Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Ruminations on Inception

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ruminations on Inception

by Tony Dayoub

I've been told countless times, "I bet you're analyzing a movie the entire time you're watching it." My response is usually some variation on, "Well, if it's good, if I'm emotionally engaged, my mind is too wrapped up to spend any time picking the movie apart." Christopher Nolan's films are a conundrum then, because I do believe they are good, but I'm often not emotionally engaged, and always picking them apart. In this respect, the polarizing Inception is no different and, in fact, may be the epitome of just such a film.

On the uppermost superficial level, Inception is about Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a master thief of dreams, who takes a crack team of operatives into the psyche of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a multicorporation conglomerate. Only this time, his objective is not to steal an idea but, as the film's title suggests, to implant one. Like in many neo-noirs, Cobb becomes caught up in a labyrinth, only in this case, it's in the dreamscape he enters to execute his heist. Just as the traditional noir antihero is usually undone by a gorgeous femme fatale, his late wife Mal (which literally translates to "bad" in Spanish) fulfills that function here. Mal (Marion Cotillard) always personifies a random, uncontrollable element in Cobb's subconscious, this noir hero's fatal flaw which appears more frequently and with more autonomy as he burrows deeper into his dreams, the ultimate obstacle to the operation he hopes to pull off.

The critical world is divided by Inception, with voices I respect on both sides of the aisle. On the one hand many find the film is all surface and no depth, with interpretations of the puzzle(s) the film poses rather easy to suss out. Jim Emerson is one of the film's leading naysayers, who eloquently balks at the film's failure to truly evoke the feeling of a dream. But until now, I have only found one airtight explanation for the film, by Devin Faraci of CHUD. Not only does he get the rather obvious parallels between Cobb's "dream team" and Nolan's film crew, both mounting their own kind of production by implanting an idea in their respective targets' heads. Faraci is able to convincingly unlock how the true markers of dream logic—overlooked by many of its critics—do exist in the film.

Truthfully, on an instinctual level, these are ideas I was just beginning to grasp while watching Inception. Deliberately operating on a certain plane of detachment (as almost every Nolan film does) Inception is designed to allow the viewer to engage with it the same way one would a brainteaser. But as Bill Ryan points out in a recent post about Mulholland Drive (2001), a different kind of dream movie, there is a certain line one crosses when all of a film's secrets are explained which makes it difficult to enjoy with the same kind of initial enthusiasm. With Nolan's films in particular, the journey is often far more exciting than the resolution. So I find myself quite resistant to unlocking his films on an emotional level, because I'm afraid I might find nothing there.

"Unlock" is a good word, too, because if there's one recurring visual motif in Inception which proves Faraci's claims that Cobb is a cinematic stand-in for Nolan, it is the safe. Safes are everywhere in the dreamscape—whether the kind with digital keypads or larger, vault-like safes—obviously good hiding places for a person's secrets. But let's address the safe on an ur-textual level. For much of the film, Cobb and his dream team are literally descending down into deeper and deeper strata of his consciousness, with each dimension operating under it's own laws of time and physics. Nolan's weakness in the past (most apparent in The Dark Knight) has been maintaining the visual geography for the viewer in his action scenes. In Inception, he and DP Wally Pfister complicate the film with each new layer they add, each a spinning plate which both must keep aloft in the viewer's mind, as the film cuts from one to the other. While this would seem to absolve them from any culpability should they misstep, they never lose us, giving each level their own distinct visual identity predicated on films which I presume hold some influence over Nolan: Glenn Kenny believes the snowy mountaintop battle is a quote from 1964's The Heroes of Telemark, but I can't give Nolan too much credit (he's about my age), so I'll say it's actually a reference to the Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969); the zero-g hallway fight scene is a quote from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the climax—and forgive me for mixing metaphors—as each plate starts crashing down, each mounting revelation of Inception's plot starts to click like the tumblers in a safe, a catharsis for the viewer who still remains actively engaged two-thirds of the way into the film despite the emotional chill which pervades much of it.

It is here where I have to disagree Nolan is the next Kubrick, a misplaced comparison by many who confuse his attempts to pay homage to the venerated director with a true inheritance of Kubrick's artistic legacy. Kubrick's reputation for emotional distance is overblown. See the conclusion of Paths of Glory (1957), the "I am Spartacus scene", the death of HAL in 2001 (or any number of scenes), and tell me there is no pathos. No, if anything, Nolan resembles Brian De Palma (Scarface) in the sense that their is an obvious film scholar at work who approximates the technical virtuosity of his directing idols the way De Palma did Hitchcock's, but who still hasn't found the emotional component necessary to connect with his audience to a degree beyond just that of the commercial with the same consistency as those he apes. Which is fine by me, by the way. It's rare that such artists come along, and certainly, Nolan's ambitions seem grand and focused enough that I have no doubt he'll get there.

