The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Part 3) feat. Interstellar & Dunkirk – Wisecrack Edition
The final part of our three part series on Christopher Nolan.
Written by: David Radcliff
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Part 3) feat. Interstellar & Dunkirk – Wisecrack Edition
Hi, Wisecrack. Jared here with our third and final exploration of Christopher Nolan’s weird, wild mind. In our first installment, we examined Nolan’s idea of the self — charting the relationships between our subjective perceptions and the notion of objective reality. Unfortunately, our investigation still came too late to save poor Teddy. In the second installment, we used Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to discuss the fragile dynamics of society, and the ways in which social norms are tested and upended by symbols, by desire, and, all too often, by hulking weirdos in masks. “Gotham! Take control of your city!” And now, in our third act, we’ll attempt to find some catharsis by looking to the universe for a response to the fragile nature of humanity. “I want to know where we are – where we’re going.”
So strap in, because this is the final installment of the Philosophy of Christopher Nolan — oh, and we’ll be answering your questions for the first hour in the comments, so we’ll see ya there! And of course, Spoilers Ahead. Whereas Nolan’s previous works focused on the inevitable conflict inherent in humanity’s rational nature, Interstellar attempts to transcend these burdens by looking to the broad expanses of the universe in hopes of jettisoning us from the social and physical restraints explored in videos One and Two of this series. By merging a sense of wide-eyed wonder with the thrilling advancements of science, Nolan helps Cooper, and us, break free of the expectations leveled against the self and society. From as early as its opening scenes, Interstellar situates its protagonist, Cooper, as an ambitious innovator, but also as a clear-eyed advocate for science and reason. “Record the facts. Analyze. Get to the how and the why, and present your conclusions.”
He’s also a guy with a pretty healthy skepticism of power and authority. “It’s an old federal textbook. We’ve replaced them with the corrected versions.” “Corrected?” But before the film’s adventure is done with him, Cooper will have to reconcile his data-driven beliefs with the mind-expanding unpredictability of the great beyond. Although Cooper is firmly committed to his own sense of practicality, he is eventually forced to navigate the fluid boundaries between the “real” and the “irreal,” the latter of which is a concept introduced by American philosopher Nelson Goodman. But what is the irreal, exactly? In his work, The Ways of Worldmaking, Goodman explored the notion of “alternative world versions.” At its most basic interpretation, this concept allows for everything from art to mathematics to be perceived and understood in a variety of ways. Take a look at this piece of art, for example — and you might see a woman’s face or a vase. Both interpretations here are correct, in total, but only one interpretation is correct through one particular context at a time. And this, in essence, is the art of irreality. That there are multiple ways to look at the world, and no one method is better in every instance.
As such, the way the film’s mysterious beings experience the universe opens up a space for a new way to experience and know the universe. Just not in the way we’re used to, with you know, time as a thing that passes.. In space,Cooper is confronted with the irreal: nothing abides by his conventional ideas of time, or even cause and effect. Cooper, as a man of science, has some difficulty adjusting to a new normal. And through that difficult adjustment, Nolan is openly able to question the physical, spatial, and chronological laws that we, and Cooper, have long believed are absolute. Throughout much of Interstellar, time and space do not interact with us in ways we might traditionally expect. And neither, as it turns out, does all-American hero Matt Damon. On a new plane of existence, in which even time can be warped– “Gravity on that planet will slow our clock compared to Earth’s. Drastically.” (…) “Every hour we spend on that planet will be 7 years back on Earth. That’s relativity, folks.” –what, asks Nolan, is left to ground us humans? What lighthouse is there to help us navigate? To give us purpose and direction?
Thankfully, Interstellar not only poses this question; it provides its answer. And that answer is the one place technology cannot touch — human emotion. Although the characters of Interstellar frequently doubt what is real, and what is trustworthy — their snot-filled, tear-drenched deeply emotional experiences — provide them with the ballast, focus, and resolve to see their adventure through to the end. And those components of humanity are the very sorts of things science alone can’t provide. In fact, near the beginning of the film, it’s suggested the crash landing that stalled Cooper’s aviation career was a result of his reliance on technology alone. “We should ease-” “Hands where I can see ’em, Case. The only time I ever went down was when a machine was easing at the wrong time.” But ultimately, it’s human connection and emotion — encapsulated in Dr. Brand’s love for Dr. Edmunds — that lead this crew to the habitable planet they so desperately seek. “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it yet.”
That’s not to say the film is anti-science. Far from it. Instead it demonstrates something more complex — that science is a necessary but, by itself, is an insufficient condition for a journey of discovery. Science alone can’t solve our problems of limited resources, identity, or societal violence. In Interstellar, science needs something more. It needs emotion — it needs love — to fuel and guide it. It requires human subjectivity that launches us beyond facts and figures and shiny chrome. “They have access to infinite time and space, but they’re not bound by anything. They can’t find a specific place in time, they can’t communicate. That’s why I’m here.” And, in that sense, Interstellar represents something of a capstone in the Christopher Nolan experience. In the face of the questions of identity that arise from the self and from society, Interstellar responds by showing how scientific advancements, merged with the intangibles of the human experience, provide us with the necessary thrust towards new frontiers and personal liberation. “If there’s an answer here on Earth, it’s back there, in that room.”
