In a reading of Christopher Nolan’s films (with and against texts by Poe, Wittgenstein, Searle, and Derrida), Walter Benn Michaels examines the autonomy of the work of art.
The Death of a Beautiful Woman: Christopher Nolan's Idea of Form
The Death of a Beautiful Woman: Christopher Nolan's Idea of Form
1 accidentally on purpose
Christopher Nolan’s movie Insomnia is a remake of a Norwegian movie (directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg) and, although the two movies are very much alike (as Nolan says, they have “almost the exact same plot and situations” [Prestigiacomo]), they differ in at least one important way. Both involve a senior detective and his junior partner being sent far north (from Sweden to Northern Norway in the original, from L.A. to Alaska in the remake - the point is that it’s summer and the sun never sets, which is one of the causes of their insomnia) to catch the killer of a young woman. And in both the junior partner is accidentally shot and killed by the detective early on, while they are pursuing their prime suspect in the fog. Trying to explain how his partner died, the Swedish detective realizes that everyone assumes the suspect shot him and, since the detective himself shouldn’t have been carrying a gun (back in Sweden he is allowed to but Norway requires special permission), he finds himself going along with the mistake. The movie, then, is as much about the cover-up as it is about catching the murderer and, in fact, the two efforts become increasingly entangled. The situation is basically the same in Nolan’s Insomnia except, that in America there are no rules against detectives carrying guns and so the need for the cover-up cannot be triggered by this violation of procedure. What Nolan substitutes for it is something much more elaborate. The American detective, Will Dormer, is being investigated back in Los Angeles for tampering with evidence and his partner has agreed to testify against him. So when the accident happens, Dormer realizes that his motive for wanting the partner dead will be immediately obvious and incriminating. Where, if the truth were known, the Scandinavian detective would be cited for having broken the rules, Dormer would be suspected of murder.
The difference between the two movies thus emerges as a difference in how to motivate the cover up of the accident, and the motive Nolan comes up with is an extremely convincing one. But, precisely because it is so convincing, it raises and makes central to the movie a question that has no place in the original - the question of whether the shooting really was accidental. The victim clearly doesn’t think so. “You tried to kill me,” he says before he dies, as Dormer leans over him. But Dormer’s reply, “I couldn’t see you in the fog,” seems right, since the scene of the shooting is shot from his point of view, and it looks like this:
It is, in other words, too foggy for either Dormer or the viewer to identify the target as his partner and it reads entirely as an accident. Which is what Nolan, in the commentary that accompanies the DVD of the film, says he was trying for - “Present it as accident the first time you see it….”
But in the commentary Nolan also praises Pacino’s acting because, “right from the get-go,” “he allows the possibility of intention to be there.” And later, after Dormer has gone without sleep for several nights and has become more and more distraught, what we see him remembering is this:
Which doesn’t exactly contradict the first shot but definitely does complicate it, not only for the audience but more importantly for Dormer himself, who by the end of the movie, no longer knows whether he meant to kill his partner or not: “I couldn’t see him through the fog but when I got up close he was afraid of me,” he says, “and he thought I meant to do it so maybe I did. I just don’t know anymore.” It makes so much sense for him to have murdered his partner that he now thinks maybe he did. Or maybe he didn’t. Dormer, as Nolan puts it in his commentary, “doesn’t know whether he did it on purpose or not.”
One way to understand Insomnia, then, is as a movie about the relation between accident and intention and about the way in which an event that is experienced by the agent as an accident and believed by him to be an accident may come to be recognized (by everyone else and by the agent too) as having been done on purpose. Freud called such events parapraxes, and although murder is a little extreme for The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (where his focus is more on revelatory slips of the tongue and the pen), Freud does extend the discussion of “accidental actions” that “are really intentional” to suicide attempts, and goes on to suggest that it’s “not a very large step” to analyze “mistakes that seriously endanger the lives and health of other people” along the same Insomnia - like lines (Freud, Psychopathology 175, 187). But, of course, the interpretive ingenuity that psychoanalysis displays in ferreting out the “unconscious intention behind the chance occurrence” (186) is not exactly required in the movie. Dormer’s motive for wanting his partner silenced is so obvious that what needs to be explained is not how the possibility that he did it intentionally can be discovered but the fact that it managed to get concealed. If he killed him on purpose and hid the truth from himself, how did he do it? How can you not know what you do? How do you hide the truth from yourself?
These questions are simultaneously psychological and epistemological, psychological in that they involve what seemed to Freud fundamental psychic operations like repression, epistemological in that repression crucially involves the refusal to know. Its “essence,” Freud says, “lies simply in the function of rejecting and keeping something out of consciousness” (“Repression,” 105). But you don’t have to be a Freudian to see the epistemological issue here. If, for example, you have “recurrent… thoughts” that are experienced as “inappropriate” and that “cause marked anxiety or stress” and if you “recognize” both that these thoughts are “a product of [your] own mind” and that they are “unreasonable” and “excessive” (i.e. that they are almost certainly not true) you are, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fourth Edition, suffering from “obsession.” The DSM emphasizes the obsessive’s recognition that the thoughts are “a product of his own mind” in part because it wants to distinguish him from the schizophrenic: the obsessive’s thoughts do not seem to the thinker to be “imposed from without as in thought insertion.” But the more fundamental point is that even though the thoughts are the thinker’s own, the thinker still thinks of them as “unreasonable.” Which is just to say that obsession is a disease of self-consciousness, or, more precisely, of self-knowledge. It is not enough, for example, to wash your hands dozens of times a day out of a fear of contamination or to go back and check over and over again whether you’ve locked the door, you must also know that your fear of contamination or of having left the door unlocked is unreasonable. A person who believes that the world is so dangerously dirty that his or her handwashing is reasonable is deluded; a person who doesn’t believe the world is that dirty but who washes his hands nevertheless is obsessive. But to put the point this way is also to misstate it. Because it’s not really as if the obsessive doesn’t believe the world is dirty; if he doesn’t believe it’s dirty, why is he washing his hands? So it seems more accurate to say something like he does believe it’s dirty but he also believes it isn’t.
The very idea of obsession thus requires something like repression and is in this sense epistemic; it’s dependent on a problem about the logic of belief. The obsessive must somehow know that he locked the door and also not know that he locked the door, an impossibility formulated with great elegance by Wittgenstein in his discussion of G.E. Moore’s famous paradox. Moore’s paradox was generated by his pointing out that it is “absurd” to say, for example, “I don’t believe it’s raining but as a matter of fact it is” but it’s not absurd to say “I didn’t believe it was raining but as a matter of fact it was” or “He doesn’t believe it’s raining but as a matter of fact it is” (Moore 209). What generates the paradox, in other words, is not the contradictory beliefs (it’s raining, it’s not raining) but the relation one has to those beliefs, the requirement that one simultaneously believe them and not believe them. The way Wittgenstein puts this is, “If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first person indicative” (Wittgenstein 190e). I cannot say, “I falsely believe it is raining”; I cannot say, “I falsely believe my door is unlocked.” And yet, if I am obsessed, I have to; that’s what it means to be obsessed.
