It’s that time of year again when I start to look back before looking ahead, reflecting on my favorite and most important watches/reads/listens and engaging with my ongoing new years reflections on the year as a whole (i use a practice called Rosebud).
I thought I would start with pulling out what I consider to be my most important reads of 2021. I tallied 190 reads, and of those I pulled 10 titles that I consider to be the most relevant to my personal journey for various reasons, beginning with this title at #10:
My Most Important Reads #10: The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone
Those who know me know that while books are my first love film is probably the art I engage with the most at this present time. I cherish the intracies of the form which brings together a broad cross section of disciplines and which represents the fading practice of the shared cultural experience. We live increasingly in a world where escape largely means escape from culture and into nature rather into it. Whereas books are singular in their expression and largely function as an exercise of the imagination mapped to the page, film operates as an interpretive exercise that puts you in relationship with the artist, the art and one another in a purely subjective sense. It requires objective critique, bred from a fascinating history rooted as it is in the development of higher art criticism in literature; this is what makes it a form, but it also requires that immersive, conversational and collective experience to function as a culturally formed expression. This is what makes film unique and distinct and what separates it even from long form series and television.
Why is Nolan Variations one of my most important reads in 2021? Because it helps to tell the story of why film matters, not simply as form but as expression, as function. What film is and how we experience it matters as much to the form as the stories they tell. One striking thing about reading Nolan’s story from the perspective of his developing career as a filmmaker is that his unique ability to shape the form requires him to be a student of the form. This is how critique of the form works. It requires an attachment to and awareness of history.
This is something Nolan intuitively understands and that Shore argues for and attempts to capture in this studious and deeply personal work. As he writes,
“The cinemas Nolan frequented as a boy have almost all disappeared”, Going on to quote Nolan.
“People are all interested in ‘will movies die? It’s a thing right now. There’s a huge drive to seperate the presentation from the content. You really can’t… No, I don’t (have a problem with people seeing Dunkirk on their phone or whatever), but the reason I don’t is because it’s put into these big theaters as it’s primary form, or its initial distribution. And that experience trickles down, to the extent where, if you have an iPad and you’re watching a movie, you carry with you your knowledge and you’re understanding of what the cinematic experience would be and you extrapolate that.”Nolan Variations, Page 343/344
I think this gets at something crucial when it comes to understanding film as form and what the potential danger is in the current state of the industry. The larger story of his career also helps to accentuate this. No, not everyone needs to see a film in the theater and not every film needs to release to the theater. However, when we lose our sense of what the cinematic experience is, which reaches beyond the theater towards what it represents and what it upholds, the form gets lost. it’s not so much adapt or die as it it is die and become something entirely other. We still get movies but they are no longer functioning as film. We trade the form for something different, which represents a shift from visual storytelling to narrative storytelling in a way that functions more like books, including accelerating the exclusive nature of that experience. That is why the lines between long form series and film is being blurred and.erased. The the thing being critiqued these days is primarily the narrative form, and an interesting side note to me is to compare that to the function of literary critique, the difference being that book criticism understands its history and knows where the critique is pointing towards. I think film criticism at large is loosing this foresight and intuition with most of the think tanks stuck in arguments about the form itself (the tired streaming versus theater debate being bludgeoned to death and largely missing the point). And the more that critics, the last true bastion of film goers, view the glutton of content at home,, which is becoming more and more common, the more distanced we all become from what makes film film. It becomes left to old men and women (usually men unfortunately) screaming at the cloud memes. Yes, we have greater access to a glutton of content at basically no cost and investment, but when it comes to understanding and investing in what film is this is not the most important thing. These things are symptoms of a bigger problem and can often disguise the notion that there is a problem to begin with, and even contribute to it.
I am convinced having read this book that we do not get a story like Nolan’s in our modern age. A student of the craft growing into an artist of the craft and emerging as an influencer and innovated of the craft, all centred in the development and celebration of the form. These sorts of filmmakers are still around and we still have much film to celebrate, but they remain because of the slivers of historical context that survive. The more this fades the less invested these filmmakers will be in upholding the intracies of the craft and the more focused on narrative filmmaking they will become. And this of course will inform emerging generations as they see film more as content, distribution as services, and immersion as clicks, and all of this as a platform for narrative. Nolan’s book is a deep dive into what we potentially lose in this process, which is the ability to even know what we are missing and how to ask the right questions. Film matters, and we will always have content. In fact we have too much in my opinion. But it would be a mistake to think, in line with Shore and Nolan, that film can’t die and that it won’t die in the absence of our investment in the craft. It absolutely can, and there are many days when I fear it already has.