University of Vermont

Interview: Todd McGowan

Professor Todd McGowan is admired by students for an engaging classroom manner that showcases both a sharp intellect and his trademark self-deprecating humor. He uses the latter to explain his prolific scholarship (including four books in the past two years alone): "It's actually embarrassing. It's that I don't have any other things that I like to do." Truth or fiction?

That very question -- the relationship of truth to fiction --  is what McGowan explores in his 2012 book The Fictional Christopher Nolan. The book takes a look at the filmmaker's work-- Memento, Inception, The Prestige, Batman and more -- and considers how the films' structures play with truth and deceit, ultimately revealing the ethical importance of fiction.

McGowan sat down with UVM Today to talk about his work. Read on for a discussion of Nolan and ethical lies, among other topics, but be warned: you may also find a movie spoiler or two.

UVM Today: In the The Fictional Christopher Nolan, you write, "...for Nolan's cinema, the link between the truth and fiction always remains clear: if one wants to discover truth, one must first succumb to the fiction that seems to obscure it." This crystallizes one of your main arguments in the book. What does this mean?

McGowan: I was mostly constructing the argument of the book against a certain idea that truth and fiction are totally distinct, and that we have to try to not be duped -- we have to avoid succumbing to lies or fictions. It is actually only in succumbing to them that we can see how the truth of our existence is not something separate from the different identities that we construct. It's not equal to the identities that we construct for ourselves -- I wouldn't say that. But by tracing them out and seeing how they fall apart or don't work out, that's what I would say truth is.

That's why there's this intimate link between fiction and truth because truth is not what fiction obscures, it's what the fiction reveals through the way that it works itself out and comes to a certain end point or obstruction or failure. I would say that's truth.

Can you give an example or two of how Nolan's characters "submit to deception?"

I don't know if characters in the films do it so much as the films do it to the spectator. What comes to mind first is a character who doesn't do it. There's this movie Following, which is Nolan's first movie. That character believes in truth so much that he gets framed for murder he didn't commit at the end because of it. So it's an indictment of his failure to submit to fiction.

I think that it's more that Nolan's films do that to us. They force us to submit to some kind of fiction in order to discover a truth. Memento would be a great example. You think that the fiction of the film is hiding some truth which is what happened when the main character's wife was raped and murdered. And you think that the film's moving backwards back to that point. But instead you get that he tells a lie to himself, and he even avows that he's telling a lie. So I think that's an example where you think that the fiction that Nolan creates will lead back to a lie that's separate from it. But actually, the truth is him telling a lie, which is inherent within the fiction. It's the end point of the fiction.

You also talk about the ethics of deceit. How can a lie be ethical?

Most often we think of lies as obviously unethical and immoral. For Kant, a lie is worse than murder because it destroys the bedrock of the bond that holds us together. I see that, and I think most lies probably count as that. But my idea of the ethical lie would be a lie like "All men are created equal." Clearly that's not true, but it's used to advance a kind of political idea of equality. The unethical lie would be an attempt to advance your own interest in a certain way or avoid conflict (most of my unethical lies are trying to avoid conflict!). But the ethical lie would, I think, have a clear political drive within it. It's trying to shift the ground of the social situation in some kind of fundamental way. Whereas an unethical lie is trying to keep things the same. It's trying to say, "Let's not have a disturbance or try to keep everything the way it is." So a lie -- ok, my spouse doesn't know that last night instead of teaching my class, I snuck out to the ice cream store (that would be my infidelity) -- that would be unethical because you're just trying to keep things, keep your relationship conflict-free.

Do you have a favorite among the films?

I think Prestige is the one that's most Nolan-like. I think most people would say Memento because that was the one that made him Christopher Nolan, but I think it's Prestige because it's all about the deception. It's all about the way the magicians have to deceive. He shows how if you know the trick, it's ruined, so you have to invest yourself in the fiction. There's also a great moment in that film where Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are talking, and they see magician who does a trick where he makes a big fish bowl appear from beneath his garb. In order to do it, he has to walk around all the time as if he can't really walk. Christian Bale says something like, "That's the trick." The trick is in totally sacrificing everything for the sake of your art. That also means making your whole life into a fiction or lie.

So is that an ethical lie?

I think it's ethical. You know what they say? And I think this is true is about art. Christian Bale's character says something like, "Without this, the world is solid straight through." So something is created. Is the fiction trying to create something? Then it's ethical. Is the fiction trying to preserve something? Then it's immoral. Someone asked me, "What's the difference between fiction and lie? Isn't there a huge difference?" But I don't think there is. Even novelists: liars, I would say. But not in a bad way. In a really good way.

Another filmmaker you mention in the book as a point of comparison is M. Night Shyamalan, who also plays around with truth and deception.

People feel like Shyamalan's structure has become a cliché. I think the reason it's not in Nolan's case, although maybe it will become one and that will be unfortunate, is that you can even know that the deception is working, and the film still works. You kind of know you're in a Nolan film when you realize, "Oh, there's something I'm not privy to, and I'm being deceived." Take The Prestige. To me, that's his masterpiece. A lot of people were like, "Oh, I hated that film because I figured it out that they were twins 10 minutes into it." And so what? If a Nolan film is successful that should't matter at all. In a Nolan film, you feel deceived, but even if you know what the end point is, it doesn't ruin the film for you. That would be the difference between Shyamalan and Nolan. In Sixth Sense, all you have to say is "He sees dead people," and the whole film is ruined for you. A friend of mine calls these spoiler films because you can say one sentence and destroy the effect, but I don't think Nolan makes spoiler films. You can know there's a lie or fiction, and it still works.

You haven't heard anything from Nolan, have you?

I've never heard from him. I actually would not like to. It would bother me, and I would especially hate it if he read the book and said, "I like it. I'm really going to try to really follow those ideas." That would be the worst thing! Wouldn't that be terrible? I'd be responsible if he was a good filmmaker and now he's terrible, and it's all because of me. That would be just crushing.

What are you working on next?

I have another book that's about to come out called Rupture. It's a book that I co-wrote with my longtime friend Paul Eisenstein. It's sort of related to Nolan because it's about the way values are created through violent (not necessarily physical violence, but maybe) ruptures -- like the French Revolution -- that shift the ground. That's how values like freedom, equality, humanity are created. The whole book tries to trace certain values. Chapters are called Freedom, Equality, Solidarity, Singularity -- things like that. So it traces those values to their moments of rupture. There's discussions of films in there too, like a discussion of Fight Club, (which I think is one of the greatest films ever made), The Wrestler, Little Children.

That's sort of my direction, more toward the theoretical and away from the filmic. The only thing that could -- you know like in Godfather, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in" -- the only thing that could pull me back in to books about films is maybe the idea of a Welles book. I love Orson Welles so much, and there's a surprising paucity of things written about Welles.

What recent movies have you enjoyed?

I think Lincoln is stunningly good. It's gotten a lot of criticism for preaching compromise, but I don't think it does that. The trajectory in Steven Spielberg's films usually is impure or inadequate father figure who then becomes great. Like, he can not only save his family, he can save the Jews, too. Totally offensive, I think. Lincoln is the opposite. He begins as this pure figure, above politics, and he realizes that in order to get the 13th amendment passed, he has to dirty his hands, give bribes. I love that.