astronaut walks through an icy wasteland

Interstellar

Essay Title

“A compelling case can be made that postmodernism is dead, just by looking at the cultural production of our times”.1 With reference to Nolan’s “Interstellar”, explore why Kirby’s declaration is an overstatement.

Introduction

Christopher Nolan, the director of “Interstellar”, has been called “one of the most gifted directors of all times”.  Having grossed over $4.2 billion worldwide and achieved a total of 26 Oscar nominations, his films often concern perception and reality. “Memento” and “Inception” are excellent examples of how the filmmaker manipulates narrative and the medium of cinema to raise questions about the audience’s view of reality. “Interstellar” continues that tradition. However, these productions are also commercial success. In fact, the critic, Robbie Collin from “The Telegraph”, claimed Nolan is “the preeminent blockbuster auteur of our time”.  The Huffington Post described Nolan as the auteur of contemporary cinema.

Auteur Theory

Auteur theory, taken from the French word for author, was developed by a group of French filmmakers led by Truffaut who claimed “there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”.  The theory suggests that the director has complete control over every process of the production and that the films, therefore, reflect their individual style, agendas and themes, giving the text their own unique stamp.  Hitchcock has been described as the “ultimate auteur” and often collaborated with the same people. For example, he worked with composer Bernard Hermann who helped create the scores to “Psycho”, “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo”. His “straining strings and overblowing brass” evoke “panic” and help to scare the audience.  By working closely with the same innovators, Hitchcock created a consistent noir palette in sound and cinematography, so audiences knew to expect the unexpected.

This can certainly also be said for Nolan who mainly uses the same key collaborators in each film. In terms of pre-production, he co-produces the films with Emma Thomas and co-writes with his brother, Jonathan Nolan. Actor Michael Caine has also been used in five of Nolan’s films. His presence in these texts creates a trademark that reinforces the idea of Nolan as an auteur. Post-production has repeatedly involved the editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer. Music helps with the texture of a film and the distinct sounds and score created by Zimmer, just like Bernard Hermann did with Hitchcock’s work, ensures Nolan’s films even more evocative. Nolan stated “I believe that Hans score for “Interstellar” has the tightest bond between music and image that we’ve yet achieved”.

Auteur Theory Debate

It could, however, be argued that auteur theory is outdated because the film director is not exclusively responsible for the quality of a movie and it is more of a collaborative medium.  For this reason, it has been said that “the auteur theory is shakier than ever”.  Schreiber theory, which means “writer” in Yiddish, argues that the principal auteur of the film is the writer instead of the director.  In 1939, Thalberg even stated “the writer is the most important person in Hollywood, but we must never tell the sons of b”.  He obviously wanted the power to remain with the producers. Film historian Harmetz argued that the auteur theory “collapses against the reality of the studio system” because of the creative input of producers and studio executives in classical Hollywood.  Jerry Bruckheimer is considered a prominent producer-auteur.  His works have an “unmistakable personality”, commonly referred to as “The Bruckheimer Touch”.

Whatever point of view a critic might have towards the person who unifies a product, there is no doubt that Nolan engages with all aspects of the production process. He co-founded Syncopy.inc with his wife Emma Thomas in 2001 and the production company has been linked to all of his films since. With such power, it is no wonder Nolan can exercise so much control over his films and work with his collaborators.

This freedom allows the filmmaker to choose his stories without the usual interference of a major studio committee who are bankrolling the film. His non-linear narratives, fragmentation, paradoxes and binary oppositions give his films a distinctive style, setting him apart from other directors and giving the audience what is popularly known as the “Nolan experience”.  With these themes at the heart of his narratives, the stories could certainly be considered postmodern.