This point is made in a slightly different way in the movie Nolan made before Insomnia, Memento. The hero of the movie, Leonard Shelby, has been accused by his friend Teddy of lying to himself, of telling himself that he is looking for his wife’s killer when, in fact, he already knows who the killer is. “You lie to yourself to be happy,” Teddy says, “We all do it” (Nolan, Memento 218). But Moore’s or Wittgenstein’s point would be that we don’t all do it, that no one does it and that in fact it can’t be done. And Leonard’s response to the accusation suggests that he gets that point. “Do I lie to myself to be happy?” he asks himself. “In your case Teddy,” he answers, “I will” (224). It’s the “I will” that marks his identification of the paradox. “I falsely believe” is an impossible formulation because it requires the speaker to know the truth (that the belief he has is false) but nevertheless to believe it; it requires, in other words, not only that he be deceived but that he be self-deceived or, just to turn it around, not only that he be a deceiver but that he deceive himself. When I lie to you, I know the truth but you, if you believe me, don’t; when you lie to me, you know the truth and I don’t. There’s no paradox. But when I lie to myself, the lying I has to know the truth while the I who is lied to doesn’t. But the lying I and the I who is lied to are the same person - that’s what makes it self-deception and that’s also what makes it paradoxical.
So when Teddy tells Leonard that he, Leonard, is himself his wife’s killer and that he has concealed this fact from himself - “You lie to yourself… You don’t want the truth” (222), Teddy says to Leonard - he is telling Leonard that he does what it doesn’t seem he can do, believe both things at once, believe what he knows to be true (that he himself killed his wife) and also believe the lie (that Teddy did). That’s the paradox. And Leonard’s response - “Do I lie to myself… I will” is a way out of the paradox. He eliminates the contradiction by changing the tense. On the photograph he has of Teddy, he writes something he knows is false, he tells a lie. Even though he believes that what Teddy has told him is true, he writes that Teddy is a liar, he tells himself not to believe Teddy’s lies. And, as the viewer of the movie knows - since this scene is almost its last and since we have already witnessed the way in which Leonard’s instruction to himself (“Don’t believe Teddy’s lies”) will bring him to the point where he believes that Teddy is his wife’s murderer and thus kills him in revenge - Leonard will believe the lie he now tells. The impossibility of the sentence “I falsely believe that Teddy killed my wife” is eliminated when the false part and the belief part are separated by time: there is nothing paradoxical about the sentence, “I will falsely believe that Teddy killed my wife.”
Of course, this elimination of the logical impossibility is made possible only by a certain empirical implausibility. The loss of memory is, for various reasons, a fundamental device for producing movies and the loss of short term memory - what Leonard calls “the ability to produce new memories” (114) - is the device that undoes the paradox of self-deception in Memento. Having been injured in the attack on his wife, Leonard can only remember things for a few minutes at a time. He takes photographs of people and writes their names on the back so he’ll know who they are and he writes notes to himself (“Natalie will help you out of pity,” “Don’t believe Teddy’s lies”) to tell himself what he has learned about them. Both the photographs and, more obviously, the notes also suggest ways of thinking about the problem of self-deception, or as it might in this context be called, self-identity. Indeed, the very idea of writing may be thought to mark the impossibility of self-identity. In the short story that inspired Memento - it’s called “Memento Mori” and was written by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan - these notes are described as “like a letter you write to yourself.” And the story itself is centered on the structural non-identity of reader and writer - even if they are the same person. “By the time you read this note, I’ll be gone,” says the writer - says every writer - to every reader. The idea here is that the loss of short-term memory is just a way of dramatizing the situation of writing as such. In Memento, the writer is just another reader of his own work - which is to say, even though he is himself the author, he has no privileged access to what the author meant because he is not in a position to remember what he meant when he produced the text; he can only, like any other reader, try to figure its meaning out.
You don’t need amnesia to see how this works. When John Searle cited the shopping list as a counter-example to Jacques Derrida’s claim that writing presupposed the “absence” of the reader - since you make the list for yourself, to take with you to the store - Derrida could plausibly reply that if the maker of a list could count on being able to remember what he was thinking when he made the list, there would be no point in making it (Limited Inc 49). It’s only because we anticipate that we won’t remember what we were thinking when we made it, which is to say, that we won’t be exactly who we were when we made it - that we make the list in the first place. Writing is thus a mark of the way in which the self is never really identical to itself. In which case, of course, self-deception is not really a problem, since the deceiving self is not after all identical to the self that’s being deceived. Leonard’s “condition,” the short term memory loss, is here understood as everyone’s condition, which is, in fact, more or less how Leonard understands it - he is “just like everyone else,” only more so, or, at least, more obviously so.
The novel (by Christopher Priest) on which Nolan’s most recent movie, The Prestige, is based both extends and modifies this scene of writing’s self-division, since a large portion of it consists of a diary (narrating the history of what is called its author’s “obsession”) containing, after the writer has read through the previous entries, utterances of shocked surprise like “I said nothing of this to me,” followed by gestures of reconciliation, “I apologize if I think I was deceiving me, and meant no harm” (44). Eventually, mollified, he writes, “I have read through it several times, & I think I understand what I am driving at,” and instructs himself to include some important details, with the remark that “Either I must do this now, or leave a note for me to find” (45). Obviously the note he imagines leaving for himself repeats Searle’s shopping list and “Memento Mori“ ‘s “letter to yourself” (not to mention Leonard Shelby’s tattoos and messages on the backs of photographs) but in The Prestige what makes sense of these formulations is not exactly temporal difference. Their author has, the movie says, a “divided” (Jonathan and Christopher Nolan 57) mind, which it represents both as a kind of fickleness and as the kind of opacity to itself that we have already noted in Insomnia’s detective. Here the character is a magician named Alfred Borden, and the fickleness is dramatized in a pair of exchanges with his wife. “I love you,” he says in the first, and she replies, “No. Not today,” going on to explain, “Some days it’s not true. Today you don’t mean it. Maybe today you’re more in love with magic than me” (32). The second time we see him say he loves her, she smiles and says, “See? Today it’s true” (57). “Part of me loved her,” Borden will later explain, “But part of me didn’t” (124).
