Dream Job: Inception as Excellent Movie and Pretty Wicked Metaphor

Several reviewers have noticed that Christopher Nolan’s latest movie works on a meta- level, as a movie about moviemaking, as seen from the writer-director’s point of view.  The parallels aren’t too hard to suss out: the artificial dream is the Movie; Robert Fischer’s the movie’s Viewer; Dom Cobb’s the Writer-Director; Arthur’s his Assistant/Editor; Saito’s the Producer; Ariadne’s the Set Designer; Eames is the Actor; Yusuf’s the Musical Director; and Mal is the artist’s Spouse–his private relationships and emotional baggage.  You might want to reread that list of parallels because I have a feeling they’re pretty much going to define this review.  Note I capitalized the moviemaking role each character metaphorically corresponds with, in order to keep things clear below. So wherever I write “the Viewer,” keep in mind the Robert Fischer character, and vice versa.  Wherever I write “the Director,” keep in mind the Dom Cobb character, and vice versa.  When I write “the Movie,” I’m referring to the artificial dream that Dom and his crew create in Inception‘s third act.  Etc.

Fair warning: Nolan peformed his inception job on me (I saw the movie) yesterday, and this morning on the way to work the ideas starting hatching and multiplying fairly feverishly. There’s no tidy way to proceed with sharing these ideas here, so I’m just going to dive in and skip around–kind of apropos, given the subject matter:

Note Inception isn’t about dreaming first and moviemaking second.  Wherever it could have been truer to depicting how we really dream, as in dream while asleep, it instead chooses to make itself truer to depicting how moviemaking works.  In actual dreaming, we don’t communicate with anyone outside ourselves, for one thing.  For another: actual dreams have blurry edges, not infinitely detailed backgrounds and horizons (unless I just dream differently than most people).  For a third thing, in actual dreaming, when we experience a dream inside a dream, the outer dream doesn’t continue to happen while we’re in the inner dream.  (Related note: Inception isn’t really about storytelling in general, or else it would depict Dom as working alone in the Viewer’s mind.)  No, those who see Inception as first and foremost a moviemaking metaphor have clearly nailed it.  According to Inception, movies aren’t dreams per se, they’re artificial dreams made by a team of artists collaborating with the viewer.  Put that way, it hardly sounds like a novel metaphor at all, because it’s not–we’ve always spoken of movies as being artificial dreams created and piped in by a team of people outside the viewer’s head.  Nolan’s film just takes this metaphor literally.

Dom claims it’s always a bad professional move to build up a dreamworld out of one’s own memories–that one should only use tiny pieces of memory in constructing the dream world.  And yet he himself can’t follow that rule, and more of his private life makes it into his constructions than he wishes to admit.  While I’ve never directed a fictional movie, and the documentary one I directed in high school hardly counts, Dom’s advice–and his inability to follow it–sounds a lot like what I’ve read about a great many storytellers, and experienced in my own narratives–as much as you try to make things up whole cloth as an artist, your own memories peek through and interfere, making your story less fictional than you might like.

Other things that can interfere with a movie’s effectiveness, according to Inception:  the viewer’s memories, the viewer’s awareness of the world outside the movie, the viewer’s awareness of the moviemakers, and the inability of the moviemaking team to communicate effectively.  Any of these elements can cause the entire artificial world to shudder, as the viewer begins to think.  I really dug how Inception depicted a lot of this viewer distraction as actual shuddering.

Each dream is a job–the whole team gets paid for it, but they get subsequent assignments only if they succeed in affecting the Viewer as the employer–the Producer–desires.  Meanwhile, though it’s a job, it’s also an incomparably fun job, one that e.g. Ariadne can’t stay away from once she’s had a taste–it’s “pure creation.”  Sounds like the business of moviemaking to me.  Also, it’s kind of funny in this context how Dom’s first employer tries to kill him after his latest effort fails.  “You’ll never work in this town again!”