Postmodernism

Jencks stated that postmodernism is “the eclectic mixture of any tradition with that of its immediate past”.  In other words, a typical characteristic of a postmodernist text is the juxtaposition of the new and old together to create new meanings and entertainment. Nolan clearly loves science fiction and the cinema and his own films are full of intertextuality, “a concept often associated with postmodernism”.  This is the “shaping of a text’s meaning by another text”.  For example, in the dramatic climax of “Interstellar”, homage is paid to “The Library of Babel” by postmodernist author Jorge Luis Borges. He was one of the first writers to adopt what critics define as postmodern techniques.  Importantly, his 1946 story “On Exactitude in Science” was used by Baudrillard to demonstrate the notion of hyper reality.

tesseract concept of the library
The Library of Babel Conceptualization
actor standing in front of library books
Murph’s Library

“The Library of Babel” is a conceptualization of the universe in the form of a vast library that contains every text that will exist in “an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries”.  In “Interstellar”, the protagonist Cooper discovers an infinite number of Murphs’ bookshelf and uses them to communicate through time using gravity.

It is clear that this homage is intentional as Christopher Nolan has previously said that one of his primary artistic influences is Borges.  This intertextual reference is absolutely evident in the fact there is a copy of Borges” “Labyrinths” in Murphs’ room.  The influence of Borges work can also be seen in Nolan’s “Inception” having significant parallels with the short story “The Other”.  These very specific allusions suggest that Nolan views himself as postmodernist storyteller.

Perhaps the most engaging intertextual reference is a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The film follows a similar narrative to “Interstellar” and the TAR robots are reminiscent to Kubrick’s “Monoliths”. Nolan stated “It was one of our aspirations to pay homage to that film”.  The TAR robot was also claimed to be inspired by the architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe with Nolan claiming “we designed a robot as if Mies van der Rohe designed a robot”.  As postmodernists argue, nothing is new. This intertextuality draws attention to the “constructedness” of the text, reminding the audience that they are immersed in this world of simulacra.

rectangular robot in the water
“Interstellar” (2014)
screenshot from 2001: A Space Odyessy
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

Nolan”s use of the “witness testimony” opening is the same device used by Warren Beatty in his 1981 film “The Reds” about the Bolshevik revolution. This was another intentional homage. Nolan stated in an interview that he “Got a chance to talk with Warren about it”.

“Interstellar” also includes witness testimonies, not of actors, but actual “Dust Bowl” survivors. The “Dust Bowl” was the name given to the Southern Plains region of America in the 1930s when a drought caused dust storms known as “Black Blizzards”. The storms lasted for a decade causing 250,000 to flee.  A documentary film “Dustbowl” was created by Ken Burns in 2012 based on these events. Nolan stated how he loved the idea “of these people talking about events so extraordinary they actually surpass science fiction”. Footage from Burns” “Dustbowl is intercut with Nolan’s footage. Nolan admitted he “was very influenced by Ken Burns” story on the subject” and asked if he “could use some of the footage”.

“Interstellar” has many other features that are typical of postmodern texts. Its non-linear narrative is a good example. Christopher Nolan’s other postmodern films, such as “Inception” and “Memento” very intricately manipulate the normal narrative flow. For example, “Inception” “explores the differences between our perception of the world around us and the world that really is”.  It forces the audience to question whether Cobbs’ team is simply projections of his own subconscious.  “Memento” uses a unique nonlinear narrative structure to mimic Leonard Shelby’s short term memory loss struggle while seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife.

“Interstellar” begins at the end with a medium close-up of one of the main characters as an old woman. The format of the footage is a documentary-style vox-pop. It uses enigma codes and uncertainty to draw the viewer in and make them question what has happened to the world as they know it. This attempt at authenticity opening tries to increase the realism of the film, suspending the audience’s disbelief. The film returns to the footage at the end and the audience are asked to evaluate and reinterpret the narrative that Nolan has delivered. This creates confusion with time and space. Uncertainty is certainly one of the key concepts of postmodernism.

woman talking to the camera
Example 1
another woman talking to the camera
Example 2

Albert Einstein once stated that “when you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” Einstein’s general relativity theory is a main theme in “Interstellar” with Nolan explaining that the real antagonist of the film “is time”.  Strinati, a postmodernist theorist, stated that in these texts “time and space become less stable and comprehensible, more confused, more incoherent, more disunified”.  This is certainly true of “Interstellar” and all of Nolan’s work.

