Legendary Caesar and the Architect Ariadne: Narrative, Myth and Psychology in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception
by Kresimir Vukovic , Rajko Petkovic
November 26, 2013
The paper begins with an overview of stylistic and narrative features of Nolan's films (tracing his sources of influence), which consistently reveals their explicit psychological motivation. The bulk of the paper thus consists of a psychological analysis of three films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception) as examples of Nolan’s exploration of human subjectivity. The films are primarily analysed in a Lacanian framework, but some other psychological approaches (Zimbardo, neuroscience) are used to reinforce the argument. Lacanian registers of the symbolic and the Real are used to discuss Nolan’s exploration of the relation between the individual and society. Special attention is given to Nolan’s use of classical myth (legendary Caesar, architect Ariadne) as these intertextual references play a significant role in the structure of The Dark Knight and Inception, respectively.
Legendary Caesar and the Architect Ariadne: Narrative, Myth and Psychology in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception*
The paper begins with an overview of stylistic and narrative features of Christopher Nolan's films (tracing his sources of influence), which consistently reveals their explicit psychological motivation. The bulk of the paper thus consists of a psychological analysis of three films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception) as examples of Nolan’s exploration of human subjectivity. The films are primarily analysed in a Lacanian framework, but some other psychological approaches (Zimbardo, neuroscience) are used to reinforce the argument. Lacanian registers of the symbolic and the Real are applied to Nolan’s exploration of the relation between the individual and society. Special attention is given to Nolan’s use of classical myth (“legendary Caesar”, architect Ariadne) as these intertextual references play a significant role in the structure of The Dark Knight and Inception, respectively.
Christopher Nolan is one of the most popular, influential and innovative modern filmmakers. In a true postmodern fashion, his films have been equally influenced by the legacy of classical Hollywood, ranging from Porter and Griffith to film noir classics, and by modern-day neo-noir (Blade Runner, Angel Heart), and so-called puzzle films (The Usual Suspects, Tarantino's films) (see Jankiewicz). Although formally innovative, Nolan's style is also very traditional. In the fashion of classical narration, his films are very redundant and he carefully distinguishes between multiple narrative layers, diverse chronological sequences and complex shifts between subjective and objective storytelling.
The aim of this paper is to give an overview of the stylistic and narrative features of Nolan's films (setting them against the background of the classical period of American cinema), and to explain the psychological motivation behind his narrative strategies. The bulk of the paper consists of a psychological analysis of three films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception) as examples of Nolan’s exploration of human subjectivity. Thus, the introductory narrative and stylistic analysis will be followed by a Lacanian reading of the films and some of their intertextual references (use of ancient myth and history).
It can be argued that complex filmmaking in American cinema started almost at the outset, and was followed by a gradual shift to narrative films. Edwin S. Porter directed two milestones, Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, which inaugurated two vital principles – overlapping continuity in the former and crosscutting narration in the latter. The principle of crosscutting was then perfected by D. W. Griffith, arguably the most important American filmmaker of the silent period, whose Intolerance (with its complex interweaving of four stories set in different temporal periods) has greatly influenced modern American filmmakers, and especially Nolan. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, made just before Intolerance, signalled the shift to epic narrative cinema in American filmmaking, and Nolan's gradual shift from complex narratives to blockbuster films (especially the Batman trilogy) follows this parallel trajectory already set in the silent era.
Classical Hollywood has also had a profound influence on Nolan. Complex narrative structure of Citizen Kane, Kubrick's The Killing and Hitchcock's formal experiments are all clearly echoed in Nolan's work, as well as the influence of film noir, with its underlying principles of insecurity, ambiguity and moral ambivalence, a staple of all Nolan's films. The transgeneric phenomenon of film noir is a clear precursor to modernist and postmodernist narrative modes, because the range of innovative narrative strategies (unreliable or multiple narrators, complex temporal arrangement including the multiple layers of flashbacks in Passage to Marseille and The Locket) and introduction of themes reflecting fragmentation and disorder in modern American society were virtually unprecedented in American cinema before film noir appeared.
Similar themes have been explored in Europe and not only in French and British modernist films (noir or otherwise). For instance, the Croatian modernist director and animator Vatroslav Mimica used the principle of reverse narration more than forty years before Memento in his short animated film Happy End (1958). His other animated films deal with similar themes of personal disintegration (The Loner, 1958) and formal experimentation (The Inspector is Back!, 1959), while his live-feature films (Monday or Tuesday, Kaya) also continue the experimental nature of his animated opus.
One of the defining characteristics of modern American cinema is its unusually strong focus on the principles of innovative storytelling. Film theorists have termed such films[i] modular narratives (Cameron) or puzzle films (Buckland, Bordwell).[ii] These films are distinguished by a rich interplay of temporal and narrative structure and are especially concerned with the effect of contingency and the dissolution of classical linear causality. Their temporal dimension is especially prone to manipulation, effectively undermining the determinism of classical Hollywood films. Observing the same phenomenon, Charles Ramírez Berg has conducted a thorough survey of modern films, resulting in twelve broad categories arranged in three main groups (5-61).[iii] All of these concepts can be very useful for analysing the diverse and multifaceted structure of Nolan's films.
An equally important influence on Nolan's innovative formal strategies are literary techniques and complex themes deployed by modern writers. The fact that Nolan studied literature has obviously enabled him to adapt the ambitious literary storytelling techniques for the cinema. As parallels to narrative methods recurrent in Nolan's oeuvre, we may mention crosscutting different timeframes and restructuring the story's chronology in Graham Swift's Waterland, and the idea of multiple embedded stories in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.[iv] On the thematic level, an obvious influence on Nolan is Christopher Priest (the author of The Prestige) whose novels are complex meditations on identity and memory[v] while works of Alain Robbe-Grillet question the concepts of causality and determinacy, which were of basic importance in classical filmmaking. Also, Nolan explicitly acknowledges his debt to Jorge Luis Borges, whose The Circular Ruins and The Secret Miracle greatly influenced the structure of Inception (Contreras).
