The Ethics of the Lie
The lie plays a central role in every Christopher Nolan film. In his first feature, Following (1998), the film’s protagonist, Bill (Jeremy Theobald), becomes entrapped in a deception that frames him for a woman’s murder. Nolan’s most popular film, The Dark Knight (2008), depicts Batman (Christian Bale) hiding not just beneath a mask but also behind the fiction that he is a murderous criminal. Characters in Nolan’s films constantly find themselves deceived by others and often caught up in a vast web of deceit that transcends any individual lies. The predominance that deception has within the content of these films has a clear homology in their form. The typical Nolan film has the formal structure of a lie designed to deceive the spectator concerning the events that occur and the motivations of the characters. Nolan uses the form of deception to constitute an ethical philosophy rooted in the ontological primacy of the lie. Nolan’s films do not abandon the idea of truth altogether, but they show us how truth must emerge out of the lie if it is not to lead us entirely astray.
Nolan’s lying structure does not consist, as one might expect, in showing events that aren’t really happening. Such visual deception would force spectators to conclude that they simply cannot believe what they see—and thus creates a dead-end street in filmmaking. Nolan’s films, in contrast, show events that actually transpire in the filmic universe, but the formal structure leads the spectator to misinterpret these events. The structure of the films deceives the spectator about the meaning of the events seen. The deceit exists in the form more than in the content, which suggests that deceit is a structural phenomenon and not simply an empirical one. By exhibiting the structural nature of deceit and its ubiquity, Nolan demands a revaluation of the prevailing ideas of truth and fiction.
This dynamic is most apparent in the openings of Nolan’s films. We often see an event but draw incorrect conclusions about its nature. Rather than directly manipulating spectators in the manner of a film like The Usual Suspects (Brian Singer, 1995), Nolan’s films tend to begin in a way that causes spectators to trick themselves simply by adhering to standard cinematic codes. For example, the opening of Memento (2000) shows Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) shooting Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) for the murder of his wife. Though the film moves backward, it is clear that Leonard shoots and kills Teddy, and Leonard’s narration leads the spectator to believe that he has discovered that Teddy is the murderer of his wife. At the conclusion of the film, however, it becomes evident that Teddy did not murder Leonard’s wife and that Leonard sets in motion the events that will result in Teddy’s death just because Teddy has angered him by telling Leonard what he didn’t want to hear. The truth behind the murder of Leonard’s wife has nothing to do with the killing that opens the film, though the film deceives the spectator into thinking that this is in fact an act of revenge.
The opening of Insomnia (2002) involves a similar though less dramatic deception. Shots of blood staining a white piece of clothing appear throughout the film’s opening sequence, and the subsequent depiction of a police investigation leads the spectator to believe that this is the blood of the murder victim. But the end of the film reveals that these bloodstains have nothing at all to do with this murder investigation. Instead, they are the result of a police detective, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), planting evidence to frame a suspect in an earlier investigation. The structure of the film creates a deception in which the spectator misinterprets the opening images, and this initial misinterpretation paves the way for a series of misinterpretations that end only when the film’s conclusion enables the spectator to recognize them as such. But in each case, the deception marks the beginning and occurs before any truth. The spectator begins the Nolan film with a mistaken idea of what has happened and what’s at stake in the events. The movement of the typical Nolan film is not, as in most films, from ignorance to knowledge. Instead, the spectator moves from mistaken knowledge to a later knowledge that corrects the mistakes. The beginning point is not a blank slate but an initial error.
Other contemporary filmmakers also privilege deceit, though none do so to the extent of Nolan or in quite the same way. M. Night Shyamalan, for instance, is famous for the trick ending that reveals to spectators that their understanding of the filmic reality was entirely wrongheaded. In the most celebrated case, The Sixth Sense (1999) reveals that the hero of the film, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) has actually been dead throughout most of the film’s running time. The difference between Shyamalan and Nolan—or between The Sixth Sense and Memento—is that the former does not include the deception as part of the truth that the film reveals. A clear line of demarcation exists between the deception and the truth in The Sixth Sense, and once one knows the truth, one can watch the film again from this new perspective to examine how it constructs the deception. With Memento, such a strategy is not possible because it is only through immersing oneself in the deception that one arrives at the truth. To remove oneself from the deception, which is possible when re-watching a Shyamalan film, would cause one to miss the truth altogether.
The structure of a Nolan film plays on the spectator’s investment in the idea of truth, but this investment always results in the spectator being deceived. Insofar as we believe in what we see, Nolan’s films lead us into error. The idea of truth as what is immediately visible blinds us to the fictional structure that mediates the visible world and creates meaning in it. In each instance, Nolan’s films show how this fictional structure has an ontological priority and shapes what we see, providing the ground against which truth can emerge.
The lie of the Nolan film is not simply the depiction of events on the screen that have not occurred—or are not occurring—in the world outside the theater. What the lie means in Nolan’s filmic universe goes far beyond this rudimentary lack of correspondence between representation and flesh-and-blood reality. The lie, as Nolan depicts it, is what misleads both characters and spectators. Lies encourage us to draw incorrect conclusions and to misunderstand actions and events. The victim of a lie fails to recognize what motivates characters to act as they do. But the lie also points to the truth that it hides. Lies are not immediately visible as lies in his films but rather are part of a formal structure that exists only insofar as it covers a truth. We understand the lie as a lie through its relationship to a truth that we finally distinguish from the lie. Nolan’s films define the lie as a disjunction between what one believes and what happens, but this disjunction becomes apparent only when one transcends it.
As a result of its attitude toward the lie, the cinema of Christopher Nolan is not a moral cinema in the traditional sense. He does not illustrate the priority of deceit in order to denounce lying and insist on the importance of truthfulness. But it is an ethical cinema all the same, as Nolan redefines the relationship between ethics and truthfulness. The experience of Nolan’s films reveals the importance for ethics of understanding the ontological priority of the lie. The failure to recognize the priority of the lie leaves one entirely in its thrall, and one gains freedom from deceit only when one fully submits to it. This is the paradox that Nolan advances and explores throughout his cinema. By accepting and recognizing the priority of the lie relative to truth, one can access the freeing power of the lie and discover its link to the origin of subjectivity.
Memento goes further than any of Nolan’s other films in its foregrounding of the lie. The film’s hero, Leonard Shelby, spends the running time of the film searching for the murderer of his wife, and the film encourages the spectator to invest in this ritual of detection that aims at discovering the truth of a crime. Despite the atypical disruption of forward-moving chronology that gives the film an exceptional structure, Memento appears throughout to share a widely held conception of truth. Truth is what we seek and what we discover when we uncover all the facts of an event. But the film does not conclude in the fashion of the usual detective thriller. Instead of ending with the truth of what happens to Leonard’s wife, it reveals Leonard’s own lie to himself as the origin of Leonard’s search. Leonard’s self-deception is not simply an impediment on the path to the discovery of truth; it is the engine behind the search for truth. The lie to himself creates the mystery that Leonard attempts to solve. It is in this sense that the lie has for Nolan an ontological priority relative to truth. The possibility of truth would not exist without the lie that provides its background. Truth must be torn away from its foundation in deceit.
Throughout the history of cinema, many filmmakers have emphasized the relativity of truth. This can be done with the subjective camera, as in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), or by showing multiple accounts of the same event, which is how Akira Kurosawa constructs Rashomon (1950). One might also include video footage within the film, as Michael Haneke does in Caché (2005). In contrast to Nolan, these forms of perspectivalism do not impugn the priority of truth but rather insist on its multiplicity and its rootedness in a particular knowing subject. Truth here becomes identified with the capacity to recognize the limitedness of one’s vision. As long as one believes in the objectivity of what is seen, one remains deceived. But as soon as one grasps that all knowledge is necessarily perspectival, one accedes to a new form of truth. This type of film redefines truth in order to maintain its ontological priority, which is precisely what Nolan wants to challenge.
The point is not that we are misled by a mistaken idea of truth but that the very conception of truth’s priority relative to the lie leaves us unable to recognize the way that deceit structures our reality. In the filmic universe of Christopher Nolan, truth is neither relative nor nonexistent. There is truth, but one arrives at it only by passing through the lie. Lies establish the path through which one discovers the truth, and one can make this discovery only by accepting and investing oneself in the lie. A lie establishes a fictional version of events that don’t correspond to what is actually happening or what has happened. The problem with our usual conception of truth is that it separates truth from this fiction and views truth as an original state that fiction or deceit corrupts. But for Nolan’s cinema, the link between truth and fiction always remains clear: if one wants to discover the truth, one must first succumb to the fiction that seems to obscure it.
In each of his films, Nolan follows psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s well-known axiom that “the non-duped err.” The non-duped err because they fail to realize the fictional origin of all truth and thus believe that they can access truth without the detour of mediation. As Lacan notes in his seminar titled “Les non-dupes errent,” “The non-duped are two times duped.” Not allowing oneself to be duped, demanding the truth directly, leaves one in the dark about both one’s own status as a desiring subject and the fictional structure of the social order. Those who refuse to become dupes, who refuse to accept the fiction, ironically abandon the field of truth entirely. Truth exists as a possibility only for those who don’t create an absolute distinction between it and the fiction from which it emerges. The fiction has this structural privilege because there is no truth apart from our act of seeking that truth.
