term memories. His obsession with justice is, like Bruce Wayne’s, born out of a personal grievance and fueled by that trauma. The rival magicians in The Prestige are obsessed with besting each other’s dedication to the art of illusions.

The destructive and awe-inspiring power of obsession: a mental state that can produce profound effects on the external world through the sheer doggedness of the Obsessive’s focus. It’s the true power of a master magician tirelessly working at his tricks. It is the compass at the center of a moral character’s integrity, and it is a pretty valuable trait to have as a director. Perhaps this summarizes Christopher Nolan protagonists’ distinction from the other characters, and Christopher Nolan among his peers.

 

3. The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

The Usual Suspects

The film event at the end of Christopher Nolan’s college years, The Usual Suspects made a Hollywood darling of director Bryan Singer, who like Nolan took control of a superhero franchise. The story takes off with a massive explosion ripping through a ship at harbor in a San Pedro, CA. Along with casualties there is 91 million dollars’ worth of cocaine missing.

Detective Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) interrogates the only witness and key suspect, “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). In a series of dizzying flashbacks, Verbal spins the tale of his group of thieves and their contact with the mysterious arch-crime lord Keyser Soze.

Keyser Soze is no diabolical mentalist like Dr. Mabuse, but his enigmatic influence is the prime mystery tickling audience, including the detective. The Usual Suspects hinges on a twist ending, one that astounds audiences while disappointing their expectations in a way similar to the endings of The Prestige and Inception.

The added value of influence on Christopher Nolan’s particular brand of neo-noir fiction is the way flashbacks and twists give the audience information strategically. The story goes backwards as it goes forwards, much like Memento. Audience memory is tested while acts of faulty memory recall become essential turns in the mystery. The result is a noir-ish retread that shifts the narrative tension from the traditional “what will happen” to “what will have happened if…”

 

4. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer)

The Manchurian Candidate

Another thriller leveraging the flaws of memory from hypnotism. This time the conspiracy is political. Gore Vidal once suggested that the Kennedy assassination launched the Cold War paranoid political thriller genre into the popular consciousness. This film predated the assassination, but just barely. Rumor spread that The Manchurian Candidate’s release was curtailed out of respect to the departed. It was actually a disagreement between Sinatra’s people and the studio over revenue distribution.

A celebrated Korean vet (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed by the Communists to assassinate persons deemed obstructive to their subversion of America and the free world. The operative agent in control is the man’s own mother (Angela Lansbury). His old army buddy (Frank Sinatra) is also responsible for uncovering the conspiracy before the henpecked step-father is planted to get elected President. Freudian family dynamics blend with Red Scare anxieties seamlessly in this paranoid tragedy.

Technically, the wit of the story is matched by the composition of shots and the cinematic shorthand that efficiently depth of character. For example, one political family uses Abraham Lincoln as a decorative motif while the rival’s home is decked out in eagles and bunting.

The first is quaint, almost folksy, and by comparison to the symbolic bluster of abstraction favored by the latter, it is specific as to which America they align with. It’s also an adroit satire on the American bombast en vogue at the time. Senator Joe McCarthy was dead and disgraced by that time, but his hysterical denouncement of communists in every branch of the government was still believed by some.

Inception’s approach to brainwashing is more compelling today than the mid-century fascination with Oedipal complexes, but the plot exploits the same paranoid suspicion that one’s thoughts are not one’s own. That the privacy of one’s inner life and the sanctity of one’s will is not an impenetrable fortress, but rather a complex of symbolic mechanisms capable of manipulation.

The process of simplifying the foreign concept to critical impact and receiver acceptability should bring to mind the work of Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising kingpins that put Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party in power with “Labour isn’t working” and who developed the one-word message technique now used by corporations—Priceless— political campaigns—Hope, Forward—and even movies, like Inception. Or Following. Or Memento. Or Interstellar.

