This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in March 2018, as the second of three parts. Part I can be found here.
In Part I we talked big picture construction – heroic virtue established by resistance to nihilism, representations of fear, and the condition of the Joker. For Part II, we’re going small.
Spoilers to follow for Following, Memento, and Inception.
Civilizations are fragile. In The Dark Knight, The Joker changes his agenda three or four different times on a whim, and each one causes a new horrific reverberation that amplifies the city’s fear of him. The larger disruptions all stem from his deliberately unstructured, and undisciplined inconsistency as a criminal and challenger of Batman. He is chaos incarnate.
The Christopher Nolan movie protagonist is the opposite of this. Batman, Angier, Cobb, and Cooper portray themselves as steady, disciplined professionals with unwavering focus. Of course they aren’t all totally there, and they aren’t always “good” guys. But they are portrayed favorably as stoic, methodical, hair-slicked specialists who appear to be driven in part by the loss of a loved one.
The one I left out of that list is the one I’d like to talk about, since I ended Part I on the note that the Joker was constructed as a magnetic polar opposite not just to Batman, but to Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby.
At a glance, Leonard could not more perfectly fit that formula. With a condition that keeps him from remembering anything and anyone in the short term, he has created a near-fool-proof system of signs, tattoos, and Polaroids that keep him on track for his mission. And he has on his mind at all times a personally defining story of self-determination that spurs him on.
But everything about Leonard is a lie. A dangerous, self-conditioned lie that gets him constantly into trouble, breaches his own safeguards against manipulation, and keeps him on an endless violent hunt for the amorphous John G.
It was Memento that made me realize just how much Nolan obsesses over structure. In traditional storytelling, an “act” is defined as a chapter-like progression of events, conflicts, and choices that build propulsion. They end with an important character making a fateful decision that begins the next act. But how do you structure a film that’s going simultaneously backwards and forwards on the same linear timeline, where every color sequence is a prequel to the last one, and begins in the middle of itself?
The structure of Memento is thematic. There are four acts: the condition, the chase, the turn, and the convergence. Adjacent scenes contrast reality: color for real-time, immediate, subjective perspective, black/white for flashback documentary-like objective detachment. The opening reverse-action sequence clues you into the central theme, as a Polaroid of a murdered body is shaken away. The film is about the malleable nature of memory, as well as its relationship with narrative and identity. But it is not asking: “If I kill and then forget it, did it really happen and am I really a murderer?” Of course it did and of course you are. Instead the question is, “If a person with a horrific memory can bury it and reshape it almost any way he wants, why isn’t he trying to make life better, and what does that say about who he really is?”
It is clear that Leonard is more interested in cold revenge than he is in trying to sustain any positive memory of his wife. He worries more about the possibility of his system being penetrated than he is of doing right by his wife or being a good person. And he clings to revenge like a crutch because to him it’s a better story than the objective truth. He can say that he has succeeded in doing what “Sammy Jenkins” could not, and keep telling that lie as though it’s the essence of who he is. All that, of course, is why he ends up being his own greatest manipulator.
He has molded his selective memories, false narratives, and dissatisfaction with objective reality, into a predatory identity for himself. And he will loop through it again and again and again until he dies or until the world runs out of people for him to kill.
The puzzle structure is in part to involve the audience in a decryption process for Leonard’s mind. But Leonard isn’t so much the science problem that fascinates Nolan. He’s the explanation, and not a comforting one. When contrasted with the black/white sequences where he’s talking with someone we don’t see, the disorienting beginning of every the color sequence takes on a new meaning. Leonard has trained the humanity out of himself in his pursuit of vengeance, and he is truly, completely alone. He will recognize some people because of a picture he has of them with a note about them in his handwriting. But Memento makes clear that such a superficial gimmick is not what it means to know someone. Leonard will never have a meaningful relationship again. He will never be able to connect with someone, be a positive part of someone else’s story, or retain a powerful moment in his life. He will not love. Not because of his condition, but because of his choices. The most humane character in the film turns out to be Teddy – the sleazy cop who has, the whole time, just been trying to recreate the picture-perfect moment of the last time his friend was happy. And how does Leonard repay him? By using his final few minutes of that little memory to set him up as the next John G. for him to kill.
With Memento, Nolan defined through structure the essence of what separates the humane from the inhumane: the ability to connect and have a genuine moment with someone in your life. When your subjective view of reality and your faith in a greater objective reality break down, all that can be truly real to you is a moment where you can feel your humanity. That is, if you have any.
So of course the Joker kills every henchman mid-robbery, destroys the mob even faster than Batman can, tosses women from skyscraper windows, turns an entire city on the first man willing to appease him, draws up prisoner dilemmas, and otherwise relishes seeing the world on fire. Of course the Joker’s first and only moment of genuine disappointment in The Dark Knight happens when the city, represented by the men on the boats, steels itself at a vulnerable moment, and unites to defy him. In that moment, Gotham found in itself a deep-seated humanity that the Joker could not believe was there because he himself does not understand it. He planned around it anyway, but only because that’s just who he is. And when I put The Dark Knight side by side with Memento, I see that though Leonard’s vengeful myopia and the Joker’s freewheeling jenga games couldn’t be more different, the inhumanity at their core is exactly the same.
