Time, Memory & Identity: The Films of Christopher Nolan

Master's Thesis, 2009

69 Pages, Grade: none



List of Illustrations



Chapter 1:
Methods & Approaches

Chapter 2:
Reconfiguring the past & interpreting the future: Visions of time & Subjectivity in Memento and Insomnia

Chapter 3:
Exploring the breakdown of the self through the double and post-modernity

Findings & Further Research




List of Illustrations

1. Dormer sees an unknown assailant through the fog, Insomnia

2a. The impact wound, Insomnia

2b. A medium shot of Dormer’s partner, Insomnia

3. A blood stained cloth, Insomnia

4. Detective Eckhart dying, Insomnia

5. The murder victim being beaten, Insomnia

6. The murder victim being cleaned, Insomnia

7. Detective Eckhart sits in the room while Dormer packs, Insomnia

8a. Bruce looks at his father’s stethoscope, Batman Begins

8b. Young Bruce examines his father with the stethoscope, Batman Begins

9a. Borden watches the performance, The Prestige

9b. Angier watches his wife on-stage, The Prestige

10a. Angier watches the 2nd Performance, The Prestige

10b. Borden watches the 2nd performance, The Prestige

11a. Angier confronts Borden, The Prestige

11b. The camera tilts up to reveal Angier, The Prestige

12a. Medium shot of the unknown participant, The Prestige

12b. The camera tilts up to reveal Borden, The Prestige

13. Repeated image of top hats clustered in a small glade, The Prestige


“Take a moment to consider all that you’ve achieved…”

The Prestige.

Writing acknowledgments is a welcome prospect, not least because it indicates the completion of what has been in this case a challenging venture. It also represents the opportunity to recall those people who have been instrumental in the fulfilment of this thesis. Firstly, I would like to express deep gratitude to Dr. Jacqueline Furby to whom I am indebted to for her constructive advice and detailed feedback on successive drafts. Throughout my academic career she has provided me with the tools necessary to be successful and for that I am extremely grateful. You once said that you expected great things from me, I can only hope that four years on I have achieved even a small amount of the success you envisaged.

Writing this thesis has required a prolonged period of solitude and isolation. Fortunately what made these solitary phases tolerable and ultimately productive were those who have helped and encouraged me. I am pleased now to have the opportunity to thank those friends and family for their loving support and understanding. I would like to acknowledge my colleagues Simon Slidel and Christopher Gooch for their ongoing encouragement and advice throughout this process. To my brother I owe a debt of thanks, you have helped more than you realise throughout the years and I am eternally grateful for having someone who has not only been there for me as a brother, but as a best friend. I wish you the very best for the future.

I owe immense gratitude and affection to my parents who have suffered the strain of having a son, who much like his father, is transfixed by his computer. I thank you both for bearing with me, you have been a source of inspiration and I simply could not have done this without you.


How is it that we know who we are? We might wake up in the night, disorientated, and wonder where we are. […] We may think, perhaps, that we have lived through what we just dreamed of, or we may wonder if we are now still dreaming. But we never wonder who we are. However confused we might be about every other particular of our existence, we always know this: That we are now who we have always been. We never wake up and think, ‘Who am I?’

Suture (Scott McGehee & David Siege, 1993).

Unlike many philosophical debates, the nature of identity is not simply a matter for philosophical scholars and academics. Instead, the questions surrounding identity are of significant value to everyone. Whilst largely a concept that has been mistakenly taken for granted, our concept of identity is an essential part of our sense of self and integral to our everyday lives. Identity often provides individuals with a link to the outside world framing how they see themselves and how they are seen by others. Yet, identity is increasingly dictated by fashion, lifestyle magazines, television, film and celebrity culture. According to Douglas Kellner (1994), in traditional societies identity was a function of ascribed roles and social structure. As a result, identity was largely considered fixed and stable. However, the transition to post-modernity has invoked a number of elementary cultural changes. For example, John Storey contends that the shift to post-modernity resulted in a variety of major intellectual challenges to the modernist concept of the unified, fixed and transparent self producing a new way of envisioning identity. He remarks, ‘out of these challenges, and more recently out of the theoretical work of post-structuralism and postmodernism, another way to understand identity has emerged. This view posits identity, not as something fixed and coherent, but as something constructed and always in a process of becoming, but never complete’ (2003: 79). In contemporary society then, identity manifests through both internal and subjective experience combined with the external influence of society. As a result, identity is often understood as problematic or in a state of crisis. This theme is underlined by Kobena Mercer who also extends this argument by asserting that the prevalence of identity issues can be linked to postmodern concerns. He notes:

Identity only becomes an issue when it is crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty. From this angle, the eagerness to talk about identity is symptomatic of the postmodern predicament (1994: 259).

