I’ve been studiously avoiding reviews of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s new metaphysical heist thriller, wanting to see it for myself (intrigued by its premise) before I start to see it through other people’s eyes. Today I saw it, and I’ve now scanned some of the reviews and a bit of blog commentary (see links at bottom).
With films as complex as this, I tend to reserve judgment for a while as I let myself process them, consciously and otherwise. But one of the ways I process them is by letting myself be guided by their apparent visceral effects on me (which is consistent with a process-relational understanding of cinema, i.e. understanding films in terms of the relational processes they set in motion). So the following comments are still largely unprocessed, or rather they’re very much in the process of being processed.
I once walked out of an undergrad class screening of an Antonioni film (this was a long time ago and I don’t recall which one it was, but it may have been Red Desert) feeling as if the world around me — the hallways, the industrial architecture of the York University campus, the faces of other students pacing quickly from one place to another — had been drained of its meaning and turned into an emotionally lifeless and sterile sort of terrifying beauty (or beautiful ugliness). That was the point of the film, I realized, and it was useful to experience the world that way for a while, but over time it would have become an oppressive kind of existential limbo.
With Inception I walked out feeling surprisingly attentive to the world, even compassionate to the life around me. There are a lot of things I could complain about — the bombastic music (which made the whole thing feel like an overproduced Hollywood remake of a very good European film), the narrative inconsistencies and superficialities in probing what could have been very interesting psychological terrain (if dreams are for the exercise of our creativity, why are these ones so like a Hollywood action film?), Leonardo DiCaprio (who just feels too smarmy for me to take very seriously). But the film still left me feeling reassured about life, not in the classical Hollywood “isn’t it good to be back in Kansas?” way, but in a more Buddhist kind of heightened awareness of the materiality, relationality, and fragility of things. So in part I’m thinking through how and why it did that.
It’s a film whose form echoes its substance: we’re thrown at the outset into a situation that we have to make sense of, but with no contextual reference points, such as establishing shots or even opening credits, to help us. As in a dream, we suddenly “come to,” without knowing how we got there. Unlike The Matrix, though, which has a gnostic-dualist ontology of haunted ‘dream world’ (which most people aren’t aware is a dream world) versus ‘reality’ (the reality behind the supposed reality), Inception’s is a multi-leveled world: there’s Reality, of the shared everyday kind, and then there’s Dream Reality, but that’s shared too (in a way I couldn’t quite figure out) and it contains further levels of dreams-within-dreams, down at least four levels, the basement being a kind of limbo of the lost (the TV show Lost being another reference point for this sort of thing). There’s also no controlling power here (which there was in The Matrix): our unconscious rules us, or at least influences us strongly, but it takes a lot of work for someone to implant an idea in us.
The title refers to this ‘implantation’ of an idea, a motivation, a desire, into the ‘subconscious’ of a dreamer so that that idea takes root within that person’s life, as if it’s their own. Here it’s a young fossil fuel tycoon who is inheriting his dying father’s corporate empire, and the ‘inceivers’ are a loose collective of heisters led by the DiCaprio character, Cobb (the ‘Extractor’), who are trying to get him to want to dispose of that empire by carving it up so it doesn’t become too powerful, or walking away from it, or something like that.
It’s a film, then, that’s about the power of ideas and dreams, about what motivates us and how those motivations are generated at deep unconscious levels (about three dream-levels deep, to be precise). Which means that, like all such films, it’s self-reflexively (to some degree) about the power of cinema, or the power of what Jonathan Beller calls the cinematic mode of production, the ways in which the moving-image production industry inculcates ideas, motivations, and desires in us, and how we test them out for their reality status. But instead of making us feel helpless in the face of an overwhelming Other (which Beller’s argument errs on the side of doing), it brings us back to a Deleuzian “belief in this world.”