What’s the cure for someone like this? What’s powerful enough to snap a man like Leonard out of his mindset and change him at his core forever?
The very thing that keeps him going. The most resilient parasite – the all-defining, all-consuming, and the ever-expanding – the Idea.
This wasn’t just a clever transition. One of the most important features of Inception as a Nolan construction is the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb is a new iteration of Leonard. He too is repressing the guilt of having inadvertently killed his wife, burying the memory deep within his mind so he can stay focused on his missions.
There are, of course, important differences. Cobb doesn’t do revenge. Even when offered a chance to kill the snitch, he doesn’t take it. Unlike Leonard who operates within and deliberately feeds the endless loop of his disconnected reality, Cobb has, for now, put that life behind him. He and Mal were in Limbo for “fifty years.” And he’s dealing with the consequences of having left it, both externally in not being allowed to return to his kids, and internally by his inability to look them in the eye.
Before we go on, I must digress for a moment to discuss the other Cobb. This character is also an infiltrator suspected of a woman’s murder.
Nolan’s first ever feature film Following features a character named Cobb (we’ll call him Cobb Zero) who breaks into people’s homes, and steals only the items that his victims value the most. A George R.R. Martin type of dapper criminal, he believes he can learn who any person is by figuring out what items she treasures most, and that taking them away forces that person to re-examine herself. Or at least, that’s what he tells our self-unconscious protagonist.
Following is essentially about the deception of appearances, the futility of imitation, and the dangers of getting sucked too quickly into another person’s life story. Its final shot of Cobb Zero vanishing into the crowd makes it one of those indie darlings for anxious paranoiacs.
But Nolan had thankfully grown beyond this misanthropy over the subsequent decade by the time he made Inception. Cobb is almost an Earth-2 version of Cobb Zero. Like his predecessor, he invades people’s most private spaces to steal something of incredible value to them. But he doesn’t do it out of some fake altruism or identity crisis – simply for survival as he tries to find a way home to his children. This Cobb is a genuine creative mentor, a leader, and an optimist who believes that people are persuaded by emotional satisfaction rather than punishment. And his arc in the film is about confronting his guilt, overcoming his self-induced punishments for his life’s regrets, and “coming back to reality.”
Nolan went from constructing a Cobb he feared could personify any stranger to creating a Cobb that he aspires to. Even with inner demons, Cobb is a good-guy protagonist. Sure, he’s committing a mental burglary not unlike Freddy Krueger, but he’s still the hero worthy of Ariadne’s help.
I emphasize this because I think that a basic understanding of who Cobb is compared to who he is not helps explain the ending. Was it a dream? Was it real life? Consider this. The most unbelievable, impossible plot mechanic in the film is the notion that some Japanese corporate national can circumvent the U.S.’s entire customs and immigration process to allow in a wanted domestic murder suspect with a single phone call. Inception doesn’t just have us watch a group of people do it on an unsuspecting Fisher. We the audience are compelled to experience the film the way we do our dreams.
And perhaps the idea being implanted in our minds is this: A dream can give us the most valuable and ever-so-scarce thing that we all desire – time. It can be every bit as real to us as reality if that dream can help us feel truly alive. The cruel ticking clock of reality will always work against us, keeping us from connecting, from loving, from our passions, and thus from ourselves. That “coming back to reality” doesn’t just mean coming out of a dream, but emerging from the prisons and torture chambers you’ve constructed for yourself in your own head that keep you from the things in life that are truly important.
Just to be clear, this is not how I totally read the film. What I’m saying is that the ambiguity has a purpose. Leonard performs inception upon himself with each new target. The important part about the pinwheel revelation is not that it’s technically a top-to-bottom lie, but that it gave Robert Fisher a truly personal moment with his father that had been denied him in real life. The moment is so powerful that it will never not be real to him. And the important part of that final scene was not whether the top will or won’t stop spinning. It’s that Cobb turned away from it in order to live in and embrace the moment. No longer is he pointing a gun at his own head trying to distinguish the dream from reality. But it’s not because there is no objective difference between the two. It’s because, just like with memories and perception vs. cognizance of a reality beyond you, once the differences between dreams and reality break down in front of you, all that’s truly real to us is a moment where we can feel the realness of our humanity.
Memento and Inception can be taken together as a yin and yang of Nolan’s humanist take on the individual.
So very much the opposite of a cold, nihilistic filmmaker, Nolan made these movies about the way we repress ourselves. About the barriers we construct in our own minds that cause us to lose ourselves, and then lose loved ones. For it is better to lose yourself for the moment in an awesome dream if that dream can help you come into your best self.