Movie Memories: Darren Mooney on Nolan, Negativity and knowing movies are bad when you’re 8
Blogger, podcaster, author, Darren Mooney is one of the hardest working names in the Irish critical community. A long-time writer on award-winning the m0vie blog, his one-stop shop for all things pop culture, Darren also contributes regularly to the Irish film monthly magazine CinÉireann and curates both the Scannain podcast and The 250, where he and Andrew Quinn look at IMDB’s list of the top 250 films of all time. (Full Disclosure: This writer has appeared on both podcasts.) Darren has recently published his latest book, Christopher Nolan – A Critical Study of the Films, a history covers Nolan’s complete filmography, tracing his career from film student to indie darling to Oscar-nominated auteur. Film In Dublin caught up with Darren to talk about his movie memories, influences as a writer, and experiences in the toxic waters of online backlashes.
Film In Dublin: So from your website, to your podcasts to your books, I’d say you’re known for doing deep dives on movies. What was the first film you remember really leaving a strong impression on you, one you couldn’t stop thinking about when you were young?
Darren Mooney: The first one I remember leaving a deep impression? This is probably really embarrassing, but I the first film that I remember have a really viscerally strong reaction to was Batman Forever. It would have been released in 1995, so I would have been eight years old, which would line up with when I remember seeing it. On a plane on the way home from Ghana to Ireland.
I am a pretty big Batman fan, and always have been. Loved the earlier two films. Loved the animated series. Had a handful of comics bought from corner shops in Accra over the years. And I remember as an eight-year-old sitting on a plane and watching Batman Forever and thinking, “This really isn’t very good.” I’m not sure I understood exactly why I felt that way at the time, but it felt fundamentally wrong to me.
And it’s probably one that I spent a few years turning over in my head to try to figure out why it was so terrible. Because it had all the things I liked in it. It still has things that I like in it. But none of it actually worked. So that’s probably a negative example.
A positive example would be that either later that same year or early the next one, my grandfather allowed me to stay up and watch The Shining. As an eight- or nine-year-old, that film really stuck with me, and was I think the first time that I realised that there was more going on in a film that plot, performances or dialogue, if you get my meaning? Of course, I didn’t get exactly what it was at the time, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. But I knew there was a lot more there.
FID: You spent your earliest years in Ghana as you were saying and have done a bit of travelling since, do you remember much about accessing movies or going to the cinema at that time?
DM: My grandfather used to send over tapes of films and television shows. He was great. It could be really frustrating, though. On the subject of Batman, he sent over “The Demon’s Quest, Part I” one time, but never “The Demon’s Quest, Part II.” I didn’t actually see the end of that story until I bought the DVDs a decade later!
A really nice cinema opened in Accra in my last few years there. I remember going a few times. I saw Richie Rich there. The Macauley Culkin version? I remember very little of it, aside from the cinema being really nice and the movie being… kinda boring to a seven-year-old kid.
But, as a kid, my love of cinema largely came from family. My parents used to (and still do) have family movie nights at weekend. When I go back and visit them, we still do it. My younger sister text me last night looking for a recommendation. (I gave them Set It Up.) So that kinda codified my love of film and a broad taste for cinema. Everything was welcome, except maybe hardcore horror. (Even then, I remember Saw impressing the whole family against our better judgement.)
I also spent some time with my grandparents as a child. Because they lived in Dublin, so when we’d come home for Christmas/Summer, we’d be there. My granddad instilled an early love of horror in me. And not just the obvious stuff. He was a huge Craven and Carpenter fan. I was probably too young to watch Prince of Darkness or The Serpent and the Rainbow, but I loved it.
LD: Then when you were older and started to get into writing about film, did that change the way you looked at films at all? Has how you watched movies changed since you first started writing?
DM: I think I’ve mellowed a little as I got older. I suspect the writing was a part of that, because the writing really – not to get pretentious or anything – allows you to put down what’s going on inside your head in a concrete fashion that perhaps allows you a bit more space to properly assess it, if that makes sense? In your head it sounds smart, but when you see it written down, you’re like, “Geez, that’s a really horrible thing to say.”
So when I started – and like most sane people, I’m always both a little embarrassed and also kinda proud of my early writing – I was a lot more righteous as a film critic. I knew what a good movie was, and I knew why this wasn’t it. And I think that as I started writing a bit more, I got to questioning it. A lot less righteous, a lot less shouty, a lot less absolutist.
In part, I think this comes from knowing more about how filmmaking works, that I’m a lot less likely to angrily shout at a film for something I perceive as a flaw, and much more interested in the decisions that led to that flawing being put there. My older self is much more interested in the “why” than the “what” when it comes to watching movies.