Nolan’s fascination with the superhero stems from his investment in the primacy and the productivity of the lie. The superhero takes on a false identity to assist in the struggle for justice. Sometimes the myth of the superhero’s power has some link to this false identity: Peter Parker has an accident that gives him spider-like powers, and Tony Stark develops an iron suit that renders him almost invincible. But most often, the false identity of the superhero has no necessary relation to the superhero’s powers. Superman, for instance, is just a guise that Clark Kent adopts when he wants to fight criminality and injustice. In purely physical terms, he might perform all the actions that he performs as Superman while remaining Clark Kent. The Superman identity does not offer him any additional power: at the most, it bequeaths anonymity; at the least, it provides an aesthetic flourish. The superhero’s false identity does not appear to be a necessary condition of the superhero’s power, and yet it is difficult to imagine a superhero without this false identity. The false identity separates the superhero from the realm of the ordinary and thus causes others to look on the superhero differently. What’s more, the deceit of the false identity reflects our investment in deceit as such. If superheroes really existed, it would not take much effort to discern their true identity, especially in the case of Superman, and yet spectators accept the idea of the disguise’s effectiveness. The superhero’s false identity reveals the power of deceit not just for the superhero but also for the audience watching this figure from the outside.
Nolan’s first Batman film explicitly delinks Batman’s superhero guise from his power. As Batman Begins (2005) recounts, Bruce Wayne does have an accident involving bats when he is a young boy. He falls into a cavernous opening, where he stirs up a large group of bats that engulf him. This trauma has a shaping influence on Bruce’s life, but it doesn’t transform him into Batman. After undergoing a rigorous training regimen in China, Bruce gains the fighting ability that he will employ to act as a superhero. Batman gains his power through physical and mental training, not through being bitten by a bat. Bruce decides to adopt the false identity of Batman not because this training gives him the powers of a bat but because he wants his enemies to experience the fear that he experienced as a young boy.
The identity of the rich playboy Bruce Wayne does not intimidate criminals in the way that the figure of Batman does. As Batman, Bruce gains an additional advantage that has nothing to do with his fighting ability, and this is true of the false identity that every superhero adopts. Batman wins many of his struggles simply because he is Batman, not because of superior strength or cunning. This false identity gives the superhero the illusion of transcendence, and this illusion has the power to reshape the psychic reality of any situation. When confronted with the superhero, the criminal tends to act in a self-destructive manner that ensures the superhero’s triumph.
But the deception of the superhero’s false identity is not simply a tool for better apprehending criminals. It also captures a truth of the individuals that their actual identity obscures. The fictional Batman is the truth of Bruce Wayne, just as Superman is the truth of Clark Kent. At the end of Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) comes to just this realization. After Bruce tries to minimize the importance of the Batman guise, she in turn dismisses the Bruce Wayne identity. She touches Bruce’s face and tells him, “No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one criminals now fear.” As Rachel grasps in this scene, the illusory identity that Bruce Wayne has created, the superhero figure, becomes his “real face.” Batman identifies what is essential about Bruce—the trauma with the bats that shapes his existence and his ability to confront this trauma. The superhero’s false identity is the source of both power and truth, which is why it holds such appeal for Nolan as a filmmaker. The superhero’s guise is clearly a deceit, but it points toward a truth of the subject that would otherwise remain completely obscured.
Nolan gravitates toward the superhero for the same reason he is attracted to a formal structure that deviates from a forward-moving chronology and shuffles narrative time. In both cases, truth is inseparable from what misleads us—and this link is constantly at play in the cinema. When we go to the cinema, we allow ourselves to be misled and thus distracted from our everyday lives. But filmic fictions, through their power to deceive, make manifest the truth of the extra-cinematic social reality. In the cinema, a society reveals its repressed desires, its hidden fears, and its implicit ideological imperatives. By highlighting the power of film to deceive and by remaining faithful to film’s fictional structure, Christopher Nolan unveils the ethical potential of the cinema.
The Perils of Visiting the Cinema
Christopher Nolan’s filmic investment in the lie threatens to subject his films to an obvious critique. In fact, one of the most enduring criticisms of film concerns its association with deceit. Even great proponents of cinematic art, such as Hugo Münsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim, recognize a danger when film comes too close to presenting a false sense of reality. Films falsify a sense of reality and thereby dupe spectators into unfounded beliefs that often have pernicious effects in their actual lives. For instance, one leaves the cinema with an idea that a ruthless executive will turn out to have a heart of gold or that every random encounter might actually be a meeting with one’s future soul mate. These routine cinematic deceptions help to produce unthinking subjects who accept rather than question the structure of their society and their position in it. Even a critical thinker like Theodor Adorno admits that he finds himself unable to resist this deceptive power. In Minima Moralia, he laments, “Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.” To go to the cinema is to accede at least to some degree to its lies.
Film is famous for its untruth, and this untruth is indissociable from its appeal. We go to the cinema to be deceived, to take the unreal for the real, or to experience the cinematic creation of impossible worlds and situations. In difficult economic times, we head to the movies to experience the improbable fiction that our financial fortune could turn around in an instant if we became, say, the surprise winner of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? due simply to the contingent experiences of our lives. The acclaim that greeted Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), often articulated by otherwise-thoughtful critics and viewers, evinces most clearly the desire for cinematic deception. The film not only encourages us to believe in the possibility of individual escape from economic destitution, but it also portrays Westernization as the means for a parallel escape for an entire nation. These are powerful ideological fictions, and the film’s popularity is inseparable from the support that it gives to them. Slumdog Millionaire lies in a way that helps contemporary capitalist society to function more smoothly. The difference between Boyle’s film and those of Christopher Nolan is that Boyle presents the lie as truth, while Nolan presents truth as the product of a lie. But no matter how a filmmaker deploys deception, it infiltrates all filmmaking through the way that cinema structures our experience.
Special effects add to the cinema’s appeal by multiplying its deception. As filmic technology develops, the power of filmmakers to create a convincing image of the world multiplies. Sound, color, and widescreen technology all help to lift barriers in the path of cinematic deceit. Even as critics lament this deceptiveness and rue film’s reliance on new special effects such as CGI, the tools that augment filmic deception proliferate further and further into the act of filmmaking. Deception is at once the danger of cinema and its sine qua non.
One of the most common manifestations of cinematic deception is the imaginary reconstruction of history to produce a sense of progress where none should rightly exist. Scholars addressing the relationship between film and history must constantly address this problem. As Robert Rosenstone notes, “The mainstream feature (much like written history) tells the past as a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A tale that leaves you with a moral message and (usually) a feeling of uplift. A tale embedded in a larger view of history that is always progressive. Even if the subject matter is as bleak as the horrors of the Holocaust, the message is that things have gotten or are getting better.” The most damning case of this type of lie occurs in Steven Spielberg’s (Schindler’s List(1993). Here, a story about the Holocaust becomes a story of salvation, and the darkest moment for European Jews leads, according to the logic of the film itself, to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Though this is the most egregious example, the distortion of history into a tale of progress is almost ubiquitous in the cinema, and then spectators take the idea of progress as the truth of history. The deceit acquires the quality of truth.
Probably the most powerful legend in the history of cinema is that of spectators screaming in terror and fleeing when the Lumière brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1895) was first screened at the Grand Café in Paris. Regardless of whether this legend has any basis in fact, it endures because it speaks to the widespread sense of the precise danger—and, at the same time, the allure—that we associate with the cinema. We fear that under cinema’s spell we will take images as more real than reality. This is a danger against which critics from all political stripes have inveighed. Moralists have feared cinematic depictions of activities from smoking to drinking to sex outside marriage because they recognized cinema’s ability to give these activities a sense of reality and thus a sense of desirability. The Hays Production Code has its basis in this conception of cinema, and it was created to shape the reality that cinema could present. Just as film deceives us about the train that appears ready to crash into the theater, it also lies about the consequences of smoking, drinking, and sex. Films often show us the night of passion and the pleasures of a cigarette, but they rarely show us the damaging consequences of unintended pregnancy or lung cancer. When they experience these consequences themselves, spectators pay the price for cinematic deception.
The danger exists not just for conservative moralists but also for politically engaged leftists. Hollywood cinema’s lies about the absence of poverty, the invisibility of work, and the ubiquity of romantic love have had a perilous effect on American political awareness. When we see characters who never worry about money, who never work, and who always find satisfying love, we don’t tend to think about social inequality, the role of labor in the creation of value, or the nefarious social effects of our myopic concentration on romance. Every bit as intensely as the conservative moralist, the leftist political critic of the cinema recognizes the danger of filmic deception and fights against it.
