Archive for the ‘memento’ tag
What’s the last thing the world needs? Another blog post about Christopher Nolan’s Inception, of course. Yet, nevertheless, I have succumbed to the need to purge these thoughts from my (conscious) mind and implant them in yours. Beware, moderate spoilers ahead. I see no way to talk about this film without assuming you have seen it. I try to talk about other films in a non-spoilery way.
Most of the debate about Inception (beyond, “does it work?”) has dealt with Nolan’s views of dreaming and the subconscious. A lot of the criticism of the film has focused on Nolan’s rather chaste view of the subconscious and his failure to capture what dreams are like and their relevance to cinema. First, it’s notable that there’s no sex in anyone’s subconscious here. We have one very modest kiss, a couple slinky dresses, and that’s about it. This isn’t exactly the untamed wilderness of lust and desire that people (especially Freudians) associate with the subconscious. There is some violence, but no passion for violence; just violence that is necessary for the mission. Second, dreams make little sense once you’ve left the dream world, but Inception works so very hard to make sense that it’s clear you are supposed to leave the film thinking that it all works. Third, there are filmmakers who push us toward portraying the unease and bizarreness of dreams filmically (David Lynch being an obvious example), but Nolan simply misses all of this. Fourth, many have theorized that experiencing a film is like experiencing a dream, and that films can play to this aspect of our experience, but Nolan fails to do this. Most film edits are like the leaps our brains make while dreaming, for instance. And films can exploit this, perhaps most directly by drawing attention to themselves by employing dream imagery. Inception, it’s been argued, fails to do any of those things that would make it seem dream-like or draw attention to the film as a dream. (I’ve previously argued that Gone with the Wind used dream imagery in this way.)
I don’t mean to rebut these criticisms directly. What I want to say instead is that these criticisms have missed an important aspect of what Nolan is doing. Nolan is not exploring the subconscious and not exploring dreams per se, he is exploring the tension between control and chaos (a theme that runs through most of his work) and using dreaming and the subconscious to further his interest in how we learn to control the world around us (or in this case in us). Three points to consider: 1. Nolan is a controlling director. 2. Chaos and control is an important theme in Nolan’s films. 3. Inception is far more concerned with control over the subconscious/dreaming than with the subconscious/dreaming per se.
First, it is important to note that Christopher Nolan is a “controlling” director, by which I mean that he is a director who works out ahead of time all or nearly all of what will be filmed (scripting, storyboarding, etc.) and the filming comes last. (I know, I know, postproduction comes last, but that’s still been worked out ahead of time). These directors are interested in each detail of the frame, what goes where, and in every aspect of filmmaking because they want to control as many aspects of the production as possible to as fully realize their vision as possible. Other examples of this kind of director include Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Other directors are more open to filming moments as they occur to them (like Ingmar Bergman’s famous closing shot in The Seventh Seal), or leaving pieces of the film open to interpretation (like the blindfolding of the sheep in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel), or working without a script (like Wim Wenders attempted on Wings of Desire). These directors (at least some of the time or for some of the film) try to capture something that is happening in the moment, something that cannot be planned, something spontaneous. This is why it is so odd to see the spontaneous, captured-in-the-moment shot of the fly walking across the camera lens from Truffaut’s Jules and Jim show up Jeunet’s Amelie, since these two films are polar opposites in terms of the sort of control I am talking about. Of course all directors exert some control; we consider Truffaut an auteur, after all, which would be difficult if he had no control at all over his films! I’m just trying to point to two different tendencies among directors. Nolan is the craftsman control, the planner, the preparer. And that’s an important way in which he is engaged with controlling his films.
Second, the theme of chaos and control runs throughout Nolan’s films. I’ll mention just the two that I have watched most recently (which are also his two most well known and most loved films), Memento and The Dark Knight. Memento not only exhibits the sort of supreme directorial control that I talked about in the last point, it is also the story of a man struggling to gain control over himself and his world while he has the unusual condition that he cannot form new short-term memories. We watch in each scene (especially the black and white “forward” scenes) as he tattoos himself with important things to remember, as he makes notes to himself, and (in one crucial scene) controls his future action by manipulating these physical reminders. We slowly come to realize over the course of the film that the other characters are each trying to control the protagonist in unique ways, exploiting the ways in which he is not able to control himself. Memento is, among many other things, a battle for control.
