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Christopher Nolan shared some respectful, realistic graduation advice at Princeton’s commencement ceremony on Monday morning.
“In the great tradition of these speeches, generally someone says something along the lines of ‘Chase your dreams,’ but I don’t want to tell you that because I don’t believe that,” he told the students at Class Day. “I want you to chase your reality.”
“I feel that over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense. … I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with — they are subsets of reality,” he later reflected, apologizing to anyone who hadn’t seen Inception. “The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb — he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling, it was cut to black.”
“I skip out of the back of the theater before people catch me, and there’s a very, very strong reaction from the audience: usually a bit of a groan,” he joked. “The point is, objectively, it matters to the audience in absolute terms: even though when I’m watching, it’s fiction, a sort of virtual reality. But the question of whether that’s a dream or whether it’s real is the question I’ve been asked most about any of the films I’ve made. It matters to people because that’s the point about reality. Reality matters.”
The director of Interstellar and The Dark Knight trilogy first noted that he met his wife on the first day of college — a remark met with palpable audience sentiment — and though their graduation was bittersweet, they were ready to get out there.
“We felt very much as if we had accumulated this whole wheel of Brie of knowledge!” he joked. “Of course, what I realize is, it’s actually Swiss cheese — those gaps in there are the point. They’re the important part, because you’re going to get out there and fill those gaps you didn’t even know you had, and you’re going to fill them with experience. Some of it marvelous, some of it terrible. And you’re going to learn that way.
“What you have achieved here will see you through that. You haven’t just learned a body of knowledge; you’ve learned how to learn, you’ve learned the value of learning,” he continued. “Most importantly, some of those gaps will be filled with the most precious thing of all: new thought, new ideas, things that are going to change the world.”
Nolan admitted that as a believer in Inception, “the idea that you can plant the seed of an idea that will grow into something more substantial over time — I do feel some responsibility to try and say something to you that will carry forward and might help you in some way.” He thought back to the world into which he graduated: “Racism, income inequality, warfare — I could go on but you know this list, and the reason you know it is because it’s exactly the same today. What have we been doing for the last twenty years? If I’m gonna give you any advice, I have to take a hard look at my generation and what we’ve done.”
“The truth is, I think we failed to address a lot of the fundamentals — possibly for a good reason. I think we went out into the world believing that if we could connect the world, if we could allow the free exchange of ideas across geographical boundaries, economic boundaries, if we could all talk, these problems would go away. Unfortunately, I think by now, we have to acknowledge that we were wrong, that’s not the case. Communication is not everything. So much of the resources — intellectual, financial — of my generation have gone into communications infrastructure and achieved wonderful things, but perhaps not as wonderful as we claim them to be.”
“It’s an insult to reality,” said Nolan of being stuck to screens, rather than looking out the window of the cross-country airplane he took to get there, for example. “I have to acknowledge the irony that I am someone who made a film, half of which is set in the cabin of an airplane where people are dealing with realities within realities, so I’ve certainly had my part to play in this, perhaps. But when you’re flying in an airplane across this incredible country, you’re enjoying one of the great modern marvels, you’re getting a perspective on America, on our landscape and where we are that no one’s ever had before.”
“Look at fundamentals — how can we change things, move the ball on this and progress? I don’t have to tell you how to do it. I just have to tell you it’s your problem now,” he challenged them. “It’s very important that people are really affected by what you do. I think you have limitless potential.”
Nolan closed by clarifying the longstanding debate of Batman’s standing at Princeton, thanks to a scene from Batman begins. “The most important thing about Bruce Wayne — yes, he attended Princeton, but he didn’t graduate,” he said to roaring applause. “So as of tomorrow, you are all already better than Batman!”
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