Nolan's films can be roughly divided into two different categories. One can be defined by the already mentioned investigation of formal strategies and temporal dimensions, and the other is marked by reshaping the classic Hollywood transgeneric film noir phenomenon. These two categories are often mixed (Following, Memento), but they can also be analysed as two distinct phenomena. Following (1999), Nolan's first film, was his first exploration of different timelines, combined by crosscutting. The editing-based approach will prove to be the most consistent stylistic choice made by Nolan. The underlying linear story is broken into four different timelines: although this structure may seem incoherent, it is motivated psychologically as it is used to show the events from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. Nolan often uses flashforwards in this film, a device almost never used in classical Hollywood, because it is incompatible with its principles of linearity, causality and stylistic invisibility.
The next film in Nolan’s career was Memento (2000) which made him famous, because it uses a reverse, effect-to-cause plotting. Yet another exploration of character subjectivity, Memento presents two main timelines: one is presented in linear fashion and the other in reverse order. Making the film even more complicated, Nolan inserted yet another narrative line (the story of Sammy Jankis), apparently shown in linear fashion. As Carroll argues, by reordering the structure, Nolan makes a sort of a philosophical statement on the nature of the media, calling attention to the way all films are made (127-46). Dealing with memory and perception, recurrent themes in Nolan's career, Memento's motivation for this sort of structure is generic (revisiting film noir) and psychological (the anterograde amnesia of its main protagonist makes him a very plausible unreliable narrator) (see Bordwell). The same types of motivation will later come to shape the multiple narrative layers of Inception.
The Prestige (2006) further explores the themes of disintegration of personality and problems of perception, and its narrative structure is even more complex. There are four different timelines, three of which are intercut, while all the levels are combined through the device of an unreliable narrator. The variety of narrative layers enables Nolan to jump between different sequences, where both flashbacks and flashforwards are constantly utilised.
After constantly multiplying the narrative strands and segmenting and reordering the narrative structure, with Inception Nolan has made his boldest formal experiment and a logical continuation of his previous work. Bordwell has succinctly summarized the main points of Inception:
As ambitious artists compete to engineer clockwork narratives and puzzle films, Nolan raises the stakes by reviving a very old tradition, that of the embedded story. He motivates it through dreams and modernizes it with a blend of science fiction, fantasy, action pictures, and male masochism. Above all, the dream motivation allows him to crosscut four embedded stories, all built on classic Hollywood plot arcs. In the process he creates a virtuoso stretch of cinematic storytelling.
Although there are four distinct subplots,[vi] each of them is carefully constructed, obeying the traditional narrative rules. In his overview of narrative techniques, Seymour Chatman mentions two types of narration that can help us classify Nolan’s narrative construction. Conventional narratives are the so-called 'plots of resolution', while contingency storytelling techniques are 'plots of revelation' (Chatman 48). The paramount example for the latter would be Antonioni's modernist tetralogy, which is much more focused on depicting the state of affairs than interested in any sort of narrative resolution. While Nolan's films specifically deal with the problem of contingency and play with modernist storytelling techniques, they are nevertheless firmly grounded in terms of genre and end with some sort of logical resolution. Although they have sometimes been called “more complicated than complex” (Thompson) and typically deploy narrative twists, their generic motivation can be easily traced, putting his films firmly within the bounds of the Hollywood tradition.
In Inception, the notions of subjectivity, ambiguity and the search for identity are all embedded into an intricate narrative pattern, which is nevertheless traditionally, although somewhat ambiguously resolved. The structure of the film is basically divided into two different parts, where action sequences are more prominent than depictions of dreamspaces. Mark Fisher notices the undreamlike quality of dreams, where “the designed virtual spaces of Inception's quasi-dreams, with their nested levels, evidently resemble a videogame more than they recall dreams” (“Lost Unconscious” 45). Although Nolan experiments with the narrative structure, the familiar generic conventions are the final determinant of the film. Complex plots are psychologically motivated as a reflection of characters' subjective problems, but they never ignore typical Hollywood conventions by providing a plot resolution at the end of the film. Berg argues that there is one further reason for such complex plots, namely the modern technology that rewards further viewings of the film.[vii] The influence of videogames with their multilayered levels of reality and the existence of modern technology that enables repeated viewings have certainly changed the perception of a modern audience, which is more susceptible to experiencing complex narratives such as Memento or Inception.
Along with formal experimentation, Nolan has explored one other aspect of film history – the legacy of film noir. Following, Memento and Insomnia, with their ambivalent heroes and blurred boundaries between good and evil, have paved the way towards incorporating the same elements into the world of the summer blockbuster superhero movie. Batman Begins, the first film of the Batman trilogy, explores the moral ambiguities of its main character, who walks the thin line between hero and villain.[viii] The end of The Dark Knight finds Batman echoing Dent's words: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.[ix] While Batman Begins is non-linear and features four distinct temporal segments, The Dark Knight is completely linear and avoids any analeptic temporal arrangements. Themes of sanity and identity feature prominently in the film, recalling the psychotic tendencies of the classic film noir (Kiss Me Deadly, White Heat). However, other themes explored in the film are also very topical, featuring counter-terrorism, surveillance and corruption as underlying elements. By throwing in various elements, Nolan has made a film “freighted with political and social resonances” (Tyree 34) but failed to create a coherent whole. Nolan himself has expressed his strategy for the film in an interview with Brian Hiatt:
We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story.