 

5. The Thin Red Line (1998, Terence Malick)

The Thin Red Line

It’s 1942 and the US Army is fighting a bloody offensive north through the island of Guadalcanal. Japanese resistance is stiff, desperate, and both sides experience inhuman acts of violence. The scale is not historical but mythical. The Thin Red Line aspires to be an epic writ in the lyric of Malick’s coolly observant camera and metaphysical sensibility. The battle gains specificity by following the lives of a group of soldiers in C—Company over a period of a couple of weeks. Frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer also composed the score for The Thin Red Line.

Christopher Nolan has said of The Thin Red Line, “It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that, even though it’s based on a book, could only really be done in cinema. It’s just the essence of cinematic storytelling. It has a hypnotic quality where the viewer’s relationship with the photography, and the sound particularly, creates narrative points; it creates emotions that drive the narrative.

These things are created by the combination of picture and sound rather than the dialogue. A lot of films, a lot of great films in fact, could also be radio plays or television programmes or stage plays. The Thin Red Line is pure cinematic storytelling.”

The book from which the movie is loosely adapted has all the trappings of mid-century Americana. The urge to create an American mythos out of the senseless bloodletting on a remote Pacific Island requires some very stiff characters with the philosophical breadth of either fatalism or existentialism. This is good country for humorless white men inspired by warrior culture. The movie suppresses the homosexual awakening of one character and makes the Jewish captain into a Greek.

Nolan’s territory is reflected in the relationship—or Socratic dialog—between Sergeant Welsh and Private Witt. Welsh (Sean Penn) believes there is no other world than the one he senses and knows. He reduces war to a disagreement over property and human life to meat. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) believes that there are other worlds, other ways, and his eventual sacrifice can be taken as a leap of faith that the individual is illusory and the whole of people is the true life lived.

Compare that to the ineffable mystery in Interstellar and we might have a glimpse at where Christopher Nolan’s ambitions are taking him. The sci-fi adventure is a big change from the neo-noir territory of Following, Memento, Insomnia, and his take on the Batman mythos. Inception introduced a sci-fi element to his film work but Interstellar is something entirely different and extremely ambitious.

 

 

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  • Vincent Joy

    “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films’”- Quentin Tarantino

  • Philip_W

    It’s strange that this list doesn’t include “Heat” , when Nolan himself has declared it as a major influence for “The Dark Knight”

  • scottmci

    And “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a major influence on the “Inception” snow fortress scenes.

  • F S

    Nolan didn’t even know Tarkovsky before his DP told him of “Serkalo” in pre-production of the shoot of “Interstellar”. So I highly doubt that “Solaris” has influenced him (maybe Soderbergh’s version).
    And comparing one of the greatest artists of all time to a master craftsman is not very promising. Nolan always has to explain and has to tell his audience how to feel. There is nothing to discover in Nolan’s films (the theories surrounding Inception are trivial disqualifying them to be art).

    Replace “Solaris” with “Heat” and the list is great.

    • Joel Zachariah

      well said

    • Ari

      There is nothing to discover in Nolan’s films? And Scorsese’s and Tarantino’s has? They’re all commercial filmmakers, and in the case of Nolan, he is the only director in hollywood who tries to do something different of usual, and you cannot like him, but you have to admit it. He ”explains” because he makes commercial films, like scorsese, tarantino and all the people who work in hollywood. That’s nothing wrong with that. Only because he doesn’t just put things in the screen and make you think what the hell is happening and why… his work is not art? That’s bullshit.

      • F S

        I didn’t say that “because he doesn’t just put things in the screen and make[s] you think what the hell is happening and why… his work is not art”. If you watch “Solaris”, for example, you don’t wonder what is happening.
        I just said that art does not explain (and stressed that this is an opinion).

        Anyways, it’s a question of feeling and not of understanding. Every halfway educated person would have understood (or if he would not have, he would have just gone on without trying to connect the dots) the sequences of the black hole – or that time is differently perceived in different parts of the universe. Art is not an intellectual process but an emotional one.

