Auteurism as Advertising: What Does it Mean to Be Nolanesque?

Dark Knight Rises

Warner Bros.

Lynchian. Kubrickian. Felliniesque. A directorial adjective can have strong, transportable power, even if its exact meaning may rely more on general impressions and evocations of inspiration than a concrete set of rules. Many of these terms, however, gain currency well after a director has established a set style, producing a moniker that results as a sort of shorthand for auteurism: a term pregnant with assumed meaning to describe an implied close familiarity with the themes, styles and obsessions that codify a filmmaker’s body of work.

“Lynchian” was arguably solidified as popular parlance with David Foster Wallace’s 1996 essay from a visit to the set of Lost Highway, a work of writing that tied together both Lynch’s idiosyncratic film style and his esoteric personality as a person. And that’s the essential formula for the directorial adjective: unlike the auteur theory, which provides insights into the person but takes an analysis of the films themselves as a primary concern, the directorial adjective suggests a fluid coherence between the defining aspects of films and the outsized personality of their maker. To be Kubrickian is to be an obsessive perfectionist of form. To be Hitchcockian is to possess a sadistic sense of humor imbued through the events of the thriller, a personality that regularly makes murder into a game.

You don’t know it when you see it with the directorial adjective, you know it when you feel it, when you sense the currents of that personality speak through choices of style and narrative. There is no adjectival moniker for a director currently invoked more often than “Nolanesque” and its variants. But the meanings of “Nolanesque” are more tortured than your garden-variety directorial adjective.

As I mentioned in a piece last year, autuerism has a complicated relationship with film marketing. Hitchcock made himself into a brand through his television series, a move that played no small part in serious reconsideration of his work in the US throughout the second half of this past century. We also see the basest assumptions within autuerism – from “the visionary director of 300 to M. Night Shyamalan’s brief reign as a household name – evoked through the language of film marketing. Collect them all!

Watchmen Trailer Visionary

Warner Bros.

While such marketing hardly does the critical work of autuerism, it stands as perhaps the most evident sign of the politique’s influence (and, well, oversimplification): the enduring myth that the director can be understood as the primary author of a film. From the film school generation of the 1960s to cinephilic invocations of international names as if they were arthouse playing cards to ceaseless debates over the supposed fittedness of certain directors to be sucked into eternal franchises, autuerism has proven a self-fulfilling prophecy, a reading of Hollywood’s past so convincing that any of its critiques proved negligible in the face of a future where (male) directors could fashion themselves visionaries and, decisively or not, develop a cult as such. By the way, have you seen the Inherent Vice trailer yet?

Nothing demonstrates the awkward marriage of autuerism, a once-radical dismantling of taste hierarchies, and the language of film marketing quite like the commodification of Christopher Nolan’s name.

“Nolanesque” not only describes a rare contemporary Hollywood tentpole director who actually makes interesting work, but a defining sensibility adopted by Hollywood in the least interesting possible terms. Hollywood’s creation of a Nolan shorthand shows how the vague, sensibility portion of directorial personalities can be refitted for any perceived marketing opportunity. In short, it’s an adjective acting as a film trailer.

In 2010, anonymous Nolan fan hoppity-kick defined “Nolanesque” as

“…a film characterized by an intricate plot wherein the character’s psyche is the driving force of the story. Styles include non-linear narrative structure, noirish and twisty plot, and tormented characters. Themes include OBSESSION, SUBCONSCIOUS, PERCEPTION, GUILT and DECEPTION. For brevity’s sake – A MINDF***.”

This summary is specific towards defining the concrete aspects that like make Nolan’s films appealing to both dedicated fans and wider audiences, if it seems a bit better fitted to describe the (then recently released) Inception as an extension of Memento and The Prestige. It’s a useful definition from a fan’s perspective, but there’s still an element missing here that speaks to Nolan’s rare status as both a Hollywood darling and a magnet for enthused cinephilia.

