The Nolan Puzzle Box: Westworld, Memento and The Prestige

Westworld, the brainchild of Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, ended this weekend. Amy had watched the entire series with me, though she spent more of it checking mail periodically on her iPad than I did. Even without my iPad (though I tend to read more often these days on my iPhone 6 because my iPad 2 has practically bricked itself with cumbersome updates), the show was hard to follow. It’s dense with story, clues and narrative sleight of hand. The show frequently reaches up its sleeve for the ace you don’t notice it’s playing, though in the end most of those cards were put on the table. Amy actually didn’t pick up her iPad the entire time.

Delos Destinations advertisement

Delos Destinations: You too can rape, murder and maim.

This led to an argument discussion about the level of confusion acceptable in a narrative. Do you assume, when you don’t understand an event right away, that you’ve missed something? Or have you been presented with a mystery to be solved or even a bit of misdirection? Westworld is not easy viewing, even with all the naked actors on display in the robot maintenance area. It repeats a lot of the material from episode to episode but even then you’re not sure if you’re seeing the same events occurring or a recurring flashback to the same events. Or even the same events recurring at different times, given the programmed loops that the Westworld theme park places its robot hosts through again and again over the decades.

Dolores and Teddy from Westworld

Dolores, Teddy and their eternal loop.

I sort of like confusion. When I was young I hated revisiting the same book twice, while the woman I lived with would read the same books over and over. I wanted something new, something fresh, though there were certain movies (The Graduate and about half a dozen Hitchcock films) that I didn’t mind watching repeatedly. But the work by the Nolan family — Christopher, Jonathan and now Lisa Joy — often demands rewatching and can be at least partially opaque without it. Jonathan and Lisa created a dense narrative in Westworld, filled with misdirection and sleight of hand. I watched the first episode twice, once on television and once on the HBO Go website, but I suspect I should have watched all of them at least twice, because there are so many elements in it that are not what they seem to be that you  practically need to flowchart it to see what piece of the puzzle fits where.

I should have realized this when I saw Christopher and Jonathan’s Memento, though I was afraid it wouldn’t make as much sense on a second viewing as it did on the first. I mean, would a man with a 15-minute memory span even understand where those tattooed Post-It notes on his body came from, much less what they meant? But it works on its own terms, alleviating at least some of that complaint when its prologue slash denouement final scene explains that (SPOILER ALERT!) our tattooed hero had misunderstood everything all along. He had just convinced himself he was getting it right.

Memento tattoes

Tattooed Post-It Notes

I didn’t realize how difficult these Nolan puzzle boxes were until I saw The Prestige. Sure, I got the part about how Christian Bale performed his version of the Transported Man magic trick, but the entire murder subplot baffled me, along with exactly what Tesla had given Hugh Jackman in the laboratory atop his magic Colorado mountain. Why did Christopher (who seems to have been without Jonathan on this one) keep flashing back to those hats on the ground? What was floating in that tank at the end? I finally bought the Blu-Ray and watched it twice, at which point I suddenly got it — and kicked myself, because it was a problem in teleportation that I’ve beefed about for my entire adult lifetime and even wrote a post about in another blog. But Nolan had twisted the plot into such a pretzel, both chronologically and narratively, that it eluded me for several years.

Hats on the ground in The Prestige

“Are you watching closely?”

Jonathan and Lisa do the same thing with Westworld, only they don’t make the pretzel structure quite as obvious. I heard a fan theory the day before the finale that pretty much nailed what the auteurs behind the curtain were doing. I rather wish I hadn’t heard it, if only so I’d know whether I actually got it when it was revealed or would need to watch the whole series another time just to understand the explanation. I suspect I’ll watch it again anyway to see where the misdirection is taking place, though there’s a pretty good fan video, made after the eighth of the ten episodes, that pegs a lot of it. Don’t watch the video if you haven’t seen the show and plan to. Or expect to be surprised by some of the reveals in the finale.

I enjoy this puzzle box approach, but it sometimes is done at the expense of character development. On Westworld, you only feel you know the characters at the end. Of course, that gives us several more seasons where we’ll presumably like them more. And care.

And I really need to watch Inception again. I followed that one pretty well the first time, but now I’m convinced there were a lot of things I missed.

Where’s that Blu-Ray?

Trailer Scenes: Why the Parts of Some Movies Are Greater than the Whole

In some comment thread I was reading recently about Joss Whedon’s movie version of The Avengers, a commenter pointed out that some scenes in the film looked like they came straight out of a Transformers film. I nodded in happy agreement, because despite my deep love for Whedon’s writing, directing and producing, I long ago noticed that The Avengers looked much more like a Michael Bay movie than anything I’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, full of fights, explosions and action sequences, each of which probably cost more to make than all 14-episodes of Firefly. And then the commenter added, “But I guess such trailer scenes are necessary when you’re making a blockbuster.”

The Avengers poster

Trailer Scenes Assemble!

Trailer scenes! What a perfect phrase for summing up everything, or at least a large fraction of everything, that’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies today.