In postmodern texts, there is never a perfectly defined character and narrators can be unreliable. As Strinati also claimed “postmodernism is sceptical of an absolute, universal and all-embracing claim to knowledge and argues that theories or doctrines which make such claims are increasingly open to criticism, contestation and doubt”.  This is a character archetype frequently used by Nolan in his films. For example, in “Memento”, Leonard gives himself a warning not to trust Teddy, but it is not until the end of the film that the audience and the character know why. In “Interstellar” Dr. Mann is presented as a hero until it is discovered that he was sending out false information so that he will be rescued. This information is a shocking twist and is followed up by a fight between Mann and Cooper. It is also revealed that the ever-trustworthy Michael Caine character actually lied about the formula he was researching that had the potential to save humanity.

Genre

While Structuralists would believe that “a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without genre”, postmodernists would disagree. These theorists reject structures and defined roles. This can be said for interstellar because it is a film with blurred genre lines. It is a hybrid mixture of science fiction, drama, adventure and mystery. It could also be said that “Interstellar” is part of the new “Cli-fi” movies that have emerged as a niche genre, mixing science fiction with the underlying message of environmental awareness.

Instead of focusing on hyper-reality like Nolan’s “Inception”, “Interstellar” offers fantasy grounded in realism, especially the media coverage on the end of the world and global warming. Real importance was placed on the science element of the film being completely accurate. Kip Thorne, “one of the world’s leading experts on Einstein’s theory of general relativity”, was used as a science advisor and was given an executive producer credit.

Theme of Religion

Postmodern texts typically ignore the traditional narratives of religion because it rejects “absolute truth”.  “Interstellar” does, however, provide “a meta-narrative with a clear redemptive theme”.  I think even this framework is postmodern because, for example, when Cooper realizes that he has been talking to Murph and guiding her all along, it “rings awfully sharply of the early Christian church’s assumption that Jesus would return within their lifetimes”.

Many other aspects of the film could be interpreted to have religious connotations, such as Dr Mann, “a fallen angel who turns satanic in a seemingly promising new “Garden,” which it is not”. It is no coincidence that Cooper’s daughter is, like Jesus, 33 years old when she saves the world. The soundtrack created by Hans Zimmer also has religious links because it was created on the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ in London’s 12th-century Temple Church. Zimmer claimed the organ was chosen simply for its “its significance to science”.

Conclusion

“Interstellar” is a film released into our media saturated global village in 2014. It was created by Warner Brothers in conjunction with Paramount, legendary and Syncopy. It won both a BAFTA and an Academy award for best visual effects and grossed $190 million from a budget of $165 million, making it an incredible success. All this success was driven by Christopher Nolan. Previous generations had Alfred Hitchcock as the auteur who entertained them most. We have Nolan. Whereas Hitchcock used suspense and enigma codes of the thriller genre, Nolan also warps the audience’s expectations but in a way that would appeal to the postmodern-literate audience. Therefore, postmodernism is not dead. It still makes a lot of money.

