What do Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th and Recent Christopher Nolan Films Have in Common?

This semester I assigned Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th to my Law and Literature class. While the play’s setting is a courtroom, and the plot centers on the trial of Karen Andre for the murder of Bjorn Faulkner, the central issue was not one of law, but rather of what Ayn Rand called “sense of life.” Wrote Rand, in the introduction to the play:

A sense of life is a preconceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man’s relationship to existence. I emphasize this last because it is a man’s attitude toward life that constitutes the core and motor of his subconscious philosophy. Every work of fiction (and wider: every work of art) is the product and expression of its author’s sense of life. But it may express that sense of life translated into conceptual, i.e., philosophical, terms, or it may express only an abstract emotional sum. Night of January 16th is a pure, untranslated abstraction. (p. 1)

If you’ve read Night of January 16th, you will recall the idea that sparked it: “a courtroom drama, a murder trial, in which the jury would be drawn from the audience and would vote on the verdict.” But, in order to make the verdict significant, Rand made it depend on more than just “disagreement about inconclusive facts.” Instead, it depended on the jury’s judgement about the witnesses’ credibility, which in turn depended on the jurors’ sense of life:

The two sides in the play are represented, on the one hand, by Bjorn Faulkner and Karen Andre, his secretary-mistress who is on trial for his murder–and, on the other, by John Graham Whitfield and his daughter. The factual evidence for and against the accused is (approximately) balanced. The issue rests on the credibility of the witnesses. The jury has to choose which side to believe, and this depends on every juror’s own sense of life. (p. 5)

I recently saw Interstellar, a movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. I noticed that the ending was similar to The Dark Knight Rises (directed by and screenplay written by Nolan) in the sense that it is possible to dispute what actually happened—i.e., whether what we saw on the screen during the last few minutes was part of the real universe of the movie, or rather something in a character’s imagination.

SPOILERS FOLLOW below the embedded trailer:

So, for example, some have thought that the entire last sequence of Interstellar was merely a “death dream” experienced by the protagonist, Cooper. This article presents evidence for that interpretation. If you have seen the movie, I think you could join me in marshalling an equivalent body of evidence that Cooper does in fact live to see his daughter, Murph, and eventually goes on to live happily ever after with Ann Hathaway’s character, Brand, in another galaxy beyond the wormhole. I’ll leave it as an exercise; feel free to discuss in the comments 🙂

Similarly, in The Dark Knight Rises, we go from believing Bruce has died saving Gotham, to believing that he’s finally found a way to shrug off the responsibility of being Batman and live happily ever after in France with Selina Kyle (Catwoman—again, played by the fortunate Ann Hathaway 🙂 ). But some believed that the last sequence, in which we see Bruce and Selina enjoying themselves at a table in a French cafe, is merely the dream of Alfred, who always wished such a happy ending for Bruce. And, as with Interstellar, it seems possible to marshall a significant amount of evidence for either interpretation.

I think Nolan, at least in these two movies, has been intentionally planting enough evidence for either interpretation so that the viewer’s judgement as to what happened in the end of each depends on the viewer’s own sense of life. (And this is why I am glad to hear that Christian Bale also believes that Bruce lives at the end of The Dark Knight Rises.) What do you think? Let me know in the comments, below.

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6 responses to “What do Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th and Recent Christopher Nolan Films Have in Common?

  1. quintdannager

    Interesting. It never occurred to me that either ending was just a dream.

  2. As I’m sure you are aware, Kay Nolte Smith’s book, Mindspell, also concludes with a scene that, as with Rand’s play, leaves the interpretation open to the reader.

    Nolan’s movie, Inception, also ends on a similarly ambiguous moment.

    I thought I would mention these to round out this interesting discussion. In the case of Night of January 16th, the choice really is one between two possible realities and rests upon one’s overall sense-of-life. In all of the other cases cited, we are really being asked to chose between a hard reality and a virtual fantasy. Here I would say that the critical determinant for the interpretations lies with whether you adhere to a solid primacy-of-existence metaphysics or allow some degree of primacy-of-consciousness into the mix! 🙂

  3. tomer

    Nolan’s Inception had the most ambiguous dream ending of all, with the coin that would spin forever if you were in a dream being shown to spin just long enough to be ready to fall, but the movie then cutting to an end before we see if it does or not.

  4. The endings of Christopher Nolan’s movie are not ambiguous or intentionally left up to the viewer for interpretation. He ends with strong visual statements that flip conventional morality on its head (which is part of the reason why some people work so hard to rationalize that the endings are not exactly what they are). If he wanted his movies to be ambiguous or open for interpretation, he wouldn’t have ended them so definitively.

    In both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, it’s important to look at what the last scenes are: John Blake finding the Bat Cave and Brand reaching the new planet for humans. Both of these scenes are EXTERNAL to the protagonists AND consequences of the protagonists’ actions. The heroes have changed the world. Not coincidentally, without these final scenes, the themes of the stories aren’t carried through. Blake finding the Batsuit drives home the point that Batman is an ideal anyone can fight for, not one man. Brand reaching humanity’s new home shows that humans can survive by discovery and exploration.

    It’s also important to consider what is NOT present in these endings. There are ZERO visual cues that either ending is a dream. The ending of Interstellar is much more arguable than the ending of The Dark Knight Rises because it is shot in a much more Inception-style to visually symbolize the “advanced science.” Still, consider the lack of visual evidence for the dream interpretations alongside the fact that if the endings can be interpreted as dreams, the rest of the movies fall apart thematically and plot-wise (the latter is especially true of Interstellar). I’ll return to this thought in a moment.

    A brief side note: The ending of Inception is not ambiguous either. The entire story is about dealing with the question “how do we know if the universe is real or not?” The ending tells us that at a certain point it’s fruitless to worry about it. The question is unanswerable and stops you from living. Note how Cobb’s wife committed suicide because she believed she was still dreaming. Her worrying about it literally led to her death. Likewise, Cobb embraces his family once he leaves the top spinning. Embracing his family is a visual symbol for living as he was distant from them the entire movie. Thus, the top still spinning means that we don’t know if it’s a dream or not and it ALSO means that Cobb doesn’t know and doesn’t WANT to know. He wants to live. That desire is the meaning of the ending. When people debate over if it’s a dream or not, they miss that point.

    By saying Nolan’s endings are up for interpretation, it undermines the cohesion of his writing and directing, thus implying his movies are not as good as they actually are. The people claiming the endings of his movies are dreams want that implication to be commonly accepted because they do not want him to be celebrated. Notice how this dream ending stuff, for both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, has only emerged AFTER the claims that Interstellar was bad because it wasn’t “real science” were largely ignored.

    • Justin: I agree that the ending to Nolan’s moves are as solid, as is the ending to Kay Nolte Smith’s story. But the spinning top or the unanswered mystery do intentionally leave open the possibility for alternate interpretations. These works do project a solid universe, but then ask you to make a conscious decision about where you stand metaphysically when faced with something new that remains open-ended. Have you actually accepted the world as it has been presented, or do you remain skeptical? This is where the parallel to Rand’s play come in. THe conclusion you form does rely upon your underlying sense of life.

      • There is nothing open ended about any of the movies:

        In Inception, Cobb has resolved to stop worrying about if he is in a dream or not.
        In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne has completed his mission and passed the cowl on.
        In Interstellar, Cooper has helped humanity discover the planet it will move to and returned to his daughter.

        If a viewer wishes, unintentionally or intentionally, to see those endings ambiguously, that assessment is a failure on his part, not the movie’s. If the endings were ambiguous, the movies would be awful art.

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