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Saturday, January 22, 2011


I recently re-watched the film Inception (written and directed by Christopher Nolan), and came away feeling not quite so bewildered by the different levels of the dream in which Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page et al. execute their smash-and-grab—er, smash-and-incept. It’s a very clever premise: a master criminal plants an idea deep inside a corporate giant’s subconscious mucus, so that said corporate giant is inspired to break up the energy company that threatens world dominance. Nolan employs the caper genre as a metaphor for the attempt to “break into” buried emotions—the adroitness of the move makes one smile. What follows are my sundry thoughts on Inception (at least I think they’re mine)…

1.    The film plays with the question, “Who’s to say what the difference is between dream and reality?” But one thing I liked about the film is that it didn’t settle for a silly answer to this question, trying to persuade us that reality is whatever scenario pleases us most, “real” or “dreamt.” Cobb (DiCaprio’s character) consistently resists attempts, most of all those of his wife, to collapse the difference between dream and waking. The archetypal story pattern, as Robert McKee claims, traces a protagonist’s movement from seems to is, and Inception, for all its fascination with the dream-state, ultimately affirms this archetypal pattern.
2.    A recent article compared Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Another comparison might be to the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane. There are in fact not one, but two “Rosebuds” in Inception. Both Fischer, the corporate giant, and Cobb, the master criminal, possess deep psychological wounds. Fischer has to deal with painful feelings of resentment for his father, Maurice. Indeed, the idea that Cobb and his team incept in Fischer is meant to supercede these feelings of resentment by allowing Fischer to believe that his father really didn’t want Fischer to try and please him, but wanted him to create something of his own. For his part, Cobb has to deal with the guilt he feels for having pushed his wife into dangerous experiments in team-dreaming, experiments that resulted in his wife’s inability to distinguish dream from reality and consequent suicide. Fischer fares no better than Charles Foster Kane in finding real relief from his psychological malady. While it is true that, in the end, he wakes from his dream relieved and encouraged by the fact that his father really wanted him to be his own man, this thought is wholly imaginary, an illusion planted in Fischer’s mind. (With an interesting twist on the sled “Rosebud,” the incepted scenario has Maurice revealing a paper pinwheel made by Fischer as a child and that Maurice has kept all these years.) Cobb does better in really facing the guilt he feels for his wife’s death, and in deciding that he can’t expunge that guilt by deciding to live in psychological “limbo” with the projection of his memory of her. In the end, Cobb is rewarded for his courageous embrace of reality by being reunited with his children. Cobb’s “salvation” is wholly psychological, but on that level, at least, the film depicts an important truth about self-forgiveness.
3.    At a couple of points the film gestures toward the idea of faith. For example, when it comes to deciding between what is really real, the dream or the waking state, Cobb is invited to make a “leap of faith.” I’m not sure what Nolan’s suggestion is—do we need faith to distinguish dream from waking? Does faith give us the surest grasp of reality? Or, is there no rational means of distinguishing dream from waking?
4.    Finally, the caper film is a curious genre (think The Heist, Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, The Score). It’s the one genre in which we’re invited to root for the villain as hero. After all, Cobb and his team are criminals. But Nolan softens their villainy by trying to persuade us that Fischer’s company has to be broken up, or else it will become a “superpower.” Also, he gives Cobb a backstory and an overall goal (reunion with his children) that makes him somewhat sympathetic. Still, it’s strange that we finish the film pleased that the master criminal has gotten away with playing with the mind of (for all we know) an entirely innocent businessman. We’re fascinated by this genre—why is that?

 P.S. In my last post I took a swipe at a new film called The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O’Donoghue, about an exorcist-in-training. A story today from the Catholic News Agency indicates that there might be more to this film than meets the eye. Interestingly, Hopkins is referred to in the piece as a Christian, and O’Donoghue described as a practicing Catholic who serves as a lector in his Dublin parish. Both actors, according to the article, spoke to Father Gary Thomas, the priest on whose experiences the film is loosely based, about the possibility of demonic attacks due to their work on the film.  

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