FID: There’s an element of being helped by the environment around you sometimes too. There’s more of a platform for points of view that aren’t “this sucks and I’m gonna tell you why” in online criticism than there was 10 years ago (though there’s still way too much of that).
DM: There is, but there’s also entire platforms dedicated to it. I really dislike the modern school of “objective” criticism that treats “plotholes” as proof of a movie’s badness and aggregate scores as objective measures of a movie’s worth. But that’s an entire other debate, I think.
In terms of influence of the environment on me. A lot of it was negative. I looked at what were popular critiques of the films that I was talking about – Red Letter Media’s Star Wars criticisms come to mind – and how they were lauded. Then I decided that I didn’t want to be that.
FID: They haven’t aged well.
DM: And they’re the basis for an entire generation of criticism. Which is… strange to me.
FID: Who would be some of your influences as a critic, and did you read much film criticism when you were younger?
DM: The cliché here is Ebert. I know that there are a rake of criticism of Ebert, some of which is very founded. He was largely responsible for simplifying stars to the sort of “good”/”bad” (“thumbs up”/”thumbs down”) binary that is the root of the modern aggregator-driven hyper-polarised review landscape. He was also perhaps a little more sensitive to violence in film than a lot of other critics would be – including myself – but I can’t fault him too much for that.
But Ebert was a great advocate for the idea of cinema as a broad church, and the idea of meeting a film on its terms. “It’s not what the movie’s about, it’s how it’s about it.” The idea that any genre and any type of film was capable of greatness was massively important to me as a critic. That includes traditionally trashy fare like horror films or modern mainstream fare like superhero films, as well as more boutique offerings like awards season fare or smaller indies. So I would have read a lot of him as a child. And I’d hope that I write in a manner that adheres broadly to his philosophy.
Otherwise? Armond White is always a great read, even though I rarely agree with him and certainly wouldn’t want to write like him. The beauty of criticism is in challenging a lot of your long-held assumptions.
FID: Some would call White a contrarian…what’s the craziest reaction someone’s had to something you’ve written?
DM: Oh. This is a very interesting one. Because you get a lot of strong opinions from people, particularly when you write about popular films. “People are very invested in film,” observes the writer who produces about 10,000 words a week on cinema.
I did get a very aggressive message through my contact form about a small Irish indie film called “The Meeting”, which is a film starring Ailbhe Griffin in an adaptation of her own deeply personal story about staging a meeting with the man who brutally assaulted her. Ailbhe is a fantastic person, and her story is incredible. But the film itself is… a lot less so. And I think that the very aggressive commenter took my criticism of the film as a criticism of a truly remarkable woman. So that was an extreme reaction that sticks in my memory.
There’s a lot of really strong nationalist sentiment out there in the internet (and in real life at the moment), so a few articles that I’ve written about American identity have attracted strong comments. I think one of them included the line “of course you’re a European!” to dismiss my remarks about Black Panther. Another commenter got very upset at my mention of slavery in the review, in the context of quoting a character from the film itself.
And anything that goes against the tide of what very vocal and very aggressive online communities have established as objective reality. So every time I mention The Last Jedi in passing on the internet is inviting very strong opinions into my inbox. I had a really strange experience where I had two posts go semi- (low-key-) viral over the past year. The Venom section of the internet is a much more pleasant part of the internet than the Last Jedi section.
FID: If there’s one filmmaker who without doubt provokes strong opinions, especially on the internet, it’s the subject of your book, Christopher Nolan. Do you remember what was the first film of his you saw and your experience of it?
DM: I believe Memento was a “Mooney family movie night” when I was about fifteen. I fell in love with the movie immediately, even if I didn’t immediately latch on to Nolan himself as a film-maker to keep an eye on. After all, one film is a fluke when you’re not somebody who writes about film on a continuous or time-consuming basis. In my defense, I was fourteen or fifteen
I also might have lumped it in with a lot of the “millennial psychological trauma/angst films” around the same time; those films about the illusory nature of reality. The Matrix, The Truman Show, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ.
Insomnia would have been another family movie night. I liked it a lot, but it was very much a well-constructed mid-tier thriller. The irony is that I would love to see more movies like Insomnia getting made today.
I saw Batman Begins in college, in an afternoon screening. I didn’t even know that there was another Batman movie out, I was so burned out on the Schumacher films. But we went, I enjoyed it. I noticed the director’s name. It sounded vaguely familiar, and I filed it away this time.
It was The Prestige where he really clicked for me. It came out the following year, and I remember going to see it in cinemas a few times. The first Nolan film that I saw in cinemas several times. I absolutely adored it. Probably still my favourite of his films, and probably my favourite (or second-favourite) film of that decade.