Evidently, the continued evolution of identity within academic and scholarly circles indicates a focused pre-occupation with the problematic nature of identity. In this respect, a study of identity focussing specifically on an area of film theory will help to illuminate wider debates about issues surrounding identity. Consequently, in what follows, I will be looking closely at the subject of identity with a specific focus upon its relationship to the notions of time, memory and post-modernity in the films of Christopher Nolan.

Born in London in 1970, Christopher Nolan began making films from an early age with his father’s super 8mm camera and an assortment of action figures. The son of American and British parents, Nolan spent the majority of his childhood moving back and forth between United Kingdom and the United States. However, upon returning to England, Nolan studied English Literature at University College London where he made 16mm films with the college film society producing several short films including Tarentella (Christopher Nolan, 1989), Larceny (Christopher Nolan, 1996) and Doodlebug (Christopher Nolan, 1997).[1] Nolan’s first major success came in 1998 with the release of his feature-length directorial debut, Following which was nominated for a British Independent Film Award and led to the financing for his follow-up, the critically acclaimed Memento. Since then, Nolan has produced four further films including The Dark Knight, the highest grossing film in an opening weekend to-date and the fourth highest grossing film of all-time.[2] Despite such achievements, there has been a limited amount of work written about Nolan’s entire body of films academically. Consequently, this thesis seeks to clarify repeated themes across Nolan’s oeuvre in order to gain an improved understanding of identity in contemporary cinema and thought. Furthermore, the thesis seeks to interrogate Nolan’s filmmaking style in an attempt to understand the unique relationship between cinema and subjectivity. In order to analyse the various issues surrounding identity, the thesis is organised into three main sections. The present chapter provides a contextualisation of the concept of identity which aims to provide a foundation for the subsequent interrogation of Nolan’s work. The first section examines the relationship between time and identity focusing on Nolan’s second and fifth features Memento and The Prestige respectively. This section serves well as an introduction to the second chapter in the thesis which takes up varying themes surrounding identity. In this opening section I suggest that both Memento and The Prestige offer a unique visualisation of time and identity that is rooted in Deleuzian theories of time. Furthermore, I argue that these films exhibit a complex awareness of the link between the spectator and the cinematic apparatus through subjectivity supplementing their position as archetypal postmodern texts.

The second section analyses a number of Nolan’s films in relation to the role of identity. Drawing from a range of psychoanalytical perspectives I contend that the director’s continual engagement with themes of duality combined with his complex portrayal of identity indicates a larger interest with the deconstruction of the self in postmodern society. Furthermore, I argue that both the visual aesthetic and thematic elements of The Prestige point toward a richer display of subjectivity and self-awareness promoted by Nolan’s unique filmmaking style. This is an argument I will attempt to develop in the latter half of the second, somewhat more extended section which examines Christopher Nolan’s re-invention of the Batman (Tim Burton, 1989 – Ongoing) franchise in relation to psychoanalytic theories and postmodern debates. I contend that Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2002) and The Dark Knight offer a complex understanding of identity that reflects contemporary concerns surrounding the postmodern self. Using the revived Batman franchise as a point of reference, I argue that Nolan’s films emphasise the multiplicity and fragmented nature of postmodern identity and the capability of cinema to signify and exaggerate that fragmentation.

Many critics have embraced Nolan's filmmaking style labelling him as ‘one of the most exciting talents in mainstream cinema’ (Bradshaw, 2002). Similarly, Tom Charity contends that the director’s use of narrative has, ‘swiftly established himself as one of the brightest hopes for Hollywood storytelling as the movies enter their second century’ (2007: 392-394). Nevertheless, it can be considered that despite Nolan’s widespread acclaim for innovative storytelling the director frequently resorts to a number of staples of classical Hollywood filmmaking in order to convey his themes and interests. Thus, narrative manipulation notwithstanding, his films ultimately involve conventional character arcs, stereotypical genre representations and narrative resolution all of which are easily identifiable to contemporary movie audiences. In this respect then, the claim made that Nolan represents the personification of a generation of postmodern filmmakers will be interrogated to prove its validity.

Chapter 1: Methods & Approaches.

“So, Where Are You?”


In spite of the diversity of Christopher Nolan’s body of work, the director’s experience of memory and identity has perhaps remained an integral part of his filmmaking. From Following to The Dark Knight his films are debatably rooted in a cinematic experiment to interrogate the construction of time and the malleable nature of memory and identity. It is this examination of time and identity that unites the wide range of Nolan’s work. Indeed, in many respects Nolan has arguably sought to develop a filmic language that concretely resembles the abstract structures of memory function and systems of identity.