“Dominic Cobb” is an odd name for a character, as is “Eames,” as is “Ariadne”–that’s our first clue these names mean something.  “Dominic” suggests domination, a need to control.  “Cobb” suggests cobbling stuff together?  “Ariadne” clearly refers to a mythical princess who helped heroes navigate mazes.  “Eames” sounds an awful lot like “Seems”–appropriate for a guy whose job title is “forger” and whose metaphorical correlative is “Actor.”

The “projections” guarding the Viewer’s mind from invasion, acting like mental “white blood cells” fighting off outsiders–this is a pretty novel notion, and might prove valuable as part of memetics theory on how minds accept and reject the transmission of memes.

Related note: A lot of criticism leveled at cinema claims that the art form kills off brain cells, benumbs the viewer, destroys his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, etc.–in that light, it’s interesting how Dom defends his efforts to kill off the Viewer’s army of projections as they try to kick him out of the Viewer’s mind–Ariadne asks, isn’t Dom killing off parts of the Viewer’s mind?  Dom says no, they’re “just projections”–inessential and temporary parts of the Viewer’s mind that only pop up during the Movie.  But Nolan throws this assertion into doubt later, when we realize that Dom’s gal Mal is just such a projection, and we see just how important a part of Dom’s mind she is, and just how significant it is when he finally escapes her.

Nolan makes a witty acknowledgement of his movie’s metafictional nature in a meta-meta-moment where Dom tries the “Mr. Charles” gambit, again breaking one of his artistic rules by explicitly reminding the Viewer that he’s in a Movie.  The “Mr. Charles” gambit is nothing other than metafiction, self-reference, self-awareness–just one of a storyteller’s bag of tricks,  no more clever than any other, though potentially very powerful, and it’s nice to see Nolan’s script treat it as such.

The moviemaking-as-inception-job metaphor crumbles a little at the edges when you realize that in a typical fictional movie, none of the characters are drawn exactly from the viewer’s own coterie of friends and family.  As I view a movie, my godfather’s not going to show up on screen exactly–maybe a person who reminds me of my godfather, but not the spitting image.  Inception shows exactly this happening to Robert Fischer–Dom’s crew disguises one of their own (Eames the Actor) as a doppelganger of Robert’s godfather, Browning.

Browning, played by Tom Berenger, poses a real problem for Inception‘s metaphor in this way.  Still, it’s cute how the Actor’s version of Browning exists parallel to the Viewer’s actual memory/projection of Browning, just as a movie character who really reminds me of my godfather might rouse an actual memory of my godfather as I watch and distract me from what I’m watching by the thought of how the two godfathers are related or different.  The same thing happens in Inception when Saito mistakes the Viewer’s Browning for the Actor’s version. Another Nolan joke about the failure of producers to really understand how movies work?  Inception even calls producers “tourists” on the movie set–their presence only likely to ruin the work.

Speaking of the director-producer relationship, what to make of the climactic scene where the Director has a sit-down meeting with the Producer deep down in the Movie’s subconscious?  The Director and Producer have at this point in the moviemaking process gotten completely lost and bogged down, and both feel they’ve spent decades stuck inside the Movie–now, the Director makes a final appeal to the Producer to honor the contract and pay the Director, even though the Producer doesn’t yet know whether the Movie will achieve the his goals.  Clearly a deeply metafictional scene, but here’s the fun part: once you realize it’s about a late-stage negotiation between two moviemakers, the scene makes us feel privy to a rare, high-stakes, real-world transaction.

Cute how Ariadne’s job as Set Designer is defined as being more about creating mood than creating visuals–a little insider perspective on her job there.  Also cute how she’s supposed to use visual illusions to keep the Viewer from realizing how small the Movie’s world is.  Touche, Mr. Nolan.

