The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Part 1) – Wisecrack Edition
The first of a three part series on Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Tommy Cook
Research by: Austin Smidt
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Part 1) – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Now — I don’t know about you, but every time a new Christopher Nolan movie comes out, I happily shell out my hard-earned twenty-five bucks for a sweet IMAX 70mm experience. There are few directors today that can meld thought provoking philosophy with big budget spectacle; but Nolan, well, he makes it look as easy as spinning a top. Now — instead of focusing on one particular Nolan film, we’re going to take a step back and look at his entire filmography. Because throughout all 10 of Nolan’s movies, certain themes keep coming back. In fact, there’s so much to discuss, we’ve pulled the ultimate Hollywood move: today’s Christopher Nolan video will be the first of THREE interconnected videos on the director. Don’t worry, we’re not pulling a ‘Hobbit’ and extending a children’s book into a seven-hour trilogy. Think of this instead as our ‘Lord of the Rings’. There’s just so much great stuff to say about Nolan, that we have to make three videos to do his work justice. So sit back in your recliner chair and welcome to the epic Wisecrack Imax 70mm presentation of the Philosophy of Christopher Nolan- Part 1. Spoilers ahead
Christopher Nolan’s films can be broken down into three distinct phases: the self, society, and the universe. The first phase we’ll discuss, The Self, includes Nolan’s early work: Following, Memento, Insomnia & The Prestige, as well as Inception. These films question the nature of personhood: Can we ever truly know someone else? Can we know ourselves? Can our own thoughts be trusted? Hell — what even is a ‘person’? To better understand how these questions develop in Nolan’s work, we’re first have to learn a little something about what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the Hermeneutics of Suspicion — or as the cool kids say: HoS. Hermeneutics studies how people interpret texts. Think of how a biblical verse can be interpreted any number of ways. Christ’s resurrection could be thought of as an allegorical, moral or even literal story.
Hermeneutics looks at all these different interpretations, focusing on the methodologies people use to justify their interpretations. And it’s not just biblical text. Legal, literary, philosophical, pretty much any text you can think of falls within hermeneutics. Heck — Wisecrack is basically just one giant site dedicated to hermeneutics. All we do is interpret text: film, television, literature, video-games, you name it… But Ricoeur questions these so-called ‘interpretations’, identifying a group of outside-the-box philosophers committed to drawing out “less visible and flattering truths”. Ricoeur called this group the “School of Suspicion”, which sorta sounds like an erotic French thriller starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier; but unfortunately, it’s just three dudes with facial hair: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. According to Ricœur, these figures, and the lineage they inspired, were committed to unmasking “the lies and illusions of consciousness”. They circumvented self-evident meanings in text, focusing on what wasn’t said, and the contradictions within — all to decode a true, disguised meaning. So while religious stories, like Christ’s Resurrection, may seem to be about how man achieves personal salvation; for The School of Suspicion, these parables disguised a hidden meaning. Marx stated the true purpose of religious parables were to make “the misery of life more endurable.” Nietzsche unmasked religion as the “refuge for the weak”, giving purpose to the mentally fragile; and Freud thought religion was an illusion that substituted one’s wish for a “father” with “God”.
Now, yes — Hermeneutics of Suspicion typically only applies to text but it can be used more broadly to refer to any so-called interpretation we hold as self-evident. And what’s more self-evident than, well, — ourselves! Yes, you, YouTube viewer, watching this video with your 8-tabs open and fidget spinner in hand. What we drink, watch, wear, think, believe — all inform how we interpret ourselves and others. Much like the HoS, Nolan questions the conclusions that come from standard interpretations. He confounds our assumed knowledge, challenging our presuppositions, to reveal deeper, disguised truths about who the hell we really are. Nolan’s films are always about that suspicious relation between our subjective and objective reality. Now this might sound like idealism to the philosophically-inclined among you, But we’re NOT arguing that Nolan dismisses any external reality, but rather he embraces a critical disposition toward accepted notions of the self. Take Christopher Nolan’s debut – Following. The black-and-white indie ‘follows’ Billy, a struggling writer, who obsessively watches people from afar to get inspiration for his novel. One day, he follows a well dressed thief named Cobb (no not that one), as he breaks into a home. Cobb quickly notices Billy watching; but instead of running away or attacking the voyeur, he invites Billy to join in on these ‘robberies’. See, Cobb is far less interested in stealing precious items than in the figuring out the lives of people through their possessions.