Which begs the question, why then, all the anti-Nolan discourse? In this year of cinematic dross, Inception is practically an oasis. So it fails to reach it full potential. How many films don't? But what a spectacular failure. Inception has got even armchair critics talking, arguing, writing. People are being challenged to think. Love Inception or hate it, I'm happy that for at least the next couple of weeks, the mainstream is talking and cinema is part of the conversation.


Dean Treadway said...

Haven't seen the film yet, and won't until the crowds die down somewhat. However, just wanted to comment that you are correct in your final analysis--it's been a long time since a movie has been so talked about, and for that we must be thankful. Very fine article.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks, Dean. Yes, I'm all for active engagement in cinema.

David Blakeslee said...

Inception is the only new release that's persuaded me to pay admission early on in its theatrical run this summer (other than Toy Story 3 which for me was more of an enjoyable and nostalgic "complete the cycle" family viewing event.) So I can't fairly compare it to other 2010 releases, but the failure of those other films to convince me they're worth my time must say something. :)

I entered into it hoping for something a little more loopy and dream-like than the extended gun battles and similar action-movie cliches that Nolan served up, but that was my only disappointment, and not a big one at that. Taking Inception on its own terms, I found plenty to enjoy - it's a polished, intriguingly elaborate piece of work, fun to talk about with others and definitely a movie I look forward to watching again sometime.

I read Devin Faraci's review earlier today and found his case pretty compelling, though not completely definitive as an all-encompassing explanation of the film. I wouldn't say it was all a dream, more a "mental construct," since it operates under more disciplined rules and internal logic than real dreams. More fitting analogies would be ideologies (political, religious, sociological) or other altered states of consciousness, e.g. drugs, focused meditation or other spontaneous experiences that foster a disconnect between the human observer and his/her participation in ordinary consensus-reality. Of course cinema is another form of the altered state, rendered through media, and with the enhanced tools at its creators' disposal, more seductive and persuasive as we move forward in time. Inception may not leave the same emotional impact that other cinematic masters have made in decades past, but perhaps that's a side-effect of the more emotionally sterile tools and environment from which it sprang. As such, it's probably a fitting relic of the detached and obsessively self-reflexive era in which we live.

Anonymous said...

Loved your idea of the third act representing the tumblers of a safe all falling into place. Great work overall as well.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Tony, we can debate the plot loopholes, the references in Inception, till Judgment Day, but the fact, is in a long time, a movie has motivated me to actually think over it again and again, look for meanings at every level,make me refer back to Dream Theory Analysis, and i believe that is the biggest achievement of Inception.

It was the same i felt with AI, whatever be the merits of the ending, after i finished watching the movie, it just left me thinking about the human vs robot issue, or the entire concept of A.I.

For me movies like Pan's Labyrinth, A.I., Blade Runner don't really come under masterpieces or classics. In fact for me they are not movies, i just count them as "experiences". They are the kind of movies, that just make me keep thinking about, and make me discover something new every time i watch them.

One common gripe i find among critics of this movie, is the fact that Nolan took the surreal atmosphere of a dream world, and tried to apply the logical parameters to it, the dream scape architecture, the various levels. In fact critics of those movie claim that Nolan was actually "spoon feeding" the audience, with all the exposition.

For me i see it is the age old conflict between the Freud and Jung schools, when it comes to dream interpretation. If we take earlier Dream based movies like Lynch's Mullholland Drive or Inland Empire, i feel they were more a tribute to Freud's ideas. Lynch would create the surreal dream world, and ask the viewer to make sense of it. Nolan on the other hand i feel veers more towards Jung, where he believes that everything in the dream world has a purpose, some symbolism, some logic, or what Jung stated as the collective unconscious. Again just few thoughts of mine on this.

-- Ratnakar

Sadako said...

Haven't seen it yet but can't wait to!

Susan said...

The major positive for me was the notion of influence on others. The dreams (aside from the STUNNING visual choreography) took a back seat to the morality of planting ideas for your benefit when they may utterly alter the person you've influenced.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Taking Inception on its own terms, I found plenty to enjoy - it's a polished, intriguingly elaborate piece of work, fun to talk about with others and definitely a movie I look forward to watching again sometime.

Dave, this perfectly sums up my feelings about it. Good, not great, but certainly not deserving of the hyperbole on either side of the divide it has engendered.

Ratnakar, great point about Jung. I think Nolan's world may not be as surreal as some viewers would like. But I often disagree with judging a film by the expectations one brings to it. As Dave said above, it works very well within the internal world the film sets up for itself.

