Well, I finally saw Inception. I hadn’t planned on writing about it, however, as everyone from fanboy to critic to armchair PhD has already weighed in. Still, Christopher Nolan‘s latest certainly squeezed my mind grapes, so I figured I’d throw some ideas together.
++Dream a Little Dream++
Artists of all kinds have long been fascinated with dreams — from painter to playwright to composer to filmmaker. The connection should be obvious: dreams are nearly synonymous with imagination itself. Artifacts from the sleep state can be inspiring or disturbing, but the true nature of dream remains an enigma. Inception makes a noble attempt at cracking the cipher, but Nolan’s airtight aesthetic fails to convey the mind’s deepest and most anarchic interiors.
The film is hardly a failure, however. Nolan seems to understand that Hollywood is America’s dream factory — that to step into a theater is to enter the headspace of the filmmaker. This an environment where your own reality is no longer of primary concern (plus it’s air-conditioned!). We moviegoers are willing participants in a ritual of sensory subjugation, and cineplexes exist to enhance this ceremony via giant screens, stadium seating and potent sound systems.
This dream extends in multiple directions. Like the subconscious projections in Nolan’s film, movie actors, sets, wardrobes and so forth are but ancillary expressions of the director’s imagination. Which means that, metaphysically speaking, Inception can be seen as a facet of cinema itself.
Grad-school grandstanding aside, Inception is basically a big summer movie. So the lofty stuff ultimately takes a backseat to elaborate effects and action sequences. To his credit, Nolan maintains a cogent sci-fi narrative while simultaneously exploring the nature of loss. Dialogue and exposition are nonetheless sacrificed on the altar of audience comprehension, yet these faults can be forgiven due to Nolan’s heroic balancing act. I mean, you try making a movie like this.
One complaint I wholly agree with is that Nolan’s dreamworld isn’t terribly… well, dreamlike. There’s no doubt that Nolan is a gifted cinematic architect who has shown himself capable of wrenching powerful performances from his actors. Still, he’s more watchmaker than imagineer, which is why his slumberland feels clinical. It’s not the fault of technology — as was the case in The Dark Knight, Inception goes light on obvious computer trickery. And directors like Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg have crafted far more evocative worlds with less.
Consider the nature of the sleeping unconscious. Even those dreams with high a degree of detail contain plenty of shifty elements when we recall them in the light of day. And that shiftiness extends to pretty much every aspect of the dreaming experience. The interrelation between objects, places and events are nothing less than fluid. Meaning is multilayered, enigmatic and “extra-logical.” None of this lends itself to moviemaking, but Nolan seems to duck the challenge entirely. Inception‘s only hints of elasticity are in its architectural elements, and these are ultimately more mechanistic than mutable.
Such criticisms aren’t solely limited to set design and FX — they apply to Inception‘s characters and concepts, as well.
++Interpolation and Identity++
Though an original work, it’s impossible to consider Inception without recognizing the kaleidoscopic imagination of sci-fi scribe Philip K. Dick, whose intertextual tales have eluded translation by several gifted filmmakers. To some degree, Inception mirrors the concepts in PKD’s The Minority Report, as well as the Spielberg-helmed adaptation. It’s a powerfully freaky thing to think that someone can get inside your head for the purpose of extracting information. In Dick’s story, it’s a preemptive law enforcement technique — the mere thought of committing a crime being justification for arrest. Nolan’s yarn is more about mindjacking as corporate espionage, but it’s certainly in keeping.
What scared PKD most wasn’t ubiquitous authority but rather the porousness of identity. Even his protagonists that are agents of “the system” (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) experience the paralyzing and pervasive fear of losing themselves across multiple layers of consciousness. Another occupational hazard is the danger of being subsumed by one or more cover identities (A Scanner Darkly) — a literary fascination shared by William S. Burroughs.
My point is this: to effectively evoke dream reality, there must be at least passing attention paid to the mutable nature of identity. Nolan’s film deals with three layers of dream consciousness, each a further step removed from the rules of waking reality. Yet his protagonists remain rooted even as they descend further into raw strata of mind. This is especially odd considering that they’re occupying another person’s dream and therefore susceptible to said individual’s subconscious idiosyncrasies. PKD would’ve thrown everybody’s physical, mental and emotional characteristics into one big psychic Cuisinart until the mission was either a paranoid shambles, or an entirely new plotline emerged. Why do I feel like me, but look like you? Is this my memory or yours? How do I know I haven’t already been compromised? Which reality is the “true” reality, if that can even be ascertained? And does it even matter?
Nolan expresses some of this by having his characters struggle with the idea that their current reality is a mirage. To me, this is the most powerful aspect of the film, touching as it does upon mental illness and the effects of consensus reality. Those unwilling or incapable of entertaining this shared consensus suffer tremendously, as did PKD in his own life. I wish more of these themes were addressed in Nolan’s film, but I understand the difficulty of building a summer blockbuster using madness as the cornerstone (we’ll see what Del Toro does with Lovecraft).
++Neurosecurity and Mindfulness++
I’m surprised that the geek overlords on Boing Boing, etc. haven’t brought up mindhacking in their discussions about Inception (or maybe they have, and I missed it). To me, the idea of establishing a defense against brain invaders is interesting, especially in light of new discoveries in neuroplasticity and the battle to maintain computer network security.
Fascinating stuff, but I’m pretty sure our psyches are less in danger of being harmed by outside forces than our own mental habits.
One of Nolan’s most original ideas is that the subconscious can be trained to act as a built-in police force during synaptic security breaches. The director seems to gravitate towards characters who exhibit tremendous martial/intellectual/transcendental discipline on the road to exceptionalism (Batman, The Prestige). This includes certain mental technologies.
Buddhism has for centuries been aware of the the mind’s plasticity. It teaches (among other things) that we can shape the function of our neural networks by observing our thoughts and establishing new patterns. In therapeutic psychology, this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a remarkably effective treatment for a host of mental afflictions. Borrowing from Buddhism, it prescribes mindfulness as a method for rooting out “bad code” and establishing a healthier psyche.
Remapping the mind requires a great deal of discipline, but it can be done. Brains are far less rigid than stone, and even stone can be shaped by water. In this view, our thoughts are similar to ripples on a swift-moving river. Like thoughts, these ripples spontaneously and constantly appear and disappear. By not fixating on the origin of the ripples, but rather accepting the simple fact of their existence, we can begin to see the river as a whole and even influence its flow.
Inception takes a more martial approach to mindfulness, but it does offer hints as to how we can keep our shit together in the midst of chaos. In the film, one of the characters experiences acute panic when he realizes the reality he thought was solid is in fact quite the opposite. (We experience similar feelings of disassociation when someone close to us dies, we lose our job, get divorced, etc.) The character is told to focus on his breath and remember his training. The particulars of instruction aren’t revealed, but I’m guessing it involves meditation and mindfulness.
It’s easy to dismiss all of this as pop-culture exotica. And that might be true of the mystical kung-phooey on display in The Matrix, but this is different. Keep in mind that neuroplasticity and mindfulness training are hardly the core of Inception, but since it takes place almost entirely in people’s heads, there’s no way of avoiding some of these concepts.
If you haven’t seen movie yet, I definitely recommend it. Less as an artistic achievement and more as an incitement to cognitive investigation. Popcorn and Milk Duds optional.