Both Cobb & Billy interpret and construct their own images of people- Billy by following strangers around and Cobb by breaking into people’s homes and rifling through their belongings. But Nolan immediately questions if these conclusions hold any merit, suggesting you can’t rely on appearance and possessions to define a person. As Cobb himself says, when burglarizing a house: “You take them away, and show them what they had.” For Cobb, violating a person’s property forces his victims to re-evaluate themselves. When the possessions people hold dear are taken away or altered, it, in effect, causes them to question their identity. Nolan also questions people’s reliance on appearances. Cobb urges Billy to cut his hair and don his same suits, which Billy immediately does because he wants to be just like his mentor. Later Billy falls in love with a blonde woman, whose house he and Cobb broke into and ‘robbed’. But this is all a set-up. The blonde woman is working with Cobb to frame Billy, the earlier ‘break-in’ and make-over just a long con on the poor writer. Billy’s own presuppositions of Cobb are revealed to be false, a far more dastardly intent lurking beneath his friendly smile and mentorship.
Nolan’s suspicion towards using possessions and appearance to define others carries over to his next feature – Memento. The film’s protagonist, Leonard, suffers from anterograde amnesia and relies on a series of possessions – photographs, notes, and tattoos — to remind himself of who the people around him are and whether they can be trusted. He trusts Natalie because his notes tell him to; he kills Teddy because, again, his notes tell him to; he believes the car parked outside is his because he has a photograph that tells him so. But of course — these ‘mementos’ aren’t nearly as reliable as Leonard believes. Nolan, in true HoS fashion, creates drama by throwing suspicion towards the validity of text – in this case, photographs,notes, and tattoos. How can we trust something we read if the source itself is questionable? Truth is — Natalie can’t be trusted. That car, parked out front, actually doesn’t belong to Leonard. And Teddy — well, he’s not the guy Leonard should kill at all. Leonard may say: “I go on facts, not recommendations”.
But if the ‘truths’ these facts are based on are incorrect, then what use are they? Nolan constantly draws a distinction between Leonard’s subjective reality and the idea of objective truth. In Leonard’s subjective view – he’s a husband avenging the rape and murder of his wife after a break-in. But as the film reveals, his wife actually survived this initial attack. It was Leonard who later accidentally killed his wife, forgetting he had already given her her insulin shot. Moreover– Leonard actually already caught and murdered his wife’s rapist over a year ago. He uses text to trick himself into believing this idealized revenge mission still exists. Leonard conditions himself to believe in the lies he creates to the point where even his own memories are fabricated. He substitutes the story of Sammy Jankis for his own, so he doesn’t have to live with the guilt of accidentally murdering his wife. Nolan here extends the Hermeneutics of Suspicion from simple text — Leonard’s unreliable notes — to Leonard himself, his own false memories. This suspicion continues into Nolan’s third feature: Insomnia. Where in Memento, Leonard is an unreliable narrator, unable to discern reality from his own fiction, Insomnia’s chief protagonist, detective Will Dormer, seems to be the opposite. He’s reliable, intelligent, and perceptive. But if Memento focused on a broken man attempting to rebuild his sense of self, Insomnia takes the counter approach, showing how even the most rock solid guy – like say an Al Pacino – can crumble into self-doubt with just a little push.Hold up, Ledger. We’ll get to you in Part Two. Anyways — after Will mistakenly shoots his partner in the fog, the guilt of the event triggers intense psychological confusion and insomnia. He hallucinates his dead partner. Rooms seem to distort around Will and everyday noises become blisteringly irritating. Later, Will begins to hallucinate that he actually did see his partner in the fog and that he deliberately shot him.