Throughout his review of the upcoming Interstellar, David Ehrlich evaluates Nolan as such:

“Nolan is fascinated by the speculative, but he abhors the supernatural. This is, after all, the same guy who made a trilogy of superhero movies in which ‘powers’ were almost exclusively expressed through societal influence…Nolan thrives in the limbo between logic and emotion, leveling the playing field between the two by riffing on the former in order to crystallize the latter…”

Ehrlich touches upon an aspect of Nolan’s work that is key to both what makes it interesting that also extends, for better or for worse, to his vast yet vague influence on Hollywood at large: his ability to take the extraordinary, a given in most tentpole filmmaking, and place it within a narrative logic of relative cinematic verisimilitude and sobriety.

Though Nolan’s career by and large (and especially in his non-superhero films) betrays an interest with cinematic puzzles solved within a narrative world of strict rules, his influence that has most borne a signature in Hollywood filmmaking is specifically tied to his Batman trilogy: a rendering of the absurd conceits of fantastic genre into a narrative universe that suggests deep plausibility and coherence. This inheritance of Nolan’s work has given Hollywood free reign to do with existing properties what they could never convince audiences of themselves – the notion that sequels, prequels, franchises, and spinoffs are not mere forms of entertainment, but serious character studies and means for commentary on Our Society Today.

Nolan’s name is a term that contemporary blockbusters, in no uncertain terms, define themselves in line with or against.

Plus, Nolan is a sincere filmmaker, sometimes to a fault. In terms of the connection between filmmaking and a director’s personality, Nolan’s sincerity is the most important sensibility that informs his adjective. And while it’s easy to introduce an Inception bwahhm into any trailer to build its suspense or make a commodifiable superhero into a tortured soul, Nolan’s sincerity (like all sincerity) is inherently difficult to imitate. Hollywood films and their marketing regularly invoke Nolan through superficial implementation of recognizable signatures, but they do not show an interest in what makes Nolan’s film’s Nolanesque.

They are instead “Nolanish,” an evocation of Nolan’s sensibilities to the degree that they could bring audiences into theaters.

The distinction between Nolanesque as a directorial adjective and Nolanish as an oft-repeated component of Hollywood risk assessment is perhaps no more evident than in this summer’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a film that fails to maintain a difficult, if not impossible, balance between mindless Hollywood fun and Nolanish solemnity, as Nathan Rabin summarizes in his review:

“The filmmakers have apparently decided that the children who are the movie’s target demographic want a gritty, realistic take on the material, with the dour sensibility and world-building concerns of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. They also apparently want something swarming with magical robot warriors, pizza farts and gags alluding to the Turtles moonlighting as a novelty rap group.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1990 Raphael

New Line Cinema

An unacknowledged irony in Hollywood’s fashioning of Nolanish into a formula is the assumption that mythology somehow wasn’t treated “seriously” before, and the TMNT case is a telling example. In the 1990 live action Turtles film, Raphael (Josh Pais) is a self-loathing mutant tired of his relegation to subterranean New York whose personal crisis eventually manifests itself in the form of a coma – a gritty take on a popcorn property if there ever were one, 15 years before Batman began.

Hollywood’s peppering of its films with the Nolanish is, as a formula, self-defeating and inherently disingenuous, turning the notion of sincerely respecting properties beloved by fans into a narrowcasting device. It rests awkwardly on the assumption that a film’s core audience would find novelty in the fact that filmmakers gestured at taking the material seriously, and that some Hans Zimmer-channeling horns or a suggestion of existential crisis are ever-convincing shorthands for “seriousness.”

As Nolan is one of few contemporary directorial personalities whose films have been hugely lucrative, Hollywood’s production of the Nolanish shows the logical extent of auteurism refitted for film marketing: a stamp that suggests a vague sensibility distinguishable from a film’s actual content.

As Ehrlich explains towards the conclusion of his review, “Nolan has made a career of exposing the poverty of our current blockbuster cinema.”

Perhaps nothing speaks more of that current poverty than a Hollywood that doesn’t even know how to substantively imitate one of its few adjective-producing personalities.