To complement the perception-warping lithographs of M.C. Escher currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, curator Carter Long and the smart folks over in the MFA’s film department have put together “Math, Mind and Memory,” a retrospective of Christopher Nolan’s films. The program launches on Wednesday, May 16 with Nolan’s debut, “Following” (1998), and concludes on May 31 with the British auteur’s 2014 planet-hopping odyssey, “Interstellar.”
If the crossover connection between surrealist graphic designer and alternate reality-conjuring filmmaker doesn’t immediately make sense, consider Escher’s continuous stairway to nowhere, “Ascending and Descending.” Its endless bend of perception and geometric form could easily be mistaken for a storyboard cell pulled from Nolan’s dream-thief thriller, “Inception” (2010), in which streetscapes and buildings get folded in on themselves, even inverted, creating an endless maze of concrete and tarmac that beguiles as it overwhelms. (The film plays on May 24 and 25.)
More thematically, the Dutch artist’s famous “Drawing Hands,” where one hand sketches the next into existence while that hand conversely draws its creator, plays with the sense of time and origin. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum visualized in evocative 2D (though the deeply layered shadowing lends a rich 3D effect). Something similar is explored in Nolan’s “Interstellar.” The humanity-saving space mission sails off into the fourth dimension of time and space density, creating a scenario in which children out age their parents. ("Interstellar" screens May 20 and 31.)
The retrospective, which includes the latter two of Nolan’s popular Batman films, “The Dark Knight” (on May 26) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (also on May 26), rightly recognizes the director’s box-office brilliance. Who else makes thinking-man thrillers that regularly gross more than $500 million? But the MFA series also more aptly shines a light on Nolan’s early efforts and influences.
“Following,” shot in noirish black and white and on 16mm guerrilla style, unravels agendas within agendas as a wannabe writer (Jeremy Theobald), who follows random people for muse material, gets tangled up with a dapper petty criminal (Alex Haw) and an aloof woman with a Marilyn Monroe-perfect coif (Lucy Russell). The ever-twisting plot complicated by love triangle implications cast wafts of Danny Boyle’s gritty early work, “Shallow Grave” (1994), and is a clear blueprint for Nolan’s sophomore effort, “Memento” (2000).
"Memento" would go on to cement Nolan's promise as a filmmaker and earn him a veritable blank check for all future projects. And as much as “Memento” (playing May 18 and 20) bears uncanny similarities to “Following,” it’s based on a short story idea conceived by Nolan’s brother Jonathan (a frequent collaborator on Nolan’s films and a writer on the trending TV series, “Westworld”) and is set in a seedy Californian urban sprawl instead of hipster London. The whole narrative device becomes a complicated high-dive exercise as the yarn about an insurance investigator (Guy Pearce, owning the role completely) addled by short term memory loss and out to avenge the rape and murder of his wife with the help of an unscrupulous cop (Joe Pantoliano), gets told in reverse order. It’s a dicey trick to pull off. Few have done it with such aplomb, landing Nolan in good company with Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”) and Gaspar Noé (“Irreversible”).
One of the more esoteric but piquant offerings nested in the program is the selection of Quay brother shorts (“The Comb,” “In Absentia” and “Street of Crocodiles”) coupled with Nolan’s 2015 short documentary “Quay.” The documentary looks at the work of the groundbreaking identical twin filmmakers, Stephen and Timothy.
If you’ve never seen a Quay film, start with “Street of Crocodiles” (1986). It's based on Bruno Schulz’s 1934 collection of shorts and is something akin to the eerily mesmerizing 1994 Nine Inch Nails video “Closer” — if re-imagined by David Lynch. The miniature sets and stop-action animation of disfigured dolls and intricate industrial mechanisms make for an immersive visual experience and a "How’d they do that?" technical achievement. Nolan, an ardent fan of the brothers, made the documentary and curated the traveling set as a way to bring the brothers’ impressive legacy to the broader film-going public. The Quays were recognized here in Boston in 2009, receiving the prestigious Coolidge Award.
Nolan’s recent, award-winning World War II evacuation saga, “Dunkirk” (May 24), found its way onto the docket. Stunningly shot by Hoyte van Hoytema who also filmed "Interstellar," "Dunkirk" ingeniously takes three narrative threads with disparate time spans and converges them at a single point in time and space with the culminating event gaining ever deepening meaning with each revisit.
His ambitious bit of historical fiction, “The Prestige,” from 2006 screens on May 18 and 19. The film pits rival Victorian magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) against one and other and tosses David Bowie into the mix as the real-life Nikola Tesla. The film suffers from an embarrassment of riches as the impressive cast also includes Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis. It's somewhat emblematic of the overall program. After all, it’s a film about artists who play with audiences’ sense of perception and reality. Plus Nolan, a master manipulator himself, is telling a tale about manipulators. That's something of an Escher-esque incarnation in its own right.
Most of the films are slated to be shown on 35mm, so that extra rich texture intended by a meticulous visualist gets carried over in the exhibition.