Of course, the technology exhibited in Interstellar is not of today’s world — it’s instead rooted in speculative fiction. And where the film itself even acts as an elegant marriage of science and imagination, it shows us worlds and innovations we’ve never seen before.
With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan confronts us with the power of hyperstitional cinema — image-driven storytelling of an imagined future that can influence, and emotionally fuel, us in the present. And that future urges us to make the irreal real. Even if we have to — crawl through the uncertainties of time and space to do it. At least we’re fueled by love along the way. With Interstellar, Nolan presents new worlds and realities that push us far from the violent, self-destructive climate of the Dark Knight trilogy or Memento. And in these new worlds, Nolan offers us an optimistic glimpse of our own possible future. So why did he follow this story with Dunkirk, a film about the Allied evacuation from bloody wartime conflict in 1940? The short answer, perhaps, is that Dunkirk is about our future, too. In both Interstellar and Dunkirk, Nolan unites his audience in celebrating the indomitable spirit of the human — the notion that man, and woman, is essentially good.
The notion that each of us is built to persevere. This is evident in much of Nolan’s recent work, including The Dark Knight Rises — when Catwoman tells Batman she’s bailing and assures him she’s no hero, only to prove herself wrong in the eleventh hour. How sweet. Interstellar furthers this cheerful embrace of human decency and capability by using love to push Cooper all the way to the end of his journey. Cooper’s own indomitable spirit, powerfully fueled by his love for his daughter, proves enough to ensure his success. What could be a clearer example of that emotional potency — that unflappable will to persevere — than what the British refer to as “The Dunkirk Spirit”? A term that’s been used to convey solidarity since the days of that bloody battle in World War II? The “Dunkirk Spirit” is defined by a sense of community — a “willingness by a group of people who are in a bad situation to all help each other.” The film invests a deep sense of communal spirit — a spirit best embodied, in Mr. Dawson. Despite lacking any military technology, this guy pilots his small boat into violent conflict, commits himself to saving the lives of strangers, and emerges victorious, thanks to sheer power of will. “We haven’t turned around?” “We have a job to do.”
Mr. Dawson’s instrumentation is not technical but internal — the step beyond Interstellar — and the purest possible connection between the self, society, and the spiritual unknown. Much like Dr. Amelia Brand in Interstellar, Mr. Dawson is resolutely piloted by love. Mr. Dawson was unable to save his oldest son in the war, but by rescuing as many as possible, he, in a sense, saves the conceptual image of his son — with each life Mr. Dawson rescues, he’s saving the sons of his fellow countrymen. “How do you know that stuff anyway?” “My son’s running you lot. I knew he’d see us through.” And you know what? That achievement might just be something even more noble and significant. In the realm of the Indomitable Human Spirit, Dunkirk suggests, sometimes the irreal is more real than real. Not only is this seen in the choices the characters make, but in the way the film is constructed. Dunkirk is structured in such a way so as to reveal the purest distillation of this communal concept. “I didn’t want to tell a story in words. I didn’t want the theatrics of people telling the audience why you should care about them. I wanted them to care just because of the physical situation they were under.”
Where many of Nolan’s previous films have been criticized for being too long, too dialogue-heavy, and too expository, Dunkirk clocks in at only 107 minutes, offers backstory for almost none of its characters, and really doesn’t have much interest in conversation. In other words, Nolan created a sense of solidarity between the viewers and soldiers without relying on the the tools often used to draw in audiences. Essentially-, it plunks us here. With every bullet fired, and with every ship destroyed, Dunkirk aims to access the psychological concept of “affective empathy,” the ability not just to know or to understand what someone is feeling, but to feel that feeling before it occurs. In interviews about the production of Dunkirk, Nolan said his ambition was to create “virtual reality without the headset.” In other words, a fully affective experience for the viewer. Whether Nolan successfully reached this goal is up to each individual viewer to decide. But the blending of science, technology, and imagination to create an immersive sense of participation in “the Dunkirk Spirit”? Well, that might just be Nolan’s loudest call to each of us to bind together in shaping and perfecting the self, society, and future that we want.
Nolan’s most recent film didn’t just bring him a boatload of Oscar nominations — it also brought together the threads of his earlier work, ultimately illustrating the power of love and the human spirit. Christopher Nolan is one of the interesting filmmakers working today. His movies aren’t only visceral and exciting, but also extremely thoughtful- a rare blend in today’s Hollywood. This is merely our interpretation of his work, but as with any master craftsman, his work will continue to inspire new thought for years to come. Thanks for watching guys. Hope you enjoyed the Christopher Nolan Trilogy. Peace!