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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Jul192010

« In Which Inception Dreams Of Us Beneath The Surface »

Blind Night Errand

by BEN LANSKY

Inception

dir. Christopher Nolan

148 minutes

Movies are often talked about as though they’re America’s dreams, like surveillance tapes of the collective unconscious. Movies are analyzed to find out who we are today, and what’s brewing beneath the surface of daily news (maybe journalism is to fiction as waking life is dreams). The liberal arts student in me finds this take compelling, but I’m also skeptical, since movies are of course designed to make money and tend to be financed, produced, and directed by people of extraordinary privilege and wealth. Avatar, for example, probably reveals less about America’s unconscious concerns than it does about James Cameron’s. It’s unclear whether the “dream interpretation” approach to movies is a useful way of understanding ourselves.

If movies are windows into the American psyche, then what to make of those that dramatize the unconscious mind at work? A bunch of recent examples spring to mind (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus; Synecdoche, New York, Pan’s Labyrinth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but of course it’s a legacy dating back to The Wizard of Oz (spoiler alert, sorry). One theory: just as movies are metaphorical dreams, maybe dreams are metaphorical movies, and the postmodern refractions of Gilliam, Gondry, et al are attempts to represent the uniquely contemporary experience of daily life crowded with alternate experiences, with scenes and stories from other people’s lives. Movies about dreams might be dreams about movies.

Inception has been called both a masterpiece and an object of delusional hype. If you’re reading this, my guess is that you’ve already read some other review somewhere, so I won’t go too far into explaining the premise: a group of very well dressed, good looking “extractors” (con artists who specialize in sneaking into people’s dreams to steal information) are tasked with “inception,” the implantation of an idea, which sets in motion a Mission Impossible-type heist caper set in Cillian Murphy’s subconscious. Meanwhile, lead extractor Dom Cobb (Leo) is tormented by visions of his dead wife, who routinely tries to sabotage his missions within dreamland.

Peevish reviewers — and point-missers everywhere — have observed that it technically should be unconscious mind, not subconscious. Even Wikipedia gets all sassy about it, reporting that “the term subconscious is used in many different contexts and has no single or precise definition. This greatly limits its significance as a meaning-bearing concept, and in consequence the word tends to be avoided in academic and scientific settings.” But I’m glad that the term “unconscious mind” isn’t used, because that is clearly not where the movie’s action unfolds.

The unconscious mind, as Freud had it, is the seat of desire, fear, instinct, appetite, trauma, and so on: it’s a wilderness, swampy and overgrown, its inhabitants feral, its images distorted and surreal. That’s not what Inception imagines: the artificially-induced dreaming that the movie depicts is a technology, not an organic process, and the “subconscious” of its shared dreamscape is orderly and realistic, clean and spacious.

The setting of the movie inside the mind isn’t arbitrary, but it is a means to an end. Apparently dreams play by Narnia rules, where minutes in the real world amount to hours in the dream, and days in the dream-within-a-dream. Due to this conceit, the movie is a structural marvel, and its method of storytelling is dazzling: the narrative arcs are strung from one another like the balanced wires of a hanging mobile, and all of the (seemingly unending) exposition serves to create a space within which this unique and intricate structure can take shape. (Grammar nerds: if conventional narrative is paratactic, Inception is hypotactic.)

These strengths are more or less uncontested. The movie’s detractors complain that Inception has no heart, that it’s a mere action flick rather than an emotionally mature work. But the whole tortured-by-grief widower thing totally had me, and was less contrived than anything else onscreen. It’s central to the plot, it includes Inception's cleverest twist, and it holds plenty of emotional wallop: a sudden image of (significance-laden) billowing curtains made me gasp in the movie theater. It is pretty crummy that the two female leads (Marion Cotillard as the specter of Leo’s dead wife, Ellen Page as the extraction n00b who needs everything spelled out) are moreso plot-advancers than people; but they’re much richer characters than the merely instrumental roles played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, etc, all of them tools in the purest sense.

Hardy makes the best of his part, trying his damnedest to charm the audience into looking up his name on IMDb when they get home. Murphy, skeletal cipher that he is, delivers his few flat lines as though hypnotized. But flimsy as the parts are, the women have the most to work with after Leo. It’s Page’s character (Ariadne) who enters Dom Cobb's mind, and repeatedly confronts him about his derangement; these scenes are played with a dark, weird intimacy. They don’t know each other very well, but she’s toured some of his most personal memories.

Somebody once said that Buffy the Vampire Slayer's satire is based on literalizing metaphor — that when a student remarks that the school principal is a monster, the principal does then turn out to actually be a monster. Inception is up to something similar, making the mind a stage and embodying the tormented memory of a dead loved one as an antagonist. It's typically considered bad writing when characters "speak their subtext," declaring aloud the motives and feelings that should be conveyed through the actors' performance. But Inception is about subtext as text.


I have a theory about why some critics might not be moved. In photography (I’m told), black-and-white images work best when they include both “true black” and “true white.” If the image’s shades only span the spectrum of grays, then it’s un-anchored. Black appears darkest, and white brightest, when juxtaposed with the other. The same is likely true for drama: the low notes of guilt, fear, and conflict are felt much more fully when set against the high notes of levity and humor. Inception takes itself very seriously, and deserves to; but if audiences aren’t moved by the hero’s tragic romance, it’s probably because Inception’s emotional range is narrowed by the absence of jokes. I can only remember two.

One of Inception's key tropes is the maze, and keeping up with the puzzling story is just challenging enough to resemble playing a game. Several reviewers have remarked that Inception needs to be seen twice to be understood. I disagree, but I would totally go see it again.

Ben Lansky is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Portland. This is his first appearance in these pages. You can find his website here.

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"Field" - Mount Kimbie (mp3)

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