The Therapeutic Philosophy of Christopher Nolan
This panel discusses the films of the director Christopher Nolan. The speakers deliver a variety of philosophical responses to his work, including reading The Prestige as a response to Parfit, viewing the philosophy of grief in Inception and subjective truth in The Dark Knight Legend.
The panel discusses the (particularly) self-aware way in which Nolan’s work can play a transformative/‘therapeutic’ role in and for the attentive viewer. By drawing attention to the philosophical potentialities of film, Nolan’s films both give the viewer her experience and ‘compel’ her to think about, and through, that experience. The viewer is facilitated in her journey of emerging as a subject/agent of, and not just subjected/objectified by, the philosophical film. The panel will show this by highlighting the ways in which the ambivalence of truth in Batman mirrors ambivalence in Nolan’s films themselves (Gaine), how, in Inception, dreaming time can help one work through grief and awaken into real life (Bell), and how the magicians in The Prestige are crucially different from those philosophers/filmthinkers who seek to liberate their audiences because the former rest content with manipulation while the latter do not (Read).
“Sometimes, Truth Isn’t Enough”: Truth and Manipulation in The Dark Knight Legend
Vincent M. Gaine
This paper argues that Nolan’s Batman trilogy highlights the pliability of truth, a concept that cinema is adept at emphasising. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative: the medium can and does straightforwardly present and direct audience attention and sympathy. Nolan’s narrative and stylistic techniques draw attention to this manipulative effect of film. This highlighting of cinematic manipulation includes the audience in a philosophical investigation, provoking the viewer to ask why film is put together in such ways and why films provoke particular responses.
The Dark Knight Legend demonstrates the director’s highlighting of the subjectivity of truth. Through the clashes of ideologies between Batman and his adversaries, Nolan’s Gotham problematises the certainty of truth. Obsessive concern over “the truth” is a common feature of Hollywood films, yet in Nolan’s Gotham truth is treated ambivalently. Through the manipulative effects of cinema, the viewer can find the Joker engagingly charismatic or Batman compelling righteous, yet be left discomfited by both reactions. The paper argues that this discomfort is central to Nolan’s highlighting of the cinematic medium, its manipulative tendency and the therapy that this highlighting enables.
The tale Parfit tells: A Wittgensteinian use of film and literature to question analytic metaphysics of personal identity
Derek Parfit’s most famous and influential philosophical work, Reasons and Persons, centres upon a short story. A story about a teletransporter and a person transported through it – and about who they ‘really’ are, or about what we should care about this. Parfit argues that his ‘thought-experiment’ shows that ‘personal identity’ as (analytic) philosophy understands it doesn’t matter. That, in particular, so long as I know that ‘my self’ on Mars is unharmed by the teletransporter, then it shouldn’t matter that ‘I’ remain on Earth, soon to die.
This paper uses The Prestige to challenge the method and alleged moral of Parfit’s famous ‘branch-line’ teletransportation thought-experiment (specifically, I suggest that the film effects this challenge itself; I only draw attention to it).
By treating Parfit’s short story as a story, a (fragment of a) work of literature, we can see that it need not have the moral that Parfit alleges for it. For The Prestige combats Parfit more or less directly. In doing so, it supports a broadly Wittgensteinian alternative to the Parfittian take on personal identity.
Furthermore, The Prestige is also broadly Wittgensteinian at the ‘meta’ level. For it clearly seeks to free the viewer from the grip of ‘magic’ (of a magician, a film-maker, or a metaphysician) and instead seeks to facilitate the viewer’s emergence into a state of autonomy. Freed not only from the disastrous personal and professional obsessions of the film’s magicians, but from vulnerability to their prestidigitatory art itself.
Inception and Grief-Time: Feeling Film as Philosophy
Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and the Batman films all feature protagonists driven by loss and guilty memories to refuse the passing of time. Inception develops this signature theme into a sophisticated discourse on moral loss and an ‘experience’ of what might be understood as ‘grief-time’. The guilty dreamer, Cobb, runs from and to the vengeful ghost of his wife Mal, constructing ever-deepening psychic terrains where time passes ever more slowly. His Escher-like architecture of grief is constructed in cinematic time: flashbacks, slow motions, flash forwards, and the intricate and paradoxical editing patterns that are Nolan’s signature devices. Nolan’s grieving dreamers do not literally time-travel, rather they escape time by being stricken in it – building the delusion that time has not passed, and is not passing now. They feel time grievously: willingly and knowingly destroying their experience by creating multiple simultaneous existences.
Grief-time might be understood intellectually, but Inception encourages one to feel its philosophical significance – to be moved to know that while grief is unavoidable suffering when someone is lost, it is, paradoxically, a means of avoiding that suffering. Grief-time is a ‘synthetic suffering’; one feels falsely consoled by remaining in the past in order to change it – “she is going to be dead”. The therapeutic work of Inception is to let time pass and feel that time has passed; to go (back) forwards to the present with the courage to murder beloved ghosts: “she was dead (now)”.