Conservatives recognized that cinematic deceit was politically neutral and could be turned toward conservative ends, which it was with the invention of the Hays Production Code. The Left reacted differently. Leftist and progressive filmmakers have historically adopted various strategies for offsetting or combating cinema’s inherent deceitfulness. Leftists have tended to look for ways to wrench truth from cinema’s tendency to lie. The Italian Neorealists eschewed traditional editing, hired nonprofessional actors, and shot on location—all in an effort to create truthful films. In works like (La chinoise (1967) and Le gai savoir (1969), Jean-Luc Godard abandoned narrative and highlighted the production of the filmic image to avoid falling prey to cinematic deception. Many filmmakers choose the documentary form specifically as an avenue for truth that works against the fiction propagated by narrative cinema. For most of the various camps of alternative filmmakers, the association of deception with the cinema represents a fundamental problem that must be overcome in some fashion. Rather than perpetuating illusions, a politically engaged cinema must dispel them.
The problem is that the deceptions of cinema are inextricable from its place within the capitalist system of production and the reproduction of that system. The contemporary synergy between Hollywood filmmaking and the advertising industry is not a contingent development within cinema but a symptomatic one. As itself a structure of deception, the cinema is the perfect vehicle for indirect advertising through strategies like product placement, and as long as the link with deception remains, cinema will serve as part of the advertising wing of capitalist production. But product placement is just the beginning of the link between cinema and the functioning of capitalist ideology. As Jonathan Beller argues, “Cinema emerges as the development and the intensification of the form of consciousness necessary to the increased mobilization of objects as commodities.” Movies help us to treat every object and every person that we encounter as a commodity. They deceive us into a commodified way of seeing that strips us of our capacity to act in order to change the world. In response to the imbrication of cinematic deceit and capitalist production, it seems as if the only possibility for political filmmaking resides in smuggling truth into this deception.
Christopher Nolan does not take this path. He attempts, in contrast, to develop a politically engaged filmmaking that takes up and makes explicit use of cinema’s tendency toward the lie. From Following to (Inception (2010), his films embrace the deceit inherent in the cinema and even attach an ethical value to this deceit. Nolan initially misleads spectators into accepting a premise that the films later show to be false. This in itself is not all that uncommon. But Nolan’s films emphasize the importance of the deception—and submitting to it—for any subsequent discovery of truth. Nolan inverts the traditional priority of truth and deception: the quest for truth originates with a lie, just as the cinematic fiction itself creates a terrain for the discovery of truths.
Characters in Nolan’s films who fail to grasp the primacy of deception or fiction are inevitably doomed, like the protagonist of Following, who falls into a murderer’s frame-up precisely because he believes in the power of truth. And Nolan’s heroes, such as Batman or the magicians in (The Prestige (2006), must take up the mantle of deceit and create a misleading appearance. Nolan shows a transformation occurring through the articulation of a fiction, and this transformation creates value. The fiction produces a sublimation that renders ordinary objects desirable. Without the magicians’ deception of the audience, there would be nothing to arouse their desire. Some fiction is necessary to make life worth living at all, and Nolan’s films draw attention to this to mark the moment at which value—what gives existence its worth—emerges. They don’t encourage lying but rather the recognition of both the role that deceit or fiction has in the creation of value and the recognition of truth’s dependence on this creative fiction. This is Nolan’s ethic of the lie.
The idea of an ethic of the lie sounds, at first blush, absurd. By promoting such an ethic, one would, so it seems, help to foster a world of universal suspicion and paranoia, in which no one could trust anyone else. This is the kind of world that unrestrained capitalism would produce: claims are made solely to maximize one’s profit in every situation, even social or romantic ones. In this world, the used-car salesperson would function as the ideal. But in the end such a world would be unsustainable: if we could not trust the other members of society on some fundamental level, capitalist society could not function (even for the used-car salesperson), since it is based on the faith that others have faith in the value of our money. A world of universal suspicion would represent a complete loss of the social bond in its current form. Though a world of universal suspicion may be a danger attached to Nolan’s ethic of the lie, his films focus not on the power of deceit to render us suspicious but on its power to make clear our freedom. In this sense, their concern is not lying as such but a specific dimension of the lie that they associate with the subject’s capacity for freedom.
The most famous articulation of an ethic of the lie, in contrast, associates deceit with the flight from freedom. In (The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor propagates an ethic of the lie as a way of alleviating the burden of freedom. According to this ethic, because the mass of humanity cannot accept the groundlessness of human existence and the horror of mortality, a few privileged figures of authority provide humanity with a lie that ensures its ignorance and happiness. The lie serves as a pretext for the abandonment of freedom, a supposed blessing that most experience as a curse. The Grand Inquisitor explains, “Man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born. But he alone can take over the freedom of men who appeases their conscience.” In the Grand Inquisitor’s speech, there is an absolute connection between truth, albeit unbearable truth, and freedom. Our inability to handle the truth of the immense burden of freedom leads to the acceptance of the lie that offers happiness. The Grand Inquisitor’s ethic of the lie rejects freedom as a widespread possibility. The ethic of the lie developed in Nolan’s films works in the opposite direction: they associate the lie with the emergence of freedom rather than its retreat.
In one sense, the link between the lie and freedom seems easy to understand. When we lie, we create a distinction between how we appear to others and how we appear to ourselves, and we thereby establish an interior space of freedom from the demands of the external world. In this way, lying functions as an assertion of one’s subjectivity. This is a point that Jacques Lacan makes during a discussion of analytic technique. He notes, “We are necessarily obliged to admit the speaking subject as subject. But why? For one simple reason—because he can lie. That is, he is distinct from what he says.” For Lacan, subjectivity resides in the gap that language institutes between the point of enunciation and what one says. Language produces liars. Freedom consists in the irreducibility of the point of enunciation to any statement uttered by the speaking subject.
In Memento, the subjectivity of Leonard Shelby emerges not through his apparently earnest quest for his wife’s killer. Though Shelby believes that this obsession attests to what most defines him, as spectators we see that this is part of Shelby’s own self-deception. The singularity of Shelby’s subjectivity appears at the end of the film when he decides to lie to himself and frame Teddy as the killer of his wife. This decision to lie signals his fundamental freedom as a subject. The structure of the film leads to this concluding lie, through which Leonard becomes causa sui, the origin of his own being. The lie creates the quest that makes up the film and that gives Leonard his reason for existing. It is through the lie that the subject gives itself the project that separates subjectivity from the rest of being and that makes this separation worthwhile.
Lying doesn’t just create a distinction between the subject and what it says; lying also enacts a fundamental separation between the subject and everything else. When we lie, we assert our freedom by detaching ourselves from the world as it is given to us. Truth involves an appeal to what exists and the arrangement of what exists. It enacts fidelity to the existing world and at the same time professes dependence on this world. True statements are statements of acceptance and deference. In the act of lying, however, the subject implicitly takes responsibility for the account it generates, an account that is not based on a given world. The lie creates, and it entails total responsibility because it frees the subject from its dependence on the world. Rather than repeating what one sees or hears (which is what occurs when one tells the truth), the lying subject departs from the given world and invents freely. The fiction that occurs in a narrative is just an elaborate form of the primitive lie. Even if the narrative is based on an actual event, the narrative structure necessarily distorts the event and frees the audience from its constraints. There is freedom in the compression of time, the addition of suspense, the alteration of dialogue, and so on.
Every film frees us from the world outside its fiction, and this freedom is integral to cinematic pleasure. Even if we live in a world where corruption is rampant throughout politics, we can watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) and believe in an authentic political figure who refuses to be bribed. Though ultimately Capra’s film works to accommodate viewers to existing social arrangements through its endorsement of the fantasy of the American dream, the experience of the film provides a temporary freedom from corrupt reality outside the cinema. This temporary freedom marks the revolutionary potential of the cinema, and it is housed in the cinema’s falsity.
There is little resemblance between the films of Frank Capra and those of Christopher Nolan. Capra uses the cinematic lie to fortify the existing social structure; he places the freedom of the cinematic lie in the service of unfreedom. Nolan, in contrast, draws attention to the lie as such to make spectators aware of their freedom. His films provide not just the temporary freedom that all cinema does, but they also work to create awareness of the primacy of the lie that would sustain freedom outside the cinema.
Nolan illustrates the importance of recognizing the primacy of deception and grasping the wide-ranging implications of its significance. The failure to do so leaves one incapable of understanding how social relations operate. But Nolan does not depict the primacy of deceit to produce a lying and manipulative spectator. Neither Leonard Shelby in Memento nor Will Dormer in Insomnia—two of Nolan’s most conspicuous figures of deceit—functions as a model figure. Instead, Nolan’s films also reveal how a different attitude toward deceit or fiction can lead to a new conception of ethics, one in which evil is integral to good, just as deception is integral to truth. He shows that cinema can avow its deceptive character and establish an ethical program founded on deception.
Nolan the Hegelian
Nolan’s investment in the fiction does not just emerge full-blown without historical antecedents. The idea of discovering truth through deception appears prominently in film noir, where the noir hero and the spectator often find themselves deceived by the femme fatale. This deception provides a way for film noir to articulate the truth of its society despite the limitations imposed at the time by the Production Code. By insisting on the priority of the lie as the path to truth, Nolan is the most noir of contemporary directors, even when he makes a film, like Batman Begins or (The Prestige, that seems removed from the typical narrative style of film noir. But Nolan takes noir a step further by refusing to position the spectator outside of the hero’s state of deception.
