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Nolan's past movies offer clues to 'Inception'

John DeFore

As the release of today's much-anticipated "Inception" grew closer over the past few weeks, more and more buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan's new film concerned just how little was known about it.

For a major studio picture, we have heard surprisingly little about the plot. Trailers, which usually reveal so much about a blockbuster that you feel you've already seen it, have offered only the most enigmatic scraps of action and mood.

But look back through Nolan's filmography, all of which is available on DVD (even his early short "Doodlebug," included on an anthology called "Cinema 16: British Short Films"), and this shroud of mystery comes to look less like a marketing gimmick than the fulfillment of Nolan's all-consuming artistic agenda. This is a filmmaker deeply wound up in the construction, exploration and exploitation of secrets.

Nolan's are not the "gotcha" secrets of an M. Night Shyamalan twistathon. Though he occasionally does shock us at a movie's end, those revelations only come as part of tales in which the whole mood is pervaded by mystery, the puzzle-like construction tells us explicitly that we're circling something hidden.

This is most obviously true of "Memento," which was a sensation when it played at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Nolan's mainstream breakthrough rationed information more strictly than a nurse dispensing habit-forming pain medication. The scenes of the brainteasing whodunnit are arranged in reverse order, so that we know no more about the plot than the hero, whose brain injury has made him incapable of forming new memories.

"Memento" dazzled moviegoers, but it wasn't actually Nolan's debut. A couple of years earlier, he made "Following," a low-budget but impressively assured neo-noir revolving around voyeurism, deception and stalking. Like the would-be writer at the story's center, who picks strangers at random and covertly observes them, we find ourselves forming inadequate theories about the story based on the spotty clues the filmmakers give us. The short black-and-white film might be a wind-up for "Memento" but it's no throwaway. If you can't find it at your favorite video store, it can be bought online for under $6.

Little needs to be said to explain the director's thematic interest in his two biggest moneymakers, "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" (both on disc from Warner Bros.). More even than other secret-identity superheroes, the Caped Crusader is driven by what is hidden within his past and succeeds by dint of stealth and investigation. The vast, hidden reaches of the Batcave are one of pop culture's most evocative metaphors for the mysteries we might unlock within ourselves if only we could access and explore our subconscious minds.

Less ubiquitous than the Batman films were Nolan's two other studio features to date, 2002's "Insomnia" and 2006's "The Prestige." The former, which was rereleased this week on Blu-ray, remakes a Norwegian thriller in which a detective's need to conceal his troubled past hinders his pursuit of a killer in the land of the midnight sun. The latter, about rival magicians in the 19th century, is so obsessed with sleight-of-hand and misdirection that it takes its very name from the lingo of theatrical tricksters.

Critics inclined these days to tar Nolan as an auteur too reliant on flash and effects should take another look at "Insomnia," where he coaxes strong, subtle performances out of two men (Al Pacino and Robin Williams) whose acting styles had grown almost mockably unsubtle over the years. We'll learn this weekend whether Nolan's latest effort can find room within its mysterious, mind-bending premise for old-fashioned good acting and direction — but one thing experience says we can count on is a mystery worth the effort it takes to decipher.