Previously on View From A Couch: I reviewed Inception, and tried to keep it spoiler-free for the most part. I think I succeeded, as I revealed very little that isn’t in the first 10 – 15mins of the film. Welcome to the second layer. It figures this entry would be longer than the last. Time moves slower down here.
WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD.
VENTURE FORTH AT THINE OWN RISK.
Where to start? Why not right where we left off…
The top falls. It really doesn’t matter whether it does or doesn’t, but this seems to be the contentious issue everyone wants to discuss, so I’ll go on record and say it does. The case could be made either way, as Nolan has loaded the film with intentionally conflicting ideas to make you constantly question what’s real — and then doubt your decision once you make up your mind.
Yes his kids are in the same clothes and the same pose that they always appear in in dreams. Yes the final sequence is slowed and played over music that enhances the dreamlike atmosphere. But that top has got to fall. In dreams it spun perfectly still forever, while at film’s end, it wobbles to an absurd degree. Beyond just the visual, the sound it makes is unmistakable.
The last sound in the film before we cut to black is that of a top running out of momentum and collapsing. Just because we don’t SEE it fall doesn’t mean it doesn’t. And really, would you want to see it? The guessing game is half the fun of the film, and a definitive answer would kill that entirely.
I won’t lie and say I know for a fact I’m right. I don’t. The film is purposefully misleading and wants to make you believe both sides simultaneously. Halfway through my fourth viewing I was sold on the fact that the movie was a dream — not just the ending, but the entire film.
It’s in the details, like the silent impact of Michael Caine’s “Come back to reality, Dom. … Wake up.” Or in the Mombasa chase, which is supposedly taking place in reality, but is completely dreamlike. Not just the narrowing alleyway, or that Cobb is seemingly bulletproof, or the dream-logic appearance of Saito “protecting his investment,” either. The aerial shots of the city show its streets to be as much a maze as anything Ariadne designs.
It’s not the only real-world sequence that feels like a dream, either. The reveal of Fischer Sr.’s office is shot in a way that’s so oddly unnatural, it’s as if the camera is imagining the interior as it pans over it.
And every time I see the film, one exchange always sticks out to me:
Cobb: Well dreams, they feel real while we’re in them, right? It’s only when we wake up that we realize how things are actually strange. Let me ask you a question: you never really remember the beginning of a dream do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.
Ariadne: I guess, yeah.
Cobb: So how did we end up here?
Ariadne: Well we just came from the a…
Cobb: Think about it Ariadne, how did you get here? Where are you right now?
If you take Cobb as a mouthpiece for Christopher Nolan (more on that later) and apply what he’s saying to the film itself, how did we end up here? We washed ashore on the beaches of infinite subconscious, first greeted by the projections of Cobb’s children. The film flashes back to trace how we got here — or does it? Is the entire film a construct within limbo? Is any of this really happening?
I wouldn’t be the first person to think as much. Devin Faraci over at CHUD.com put up a great piece on the whole film being but a reverie, and while I disagree with his findings, it’s still an interesting read.
Yes, contrary to what I’ve written in the past few paragraphs, I disagree with his findings.
Is any of this really happening?
It’s funny — the second half is what’s supposed to sell you on it all being a dream. Particularly the ending, as no one comes into a movie thinking “none of this is happening.” But after becoming so convinced it was all a dream during the first half of my fourth viewing, the second half opened my eyes to how wrong I was.
This is a movie about catharsis, about the emotional epiphanies one can experience in dreams, and how they have meaning, real or not. And while the climax of Fischer’s dream journey is no doubt moving, it is not the emotional climax of the film. That title belongs to the moment in which Cobb rejects Mal and chooses life over staying in the dream.
This is the great irony of Mal’s character: in memory and flashback, all she wants is for Dom to kill himself with her so they can “wake up” together. But Projection Mal wants just the opposite — for Dom to stay asleep forever and remain with her memory.
This is why the end of the movie can’t be a dream. It would be a self-defeating finale. What point is there to Cobb remaining in the dream when the cathartic moment the whole movie has been building towards is his rejection of the fantasy? If this is not a film about choosing to move on rather than remain trapped in the past, then what’s it about?
Well, it’s also about Christopher Nolan, for starters. This is Nolan’s third film that’s a not-so-subtle parable for storytelling — or rather, movie-making. I’ve long been of the belief that The Prestige, while on one level a story of dueling magicians, is really about two opposing schools of thought within screenwriting: Angier, the flashy showman who wows with special effects, versus Borden, the clever and methodical trickster who earns his wow moments through dedication to his craft. Note that until the end, Nolan never outwardly makes us pull for one man over the other — as an intellectual director of big budget action blockbusters, it’s an internal struggle he must wrestle with himself.
Then there’s Following, which is quite literally about inventing characters and seeing where they take you. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but Jim Emerson recently wrote a great entry about it over on Scanners, his blog at RogerEbert.com. A surprisingly fair assessment from a man who is quite the Nolan hater.
Inception, meanwhile, is all about making movies. Cobb’s team of dreamers all have clear movie-making parallels. This is why, spin or fall, it really doesn’t matter what the top does. In his explanation of totems, Arthur concludes by saying they’re so “you know you’re not in someone else’s dream.” So even if it falls, Cobb could still be dreaming his own dream. And who is Cobb if not an abstraction of Nolan himself?