In Nolan’s films, there is no truth outside the fiction, though there is truth inside it. They show that one arrives at an ethical position by adhering to the fiction and following it to its end point. Each of Nolan’s films perpetuates some sort of deception on the spectator. Each is organized around a lie that establishes a fictional world and works to foster the spectator’s investment in this world. Following reveals how we are constantly trapped by our belief in truth and its capacity for redeeming us. Memento depicts a quest for truth based on a lie. Insomnia presents itself as a crime thriller, but the detective himself ends up as both the subject and the object of the investigation. Batman Begins shows heroism itself as a fiction that we can inhabit. (The Prestige features a magic act that deceives both the spectator and the characters in the film. The Dark Knight shows heroism manifesting itself in the guise of evil. And (Inception (2010) depicts the fiction of the dream as the realm where one finds the truth of one’s desire. These films begin with the fundamental deception of cinema itself—the image passing itself off as reality—and then they push this deception even further. By accepting these deceptions, spectators do not just submit to the cinematic experience that Nolan wants them to have; they work to transform their ethical being.
When we accept the cinematic lie, we invest ourselves wholly in the reality of the world that the film presents. Every film deceives the spectator to some extent by presenting a cinematic fiction as a reality. Even films that endlessly deconstruct themselves conceal their fictional status through the very deconstruction that pretends to avow it. When we take this fiction for reality, we blind ourselves to those around us in the theater and to the edges of the frame; we ignore the world outside the theater and pretend that it doesn’t exist. This type of investment represents a fetishistic disavowal: we know very well that the screen isn’t reality, but we pretend that it is nonetheless. While film theorists have historically railed against the fetishism of Hollywood cinema and its ideological effects, Nolan sees another side to our embrace of the cinematic lie. By acceding to this lie, we give up the idea of a real world existing elsewhere, and it is this idea, Nolan’s films imply, that cripples us as ethical beings.
By creating a radical separation between truth and lie or between fiction and reality, we establish an unrealizable ideal of purity—pure truth or pure reality. This ideal will always require the elimination of the impure to sustain our purity. It is an ideal that depends on the act of exclusion and on the existence of what it excludes, which is why it is both ethically and ontologically untenable. Locating truth within the primacy of the lie, however, enables us to recognize the necessity of the impure, to grasp the impurity of the pure. This provides an alternative to rituals of purification. Existing in the impurity of the pure is existing without a beyond.
In this sense, Nolan’s cinema has a profound connection with Hegel’s philosophy. Though Hegel is a notoriously difficult German philosopher and Nolan is a largely accessible British filmmaker, they share a philosophical and ethical project. Both take deception as their point of departure while refusing to give in to relativism. Their joint investment in the priority of the lie stems from eschewing any idea of the pure or the beyond. Just as Nolan does in his films, Hegel writes to disabuse his readers of an elsewhere, and he accomplishes this by immersing himself in a series of fictions and tracing their logic to its end point. He never leaps outside the fiction to speak from the standpoint of truth, but instead foregrounds the philosophical movement from one fiction to another. One fiction leads to another when its logic breaks down. It is at the point where the logic of a fiction fails that truth emerges. For Hegel as for Nolan, truth is the failure of the fiction.
Maintaining a position within fictions constitutes the entirety of Hegel’s philosophy: the absolute, the end point of this philosophy, is the moment at which one recognizes the inescapability of the fiction as such. One reaches the absolute when one realizes that fiction provides the basis for truth, but one attains this point only by going through a series of fictions that seem to promise a truth external to fictionality. The absolute is not, as the common critique of Hegel has it, the attainment of a transcendent position from which the philosopher might survey the play of all the hitherto-discussed fictions. It is rather the point at which the philosopher must give up the idea of a point external to fictionality. One has to hew to the fiction despite one’s investment in truth.
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit explores a series of false doctrines to discover what their deceptions can teach us about the structure of subjectivity. Even the most deceptive doctrine, sense certainty (or the belief that sense impressions provide the ultimate truth), reveals that the most minimal use of language involves recourse to the universal. Hegel arrives at this truth simply by tracing the logic of sense certainty, which is his starting point in the Phenomenology precisely because it is the most deceptive doctrine. We must begin with the greatest deception and work our way from there.
As Hegel shows throughout his philosophy, we discover truth not through separating ourselves from fiction but through fully succumbing to it. The logic of the fiction has a creative power that leads to truth, which is why philosophy—or filmmaking—cannot simply dismiss it. The truth that we find will retain this fictional structure and thus cannot be entirely distinct from the fiction out of which it emerges. Even the transcendent beyond, for Hegel, is part of the world that it transcends and thus not transcendent in the way that we typically understand the idea. This rejection of the transcendent beyond as separated from the ordinary world is an ethical and ontological position that Hegel and Nolan share.
Escaping the idea of an elsewhere or a transcendent beyond is not as simple as exiling all fictions from one’s ideal society or abandoning the belief in God. Both Plato and the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, through their flights from fiction and myth, sustain the idea of a reality beyond. For Plato, the beyond is the world of Ideas, and for Dawkins, it is the fully explicable scientific world we have yet to discover. Though Plato famously banishes the poets from his republic as the producers of fictions and Dawkins inveighs against belief in a transcendent deity, they both retain the idea of an elsewhere. An insistence on truth and the banishment of deception will never take us far enough down the path toward abandoning the idea of a beyond. The abandonment can come only through the acceptance of the primacy of the lie and the fiction, in which truth emerges from within the lie rather than outside it.
In the cinema, the real deception is not that what we see on the screen is reality but that there exists a real world beyond the screen. So when critics upbraid the cinema for presenting a false reality, it is actually these critics themselves who are guilty of perpetuating the idea of a false reality that would exist beyond the fiction. We cannot leave the fiction and enter reality. We live our lives within the fiction, and when we encounter truth, we necessarily do so from within the terrain of some controlling fiction. Though most of us don’t spend the entirety of our lives in the movie theater, we do pass our lives on the screen—within the fantasy structure that shapes how we view the world. The point is not that we live within a series of fictional constructions in which there is no truth. Even this commonsensical conception implicitly avows a true point of reference outside from which one can examine the cultural constructions and see them as such. Social constructionism is yet another attempt to escape the fiction by presupposing the existence of a separate realm from which one might examine the social constructions as constructions.
We capitulate to the limitations of the cinematic fantasy structure not because we fail to grasp its fantasy status but precisely because we do. Believing in a real world of real significance beyond the fantasy, we fail to act to change the structures in which we exist. The idea of a truth outside the lie condemns us to live within the lie. We can only escape the lie, paradoxically, if we accept that the lie is all there is, that there is no reality beyond the screen. At this point, the moment at which truth emerges in the fiction becomes visible.
Christopher Nolan immersed himself in cinematic fiction from a young age. At age seven, he began making films with an 8 mm camera. Perhaps it was this early beginning in filmmaking that allowed him to approach cinema not as an illusory alternative to reality but as all there is. Of course, Nolan has a life outside the cinema: he has a spouse, children, and even a purported affection for British literature. But his films reflect a total investment in the completeness of the cinematic fiction. The rejection of an outside to the fiction is the implicit ethic that manifests itself in each of his films.
Without the solace of a reality beyond the screen, we lose the hope that one day we will discover the truth that will completely change our existence. We lose the hope that we will escape the mundane everydayness of our lives. But at the same time, we grasp the freedom that resides within our everydayness. The terrain of the fiction is the terrain where we struggle. It is the terrain on which all political change occurs. Forcing us to occupy this terrain without alternatives is the cinematic project of Christopher Nolan.
The Snare of Truth
Following and the Perfect Patsy
Spectatorship and the Belief in Truth
In terms of the conditions of its production, Following (1998) stands out among Christopher Nolan’s films. It was made on a series of weekends over a year while Nolan and the film’s cast and crew worked regular jobs during the week. Constrained by a $6,000 budget, Nolan got along with mostly natural light, 16 mm film stock, and amateur actors. These limitations would seem to preclude any comparison with the $185 million Dark Knight (2008). But differences in the conditions of production have not changed Nolan’s overriding interest—the use of cinema for the exploration of the lie. Like each of his later films, Nolan’s first feature highlights the ontological priority of the lie over the truth. This is apparent even in the opening frames, where Nolan begins with a sequence meant to mislead the spectator.
The opening images of the film are a series of close-ups of an anonymous pair of hands and a group of small objects that we see the hands assemble in a box. In one sense, the sequence hints at a truth that will only become fully evident later in the film. The latex gloves on the hands and the manner in which the items in the box are assembled suggest that someone is carefully arranging the box so that someone else will discover it and find significance in its items. Later, this allows the spectator both to see through the discovery of the hidden box while Bill (Jeremy Theobald) and Cobb (Alex Haw) are searching through an apartment looking for the occupant’s secret and also to grasp Bill’s error when he finds the hidden box of the woman known only as the Blonde (Lucy Russell). When Cobb announces that almost everyone has such a box and that it holds the secret to the essence of his or her being, we can recall this opening sequence and doubt his claim.