The above-mentioned quotation firmly positions Christopher Nolan in the line of traditional storytellers, but his stories are told in a fresh and inventive way. Although Nolan can be described as a clever manipulator who successfully uses current trends, his deconstructions of classical temporal and spatial dimensions have certainly enriched the creative palette of modern American cinema. Continuing the century-long American filmmaking traditions, Nolan has successfully adapted them for contemporary viewers, creating complex and entertaining films with multifaceted and inventive layers, prone to different and equally plausible interpretations. The inherent fragmentation of his fictional worlds and his exploration of subjectivity and identity call for a psychological interpretation to account for the reasons behind Nolan’s use of complex narrative strategies.
As we have seen, for Nolan “a good story” is an essential part of filmmaking. Typically postmodern, Nolan lets his films speak for themselves by creating a plot that calls for various different interpretations.[x] The stress on an open story which enables a multiplicity of perspectives is one of the reasons why viewers keep coming back to his films. By incorporating various elements, including ancient lore, Nolan creates interesting plots with a distinctive psychological value. As we shall see, in Nolan’s work both ancient and modern mythologies come together to produce new stories that resonate with universal issues.
Batman Begins: the Formation of a Hero
It would be difficult to offer a complete picture of the Batman character in Nolan’s trilogy without addressing its first part, as it lays the groundwork for the main topics of The Dark Knight. Batman Begins is an exploration of the formation of the hero by reworking his unconscious innermost fears through symbols. Critics have noticed that a recurrent theme throughout the film is fear. As Mark Fisher says: “From the start, the Batman mythos has been about the pressing of Gothic Fear into the service of heroic Justice” (“Gothic Oedipus”). Nolan (and his screenwriter Goyer) wanted to revisit the well known issues of Batman mythology by focusing on the origins of the character. Nolan observed that “there were also a lot of very interesting gaps in the mythology” which opened space for a psychological exploration of how Bruce Wayne became Batman (qtd. in Fingeroth). The central subject of fear is accompanied by numerous scenes of trauma, which are essential for understanding the characters. As opposed to earlier versions, here Wayne’s childhood fear of bats paradoxically becomes the very reason for adopting the Batman symbol. In an interview, Nolan explains that he wanted to avoid any mention of hero precedents that Wayne could rely on for his transformation into Batman.[xi] Thus, the only reason for choosing the bat symbol becomes Wayne’s fear of bats, which he believed also caused the death of his parents, the trauma that marked the rest of his life and thus made him who he is. Through this paradoxical stroke of will, Wayne overcomes both the fear and guilt that lie at the traumatic kernel of his personality.
This process of internalisation of the dreaded object lies at the basis of many creation myths. For instance, in the Roman foundation myth, the universal fable fear of wolves is internalised in the saviour figure of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. A famous ancient example is also that of Heracles, who kills the Nemean lion and then uses his skin as a staple of his identity. Burkert argued that this reflects a very ancient practice of the hunter, who assumes the identity and the power of the animal predator he fears (42-3). In psychological terms, this may be explained as an act of identification (via a signifier), but the paradox of the turn is best explained by Lacan’s point de capiton (the anchoring point), a twist by means of which “the very source of disarray becomes proof and testimony of a triumph” (Žižek Interrogating 116).[xii] Placing the fear of bats at the centre of Wayne’s trauma provides a plausible explanation of the hero’s later formation by internalising the source of fear into a victorious symbol.
Thus, Nolan’s unique contribution to the origins of the Batman figure can be interpreted in the psychological vein of personal development. Wayne’s innermost being is forever marked with the Real of trauma that can never be forgotten. As a subject then, the hero is also grounded in a lack. The only way towards symbolisation is assuming a signifier that attempts to patch the gap of the Real by accepting the trauma as the ultimate marker of one’s identity. As in a creation myth, this founding act creates a new order upon which a better world is to be built. However, the act is not a solution that cancels the traumatic quality of the event: it merely grounds the subject in the symbolic network through reworking the event. By positioning his identity in relation to the trauma, Bruce always strives to symbolically reenact it, but in such a way that he is no longer the helpless child that he was when it happened, but a hero now able to protect the innocent and ensure justice. Given that his childhood trauma is the implacable Real, and a part of history that all his victorious reenactments cannot conceal, the task ahead is subject to endless repetition.[xiii]
This development of Wayne into Batman by way of a signifier is then unsurprisingly intertwined with the other essential marker of his new identity: his acceptance of the Name of the Father, which implies a true understanding of his father’s intentions (Fisher “Gothic Oedipus”). Rather than wanting to avenge the father by killing his murderer, Batman becomes an embodiment of the father’s ego-ideal, fighting for social justice with an element of compassion. In other words, while the young Bruce Wayne literally wants revenge for the wound which the trauma of murder caused him as an individual, the mature Bruce grounds his Batman identity in the symbolic identification with his father’s principles that relate him to society.
