The Ohio State University
[Keywords: denarration, unprojection, photorealism, digital, film, Hollywood, erasure, ontology, computer generated imagery, postmodernist]
Contemporary Hollywood films such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), among others, deploy a common narrative technique: each of these films projects multiple embedded storyworlds – the several layers of dreams in Inception being an example – and in each case, the embedded storyworlds eventually undercut the ontological stability of one another. The strategy of placing narrated storyworlds under erasure, what Brian Richardson calls “denarrating,” has been a popular device of twentieth century literature.  However, in mainstream Hollywood films, this narrative style is relatively new. In this article, I explain this aesthetic of erasure or ‘unprojection’ – that is, the process by which films project a storyworld only to deny or erase it – in the context of media technology. I argue that ‘unprojection’ in films does not directly follow from the literary precedents of ‘denarration’ but instead arises from an anxiety about the status and function of film within Hollywood’s ‘new’ media ecology.
Hollywood Cinema in ‘New’ Media Ecology
Classical Hollywood cinema typically presents internally consistent storyworlds. The projected world on screen, whether ‘realistic’ or ‘fantastic,’ abides by its own internal logic and global constraints. This projected storyworld, in turn, may be a composite of several possible sub-worlds: for instance, the dream world of a character, which is distinct from the textual actual world, may surface. Internal consistency, then, implies that the embedded dream world will function as per its own logic, while the textual actual world will operate with its own affordances and constraints. The world of the character’s dream will remain separated from the character’s ‘real’ world. These norms of cinematic storytelling are not any different from those that govern fictional worlds in other narrative forms such as the novel. And readers of the post-1960s novel know that the boundaries of embedded storyworlds are frequently rendered porous in such texts. However, that is not the case with post-60s mainstream Hollywood films. Even the most fantastic late-twentieth-century Hollywood films keep multiple possible worlds neatly separated from one another.
Hollywood’s adherence to internally consistent storyworlds can be traced to hypotheses about the ‘film’ medium. In What is Cinema?, Andre Bazin observes, “Photography and cinema…satisfy…our obsession with realism” and this “realism” is achieved through the mechanical process of recording the image, where no human subjectivity intervenes.  The photographic image, then, owes its ontological status to the mechanical process of its composition, whereby “we are forced to accept as real the object reproduced.”  Writing in a period when ‘digital’ cinema is supplanting the place of ‘film,’ DN Rodowick reinstates the transcription functions of analog images – transcribing light emanating from a referent on a chemical surface accounts for photorealism. According to Rodowick an image convinces the viewer of the past existence of its referent through “analogical causation.”  Rodowick’s and Bazin’s claims hold even for films that use special effects to create hyperreal spaces without employing digital technology. For instance, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), each photographed element had a physical world referent: parts of the cityscape were made of miniature models and matte paintings, and parts of it were shot on location. The status of the image vis-à-vis the ‘real’ object it represents remains central to the ‘mediumhood’ of analog ‘film.’ Once the storyworld materializes on the analog film’s surface, the existence of the corresponding physical referents can no longer be denied. However, photorealism is a technological property. There is no reason as to why the technological feature would or should dictate narrative techniques. Avant-garde filmmakers from the early twentieth century recognized that photorealism need not constrain representation. However, in classical Hollywood cinema, photorealism continued to prompt narratives in which a projected storyworld’s ontological stability was rarely subverted.
With the introduction of digital technologies, however, fundamental assumptions about cinema began to be scrutinized again. Lev Manovich came up with the phrase “synthetic realism” to discuss computer generated images (CGI), taking his cue from Bazin’s film theories.  Synthetic realism results from the “simulation of cinematographic codes” using a virtual camera. A classic example of synthetic realism would be the view-morphed ‘bullet time’ shots from The Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), wherein the computer software interpolated what ‘happened’ to a bullet between the states in which it was captured by physical cameras in two distinct locations. The trajectory of the bullet, visible in slow motion, was mathematically charted based on its initial and final locations. Thus, CGI does not record an existing referent but creates the referent through its representation. In other words, digital images sever the tie of analogical causation: what is now seen on screen need not have existed physically at all. William Brown observes that digital cinema makes impossible bodies and viewpoints seem possible, and indeed, plausible.  This shift from analog to digital technologies has profound effect on the conceptualization of the cinematic media, which at the outset was assumed to capture ‘reality.’