By showing us the box and its carefully chosen items as a construct, the film allows us to be skeptical about what we will subsequently see and thereby offers us an insight into the truth. But in another sense, this truth remains within a larger deception. Using latex gloves in order to leave no trace, we see later that Cobb has designed the box to seduce Bill with the allure of a hidden secret, but the revelation of this fiction is actually part of another fiction that leads to Bill becoming the only suspect in a murder investigation. Cobb did indeed set up the box for Bill to find, but his larger deception depends on Bill becoming aware of this and thereby believing that he has discovered the truth. For both Bill and the spectator, the first images of the film deceive precisely at the moment when they appear to offer an otherwise hidden truth.
As the structure of Nolan’s film shows, the truth inevitably works in service of some more fundamental lie, and it is the belief in the ontological priority of truth that blinds us to the way that the lie structures and informs our existence. The film attempts to reveal to us how this blindness functions and how we might find a way out of it. Following reveals that truth exists within the structure of a lie. It does this by depicting the complete failure that results from a strict belief in the priority of truth. Bill’s practice of following (trailing random strangers in order to learn about their lives) has its basis in his faith in truth—that the truth of someone is hidden somewhere within their secret activities and hidden possessions. He becomes the dupe of Cobb and the Blonde because he invests himself in the project of uncovering the truth they introduce to him. In all these actions, Bill functions as a stand-in for the cinematic spectator who refuses to acquiesce to the primacy of the illusion that film provides and who rather seeks a truth beyond that illusion. Following makes clear that there is a truth in and of the illusion that we can understand, but there is no truth beyond it. The belief in this version of truth creates an inescapable trap just like the one that snares Bill at the end of the film.
The conception of truth that the film opposes—and that Bill evinces—is an association of truth with wholeness and independence. Truth, according to this idea, opposes falsity and has nothing to do with it. Truth represents a separate region, integral to itself, that is self-sustaining. When one knows something truthfully, one has an immediate or direct grasp of this truth. This is an attitude that Hegel criticizes in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, an attitude that conceives truth as “a minted coin that can be given and pocketed ready-made.” One passes from ignorance or deception to truth, but neither ignorance nor deception mediate truth. It exists on its own and can be acquired, just like any other object. Bill’s conception of truth is widespread—it is the commonsensical position—but it is also the key to his complete deception. As Nolan’s film shows, the standard notion of truth leaves us unfailingly in error.
Following focuses on Bill, an unemployed fledgling writer with little to occupy him. Several shots early in the film depict him spending much of this time walking through crowds and finding people with an interesting look, whom he then decides to follow or shadow in order to learn what is essential about them. Soon, however, a man whom he is following, Cobb, notices him in a café and interrogates Bill about the practice of following. This leads to a partnership between Bill and Cobb, in which they break into apartments, commit minor thefts, and look for hidden items that would reveal the secrets of the people who live there. After Bill falls for a woman, the Blonde, whose apartment they had entered, he begins a romantic relationship with her. She then convinces Bill to break into her former boyfriend’s office to steal some money and compromising pictures of her. Unbeknownst to the Blonde, by doing so she helps to frame Bill for her own murder, which Cobb will commit, leaving clues about Bill’s guilt and using the same methods that Bill did while breaking into the office. Bill’s confession to the police begins and ends the film, and his decision to tell the truth to them provides the key to the case against him. The effectiveness of Cobb’s lie, the frame-up of Bill, requires Bill’s belief in the ultimate primacy of the truth, and it is this belief that animates Bill’s behavior throughout the film and that ultimately dooms him. The problem is the difficulty involved in avowing the ontological priority of the lie.
The central position that confession occupies in Following is one of many signals of the film’s fundamental affinity with film noir. Perhaps more than any other Nolan film, it is firmly in the noir tradition. Like Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) at the beginning and end of Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Bill confesses the truth in order to right himself with a figure of authority. Walter Neff wants to justify himself in the eyes of Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), and Bill wants to exculpate himself in front of the police. The difference concerns the status of the confession: Neff’s revelation of the truth does provide a moment of catharsis for him in which he and Keyes express their mutual love, while Bill’s confession of the truth ends up implicating him in the Blonde’s murder. This indicates in a microcosm how Nolan moves beyond film noir in his affirmation of the priority of the lie relative to truth. In film noir, there remains a space for truth outside the deception that embroils the noir hero, and this space emerges through the hero’s confession, which is often a fixture of the noir style. But Nolan cannot insist on the priority of the lie without running into structural difficulties that film noir, with its ultimate affirmation of truth as a realm separated from deception, can avoid.
The most evident barrier to revealing the priority of deception is the liar’s paradox. According to this paradox, in the act of depicting the priority of deception, one presents a truth. Consequently, even films that overtly devote themselves to a lie end up presenting the truth about deceit. According to the liar’s paradox, one cannot say, “I am lying,” while continuing to do so. If the statement is true, then it’s false, and if it’s false, then it’s true. Demonstrating the ontological priority of the lie in a film would appear to run aground on this paradox. A film that proclaims its deceitfulness becomes, even against the intentions of the filmmaker, a cinema of truth. But there is a solution to the liar’s paradox, supplied by Jacques Lacan, that enables Nolan to depict the priority of the deceit. Lacan identifies a split within the speaking subject between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the statement, which means that the one who speaks is not identical with the “I” in the spoken statement. I can truthfully proclaim that “I am a liar” because I am distinct from this spoken “I.” In the same way, Following can reveal the priority of deceit in the statement without investing itself in the statement’s truth.
We Are in What We See
Following depicts the investment in truth functioning within a controlling fiction. This investment manifests itself in the ruling metaphor of the film—the box of secrets. The box of secrets represents what Plato calls the agalma, the secret treasure that the subject has and that attracts the desire of others. According to Nolan’s metaphor (which follows Plato’s), our interest in others (and in the cinema) derives from the idea of a box of secrets that we believe them to possess—a hidden knowledge of what is most singular about them. When Cobb takes Bill on his first break in, he introduces the box as the raison d’être of the break-in. The box, like the diary, does not hold ordinary valuables but the little treasures that reveal what a person holds most precious. These treasures represent the owners’ hidden desire, the essential kernel of their being. As Cobb explains to Bill, “Everyone has a box. . . . Sort of an unconscious collection, a display. . . . Each thing tells something very intimate about the people. We’re very privileged to see it. It’s very rare.” Seeing the box involves seeing what the Other is when no one is looking. In this sense, it gives the onlooker an impossible perspective on the Other. Cobb builds up the importance of the secret box for both Bill and the spectator, but, as the film ultimately reveals, he has himself put the various items in the boxes that Bill and he discover. Rather than containing the hidden desire of some stranger, the box is a lie meant to attract Bill’s desire and to seduce him.
The illusoriness of the secret box is evident visually at the very moment Cobb proclaims its sublime value. As he is looking through the box, the camera stays focused on him in a medium shot and never reverts to a close-up of the “unconscious collection.” The angle of the camera never allows the spectator to make out clearly what the specific objects are. After we see Cobb rifle through the box, he dumps it unceremoniously on the floor. Though he explains this act as a way to let the person know that “someone has seen it” and thereby “make them see all the things they took for granted,” the nonchalance evinced in the visual image contradicts this claim. But this justification convinces Bill and puts him on the trail of other secret boxes, in hopes of penetrating the impossible mystery of otherness.
The point is not that the secret box as such does not exist, that there is no hidden kernel of the Other’s being, but that even this hidden kernel takes our desire into account. The truth of the Other is a lie meant to seduce us in the way that the idea of the secret box seduces Bill. Even the Other’s secret is created with the idea that someone will discover it; there is no such thing as the Other when no subject is looking. Bill falls victim to the power of the box because he fails to think through his own involvement in what he sees. He accepts the world he discovers as a reservoir of truth that simply shows itself rather than as a fiction that he must interpret. His failure is a failure of interpretation.
Bill’s failure is also that of the cinematic spectator. The position that Bill takes up when he follows parallels the position of the spectator in the cinema. Cobb is able to seduce Bill into his trap because Bill fails to recognize that the person he is following and the world that he is observing takes his presence into account. He is not simply looking at a world waiting to be seen but rather one structured around his act of looking. The objective truth of the world includes within it the subjective fiction that Bill provides when he looks, though he remains completely unaware of the fictional dimension of what he sees. Bill’s desires are part of what he sees, shaping his field of vision rather than existing distinct from it. This becomes clearest when the Blonde reveals to Bill toward the end of the film that Cobb had actually been following him. This shocks Bill because he follows without any awareness of his involvement in what he sees. Similarly, the cinematic spectator is structurally blinded to the way that the film includes the position of spectatorship. Like the world that Bill looks at and attempts to figure out, the filmic world is not simply there to be seen; instead, it shows itself to the spectator’s look.