Illuminating to see that Inception thinks of much of a movie’s work as involving timing–especially in how the music (Yusuf’s work) must sync up with the editing (Arthur) and the acting (Eames) to make the key moments arrive perfectly.  Is it intentional that the Music Director does his work in level one of the Movie, the Editor in level two, the Actor in level three?  Do the Movie’s levels represent difficulty of execution?  And isn’t it interesting that Eames, the Actor, doesn’t play Maurice Fischer (Robert’s dad) in level three of the Movie’s climactic scene?  Eames is outside the central vault in level three, fighting off projections.  The Viewer, Robert Fischer, is inside that vault by himself, having a dialogue with his own projection of his dad.  Meanwhile, deep down in the Director’s subconscious, Dom’s having a similarly crucial dialogue with his own most important projection, Mal.  Maybe Nolan’s suggesting that really good movies take us somewhere so deep inside ourselves, we really are alone at the heart of the revelation given–and that the Movie takes the Director to a similar place inside himself as he creates the Movie.

Arthur’s work in level two, trying to time the “kick” “without gravity”–a reference to the challenges of editing a movie when it’s playing a lot with layers and time dilation?

If Inception depicts, in its third act, the process of making a movie that plants an idea in a viewer’s mind, then what do Inception‘s other, extraction jobs represent?  In these jobs, the goal isn’t to plant an idea in a viewer’s mind; it’s to steal one of the viewer’s secrets, take one of his ideas.  Is this a reference to movies that don’t really inspire new feeling and thought in the viewer?  Movies that are derivative, lowly, that only aspire to rouse an idea already present in the viewer–movies that merely confirm and reaffirm the viewer’s prejudices and old habits?

Interesting how Dom’s enormous guilt, his haunted past, comes from his failure to keep work and family distinct, trying to act directorial around and use inception on his wife as a fix for the flaw in their relationship–they were both too caught up in dreams, in subconscious wandering, in art, and needed to get back to their kids.  To get his wife to wake up, Dom had to convince her to devalue their shared imagined world by killing herself in it.  But this just taught her that death is an escape.  Is this a critique of art as escapism?  When Dom finally gets back to his kids after the job, he wants to test whether his return is just another dream, and Inception leaves us hanging on whether it is or not.  By the very act of testing his return’s reality, we see that the Director’s been infected with the same idea he tried so hard to plant in his wife.  The process of inception affects the Director as much as the Viewer, regardless of his ambitions to control the process.

Now, here’s where Inception‘s less than the most amazingly perfect metaphor ever:  In real life we don’t usually wake from dreams or movies by dying in them in the way Inception depicts.  We wake when the dream or movie’s over.   The waking happens on its own, without our control.  Same with death–we don’t have to make it happen, it’ll happen sooner or later if we just sit tight.  Maybe there really is something to the recent observation–I forget the source–that Nolan’s stories are all about control, from Memento to Insomnia to The Prestige to Batman Begins to Dark Knight to this one.  A person who’s all about control would make this mistake, and misrepresent escaping from a dream/movie as largely an act of personal will, of wresting control.

Note this mistake has two consequences–it leads to suicidality, as when Mal decides she’s the author of her every experience, and her fiat of suicide an eject button she can push whenever she decides she doesn’t like the experience anymore.  And it leads to an inability to distinguish dreams from reality.  Those two consequences, I think, are deeply related, as in Hamlet’s soliloquy.  In dreams, we’re the only person who’s really real.  If the dream is actually artificial–a movie–then there are indeed other minds in there with us, trying to intrude, but it’s our mind they’re in, and we can end their intrusion or the whole dream at any time.  Movies and dreams allow for solipsism, and often encourage it outright–insofar as they do this, they encourage suicidality, because they encourage us to think of our experience as escapable and the escape as affecting only one real person.  Reality is different–try to escape it, and it’s still there.  And: in reality, we’re not the only real person, not the center of the world, not that world’s little god in total control.  In that sense, the difference between dreaming and reality is sort of a spiritual one, with movies existing as a middle ground, a space where we can live solipsistically or communicate with other minds and relinquish our ambitions to control everything.  If so, then perhaps movies are most dangerous to those who most desire to control them–i.e., writers, directors, producers.  Note which characters in Inception get most deeply lost in the Movie, come closest to losing themselves in it.  And it doesn’t end there:  for if Dom the Director can’t bring himself to believe his kids are real, upon returning to them after a long job… if he hadn’t managed to walk away from his totemic spinning top… well, one shudders to think.

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