Danger! Plot Spoilers below...
Psyche Or Spy?
Some have seen this new film by Christopher Nolan as a de facto sequel to his earlier ‘Memento’. I’d been cynically suspecting something more akin to the ‘Matrix’ template - spewing out cool-sounding concepts slightly faster than you could keep up with. Something fun in itself, but aimed at 0-Level stoners.
For once, such cynical suspicions were largely unfounded. ‘Inception’ has its gaps and lapses, but is far more coherent than ‘The Matrix.’ It’s chief feature is an elegantly ‘nested’ structure of dreams-within-dreams, as if its reality was built up of Russian Dolls. Instead of either film above, it would make for a better comparison with Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenZ.’
However, as with Nolan’s earlier ’Batman Begins’, I was left with the feeling that Hollywood films have now caught up with comics – but the comics of ten years ago. There was a period in comics where more sophisticated stuff could happen incidentally, provided two superheroes hit each other at the end and the good one won. But this period is by-and-large over, and artists now delight in trivialising such scenes. Take Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s ’Play’, currently on display as part of the Hypercomics Exhibition. As the artist says here, he uses the attacking demons merely as a device to delay exchanges between the two chief characters. They could as easily be waiters in a restaurant.
But here, while there’s no denying the smart plot structure, in terms of events it is less Russian Doll than a jam sandwich. The ‘jam’ of crazy concepts and wacky dream worlds must always alternate with the ‘bread-and-butter’ of standard action movie fare – car chases and gun battles.
There’s a telling moment during one such gun-battle where a character levels a gun, only to be upbraided by a comrade – “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger” – who produces... ahem... a bigger gun. Given they’re in a dream world they could build a titanium wall around themselves, or make those enemy agents vanish in a puff of illogic. But of course we are in the action-movie section, where all actions are arbitrarily confined to gun-battle rules. There’s a frisson of excitement as we enter each new dream level, which is somewhat dissipated when the same gun-battles are simply transplanted into it. (The patented excuse is that you can’t bend reality too much, to risk tipping off your target. Yet this dream is being held by one of their team, so walking incognito isn’t necessary.)
Moreover, a lot of the dream images are themselves redolent of the clichés of spy movies. One recurrent motif is the image of the safe, representing the private self or ‘Rosebud’ secret. This suggests layers of jam spread rather thin, with the butter poking through.
In this way ’Incognitio’ is like a smarter ’The Matrix’, raising the question of whether it is merely for A-level stoners.
Except, like the dreams, there’s another level to it...
Dreams Inside Dreams, Films Upon Films:
One clear metaphor for dreams in the film is drug addiction. People jack themselves into dreams, their bodies then collapsing into stupified piles, ‘Trainspotting’ style. We encounter one group of old ethnic men, for little reason other than to remind us of opium dens. There’s the standard warnings about going in too deep and not coming out. This is a recurring comparison in films, which often utilise dreams and drug-induced states as almost interchangeable plot-advancers. Drugs are almost always hallucinogenic in the visual world of film, despite the fact that few common recreational drugs are actually of this class. (LSD is widely supposed to be a hallucinogenic, perhaps largely from the way it is presented on film.)
Yet, as was clear from ’Memento’, Nolan also has a predilection for making formalist films – films about film. When we start to watch a film, we are thrust into unknown situations with nothing to guide us but immediate visual clues. Of course this was the exact situation imposed upon the protagonist of ’Memento’, whose memory loss leaves him bereft of anything approaching background or context. (So easily sketched in with a few words in a novel.) The cafe scene here is redolent of this, where the character Ariadne is asked how she got to that cafe. Realising she has no idea, she concludes she must be in a dream. Yet of course this is also the way film works.
Many are those who claim to be utilising genre conventions only to subvert them, and equally often are the times where I don’t bother listening. But, though I don’t doubt at all those ‘bread-and-butter’ scenes are primarily there to fill the cheap seats, this time there may be a little more to this.
Take, for example, the scene where Cobb is fleeing pursuers. At one point he has to squeeze through an ever-thinning alley to evade them. This seems too redolent of all the architecture-bending we’ve already seen to be a co-incidence. Is this a clue he’s actually in a dream there and then, without knowing it? But, what of all the other chase cliches we’ve just sat through – him jumping from first floor windows unharmed, a car screeching by to rescue him at just the right moment? Are they any more likely for being more common?