Nolan indicates the subject’s involvement in what is seen early in the film when Bill’s voice-over explains what the act of following entails. He does this through the way he edits together Bill’s voice-over and the images that this voice-over narrates. The images during this description show the Blonde coming out of her apartment, and Bill looking up at her from across the street. In the voice-over, Bill states, “Other people are interesting to me. Have you never listened to other people’s conversations on the bus or on the Tube, seen people, seen somebody on the street that looks interesting or is behaving slightly . . . oddly or something like that, and wondering what their lives involved, what they do, where they come from, where they go to?” As Bill provides this explanation, the editing in the film makes clear that Bill is not just an observer but also part of what he sees: the film’s visuals belie his voice-over account of following.
At first, the narration and the images seem to coordinate, as one would expect. As Bill poses the question about seeing “somebody on the street that looks interesting,” the film shows the Blonde walking on the sidewalk and entering a club. But when Bill pauses in the middle of describing the behavior of the person he watches, Nolan cuts to a reverse shot of Bill looking at the woman entering, so that the word “oddly” in his description is not attached visually to the Blonde he is following but to Bill himself—that is, the person who is looking. Through this unexpected cut, the film emphasizes the subjectivity of the follower, not the object being followed. The odd behavior, the peculiarity, is the act of following itself, not what the follower sees. By emphasizing the subjectivity of the follower in this way, the film makes clear that what the follower—or the filmgoer—sees is not simply there to be seen but is also a product of the act of looking. The spectator’s way of looking, the desire informing the look, shapes what the spectator sees, even though the spectator cannot see this distortion.
This is one of the moments where Nolan’s cinema touches explicitly on Hegel’s thought. Hegel wants to recognize our blindness to how desire shapes our look. To this end, he proposes a philosophy in which, as he famously puts it in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” The subject’s desire is not independent of the truth that it discovers but rather inextricably linked to that truth. Yet this is the most difficult thing to grasp because the subject can recognize the distortion produced by its desire only through the vehicle of that distortion itself. There is no position outside the distortion where the subject can have direct access to truth, which is why Hegel sees philosophy as the exploration of a series of increasingly complex distortions. Rather than seeking out a position outside, the subject must work through its distortions. Bill fails to do this, but Nolan’s film offers the spectator the opportunity to recognize this failure and thereby adopt a different attitude to the distortion. Like Hegel, the spectator of the Nolan film can see how the scene doesn’t simply exist on its own but has been set for us.
Bill’s blindness to the staging of each scene for his look leads him to believe that his interventions are the result of his own agency rather than of the script laid out for him. For example, when he goes on his first break-in with Cobb, Cobb looks under the doormat for the key and then proceeds to use a pick for the lock after he doesn’t find one there. Bill expresses disbelief at the idea of someone leaving a key under the doormat. He wonders, “People don’t really to that, do they?” As Cobb works on the lock, Bill searches elsewhere for a hidden spare key and eventually finds one above the doorframe. Cobb’s exclamation—“Beginner’s luck!”—confirms the self-satisfaction that this discovery provokes in Bill, who at this point is convinced of his own ingenuity. But he doesn’t see how Cobb’s gesture of searching under the doormat induced him to look for the key planted above the door frame by Cobb for him to find. In the shot that shows Bill discovering the key, Nolan depicts him reaching over Cobb so that their bodies partially overlap in the image. This conjuncture in the image parallels the one that Bill fails to notice in the plot. Finding the key is part of Cobb’s script that Bill cannot see because he fails to grasp how the world that he sees includes him within it and anticipates his involvement, even though he experiences this involvement as the product of his own free act.
The next break-in that we see in the film reveals the extent of the divorce that Bill experiences between himself and what he sees. After Cobb tells Bill to find a suitable apartment for their subsequent break-in, Bill decides on his own apartment as the target. He hides a key under a doormat and leads Cobb inside after they find it. Bill sets up his own apartment in this way because he wants Cobb to discover the secret of his being that Bill himself doesn’t know. This reflects his belief in the complete separation between the seer and the seen: accompanying the insightful Cobb, Bill is convinced that he will see himself from a neutral position, without the distortion that comes from his own act of seeing. He leads Cobb to his own apartment because he believes in the possibility of seeing without the distorting fiction of desire. The insights of Cobb promise a pure truth untainted by illusion. But Cobb, knowing that this is a setup, disappoints Bill with his response.
Initially, Cobb treats Bill’s apartment like any other place that they would explore. He looks over Bill’s things and evaluates their worth, but he soon begins to attack Bill for his choice of targets. He tells Bill that “there’s fuck-all here,” complains that the television is “fucking worthless,” and concludes that the occupant is “a sad fucker with no social life.” When he discovers a UB (a book for unemployment benefits), he picks it up and slaps Bill twice across the face with it. As he walks out of the apartment, Cobb proclaims, “We’re not going to take anything. I don’t feel like scrounging off some poor dole head.” This reaction devastates Bill. Bill set up the break-in to discover the truth of his being, what was most valuable and essential about himself, but Cobb responds by finding nothing valuable and rejecting the very idea of the search. In the final shot of this scene, we see Bill following Cobb down the stairs from his apartment with a disappointed look on his face. The despondency that he displays throughout the scene as Cobb denigrates the apartment’s occupant attests to his failure to see himself objectively through a neutral look. Rather than seeing something of value in Bill, the neutral look disdains everything that it sees.
But of course Cobb’s look is not a neutral look; he knows that he is looking at Bill’s apartment and responds in a way that he knows will disappoint Bill. Doing so—producing this dissatisfaction—further draws Bill into Cobb’s plan that ultimately will frame Bill for the murder of the Blonde. But it is not just happenstance that dooms Bill’s attempt to see himself from a neutral perspective. Even if Cobb had not known that this was Bill’s apartment, even if someone else not trying to frame Bill was looking, Bill would still not be able to see himself in the way he wants to be seen. There is no looking that does not involve desire that distorts it, and Bill’s desire for a neutral look will necessarily taint any apparently neutral look that he discovers.
Though Bill fails to perceive his own involvement in what he sees, it becomes clear that what he looks for in the people he follows and in the apartments he breaks into is a part of himself. Bill submerges his own identity and desires when he commits himself to following someone, and he easily assimilates himself to Cobb’s project of breaking into various apartments. The film shows him lacking a distinctive presence. And yet all of his actions in the film—the following, the break-ins with Cobb, the romance with the Blonde—have as their aim the discovery of what is essential about himself, the foundation of his being. What he fails to see is that this essence or foundation is not separate from his desiring look but rather inheres in it. What we desire is what we are doing as we are looking for the object of our desire. The truth of our being is not waiting for us to see it; it resides in the distorting fiction of our desire that makes it impossible for us to see the world just as it is.
This does not mean that every vision of the world is relative, that the only truth is relativity itself. Such a verdict sustains the separation of the subject and what is seen that hampers Bill in the film. Identifying the necessary fiction produced by our desiring subjectivity allows us to change the location of truth. It does not exist in the world itself (as objectivism or empiricism would have it) or in the subject (as relativism or subjective idealism would have it). Instead, truth exists in the distortion itself. The truth of our being is in the fictional turn through which we ground the objective world. Though Bill remains completely unaware of this truth throughout Following, the film makes a point of his unawareness and thereby foments spectators’ recognition of the truth of their spectatorship.
Bill’s inability to see the world objectively despite all his efforts has an analogue in the spectator’s relationship to the film. Nolan structures the temporality of the film so that the spectator experiences a distortion that appears to hide a truth while actually expressing that truth. That is to say, the film’s distorted temporality appears to hide a true linear temporality waiting to be unraveled, but in fact the distorted temporality itself—the form that the distortion takes—holds the key to understanding the film’s insistence on the priority of fiction in relation to truth.
As in his subsequent film, Memento (2000) (though to a lesser extent), Nolan disrupts typical forward-moving chronology in Following. Though the beginning and end of the film mark the chronological starting and ending points, what occurs in between often defies linear ordering. This becomes most noticeable when we see Bill appear with a black eye and cut lip that he never received in prior scenes. Bill’s face changes from scene to scene before we actually see the beating itself, which occurs very late in the film. The disruptions of linear chronology are for the most part obvious and don’t materially interfere with the spectator’s ability to follow the film’s story. But Nolan includes these disruptions to place the spectator in exactly the same position that Bill occupies within the film’s reality—following a world that appears to hide a deeper truth. For Bill, that truth is the essence of the person he follows, while for the spectator, it is the film’s story hidden beneath its nonlinear discourse.
One’s first instinct when confronted with a film constructed in a nonchronological order is to mentally restore a linear chronology to the events. Some take this even further by projecting reedited versions of nonchronological films in a proper chronological order. Soon after the release of Memento, there were special screenings set up to eliminate the reverse chronology and show the film taking place in a forward-moving temporality. Even if we didn’t attend such a special screening or buy a DVD that could play the film chronologically, we undoubtedly performed a similar mental operation, rearranging what we saw in order to make sense of the causal relationships between the events. Without chronology, we cannot think in the traditional terms of causality. The experience of forward-moving time provides the basis for understanding how one event causes another.