        Explaining it, makes it more commercial – so it reaches as many people as possible of all ages on all parts of the world. Explaining the content of a work of art is deceiving it.

        But >explaining< also includes this kind of usage of music, the kind of acting, etc. Every audience member always knows which way he/she should feel which is eliminating the freedom of the spectator.

        Explaining also includes giving the audience messages, moralizing them and not leaving questions open. In doing that, an artist treats his audience as a lesser being that is sillier than the artist. But it is not very useful either (it makes more money, naturally, because people don't like to leave the cinema less secure than before (more stupid though)). By giving the audience a moral lesson (or any kind of lesson) the artist makes himself an authority – the individual must know the reasons for a believe but cinema is not the right medium for making arguments (reasons that come to a conclusions). If it doesn't have the reasons, it will quickly believe another authority.

        The master filmmaker hides his intentions making them only visible for those who want to see them (e.g. Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Bresson, Antonioni; or more contemporary examples: Tarr, Weerasethakul, Reygadas, Jarmusch, Mungiu,…). Thus there is something to discover, feelings being produced by the spectator which are not part of the film or instilled by the film.

        Additionally, I never compared Nolan to other Hollywood directors. Looking from the perspective of an audience member that is (mostly) accustomed to Hollywood pictures, yes, he stands out from the crowd. Looking from a global perspective (considering the past, too), he does not differ much from other Hollywood directors.

        PS: I do like to watch Nolan's films but I would not go as far as calling them "(pure) works of art". Art is a word that is hard to define but with the standard definitions or comparing him to works of art that most people clearly see as art, Nolan's work does not hold up.

        • jetser

          Then you realized that he (Cooper) SPOILER! died in the black hole and came back as a ghost to leave messages for her daughter.
          Because you said, everything is explained to the crowd.

          • F S

            I don’t understand this; could you reformulate?

          • jetser

            You said that “Every halfway educated person would have understood…the sequences of the black hole”
            That’s why I asked that a presumed educated person like you must have understood that Cooper died in the black hole. Because I doubt that the majority of people get that.
            Ghosts are dead people right? That’s what Cooper became in the end. The sequences after that were his imagination. Seeing his daughter’s face as the last thing he ever sees. (as Dr. Mann predicted).

      • cinemaftw

        There nothing commercial about Scorsese, no with Tarantino either, you have no idea how the market works is you think that are “commercial” films

        • Wolfgang

          Oh, violence is no commercial, yeah? (Especially when it has dark comedy on it.) That’s right…

          • cinemaftw

            For violence they give you an R rating, thats the least commercial thing there is, you dont understand what commercial cinema means? Sure because Taxi Driver is so commercial, “hey lets see the new blockbuster about a vietnam veteran dealings with existential doubts”

  • Johnson

    If you read the New York magazine article on the favorite or most
    influential films on Nolan, one would have concluded he was much more
    knocked out by the cinema of the now (almost) forgotten Nicolas Roeg. The films cited in that piece included “Insignificance,” “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” and I think, “Eureka.”

  • LadyLeitMotif

    It’s odd that this doesn’t include the awesome Paprika, which he’s cited as his inspiration for Inception.

  • Darryl Nightingale
  • krishanu chanda

    i expected paprika on the list..i tought inception was heavily influenced from that film..

  • TheTachy0n

    Nolan took a lot of influence from Satoshi Kon aswell, especially for Inception.

  • Clint

    Nolan has mentioned Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ as an influence on The Dark Knight… He screened ‘Battle of Algiers’ to the cast of The Dark Knight Rises, to show a City under siege… Also has spoken about ‘The Right Stuff’ during Interstellar interviews, he challenged his crew to aim for aerial shots as good as this film considering it was shot without some of the technology today and pushed Warner Bros. To release it on Blu Ray.