There was a moment at the Battery Park 11 during the opening week of Christopher Nolan’s Inception—the sequence three dreams deep in the vortex where Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are skiing across a snowy mountain to break into a military-industrial hospital, and an elevator and a van are falling various dream-levels back—when I remembered that Anthony Mann’s The Heroes of Telemark, one of my favorite discoveries in the recent Film Forum retrospective, had a remarkably similar sequence. That one had Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris skiing across a snowy mountain to break into a military-industrial scientific research facility. The two directors handled these sequences quite differently, though: Nolan’s sequence is a baroque carnival piece within a larger multi-layered logic puzzle; Mann’s sequence is a functional seventeen minutes with virtually no dialogue, so unadorned that most viewers wouldn’t have noticed that they’d just witnessed a master class in pure cinema. According to IMDb voters, Inception is the third greatest film of all time, while The Heroes of Telemark is as close as you can get to an average movie. These two sequences made it obvious to me why Nolan is more popular, and also why I prefer Anthony Mann.
We might define three broad categories of directors who have an ostentatious style. These categories are obviously simplified; I don’t think we can use them to pigeonhole every director, and I’m not making any value judgments about them. I’m just using them as a way to talk about the competing aesthetics of Nolan and Mann. First, there are the ostentatious maximalists like Nolan; in this group I’d also include people like Eisenstein, Hitchcock, and Welles. These are directors who’ve developed a highly ornamented formalist system with complex editing patterns, intricate staging, and convoluted narrative structures. These films are ripe for interpretation and it’s no coincidence that they attract the most critical attention. Naturally, the quality of the films is usually reflected in the quality of their explications (I can already imagine an army of undergraduates thinking deep thoughts over their keyboards while working on papers explicating the various dream-levels in Nolan’s universe). On the opposite end of the spectrum are the ostentatious minimalists, directors whose austerity is so excessive it bores the average spectator while sending the rest of us into tizzies of artistic euphoria. I’m thinking here of Warhol’s films of the mid-60s, of Kiarostami’s underrated documentaries like Homework and First Grade (in which he repeats the same few questions over and over again to a series of children in the same tight framing), or of Straub and Huillet’s repeated nine-minute shots of a man driving a car through the streets of Rome on his way to interview Julius Caesar’s toga-clad banker in History Lessons. But even those of us who love these ostentatious minimalists often don’t know how to write about their work (which probably says more about the value of criticism than it does about the value of their films). Finally, there’s an often-overlooked third category that exists between these two extremes while manifesting the qualities of both. These restrained maximalists make radically formal films in such a nondescript fashion that most moviegoers won’t notice that they’ve seen anything unusual. These directors love to experiment with possibilities of cinematography and editing, but don’t want their efforts to distract from the story. We often think of these people as artisans rather than as artists. In other fields, this category might include works like Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks or Frank Lloyd Wright’s early Prairie Houses.
Nolan’s snowbound sequence is complex on the surface. Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio are standing above a hospital that looks like an industrial fortress nestled in a snowy mountainside. They are in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, and in this third level down, there are three levels of parallel action converging on the hospital, so that Nolan cuts back and forth between three groups speeding down slopes in one chronological reality while also cutting back and forth between all three levels of the dream, which all take place in separate spatial dimensions (in your face, D.W. Griffith!). Things get so convoluted that in every scene the characters aren’t so much doing things as explaining to each other and the audience what it is exactly that they’re doing. Throughout the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s furrowed brow and Hans Zimmer’s Herrmannesque swelling chords (punctuated with rhythmic bursts like the turning of a second hand toward the universe’s inevitable doom) are there to constantly remind us how deeply philosophical all this spatio-temporal pontification on the nature of reality really is.
In the end, when DiCaprio returns to reality, we’re meant to question whether this is the real reality or maybe his or his wife’s dream that he’s chosen to return to—or wait, wasn’t the fifth level down of the CEO son’s dream the same as the second-level down of a previous dream, so that the whole movie is a recursive loop in which there is no such thing as The Real because Nolan is commenting on…what, exactly? Nolan’s maximalist style helps gloss over a minimalist conceit: the movie is all pop philosophy minus the philosophy. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the movie. But, then, I like the Three Stooges, too. I loved the extravagant set pieces, like the sequence when Joseph Gordon-Levitt one-ups Fred Astaire in A Royal Wedding slugging it out with the bad guys as the gravity fluctuations in the dream from which he came toss him and his adversary up and down and across the hall (though I’m not entirely sure why the gravity from Dream Level One affects the gravity of Dream Level Two while the gravity of Dream Level Two doesn’t seem to affect the gravity of Dream Levels Three or Four). The problem with the film isn’t that it doesn’t have a coherent philosophical argument, but that the whole thing is weighed down by the attitude that it does. A movie like North by Northwest has a plot that’s just as ridiculous as this one, but Hitchcock’s attitude is more playful, and there’s a real chemistry between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. But Inception’s essential core—the romantic relationship between DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard—has all the emotional depth of a Möbius strip.