I don’t see much need to harp on the ways that The Dark Knight continues this theme of control. The film (in some disappointingly direct exposition) states the theme of chaos and control quite clearly. The Joker represents chaos. He destroys and terrorizes for the joy of the chaos. Batman tries to bring order to the chaos, tries to help the police and district attorney’s office gain control over the city, because only with this control can there be peace. Batman, though, is a conflicted figure because he tries to bring control by operating outside the bounds of society. He uses his own sort of chaos to help bring control, and thus cannot be an accepted member of society. (This plays into the trope in Westerns that the gunslinger is necessary but cannot remain in the civilized society, captured most beautifully, I think, in Shane.) The Dark Knight is about the relentless struggle between chaos and control and the extent to which at least some of us must become chaotic in order to keep things in control.
Nolan is a “controlling” director and his films engage in the question of how we control the world and the struggle between control and chaos at an individual and societal level. Let’s turn now to the most important point: Inception is far less concerned with how we dream or what the subconscious is really like than it is with how we can control them. Most reviews I’ve read haven’t dealt with this. (Caryn James is one exception.)
The characters in the film are very interested in how much control they have, and how much they are willing that control over to the others. See, as one example, the exchange capture in this TV teaser, dubbed “Control.”
Being in control versus out of control runs throughout the film. It’s spoken of more frequently, I think, than even the question of whether we are dreaming or awake, partly because the question of whether we are dreaming or a wake only matters (in the film) insofar as it affects how much control we have over what happens and what steps we need to take to gain control. Totems are necessary to keep a (literal and figurative) grip on whether you are dreaming so that you can maintain control. Mal loses control over her life because of the inceived (?) idea that the world she experiences is not the real world. This idea matters because she loses her control over herself. When Ariadne enters the shared dream world for the first time, she realizes that knowing you are in a dream can give you control over that dream (visualized beautifully by the city of Paris folding in on itself).
The story of Inception is largely one of control as well. The son who will control his father’s empire. The competitor who wants to control the world’s energy supply. The competitor’s attempt to control the son. And, since this film is in its heart a heist movie, learning to control one’s opponent through sleight of hand (or sleight of dream, in this case) is central to pulling off the heist. From the second scene, where we see Cobb controlling Saito to break into the vault (which he does by noticing Saito’s uncontrolled reaction of glancing in the direction of the safe). When Saito realizes later that he was in a dream within a dream, he wrests control back from Cobb. We could easily run through the whole film talking about how characters struggle against one another for control, how they must cede control by entering into one another’s dreams (which is, after all, very similar to the way we cede control to a film when we enter that darkened theater), and how they must learn to control their dream states.
It is this concern with control, I think, that makes Inception feel like a film that is all ego and superego, and no id. The film is not about the chaos, not about the uncontrolled, except for where it overwhelms us. Like Leonard in Memento or Bruce Wayne/Batman in The Dark Knight, Cobb has learned to control himself amidst the chaos of his own mind. Even his own subconscious is ordered: he takes an elevator to visit his memories/fantasies, which is a rather silly but sort of neat technique to define and control what seems uncontrollable. Just as Nolan attempts to exert a masterful level of control over his films, his characters are struggling to control their own minds and their immediate surroundings. And far less than in The Dark Knight, the characters of Inception do control the chaos. The chaos is never gone, but it can be controlled. Leonard will never control his memory condition, only learn to control what he can with it. Bruce Wayne must always become out-of-controlled society Batman to maintain control-within-society. But Cobb can go furthest in actually controlling himself.
One of the great mistakes of the film, I think, is the closing shot, because it leaves people talking about only that last scene, which is really one of the film’s most sophomoric elements. “Am I dreaming?” is not a question that is very well addressed by the film, so to leave the film on that question is disappointing. The characters are too busy running through the machinations of the clever plot to do any real work on answering that question. That’s not the sort of question that can be addressed by a zero-gravity fight scene or an imagining of one’s subconscious as a James Bond film. The question of how much control we have over ourselves is a question that can be addressed by the story, and that may be the only intellectually engaging question the film can handle. (The film is far better as a heist film than as a philosophical meditation on the subconscious or dreams.) It’s a question that is well suited to Nolan as a director, because his style and the themes he has been exploring for a decade have all been pushing toward this question of control. So a finely tuned, enormously complex, carefully explained heist plot is the right sort of film to address the question of control, but not the question of “what are dreams?” or “am I dreaming?”
A shared experience, carefully crafted to be as believable as possible, occasionally drawing attention to itself as a dream, always steeped in the images and formulas of genre that involves a remarkable level of control – yes, it’s both the world of Nolan’s Inception and our experience of it.