In Dreams: Thoughts On and Discussions of INCEPTION

I saw INCEPTION, Christopher Nolan's mostly brilliant new film, on opening night this past week, and was thoroughly entertained.  I think he may be popular cinema's most consistently interesting auteur of what I like to call the "Thinking Man's Blockbuster."  And while I may not be a fan of every single choice Nolan makes, I find all of them interesting, especially his missteps and what they may tell us about his films more than what actually works in them do, and the discussions they lead to in the online world.  (Though you shouldn't really be surprised if you frequently read my blog, I feel it's actually necessary to point out that there are really big spoilers below, and on most of the links I'll provide, so if you have some fear of such things, please make note of this now).

For instance, there's some hullabaloo currently happening in the film blogging network that has sparked some serious and refreshing debate.  The argument centers mainly on two things:  first, that INCEPTION's "dreams" don't actually operate in the strange, illogical way that real dreams do, and second, that there's no emotional connection to any of the characters (or emotional logic to the supposed revelations they have) during the course of the "mechanical" plot (see Jim Emerson's thought-provoking discussion for an overview and to join the fray, especially comments by long-time contributors to the discussion Matt Zoller-Seitz and Christopher Long for the most interesting threads of debate).

What strikes me most about the discussion are the comparisons being lobbed about to other dream movies, amid the denial of total fans that the movie isn't "about" dreams at all.  This is a point I agree with, and mostly feel that if anything, the entire movie and all of its mechanics are a McGuffin for working through Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) hang-ups about his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard).  Arguably, everything we see in the film is a construct of Cobb's imagination, a perpetual dream state that he either got lost in during his own experimenting, or by choice over the guilt of what he may or may not have done to his wife.  The flip side is that there's actually a layer of reality in all of this, which I don't ascribe to, and which I'll get into in more detail later on.  What is fascinating to me is that a lot of the criticisms of Nolan is that he is too literal in his dream-world.

As many have pointed out, the dreams within INCEPTION aren't really dreams at all, but literal constructs of an architect, who is out to deliberately fool the subject's subconscious into not realizing it's under attack and having a normal dream state.  Well, given this, why would dreams appear to the audience of the film appear to be anything other than that?  There's absolutely nothing in the film to suggest that the dreamer is privy at any time to the knowledge that they're dreaming, and who knows what his dreams are like while he's wandering around inside of them?  Aside from the "Mr. Charles" episode, which actually does play out a bit like a surrealist dream state of lucid and conscious dreaming (I'm thinking of the sudden appearance of rain outside the hotel as water starts hitting the faces of the dreamers in the above level as the van is under attack), appropriating incidents from the previous reality into the current dream state.  Think of this like every time you awake with a jolt from your leg falling off the couch, or have to go to the restroom after waking up from a dream in which you were about to, etc.  I think this sort of interplay between "real" dreams and constructed dreams works fairly well within the rules set up by Cobb and Ariadne (Ellen Page) at the beginning of the film.  Why some of these rules are disregarded by the end of the film is exactly why I think the entire film is a dream state of Cobb's making.

The biggest thing that stems from the ending and its implications:  not only does the top continue spinning, but there's absolutely no reason it should fall.  Upon going back over the film in my mind, I've discovered this really is the only outcome, and the biggest clue is the top, Mal's totem, itself.  In an early scene, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is explaining the concept of a totem to Ariadne, and says that it should be a personal object that grounds its holder to reality, and which only the holder should know the specifics of, in order to avoid being unable to distinguish the dream from reality, and potentially becoming stranded in their subconscious.  So where is Cobb's totem?  We only ever see him with Mal's top, which at the point it becomes handled by him, has been compromised.  This can only mean one thing, really:  Cobb is trapped in a dream state just like he fears Mal was (and really, does this mean that maybe Mal actually left the dream world for real and the idea that spread in his mind was that dreaming was reality?)  Or, was Mal even real at all?  Is Cobb simply dreaming a better existence than what he may have had outside in "the real world"?  I don't know that I can answer any of those questions, but they're certainly interesting things to ponder.

Going back to my original thoughts about the dream mechanics and how literal they are, the utter disregard shown by Cobb at all times for these rules, from constructing dreams of his wife from his memories to the risks he takes by delving into Limbo on, apparently, at least two levels in order to save Saito (Ken Watanabe), also shows that the film's reality is also a construction of Cobb's: if he's dreaming, then the rules can change from moment to moment whenever its necessary to progress the lie he's telling himself, no matter what the lie may or may not be or mean to him personally or the audience watching the movie.  While this may be sloppy storytelling mechanics, I think it definitely makes a case for the dreamworlds within INCEPTION to be a bit more dream-like and transient than they may appear at first glance, even with the presence of an architect that builds them into labyrinthine constructs meant to trap the dreamer and keep them from discovering the truth that they are, in fact, dreaming.

I don't want to seem like I'm lavishing too much praise on the film, though.  I do think that there are some extremely imaginative sequences, including all of the shifting- and zero-gravity stuff with Arthur toward the end of the films and the concept of actually creating stable dream states (which is what most of the critics seem to have problems with, acceptably so, I'll point out - not everyone has the same interests).  But, as with all of Nolan's films (including both Bat-flicks, despite my assumed "fanboy" status), I have some problems of pacing and the existence of far too much exposition in dialogue form rather than simply utilizing film to do what it does best: show us what we need to know.  I also think that its similar psychological territory to that certain earlier-this-very-year DiCaprio thriller, SHUTTER ISLAND, is too much to ignore.  They would certainly make very interesting viewing partners, even if one were only interested in dissecting strengths and weaknesses between the two.

What all of this means to the current discourse, I can't say just yet.  I know that I'm genuinely interested in the back-and-forth this particular film is providing for us all, and I'm looking forward to being able to discuss the similar (and dissimilar) parts of INCEPTION and any number of "dream"-related films that have already been brought up in context: TOTAL RECALL, eXistenZ and any number of Cronenberg films, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, etc, etc, etc.  In parting, I'll leave you with this thought: is a film that sparks so much debate and academic/professional interest really that bad of a film to begin with?

For further discussion and context, check out my friend Julia Rhodes' very positive review of the film over at California Literary Review, where she shares some similar but slightly different thoughts and responses to mine, as well as Jim Emerson's previous essay on Nolan's film THE PRESTIGE, again on his ::scanners:: blog.

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