1 Kirby A (2007) “Is postmodernism dead?” The New Statesman
2 Sarjana Singh “How Christopher Nolan Plays With The Identity & Morality Of His Characters Is Outstanding”: http://www.storypick.com/christopher-nolan/
3 Lakshay Rao (Feb 2015) https://www.quora.com/Who-is-the-most-commercially-successful-director-in-Hollywood
4 Robbie Collin (2015) “Interstellar review: Christopher Nolan’s best film”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/interstellar/review/
5 Preetam Kaushik (2012) “Christopher Nolan, an Auteur in Contemporary Cinema?” http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/preetam-kaushik/christopher-nolan-an-aute_b_1709297.html
6 “Auteur theory” http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/screen/auteur%20theory.htm
7 Encyclopaedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/art/auteur-theory
8 Stewart, H. (2013) “How do film-makers manipulate our emotions with music?” BBC News
9 Tom Shone (Tuesday 4 November 2014 06.00) “Christopher Nolan: the man who rebooted the blockbuster” http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/04/-sp-christopher-nolan-interstellar-rebooted-blockbuster
10 http://curnblog.com/2014/06/22/debating-auteur-theory-argument/ – Jonathan Eig – June 22 2014
11 Kipen, David (2006) “The Pen is Mightier”. Los Angeles Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/05/entertainment/ca-kipen5/2
12 Kipen, David (2006) “The Schreiber theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History”. Melville House Publications.
13 Elliot, Kamilla (2003) “Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate”. Cambridge University Press
14 Harmetz, Aljean (1998) ”Round up the Usual Suspects”. Disney Pres
15 Gallagher, Mark (2013) “Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood”. Texas University Press.
16 Turan, Kenneth. Los Angeles Times
17 Gaydos, Stephen (2013) “Walk of Fame Honoree Jerry Bruckheimer Established Film Blueprint in Advertising Trenches”. Variety Magazine.
18 Sarjana Singh “How Christopher Nolan Plays With The Identity & Morality Of His Characters Is Outstanding” http://www.storypick.com/christopher-nolan/
19 Stanley J. Grenz “A primer on postmodernism”
20 Haberer, Adolphe (2007) “Intertextuality in Theory and Practice”. http://www.zurnalai.vu.lt/literatura/article/viewFile/7934/5805
21 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intertextuality
22 Jorge Luis Borges “Postmodern Literature” http://www.shmoop.com/postmodern-literature/jorges-luis-borges-author.html
23 ditto
24 “The library of babel” http://hyperdiscordia.crywalt.com/library_of_babel.html
25 “An otherworldly space thriller” (Nov 16 2014) http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/11/16/a-space-thrillers-spirit/
26 Jon J. Eilenberg (2014) “9 Easter eggs from the bookshelf in interstellar”
http://www.wired.com/2014/11/interstellar-murphs-library/
27 https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-242018182/inception-and-jorge-luis-borges
28 Derrik J. Lang (October 31, 2014) “Interstellar filmmaker Nolan on his robots” http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/oct/31/qa-interstellar-filmmaker-nolan-on-his-robots/?page=all
29 “Interstellar director Christopher Nolan says he had a very particular vision for the robots” http://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/film/interstellar-director-christopher-nolan-says-he-had-a-very-particular-vision-for-the-robots (2014)
30 John Anderson (November 7 2014) “Lost in space- An Interstellar canvas”
http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/film-reviews/63005517/lost-in-space-an-interstellar-
31 History “Dust Bowl” http://www.history.com/topics/dust-bowl
332 James R. Hull http://narrativefirst.com/analysis/inception
33 ditto
34 (2012) http://mementoanalysis.tumblr.com/
35 Jay (November 12, 2014) “Interstellar 2014- the secret revelation” http://jaysanalysis.com/2014/11/12/interstellar-2014-the-secret-revelation/
36 http://www.sociology.org.uk/ws1os8.htm
37 http://www.sociology.org.uk/ws1q3.htm
38 Derrida, Jacques (1979) “The Law without Genre”. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Derrida_LawofGenre.pdf
39 Tamara Lush (November 8, 2014) “Interstellar: Latest entry in the new “Cli-Fi” movie genre”
http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Movies/2014/1108/Interstellar-Latest-entry-in-the-new-Cli-Fi-movie-genre
40 Rowan Hooper https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/black-holes-space-travel-and-the-science-of-the-movie-interstellar/2014/11/03/0461b660-606a-11e4-8b9e-2ccdac31a031_story.html
41 BBC (2009-10-27) http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/atheism/types/postmodernism.shtml
42 Dr. Jim Eckman (May 2nd, 2015) “Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar” https://graceuniversity.edu/iip/2015/05/christopher-nolans-interstellar/
43 Alissa Wilkinson (November 12, 2014) http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/november-web-only/absolutely-interstellar-is-religious-movie.html
44 Dr. Jim Eckman (2015) “Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar”: https://graceuniversity.edu/iip/2015/05/christopher-nolans-interstellar/
45 ditto
46 Jon Burlingame (2014) “Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar” Adventure”http://www.filmmusicsociety.org/news_events/features/2014/110614.html
47 Alissa Wilkinson (November 12, 2014) http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/november-web-only/absolutely-interstellar-is-religious-movie.html

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!