Todd McGowan: The Timeless Christopher Nolan

In his book Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema, author Todd McGowan takes as his starting point the emergence of a temporal aesthetic in cinema that arose in response to the digital era. Linking developments in cinema to current debates within philosophy, McGowan claims that films that change the viewer’s relation to time constitute a new cinematic mode: atemporal cinema. In this post, McGowan discusses popular film director Christopher Nolan’s unique examples of atemporal cinema.

McGowan is associate professor of film studies at the University of Vermont. He is also author of The Impossible David Lynch and The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan.

Associate professor of film studies at the University of Vermont

Many of Christopher Nolan’s films qualify as examples of what I call atemporal cinema. I explain this concept at length in Out of Time, but in short, it covers films that break from linear chronology in order to emphasize the repetition of the psychoanalytic drive. In the drive, the future does not provide the promise of desire’s realization but rather a repeated failure to attain its object. By scrambling chronology, atemporal films make evident this failure for the spectator and thus encourage the spectator to embrace the repetition of the drive rather than put their faith in a different future. Though Nolan’s Inception appeared too recently to make it into the book, this film fits well within the atemporal mode.

At first glance, Inception seems like a chronological account of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he attempts to perform an act of inception (planting an idea inside the mind of someone) in order ultimately to be reunited with his children. But because the film plunges us constantly into the world of dreams, the past, present, and future meld together, and it is not clear that the ending represents a forward movement in time relative to the beginning. Nolan plays with linear chronology in earlier films like Following, Memento, and The Prestige, but in Inception this play is specifically tied to the logic of the dream.

Unquestionably the key subject of debate that the film has raised concerns its conclusion. The final shot of the film focuses on a top spinning on a table, and this top, as Cobb explains earlier in the film, functions as a totem, a device used to determine if one is in the real world or in someone else’s dream. The fact that the top continues to spin as the film cuts to black leaves ambiguous the reality of Cobb’s reconciliation with his children that concludes the film after the successful act of inception. Critics have argued that the reconciliation occurs in the dream world rather than in reality, or, more radically, that the entire film takes place in Cobb’s dream. The reality of the final scene has occasioned a firestorm of critical and online debate.

If we understand Nolan’s film in the terms of atemporal cinema, the question of the conclusion’s reality ceases to be the fundamental question of the film. In atemporal cinema, one never attains one’s privileged object—like Cobb’s reconciliation with his children—but instead continues to miss this object in various ways. I would like to suggest that the deception that Nolan performs in this film lies in encouraging us to dwell on the question of what is real and what isn’t instead of the question of Cobb’s relation to his own desire. This is where we can locate the significance of the film.

Like the protagonist of Memento, Cobb at first appears like a reliable source of identification only to prove himself completely misleading for the spectator. He presents his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), as an obstacle to his attempts at dream theft or at inception, and yet this obstacle represents his privileged object, even as she is lost to him. When she thwarts his plans, she is playing the part of this object, though Cobb believes that she is an obstacle that he must overcome. The film subtly asks the spectator to take the side the obstacle rather than the protagonist, as it reveals Cobb’s tendency to self-deception and his investment in an illusory reconciliation. The question that becomes foremost is not whether or not we are in reality but what relation we take up to our object.

Understanding Inception as an atemporal film helps us to see the precise nature of the question that it poses.


For further reading, check out McGowan’s Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema, which also evaluates Pulp Fiction, The Butterfly Effect, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and 21 Grams, among many other films.

“With its unique mixture of detailed apercus and large synthetic visions, Todd McGowan’s new book will finally establish him as the leading US cinema theorist.” —Slavoj Zizek

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