In many, many ways Christopher Nolan is the closest thing we have to a modern Alfred Hitchcock. (David Fincher is maybe a close second; M. Night Shyamalan a distant seventh.) Like Hitchcock, Nolan is a director who is very involved in the crafting of the story without exactly being a writer-director. Both directors make (made) arty blockbusters: you can appreciate the craft of Rear Window or The Prestige on a second or third viewing or just crunch the popcorn. They both work (worked) largely in film noir. One key difference is while Hitchcock’s movies are not overly concerned to dwell on ideas (“Save the messages for Western Union” sums up Hitchcock’s general approach), while Nolan’s films have major philosophical preoccupations. Bilge Ebiri says it well at Vulture:
[Nolan] doesn’t tell novelistic tales full of generously detailed characters. Rather, he takes a single idea and works it from practically every angle, so that the idea becomes almost a cipher to unlocking the film itself. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb says early on in Inception, the most resilient parasite is an idea: “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” Each of Nolan’s films is built around a single idea that eventually seizes control of the characters and, eventually, the film itself.
Having noted this idea-centric element, I’ve been thinking about Nolan’s body of work obsessively for the last few years: keeping notes; tattooing key ideas on my body so I won’t forget them. And the more I think about Nolan’s work the more he seems deeply preoccupied with this theme: the conflict between positive meaning and truth. At least five of his films (Memento, Insomnia, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, and Inception) pit good appearances against the darker truths that run underneath, most often with the darker truth being covered up under the lovely lie. In lieu of a prosaic description of these scenes, I’ll offer a brief description of key scenes that will make sense if you’ve seen the films. [NOTE: Major spoilers follow. If you don’t want movies that are at least three years old spoiled for you, skip down the end.] ***
In Christopher Nolan’s breakout film, main character Leonard Shelby searches for his wife’s killer despite the handicap of having no short term memory. With the aid of notes, Polaroids, and tattoos, he writes down information before he forgets it. At the end/beginning of the movie, Shelby is told by his friend/enemy Teddy that Leonard avenged his wife years before, but can’t have peace because he doesn’t remember it. Burning the photo evidence Teddy provides, Leonard decides to set himself a new target to keep up the only meaningful objective he has in life: revenge. Making Teddy his new target, Leonard writes himself a note which will eventually lead to Teddy’s death. In voiceover, we hear, “Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy… yes I will.”
Nolan’s follow-up to Memento told the story of two cops sent to Alaska to track down a killer. Will Dormer (Al Pacino), however, is facing a corruption scandal back home and his partner is thinking of testifying. Chasing the killer Dormer accidentally (or not) shoots his partner, solving his problem back home, but creating a new one as a local policewoman who admires Dormer begins investigating the shooting. Dormer catches the killer in the end, and the policewoman (played by Hillary Swank), moves to toss away the only evidence that would incriminate the dying Dormer. “Nobody needs to know,” the young policewoman says. But Dormer stops her from covering up the evidence that would reveal his own crime. “Don’t lose your way,” he says. Insomnia is the exception here that proves the rule. Nolan inverts the resolution, offering a glint of hope as the darkness is brought out into the light.
This is the darkest, and in my opinion the best of Nolan’s films since Memento. Since it is underseen and super-spoilable, I’ll skip describing the plot of The Prestige. More than any other movie, this feels like Nolan’s most personal, and a summation of many of his key ideas. The whole film hinges thematically and narratively on deception. The plot follows two magicians, who are trying to maliciously deceive each other while of course deceiving the audience for their magic in a more benevolent manner. Stage magic, of course, consists in deception. The audience pays to be tricked. As one of the characters says, when you see a magic trick, “you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” One of the magicians puts a much darker spin on it when he says,
You never understood, why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special… you really don’t know?… it was… it was the look on their faces.
Read this way, in order to escape from the misery of reality, we have to be tricked. We have to be lied to.
The Dark Knight:
Since everyone has seen this movie five times over, it isn’t necessary to rehash the plot. The key scene for my thesis comes at the end of the movie, as Batman has agreed to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death so that Gotham can have an unsullied hero to look up to. Lieutenant Gordon’s son asks, “Why’s he running, Dad?” Gordon: “Because we have to chase him.” His son: “He didn’t do anything wrong.” Gordon: “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” While the ending of Memento is pretty bleak–Leonard decides to deceive himself for the sake of meaning–The Dark Knight is a bit more noble. Batman becomes a sort of noir Christ figure: taking the sins of Gotham upon himself. Yet the sin of deception still remains unexculpated. I am interested to see how The Dark Night Rises deals with the after effects of Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s willing deception.
In Nolan’s most recent film, deception features prominently as a plot element: the main characters are trying to use dreams to trick people into revealing information or forming a false belief. But the more notable philosophical element is the famous final scene, where Cobb (the main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio), abandons concerns about whether he is trapped in a dream and simply embraces the pleasure of being with his children evermore. Neither he, nor the audience, find out what truth his telltale totem will reveal. *** Let me once again repeat that I think Nolan’s movies are some of the best popular entertainment out there. But his obsession with the conflict between beautiful meaning and the dark truth about the world is worrisome. What Hans Urs von Balthasar said of religion can be applied here to truth, if “beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible.” If the truth is ugly and hostile to human flourishing, then the best we can do is lie to ourselves–which is exactly what Nolan’s heroes often resort to. But this means that truth, beauty, and goodness are fundamentally at odds: warring like rival gangs in Gotham. This is a tragic worldview, from which we must be rescued by the more substantial magic of the risen hero.