As “The Extractor” and leader of the group, Cobb is the director, a tormented artist and surrogate for Nolan — a globetrotter away on jobs, missing out on watching his children grow up back home. While Nolan lacks Leo’s movie-star good-looks, the two men have strikingly similar features, and (for this film anyway) identical hair. As I noted earlier, through much of the film’s early-going Cobb is little more than a mouthpiece through which Nolan spouts his rules and ideas.
Arthur, “The Point Man”, handles the details of the job, does the research and puts it all together. That’s the producer. Eames, “The Forger”, is so obviously an actor that I shouldn’t need to explain why. Here is a man who sits in front of a vanity mirror and literally transforms into other characters. Yusuf, “The Chemist”, is the tech crew. Ariadne, “The Architect”, is both production designer and screenwriter. Saito is the big-money financier desperate to feel like part of the gang. Fischer, “The Mark”, is the audience. And what is film if not a shared dream we all get to witness?
This is hardly a unique observation on my part. Faraci touched on it as well, but it’s not unique to him either. It’s not exactly a secret. Nolan himself readily admits that the dream team are modeled after a film crew: “In trying to write a team-based creative process, I wrote the one I know.”
Where does Mal fit into this? She’s exactly what she appears to be: Nolan’s ex-lover. Is she dead? Probably not. So…
Is any of this really happening?
Yes. But also, no.
I can’t get behind Faraci’s reading that the whole film takes place in Cobb’s head, increasingly popular as that reading is becoming. But it is taking place inside Christopher Nolan’s head — the entire concept but a dream he chose to share with us. It is a movie, after all. But what’s that movie about?
Nolan recently said he has no use for psycho-therapy, choosing instead to work out his personal issues through his work. I have zero knowledge of the man’s personal life, but to that end it would seem that Inception, stripped of its action sequences and elaborate rules and concepts, is a movie about loss. More specifically, losing love and coming to terms with a major break-up.
Cobb’s description of life in limbo so accurately describes the first major romantic relationship of my young life. “We created for years, decades. And then we started in on the memories.” I was struck by memories of late night phone calls where, upon request, I would recall classic moments from our time together — stories that she already no doubt knew by heart — peppering them with as many details as my mind could remember.
You can get to a point with someone where reliving the highlights of your past becomes more important than creating new classics. I know. I’ve been there — my own private limbo. As Cobb says, it’s the easiest way to lose track of what’s real. You become shades of yourselves. Is it possible to grow old with someone while still remaining young? I’m inclined to say “yes” today, but ask me in sixty years and I might disagree.
Obviously the plot of Inception can’t be taken literally in this reading, but it can be taken as a dream. Dreams are often based in fact, but abstracted into something more exciting and surreal. How many times have you woken up from a dream to discover how much of what you did the day before showed up in some twisted form? Too many times to count, personally.
In that sense, Mal doesn’t have to be dead for Cobb to be consumed by guilt. There’s always guilty feelings at the end of a relationship, no matter which side of the break-up you’re on — assuming you ever truly cared for the other person. The breaker gets the guilt of ripping out someone’s heart, while the breakee can only look inward and point the finger at themselves: “If only I’d done this, or hadn’t done that!” You’re left feeling like something you did drove them to leave — that you planted the idea in them to end it.
It also makes sense that Mal be the villain of the piece. Cobb can no longer create, his memories of the past infecting his present and sabotaging his work. And who doesn’t like to vilify their ex, regardless of whether that vilification is deserved? Arthur tells us the real Mal was lovely. It’s only once they’re gone that we remember them as villains.
Ariadne: Why are you doing this to yourself?
Cobb: It’s the only way I can dream.
Ariadne: And why is it so important to dream?
Cobb: Because… In my dreams we’re still together.
It is too easy to lock yourself in a prison of memories, as Dom does. It’s emotional torture, but it fills a void if you can convince yourself it beats feeling hollow. But just like recounting memories instead of creating them, it’s trapping yourself with the idea of someone instead of who they really are. “Projections” is right.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m applying too much of my own experience to the film and calling it Nolan’s intention. But the more times I see the film, the more this becomes so strikingly obvious to me.
Or maybe it’s apparent to everyone. Maybe you came in here hoping to read something truly profound and I’ve simply smacked you across the face with the obvious. But how can a movie that’s prompted me to look into myself and unearth this much have nothing to say?
Like that other great film that takes place inside the brain — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — this is a film about picking up the pieces, discarding feelings of abandonment, and rediscovering your sense of self-worth. About appreciating what you had, but pressing on without it.
Why then do Cobb’s projections (be it his children, Mal, a runaway train or a shattering champagne flute) appear in every dream, no matter who the subject is? Some people have used this as evidence that Cobb is the mark, the subject of every dream, and the job is to fix his head. The truth is simpler than that. As Ariadne fears, Cobb is a man torn up, and his subconscious is out of control — memories of Mal ripping through the seams of his dream-self. He must make peace with himself, and with his memories.
So too must we all, but by now I’m just repeating myself. Having spent most of the day working on this entry, it feels good to be done. But it’s never over. Tomorrow when I wake up, I will still be thinking of Inception, and of past loves lost. The top is still spinning, even when it falls. So long as I’m at peace, I think that’s alright.
If this is a movie about moving on and living your life, then you’ll have to excuse me. It’s time I go do that.