Unlike Memento, Insomnia provides no clear explanation about what is objectively true. Did Will deliberately shoot his partner? Or was it just an accident? The answer – who knows? Nolan yet again extends the hermeneutics of suspicion, now questioning objective reality itself. He implies that it’s a much more complicated than just accepting either pure objectivity or subjective idealism. Perhaps we can’t ever be ‘sure’ of the objective world. By the end of Insomnia, Will doesn’t even know if he deliberately shot his partner or not. The Prestige is pretty much Nolan’s ‘greatest hits’ — as he tackles all the hermeneutics of suspicion from his earlier work. The film is told through a series of journals – many of which are fake, once again casting suspicion on good ol’ text. All of the film’s magicians use disguises to mask their tricks. The Great Chung Lin Soo pretends to be a cripple, Alfred Borden wears disguises to mask that he has a twin, and both Alfred and his ‘frenemy’ Robert Angier repeatedly pretend to be audience members. Like in Following & Memento, appearances can’t be trusted and the self is constantly put into doubt. Even Alfred’s own wife doesn’t know his secret, confused that her husband could be so loving one day and so cold the next, unaware of the existence of her husband’s twin.
Nolan uses magic to yet again question subjective reality versus objective truth. From the audience’s subjective point of view, the bird really does disappear and then reappear. In reality — there were actually two twin birds, one dead beneath the table, the other ‘re-appearing’ in the magician’s hand. Just as Memento’s Leonard prefers to live in the illusion of his manipulated subjective reality, the audience too prefers illusion over objective truth. They don’t want to know how Robert literally duplicates himself each night, murdering his double in a water tank beneath the stage. They’d much rather live under the lie that Robert disappears and then suddenly reappears on the opposite end of the theater. As a filmmaker, Nolan views himself like these magicians. He plays with illusion and misdirection to keep the audience guessing. We know that we’re watching a movie, a projection on a screen, an illusion; but we don’t really want to know this ‘truth’ — so we revel in the imaginary world Nolan has crafted. This is what Nolan ultimately wants: to affect the audience through trickery. For him — the truth, deep down, is that we prefer the imaginary over reality.
Nolan’s suspicion towards reality climaxes in Inception, a film where every single thing is put into doubt. That guy who looks like Tom Berenger. Well – that’s actually Tom Hardy. Can’t trust your eyes. That thought you just had? It’s been implanted by Leonardo DiCaprio. Can’t trust yourself. Your children waiting to play outside. Actually it’s all a dream. Maybe. Can’t trust anything. Inception’s protagonist, dream-thief Cobb (no not that one), can barely discern his reality from dream — to the point where it doesn’t even matter. In Cobb’s supposed reality, he’s on the run chased by goons with guns through byzantine pathways. In Cobb’s supposed dream, he’s, well, still on the run chased by goons with guns through byzantine pathways. Nolan deliberately draws this parallel to showcase how muddled the two are. Put simply — there is no difference between dream and reality because subjectively Cobb can’t tell the difference. Such is the fate for Cobb’s wife, Mal. She believes that her reality is still a dream and to wake up, she must kill herself. But what if Mal’s actually right? What if Cobb has been dreaming the whole time?
No definitive answer is ever given. Which is exactly Nolan’s point. In the end only the question remains. That last indelible image, of that damn spinning top – spinning but just slightly wavering — provides no definitive answer as to if Cobb is dreaming or awake, only further proving that in the end there is no truth, no reality, only the ‘suspicion’ thereof – well at least until we get to part 3. Through each of Nolan’s early films, he casts doubt on appearances, on possessions, on others, on ourselves, on our thoughts, and finally on reality. But if you can’t trust anybody else and you can’t trust yourself and, holy shit, you can’t even trust the reality surrounding you, then how the hell does society function? How can people come together and form a stable, working unit given the foundational bedrock is so wonky? This is the question Nolan explores through his Dark Knight trilogy. Which we’ll explore… in the next part of our own Wisecrack Nolan Trilogy.
Thanks for watching, guys. Peace.