Anybody who’s spent much time watching film trailers (and now that you can find them on YouTube, I’ve become more addicted to trailer watching than I am to TV watching, though not quite as addicted as I am to video games) has doubtlessly noticed that in 90 percent of cases the trailer is better, often much better, than the movie it’s flacking. And in zero percent of cases is a movie ever better than its trailer; the best you can hope for is that it will be equally good. One reason for this, of course, is that the trailer is shorter than the film and the trailer editor has the luxury of selecting all the best scenes and leaving out the junk. Another reason is that trailer editors have gotten really good at exploiting the post-production mechanics of filmmaking — editing, fades, pacing, sound effects, music — to create a mini-movie with its own dramatic arc, from the slow rising action at the beginning to the larger-than-life climax to the final punchline button (often after the title of the film has been shown) that leaves the audience laughing.

But it had never occurred to me until I saw that term “trailer scenes” that some directors are putting scenes in movies not because they really belong there but because they’ll look so mindbogglingly good in the trailer. God, I must have been dense not to think of that.

In fact, this explains something I started noticing many months ago, which is that when I surf past a movie on cable that I found only mediocre in the theater, I’ll often find myself riveted by it in a way that I wasn’t when I watched the whole thing from the beginning. That’s because I’ve skipped over all the boring filler that was used to string the trailer scenes together and jumped into one of those moments that was intended all along to work better on its own than when weighed down by lousy exposition, improbable premises, weak dialog and padding designed to make the movie long enough to justify its ticket price. I’ve stumbled right into the middle of a trailer scene.

Indeed, I’m starting to suspect that some movies are nothing but trailer scenes strung together by hastily written bubble-gum scenes, a phrase I just invented because they resemble pieces of bubble gum that have been chewed so many times that they now have the adhesive property to hold the trailer scenes together while simultaneously being elastic enough to stretch to whatever length is required to keep the trailer scenes safely distant from one another. (Trailer scenes are expensive to make, so you need some long, cheap scenes to hold them together.)

A perfect example of this kind of movie is Prometheus, which I happened across last night while we were trying out the new cable box that our cable company sent us. I was sorely disappointed in Prometheus when I saw its theatrical release. Much of it was barely coherent. (The name Damon Lindelof in the writing credits should have been a tip-off, as any viewers of the later seasons of Lost should know.) Yet when I saw that immense horseshoe-shaped spaceship rise out of the mountain, crash land, and improbably roll over Charlize Theron (who, unlike Noomi Rapace, didn’t have the sense to run in a direction perpendicular to the line along which the spaceship was rolling), I couldn’t look away. No, it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first time I saw it, but now I didn’t have to sit through the monotonous, nonsensical setup. I could just enjoy the coolness of this…trailer scene.

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I surfed across The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a better film, but it’s still full of bloated bubble gum scenes and ominous, throbbing Hans Zimmer music. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the music Zimmer does for Nolan, but it gives a false sense of dramatic credibility to scenes that don’t really deserve it.) The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to go on forever in the theater, but watching chunks of it on cable was fun. I was making my own trailer while cable surfing, skipping to other channels when the slow scenes came on, skipping back to Dark Knight Rises to catch the neat stuff.

Some movies just aren’t meant to be watched whole. As much as I love Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of them. It’s another movie that should be cable surfed, but only for the best scenes (which in this case aren’t the weirdly Michael Bay-ish action scenes — the movie’s real trailer scenes — but for the cute character interaction bits that come in between the trailer scenes, because that’s the sort of thing Whedon does best). Watching SHIELD headquarters rise out of the water and zoom away on helicopter blades — okay, that’s still pretty exciting. Whedon can do a great trailer scene when he puts his mind to it, which is why Marvel/Disney is having him do the next Avengers film too. I just wish he weren’t devoting so much of his talent to this sort of action movie lately (and I’m really looking forward to the Whedon-produced Agents of SHIELD on ABC this fall, where Whedon hands the showrunning duties over to his brother Jed and a couple of other writers), because TV shows and movies about interesting human beings and the relationships between them are still what he does best.

Not all movies that have great trailer scenes are bad movies. Occasionally you hit a truly inspired one. Inception, by the same director who gave us the bloated Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), was a dazzling Rubik’s cube of a film, a fascinating puzzle for the viewer that grows better through repeated viewings and that also happens to have a lot of great trailer scenes that actually are an integral part of the story. That’s a rare and amazing thing, yes, but it’s nice to know that it can actually happen.

Poster for Gravity

Gravity: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Another movie with amazing trailer scenes that I think is going to pay off in the theater is Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming Gravity. I say this not only because films like Children of Men have led me to trust Cuarón as a director, one who can both capture character moments and rise to stunning technical challenges, but because it’s already started getting excited notices from film festivals. Yes, it has some eye-popping trailer scenes, but I think they’re merely going to be the hook that draws the viewer into a movie that stands on its own merits, not just the merits of whatever would-be movie director edits its trailer scenes together.