Weekend Binge: Christopher Nolan is in India and here’s a crash course on why he’s here (through 5 films)
Christopher Nolan is in India, but do you know why? Let’s discuss the purpose of his visit the only way we know how: through movies.Updated: Apr 01, 2018 11:58 IST
Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.
While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events - it could be the release of a new movie, or show - we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.
It’s perfectly understandable to read the words ‘Christopher Nolan is in India’ and think, “He’s back shooting a movie!” Of course Nolan must have a had a tremendous time filming that Jodhpur portion of The Dark Knight Rises, because how couldn’t he? He must’ve been so taken with our endless hospitality and charm that he felt compelled to set his new movie in India (and to ignore the years of red-tape that has prohibited big Hollywood directors to shoot their films here). Sadly, Nolan isn’t here to shoot his new movie. He’s here to take part in a talk about the future of cinema, particularly film - a cause that he has become the de-facto figurehead for.
For years Nolan has been vocal about the importance of shooting on film - on actual, physical celluloid and not just, you know, in an abstract sense of the word. For years he has sensed the impending arrival of digital filmmaking - it’s safe to say that as things stand, digital has overtaken the industry. But even while established filmmakers (and former champions of film) such as Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve have made the switch - in the end, the decision is not in their hands and is entirely based on commerce - Nolan and a handful of his comrades - Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson - haven’t stopped fighting the fight.
The truth of the matter is that we’ve arrived at a time when the differences between film and digital are too minuscule to note - Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins recently said that he’s frankly tired of this debate, simply because the quality of digital cameras has, in his opinion (and he should know, he’s the best), overtaken that of film.
I won’t bore you with the finer details, instead, you can read about it in this excellent thread:
I don't have any readings off the top of my head but it involves a couple of reasons.— Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane) March 25, 2018
One is the inherent difference in how film and digital capture and project light (contd) https://t.co/3zFU3m2As1
But I will list for you a selection of movies that highlight the advantages of both mediums. But before everything else, you should watch the documentary Side by Side, presented by Keanu Reeves of all people, which talks to several prominent directors about where they stand on the matter.
As with any significant change in filmmaking - sound, colour, 3D - the paths are broken by people you least expect. In the mid-90s, a handful of Danish directors signed the Dogme 95 manifesto, which established certain filmmaking guidelines far too self-indulgent to list here. But the first wave of movies made under the directive were all united by the medium with which they were filmed. Back in those days, digitally shot movies were made in standard definition, and while it’s possible you may not have seen the Dogme movies, you might remember the grainy, lo-fi aesthetic that Danny Boyle brought to 28 Days Later, shot by the pioneer cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle.
Dod Mantle, along with Boyle, would later go on to win the first Oscar awarded to a digitally shot movie when the pair won for Slumdog Millionaire, but for years, they were seen as the outsiders.
However, a significant film that arrived in the interim period was Michael Mann’s Collateral. Mann was one of the earliest filmmakers to make the switch to digital, and prefers shooting on the medium to this day. Collateral became the first major Hollywood movie to have been (largely) shot digitally. So the next time you watch it, notice the Los Angeles skies and the unique character that Mann’s digital camera gives them. Notice the florescence of the street lights. These are visuals that have now become synonymous with LA-set crime movies, and it can all be traced to Collateral, a movie as genre defining as some of the best film noirs from the ‘40s.
The Social Network
It’s one thing to shoot on digital because of budget constraints - film stock is expensive and restrictive, and film cameras can only shoot up to 10 minutes at a time while theoretically, you can shoot for as long as you like on digital - but it’s a whole new ball game when the choice of medium has thematic implications on the movie. Danny Boyle chose to shoot on three different mediums - 16 mm, 35 mm, and digital - to highlight the passage of time in Steve Jobs, a film that was divided by three distinct acts. Recently, Steven Spielberg, a strong advocate for celluloid, chose to film the scenes set inside the virtual reality world of the OASIS in Ready Player One with digital cameras.
But David Fincher got there first, as he usually does. The director, notorious for demanding upwards of 50 takes from actors, found that digital cameras afforded him the luxury he had always dreamed of. So beginning with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher made the switch. His long-time cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, was Oscar nominated for his work on the Social Network -- a cool, clinical movie about an icy innovator who yearns for the warmth of companionship. There is a glossy, computerised sheen to the movie, which simply would not have been as effective had it been shot on film, an inherently richer medium.
Once Upon a Time in the West
If you ever get an opportunity to watch Sergio Leone’s classic Western on the big screen, do not miss it. It’s unlikely that you’ll get to see it in glorious widescreen, but even a slightly larger presentation will highlight the visual achievements of the film. Leone intended it to be a throwback to the American Westerns of John Wayne, re-imagining and reinventing the tropes of the genre.
It’s telling that Westerns, along with other classic Hollywood genres such as Musicals and Film Noir, continue to be shot on film, perhaps to evoke the nostalgia of an era in filmmaking that is very much over. Tarantino insists on shooting on film because he grew up on a healthy diet of Sergio Leone movies - his The Hateful 8 even retrofitted some of the original lenses used by David Lean. HBO’s Westworld is one of the few remaining TV shows that can afford to shoot on celluloid, thanks perhaps to the involvement of JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, the younger brother of our subject this week.
What better way to end this than with a Nolan movie. Even though an ultimately insignificant percentage of the audience managed to see it in the way it was intended - IMAX 70 mm - Dunkirk is the single greatest advocate for the preservation of the theatre-going experience. Watching it unfold on an IMAX screen - even though we only have digitally projected IMAX in India - was an unforgettable experience.
IMAX cameras are terribly cumbersome to manoeuvre - they’re large and bulky - so Nolan chose to shoot most of the dialogue-heavy scenes on 65 mm film (you’ll remember the scenes set inside the hull of the boat). But somehow, the master that he is, he managed to rig World War II planes with IMAX cameras, offering an unparalleled experience that felt more immersive than any 3D that I’ve ever seen.