The epistemological (as opposed to the psychological or emotional) version of the divided mind manifests itself sometimes in an utterly innocuous way - “Are we going to the zoo this afternoon, Daddy?” “Daddy’s got some business this afternoon,” “But you promised” (108) - but once also in a fatally consequential way. Early in his career, working for another magician, Borden cannot say which of two knots he used to tie the hands of the magician’s female assistant who, unable to undo whichever one he tied, drowns in the tank of water from which she was supposed to be able to escape. “I just don’t know,” he says when the assistant’s husband demands the truth, and later, to himself, he says the same: “I told him the truth…. that I’ve fought with myself over that night… one half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slip knot… the other half convinced that I tied the Langford double. I can never know for sure - ” (39).
Obviously, the magician’s inability to know what he has done recalls the detective’s inability to know what he did in Insomnia, and his “divided” mind recalls the amnesia that separates Leonard from himself in Memento, making it possible for the same person both to believe something and to believe that his belief is false. But in The Prestige the device that performs this function is a twin brother. There are two Bordens, and the movie thus belongs to the tradition of the double, which Freud, in his essay on “The Uncanny,” analyzes as a function of “the opposition… between the ego and whatever is unconscious or repressed” (161). The double is the embodiment of “content” that “the ego” “ejects… as something alien” (143). In The Prestige, however, the appearance of the double marks not the return of the repressed but the return of the problem of repression, which is to say, of the problem of self-deception. How can one person know and not know something at the same time? Like amnesia (but more directly), the double - the division of one self into two, the separation of conscious from unconscious - offers an answer to that question.
Whether that answer is a satisfactory one is, of course, another question. The classic criticism is that it doesn’t so much solve the problem as reproduce it since for consciousness to repress material it finds undesirable, it must - in order to find it undesirable - be conscious of it. From this standpoint, the splitting of the self into little homunculi (the ego and the unconscious, or different drives, or whatever) just confronts each of them with the paradox that had previously confronted the self as a whole.The locus classicus of this objection to Freud is Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which has itself been criticized (by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen) as relying “on the postulate” of the subject’s “unity” and thus misjudging “from the outset” “the most incontrovertible contribution of psychoanalyis,” i.e. its critique of that unity (7). Boag provides a useful summary of more recent attempts to meet Sartre’s objection (and himself proposes another solution). It should be obvious, however, that my own interest here is not in solving the problem of self-deception but in analyzing its meaning for Nolan’s movies and, more generally, for the problem of form. It might also be observed that a distinctively Lacanian approach to these questions would be relevant to the discussion of the letter to yourself and also to the discussion of Poe at the end of this essay, and that the coherence of Lacan’s notion of the “pure signifier” would be at issue. And, of course, The Prestige acknowledges this by making its homunculi literally different people. From this standpoint, The Prestige’s brothers function both as an allegory of self-deception and as a literalisation of the difficulty of conceptualizing it. But whether or not that difficulty is overcome, it cannot be bypassed because it’s not just that the particular trick which dominates the movie - one or another version of what gets called “The Transported Man” - requires a double, it’s also that, according to the movie, the very idea of a magic trick depends upon the ability of the audience to deceive itself, to decide what it will allow itself to know and thus to decide what it will not know. Magic tricks themselves are a form of self-deception.
Why should this be? It’s the magician who deceives the audience, not the audience that deceives itself. Except that, as The Prestige presents it, the audience must collaborate in this deception. The movie begins and ends with a voice-over account of the three parts of a magic trick (the pledge - you show the audience something, say a canary; the turn - you do something to the canary, say, make it disappear; and the prestige - you bring the canary back) and a description of the audience’s response - “Now you’re looking for the secret… But you won’t find it…” (6,149). Why won’t you find it? Not because you can’t, the movie says, but because you don’t want to. “You don’t really want to know” (and these are its last words), “you want to be fooled” (6-7, 150). The magic trick solicits the audience’s participation in the form of its willed ignorance. And indeed, according to Nolan, the movie does too. “I think film makers now provide a lot of what stage magicians” used to, he says, and “There is a lot of similarity with the methodology and the way in which a trick or set of tricks is presented to the audience” (Interview). So movies as works of art - at least insofar as the work of art is a “trick” - invite the audience not to know, and Nolan’s movies, inasmuch as they are themselves about the conditions of not knowing, require their viewers to replicate the refusal of knowledge required also of their central figures.
3 reading and rereading
But in a movie you can’t trick people with magic. In real life, a magician who makes himself disappear and reappear somewhere else has fooled his audience into thinking that he has done something they know he cannot do. And it’s possible that when
in 1898 (in the short film “Un Homme de Tetes”) the magician turned film-maker Georges Méliès showed a magician removing his head, putting it on a table, finding a new head on his shoulders where the old one had been, repeating the act several times, and singing a song with all the heads, his audience was similarly fooled.
But now, as Nolan says, stage magic “can’t work on film. People are aware of camera trickery and all the rest” (Murray). The apparent violation of the laws of nature is too transparently a fulfillment of those laws as they apply to film. That film can be edited is part of what film is; that it can show you impossible things is equally a part of what it is. And the point is not just that we are no longer fooled by such special effects; it’s that no one is supposed to be fooled by special effects.
There is, in other words, no effort to deceive the audience when in movies people vanish or fly or do otherwise impossible things. The point of special effects is to provide the audience with the illusion of (say) flying in the sense of providing it with a compelling representation of what it would be like if a person could fly, not in the sense of fooling them into believing that the person in question really is flying. The Prestige insists on this point first by not using even the most minimal of special effects when they might be helpful and, second, by deploying them instead when they’re entirely beside the point. Thus the movie withholds from us the knowledge that Alfred Borden has an identical twin; the brothers appear together only when one of them is completely disguised and even after the secret has been revealed, they are shown together as one takes off and the other puts on the disguise they use - the emphasis is on how the disguise (a wig, a moustache) can make them look different not on how film can make them identical.
Still more to the point, when their great rival, Angier hires a double, the trick is that the double does not look much like him, even though he is played by the same actor. And when - through make-up and practice - the double finally does come to look and act like Angier, the audience is, of course, entirely aware that the illusion of two Hugh Jackmans on film is a reality that the medium makes easily available. The effort to fool the audience involves the disguise that makes Jackman look different not the special effects that allow him to look the same.
