Friday, July 23, 2010

Hey, you, get out of my mind!

Is it a dream or just a movie---or both?

This will be quick and dirty.  Maybe I'll return to it, and maybe I won't.  Perhaps you will have comments that will spur me to a more in depth post later.

It's been a week now, and Inception, Chris Nolan's latest brain bender, is still rattling around inside my casaba.  While I thought it was a good movie, I certainly did not love it, and I was definitely looking at my watch and wondering when the sedative was going to wear off as it wound down to its conclusion.  By the end, I was more than ready for the credits to roll.  Some of that may have been due to the actual movie going experience I had, but that wasn't all of it.  Inception was good, but I didn't find it to be actually all that entertaining.  There were long stretches where I just wasn't interested; much of the exposition was clumsy and took me out of the movie (dream?); and pretty much everything from the The Spy Who Loved Me sequence in the third (or 33rd?) dream level was butt numbingly boring.

Yet a week later I cannot stop thinking about it.

So I must concede that Inception was certainly an effective movie, above all else, and the fact that I cannot let it go has made me start to think I now understand one thing fairly clearly: Inception was a movie about movie-making, first and foremost.  The title refers not to anything happening inside the film, but rather what Nolan wanted to happen inside the theater.  If you have not seen the film, it will spoil nothing to explain that an "inception" is the act of planting an idea in a person's mind via their dreams.  This is what the Leo/Dom/Nolan character is trying to do in the film, but I now think the actual inception was being performed on the audience.  Nolan wanted to plant his seed (ewww!!) in our minds, hoping against hope that it would take and cause us to think about his film and discuss it endlessly.

(And if the grammatically deficient ranting I've seen all over the interwebs are any indication, Nolan obviously succeeded beyond his wildest, ahem, dreams.)

Even someone such as myself---someone who didn't particularly like the film and has zero plans to see it again prior to its DVD release---can't stop thinking about aspects of Inception.  I have been "incepted" (said verb awaiting official induction into the new world, new word internet Dictionary of Common Usage).

"Your mind is the scene of the crime."

That was the original tag-line for the picture, emblazoned across posters all over the world, and that, I think, is our best clue that Nolan intended for the inception to take place on the audience rather than on any character in the film.  This idea seems to be borne out by the movie-maker/moviegoer metaphors running fast and thick throughout the film.  I think my favorite of these comes from the way he handles the "projections," who are quite obviously meant to represent us, the collective audiences of the world.  When Leo/Nolan takes Ellen/Forehead into the dream world for the first time, he eyes his projections warily as she begins to mess with the "realism" of the dream.  He tells her that the more you mess with a dream's "reality," the more likely you are to confuse and anger the projections, which will lead them to eventually attack you mercilessly.  As Ellen bends the streets of Paris back on themselves, we see the projections giving her increasingly dangerous versions of the stink-eye, until finally they attack en masse. 

What better description could there be of the relationship between filmmaker and audience?

Humans cannot really experience dreams together, but we do share a dreamlike connection with movies.  Movies are surreal bits of realism projected before us.  They are a representation of reality where literally anything can happen    from illogical behavior to a complete and wholesale rewriting of the physical laws of the universe    if that is what the filmmaker desires.

But if a filmmaker diverges too far from reality (or at least from the reality he or she initially establishes in their film), then we, the audience/projections, attack them mercilessly online and in print.  Whether it be an action film that strays too far from the laws of physics, a drama that strays too far from the emotional realities of how people relate to one another, or a comedy that strays too far from actually being funny, going too far afield from what people expect or believe in often results in not just disappointment but actual anger from an audience.  And it's not hard to imagine that the firestorm of vitriol a film can provoke these days may feel---for the filmmakers---very much like being torn to pieces by an angry mob.

We share these living dreams with each other obsessively, but each movie, like each of our dreams, is something intensely personal, too.  No one can see our dreams, and no two people really see a movie the same way, either.  Sometimes the difference between how you and I perceive a film is small, and sometimes it is overwhelming.  You need look no farther than the ending of Inception to understand this immutable fact of life.  The images that close the film are themselves immutable, flickering on every single screen in the world in exactly the same way, yet audiences all over the world appear to be seeing those identical images as being something completely different.  The message boards are filled with people motherfucking each other to death over whether or not the final image falls one way or the other.  It's a computer generated image, designed to look exactly so, and yet people are lining up into at least three distinct camps (and maybe more) regarding what they "think" they saw.

What do I mean by "think" they saw?  Well, they all actually saw the same thing, but people are screaming at each other over whether that thing was A, B, or C.  That means some people did not actually see what they think they saw.  Some people saw a circle, while some people saw a square, while some other people saw a train going through an underwater tunnel    and not everyone can be right.


Well, maybe not.  Is one camp actually right?  I have no idea.  Myself, I think everyone is right.  I don't think Nolan was just trying to get some people to see a circle and some a square.  Instead, I think he may have intended for some people to see two faces while other people saw a candlestick.  That some people saw a third option may have been just a bonus surprise.  Either way, however, I think Nolan ended the film ambiguously not so we could "figure it out," but rather so we could interpret it for ourselves.  Whatever the film means to Nolan, I feel quite certain the movie was purposely designed so any personal interpretation would be as correct as any other.  While some people saw the same images differently, no one person's interpretation is more valid than any other.  You can't see my dreams, and I can't see yours, so neither of us has any room to question the others' logic. 

And see what I mean about my having been "incepted"?  I've given this quite a bit of thought for a movie I didn't even find particularly entertaining.

As I said, maybe more on this later depending on what everyone else thinks.  Tell me what you think about it all, and let's see if we can reach a consensus, or if we were never intended to be able achieve any consensus at all.   Did you like it, love it, or loath it?  And whichever way you feel, are you still thinking about it a week later?  I've avoided being too spoiler-y here, as the film has only been out a week, but feel free to say whatever you want in the comment section.  And if you don't want to be spoiled, then don't read the comment section.


  1. Kevin Not SmithJuly 23, 2010 12:45 PM

    Personally, I think Inception was a great comedy. I hope that interpretation isn't too controversial. Ultimately, however, I think everything happening in the film is a dream. I've sort of gone back and forth on whose dream it is, but right now I am enamored with the idea that it was Dom's dream, and that Mal, Dom's wife, was frantically trying to wake him up from it. The "team" we saw was actually Mal's team trying to perform an inception on Dom. It didn't work.

    But that's today. Tomorrow I may think something else. You are right, Schmoker. It was boring at times, and there was waaaayyy too much exposition, but it was a brain bender that keeps hanging around the back of your mind.

  2. I just came across an excellent piece over on Salon written by Sam Adams.

    He covers some of the same territory I do here, but he does it much more exhaustively. I could only find one mistake in his recap of the film. Could you spot it?

  3. The top was falling, period, end of sentence, full stop. The top was tinkling over, and Nolan wanted to see who would notice and who would not. Those who think the film was possibly all a dream are dreaming.

  4. The thing about the spinning top is this: all we know about totems we learn from Dom, who is the very definition of the unreliable narrator. Whether the top falls or not, we only have Dom's word for what that means. Dom is unstable and highly unreliable all throughout the film, often lying to or withholding information from his compatriots. So the top falling or not falling is really proof of nothing.

    The central question isn't whether or not Dom is dreaming at the end. The real question is whether Dom has been dreaming all along, which I tend to think he had been. And, yeah, I think he's still dreaming when it all comes to a close.

    At least, I think that for now.