Why Christopher Nolan Turns His Movies On Their Heads

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Slate's Culture Blog
July 20 2012 5:20 PM

Chris Nolan’s Favorite Shot, and What It Means

Inception_turn
The world turns on its side in Christopher Nolan's Inception.

Photo by Stephen Vaughan © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. 2010.

Spoilers for old movies ahead.

Christopher Nolan likes to turn the world upside-down. In each of his films, there comes a moment when you start to realize that the hero isn’t quite who you thought he was. When The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” he could be speaking about the fate of just about every Nolan protagonist: Leonard Shelby in Memento, either of the magicians in The Prestige, even Cobb from Inception. (I’ll refrain from spoiling The Dark Knight Rises.)

This theme is reinforced by Nolan’s repeated use (along with his cinematographer Wally Pfister) of a very unusual shot: The roll, a camera movement in which the camera does a barrel roll turning everything in view on its side, or—if it keeps turning—upside-down. It’s a movement other directors use very rarely, but Nolan loves it, and he employs it at key moments for a particular purpose: To enhance the viewer’s sense of disorientation.

In The Dark Knight, Nolan uses the shot at the moment when Batman finally captures the Joker—leaving the villain hanging upside-down—and The Joker switches from fighting Batman with bazookas to trying to defeat him with a rather lengthy barrage of ideas. In short, he wants Batman to embrace moral anarchy, to break his “one rule,” and kill him. Just as Batman seems to consider this, the camera rolls on its side, and soon the Joker appears to be right-side up, while the world behind him has turned upside-down. (I’ve embedded a montage of this shot and others mentioned in this post below.) As the Joker puts it, at the scene’s close: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity: All it takes is a little push.”

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

In Inception, Nolan’s most mind-bending film, he turns the world on its side again and again. The most striking instance is when Ariadne folds Paris in on itself until Parisians are strolling down the inverted streets above her. But the camera rolls come later. First, there’s actually a whole action set piece that takes place in a barrel-rolling hotel hallway—Nolan constructed a massive rolling set to pull it off—and throughout the scene the camera rolls on its side with the action. (There’s a similar fight scene in The Dark Knight Rises that takes place in a plane turned on its side.)

But it’s at the end of Inception that we once again lose our equilibrium just as we’re seeing the protagonist from a new angle. It happens when we finally witness how the hero, Cobb, ended up (arguably) killing his wife, Mal. Cobb explains how he succeeded in convincing her that she was dreaming, and therefore needed her to kill herself to escape the dream. Just as we’re beginning to wonder if we can trust Cobb anymore the camera, once again, is rolled on its side. Cobb and Mal, who are both lying on their sides on the fatal train tracks, appear now to be right-side up.

Even when he doesn't employ the shot, Christopher Nolan—in conjunction with his brother and frequent screenwriter Jonathan Nolan—delights in upending the viewers' sense of the world. The Inception scene on the train tracks recalls a similar scene from Nolan’s breakout film, Memento. That film returns again and again to the moment when Leonard and his wife have been knocked to the bathroom floor by intruders who have broken into their house. Lying on their sides and slipping out of consciousness, they stare across the floor at each other as the life drains from Leonard’s wife’s eyes. When we return to the same shot later, we discover that Leonard’s wife actually survived, that Leonard eventually killed her, and that Leonard has been lying to himself, and giving himself puzzles to solve, to keep himself from confronting the truth.

The Prestige official poster

Official poster for The Prestige.

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When Nolan flips his movies on their heads, it’s often to reveal how his characters delude themselves into feeling better. In Nolan’s world, no one thinks of themselves as a villain, and even the murderers tell themselves stories about how they’re actually heroes. As Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) tells Leonard in Memento: “So you lie to yourself to be happy—there’s nothing wrong with that, we all do it. Who cares if there’s a few little details you’d rather not remember.”

Or consider at The Prestige, in which two men commit horrible acts while driven by obsession. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) ends up killing his opponent’s lover and then lying to himself about whether he really did it. (She drowns while unable to escape from a particularly tough knot that he tied, and he says he can’t remember which knot he used. The trick she was trying to perform is called “the Upside Down.”) His opponent Rober Angier (Hugh Jackman), meanwhile, ends up committing routine murder as part of his magic act, to perform a particularly spectacular trick.

Why does Angier do it? His answer might give us a clue as to why Christopher Nolan so enjoys turning his worlds upside-down:

You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: The world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you … then you got to see something really special... You really don't know? It was... the look on their faces.
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