Insofar, then, as the movie is understood by Nolan as a version of the magic act - as a trick - magic cannot be a part of that trick. From the standpoint of the magic trick, the revelation that Borden has a twin brother would ruin the effect. From the standpoint of the movie, that same revelation is the effect. It is a crucial element of the movie’s surprise ending, a plot device - often criticized as a gimmick - that is fundamental also to Memento and to Nolan’s first movie, Following. Following, in fact, has two surprise endings. The first involves the main character discovering that he has been deceived by his friend and girl-friend; the second involves the surprise of the main character and the girl-friend when they discover that she too has been deceived, and it’s the second one that really counts since the second one surprises the viewer too and the surprise of the viewer is what’s crucial to the whole concept of the surprise ending. Memento only has one, but in a way it functions as two since it involves not only the discovery that the main character has been deceived but also the discovery that he has been deceived by himself. And then, it doesn’t quite end. For the climax of the movie is not the surprise ending itself (the discovery that he is self-deceived), but the act that creates the surprise ending - his decision to become self-deceived: “Do I lie to myself… I will.” The discovery of self-deception is followed by the act of self-deception, and then the act is followed by the forgetting - of both the discovery and the act. So if Following and The Prestige end with the standard epistemic climax in which everything is finally known, Memento ends with a kind of epistemic anti-climax in which not everything but the crucial thing (how Leonard’s wife died) is forgotten.
By Leonard, at least, but not, of course, by the viewer. Where in a movie like Following, the surprise ending - the ending in which everything is revealed - produces a complete identification of the viewer with the main character (we learn together the truth of the events in which he has participated and that we have witnessed), in Memento, that ending produces a deep disidentification. The point here is entirely epistemological, not moral or psychological. It’s not that, having learned the truth about Leonard, we no longer sympathize with him; it’s that we know the truth and he doesn’t. And the epistemic is, of course, fundamental to (it’s both the interest of and the problem with) the whole concept of the surprise ending. Following, for example, ends with the murder of the girl-friend but it’s not the murder that counts as the climax - it’s the girl-friend’s (and the main character’s and the viewer’s) discovery that everything till now has been, contrary to our expectations, arranged to produce this murder that is the climax. Which is to say, further, that it is epistemic not simply in that it tells us, as does any narrative, what happens next - it tells us rather, what we thought we already knew, not what will happen but what has happened. In revealing the truth, it reveals also the fact that we have not known the truth. The interest of the surprise ending is thus the way in which - making clear to us our misunderstanding - it retroactively alters our sense of our own experience as viewers.
Another way to put this might be to say that the interest of the surprise ending is that it produces - or insists upon - a discrepancy between our experience of the movie and our understanding of it: we see Teddy as sinister (“Don’t believe his lies”) in a way that we eventually discover he isn’t. But this, as I suggested a moment ago, is the problem with it as well. The surprise ending always seems like a gimmick, in the way suggested by the idea that knowing in advance how the movie ends will spoil it for you, which is why virtually every written discussion of Memento begins with a warning to the reader who hasn’t yet seen it - the ending will be revealed. The narrative theory here - a theory insisted on by the surprise ending - is also the theory announced by the movie itself, or at least by Leonard. In the most prolonged vision we get of her, we see Leonard’s wife reading a very worn and dog-eared novel. “You’ve read” that book, “like, a thousand times,” he says, “How can you read it again?” “It’s good,” she responds, “I enjoy it” (163-64).The page reference is to the screenplay, which says, “You’ve read it a hundred times.” The lines as I quote them are the ones actually used in the movie itself. But if, as Leonard goes on to say, “The pleasure of a book is in wanting to know what happens next,” what’s there for her to enjoy? Once you know what happens next, the pleasure is gone; once you can no longer be surprised, you can no longer have the experience you had; once you’ve seen the movie, you can never again see exactly that movie.
The problem here is the problem of rereading and the focus on the ending is just a particularly egregious form of it since, obviously, our rereading of any book will be in some more or less crucial way different from our first reading of it. Unless, of course, we are Leonard. For, from this standpoint, the device that makes Leonard’s self-deception possible is also a device for rescuing the pleasure of the book. Which is just to say that insofar as Memento understands short term memory loss as the solution both to the problem of self-deception and to the problem of rereading, it understands the problem of rereading as a version of the problem of self deception. If you can’t remember what you did, you can believe your lies; if you can’t remember what you read, you can wonder what happens next. Or we can turn this around and say it understands the problem of rereading as the problem of obsession and of repression. How can you wonder whether you locked the door when you know you locked the door? How can you wonder what’s going to happen next when you know what happens next?
Thus Leonard, who remembers waking up to find the bed next to him empty and going to look for his wife but cannot remember exactly what he found (he needs to read about it and every time he does he’s reading it for the first time) can restage the scene of her disappearance and still be surprised by the fact that she’s gone. When he hires a prostitute to spread his wife’s things (her hair brush, her teddy bear, the book) around the bed in his hotel room and to lie next to him while he falls asleep and to go into the bathroom, slamming the door loud enough to wake him, he experiences the scene of missing her as if for the thousandth time but is as surprised by the fact that she is truly gone as if it were the first time. The loss of short term memory is here an essentially literary device, a device to rescue the pleasure of not knowing what happens next and hence to preserve the pleasure of reading for rereading. And without that device, rereading can only seem like an obsession - washing your hands as if they are dirty even though you know they’re not, checking your pocket to make sure your keys are there even though you know they’re there, turning the pages to find out what happens next even though you know what happens next.
Finally, this obsession - as an obsession - is at the heart of The Prestige, one of whose magicians (Angier) is “obsessed” (80) with figuring out the method the other (Borden) uses to perform “The New Transported Man.” What makes this an obsession in the sense we have been describing (what makes it something more than an intense desire to know) is that it’s a desire to know something he already knows, hence a desire that depends upon him not knowing something he already knows. Angier’s associate has told him early on that Borden “uses a double,” it’s “the only way,” the trick can be done (63). And, later, when Angier announces that he’s on the verge of discovering the secret, the associate says, “I already know how he does it… the same way he always has…. You just want it to be something more” (97). And the surprise - to both Angier and the viewer - is that he does use a double. Thus although Nolan defines narrative as “the controlled release of information” (Memento 97), the surprise ending of The Prestige surprises by telling us something we already knew, releasing information that had already been released. It works the way it says the magic trick works, not by revealing a secret we couldn’t possibly have guessed but by revealing the truth of the insight it distracted us from - “he uses a double” (Prestige 63).