Susan, I agree. Anyone hung up on the "dream" stuff, is missing out on the actual dramatic conflict involving mucking about in someone's mind.

Unknown said...

Excellent review! With the exception of INSOMNIA (a completely unnecessary remake), I've thoroughly enjoyed all of Nolan's films and really enjoyed the hell out of this one.

In many respects, I feel that INCEPTION was the culmination of Nolan's work so far, mixing the blurring of reality and artifice of MEMENTO but on the big budget scale of THE DARK KNIGHT. At times, I felt (in a good way) that INCEPTION was DREAMSCAPE meets THE MATRIX as if directed by Michael Mann.

Yet, I think that for all the obvious influences this film wears on its sleeve (2001, HEAT, etc.), there is enough of Nolan's own thematic preoccupations that make the film distinctively his own. DiCaprio's character fits in line with all of Nolan's previous protags, haunted by a checkered past that motivates him to do what he does in the film.

I also thought that this was DiCaprio's finest performance to date. He really did a great job of conveying the heartbreaking tragedy of his character and the guilt that he is wracked with. There were a lot of layers to his character and I thought that DiCaprio nailed it.

I for one thougth that the climactic showdown at the end where Nolan juggled three action sequences in three different dream states to be pretty damn impressive. That must've been hell to edit together! It didn't feel too long to me at all and was quite ambitious in scope and complexity!

Best of all, I think that this film really needs to be seen a few times. There is a lot going on here and watching it once I feel like I've only scratched the surface of this film.

Tony Dayoub said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa, J.D. You didn't like INSOMNIA? It's Nolan's best film! Setting is everything, and moving it from the Nordic environs to Alaska gives it a totally different feel. Plus, it's Pacino's last good performance on film (I liked him on TV as Kevorkian).

I agree with you on the skill with which Nolan juggled the three settings. Intercutting in a coherent manner is not usually his strength.

But I have to disagree with you on this being DiCaprio's best performance. Whatever problems I had with SHUTTER ISLAND, his perf there is a lot more complex, I believe. Of his Dom Cobb role, I'll say it's his most likeable. I really dug him as this master thief.

Thanks for stopping by.

Unknown said...

Well, the problem I had with INSOMNIA was that I saw the original first and it is superior to the remake in every way, most significantly in how morally ambiguous the protagonist is. Because you've got a movie star like Pacino playing him in the remake, you can't make him TOO unlikable. Also, the original had a much more creepy atmosphere/vibe going on which put you ever-so slightly off-kilter and I felt that was missing from the remake. Nolan's take was well-made and everything but it just didn't do it for me.

As for DiCaprio, yeah, he was good in SHUTTER ISLAND but his Boston accent grated on my nerves in a short time and I felt that he was recycling elements from other films (THE DEPARTED for one) where there was this fascinating tragic element in INCEPTION that was much better executed/conveyed than in SHUTTER ISLAND. I really didn't care all that much what happened to DiCaprio's character in Scorsese's film whereas I felt much more invested in Cobb's plight in INCEPTION.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Tony somehow many feel Insomnia is Nolan's weakest movie. I guess they are the ones who have seen Dark Knight, The Prestige up front and expect this to be in the same league.

To me it always remains one of Nolan's best efforts, notwithstanding a lame climax. But again Nolan redeems himself, with the final shot. Also the continous sense of guilt conscience weighing down on Pacino's character, in fact the never ending light, seemed to be metaphorical to me, something that does not let the darker shades of Will's character go into the shade.

-- Ratnakar

Tony Dayoub said...

Yeah, I like INSOMNIA because it is subtler than his other work. And I also saw the original INSOMNIA first, which I enjoyed dearly. But there was something about this one being in Alaska, and the oppressiveness of the light smothering Pacino of all people, whose greatest performance of all is the corrupt Michael Corleone who only exists in the shadows of THE GODFATHER films.

Thomas Duke said...

Great review! In quick summary, I feel like Inception is mostly a giant puzzle only interested in its own internal logic, a cinematic Rubick's Cube, if you will, and I don't find this "puzzle" to be a particularly interesting (or insightful) challenge. I wrote a review here- :

Andrew Glencross said...

I must agree with Glenn Kenny...I instantly saw the snowy mountain redoubt sequence as a reference to the Norway set WW11 classic "The Heroes of Telemark"...In particular the structure itself..even had the feel of the Nazi heavy water factory in H.O.T...Also conjured memories of another great old WW11 actioner in "Where Eagles Dare"...Sure there were obvious Bond parallels..but only in the over-long run-time of the gun-battle...It's this too long(and quite boring)sequence that for me keeps this otherwise magnificent film going experience at 4 or maybe 4 and a half stars rather than 5.