Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christopher Nolan and Fascist Cinema

Christopher Nolan's recent space-epic Interstellar has done well at the box office and garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. The Dark Knight director seems to have found a comfortable space dancing between the big-budget blockbusters devoid of thought and the art-house devoid of heart. Some of his detractors argue his films make little sense, are overall jargon heavy, and dumber than they think. Debating the finer points of the worlds he creates is not of interest to me. I don't need the internal scientific logic of the film to be accurate to make it enjoyable (although I do think Nolan is prone to bludgeoning his audience with exposition that is inherently unnecessary). What I find much more interesting is the discussion currently ragging over the political and social themes apparent in his work.

Eileen Jones at Jacobin Magazine sees Nolan's films as fascist and imperialist in design. Noting the lack of interest in the world the characters leave behind, she sees a brutal celebration of the pioneer:
And they live on a flat plain in Middle America, so there’s no gazing out on beautiful trees or mountains, taking a last look before blowing dust blots them out forever. No one laments the lost lakes and rivers. No one looks at old photos of a green world. The Nolan boys don’t cast a backward glance — the Earth is unsalvageable and there’s no further point in trying to figure out how to live here. It had gotten to be a bad place for us anyway, in existential ways preceding catastrophic conditions. Good conditions made us too comfortable, soft, and decadent. We were practically turning back into Europeans again. Far better to devote all scientific brainpower to a billion-to-one shot space adventure of maximum danger! 
The mysterious forces that seem to operate in the world, the “gods” or “ghosts” or “aliens” who were trying to communicate with and possibly aid the characters early in the film, turn out to be just human characters from the future, maneuvering to redirect their past selves onto more favorable courses. In order to save humanity, see, Cooper has to go adventuring forward in time so his wiser future-self could come back and send Morse-code messages to Murph through the space-time continuum bookcase. Or something. The Nolans have dreamed up an appalling anthropocentric cosmos in which, ultimately, no living thing, no force of any significance exists but the human. That’s my idea of Hell, by the way. But the Nolans have other views that seem widely shared — celebrating humanity as it enacts American-style “dominant individualism” all alone in the empty universe.

Some might see this is as nothing more than an over-analysis from some hard-leftist, but she isn't the only one who sees such themes. Over at right-wing Radix Journal, Mark Barhim celebrates the rise of Nolan's ethos:
It is, of course, a mistake to view Interstellar as a racialist or “right-wing” film. Yes, Nolan is, quite admirably, calling for a return to nobler virtues embodied in the great explorers of the Age of Discovery and the American Astronauts of a more recent period. Though beyond this explicit message lies a crypto-Christian allegory. Here, it seems, Nolan is implicitly endorsing Christianity as the faith of the West, intrinsically bound to it, as its bedrock even, and as a necessary or inevitable part of cultural, civilizational, and even scientific renewal, much as Spengler fastened Christianity to The West through his coinage of “Faustian.” And Nolan optimistically seems to be signaling for a Faustian Indian Summer, if not the appearance of a new Faustian Age all together. Here are the clues.
Quite explicitly, there is a Christian theme of death and renewal (or resurrection), of which even the characters in the film are cognizant. They have named their missions, which are intended to save all mankind, Lazarus missions. Nolan also slyly follows James Cameron in The Terminator; both give their protagonist the initials of Jesus Christ—John Conner and James Cooper, respectively. And there is also doubtlessly a reference to Christ’s (and Dionysus’, Balder’s or Adonis’) pre-resurrection descent into the underworld or hell, seen especially in Copper’s disappearance into the black hole. In this myth, it is understood that Christ’s resurrection and apotheosis (as is the case with his pagan equivalents) is only possible by his suffering and gaining of wisdom in hell. Likewise, this is the case with Cooper. Additionally, Cooper becomes a sort of Holy Father in Heaven (or Space), contrasted with Murphy, an Earth Mother or Mary, both daughter and, as it will be revealed, mother and liberator of Christ (Cooper). To wit, Murphy is virginally “impregnated” by the Spirit, Message, and Word of God, as the Catholic Nun is, and thereby becomes the mother of the world as well as the mother of Cooper, The Savior, who is also reborn by her efforts.
It is the Faustian greatness of Nolan's films that I find appealing. Sure, his Batman films are still big, dumb superhero movies (regardless of what comic fans may try and tell you), but the Batman he crafted does have its "fascist" characteristics and bring to light some politically-incorrect truths. In the Nolan Batman universe, order in society requires someone taking extrajudicial action against the enemies of the common man. Bureaucrats, politicians, and legal authorities are at best ineffective, and at worst corrupt.

Yes, Batman defeats totalitarian villains, but his very approach thrashes at the soft, liberal state we live within. It takes a strong individual, willing to break the law, to protect "tradition." By tradition, I mean a community that exists prior to the current state of affairs in Gotham (i.e. order, family, and community prior to the unknown and unresponsive bureaucratic state). What we must understand, is that this element of Nolan's Batman is what we, as an audience, find most appealing. We intrinsically know that the forces responsible for protecting us and our way of life are unable to do so. Capitalism and finance are a multi-headed hydra that has no center and yet has sway over all levers of life. Globalization, mass migration, and eviornmental destruction continue unibated regardless of their unpopularity. We want a "Batman" to confront the problems we know the authorities can not.

Nolan's work grasps this core emotional fact and why his films, regardless of their anti-liberal qualities, have such a strong connection with audiences. In fact, I feel that it is the anti-liberal (even fascist) qualities that speaks to the average viewer.

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