By donning a mask, Bruce assumes a signifier which confers on him the advantage of not being as vulnerable as any other individual, but there is also a price to pay. While playing Batman, Bruce is not allowed to let his personal interests interfere with the role of society’s hero. He is chastised by Alfred for once saving Rachel alone while at the end of the film, Rachel herself seeks to distinguish between his two identity roles: the billionaire playboy and Batman. Of course, neither display is Bruce Wayne himself. It is this problematic relation between the individual identity and the symbolic of society that is further complicated in The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight: Legendary Caesar and the Real Joker
The Dark Knight is the most popular film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and the most well known to a wider audience. Upon release, it grossed over one billion dollars in worldwide revenue. According to the screenwriter David Goyer (who wrote the script together with the Nolan brothers), the main theme of the film is “escalation” (qtd. in Adler). At all levels of society, Gotham City is a place of widespread corruption which escalates into open chaos. Although Nolan himself denied the intention of sending a political message, critics have easily observed numerous allusions to contemporary political issues, even without the trump card of Michel Foucault.[xiv]
By way of a structuralist binary opposition, Nolan acknowledged that the title “The Dark Knight” is not only a metaphor for Batman, but simultaneously a reference to the fallen White Knight, Harvey Dent (qtd. in Bucher “Thor’s cartoon”). Dent’s turn towards evil is carefully built up, beginning from his overtly political allusion to “Roman democracy” (a historical anachronism if ever there was one), which was “suspended” in periods of crisis only for one man to take power. Of course, one must ignore the misplaced historical projection and understand it as a metaphor for present political reality. When his girlfriend (and Wayne’s secret love), Rachel points out that the last dictator of Rome was in fact Caesar, Dent’s absolutist tendencies as well as his character’s later trajectory become apparent.[xv] Starting as a modern public tribune, drawn from the ranks of the common people, Harvey Dent will become a mass murderer with no moral scruples to guide his hand but the toss of a coin. In terms of history, Caesar’s and Dent’s motivations are obviously very different, but if the intertextual reference to classical antiquity is to be followed, Two Face’s staple coin recalls an often quoted line from Caesar’s historical lore: alea iacta est (the die is cast).
As a Lacanian objet petit a, Dent’s coin represents the issue of chance in forming one’s character, the contingency of the subject torn between one’s own trauma and his position within the symbolic of society. As we have seen, this relation was also an important theme in Batman Begins, but here it is the central psychological preoccupation of the film. Dent is pushed to the very limits of extreme evil by the death of his girlfriend. His celebrated moral code, which put countless criminals behind bars and urged Batman himself to yield the role of the hero to him, is reduced to the simple rule of chance, as if in blatant negation of free will. It is explicitly said that Joker’s intentional plan was “to take the best of us” and topple his role in society by taking away what is most valuable to him personally.[xvi] Nolan admitted that this role of the Joker was very important to him: “What the Joker provides in the second film is the fact that his entire motivation is to push people’s buttons and find their rules set and turn it on itself” (qtd. in Boucher “Batman”).
While the motivation for Dent’s behaviour is laid out as clearly as the formation of Batman in Batman Begins, here Nolan intentionally avoided any mention of Joker’s psychological origins.[xvii] While previous versions of the Batman mythos give reasons for Joker’s scars, here he tells several contradictory stories about extreme violence which evidently bear no relation to the truth. A Lacanian reading cannot fail to recognise the Real in these subversions of the symbolic. The Joker has no rules but to subvert the rules of others. He seeks out others’ innermost emotions in order to play them out against themselves. While he has a keen eye for recognising others’ traumas and tampering with their identity, his own subjective core is left in the dark, in contrast to the archetypal trickster figure. Even when he is captured, all attempts to identify him fail. He cannot be linked to anyone or anything in society. All these are traits of the Real, which has no “positive consistency”, but only to undermine the symbolic.[xviii]
In the central interrogation scene of the film (Nolan’s favourite), Batman is forced to torture Joker to learn where his loved ones are. After beating him in frustration, Batman realises that Joker is right when saying: “you have nothing to threaten me with”. The Real has no point of access, it is a crack in the symbolic network which subverts the meaning and the relation of the signifiers. Hence, Joker’s wish for Batman to live (“What would I do without you?”, “You complete me!”), for the Real exists not as Kant’s Thing-in-Itself, but only in relation to the symbolic of society and its rules. The interrogation scene portrays Batman as equally dependent on Joker who manages to tease him out of his heroic persona and resort to violence.[xix] In other words, Joker has succeeded in endangering even Batman’s symbolic guidelines and luring him into the trap of the Real, which is Joker’s home terrain. Rather than reducing Joker’s role to mundane motivations of the typical comic book villain, Nolan has succeeded in creating a figure whose appeal rests on its enigmatic psychological value (qua the Real), an aspect that could hardly be achieved without Heath Ledger’s brilliant swan song performance.[xx]
As we have seen, Nolan’s play with numerous elements to make a “good story” turns some aspects of the film redundant, but a great part of seemingly trivial details is still consistent with the central theme. Recalling Baudrillard’s simulacra, the beginning of the film is marked by a grotesque flood of various men with masks: Jokers, Batman copycats and Scarecrows. Joker uses the same mechanism by dressing up hostages as clowns and thugs as doctors towards the end of the film. This “impossible symbolic saturation”, as Lacan would call it, is there only to point to the arbitrariness and inconsistency of the symbolic order (Dor 191-2 with references). What IS the difference between the real Batman and his copycat? It certainly does not consist in (as we are mockingly told) “wearing hockey pads” as opposed to using advanced technology (although the commodity aspect of both is telling). A signifier finds its position only in relation to other signifiers and it is these relations that Joker seeks to disturb.
In view of that mission, as critics of the film noticed early on, Joker “has weirdly triumphed by the end of The Dark Knight” (Tyree 32): Rachel, the love of both Dent’s and Wayne’s life, lies dead. As a consequence, Dent turns into Two Face and thus proves Joker’s point: that the subject consists primarily in relation to his innermost fetish object (objet a), and only then in relation to the symbolic of society. After all, Joker had Batman caught in the same trap when he lost control in the interrogation scene and said he would rather save Rachel than Dent.[xxi] Finally, Joker’s experiment with the two ferries (forced to decide on each other’s fate) reflects the same moral questioning as the passengers had initially voted to destroy the other ferry with a ratio of 396: 140. Of course, in the end no one actually pushes the button, but this cannot compensate for the fact that the symbolic was questioned and shaken to the core: the ideals of humanity had been abandoned and the signifier roles displaced and this is exactly what the Real of Joker’s task was.
