Post #12: Christopher Nolan’s Endings (and Longinus)
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Tuesday December 23 2014
The ending (or should I say “endings”--one critic counts at least five) of the most recent Christopher Nolan film Interstellar got me thinking about how Nolan concludes his films. I shouldn’t have to mention that this post will be spoilerific in the extreme.
Nolan’s films follow a trajectory from cynical (tragic) to optimistic (romantic). I mean “romantic” not in the sense of a love story but in the sense of quest narratives that have resolved and happy conclusions. I was inspired to see this pattern by On the Sublime, a Greek text written by the first/third-century A.D. literary critic Longinus. At one point he hypothesizes that Homer wrote the Iliad first and the Odyssey second; that the war poem, with its tragic ending, is the creation of a young man, while the adventure poem that concludes with Odysseus returning home and re-asserting his kingship, is an old man’s fancy. Longinus has strong words for the Odyssey, but it’s not my intention to carry this negative judgment over. What I take from Longinus is that a cynical, tragic view of the world is characteristic of a young artist while an optimistic, comic view is characteristic of an older artist. I like Nolan’s later films, and think they’re just as good as the earlier efforts; my point here is that age and life circumstances have changed how Nolan sees (and wants us to see) the world.
Of course film is an intensely collaborative medium--directors, writers, actors, composers, lighting crew, and so on, all add to the final product. Nolan, though, is an auteur who exerts a considerable amount of influence over his finished films--he is the director, but he is also often the writer, co-writer, or adapter (Insomnia is the only exception). This suggests that films he’s involved with are reflections of himself.
From the beginning of his career in 1998 Nolan’s films take a cynical view of the world. Following, his debut feature-length film shot in black-and-white tells the story of would-be writer Bill (a stand-in for Nolan?), who is drawn into by small-time thief Cobb into burglarizing apartments. Cobb eventually frames Bill for the murder of his erstwhile girlfriend known only as “the Blonde.” Bill turns himself into the police, Cobb kills the Blonde with a hammer, and the final shot shows Cobb disappearing into a crowd of people (figure 1).
The protagonist of 2000’s Memento is Leonard, who is trying to avenge his wife’s murder. Leonard eventually discovers that he himself is the killer (in a flashback one of his tattoos clearly says: “I’ve done it” (figure 2)). Teddy, a crooked cop who directs Leonard to murder a rival drug dealer, shrugs off this realization: “So you lie to yourself to be happy--there’s nothing wrong with that! We all do it. So who cares if there’s a few details you’d rather not remember?” Leonard, the stand-in for every human being who wants to make sense of an incomprehensible world, replies, “I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted make things right.” In the final scene Leonard stops to get a tattoo of another clue that will lead him to believe that Teddy was his wife’s killer. He willfully and intentionally deceives himself so that the world conforms to his vision of it.
In Insomnia (2002) Will Dormer, a detective from L.A., travels to middle-of-nowhere Alaska to help solve a murder case. Dormer has secrets of his own--he once planted evidence and shot his partner--that murderer Walter Finch uses to blackmail him. In the final scene Dormer manages to shoot and kill Finch, but receives a fatal injury himself. As he succumbs to his wound, Ellie Burr, an Alaskan police officer, offers to clear Dormer’s name by throwing away the shell casing that proves that he shot his partner, but Dormer stops her: “Don’t lose your way.” Ellie puts the round back in the evidence bag and Dormer expires (figure 3). It’s not clear whether Ellie will heed Dormer’s warning or succumb to her idol’s darkness.
Batman Begins (2005), as its title suggests, is Bruce Wayne’s start as a costumed vigilante, and so it can’t end on the same dour note as much of Nolan’s cynical period films do. And yet Nolan tinges Batman’s optimism about Gotham’s future (“We can bring Gotham back”) with Commissioner Gordon’s note of despair about “escalation”: “We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armor-piercing rounds.” The film ends with the promise of more chaos with the coming of the Joker, who, Gordon implies, has been inspired by Batman’s example (figure 4).