Indeed, this sense that the truth has been visible all along is essential to the effect of the surprise ending. What would be the point of a detective story if the reader didn’t have access to all the clues that the detective did and weren’t (at least in theory) able to figure out the mystery along with the detective? This principle is made explicit as early as Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which consists largely (and somewhat tediously) of newspaper articles on the murder, made available both to Dupin and to the reader. The point is that, given the same information, Dupin can figure the mystery out; the reader can’t. In The Prestige, however, there’s no detective and, as we’ve already seen, it’s not just that we can’t figure it out but that we don’t want to - we’re “not really looking,” we “don’t really want to know.” The idea of the movie, then, is not to display its hero’s ingenuity or to provide an occasion for its viewer to display his or her own ingenuity. It is instead to imagine the reader as already in the position of the rereader,In an interview, Nolan calls this calls this “the willing suspension of disbelief” but that’s obviously not quite right. The reader of a novel is not tricked into thinking that the events of the novel are real; the whole point of the willingness is the agreement to treat them as if they were real without for a moment believing that they are. But the reader of a novel with a surprise ending has been tricked and that reader’s willingness is epistemically more complex because that reader hasn’t just agreed not to care about the truth; that reader has been confronted with the truth and refused to see it. to suggest that the pointlessness of rereading is, in relation to the work of art, inextricable from its inevitability.
4 form and intent
In Memento, this idea that the work of art is never available to a first reading - with its corresponding idea that it’s never exactly available to a second reading either - is invoked not only through the surprise ending but also through the movie’s exploitation of another standard narrative device, its backward structure. It announces itself with a flamboyantly cinematic version of that device, a scene of a photograph undeveloping (which is to say, with film running backwards) and then it begins its narrative with Leonard murdering Teddy and ends with Leonard setting himself up to murder Teddy (lying to himself, telling himself not to believe Teddy’s lies). This backwards structure produces a fundamental and irrevocable epistemic break between the characters in the movie and its viewers - when the characters want to know what’s going to happen next, they want to know the future; when the viewers want to know what’s going to happen next, we want to know the past. And this discrepancy involves not simply the epistemological difference between what the characters in the movie want to know and what the viewers want to know; it involves the ontological difference between the events depicted and their depiction. The final scene of the movie, the scene of Leonard forgetting, is meaningless to the characters and intended only for us; it marks the way in which our desire to know what happens in the movie is different not only from their desire to know what happens but also from our own desire to know what happens in life, different from our desire to know how the game came out, or who won the election or who got the job.
For the final scene in a movie or novel is, of course (like every other scene in it), part of the structure of the movie or novel - it’s not an event. Or rather, it’s not just an event. Because it is, of course, an event - reading the end of a book is something that someone does, and when the ending is a surprise ending, it produces a certain kind of experience, one that - unless you’re a reader like Leonard - you’ll never have again. But the point of saying that it’s not just an event - that the end of the movie is part of its structure - is to suggest that there is something about the end (something more generally about the work of art) that remains the same even when the reader’s experience of it does not. What stays the same? One obvious answer is that it’s the material identity of the work - the words or the scenes stay the same. But this answer doesn’t get at the question of structure, which is to say, it doesn’t get at the difference between event and structure, between, we might say, being surprised by how the election came out and being surprised by how the movie ended. We can express this difference by saying that the surprise at the end of the movie is normative in a way that the surprise at the result of the election is not -we are supposed to be surprised by the end of the movie.
And this is true whether or not we are in fact surprised; it is as true when we read the book the thousandth time as it is when we read it the first. So even though our experience of the work of art changes, the work of art does not. No matter how often you read the book or see the movie and no matter what your experience is, the book and the movie are the same. That’s what it means for Leonard’s wife to say about her novel not only that she enjoys it but that it’s “good.” The self-deception that in epistemology registers as paradox and in psychology as disease - the difference between your experience of the work and the work itself - is registered here as the mark of the aesthetic or, perhaps more precisely, the mark of form. Which is to say not so much that the problem of the epistemological paradox and of the psychological disease find in Memento a formal solution (although, in the device of memory loss they do) but more pointedly that they find the solution of form itself, what movies and novels have but events don’t. The book, even when it’s read the first time, is there to be reread; that’s what we mean when we say that it has a form. That’s the mark of its insistence that we know and don’t know at the same time, a claim that is finally not about our psychological state but about the object of our interest. So if logical incoherence and OCD are the bad news of self-deception, what emerges in Memento as the good news is the autonomy of the work of art.
This is the interest of the surprise ending and especially, as I have already suggested, of the ending in which the reader or viewer is surprised but the characters are not, and thus of the disjunction between the response the text represents and the response it produces (or, more importantly, is intended to produce), since the reader will never be surprised again but will always recognize that she was supposed to be surprised - the mark of the form will be the permanence of the intention to produce the effect juxtaposed with the transience of the effect. But here the logic of its surprise ending runs up against the deconstructive logic of Memento’s lists, and of Derrida’s reminder to Searle about the essential non-identity of the writer and reader. Derrida’s point is not only that if you know you won’t forget, the shopping list is either “superfluous or the product of a curious compulsion” (Derrida 49), but also that, if writing is to function as writing, it cannot be merely - even for the writer himself - a mnemonic device. It must, like Leonard’s lists and like the notes he writes for himself, be what Derrida calls “readable” to someone who never knew and hence cannot be reminded of what the author was thinking. Readers, after all, do not remember what the writer was thinking; readers understand what the text he wrote means. And for this to be possible, the marks the writer makes must have a meaning that goes beyond - that exists independent of - anything he may have meant by them.
The way Derrida puts this is to say that “the sign possesses the character of being readable even if the moment of its production is irrevocably lost and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor consciously intended to say by it” (Derrida 9). The reason a sentence like “Don’t believe Teddy’s lies” has the meaning it has - or has any meaning at all - is because words like “believe” and “lies” have a meaning that is not determined by what the person who writes them means by them but is determined instead by the syntactic and semantic rules of the language in which that person writes. And (this is Derrida’s point), they would have that meaning even if the person who wrote them didn’t mean anything by them. If they didn’t have that meaning, if the meanings of the words were determined by their author and not by the rules of the language, then they couldn’t function as words. So it’s not just that the author of a text is not its definitive reader, and it’s not even that the text doesn’t mean what the author means by it, it’s that the author need mean nothing by it all. One account “Memento Mori” gives of Leonard’s notes is, as we have seen, that they are “like a letter you write to yourself” - the idea here is that writing overcomes your inability to access your own intentions. But the short story goes on to say, more radically, that his writing is “like that computer thing, the Chinese room.” And the point here is not an epistemological skepticism about knowing the writer’s intentions; it’s an ontological skepticism about the writer actually having any.