Joker’s trials with social norms can therefore be compared to Zimbardo’s Stanford Experiment, where the famous psychologist demonstrated that evil is often a consequence of role-playing. It was not psychopaths, but normal students and young men who turned against their peers when they were given the role of guards in a prison. It is the presence of a signifier that makes the difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman, Harvey Dent and Two Face, normal students and sadistic guards, between a regular group of ferry passengers and a bloodthirsty mob. The film is then not simply about “the eternal struggle between good and evil”, but rather a psychological exploration of society’s symbolic relations (rules, roles, identity) and their dependence on a Real traumatic background which reveals their inconsistency. However, the Real is not only the inaccessible whirlpool that makes the symbolic fail and slip, but at the same time the black hole around which symbolic relations can be constructed.
This is demonstrated in the last and most philosophical scene of the film. In order to prevent Joker’s total victory, Batman takes on himself the blame for all of Dent’s murders. Dent is to be celebrated as a hero, his change from White Knight to Two Face hidden from a society which is to be sustained by the construction of a myth. This is a process typical of creation myths, which lie at the core of group identity. In order for a society to function, there must be a figure at the centre of its mythical past, a hero that perpetuates the society’s superego, an ideal too high to identify with, only to be adored.[xxii] When Batman takes the role of the scapegoat on himself, he repeats the words Dent had applied to Caesar: “You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain”. Here, Dent’s comparison to Caesar from the beginning of the film gains a new dimension. Dent’s usurpation of power and morals is forgotten in order to create an imaginary figure, an iconic hero whose sacrifice lays the foundations of a new society. The historical Augustus first set himself up as the avenger of Caesar’s murder, and then laid his claim to authority on his father’s deification.[xxiii] Similarly, the new Gotham City can only be built by placing the deified victim of Harvey Dent in the foundations of its walls. Rome of the early principate and fictional Gotham City are very different worlds, but the narratives of both their societies are based on the mechanism of a foundation myth.[xxiv]
Nolan may have denied any authorial intention to convey political messages, but as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, this is probably the most subversive film in that category to appear in the 21st century. Foundation myth is a powerful ideological tool that shapes the very core of society’s identity. One can trace the trajectory of this notion of a “noble lie” as far back as Plato’s “Republic”, and many historical and fictional examples can be adduced to support it.[xxv] For instance, a comic, but interesting parallel is provided by the Simpsons episode Lisa the Iconoclast which dramatises Lisa’s questioning of the Springfield foundation myth. The bookworm Lisa discovers that Jebediah Springfield, the legendary founder of her city, was in fact the notorious Hans Sprungfeld, a murderous pirate. She chooses the celebration of the founding day to divulge the secret, but the look on the faces of fellow citizens prevents her from telling the truth that would tear the united society apart.[xxvi] The comic cartoon format allowed open references to George Washington and the American foundation myth, while Nolan did not fail to incorporate many references to various topical issues of the Bush administration (torture, mass surveillance, etc.).[xxvii] Nevertheless, the most subversive message of the film comes with its ending that dramatises the process of mythmaking as essential to shaping a collective identity. As White says:
We accept these myths as facts, partly because without these collective symbols we would cease to be a united people and because they summarise in dramatic, story form what it means to be Nicaraguans, Tanzanians or Iranians. When new national challenges are presented… the traditional origin myths are retold to strengthen national solidarity and determination with the slogan, 'We can do it again' (White 2).
The icon of an imaginary hero is essentially fictional, but the fact remains that this collective symbol is often the instrument that binds society into a coherent whole. The only response to Joker’s twisting of social order is the admission that the message that lies at the core of his grotesque games is indeed correct: society IS based on arbitrary signifiers that are of artificial value. Nevertheless, the inevitable lesson is that society needs these signifiers to survive. Just as linguistic meaning is based on a social consensus around a series of arbitrary signifiers, so social identity is based on a consensus around collective myths, unconscious representations of the meaning of social identity. We may conclude that Nolan’s professed intention “to show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open” is successfully achieved in this film, which resonates with numerous contemporary political issues, but also undertakes a sociological and psychological exploration of the human condition on a universal level.
Inception: a Film or a Dream?
In The Dark Knight, Nolan explores various psychological issues, primarily the relation of the subject to his own trauma and the symbolic network of society. As we have seen in the discussion of Nolan’s complex narrative style, psychological exploration is the motivation for Nolan’s other films as well. Together with such films as Fight Club (1999) or Mulholland Drive (2001), Inception falls in the group of “puzzle films” which according to Cameron have a common underlying principle “of a deceptive narration as a manifestation of an aspect of the protagonist’s mind” (23). This is nowhere as apparent as in Inception since several critics have observed that the entire film should be viewed as the protagonist’s dream (see Faraci and Lehrer).