While an examination of memory and identity could extend to a number of films and directors such as Chris Marker or David Lynch, this thesis takes Christopher Nolan as its principle focus of concern. Emerging from low-budget independent cinema, Nolan is one of few directors to have successfully transitioned to Hollywood mainstream cinema receiving both widespread commercial and critical acclaim. However, according to Geoff King such a transition invariably results in dilution of the director’s creative vision and control. He notes, ‘the collaborative nature of the business has always put limits on the freedom of director [...] this is true of almost all other than the most low-budget or “independent” feature production’ (2002: 87). Fortunately, Nolan's individuality as a director originates from his ability to exist within mainstream cinema whilst simultaneously pursuing themes that have permeated his entire body of work. In particular, he seems driven by an almost obsessive desire to interrogate time and the process of recollection, perhaps confident that within may be found the key to individual identity.

The aim of this thesis then, is to consider the reflexive strategies and implications behind Nolan’s obsession with identity, not only in terms of his body of work but more importantly, in terms of what it can reveal about cinema's own relationship to issues of identity and subjectivity in postmodern society. As a dominant cultural form, cinema arguably shapes the way in which audiences interpret issues surrounding identity. Through the visual language of the film, cinema often reflects and contributes toward social understandings of identity politics regarding race, gender, national and sexual identity. For example, in Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993) the successive use of point-of-view shots functions to offer multiple positions of identification in a complex formulation of spectatorship. However, such identification remains problematic due to the ideological position of the cinematic apparatus. For instance, Monica Pearl (2005) argues that Philadelphia refuses to appropriately confront public pre-conceptions about homosexuality and AIDs. Instead, she argues that the film goes so far as to actively endorse homophobia at the expense of a progressive view of racial identity. Nevertheless, through the visual construction of the film, the spectator is able to transcend gender, racial and sexual identity aptly encapsulating cinema’s capability to question, confront and, whilst not necessarily resolving identity concerns, still inform such issues.

It will be useful, before getting too involved in details, to begin with a survey of the films, approaches and theories I intend to use whilst carrying out the study. For the purposes of the thesis I draw on a wide range of approaches. In general, I will utilise close textual analysis of film form examined in conjunction with psychoanalytic theory as well as scientific and philosophical theories of time and identity. The work is organised thematically around Nolan’s films rather than chronologically. Therefore individual films have been selected to exemplify the workings of each aspect of analysis. However, close textual analysis will not be separated from historical reference to preserve the legitimacy of the study. The focus films associated with each chapter reflect a degree of personal preference but have principally been chosen for their relevance to the issues discussed. The selection was determined after having viewed Nolan's entire catalogue of films at the time of writing. The foremost main requirement for inclusion was the pervasiveness of issues surrounding identity in relation to issues such as time, memory and post-modernity. For example, Memento considers several issues surrounding the link between memory and personal identity. Similarly, The Prestige explores identity through the notion of the double and The Dark Knight offers a postmodern view of the self. The examination of these film texts is set within the context of a range of academic disciplines. Indeed, to achieve a comprehensive understanding of identity, it is necessary to implement an interdisciplinary approach including contemporary film theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis and theories of spectatorship. The thesis is qualitative by nature and its overall construction is largely comparative. My more general objective in this thesis is to examine identity in Nolan’s films in relation to recurrent themes that can be analysed relative to the rest of the director’s body of work. Through such an investigation I hope to illustrate Nolan’s position as one of the 21st century’s quintessential postmodern filmmakers.

Aside from Christopher Nolan, several other directors have developed an interest in the complexities of identity. For example, filmmakers such as Michel Gondry, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze, David Lynch, and Charlie Kaufman have all interrogated varying aspects of identity. With this in mind, it is possible to claim that several of these directors emerged as part of a postmodern thematic and visual stylisation that has infused many contemporary film texts. Significantly, whilst a number of these directors work within the Hollywood system the majority of their films combine multiple styles of production and utilise a limited amount of conventional methods in order to establish an artistic detachment from Hollywood’s influence. Conversely, aside from Nolan’s transgression of conventional narrative structures, the rest of his filmic repertoire operates largely within traditional modes of Hollywood production. For example, his films commonly feature basic character arcs that develop across a traditional three act structure invariably ending with a sense of narrative closure. Similarly, unlike established auteurs such as Michel Gondry and Richard Linklater who integrate animation and computer design into their films, Nolan’s film language is restrained to traditional methods of lighting, composition, sound design and camera movement. Perhaps then, Warner Bros. decision to offer Nolan one of their most treasured franchises and a reported $200 million dollar budget for his forthcoming Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), represents a calculated risk based on his reliability to extend the boundaries of mainstream film production, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of over indulging in artistic flair.[3] On the contrary, James Mottram contends that the epic proportions offered by larger budgets simply present Nolan additional opportunities to explore his primary interests. Commenting on the production of Batman Begins, he remarks:

Nolan’s decision to resurrect Warner Bros. Pictures’ most lucrative franchise initially seemed to be a departure from the films with which he has made his name […] The end result proves that he has done anything but succumb to the formulaic fare studios are often guilty of making. Aware that the vast $100 million-plus movie offers is simply a larger canvass to paint on, Nolan […] uses the blockbuster framework to further his own thematic obsessions. (2005: vii)

Conceivably then, Christopher Nolan’s career as a director has emulated that of his Batman predecessor Tim Burton. Burton’s films such as Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990), Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999) and Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) bear the trademarks of an established auteur whose visual style and thematic interests have withstood the temptation of big-budget extravagance. In a similar way, Nolan’s films articulate issues that permeate his entire body of work, issues that are visible in his low-budget independent film Following and evident a decade later in The Dark Knight.

One of the most important features of Nolan’s work is his continuing engagement with memory. Time and memory are inextricably linked through subjective experience. Indeed, in Insomnia the distinction between the two becomes increasingly blurred as Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) drifts in and out of consciousness whilst fragments of his past appear sporadically on-screen. It seems the director is particularly attuned to the power of cinema to collapse memory and reality into a comprehensible worldview. Whether channelled through the amnesiac protagonist of Memento or the traumatised character of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in Batman Begins, memory is a unifying theme that runs through Nolan’s work. Equally, Nolan’s forthcoming release Inception seemingly continues this trend currently being marketed as a, ‘contemporary sci-fi action feature set within the architecture of the mind’ (Child, 2009). In order to interrogate Nolan’s fascination with memory I will examine a selection of philosophical texts by authors such as Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze with the aim of gauging an understanding of the visual representation of memory and time. Of particular interest is the relationship between Gilles Deleuze’s conception of time and Nolan’s visualisation of time and memory.

Deleuze primarily understood time as in a state of perpetual flux and process. Significantly, Deleuze questioned what occurs when time becomes immeasurable through the translation of movement into action. He identified two forms of time: Chronos and Aeon. The movement-image represents time in its most recognisable form, the course of time as external, sequential and linear interconnected in past, present and future. This form of time can be associated with Chronos and is most typically found in the classical Hollywood narrative form in films such as Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Conversely, in Aeon, and in the time-image, Chronos becomes surpassed by intervening layers of past, present and future more readily associated with the inner mechanics of the senses and the mind. He remarks:

The indefinite time of the event, the floating line that knows only speeds and continually divides that which transpires into an already-there that is at the same time not-yet-there, a simultaneous too-late and too-early, a something that is both going to happen and has just happened. (Deleuze & Guttari. 2004: 289)

While the movement–image remains the dominant form in relation to aeon, or the emerging time-image, Deleuze constructs the time-image as a unique tool capable for making visible the workings of time thus expanding the individual’s cognitive response to a film. According to scholars such as Anna Powell (2007) and David Martin-Jones (2006) the time-image is becoming increasingly common in contemporary mainstream cinema. For instance, films such as Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001), Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) demonstrate the growing acceptance that the postmodern spectator possesses a wider knowledge of cinematic conventions and cognitive capabilities used to deconstruct such film texts. With this in mind, a Deleuzian analysis of a Memento and The Prestige seems to align itself with a postmodern interrogation of Nolan’s work.

Several scholars have critically engaged with Memento on a number of levels which has provided an intricate foundation from which to discuss theories of memory and time in relation to the film . For example, Melissa Clarke (2002), Jo Alyson Parker (2004) and Dirian Lyons (2006) focus primarily on the film’s depiction of time. More specifically, these authors consider the philosophical principles outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson. In contrast, Peter Thomas (2003) and William G. Little (2005) interpret Memento as leading its viewers to experience features of trauma focusing primarily on victimage and violence. Additionally, a collection of essays organised by Andrew Kania (2009) draws together several philosophical themes including narrative and popular cinema, self-consciousness and personal identity in Memento. Conversely, The Prestige has been largely ignored as an example of similar issues despite the films analogous experimentations with time, narrative and the construction of identity. With this in mind, I contend that the film offers equal value to academic theory with regard to similar issues. Consequently, an analysis of The Prestige will formulate a large part of the thesis.