Dreams in films follow a set of conventions entirely unrelated to our actual dreams. They’re almost like sex scenes in films of old, before they could actually suggest any sex so instead made up some stand-in codes. Real dreams are almost always more about atmospheres than narratives. And I for one more often dream about quite ordinary situations, which are suffused with such a sense of numinousness that they feel more significant than the vastest of explosions.
Yet comics writer Grant Morrison has said he’s had dreams in which the McDonalds logo appears. Similarly, we have seen such scenes so often that, by force of repetition, they must surely have permeated our subconscious by now. More widely, the common suspension of logic encourages us to combine the two. We know, at some theoretical level, that real car chases and gun battles don’t happen the way they do on film. But they’re so ubiquitous that we don’t think to question them. By foregrounding the dreams, by questioning what is dream logic and what is merely movie logic, ’Inception’ does take some faltering steps to question the very gun-battles it titillates us with.
A core concept of the film is the Totem. Each team member has a totem, an object only they know intimately, which they use to tell dream state from life. (It might be interesting to compare them to the photos in ’Blade Runner’.) Our protagonist Cobb (played by Leonardo de Caprio) uses a spinning top. In dream states it merely continues spinning and never falls. As the film ends, finally reunited with his children, he again spins the top but the film cuts out before we see whether it falls.
(This is all based on something of a fudge. The point isn’t supposed to be that the top can never stop spinning in the gravity-defying world of dream. It’s that Cobb knows from experience exactly how it spins and falls, better than any dream architect could rig. It’s useless at telling us anything. But this hole is papered over by a kind of fuzzy association, between the perpetual spinning and the apparent timelessness of dream.)
Naturally people focus on the top. With inevitable literalism, they ask whether Cobb is in fact dreaming this feelgood ending. But its surely just as significant that Cobb doesn’t focus on it, but instead walks away to his children. It’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood throwing away his gun at the end of ’Dirty Harry.’
It’s almost a non-question whether this is Cobb’s dream because this is so much Cobb’s film - he’s the only thing approaching a character in it. It’s significant that the two figures who most influence him have clearly allegorical names. Mal, his wife, is Latin for ‘sick’ and Ariadne is named after the Greek princess who guided Theseus through the maze and showed him how to slay the Minotaur. Mal was driven to her death by obsessing over whether reality was actually real. But by this point Cobb has defeated her, his shadow self, and simply doesn’t care. He will live the life he finds, real or not.
However, the top is still there for us. Two core concepts of the film are the act of inception itself and the “kick”. Inception is the mission of Cobb and his team, they must implant an idea so deep in the mind of their target (Fisher, played by Cillian Murphy) that he will believe he thought of it himself. The “kick” is the jarring motion that jerks you back into wakefulness, simulated by the team when it’s time to escape the dream.
‘Inception’ the film is of course both act of inception and kick, and this is the point where we are given our kick. It’s almost like the infamous ending to Jodorowski’s ‘Holy Mountain’, which tells us explicitly we have been in a film but must now carry it’s purpose into the wider world. The final ‘message’ is quite a Buddhist one. Our lives are taking place in a realm of illusion, created only to teach us life-lessons which will allow us to leave it. We need to wake up now.
Except, like the dream, there’s another level to it. (Like the film this review has a tripartite structure, gettit?) As so often, if we want to know what’s really interesting about this film we’re going to have to look past the whole business of authorial intent...
It’s tempting to wonder if the fate of any metaphor is to become actualised. ‘Blockbuster’ is a case in point. It originally applied to stage-plays, and simply meant ‘hit’. But it was first usurped by movies, then (in accordance with post-September 11th and environmental fears) it found it’s literal expression. Virtually every Hollywood budget came to be spent on demolishing at least a good section of downtown New York, or somewhere similarly iconic.
But, as you’ll know if you’ve so much as seen the trailer, ’Inception’ mutates this into a new variant – the blockbender. One scene from the film (iconic but of little plot importance) shows the streets of Paris buckle, bend and flip back over themselves, like rolled-up lino.
...except of course that’s only new to film. Variants of such sights have been commonplace in adverts for years. Perhaps the classic example was one of the first, the T-Mobile advert which matched malleable geography to the slogan “the world just got more flexible” (variant below). (Itself, inevitably enough, a literalisation and recuperation of once-radical notions, such as Unitary Urbanism.)