Before he made the sequel to Batman Begins, Nolan directed The Prestige (2006). Two competing magicians, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, perform astounding disappearing acts: Borden employs his twin look-a-like brother Fallon while Angier creates clones of himself whom he drowns every night in his act (figure 5). Borden is hanged after being framed for Angier’s murder, and later Fallon shoots and kills Angier. In the closing moments of the film Fallon is re-united with his daughter, though this romantic ending is tinged with the audience’s knowledge of the sadistic lengths Borden and Angier went to top each other. Fallon is the ultimate magic trick, the final prestige, the magician who re-appears after he’s disappeared, but he has also made a heart-rending sacrifice to do so.
In the closing moments of The Dark Knight (2008) Gotham is in shambles after the death of Harvey Two-Face and pretty much everyone except Gordon thinks Batman did it. Alfred burns the letter Rachel left for Bruce telling him the truth (echoes of Memento). Gordon’s final words give some solace that Batman has become Gotham’s protector, but Batman is on the run from the law, which speaks to the hopelessness of Gotham’s society: “Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.” The final shot is of Batman on the BatPod [see figure 6], patrolling a city that reviles him.
Inception (2010) marks a turning point in Nolan’s endings. The essential question the film asks is, does Cobb escape himself? Cobb descends into the deepest level of the dream world to retrieve Robert Fischer and decides to stay behind to save Saito, the man who hired the team. In reference to the final words of Insomnia, Ariadne warns Cobb, “Don’t lose yourself.” Cobb convinces Saito to return to reality by committing suicide, and the final scene shows Cobb apparently reunited with his father-in-law and children in his house (figure 7). To tell the difference between the waking world and the dream world, Cobb had a spinning top made made that perpetually whirls in the dream world but stops in the waking one. In the final scene we see the top spinning on a table [above], but the screen cuts to black before we see what really happens. The top does, however, visibly and audibly wobble. I don’t think we can actually figure out whether Cobb has escaped the dream world or not--the point that Nolan’s making with this final shot is ambiguity rather than a definitive statement, though in my mind it becomes more hopeful and romantic than cynical.
In the third installment of his Batman trilogy, Nolan ends The Dark Knight Rises (2012) with Batman sacrificing himself to save Gotham, Alfred discovering Bruce with Selina Kyle in an Italian cafe [see figure 8], and John “Robin” Blake becoming the new Batman. In my first viewing, I had the impression that Bruce had actually died and Alfred was hallucinating seeing Bruce, but Christian Bale revealed recently that the final scenes really happen.
In Interstellar (2014) the Earth’s climate is failing and the food supply is dwindling. The NASA Space Program has two plans for saving the human race: either migrate all of Earth’s humans to another planet or abandon the humans on Earth and seed another planet with fertilized human embryos. The astronauts NASA sends to another solar system to explore potentially habitable planets encounter natural resistance--gigantic waves on an ocean planet and time differentials--as well as human resistance--Dr. Mann, an early explorer sent to a desolate ice-planet, is convinced that it’s impossible save the Earth-bound population and attempts to kill the astronauts to stop them from trying the first strategy. In the final scene, however, humans have migrated to a space station near Saturn, which has been made possible through the research Cooper’s daughter Murph [see figure 9]. Through the complexities of the relativity of space and time, Cooper is re-united with his daughter on her deathbed and then rushes off to relieve his fellow astronaut Amelia, who has been standing watch on a (presumably habitable?) planet.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly Jessica Chastain, who plays the older version of Murph, said that “Interstellar is a letter to his [Nolan’s] daughter.” (Interstellar had the provisional title Flora’s Letter.) “The film is a message of hope to the next generation: from the desperation of the inhabitants of Earth at the beginning of the film to their move to a space station in the finale and in the future to another planet, humanity triumphs over the cynicism and the lies of Professor Brand and Dr. Mann.
From cynicism to optimism, Nolan’s film career thus far has been governed by his sense of the larger world. Slate’s Forrest Wickman pointed out that many of Nolan’s films are obsessed with the protagonist avenging the death of a wife--in other words, with the traumatic break-up of a family (Nolan was married to his wife Emma Thomas in 1997). Post-2012 his focus has shifted to the future of his children and to optimism about the human condition rather than the pessimism that characterized his earlier films.