The Chinese room, of course, is a reference to John Searle’s famous thought experiment, designed to show that computers don’t understand language (and thus to criticize the analogy between thinking and computing). What the experiment imagines is a man who does not speak Chinese in a room with “a lot of boxes of Chinese symbols” (Searle 10). Periodically he is handed a set of Chinese symbols from the outside and he follows an instruction book that tells him how the Chinese symbols he has should be matched up with the ones he’s been given, and he performs the matching operation and hands the new symbols back out. If we think of the symbols he’s been given as questions and think of the symbols he hands back as answers, we see that he is doing exactly what a computer does. And the point is that he does it without knowing a word of Chinese. We can make the example even clearer, perhaps, by imagining the operation as a translation program. Chinese symbols are handed in; the English speaking man in the room looks up the proper match in Arabic and hands the Arabic symbols back out. He is translating Chinese into Arabic but he doesn’t know either Chinese or Arabic - indeed, he needn’t know any language at all; all he needs to know is which “formal symbols” go with which other “formal symbols.” Searle’s point is that what the computer does isn’t thinking since, “when we are thinking,” “the words going through our minds are not just uninterpreted formal symbols; rather, we know what they mean” (Searle 10). Since the man in the Chinese room doesn’t know what the words in Chinese mean, for us to think of him as writing in Chinese, we would need to think that you can write in a language without knowing the language. But from the deconstructive standpoint, this reductio ad absurdum is the truth - it’s only because you could write in a language without knowing it that you can ever write in anything that can count as a language; it’s only because the formal symbols’ status as formal symbols does not depend on your using them as formal symbols that you can use them as formal symbols. And this is what I meant by saying that the formalism of Memento’s account of writing competes with what I described above as the formalism of its deployment of the surprise ending. The meaning of the surprise ending depends upon the distinction between the actual effect of a text (the actual experience of the reader) and the intended effect (the experience the reader is supposed to have). But once the intentions of the author are made irrelevant, that discrepancy becomes impossible; the question of whether you are surprised remains but the question of whether you’re supposed to be surprised disappears. The difference between the experience of the movie and the movie’s structure thus requires the appeal to intention, as does, in fact, the very idea that it has a form.
It’s interesting, from this standpoint, that the “Memento Mori” story misremembers or alters the Chinese Room, taking what Searle calls the formal symbols and making them into something more specific, “a joke in Chinese.” For jokes, like surprise endings, are entirely geared toward the production of an effect - laughter - but the question of whether anyone actually laughs is at the same time irrelevant to the joke’s status as a joke. That’s why we have bad jokes. And that’s the difference between laughing (or not) at a joke and laughing (or not) when, say, you’re being tickled. In one respect, of course, they’re the same. You could do studies of what proportion of the population laughs in response to being tickled in a certain spot and, of course, you could also do studies of what proportion of the population laughs at which jokes. Hence the question of whether a joke is funny is in the end either a statistical question, answerable by the number of people who laugh, or a personal question answerable only in the form of “it made me laugh.” The question of whether a joke is good or bad, in other words, is a question about its actual effect, which can, of course, vary from person to person. And it’s in this respect that hearing a joke is like being tickled - the question of whether you thought, say, the Ali G Show was funny is a question about the effect Sasha Baron Cohen has on you in the same way that the question of whether you are ticklish is a question about what effect someone touching the soles of your feet has on you.
At the same time, however, being tickled and being told a joke are crucially different. Part of what it means to laugh at a joke involves recognizing that it is a joke, which is to say, recognizing that you’re supposed to laugh. Which is not true of being tickled. If you are ticklish and you are touched the right way in the right place, you will laugh whether or not the person who is touching you means to make you laugh. Another way to put this is just to say that the question of whether a joke is funny is very different from the question of whether it is a joke. The question of whether a joke is funny is a question about its actual effect - does it make people laugh? The question of whether it is a joke is only about its intended effect - is it supposed to make people laugh? And it’s this recognition of the joke as a joke - the recognition not just that it makes you laugh or doesn’t but that it is supposed to make you laugh, whether or not you do - that links the joke to the surprise ending and to what I earlier called the normativity of form. You’re not mistaken when you don’t laugh at being tickled; you’re not mistaken when you don’t find a joke funny. But you are mistaken when you don’t recognize that it was supposed to be funny.
Thus, although there can be no wrong answer to the question of whether you were surprised by the end of a movie, there can be a wrong answer to the question of whether you were supposed to be surprised. So the question of whether a joke is a joke invokes the normative (what people are supposed to do, whether or not any of them does it) whereas the question of whether it’s a good joke invokes the normal (what people actually do). Without the normative, being surprised (or not) by the end of a movie would be no different from being surprised (or not) by the outcome of an election. Because at the end of an election there can be no discrepancy between what you actually experience and what you’re supposed to experience, the election has no form. It’s only the normativity of form that makes this discrepancy possible since it’s only the requirement that you recognize the intended effect as well as register the actual effect that produces the possibility of the discrepancy between the intended and the actual effect. Memento, as we have already seen, presents this discrepancy as the distinctive pleasure of rereading - “I like it,” Leonard’s wife says - and of the aesthetic - “It’s good.” What she likes is not, what Leonard likes, “the pleasure of wanting to know what happens next”; that’s a pleasure that life - and games and elections - can give us. Hers is a pleasure that art gives us, and rereading is crucial to it because the experience of rereading is the experience of already knowing what’s going to happen next, an experience not readily available in life, and even when it is available, not quite the same - we can sometimes predict with accuracy what is about to happen but if we’re seeing Memento for the second time and we haven’t forgotten what we saw the first time, our belief that Leonard will himself turn out to be the killer doesn’t exactly count as a prediction.
In Memento, then, the paradox of self-deception is ironed out by the device of memory loss and by a theory of writing that, denying self-identity, makes the self that is deceived always already different from the self that does the deceiving. The reader on this account can never put himself in the position of the writer; more radically, reading and writing itself are possible only because the position of the writer is in the end irrelevant - what Derrida calls the “readability” of the text does not depend on what the writer meant by it but is a function instead of what Searle calls the “formal symbols.” It’s for this reason that Derrida says in Limited Inc that “intention will always have its place” (Derrida 18) but that it cannot “govern” the meaning of the utterance. It will have its place because it’s the intending subject that produces the text; it cannot govern because that subject cannot control the effect of its utterance.