FID: Some might label Nolan as a cold filmmaker, he can certainly be emotionally…stunted. But do you think audiences would keep coming back to his films in such big numbers if they weren’t having an emotional reaction to them? What’s your experience generally when you’re in the cinema watching one of his for the first time?
DM: This is something that I’ve argued about a lot with people, even if I accept that your emotional response to something is inherently subjective.
I can see the argument that Nolan is a very precise filmmaker in terms of narrative construction. Although he’s much less precise in terms of actual mechanical filmmaking than a lot of other auteurs like Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. Nolan’s action editing is deliberately chaotic, and his framing is a lot less meticulous. The people who hold the candle for Kubrick argue about a few pixels shifted in the aspect ratio on a “Barry Lyndon” blu ray because it distorts the frame. Nolan films sequences in IMAX and allows them to be distributed in widescreen, which demonstrates that Nolan’s not as exacting as Kubrick is construction-wise.
But I can see the argument that Nolan’s films are constructed like clockwork and I understand that some people see that as cold or inhuman. For me, personally, the only film where that is true is Inception. And that still works for me, because that’s the point. It’s about the characters engineering a clockwork narrative to produce an emotional response that is quite explicitly modeled on, say, the sentimental cinema of Spielberg. (Which I love.)
That said, I think Nolan is a deeply emotional filmmaker, albeit one who conceals and buries that emotion so that the audience tends to feel the ripples of it rather than confronting it head-on. Nolan characters exist at an abstraction from their emotions. Instead of expressing love, they instead express a fear of loss which is predicated on that love. Instead of explaining or articulating how they feel, they instead internalise it and manifest in very abstract ways
The totems in Inception are a nice metaphor for Nolan’s tendency to outsource characters’ emotions to tangible objects, as reflected in his use of inserts as a filmmaking tool; think of the emotional weight of the stethoscope in Batman Begins as Bruce’s connection to his father or the pearls in The Dark Knight Rises as a connection to his mother. It’s there as early as the opening credits of Following, his first film.)
I don’t cry readily at films, particularly not at films that tend to make other people cry. There’s a recurring joke among the other film critics with whom I work that I am heartless. I didn’t cry at Coco and I didn’t cry at A Star is Born, to pick two examples. But Nolan films tend to get me quite a bit. I find there’s a powerful and personal melancholy that runs through them without having to ladle it on. And I do think audiences respond to that.
Nolan’s talked about seeing people coming out of Memento crying, and I can believe that. It’s a profoundly sad story, as much as people focus on the mechanics and narrative design of it.
FID: And what would the main focus of the book be? Is it ‘the case for Nolan’?
DM: I don’t think he needs a “case for”, to be honest. Which is kinda interesting when you look at the…strong reactions he generates online. I think he’s as respected and successful as its possible for a filmmaker to be at this moment in time. I suspect that peak Kubrick and Spielberg would probably have had a very similar time of it, had the internet existed in its present form in the seventies and eighties.
The book is really just a study of his first ten films, looking at what makes Nolan so distinctive as a filmmaker. What are the key aspects of his work, his central preoccupations, and perhaps why and how he has been able to resonate as successfully as he has with contemporary culture.
After all, despite the fact that Nolan has become an aspirational blueprint for a certain type of directorial career, there’s really no other figure quite like him working in cinema at the moment, with that level of both critical and commercial success. There must be something in his work that captures a broad interest and broad attention, in a way that transcends, say, the critical appeal of more indie auteur directors or the broad spectacle of other blockbuster filmmakers.
FID: And this will be your third book? Are there other filmmakers or films you’d like to write about in the future?
DM: This will be my third book, technically speaking. The first was a collection of essays from the blog that I packaged as an eBook just to do it. I think I’ve earned about $5 from it!
This will be my second professionally published book. And I’m very thankful to McFarland and Company for their support for a previous un-established author. The first was “Opening the X-Files”, a look at that classic television show as a microcosm of the nineties. I’m very proud of that book, and it seems to have gone over relatively well.
With regards to future plans, I’m still trying to figure that out. I might wait to see what the response is to this one. This sort of long-form critical study is relatively rare in this day and age for a film critic who isn’t an international brand of themselves. But if people like it, I’d love to delve into the work of another director.
That said, I am tempted to try something a bit broader. I’d like to have three professionally published books about three different things, you know? One on nineties television, one on a (mostly) twenty-first century director. Maybe comic books, although I’m not sure there’s a broad enough audience for it.
What about something on modern fandom? I’m sure there must be something there. Maybe I can just post about Last Jedi and gather the replies as research…
Christopher Nolan A Critical Study of the Films is available to order now from McFarland Books now.