A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
Todd McGowan may well be the finest film theorist currently working in the States. His work is consistently original, and he writes with a concision and lucidity that renders even the most daunting of thinkers accessible. His The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (2008) and Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema (2011) are indeed nothing short of masterpieces in contemporary film theory. Thankfully, he doesn’t betray this reputation in his book The Fictional Christopher Nolan, now available in paperback from the University of Texas Press.
In these pages, he sees deception as the unifying trait of Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking. Through examinations of philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, coupled with close textual analyses, he demonstrates how the director’s films bespeak the ontological primacy of the lie. It’s certainly an interesting perspective on the director’s work, but of the stack of McGowan books I’ve read in the past, this one, much like Nolan’s films, runs the risk of being deceptive in terms of its project. Without understanding its programs, readers, especially those who pick up this text as run-of-the-mill Nolan fans, might find themselves feeling like Bill (Jeremy Theobald) in Following (1998), arriving at the end of the book and realizing the disparity between his or her initial conception of it and its actuality.
The appeal of McGowan’s book will be contingent on what a reader is looking for in a text about such a popular director. It is not, as many may suppose from the title, a typical auteurist study of Nolan, replete with quotes of the director, discussions of his personal life (especially any unknown seamy stuff), and explications of how it’s encoded into his filmography. If readers desire such a text, The Fictional Christopher Nolan will be deficient in all aforesaid categories. It includes only one quotation from Nolan himself, occurring on page 147, and remains almost entirely inconsiderate of his personal life. In fact, the one brief paragraph that concerns Nolan’s time outside of film communicates nothing beyond mundane biographical information one could find on Wikipedia: that he’s married, has children, likes British literature, and became interested in filmmaking at the age of seven (17)—nothing revelatory there. Moreover, he never configures these details within the aims of his program, so their presence ends up feeling superfluous. This failure to talk with any sort of exactitude about Nolan’s life and its relation to his work doesn’t sully the value of this project; it does, however, limit the scope of McGowan’s engagement with the filmmaker (and perhaps narrows his readership).
While it may not appeal to those interested in a classical, straightforward auteurist or biographical study of Nolan, the book will likely find an audience amongst theory-heads and philosophically minded film enthusiasts, most of whom will be friendly to McGowan’s theoretical agenda. He considers Nolan’s work more or less in a vacuum: with the unfortunate exceptions of Doodlebug (1997) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), each of the director’s films function, for McGowan, as exegetic tools to probe the fundamental nature of deceit, that is, its basis on which all socio-symbolic order is structured. For an undertaking of this sort, he’s indeed picked an appropriate candidate. More than any other popular filmmaker of recent years, at least to my knowledge, Nolan has made a career of cinematic deception: on the level of content, his characters become entangled in lies that transcend their individual ones, and on the formal level, he subjects spectators to similar trickery by inter-cutting images into scenes in such a way as to lead them to misinterpret their meaning. In this sense, deceit is the principle around which Nolan’s films organize themselves, and reveals deception to be a structural matter rather than simply an empirical one.
This is not to say, however, that one can never arrive at truth. As McGowan argues, it must arise out of the fiction that establishes the coordinates of reality. The truth, in other words, is in the lie itself. Here, he sees a parallel between the thought of G.W.F. Hegel and Nolan’s climatic deception. While his connection between such a heady philosopher and an accessible, big-budgeted director is sure to contract some brows, McGowan shows his comparison to be rather sound. For Hegel, the lie has an ontological priority over truth, and he would often immerse himself within the logic of various false doctrines to demonstrate the foundational role of deceit, as is the case with his interrogation of “sense certainty” in the introduction of The Phenomenology of Spirit (1976). In a like manner, Nolan shows that “one arrives at an ethical position by adhering to the fiction and following it to its logical end” (14). Hence, what McGowan shows readers is not Nolan, the Hollywood filmmaker—the figure with which a goodly percentage of them are most familiar with—but Nolan, the Hegelian filmmaker.
This line of thinking yields some fascinating interpretive readings of individual films. For instance, in his chapter on The Prestige (2006), which McGowan contends is “the central Nolan film” (103), he demonstrates that its nonlinear chronology makes visible the role traumatic loss plays in creativity. The idea of forward motion, which finds its analogue in the linearity of mainstream narrative cinema, is illusory and obscures the subject’s investment in trauma. The film’s protagonists, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) personify this notion, particularly with their positions as magicians and the sorrow they both endure in service of their craft. McGowan parlays their repetition of sacrifice and loss into the way spectators view films as autonomous, fetishized wholes, disavowing the quantum of labor that went into their production. Nolan’s film disrupts these protocols of narrative cinema by depicting “sacrifice as the remainder that exceeds and stains the cinematic illusions, thereby skewing the spectator’s relationship to it” (109). Viewers of The Prestige can therefore enjoy its fiction, but they must endure its emphasis on sacrifice as it relates to the production of the illusion—or of the work of art.
The problem with such readings, though, is that they don’t point toward much outside of themselves. In fact, it further highlights that McGowan calls on these films as means of illustration, thereby reading theory into them; and while this isn’t an uncommon methodological trend in contemporary film theory, here it results in the omission of many details of Nolan’s oeuvre. McGowan limits his attention to Nolan’s feature-length films, saying nothing of his bizarre short Doodlebug; and reader’s will surely be disappointed by the absence of The Dark Knight Rises, by far the most ideologically troubling installment of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Furthermore, while he spends time comparing Nolan’s remake of Insomnia to its Nordic hypotext, particularly to illuminate how Nolan tailors the source narrative to his preoccupation with deceit, he never mentions that The Prestige is an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1996 novel of the same title, which, other than its basic plotline, is quite dissimilar from its cinematic counterpart. Admittedly, these overlooked details may seem trivial, but it makes one wonder if the director’s films interest McGowan only insofar as they possess some utility. Either way, it shows his book to be not quite comprehensive.
It’s also peculiar that he neglects some key thinkers relevant to his arguments, many of whom are more approachable than those he examines. McGowan hardly takes up the thought of Slavoj Žižek, who often posits the centrality of fiction and has developed the idea throughout his work. In The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (1996), as an example, he references what he calls the “primordial lie,” which is the “phantasmatic construction by means of which we endeavor to conceal the inconsistency of the symbolic order in which we dwell.” Fast forward to his Living In the End Times (2010), and we see that Žižek applies this notion to the conclusion of Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), arguing that it illuminates “our civilization [to be] grounded on a lie.” McGowan is, as evidenced in his other publications, an articulate reader of Žižek and often references him, which makes his scarcity in the present book appear most curious, especially since so much of his thought speaks precisely to McGowan’s project.
Nevertheless, The Fictional Christopher Nolan proves to be a worthwhile contribution to the literatures on both film theory and the director, and the above criticisms should not overshadow many of the fascinating insights on offer in its pages. It contains brilliant expositions of continental philosophy—McGowan’s critiques of Heidegger and Badiou are perhaps the best I’ve read in recent theoretical writings on cinema—all of which are accessible to even laypeople of theory, thanks to his ever-limpid prose. But the main gift of McGowan’s book—more than its close analysis of individual films, accessibility, or sheer topicality—is that it urges readers to rethink their conception of deceit as it relates to truth, showing that, as he puts it, “the lie will set you free” (177).
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.