If the main narrative level (supposed to be the reality) is taken as another dream level along with the other four (openly professed to be dreamworlds), much of the psychological structure begins to make sense. Firstly, the mysterious Cobol corporation that chases Cobb across the world is then an aptly named projection of his unconscious[xxviii] and along with the other chase scenes falls into the familiar type of persecutory dreams.[xxix] More importantly, the lack of other characters’ influence on dream levels becomes clear in the light of the fact that the only preoccupation of the dream is in fact Cobb’s unconscious. Thompson rightly complains about the very weak characterisation of the other players (they are reduced to functions), but she fails to see this as a deliberate point in the structure. The other characters’ minds are not reflected in dream levels because they themselves are merely unconscious projections of Cobb’s mind. The most important of these is the architect, neatly called Ariadne, who is hired by Cobb to build his dreamworlds once he realises he cannot purge his unconscious of his dead wife Mal.[xxx] In order to free himself from the demonic presence of a femme fatale, Cob conjures an angel figure from the cultural repository of Greek mythology. It is fascinating how critics have missed this most striking evidence in favour of dream interpretation![xxxi]
In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, but her mother Pasiphaë, had sex with a bull (no, this was not a metaphor for her amazing lover), and gave birth to the Minotaur, “half-man, half-bull” as Ovid puts it.[xxxii] King Minos then ordered the architect Daedalus to build a labyrinth at the centre of which he imprisoned the monster that thrived on innocent young victims. Theseus killed the Minotaur and found his way out of the maze with the help of Ariadne.[xxxiii] The point not to be missed is that Ariadne is structurally opposed to her half-brother, whose murder she brought about. The dark monster and the fair girl are both offsprings of Pasiphaë and victims of the possessive tyrant Minos.
However, Nolan’s Ariadne plays both the roles of guide and architect (Daedalus) for Cobb, while his (supposedly) dead wife Mal takes the role of the mythical monster. She is not literally a monster, of course, but psychologically Minos’ man-eating monster and Cobb’s unremitting wife play the same role: they both plague humanity and oppose the hero. Mal’s name is readily derived from Latin malum, the origin of words that denote “evil” in Romance languages (see Meyer-Lübke 382). As Mark Fisher says “Mal…represents a psychoanalytic Real—a trauma that disrupts any attempt to maintain a stable sense of reality” (“Lost Unconscious” 42). In the Lacanian sense then, Mal is the traumatic centre of the dream, which always breaks its phantasmatic reality on all levels.
Mal is at the centre of Cobb’s unknown trauma in which their children also play a considerable role. They haunt Cobb as much as Mal does, appearing to be running in a recurrent scene throughout the film. However, the issue of paternal anxiety extends beyond this simple phantom. The only relevant import that another character seemingly brings into a dreamworld is that of Fischer whose only problem is the lack of a relationship between him and his father. This can be readily interpreted as another dream reflection of Cobb’s own separation anxiety. In other words, the father image allegedly implanted in Fischer’s mind (in order to destroy his corporation) is all about the distant and impotent father, not about the identity of the son![xxxiv] Given that the entire film is a dream, we cannot know what the real life trauma that triggered it was. Just like Joker’s origin in The Dark Knight, the constitutive trauma of the subject is here obscured, albeit partially. For the trauma can always be glimpsed from its reenactements, the Real is always behind the endless repetitions that fail to satisfy.[xxxv] The haunting presence of a dead wife and children strongly indicate separation anxiety, and only this type of trauma would explain Cobb’s wish to return to his family.[xxxvi]
Cobb’s desire is seemingly fulfilled in the ambivalent ending of the film which comes across as an easy resolution to the trauma of the Real. In terms of dream interpretation, this scene can represent nothing but a wish-fulfillment, which is more consistent with the old Freudian theory of dreams than with the Real twist that Lacan established as the dream centre. However, the Real is not completely absent from the ending, although its presence is considerably weakened. There one must disagree with Fisher’s identification of the top as standing in for the “Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition’s account of what reality is” (“Lost Unconscious” 42). If anything, the top is the Lacanian objet a, the very opposite of a stable and firm representative of reality. The top is not in fact any objective demonstrator of what reality is, as we are made to believe (a magical totem that acts as a substitute of the proverbial pinch to check if one is dreaming).[xxxvii]
As Faraci observed, the top was not originally Cobb’s totem, but Mal’s. Cobb says that “she had locked away something, something deep inside, a truth that she once known, but chose to forget”. The top in the dream then stands for her innermost being, and not incidentally it was the only possession she had left behind after jumping to her death. Objet a belongs to the register of the Real, it is the mysterious object at the core of the Other, and stands for the unfathomable abyss of its desire and mystery. Cobb concludes that Mal is “a shade of my real wife” and thereby achieves catharsis by ignoring the mystery of the Real. This process is reflected in the film’s ending where he ignores her oppressive presence again by not looking at the spinning top, which for him represents the Real of her person. In Nolan’s words:
The real point of the scene — and this is what I tell people — is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing (qtd. in Jensen).
The emotional significance Nolan is referring to is the subject’s persistence in following through with one’s desire despite all impediments. Lacan called this mechanism fetishist disavowal and gave it the formula Je sais bien, mais quand même (I know very well, but all the same).[xxxviii] Although Cobb is perfectly aware that Mal is a part of his psyche, he chooses to ignore this reality in order to focus on the pleasant encounter with his children. This psychological mechanism allows a more complex interpretation of the film, and one that perpetuates its apparent ambiguity. In fetishist disavowal, the presence of the Real is momentarily ignored, although unconscious knowledge of it is assumed. While Cobb directs all his attention to his children, the top that he had set spinning captures the final shot of the film. Through this insignificant object, we are reminded of Mal and her continuous reappearances, the trauma of the Real that escapes signification. As in fetishist disavowal, the ambiguous object here represents the subject’s lack, but also the negation of his imaginary reality which it paradoxically sustains. The Real persists beyond fictional representation, but we still choose to ignore it in favour of our enjoyment.