This, of course, inverts the usual trajectory. We’re used to new visual motifs springing up the other way, from film into adverts. (Think of that post ’Matrix’ phase where there seemed a law where every advert had to have ‘bullet time’ in it.) This reversal would seem grist to the mill of Mark Fisher who, in his study ’Capitalist Realism’, suggests contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are reflecting Post Fordist economics.
As Fisher puts it: “the assembly line becomes a ‘flux of information’... Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream... Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions... To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability.”
Not so long ago, all that was needed to hold down a job was to have vaguely relevant skills and show up on time. Now it is necessary to display indefinable ‘soft skills’, and the place you pick them from is your private life. It’s increasingly common to go to work interviews and discover your prospective employer has already looked you up on-line, and made character judgements about you on this basis. What could be a more classic metaphor for that throwing-open for inspection than the invasion of dreams? Dreams were once the most private thing, not just walled inside your head but double-cocooned within your subconscious.
Significantly, however, our heroes here are not defenders of personal privacy but very agents of this seemingly inevitable invasion. Equally significantly, they are jobsworths not evangelists. Their mission, to plant an idea inside your head so deep you think you must have thought of it, is not the game-plan of quack gurus -who seek to emphasise the centrality of their role at all costs. Instead it’s the aim of the marketing man, to subliminally channel your whim not towards a soft drink but that soft drink.
And as jobsworths, this crew are not presented as black hearted rogues so much as themselves victims of this paradigm, perhaps as much as the man they seek to rob. They’re a shiftless bunch, migrating from job to job across a non-place world, made up of interchangeable cityscapes, train carriages, plane cabins and chain hotels. From Cobb’s ‘secret’ its unclear whether they even know each other particularly well, or are just pretending to stay disconnected out of assumed professionalism.
The dreams they enter into are no magic-door escape route from the outside world. There are no crystal castles conjured from dust, as Dr. Manhattan creates in ’Watchmen.” The dream worlds are simply distortions of the waking one, the same corporate lobbies and chain hotel corridors. In fact, as the dream world is their workplace, it is where this world is most manifest. It reflects the way in which the post-Fordist workplace endlessly shifts tasks and goals upon you, or demands new sets of ‘soft skills’ be conjured up.
Even dying doesn’t give them an “out”, they simply wake up ready for the next mission. The place they fear most is not Hell but Limbo, a kind of post-modern netherworld which contains only the crumbling residue of the past. Cobb literally cannot go home to his family. (An extrapolation and microcosm of the contract worker, chasing job after job as they appear. ’Inception’ would make a good comparison to de Caprio’s previous ’Shutter Island’ here.)
Their mission, to ensure Fisher does not take over his father’s business, is also significant. During Fordism, sons simply duplicated what their fathers did or took up some essentially similar variant. (Ford was himself succeeded by his grandson.) The idea that you don’t do this, that life is a series of continual fractures and branchings, is the essence of Post Fordism.
This is never more proven than in the twin payoff scenes. In Fisher’s he ‘remembers’ a number code to reach a staged reconciliation with his dying Father. Yet this number code has only retconned significance, he was forced to recite it earlier and then a dream safe was built to that combination. Playing this deception upon him is not made into a quandary or an act of moral complexity: indeed, it is filmed as an almost exactly similar triumph to Cobb’s more central payoff. Instead the whole question is dismissed as if irrelevant. He is given an epiphany, what more could someone possibly want? Similarly, we are not told that Cobb is back in reality, merely that he is “happier now”. As always in Hollywood, or any other marketplace, feelgood trumps all.
However, none of the above should be taken to suggest this is a bad film – in fact, quite the reverse. The role of a work of art is not to come up with the correct answer, but articulate most clearly what it is trying to say. The images ’Inception’ conjures up of the Post Fordist world are potent and effective. The bending and buckling streets of Paris do not literally represent our world, but portray the way it feels to live in it. ’Dark Knight’ perhaps did a similar thing, but it was much more capital-P political, presenting us with tagged ‘ethical dilemmas’ and the like. ’Inception’ is much more structural, looking less at the debates which occupy the surface of our world than at what underpins them.