Digital graphics underscore the fact that the referents of a projected image need not be ontologically available or stable. The ease with which digital images, and indeed data, can be manipulated is frequently discussed in contemporary media theories. N. Katherine Hayles observes: “The multiple coding levels of electronic textons allow small changes at one level of code to be quickly magnified into large changes at another level.”  The mutation of the code affects what is seen on the screen. A particular kind of computer code that mutates or deletes data with remarkable speed are digital viruses. Marie-Laure Ryan notes that Trojan Horses that install viruses on computers perform a kind of “metalepsis” where the world of the code physically contaminates the user’s system and destroys it.  These features of digital technology are picked up in contemporary Hollywood films, which present storyworlds where information – whether existing as raw data, encryption, memory, events, or characters’ subjectivities – remains susceptible to erasure. These movies are not necessarily shot or edited digitally. So, ‘worlds under erasure’ in Hollywood cinema are not digital artifacts, literally speaking, but products engendered in the digital media ecology.
Unprojection – that is, erasure and substitution of elements of projected storyworlds in films – has precedents in the notion of ‘denarration.’ Brian Richardson explains denarration as a strategy employed by an unreliable narrator who negates significant aspects of her narrative: “The simplest example of this might be something like, ‘Yesterday it rained. Yesterday it was not raining.’ The effect of this unusual strategy is variable: it can play a relatively minor role in the overall text, or it can fundamentally alter the nature and reception of the story.”  Denarration entails not only the erasure of an event from the storyworld but also re-formulation, if only to make conspicuous the absence of the event. Additionally, in denarration, the act of narration becomes the key event subject to erasure. Thus, “the usual separation between story and discourse collapses, and we are left with discourse without a retrievable story.”  However, if the denarrated text is ascribed to a narrator, then its inconsistencies characterize that narrator rather than the storyworld.
In films we come across erasure of presented events even when those are not attributable to any character-narrators. The self-erasing narrative techniques used in these films have much in common with the ‘worlds under erasure’ in postmodern literary fictions. Brian McHale states:
Narrative self-erasure is not the monopoly of postmodernist fiction, of course. It also occurs in modernist narratives, but here it is typically framed as mental anticipations, wishes, or recollections of the characters, rather than left as an irresolvable paradox of the world outside the characters’ minds. 
McHale observes that postmodernist fictions may first project and then un-project events by revising the scenario over and over; may cancel-out characters and then bring them back; violate the law of the excluded middle; deny stable endings; or offer an infinitely ramifying narrative. When contemporary Hollywood films put their storyworlds under erasure, they recall such postmodernist literary tropes. However, there is also a degree of medium-specificity to the manner in which self-erasing worlds are presented on screen.
Case Studies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception
I. Technology of Narration
In this section I explore the literal and figurative uses of digital technology in the storyworlds of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), connecting those uses with the strategy of ‘unprojection,’ or erasure of projected worlds. Technology at the literal level equips the protagonists to erase or manipulate information stored in an ontologically separate world (the world of memory in Eternal Sunshine; dream worlds in Inception). However, counter-agents or ‘viruses’ initially situated in the embedded worlds thwart the processes of erasure, triggering Ouroburos-like loops that blur the boundary between framing and framed storyworlds.
Eternal Sunshine starts with Joel’s (Jim Carrey’s) voice-over. Joel meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a Long Island Railroad train and they are attracted to each other.  When Joel drives Clementine home after a ‘night picnic,’ he encounters a young man who offers unsolicited help. The scene cuts to a retrospective time frame and with this cut we also lose Joel’s narrative perspective. Subsequently, the movie traces Joel’s and Clementine’s histories, which Joel himself does not remember. Clementine and Joel were former lovers who decided to erase their memories of each other following a painful break-up. The storyworld makes a technological apparatus that erases memories using computational methods available to the characters. The young man, Patrick (Elijah Wood), who had offered to help Joel, was one of the employees at the firm Lacuna Inc, which performed the erasure operation. Soon, Joel and Clementine, in the narrative’s present-day time frame, start a relationship, continuing to be oblivious of their past. When they stumble on their Lacuna records they decide to give another shot to their relationship despite Clementine’s ominous prediction that it would end the way their former relationship did. Charlie Kaufman’s original script, which was revised in the process of production, presented infinite repetitions of this narrative loop: the film would end with aged Clementine and Joel undergoing erasure. The aesthetics of erasure operate at multiple levels in the film: On one hand, Joel and Clem’s repeated attempts at relationships following digital erasure of their memories triggers a loop of infinite regress. This loop is further complicated when Joel desires to retain Clementine in his memories once the process of digital erasure has started. Subsequently, Clementine’s avatars breed in unlikely locales of Joel’s mindscape. On the other hand, the movie projects an impossible storyworld where none of the presented course of events is ontologically stable. Each iteration of the Joel-Clem relationship is prone to erasure.
Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s Inception presents a recursive narrative loop, evading closure.  Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) navigates people’s dreams to steal or implant ideas. Dom and his team are variations on the figure of the pirate or hacker. In order to extract information as well as plant ideas, Dom’s team creates a multi-layered dream world where each layer marks a change in the ontological level. However, each layer is also predisposed to Mal’s (Marion Cotillard) invasions. Mal, Dom’s wife, is dead in the textual actual world but surfaces as the projection of Dom’s unconscious in the dream worlds to sabotage his plans. Once again, erasure has manifold functions in the storyworld. Each character has to be killed in one layer of the dream world to be wakened in the superjacent layer. So, erasure of the character at one level is necessary for the character’s coming to consciousness in another. In addition, the film maps Dom’s struggle to delete Mal’s shadowy projections, which haunt his dream worlds.
Inception’s opening sequence shows Dom, lying by a sea shore, seeing the projections of his children. However, he cannot see their faces. Dom’s inability to see his children’s faces is a sign that he is in a dream world. The narrative follows Dom as he seeks to leave the multiple layers of this dream world and return to ‘reality.’ He had entered the dream world to satisfy a powerful client who promised to arrange his return to the United States and reunite him with his children. There are two interlaced narrative arcs, one that charts Dom’s return to ‘reality’ and another that tracks his journey back home. In the end, Dom seemingly returns but visual motifs raise questions about the ontological status of the world to which Dom has returned, putting the framing conditions of the storyworld under erasure.
There are some differences in the strategies of erasure used in these two films. In Inception, the overall emphasis is on the transgression of the boundaries among embedded and embedding storyworlds while in Eternal Sunshine the primary interest lies in the manner in which embedded and embedding storyworlds reflect one another. Metalepsis is the central structuring device used in Inception. John Pier defines metalepsis as “contamination of levels in a hierarchical structure. . . . The embedding of narratives normally respects the separation between the level of narration and that of the narrated events, but metalepsis produces a ‘short-circuiting’ of levels.”  In the concluding sequence of Inception, Dom’s totem keeps spinning while the film cuts to end credits. The toppling of the totem would indicate the return to the textual actual world. All other ‘conditions’ for the return have been fulfilled: Dom has completed the assignment for which he entered the dreamscape, he is permitted to enter the US, and can see the faces of his children. However, this ostensible return to the textual actual world – the ‘real world’ for Dom – is problematized by the spinning totem, which leaves the ontological status of the framing narrative indeterminate.
Eternal Sunshine’s narrative unfolds as a mise-en-abyme, whereby the framed storyworld is no more or less determinate than the world that framed it. Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine re-start their relationship after erasing the memories of their past affair and the narrative ends indicating that this course may keep repeating itself. Erasure generates the conditions for duplication and then this duplication in turn necessitates erasure. We are left with a “self-erasing narrative… [that] ‘bend[s]’ a sequence back upon itself to form a loop, in which one and the same event figures as both antecedent and sequel of some other event.”  Even during the process of erasure, the employees of Lacuna Inc. note that Joel’s memory map leads them to the same spaces again and again, such that memories that should have been logically deleted crop up at other points in his mental terrain.
Though, as I pointed out, one film favors metalepsis and another mise-en-abyme, both these narrative strategies remain present to varying degrees in the films. Besides, strikingly similar scenarios are used to portray jumps from one embedded storyworld to another. Immersion in a tub of water at one level to wake up to life at a superjacent level recurs. Collapsing buildings, flooding houses, and demolition of objects signify the erasure of embedded storyworlds. Sound filters from one level to another as do projections of characters.
The novelty of using metalepsis and mise-en-abyme lies in the films’ deployment of digital technocultural cues to arrive at their narrative strategies. Marie-Laure Ryan has argued that the computer is a “metaleptic machine” because it processes everything in terms of a binary language in which there is no ontological difference among the layers of program instructions and the data that the instructions execute.  Thus, digital technology works in a self-reflexive manner. The species of digital code that demonstrates extreme degrees of this self-reflexivity is the computer virus. At the core of executable codes called digital viruses are the properties of self-replication, self-modification, dependence on host systems for transmission, and an affinity to corrupt systems that breed them.