In the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant links our ability to make causal determinations to our ability to think objectively. We can distinguish the objective world from pure subjective illusion because causality (and other categories) governs the former. Without formal rules like causality, we would have no guarantee concerning the objective status of what we were experiencing. Causality, with its basis in chronology, connects our experience to that of everyone else and assures us that we are not living within our own private subjective illusion. As Kant puts it in the Transcendental Analytic of the first Critique, “Objective significance is conferred on our representations only insofar as a certain order in their temporal relation is necessary.” The causal relations present in linear chronology provide the ultimate assurance: causality functions for Kant as a guarantee of our connection to a world beyond our own desire.
According to the logic of Following, it is precisely this step to a purely objective significance that is disallowed. Because there is no linear chronology, there is no traditional causality in the filmic discourse—and thus no objectivity. In this sense, Nolan’s film is anti-Kantian: the path to objectivity does not consist in discovering transcendental rules ensuring that we have escaped mere subjective illusion but rather in the subjective origin of the transcendental rules themselves. Just as there is no proper chronology existing beneath the nonlinear chronology the film presents, there is no objective significance that exists outside subjective fiction. Instead, objective significance or truth exists based on a subjective fiction. Finding the truth does not involve escaping the subjective distortion of desire (as Bill believes) but rather working through this distortion and grasping its formative power. The distortion has a truth that becomes visible when we recognize its foundational status.
In order to understand the film, one need not reconstruct the “true” linear chronology. One must instead follow the logic of the connections in the distorted order that Nolan presents them to us. Rather than showing a linear causality tied to the temporality of the clock, he edits the film in a way that stresses the logic of desire. Bill’s desire continues in the same path, and this path is constituted through the series of dissatisfactions he encounters. Each movement forward in the narrative represents an attempt to resolve a problem of desire that develops, though these movements defy linear chronology.
For instance, after we see Bill arranging the break-in at his own apartment and the disappointment that results, Nolan cuts to a scene chronologically out of order that shows Bill visiting the Blonde at her apartment after they’ve become romantically involved. She talks to him about the discomfort she feels about a recent burglary, focusing not on what she has lost but on the feeling of someone seeing her private self. She tells him, “It’s the personal stuff that’s worse.” The attitude that Bill evinces during this conversation demonstrates his interest in the experience of having one’s secrets seen. As the Blonde begins talking about the robbery in general, Bill’s attention wanders. Nolan shoots him looking around the room and not really paying attention to her. But when she discusses what bothers her—the fact that someone has seen and taken personal things—his expression undergoes a radical transformation, and he begins to look interested in what she has to say.
The inclusion of the scene at the Blonde’s apartment sustains the emphasis of the previous scene. The satisfaction that Bill takes in her response to the robbery contrasts with his disappointment after the staged robbery of his own apartment. The conversation with the Blonde presents a solution but at the same time generates another problem that, according to the film’s nonchronological logic, the subsequent scene must confront and attempt to solve. Though Bill experiences the thrill of the secret essence of the Blonde’s being when she recounts her feeling about a stranger accessing it, this secret remains vague and without any content until the next scene, which shows Cobb and Bill breaking into the Blonde’s apartment. Even though the actual break-in scene occurs chronologically before the conversation between Bill and the Blonde about the break-in, it comes afterward in the film because it depicts an attempted solution to the problem evident in the prior scene.
Unraveling the narrative development of Following requires identifying the logic of desire that structures it, not determining the linear chronology that it hides. The idea of a hidden linear chronology—a story waiting to be deciphered from the filmic discourse—represents a lure for the spectator, just as the secret essence of a person represents a lure for Bill. His mistake is not so much the act of following itself but the belief that following will lead to a truth independent of what he sees when he follows. Bill is trapped by the logic of linear chronology in the same way as the noir hero. Both believe that the future will bring them an object that they don’t already have rather than sustaining the desire that they already do have. When he is following, Bill sees all there is to see: the secrets of the people he follows are not hidden away within a box in their apartments but present in the places they go, the things they say, and the gestures they make. The truth of their subjectivity exists in the quotidian fictions they inhabit. Following allows us as spectators to see this truth through its depiction of Bill’s utter blindness to it.
Reading for the Truth
In contrast to Bill, Cobb shows himself capable of grasping how truth manifests itself in the form of a lie. Though Cobb is certainly the film’s villain, he also represents the site where knowledge is located in the film. While the film aligns our sympathies with Bill and his desire, it establishes Cobb as exemplary in his approach to fictionality and truth. This approach allows him to frame Bill for the Blonde’s murder without leaving any trace of his own involvement. The key to knowing the truth derives from grasping that truth exists in the way that the lie is articulated.
Through Bill’s first interaction with Cobb, the film establishes that lying does not present a barrier to truth but rather a pathway to it. After he notices Bill following him, Cobb approaches Bill in a café and sits down across from him at a table. He then interrogates Bill and quickly gathers the essential information about him, even though Bill lies to Cobb throughout the conversation. The way that Bill lies displays his intentions and desires in a way that statements of truth would not. He tells Cobb, “I wasn’t following you. I saw you with your bag. I just thought you looked interesting.” This is a direct lie. Bill was following Cobb, and he confesses this truth through his manner of lying. The way that the film shows Bill speaking undermines everything he says. The whole time that he speaks, Bill looks down and then can barely enunciate the final word “interesting.” These physical manifestations of shame permit Cobb to read the truth behind his lie and to conclude that Bill has been following him.
This revelation of the truth through the manner of telling the lie continues throughout the conversation and throughout Bill’s entire relationship with Cobb. After denying that he is pursuing Cobb out a sexual interest, Bill lies again: “To tell you the truth, I thought you were this guy that I was at school with.” Here, Bill’s insistence that he is telling the truth acts as an index of his deception. If he were not lying, he wouldn’t have to add that he is telling the truth. Then, when Cobb questions Bill about his ultimate motivations, Bill exposes the truth through his hesitation:
Cobb: There’s some burning ambition inside you, isn’t there? Something of the starving artist in you, no?
Cobb: You’re a painter?
Cobb: You’re a writer?
Cobb: Writer, eh?
Cobb quickly gleans that Bill imagines himself as a writer when, in contrast to his denials about being a painter or a photographer, he pauses before denying it, and then when Cobb repeats the question, the tone in Bill’s voice changes, expressing an excess of denial. The visual image and the audio track in the film assert a truth through their contrast with the lie in the dialogue. But it is the lie that creates the possibility of this contrast; it has a fecundity that the truth doesn’t have. Every time Bill attempts to lie, Cobb discovers a truth of Bill’s character that he would otherwise not have known. The lie functions as a mode of access to the truth, and it is Cobb, the film’s villain, who recognizes this.
Reading the truth through another’s lies—Cobb’s approach to Bill—is an everyday practice that most of us engage in. In his attempt to demonstrate the penetration of psychoanalytic principles into our daily interactions, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud contends that we constantly interpret the slips, pauses, expressions, and gestures of our interlocutors in order to discover the truth that their words hide. He notes, “It can in fact be said quite generally that everyone is continually practising psychical analysis on his neighbours and consequently learns to know them better than they know themselves.” This quotidian version of psychoanalysis permits us to understand what others desire when their words work to veil their desire, and as a result, we can respond to their desire rather than the public fiction they present.
We often don’t know significant details of our friends’ lives—their political views, their religious beliefs, and so on—because we focus on knowing their desire. Most conversations are not efforts to uncover information about the lives of our interlocutors but to see where their desire resides. Our lack of knowledge of the other aspects of our friends’ lives can thus be the sign of true friendship. Without this ability to read the desire of others through their words, we would constantly find ourselves the victims of the crudest deceptions and cruelest disappointments. We would mistake disinterest for caring, civility for concern, and even love for friendship. The capacity for reading the truth through the lie is essential for our being in the world, and Following aims to highlight its importance.
The ability to read the truth through another’s lies does not simply uncover the truth that the person hides from the world. It also can uncover the truth that the person hides from her- or himself. In the act of creating a public fiction to cover our private thoughts and desires, we expose to others thoughts and desires unbeknownst to ourselves. The truth manifested in the unintentional gestures that accompany our lies is a truth that others know before we do. As Freud points out, “Actions carried out unintentionally must inevitably become the source of misunderstandings in human relations. The agent, who knows nothing of there being an intention connected with these actions, does not feel that they are chargeable to him and does not hold himself responsible for them. The second party, on the other hand, since he regularly bases his conclusions as to the agent’s intentions and sentiments on such actions among others, knows more of the other’s psychical process than that person himself is ready to admit or believes he has communicated.” Through all of our unintentional actions, we reveal more of ourselves to others than we do to ourselves. No matter how well we lie to ourselves, the truth of our desire necessarily manifests itself to others.