Unlike Christopher Nolan, Anthony Mann has the decency to understand that he’s not a genius. The Heroes of Telemark is based on a true story about Norwegian resistance fighters (Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris) trying to prevent the Nazis from manufacturing the heavy water necessary to make an atom bomb. Mann’s sequence in the snow is more straightforward than Nolan’s. In its entire seventeen minutes, Mann employs only one level of reality and one line of action. Almost all of the shots follow the men on their mission in chronological order. There is almost no dialogue. The average shot is about eight seconds—each determined by how long it takes the men to perform whatever task Mann is filming—with almost no extremely short or long takes. Mann only crosscuts to some Nazi soldiers occasionally, more as a casual reminder to the audience than as a means to ratchet up the tension. It’s as if Mann was making a feature film in 1909, before he’d heard of parallel editing, when the idea of The Musketeers of Pig Alley was still congealing in an electrical cloud in D.W. Griffith’s dream world four levels down. In this sequence, Mann almost never stages in depth. In one shot, he puts an icicle in the foreground, but other than that it’s mostly a line of men slinking across a wall (not that he didn’t know how to do dramatic depth staging—in Reign of Terror, for instance, he and John Alton filled up the screen with rifles in the foreground, protagonists in the middle ground, soldiers in the background, with pools of lights splashed on side walls and back walls for kicks).
The sequence is compelling to watch because it has the mysterious allure of the earliest cinema: it shows you moving photographs of people doing things. Why would anyone need to do anything else? In this case, Mann’s goal is to show us how a group of men broke into a heavily-guarded facility and blew it up. Everything is functional. The scenes where lines of men trample through the snow is beautiful not because of any conscious fussiness on the director’s part, but because a line of men trampling through the snow happens to be beautiful (just ask Pieter Bruegel). The shots where men are rappelling down a sheer ice cliff are beautiful because that sort of thing happens to be beautiful, too. A lesser director would have drawn out the moments where Douglas is laying explosive charges by cutting back and forth between him and an approaching Nazi to heighten the tension, but Mann just shows Douglas laying down some wire and then moving on. Mann doesn’t waste time with stupid emotions: these men have a job to do. There are no powerful close-ups of Kirk Douglas’s grizzled visage. When one of his men dies, he looks at him for a half-second and then moves on.
Kirk Douglas had originally hired Mann to direct Spartacus but fired him early on and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick. Mann thought the script was too wordy and urged Douglas to cut out as much dialogue as possible to tell the story through purely visual means. Douglas was probably wedded to the screenplay, though, for political as much as aesthetic reasons: Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the script, would be the first blacklisted writer to have his name appear on screen in ten years. Their disagreement doesn’t seem to have soured their friendship, though. Mann convinced Douglas to finally give his approach a try, which was courageous of Douglas because Mann’s predilection for visual storytelling necessitated a pared-down acting style inimical to Douglas’s natural gifts. Douglas was perhaps the most passionate male actor of his era—in The Bad and the Beautiful or Lust for Life (one of my favorites), Minnelli works him up like a feral beast. But here, under Mann’s direction, Douglas barely raises his voice. Ironically, this restraint opens up other avenues of emotion: his face becomes one of the film’s most expressive features. And what a face! His jaw could have graced Mt. Rushmore. He doesn’t have to say word; he just turns his cheek and that cleft chin of his, like a black hole simultaneously pulling in and reflecting everything around it, hypnotizes women and Nazi colonels alike.
I’m glad I’m not one of those film critics forced to choose between these two movies or give them number grades. They have different aspirations and therefore different weaknesses and different pleasures. But if I had to choose, I’d choose functionalism over frillery, restraint over ostentation, Kirk Douglas’s monumental chin over Leonardo DiCaprio’s anguished forehead, Norway over dreamscapes, and a well-told story over pop-philosophy. I prefer the functional brilliance of the allegedly average movie. I choose The Heroes of Telemark.