I won’t spoil the storyline by telling you more of what happens, but what stuck with me wasn’t the kinds of paranoid questions films like The Matrix raise — “whose idea is this?”, “is reality to be trusted, or is someone or something invading my dreams?” etc. — but, rather, the process of reality testing itself. With its pliable worlds-within-worlds — crumbling cities, Paris folding in on itself, bodies contorting gravitylessly in every direction — it’s obviously a film intended to be zeitgeist-ish, an indicator of the further digitalization of cinematic reality, just as The Matrix, Dark City, eXistenz, et al. were. These are all in the tradition of the paranoid-conspiracy film (that Fredric Jameson has a good chapter about in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, though it could certainly use some updating by now). But unlike most of those, Inception has an essentially life-affirming feel to it, less The Matrix and more I Heart Huckabees or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, at least if you take away the “car chase[s], hotel suspense, and Alistair McLean-style mountain assault” (as Ty Burr puts it). (Other reference points might be La Jetee, Solaris, Last Year at Marienbad… but the more I think of these the more Inception comes to seem just too Hollywood. No matter…)
The film’s convolutions put us into the position of always having to figure out what’s going on — which dream reality is this, whose dream is it, are those people real characters or ‘subconscious projections’? (this is dime-story depth-psychology, of course). The “rules” of the dream world — that time takes X times as long in a dream than in reality, and X longer in a dream-within-a dream (dream level 2), and so on (it’s all mathematically worked out), or that if you die in a dream and can’t go back ‘up’ you go to a limbo where you’re stuck for years — all of these can be thrown out as functional conceits of a convoluted narrative, the only ways in which one can make this kind of storyline workable within the confines of a couple of hours (as opposed to, say, a novel by Philip K. Dick). But because the film encourages us to pay attention to the differences between dream and reality — the materiality of things (like our body, our skin, our sensory perception) and the continuity of things (like being able to remember how I got here, what happened immediately before this moment, and before that one) — that’s what the film gets us to pay attention to once we’re out of the theater, at least if we allow it to work on us (if my experience at all resembles anyone else’s). The film’s effect, in other words, is to encourage an attentiveness to the relationality of things — which a process-relational ethic of film would see as a good thing…
I also suspect that the Cobb/DiCaprio storyline is part of this life-affirming feel of the film. I won’t say much about this, since that would spoil an important piece of the storyline; suffice to say that he’s got guilt issues he’s working out, which end up being more interesting that I thought they would. But there is another possible reading of the film suggested by the ending, that I think goes against the grain of everything I’ve just written. All I’ll say is that it’s a more potentially paranoid reading (for those who like that sort of thing), and has to do with a spinning top.
A final gripe, however: Why, during the final credits, do we have to listen to more of the bombastic Philip-Glass-on-steroids music and not — what seems logical to me — Edith Piaf singing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, which is the song in the film that wakes sleepers out of dreams, guiding them from one level to another? (It’s interesting that composer Hans Zimmer used the song as a kind of “DNA” for the extra-diegetic soundtrack music, but that in itself doesn’t make it good…)
From other reviews
I like a lot of what Casey Rae-Hunter says here, for instance:
Nolan’s dreamworld isn’t terribly… well, dreamlike. [Nolan is] more watchmaker than imagineer, which is why his slumberland feels clinical. [...]
Consider the nature of the sleeping unconscious. Even those dreams with high a degree of detail contain plenty of shifty elements when we recall them in the light of day. And that shiftiness extends to pretty much every aspect of the dreaming experience. The interrelation between objects, places and events are nothing less than fluid. Meaning is multilayered, enigmatic and “extra-logical.” None of this lends itself to moviemaking, but Nolan seems to duck the challenge entirely. Inception’s only hints of elasticity are in its architectural elements, and these are ultimately more mechanistic than mutable.
One of Nolan’s most original ideas is that the subconscious can be trained to act as a built-in police force during synaptic security breaches. The director seems to gravitate towards characters who exhibit tremendous martial/intellectual/transcendental discipline on the road to exceptionalism (Batman, The Prestige). This includes certain mental technologies.
Buddhism has for centuries been aware of the the mind’s plasticity. It teaches (among other things) that we can shape the function of our neural networks by observing our thoughts and establishing new patterns. In therapeutic psychology, this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a remarkably effective treatment for a host of mental afflictions. Borrowing from Buddhism, it prescribes mindfulness as a method for rooting out “bad code” and establishing a healthier psyche.
Remapping the mind requires a great deal of discipline, but it can be done. Brains are far less rigid than stone, and even stone can be shaped by water. In this view, our thoughts are similar to ripples on a swift-moving river. Like thoughts, these ripples spontaneously and constantly appear and disappear. By not fixating on the origin of the ripples, but rather accepting the simple fact of their existence, we can begin to see the river as a whole and even influence its flow.
Inception takes a more martial approach to mindfulness, but it does offer hints as to how we can keep our shit together in the midst of chaos. In the film, one of the characters experiences acute panic when he realizes the reality he thought was solid is in fact quite the opposite. (We experience similar feelings of disassociation when someone close to us dies, we lose our job, get divorced, etc.) The character is told to focus on his breath and remember his training. The particulars of instruction aren’t revealed, but I’m guessing it involves meditation and mindfulness.
All of which reminds me of William Burroughs’s writings on how to protect the mind from colonization by alien forces of all sorts…
For some of the Blade Runner-ish debates over pinwheels and spinning tops and such things, see Jim Emerson’s piece here.