The ontological priority of the fiction in relation to truth has a parallel in the priority of the Other relative to the subject. Others know the truth of the subject before the subject does because this truth reveals itself through various errors and gestures that the subject performs unconsciously. The idea of a meaning behind what we say necessarily blinds us to all the ways that we say something other than what we consciously mean. Through our effort to communicate a meaning to others, we expose to them the unconscious truth of desire. They have access to this truth before we do, if they know how to interpret the fiction that we present. If they want to understand what we are saying, they must interpret the desire that animates the fiction, which is what the psychoanalyst attempts to do.
Through the way that he structures Following, Nolan establishes this interpretive imperative as a model for cinematic spectatorship. The proper spectator of the film must see the truth of the desire articulated by the filmic fiction. This is not the truth of the filmic story; one does not arrive at it by figuring out the plot or solving the mystery that the film presents. It is instead the truth of the filmic discourse itself. The structure of every filmic discourse exposes a desire, and this is the desire that animates the film. By focusing on this desire, the spectator can discover the unconscious truth of the social order itself.
The Negation of Noir
The fundamental mode of deception is the act of revealing the truth. This type of deception occurs all the time in the cinema, especially in twist films, which rely on a surprise ending to reorient spectators’ perception of what they have just seen. The twist reveals the lie that has occurred throughout the film by introducing new information that makes the spectator aware of this deception. For instance, The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004) concludes with the revelation that the film takes place in the contemporary world despite the premodern setting that it presents to spectators. The awareness of this truth forces spectators to reinterpret everything that they have seen and to understand how the film has deceived them. One leaves the film with a sense of having separated the truth of the film from its deceptive appearance. But this involves an even greater deceit. The twist film appears to affirm the priority of the deception, but the final revelation of truth locates the deception within the structure of truth, thereby obscuring the priority of the fiction.
Like The Village and other twist films, Following concludes with a revelation that forces spectators to reevaluate everything that they have seen. After robbing the Blonde’s ex-boyfriend and discovering that the pictures of her were not at all compromising, Bill goes to her apartment to confront her. She proceeds to divulge the truth of the scheme, revealing that Bill has served as Cobb’s patsy. During a break-in, she explains, Cobb discovered the body of a murdered woman and the police suspected him. By having the Blonde convince Bill to break in using the technique and using the claw hammer as his weapon, Cobb is able to divert suspicion away from himself and onto Bill. The Blonde reveals that Cobb was actually following Bill at the moment when Bill thought he was following Cobb, and that their break-ins were staged. She avows that even the romance between Bill and herself was part of the trap. Nolan shoots the Blonde’s revelation in a darkened scene that takes place at her apartment—an intimate setting that suggests the revelation of a long-hidden truth, which is confirmed by her free and mocking manner. This confession, like the revelation at the end of The Village that the setting is the contemporary world, forces a reinterpretation of the earlier events of the film.
The story that the Blonde gives to Bill functions in the film as the revelation of the truth, but this revelation turns out to be, unbeknownst to even the Blonde herself, yet another deception. Hence, unlike in The Village, here we see the triumph of the lie over truth, and when Bill attempts to confess the truth to the police at the end of the film, he assures the ultimate victory of Cobb’s fiction, which frames him not for the murder of an old woman but for that of the Blonde, killed later by Cobb himself. Bill’s response to what he believes to be truth with the revelation of truth effectively enacts a self-condemnation. His misrecognition of the Blonde’s revelation for the revelation of truth leaves him completely at the mercy of Cobb’s manipulation. Nolan’s hero is effectively guilty—not for the murder that the police attribute to him, but for his investment in an idea of truth distinct from fiction.
The Blonde’s confession in her half-lit apartment suggests the history of similar confessions in film noir. Like Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) confessing to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) that she simply used him and never loved him amid the chiaroscuro lighting that half-illuminates her house or like Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) revealing to Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) the truth of her perfidy against the background of dusk setting on a lake, the Blonde’s explanation of the plot that ensnared Bill occurs in an amalgam of light and darkness. Nolan’s use of side lighting often leaves half of the image dark and the other half bright, sometimes even dividing characters in two. By echoing the lighting patterns used during the femme fatale’s confession of truth and by replicating the dynamics of these confessions with Bill and the Blonde, Nolan aligns the Blonde’s explanation with the revelation of truth. Admitting that Cobb hatched the plot, she tells Bill, “It was for a friend. The police think he did something, and he didn’t. So he needs a decoy, another likely suspect, someone caught robbing a place using the same way he does it, his methods. . . . He broke into a place a couple of weeks ago. He found an old lady bashed to death. He ran off. Someone saw him. Couple of days later the police called him in for questioning. They think he killed her.” By establishing Bill as his patsy, Cobb will exculpate himself in the eyes of the police. Like the noir hero, Bill finds himself in an impossible position after hearing this truth.
As the Blonde reveals Cobb’s plan to Bill, he becomes angry and decides to reveal everything to the police, despite the crimes—including breaking and entering and robbery—in which this revelation would implicate him. Though he knows that a confession will have negative ramifications for himself, he is also convinced that the truth will function as the final word. He claims, “I’m going to tell them everything. They’ll believe me because it’s the truth.” When the Blonde points out that she will simply lie when the police question her, Bill responds, “Your lies won’t stand up to the truth.” But Bill’s conviction that the truth will be decisive is itself part of Cobb’s plan. The Blonde’s version of the plan, while correctly noting that Cobb was using Bill, is yet another deceit. Even though it appears in the form of a confession of truth and even though Nolan signals its truth value cinematically (through the echoes of film noir), the revelation functions as the final trap for Bill. Because Bill expects to find a hidden truth, Cobb provides one for him, and his response to this truth—offering the police his own version of the truth—ends up confirming Cobb’s lie.
If Bill had not gone to the police to confess the truth, Cobb’s plan—killing the Blonde for her ex-boyfriend and pinning the murder on Bill—would not have been assured of success. Bill’s confession about robbing the ex-boyfriend and about his involvement with the Blonde tied him to her and to her murder. Since the police can find no trace of Cobb’s existence, all of Bill’s stories about him and his plot strike them as fanciful. The plot works perfectly because Bill believes that appearances are hiding something. The avocation that he explains at the beginning of the film—following—is predicated on the idea of a hidden truth and a failure to see truth in appearances themselves, which makes him the perfect patsy for Cobb. His explanation of this hobby in voice-over itself evinces his failure and its parallel in cinematic spectatorship.
One of the most common repositories for truth in classical cinema is the voice-over. The voice-over most often provides an objective account of the filmic situation, and even when it is subjective, as in film noir, it typically functions as a confession revealing the truth of what has occurred. It articulates truth because it remains in a position of authority outside the image. As Kaja Silverman notes in her discussion of the cinematic voice, “Interiority implies discursive dependency, and exteriority discursive authority.” Both the external position of the voice-over relative to the image and the film’s narrative facilitates its identification with truth, and this identification is taken up in Following.
The film begins with Bill’s voice-over description of the act of following, which is, we learn, part of his confession to the police. This confession also concludes the film. The voice-over status and the confessional mode of Bill’s speech have the effect of underlining its truth for the spectator. And in fact, Bill is speaking the truth, but his truth serves not to exculpate him but to confirm Cobb’s deception. At the end of the film, deception triumphs over truth, and it does so because the belief in truth obscures how a fiction establishes the coordinates of the struggle between Bill and Cobb. Bill’s investment in truth leaves him defenseless against the machinations of Cobb, who understands the structural priority of the lie.
Like almost every film, Following leaves the spectator with a true version of the events it depicts. We are not left uncertain about what has happened or unable to judge who has done what. In this sense, it ends in a traditional way. But it does show that the truth has no power as long as it is simply opposed to the lie. Cobb’s lie shapes the narrative trajectory, and Bill’s attempt to tell the truth does nothing but augment the lie’s efficacy. The effectiveness of Cobb’s lie depends on the expectation of Bill’s desire to confess the truth to the police. Bill believes that, even though it implicates him in certain crimes, the truth will set him free. As Nolan shows through the opposed fates of Bill and Cobb—Cobb gets away with murder, and Bill ends up framed for a crime he didn’t commit—Bill’s faith in the power of truth is misplaced. Bill follows a path to his own destruction because of this belief in truth and the corresponding failure to grasp the priority of the lie. Following depicts Bill’s error and aligns it with the parallel error of the typical cinematic spectator in order to demand a different type of spectatorship and a different type of subjectivity.
The deception of the cinema does not consist in spectators accepting the imaginary filmic world as true. It does not consist in falling for the cinematic illusion. Instead, the deception operates in the other direction, in the dismissal of the cinematic illusion and the belief that truth resides outside this illusion. Bill functions in the film as a stand-in for the deceived cinematic spectator. Cobb is able to victimize Bill in Following because Bill believes in the possibility of a truth existing beyond appearance rather than within it. Similarly, cinematic spectators become deceived spectators only insofar as they fail to see the truth of the cinematic illusion itself. The spectators that Nolan’s first film demands are those who seek the truth of the deception, not the truth behind it. His next film moves further down the same path and calls into question another central assumption of cinematic spectatorship.