Thus, it is no coincidence that both films incorporate the threat of viral attacks. In Inception, Dom tells Ariadne (Ellen Page) that projections of the subconscious turn hostile if they recognize any external control. He uses the analogy of white blood cells reacting to viral infection as an example. The metaphor seems related to pathology rather than digital technology until Dom says: “What is the most resilient parasite? . . . An idea.” Dom’s formulation recounts Richard Dawkins’ essay “Viruses of the Mind,” wherein Dawkins uses computer viruses as a “model for informational epidemiology.”  In other words, Dawkins underlines the inseparability of the pathological and the technological in an information society. The same analogy is activated in Eternal Sunshine as memories of Clem ‘go viral,’ replicating in unexpected corners of Joel’s mind and going undetected for quite some time, when Lacuna Inc. begins the process of erasure.
Ultimately, in both films, ideas act as ‘viruses.’ Clem (Eternal Sunshine) and Mal (Inception) are both characters on the same ontological plane as Joel and Dom but they are also ideas in Joel’s and Dom’s minds. Before commencing their relationship, Clementine reminds Joel: “I am not a concept. I am just a . . . girl.” In Inception, Mal has died within the framing storyworld, before the onset of the narrative, but she persists as an idea in Dom’s mind. What is more, Mal is also a victim of ‘ideas.’ She thought that her world was not ‘real’ and committed suicide to come back to life in the ‘real’ world.
Joel and Dom struggle with their impulse to preserve or breed their lovers as ideas as well as their urge to erase them. During the process of erasure in Eternal Sunshine, Joel suddenly desires to preserve his memories of Clem: when the external process of digital erasure is set into motion, he conceals Clem within his childhood memories, where she is not supposed to be according to the storyworld’s own internal logic. Thus, the recursive loops of Eternal Sunshine present an internally inconsistent world. Dom similarly struggles with Mal’s presence and absence in Inception. She breeds as a self-replicating virus in the nooks and corners of Dom’s dream, persuading him to stay in the dreamscape with her. The spinning totem at the end of the film signals that Dom may have remained trapped in the dreamscape.
II. Technologies of Production
Hollywood’s embracing of digital technology relates to the industry’s globalizing efforts – for instance, the use of extensive CGI and 3D enables Hollywood to capture regional markets where such technologies are not as frequently available. Producing films heavily reliant on cutting-edge CGI requires the kind of budget and scope that not many film production companies outside Hollywood can afford even today. Manovich observes that the development of digital imaging technologies may remain tied to Hollywood because of economic rather than aesthetic reasons.  However, Nolan’s and Gondry’s films do not seem to ‘celebrate’ digital technology, despite being mainstream productions.
In Eternal Sunshine, digital technology is used to erase Joel’s memories but apart from this reference to digital media, the film foregrounds older technologies like cassettes and analogue photographs. Similarly, there are exceptionally few sequences in which any trace of digital technology can be seen in the storyworld of Inception.  Despite the so-called Portable Automated Somacin Intravenous Device’s visual and technical resemblance to local area networks, the narrative calls them pharmaceutical infusion lines. In addition, directors in both cases rhetorically underplay the primacy of digital technoculture to their movies. Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry stated that they wanted to foreground the romantic story rather than the ‘science fiction’ aspect in Eternal Sunshine despite having a digital memory erasing device direct the projection and unprojection of the film’s storyworlds.  The movie was shot using 35mm film. Similarly, Inception’s cinematographer Walter Pfister and director Christopher Nolan mention that they sought to emphasize “photographic realism” that only the 35mm anamorphic film is capable of capturing.  Nolan remarks, “We didn’t want to have dream sequences with any superfluous surrealism. We didn’t want them to have any less validity than what is specified as being the real world. So we took the approach of trying to make them feel real.”  Elaborating on Nolan’s ‘documentary-like’ vision of the dream worlds, Pfister observes: “Film has an enormous amount of exposure latitude and dynamic range, which gives us infinite creative flexibility in creating images. . . . Every digital camera is trying hard to emulate 35mm film, and there’s a reason for that.”  In the post-production stage, Eternal Sunshine used digital intermediate finishing processes. However, Inception avoided digital intermediates and Nolan has gone on record about his preference of ‘film’ over digital imaging techniques.
