The utter despair in Christopher Nolan’s quest for meaning

Robin Adrien Schwarz
7 min readFeb 13, 2019


How Christopher Nolan’s films and his failings after ‘Memento’ tell the tale of our time — a time of crisis and despair.

The famous ‘spinning top’ scene from Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

«Cinema plus Psychoanalysis equals the Science of Ghosts»

— Jacques Derrida in Ghost Dance (1983)

Bordering on the prophetic, Christopher Nolan’s work, fittingly, took a troubling 180° turn after the release of his film ‘Memento’. A critique of ‘content’ — and an analysis of the lack.

I’m not much of a fan of Christopher Nolan’s films.

I find them pretty corny most of the time and both Inception and Interstellar seemed pretentious to me. I don’t mean that in an anti-intellectual sense, hear me out. I don’t like most Nolan films not for the subject matters themselves but because of how Nolan approaches his material.

There’s a wonderful word in German: ‘Bedeutungsschwanger’. It translates to ‘pregnant with meaning’ and implies that, however pregnant, that which has to be born is still not born, is not completely there yet.

While Nolan absolutely gives ‘birth’ to… something, the way he expresses it doesn’t seem sincere or transparent. His films are, most of the time, too over-the-top, too heavy-handed, too ‘look at all this meaning’-y for my taste.

Interstellar is a… stellar example of a film desperate to convey something.

Nolan pretends to give birth to a meaningful idea without actually saying much about anything. I might be unfair in saying this, but it even seems that he has no awareness of his ‘idea’ at all. It all seems so endlessly pre-conscious.

His films are gestures that seem to indicate that there’s so much meaning to be found within them, buried under layers and layers of ‘content’, all while being hollow shells repeating not some kind of meaning but the signifying of meaning itself. I find this noteworthy.

I love this poem by Andrei Codrescu called ‘art for art’s sake’, taken from his poetry collection ‘The Art of Forgetting’ that supposedly provides us with ‘a means of practicing forgetting as healing’ — which seems achingly fitting when talking about Memento and Nolan in general:

But is Nolan’s career after Memento practicing forgetting as healing? I’d argue to the contrary.

A peddler of desire

Nolan doesn’t feed us with meaning, he just mirrors our desire for meaning, a desire so strong, that we desperately take whatever we can get our hands, no — our mouths and hearts on, as long as it seems like it could feed us. Nolan is not a chef, he doesn’t prepare food. If anything, he’s a food stylist — one of those people who prepare food for a photographer to shoot promotional pictures for, say, McDonald’s or Burger King in order to stoke our desire. This, the making, not the film itself, is telling. It tells the tale of our time.

Food styling — sometimes that means hairspraying beans.

Nolan, to me, is the embodiment of the pains of consumer culture: If the label says the product is nutritonal — if it looks the part — we’ll buy it. We’ll eat it and try to feel content, try to feel satisfied. That premium-looking microwave meal was expensive after all and admitting that we’ve fell for advertising makes us feel ashamed. No one likes to be duped. Thus, we’ll try to begin our doomed-to-fail search anew.

Nolan pretends to fill the libidinal gap that we want to stuff. That lack, that feeling of incompleteness. Nolan, by virtue of his craft, by virtue of being part of a larger discourse — one that manifests itself as an economic enterprise — instills in us a sense of ‘you have to get it in order to be satisfied’.

By ‘it’ I don’t mean some kind of ‘subjective’ meaning or personal truth — you know, that numinous, magical moment when you understand before you understand.

A similar idea — expressed by one of my all-time-favourite filmmakers, Werner Herzog:

Werner Herzog.

‘Facts never illuminate you. The phone directory of Manhattan doesn’t illuminate you, although it has factually correct entries, millions of them. But these rare moments of illumination that you find when you read a great poem, you instantly know. You instantly feel this spark of illumination. You are almost stepping outside of yourself and you see something sublime.’

The fleeting thing that is content

To get back to Nolan and that elusive ‘it’ that you ‘have to get’: This ‘it’ that is neither ‘subjective’ nor ‘personal’ truth, is supposed to be some kind of ‘content’ some kind of core-message that wants to be excavated and can be seen and shared universally: the thing-in-itself.

Nolan is the result, sadly, of what philosopher and literary critic Susan Sontag has somehow forseen, but, ironically, only fragmentarily. In her famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’ she exposes how today’s art criticism is still very much focused on ‘content’, an idea that has been echoing through the ages since Plato has, as Sontag phrases it, ‘ruled that the value of art is dubious’ and that art is only ‘mimesis’, imitation, a kind of lie about a ‘true form’ — artists are liars, in his view, who hinder us in beholding true meaning.

Susan Sontag, portrait by Juan Fernando Bastos, (CC BY 3.0)

Sontag writes that the overemphasis on this idea still ‘exerts an extraordinary hegemony’ and accuses the ‘hoards of critics’ that are mainly concerned with the supposed ‘content’ of a work of art instead of the artwork itself. ‘Whatever it may have been in the past’ she writes, ‘the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.’ This had already encroached literatue: ‘Most American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music’.

The idea of content is truly a pharmakon. It’s only a remedy for what art does to us: It makes us nervous. Thus we need something to calm us, maybe even sedate us. Thus, as with the pharmakon, the idea of content is, simultaneously, something that can poison us.

What Sontag couldn’t soothsay entirely though, is how the influence of critics and their virulent idea would transform film. She had high hopes and praise for cinema. Though she acknowledged that this is also due to the newness of cinema — the essay was published in 1966. As soon as this newness — as with seemingly all novelty — had worn off, the same thing that befell literature, also happened to film: The interpretation of content is now at the forefront — and this, in turn, makes directors produce films that vehemently imply that there is content, where there really is none.

Fetishizing the lack

This is the polar opposite of how I approach films — or literature. I don’t like this compulsive emphasis on the ‘undoing of the lack’ but its simple acknowledgement. Recalling Lacan, accepting the lack is liberating. It allows us not to desire the ‘completing’ of fundamental incompleteness, but instead to desire desire itself. Following the concept of fetishization — Nolan’s films have the same effect: Using a fetish is trying to cover a lack but, in doing so, this makes the lack even more painfully obvious.

Now, I haven’t written anything about Memento yet — and I won’t write a whole lot. I haven’t seen the film in years, but what has stayed with me all this time was how different this film felt from Nolan’s other work. It signifies a turn in his filmography, in his career.

Nolan’s newer films are indeed a reversal of what he had triumphantly accomplished with Memento: He put his finger precisely into this, our most aching, never-healing wound. There is always a gap that we cannot bridge or close. Nolan didn’t state this with much pomp. He was intensely quiet about it. The reverse structure of the film exposes this gap, by making clear how much its perception relies on our being accustomed to a familiar temporality and how we learned to oversee it. It is from this exact silence that the truth of Memento arises. The truth that sounds so banal, so unattractive — that silence is sometimes the loudest, that silence speaks the most.

It seems almost ironic that Nolan seems to have forgotten this, as if he couldn’t bear the silence that he had accidentally created, and how he thereby revealed this profound trauma. As if he subsequently had to try and fill the quiet with as much white noise as possible.

The best thing written about Memento — and this almost renders this all-too-long exposé moot — comes from popular musician Drake and his song Tuscan Leather: “Lately I’ve been feelin’ like Guy Pearce in Memento.”

This Guy Pearce, Memento’s protagonist Leonard Shelby, expresses one of the most haunting thoughts expressed in Christopher Nolan’s films — time is disjointed:



Robin Adrien Schwarz

I like philosophy, literature, journalism and digital stuff. Oh, and music.