In this scene, Cobb stands for the film viewer, who is made to accept the cinematic fiction and even let it unconsciously affect him by ignoring reality.[xxxix] As Lehrer observed, the power of cinematic representation is being compared to the power of dreams as both suspend our conscious faculties by submitting to the unconscious through visual imagery.[xl] Psychoanalytic theory is here confirmed by direct neurological studies which show that the brains of cinema-viewers and dreamers tend to suspend autonomous thinking and logical faculties in favour of stimulating the visual cortex. Similarly, in The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, Žižek paraphrased Freud’s statement on dreams by saying that cinematic fiction is “more real than reality itself”. Both the experiences of dreams and cinema affect the unconscious of the human psyche and thus expose us to a fictional influence. By blending film and dreams, Nolan warns that what we take for granted is often fictitious, but it is fiction that has the power to affect our emotions and identity on an unconscious level that we tend to ignore. The act of inception affects not Fischer, but us as viewers as we let our minds be shaped by a fictitious reality, whether that of dreams or films.[xli]
Both dreams and Hollywood films often have happy endings, satisfying the wishes and expectations of the viewers. What the spinning top tells us is that reality is always more complex. At the end of the day, it does not matter whether Cobb came back to his children in reality or in his dream. Those who argue for the former would still have to agree that the return happens only in cinematic fiction.[xlii] The spinning top stands as the final reminder that reality is not reducible to our representations and imaginary reworking. Nevertheless, the fictional worlds of films and dreams are powerful enough to enable a wish fulfilment, or even a catharsis of one’s emotions by accepting fiction as reality.
Like The Dark Knight, Inception sends a strong message that only a constructed fiction, whether symbolic or imaginary, can form the basis of one’s identity by covering the abyss of the Real. Inception, explained as “implanting an idea in the subject’s mind”, comes through as deception, a necessary fiction that provides a starting point of one’s identity, as the original meaning of the word implies (inception-beginning). In The Dark Knight, the fiction of a foundation myth was revealed as a building block of society, while Inception uses the interplay of cinematic and oneiric discourse to show how imaginary narratives can affect and shape an individual. In this sense, both films are a continuation of Nolan’s early preoccupation with the role of fiction in human subjectivity. One need only recall the ending of Memento when Leonard (the protagonist) deliberately chooses to construct his own fiction only to provide himself with a puzzle that would justify his existence for a while.
To sum up, Nolan’s use of complex narrative strategies (the sources of which we have identified in both his literary and cinematic precursors) is motivated by his wish to explore human subjectivity and identity. Nolan’s reworking of the Batman myth is demonstrably different from that of his predecessors and the appeal of The Dark Knight rests on its skilful play with psychological issues that can be explained using psychoanalytic concepts. The film’s ending makes a powerful statement on the nature of human society and its dependence on the fiction of a foundation myth (recalling classical precedents). On the other hand, as a film about filmmaking, Inception presents an ambivalent mix of cinematic and oneiric realities, questioning the viewer’s relationship to these fictional representations. The act of inception is in fact addressed to the viewer who unconsciously allows his mind to be affected by Nolan’s fiction, almost as if it were the fiction of his own private dream. We may conclude that Nolan’s exploration of important psychological and sociological issues raises questions that remain pertinent to a modern society, but also addresses the human condition, as he says “on a more universal scale”.[xliii]
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* The authors would like to thank Jaspal Ubhi and Daniel Jolowicz, as well as the Editor and the anonymous reader of PsyArt for their suggestions that helped improve this essay. Additionally, we are grateful to the participants of the conference Translating Myth (in Colchester, University of Essex, 5-7th September 2013) for their feedback and useful discussion. Finally, we owe our gratitude to the Faculty of Classics, the Clarendon Fund and Merton College (of the University of Oxford) as well as the Department of English Studies at the University of Zadar. Without their financial support this work would not have been possible.
[i] Some of the prominent examples include Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Memento, The Usual Suspects, Groundhog Day, Timecode, Adaptation, Magnolia, etc.
[ii] Cameron has singled out four different types: anachronic, forking path, episodic and split screen narratives.
[iii] Three main groups in Berg's analysis are plots based on the number of protagonists, plots with non-linear temporality and plots that deviate from classical rules of subjectivity, causality and self-referential narration. Each of these groups is further subdivided.
[iv] This principle is also evident in Citizen Kane and in multiple flashbacks in film noir.
[v] Nolan has adapted his novel The Prestige while A Dream of Wessex deals with the notion of the shared dream, the narrative cornerstone of Nolan’s Inception.
[vi] There are five levels in the film, all situated in different locales to help us feel oriented, and four distinct subplots.
[vii] This strategy also has significant financial benefits because the interested audience of the puzzle films constantly revisits them in order to decipher the embedded mystery. Films like Memento or Fight Club, with their inherent narrative twists, are very difficult to grasp in one viewing only.
[viii] The previously discussed argument about the film elements which are deliberately devised to foster further viewings is also echoed by J. M. Tyree: “Marvel's Manichean story structures, with their repeated final battle scenes between protagonist and nemesis, are really prequels to the profitable videogames based upon the films” (31).
[ix] On the ambiguous relationship between the main hero and his antagonist, Fisher says: “The role of the antagonist double is nowhere more apparent than in Insomnia and The Dark Knight, films which are in many ways about the proximity between the ostensible hero and his beyond-good-and-evil rival” (“The Lost Unconscious” 42).
[x] As Nolan says: “We’re trying to work on a more universal scale. If you get that right, people are going to be able to bring a wide variety of interpretations to it depending on who they are. It’s allowing the characters to be a conduit to the audience. Allowing an audience to sit there and relate to Batman and his dilemma whether they are Republican or Democrat or whatever…” (qtd. in Boucher “Batman”)
[xi] For the relationship between Nolan’s rendering and previous versions of the Batman myth see Newman.