But if the discrepancy between what the writer means and what the text does is, from this standpoint, a mark of the way in which the text exceeds intention, that same discrepancy, seen the other way around, marks the absolute irrelevance of everything but intention. For the recognition of the effect that was intended reduces the effect that was in fact produced to an aspect of the reader’s experience rather than of the text’s form. Thus in Memento, the non-identity of reader and writer even when they’re the same - which is to say, the notes to yourself that can only mark your distance from yourself and the impossibility of self-identity - is contradicted by the absolute self-identity of the work of art - the surprise ending rereads the thing that doesn’t change when your experience of it does. And this self-identity is itself a function of form and intention both - indeed, form here is nothing but the expression of intention. Which is just to say, again, that there is a difference between being surprised (which you may be, whether or not you’re supposed to be) and recognizing that you’re supposed to be (whether or not you are). In the movie, rereading is the thematic site of this difference and the surprise ending is its formal embodiment. Unable to reread and unable, therefore, to be anything but surprised, Leonard cannot acknowledge or even encounter this difference. His skepticism - his sense that a man in his condition cannot “know anything” - is a consequence of his collapse of cognition into experience. And it’s this skepticism that makes it impossible for him to have the experience of form, for him to have the knowledge that will keep him from being surprised. His wife - who does nothing but reread, who always knows what will happen next - is just the opposite.
5 the look on their faces
The surprise ending, as we’ve already noted, is inevitably central to the genre of the detective story. But Poe’s preference for “commencing with consideration of an effect” (1373), as he puts it on the first page of The Philosophy of Composition was by no means limited to the one genre, and any account of the work of art that takes (as Nolan’s does) the magic trick to be exemplary will also be preoccupied with effect. The Prestige insists on this by matching its own account of the audience’s desire - “You want to be fooled” - with Angier’s account of the magician’s desire: the whole point of magic, he says with his dying words, is to “fool” the audience; what the magician wants is “the look on their faces” (148) that fooling them will produce. The movie is first about the lengths to which magicians will go to achieve this effect (the Borden twins conceal for an entire lifetime the fact that there are two of them) and, second, about the lengths to which it will itself go to achieve it, an effort that Nolan dramatizes by stretching the period-piece (late 19th century) and realist limits of its genre and deploying as a crucial part of its plot a machine, invented by the scientific “wizard” Nicola Tesla, that “can actually do the things a magician pretends to” (33).
The machine can electrically provide Angier with the double that enables him successfully to compete with Borden. His first effort, hiring an actor to impersonate him, fails, not because the actor can’t be made to look enough like him but because he can’t be controlled. At the level of plot, the point is to suggest that a double cannot work (and hence that Borden cannot be using one); at the level of the medium, the point is to remind the viewer of how easy it is to produce doubles in movies (it’s not hard to make Hugh Jackman look like Hugh Jackman) and hence of the irrelevance of that kind of trickery. Angier’s second effort is “The Real Transported Man,” and here what’s in question is not the medium of the movie but the idea of the trick. For, of course, if you’ve got a machine that can make it possible for you to vanish from one place and then reappear in another, the audience who watches you perform this trick isn’t being fooled - it’s being given a scientific demonstration. So a magician using a wizard’s tools to “do the things a magician pretends to” must conceal the fact that they can actually be done. Without that, there’s no illusion, a fact that the movie registers first by calling the magic “real” (it’s not a trick) and, second, by insisting that it be “disguised,” that the audience be given “enough reason to doubt it” (122). If, in other words, there’s no reason for the audience to feel deceived (because they haven’t been), they must be deceived about that - they must be fooled into thinking they’ve been fooled. To be a magician, the wizard needs to produce the illusion of an illusion.And the film-maker needs to do the same. Thus the Tesla machine becomes the mechanism for the movie’s final surprise, the revelation (which is also a reminder, since the viewer might well have figured it out) that the machine reproduces rather than transports Angier and that therefore the Angier who appears to be transported must instead be killed and replaced by his reproduction every time the trick is performed. When the surviving Borden twin sees this, “the look on his face,” the screenplay says, is “beyond words” (149). This look, of course, is produced by the discovery of how the trick was done; the look on the audience’s face (the look that magicians are supposed to crave) depends on their not discovering how the trick was done. But if the fact of this reproduction (rather than transportation) is mobilized by the movie on behalf of its more general commitment to surprise (and thus, along with the idea of the double itself, on behalf too of Nolan’s interest in the mechanisms through which the self becomes opaque to itself), it gestures also toward the related but not quite identical issue of personal identity through time. In fact, Tesla’s machine, which is originally supposed to teleport the person, animal or thing it’s working on but turns out to make doubles of them instead, is an almost perfect analog of one of Derek Parfit’s personal identity thought experiments, the Branch-Line Case. (My attention was first drawn to the relevance of the Parfit and my understanding of it was sharpened by reading Marya Schectman’s fascinating article “The Case for Reasons of Self-Concern” in Reasons of One’s Own). Parfit first imagines the possibility of what he calls teletransportation, in which a person’s body is destroyed by a “Scanner” that records the “exact states of all [its] cells” and then creates a duplicate brain and body “out of new matter” (199). This is essentially what Tesla’s machine is designed to do. In Parfit, the duplicate appears on Mars; in the magic act, Angier appears in the balcony. The point of the hypothetical is to raise the question of whether the teletransported person – who is just like the original person and who believes himself to be the original person – counts as the original or whether the original has been killed and replaced. If we are inclined to believe that teletransportation has preserved the original, Parfit sharpens the problem by imagining what he calls a more “advanced” machine. When you enter it, your replica is made to appear on Mars but your earth-bound body does not disappear. Does it still make sense to think that the replica is you, or does the replica now seem only a replica? What if, as he imagines, the machine didn’t work quite right and the you who remained on earth emerged with a fatal disease? Wouldn’t you feel you had sacrificed yourself for someone else (the replica)? But how is this different from what already happened when, in the machine’s first incarnation, the original disappeared? The point for Parfit is that we are, in relation to our future selves, always in the position of the person entering the teletransporter and reappearing on Mars, and that our sense of a tighter connection with the original - the one who doesn’t get destroyed - is an illusion. And the movie assents to this by making the original disappear every night, dropping him through a trap door and into a tank of water where he drowns. The replica reappears in the balcony and then takes his place for the next performance, becoming the new original and being drowned in turn. This is the process Angier reveals to the surviving Borden twin at the end, and although Borden is shocked, Parfit’s idea is that this is what is already happening to everyone. Personal identity is itself a kind of magic trick.