As part of a generation of postmodern filmmakers Nolan displays an acute knowledge of film as a cultural medium. Through the director’s fascination with themes of memory and identity, Nolan engages the spectator in multiple strands of deconstructive analysis through a complex awareness of the film texts’ formal elements. For instance, Nolan’s continued manipulation of narrative structure in films such as Memento, Following and The Prestige arguably displays a postmodern intertextual discourse that draws attention to the construction of a films plot via editing. In this manner then, the nature of Nolan’s film language highlights the self-reflexive nature of postmodern art and society. Additionally, such explicit experimentation with film form points toward an implicit relationship between the film text and the spectator. Therefore, it would be appropriate to analyse the directors themes and filmic language in conjunction with theories of spectatorship.

Developing concepts primarily borrowed from psychoanalysis, advocates of spectatorship such as Jean-Louis Baudry (1976, 1985) and Christian Metz (1986) distanced the theory from an understanding of film as an object, proposing instead that film could be analysed in greater detail through the relationship between the spectator and the cinematic screen. Importantly, both theorists outlined the cinematic apparatus as a highly complex relationship between the projector, the screen, the spectator, and the spectator’s metapsychology. At the heart of Baudry and Metz’s construction of the cinematic apparatus is the analogy between viewing and subjectivity. For example, Baudry contends that despite the multiplicity of point of views offered by the cinema, it maintains the ‘monocular vision’ of the camera and the human eye (1974: 534). The fundamental point, and one that would be elaborated by Metz, is that the spectator’s experience of the cinema relies upon an active form of denial. This idea is expanded upon by Metz. He suggests that:

At the cinema, it is always the other who is on the screen; as for me, I am there to look at him. I take no part in the perceived, on the contrary, I am all-perceiving. All-perceiving as one says all powerful (this is the famous gift of ‘ubiquity’ the film makes its spectator); all-perceiving, too, because I am entirely on the side of the perceiving instance; absent from the screen, but certainly present in the auditorium, a great eye and a great ear without which the perceived would have no one to perceive I, the instance, in other words, which constitutes the cinema signifier (it is I who make the film) (1986: 48).

According to Metz then, viewing a film is seen as a fixed experienced in which the spectator is simultaneously detached and implicated in the on-screen events due to the combination of distance and proximity to the screen events as well as the subjective viewpoint of the camera. In this respect, the spectator is aware of the construction of the film as a text but is induced into a subjective state that s/he accepts as her/his own despite a conscious awareness of the cinematic apparatus. An understanding of spectatorship can be applied to an analysis of Nolan’s films as the director seems to display an acute awareness of the complex relationship between the spectator and the cinematic screen. For example, on the one hand, Nolan demonstrates the artificiality of cinema through the visible construction of his narrative timelines, which require an active participation from the spectator, thus acknowledging the film as a text. However, on the other hand, the director’s unique visual style often provokes a profound subjective experience that engages the spectator psychologically. Consequently, the spectator forgoes an active awareness of the cinematic apparatus. Such a statement can also be attributed to David Lynch whose films such as Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001) and Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) can often be understood as an extension of the inner workings of the human mind. In particular, Lynch’s visual style operates in an analogous fashion to cognitive processing, often fragmentary, non-linear, dreamlike and at times surreal. Similarly, Nolan’s films equally transcend the boundaries between external reality and inner subjectivity presenting the spectator with a complex representation of the human mind. Whilst a comparative study of Lynch and Nolan’s films may perhaps reveal shared visions of identity, such an investigation would be better suited to an entire thesis devoted to such a vast subject matter. Instead, the brief comparison drawn between the two directors simply aims to highlight the way in which the technological construction of the visual image can operate to represent a sense of subjectivity conceivably richer in detail than any other medium.


[1] See Andrew Kania (2009: xv).

[2] Box office statistics obtained from the ‘All Time Worldwide Top 20’ & ‘Biggest Weekends at the Box Office’ Available [online] http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/#world [accessed 29 July 2009]

[3] In a local report for the Calgary Sun, Lisa Wilton details the various shooting locations of Inception as well as the $200 million dollar budget. The film is scheduled to hit cinemas July 16, 2010. Available [online] http://www.calgarysun.com/entertainment/movies/2009/06/15/9798751-sun.html [accessed 29 July 2009]

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Time, Memory & Identity: The Films of Christopher Nolan
Film Studies
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Nolan, Memory, Identity, Time
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Stuart Joy (Author), 2009, Time, Memory & Identity: The Films of Christopher Nolan, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/205383


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