[xii] The most famous example in modern society is probably that of the cross, the once dreaded object by which Christ redeems the world. See Žižek (Interrogating 113-7).
[xiii] See what Lacan says on repetition, one of his “four fundamental concepts” (17-64). For a discussion of Freud’s death drive in the context of mastery of trauma and its application to narrative see Brooks 90-112.
[xiv] “For the least glimmer of truth is conditioned by politics” (Foucault 5).
[xv] Only then does he say the much-commented line: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.
[xvi] As commissioner Gordon remarked at the end of the film: “The Joker took the best of us and tore him down.”
[xvii] As Tyree observes: “It’s also a fairly pointed mockery of the need for back-stories for villains in the first place, the easy psychoanalysis that reduces every choice to an after-effect of some early trauma” (31-2).
[xviii] As Žižek (Interrogating 10) says, the Real “has no positive-substantial consistency, it is just the gap between the multitude of perspectives on it”.
[xix] Batman's dependance on Joker is best seen when looking at the broken and disappointed figure Wayne has become at the beginnng of Dark Knight Rises. It is not only the death of Rachel, but the absence of an enemy such as Joker that have made him a letarghic recluse who cowers in the Wayne mansion and refuses to don the hero's mask for several years.
[xx] The psychological appeal of Joker as a character can also be interpreted in the light of Freud's Primordial Father, and Lacan's reading of this mythical figure (see E. Ragland 90-1 with references). The very name Joker implies a figure of unbridled jouissance, an image that he continually seeks to affirm. Notably, in the first scene of the film, he kills all of his accomplices and gains sole access to the bank money which he then loads onto a school bus! We are indebted to Christina Dokou for pointing this out at our conference presentation.
[xxi] Batman also resorts to methods of torture and mass surveillance in order to achieve his goals.
[xxii] The role of the foundation myth is confirmed in the last film of the trilogy, Dark Knight Rises: as soon as Dent’s crimes are revealed, Gotham slips into chaos.
[xxiii] For Augustus' appropriation of Caesar and his role in Augustus' propaganda see now P. M. Martin 43-53.
[xxiv] Of course, one may here cite Rene Girard's Scapegoat with its numerous examples of this strategy. However, Girard's historicising view of myths is problematic to say the least (Kearney). What the present reading seeks to establish is not so much the role of the scapegoat, but the importance of a foundation myth as an imaginary construct in the life of a society.
[xxv] Incidentally, only after this essay had been finished and sent off to PsyArt were we able to see the UK release of Žižek's new film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (on October 4th 2013), where he briefly treats the same subject of the “noble lie” in The Dark Knight.
[xxvi] As Lisa aptly puts it: “Because the myth of Jebediah has value too. It’s brought out the best of everyone in this town”.
[xxvii] On contemporary political implications see Tyree (32-4) and Chen. The only oblique reference to American mythical heritage in Nolan’s film is a picture of Abraham Lincoln as a “possible suspect” for the identity of Batman.
[xxviii] Such telling names are typical of Nolan’s films. In Following (1998), the naïve protagonist is simply referred to as Young Man, while in Insomnia (2002), the sleepless protagonist is ironically named Dormer (from Latin dormire-to sleep).
[xxix] For other indications see Faraci. At one point, Mal says to Cobb: “Not feeling persecuted, Dom?
Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces the way the projections persecute the dreamer? Admit it. You don't believe in one reality anymore”. One can hardly ask for a more explicit confirmation. See also n. 42 below.
[xxx] According to Thompson: “Ariadne lives up to her ancient namesake, guiding us through the maze of the Cobb’s obsession by acting as an expository figure in that storyline”.
[xxxi] Surprisingly, the formalist Bordwell fails to see the function of this structural opposition and even notes this as a fault: “Find a sympathetic young woman to exorcise the demonic wife you can’t quite abandon”.
[xxxii] Ovid, Ars Amatoria 2.24: semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem.
[xxxiii] The main sources are Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8.152–82, Fasti 3.459–516 and Heroides 10; Catullus poem 64, Plutarch Theseus 19-20. See Armstrong (187-260).
[xxxiv] The son who happens to be obsessed with an image of himself as a little boy together with his father.
[xxxv] As Lacan says: “the Real is that which always lies beyond the automaton” (54).
[xxxvi] Evidence in favour of this interpretation can also be found in Cobb's first name, Dom, which is derived from Latin domus (home). This is another telling name in Nolan's opus (see also n. 28 above).
[xxxvii] Those who argue that the spinning top has the magical power of differentiating dreams and reality should first answer why Cobb did not present it to Mal as key evidence in their argument about these issues.
[xxxviii] See Evans (44). For its (sometimes misplaced) application to film theory see R. Allen (128-33) with references.
[xxxix] Otherwise, as argued by Faraci, the film can be read as an allegory of film production where Cobb would be the film director, Ariadne the screenwriter, Arthur the producer, etc.
[xl] For this subject in general see also Holland.
[xli] On the affective power of movies and the new field of psychocinematics see now Shimamura and especially Plantinga's essay in that collection (94-111).
[xlii] In this sense, Nolan says: “It's very important to me that by the end of the film you understand what Mal (Marion Cotillard) means when she says to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), ‘You don't believe in one reality anymore,’ and that we see the potential for getting lost” (qtd. in Capps).
[xliii] qtd. in Boucher “Batman”, see n. 10.
Received: September 18, 2013, Published: November 26, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Kresimir Vukovic