This, as we have already seen, is what the surprise ending does, and Nolan’s attachment to the device should thus be understood in part as a function of his Poe-like identification of effect with form (and thus with art) - an identification that has been canonical at least since the great Russian Formalist Boris Eichenbaum’s (1925) essay on O’Henry and the Theory of the Short Story. Insisting on the importance of the ending as such for the short story, Eichenbaum described Poe as its inventor and characterized the surprise ending in O’Henry as parody of what in Poe still counted as “serious.” (Eichenbaum 236). Following Eichenbaum, we might think of Memento too as engaging Poe, particularly since Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition - the founding document of American Formalism - understands the work of art as committed to nothing but the production of an effect and, announcing itself as an effort to portray precisely the means through which the effect is produced, describes a compositional process that, like the narrative of Memento, begins where Poe says “all works of art should begin” - “at the end” (1380). The Philosophy of Composition starts by citing a note from Charles Dickens which claims that “Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards” (1373), and Poe goes on to say that the first stanza he wrote of The Raven was one of its last. Poe’s idea here is that only by beginning with the “dénouement” can the writer make everything that happens in the story part of the process that produces its climax and thus produce what Poe calls the “indispensable air of consequence, or causation.” (1373). So it’s as if, beginning by showing us the end, the maker of Memento offers an allegory of composition: what we will see first is what Poe’s artist does first; our experience of the work of art will be the artist’s - the working backward from effect to cause. (And Memento’s rereader will count as a figure for the artist who is from the start himself a rereader, someone who always already knows what’s going to happen next.)
The effect that Poe thought proper to poetry was the effect of “Beauty” (rather than “Truth” or “Passion”) and, identifying beauty as what moved “the sensitive soul” to “tears,” he determined, first, that “melancholy” was “the most legitimate of all the poetical tones” (1377) and, second, that “Death” was “obvious[ly]” the “most melancholy topic” (1379). The problem, then, was to align death as closely as possible with beauty and “here also,” Poe says, the solution was “obvious” - “the death of a beautiful woman” is what most closely aligns Death with Beauty. Hence, the “death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” and it is “equally […] beyond doubt,” he concludes, that “the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
Memento, of course, both accepts and alters this conclusion. It accepts it by putting its story on the lips of the bereaved lover; it alters it by making the lover the author of his own bereavement. Since you can’t mourn Lenore unless Lenore is dead, it’s as if the speaker of The Raven, in order to be able to write The Raven, had first to kill her, as if to mourn Lenore, you had to be Leonard. Is the viewer supposed to register the similarity between these names? And it’s surely worth noticing here that if Memento imitates the production of the work of art by beginning with its end, it also allegorizes that production by taking upon itself the responsibility for the death that makes it possible. Hence the act of self-deception with which we began and with which the movie ends becomes something like the deep truth of The Raven - the fact that in order to be an artist, the bereaved lover must also be a murderer and that, in order to produce his effect, he must also forget that he’s a murderer.
But where the effect for Poe is everything, it is, as we’ve seen, not just the effect but also its failure that matters in Memento, and it’s only the failure of effect that makes possible the emergence of form. In Poe’s terms, we might say that it’s only the failure of the effect that rescues beauty from what he calls passion, that rescues form from what I have been calling experience. In Memento the experience of form is almost an oxymoron, since the whole point of form is that it’s not a function of - i.e. not reducible to - your experience of it. If it were, then no work could be said to have a distinctive form, a point we can feel the force of just by remembering that the actual effects of any work of art (unlike its intended effects) are in principle infinite. That’s why it’s the recognition of the intention to make you laugh rather than your laughter that counts as identifying the joke, the recognition of the intention to make you cry rather than your tears that counts as the interpretation of the poem. The experience of form is an experience that you are meant to have but that renders the experience you actually do have irrelevant, in the way that any act of understanding always renders your experience irrelevant.
At the same time, however, to put the point in this way may be - again in Poe’s terms - to run the risk of displacing Beauty not with Passion but with the other thing to which it cannot, he says, be reduced, Truth. For the recognition of the intended effect in itself is only cognitive, is nothing but understanding. That’s why - as part of the effort to avoid Truth - the central speech act in The Raven must be utterly unintended and have no meaning at all; the “formal symbols” that make up the signifier “Nevermore” might just as easily be produced by the man in the Chinese room as by the bird - neither one means anything by them. “Nevermore” is all experience, all effect; the bereaved lover neither understands nor misunderstands it. He responds to it, he doesn’t interpret it.
So The Raven runs the risk of replacing Beauty with Passion, of reducing the beautiful to nothing but your experience of it, and Memento, as I suggested above, may be thought to run the risk of reducing Beauty to Truth, of seeking to make the work of art nothing but an object of cognition. But that’s, of course, why Nolan insists not simply on the intended effect but on the discrepancy between the actual and the intended effect. That’s why the form is not reducible to the effect - it’s the intended effect - and why it’s not reducible to the meaning - since it requires the intention to produce an effect that goes beyond that of meaning. Indeed, what Beauty is here is precisely what can’t be reduced either to the cognitive (Truth) or the affective (Passion) or be possible without both of them. It doesn’t consist simply of the surprise endings of Memento and The Prestige but it depends upon the fact that they have surprise endings and that they are at the same time about the conditions of possibility of those endings - the refusing to know that makes the trick possible, the knowing that makes refusing to know possible. Insomnia, skillful as it is, does not succeed in the same way precisely because its interest in self-deception finds no generic equivalent in its structure. It has no gimmick. Describing and depending on the technologies of self-deception, what the surprise ending embodies in these movies is something other than itself, the emergence of form.
NB: An earlier version of this essay, under the title “Christopher Nolan’s Chinese Room: The Death of a Beautiful Woman and the Idea of Form,” was published in a special issue on “Writing and Obsession” of the Italian journal Fictions: Studi sulla narrativita IV (2005), edited by Lennard J. Davis and Roberto De Romanis. I am grateful for the permission of ACCADEMIA EDITORALE to reprint the portions of it that are reproduced in the revised and expanded version that is published here. I am grateful also to Jennifer Ashton, Michael Fried and Ruth Leys for the comments and suggestions that helped make this version possible.
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Poe, Edgar Allan. The Philosophy of Composition. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry, Tales & Selected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Prestigiacomo, Jennifer. “Eyes Wide Open.” The Daily Texan online.
Priest, Christopher. The Prestige. New York: Tor, 2006.
Schectman, Marya. “The Case for Reasons of Self-Concern.” Reasons of One’s Own. ed. Maureen Sie, Marc Slors and Bert van den Brink. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. 107-128.
Searle, John. The Mystery of Consciousness. New York: The New York Review of Books, 1997.
Skjoldbjaerg, Erik, dir. Insomnia. 1998. DVD. Criterion, 1999.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958.
Derrida delves deeply into the concepts of readability and iterability in Limited Inc, and Bill Seaman thinks about how these ideas function in electronic environments in “Approaches to Interactive Text and Recombinant Poetics.”
Elsewhere Michaels has made the well-known argument that interpretation is the search for intention. See the “Against Theory” essays that Michaels coauthored with Steven Knapp; the essays appeared in Critical Inquiry in the early eighties.