Thus, in the actual filming processes both films demonstrate an almost anachronistic emphasis on analog technologies. The films’ productions show that there is nothing inherent in the analog filming techniques to prevent the representation of self-erasing storyworlds. At the same time, the complicated presentation and emulation of digital logic in the films’ thematics drive home the fact that Hollywood arrives at the narrative trope of erasure following the proliferation of digital imaging technologies.
The motif of erasure or unprojection has become increasingly popular in Hollywood films in the face of the industry’s gradual shift toward digital technologies. Eternal Sunshine and Inception are by no means the only films that adopt this motif. In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a theater—Club Silencio—seems to exteriorize Rita, the protagonist’s subconscious, a plane analogous to the dream and memory worlds of Dom and Joel. Ultimately this theatrical space in Mulholland Drive emerges as pervasive and available to other characters, such as Rita’s friend Betty. The embedded theater undercuts the legitimacy of the storyworlds: the final segment of the film, where Rita and Betty transform to Camilla and Diane, ends with a performer from Club Silencio saying “Silencio” and puts the former segments of the storyworld under erasure. If a distinguishing characteristic of the ‘film’ medium is the relation of ‘analogical causation’ that images have with a ‘past presence,’ then in destabilizing the ontology of the storyworlds, Lynch undercuts that analogical representation in favor of a digital aesthetic.  Similarly, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman projects some fantastic scenes – logically impossible within the framing storyworld – as the protagonist Riggan’s hallucinations. However, in the final scene this impossible space is shown to be available to Riggan’s daughter.  Shot digitally, Birdman is, of course, thematically concerned with the impact of digital technology on art and cinema.
Thus, Eternal Sunshine, Inception, and other such contemporary Hollywood films delineate similar narrative trajectories: embedded worlds that initially seem distinct start to infect one another, and the concluding sequence does not resolve this crisis but augments it by showing the condition to be pervasive or recursive. The ensuing ontological instability reveals the storyworlds that unfold in medias res to be always under erasure. These unprojected storyworlds, in turn, reflect on the potential for mutability and viral replication in a digital media ecology.
- Brian Richardson, “Three Extreme Forms of Narration and a Note on Postmodern Unreliability” in Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006), 79-105.
- Andre Bazin, What Is Cinema?, Vol. I, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 12.
- Bazin, What Is Cinema?, 13.
- D N Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 78.
- Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 184.
- William Brown, Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 48.
- N. Katherine Hayles, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media Specific Analysis,” Poetics Today 25, no.1 (2004): 81.
- Marie-Laure Ryan, “Metaleptic Machines,” in Avatars of Story (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 225.
- Richardson, Unnatural Voices, 87. Gerald Prince also accounts for “disnarrated” events: “disnarrated covers all events that do not happen though they could have and are nonetheless referred to (in a negative or hypothetical mode) by the narrative text.” See Gerald Prince, Narrative as Theme (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 32.
- Richardson, Unnatural Voices, 94.
- Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987), 101.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry (2004; Focus Features).
- Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan (2010; Warner Brothers Pictures).
- John Pier, “Metalepsis” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, ed. David Herman, Manfred Jahn, Marie-Laure Ryan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 303. Also, see Werner Wolf, “Metalepsis as a Transgeneric and Transmedial Phenomenon,” in Narratology beyond Literary Criticism, ed. Jan Christoph Meister (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2005).
- McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 108.
- Ryan, “Metaleptic Machines,” 215.
- Richard Dawkins, “Viruses of the Mind,” in Dennett and His Critics, edited by Bo Dahlbom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 13.
- Manovich, Language of New Media, 182.
- Rob White, “Homesickness,” in Film Quarterly 64, no. 3 (2011): 4-6.
- Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, interview by Geoffrey Kleinman, DVDTalk, 2007.
- David Heurig, “An Inside View of Sci Fi Thriller Inception,” American Cinematographer. July 2010.
- Heurig, “An Inside View.”
- Heuring, “An Inside View.”
- Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch (2001: Universal Pictures).
- Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (2014: Fox Searchlight Pictures).
Torsa Ghosal is a PhD candidate in the department of English at The Ohio State University, specializing in post-1960s narratives and media studies. Her dissertation analyzes the manner in which the materiality of semiotic channels like handwriting, typeface, and images affect literary poetics with reference to late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century North American and British multimodal literatures. Her articles discussing American and South Asian films and comics have either appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Post Script and South Asian Review.