Projecting Talent Onto Criminals

July 25, 2012

Multiple Pages
Projecting Talent Onto Criminals

Are criminals in real life ever even one-tenth as fascinating as they are in Christopher Nolan movies? Can you think of a real criminal as intriguing as the late Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight or Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb in Inception? Or is “master criminal” just a fantasy where filmmakers such as Nolan project their own considerable talents onto a class of dismal individuals?

Whenever some creep shoots a lot of people, as at the Dark Knight Rises midnight showing in Colorado, journalists are expected to generate instant analyses of The Meaning of It All. 

Yet if we have to concoct far-reaching theories based on a sample size of one, I’d much rather ponder somebody accomplished and interesting such as Nolan. The director’s first movie, Following, a miniature masterpiece from 1998, demonstrates that Nolan has been fretting for his whole career about this question of whether he’s glamorizing lowlifes by envisioning them as creative leaders of men, as auteurs modeled on himself.

The media has an immense impact on the impressionable. Back in March 2001, I was dispatched to report on the latest Columbine-style school shooting. At Santana High School outside San Diego, a 15-year-old had shot 15 fellow students, killing two.

Why? Within a few hours of arriving, it became obvious to me: The cause of all these high-school shootings in the 1990s and early 2000s had to be journalists such as myself converging on each new schoolyard atrocity. I counted 31 television trucks parked at the police station. At 11:00 PM, nine television correspondents simultaneously launched into their top-of-the-hour spiels.

“In reality, criminals tend to be boring, obtuse, or defective in some wretched way.”

I reported back that all these copycat killings were going to continue until we in the press stopped making these attention-hungry little bastards famous. My editors deleted that.

And they were right, because my prediction turned out to be mostly wrong. There were a few more similar shootings that month, but then high-school massacres (middle-class white kids’ division, at least) petered out for years. 

What happened? Nobody knows. Perhaps when the Secret Service recommended that students snitch on kids who said they were going to “pull a Columbine,” it actually worked. Or perhaps boredom set in and teens moved on to other dumb fads. Or maybe, perhaps most disturbingly, there was no overarching cause for the rise and fall of school shootings—nor for the preceding trend of post-office workers “going postal”—just unlikely but random distributions of running amok that misleadingly struck observers as a meaningful pattern.

You might think that it would be informative to ask the shooters why they did it. After all, in the movies, bad guys are generally rich and educated. Our favorite felons enjoy articulating twisted but philosophically sophisticated motivations, like the thrill-kill cultists Leopold and Loeb did in 1924. 

Those two teen prodigies, who had each already graduated from college, murdered a boy to prove they were Nietzschean Supermen capable of getting away with the perfect crime. Yet notice that Hollywood has been remaking the Leopold and Loeb story ever since for want of subsequent examples.

In reality, criminals tend to be boring, obtuse, or defective in some wretched way. And if they aren’t, they listen to their lawyers who tell them to shut up because talking will only make things worse for them.

Nolan, in contrast, is a tremendous commercial filmmaker, comparable to, say, Alfred Hitchcock. His almost humorless style isn’t especially to my taste, however: Almost the only joke in The Dark Knight Rises is that the good guys keep wondering why the villain’s henchmen don’t run away when a vigilante in a bat suit assaults them.

Nolan elicits deep allegiance from actors and crew, who keep returning to work with him in more movies where elaborate conspiracies serve as metaphors for filmmaking.

Unfortunately, Nolan’s latest Batman movie isn’t as seamless as 2010’s Inception. A studio executive should have made the call to push the blockbuster’s release back to Thanksgiving 2012 because the fit and polish aren’t up to Nolan’s usual standards. For instance, segues between scenes are often jarring, and the recorded dialogue sometimes lapses into incomprehensibility. Delivering giant movies every 24 months is hard even for Nolan.

Still, I admire his recurrent interest in the uncomfortable subject of being victimized by crime, which goes back to Following. After having his home broken into, Nolan decided to make a micro-budget movie about his question: What could the burglars be thinking?

Working weekends for a year, Nolan painstakingly shot Following on a budget of only $6,000, using friends from his college film club. Yet it still serves as a sort of allegory for his future career. 

That may sound far-fetched, but Nolan is not a man who leaves much to chance. Perhaps it’s an accident that the main character in Following has a Batman symbol on his door, but it’s probably not a coincidence that he meets an ultra-competent thief called Cobb, a name Nolan revived for his mature masterpiece, Inception.

Following opens with a bedraggled young man named Bill, a lonely would-be writer on the dole, explaining to a skeptical Scotland Yard detective how he got into trouble. See, he started following random people around to come up with material for stories he was going to write. 

One of the folks he shadowed turns out to be a charming, well-spoken, well-dressed upper-class burglar. Cobb breaks into people’s flats, but not for the money. Instead, he does it mostly to mess with his victims’ psyches by, say, stealing only one earring from a pair. Cobb, who acts like Roger Moore in the James Bond movies, invites sad sack Bill to accompany him in a series of break-ins that are more performance art than larceny. But (spoiler alert!) it’s all a ruse to frame poor Bill with a woman’s murder.
Bizarrely, every commentary I’ve read on Following takes on faith the story Bill tells the policeman, even though the copper responds with numerous facts implying that Cobb, the dashing Old Etonian burglar, is an implausible figment of Bill’s imagination, a preposterous cover story improvised by Bill, who is less a crime novelist than a petty criminal-turned-sex murderer. 

To critics, though, the preponderance of evidence against Bill only proves how diabolically clever Cobb must be. After all, seeing is believing, and we saw the unemployable loser talking to the toff, so it couldn’t all be in Bill’s head. I mean, would the director of Memento and The Prestige lie to us? 

Moreover, where would we moviegoers be without our desire to believe in privileged murderers like Cobb? The reality of tedious, broken offenders like Bill is too dreary for us to even contemplate.


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