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Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at Solent University, Dr Stuart Joy, has recently released his debut book exploring trauma in Christopher Nolan's films.

18th June 2020
TV, film, media production and technology

The book titled 'The Traumatic Screen' is the first in-depth, overtly psychoanalytic understanding of trauma in the context of the director’s filmography. And builds on and challenges existing scholarship in a bold new interpretation of the Nolan canon. We caught up with Stuart to find out more:

Hi Stuart, tell us a bit about your book, and why you decided to use the topic of Christopher Nolan films? 

The book is an extension of my PhD thesis and marks the culmination of over 10 years worth of study. In the book, I build on contemporary applications of psychoanalytic film theory to consider the function and presentation of trauma across Nolan’s work, arguing that the complexity, thematic consistency, and fragmentary nature of his films mimic the structural operation of trauma.

What is it in Nolan’s work that you think makes it such an interesting exploration of trauma?

Beginning with his short film Doodlebug and ending with Dunkirk, trauma haunts the cinema of Christopher Nolan. His recurring interest in aligning us with characters who have been traumatised and his repeated return to stories that involve loss anchors each of his films in the experience of trauma.

But beyond this, trauma is also explored through our own relationship to his films which frequently feature complex timelines that demand and even reward multiple viewings. These intricate narrative puzzles encourage us to return to them in such a way that emulates the cognitive shifts of traumatic memory - just as those who have undergone a traumatic experience must remember the past in the hope of moving forward, we too must recall our experience if we are to understand what we have seen.

Picture showing cover of Stuart's book 'The Traumatic screen - the films of Christopher Nolan'

Nolan’s films are both popularly and critically successful. What do you think it is in his work which resonates with audiences and critics alike?

In terms of Nolan’s commercial appeal, he has said that he’s done really well by trusting the audience to be as dissatisfied with convention as he is. In the age of the shared cinematic universes, sequels and perpetual reboots, Nolan’s continued attempts to offer something original and unconventional is a welcome tonic to the more standardised fare on release. Likewise, critics have broadly responded well to his attempts to push the art form to its limits, whether in terms of camera and practical effects or storytelling techniques. 

Over his career, have you seen Nolan’s approach to trauma deepen and develop? 

In Nolan’s early films, the experience of trauma is an absent yet structuring presence that frequently structures the narrative. By contrast, when we come to analyse Nolan’s films from the 2010s onwards, there is a noticeable shift in his treatment of trauma that is reflected in both a growing embrace of sentimentality and melodrama in his approach to trauma.