Thursday, July 29, 2010

INCEPTION: The Goatmilk Debates

Since its release two weeks ago, Inception has sparked more than its share of discussion, specifically as it relates to the vagaries of that ending. Sensing an opportunity for an interesting back-and-forth, my friend Wajahat Ali, who runs the terrific Goatmilk site, very graciously asked me to add to this conversation as part of a broader series called "The Goatmilk Debates," 

So, here's what you need to do:  First, jump over here and read Mark Maccora's opening argument, then click past the jump for my thoughts vis-à-vis the ending and the film as a whole.  This should be considered a spoiler minefield from here on out, so if you haven't seen the movie yet but plan on it eventually, now is probably a good time to make yourself scarce.  As for everyone else, I'll see you on the other side!

"So, did it topple over, or did it keep spinning?"

It's a testament to the profundity of forethought with which writer/director Christopher Nolan has imbued Inception, his masterful mindjob of a summer blockbuster, that a simple question like that has prompted such impassioned commentary both for and against its validity.  Indeed, it speaks volumes about how effectively Nolan has seeded the terrain and laid the pipe for analysis and introspection that so much time, energy, and oxygen has been spent weighing this seemingly unanswerable conundrum as if the solution will somehow provide validation not just for the time we've spent watching the preceding events unfold, but also our investment in them.  

Still, while both sides’ interpretations are equally nuanced, they either willfully ignore or remain blissfully unaware of the larger "truth" that it's utterly irrelevant.  Whether the top spins in perpetuity or whether it succumbs to gravity's siren song is immaterial to the broader reality that Inception is a dream, from beginning to end.  At no point do the characters in the film ever occupy the "real" world, making the entire experience one more level of dreaming -- furthest out, and this time one that we in the audience are complicit in along with Nolan and his co-scenarists.  It's a meta-textual gambit as risky as it is rewarding, and it's one more reason that Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented filmmakers working today.

Throughout the story, we're told at various points by different characters about the nature of the dream realms that they flit in and out of.  As mentioned in my review of the film, the line between the dreamed and the experienced is so nebulous as to be rendered virtually meaningless (both in design and in execution).  To this end, a totem is carried by each of the characters to remind them where they are.  In the case of our lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) his totem is a small metal top that belonged to his wife (who is either deceased or simply departed based on which interpretation you choose).  This top, Cobb explains, will continue to spin endlessly while inside the dream world, thus allowing both he and we a kind of visual shorthand -- a compass, if you will -- telling them where they are at any given moment.  

At film's close, having accomplished his assignment and conquered the personal demons that have bedeviled him at every step, Cobb is joyfully reunited with his family.  Or is he?  While he embraces his children for the first time, the camera pans ominously to the kitchen table, where the top is still  spinning...and spinning...and then…black.  Does it topple over, or does it keep going?  The answer to this question will definitively answer, we believe, whether we've wasted the preceding two hours-and-change.  But the totemic rules we're basing our judgment on are rendered meaningless if the "reality" in which they're presented is an imagined one.  And if that's the case, what does that say about everything we've just witnessed?  This is the question Nolan very deliberately raises, the mere pondering of which becomes a kind of answer in itself.

As my friend and fellow traveler Brian Hall says of that closing shot: 

While I understand how it can be a little frustrating, another part of me thinks: Show that moment to a crowd, just that moment, and it means nothing. However, after a two and a half hours of mind yoga, that moment made my whole theater gasp, clap, scream, etc. How could you not put that in? It gets an earned reaction -- whether you like it or not.

And that earned reaction is exactly what Nolan is after.  The genuine response to the fictional scenario.  Far more than merely plying us with an engaging, gripping thriller that uses the world of the subconscious as its visual and visceral playground, Nolan's two-and-a-half hour canvas is a meditation on the nature of reality itself, delving, like The Matrix before it, into that dividing line between what Baudrillard termed simulacra and simulation.  And like The Matrix, but to an even greater degree, the film calls into question those totems with which we define a sense of identity.  

That’s the secret to Inception bubbling just under the surface, obvious to anyone willing to look past Nolan’s storytelling sleight-of-hand.   It’s something that emerges on the first viewing, but that our natural inclination is to discount, because to do otherwise is to write off our emotional investment in the film as something that was manufactured instead of genuine.  This is the hoary metaphor of the cave played out against the backdrop of a traditional Hollywood entertainment, with the rest of us sharing in the illusion before finally being asked to determine for ourselves what constitutes our reality -- and, by extension, judge its inherent worth.

Expanding on this further, let me use the example of author Alan Moore, best known for creating Watchmen and V for Vendetta.  When tasked by DC Comics in 1986 to write the last Superman story before the entire comic book line was to be rebooted, Moore decided to tell his version of the character's "final" adventure, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" While setting the stage, Moore begins with the epigraph,"This is an Imaginary Story -- Aren't they all?"  More than simply clarifying his epic's place as a "non-canonical" entry in the chronicles, this was an outright challenge to the readers to judge its worth based on the telling and not on where it "fits" alongside its fellow fictions.

That notion, that there is no distinction between different levels of "imaginary," is also what informs Nolan and Inception. The use of the top to signify “reality” is just one more trope that, through the director’s mastery of the form, helps distracts us from the truth underlying his vision.  The clues are all there, starting with the very premise of the film, which is grounded in an inherently ridiculous foundation -- a machine that allows multiple participants to share the same dream -- with no effort on the filmmakers’ part to attempt an explanation.  

From the main character being pursued by a faceless corporation for charges that are never explicated to the supporting players that aren't so much fully-realized characters as they are extensions of Cobb's own psyche, there’s a dreamlike ambience that suffuses every frame with a sense of unease that's both ill-defined yet utterly tangible.  Devin Faraci, in an exhaustive treatise on the subject, argues that the clues are planted early and often in support of the "Inception is a dream" hypothesis:

Michael Caine's character implores Cobb to return to reality, to wake up. During the chase in Mombasa, Cobb tries to escape down an alleyway, and the two buildings between which he's running begin closing in on him - a classic anxiety dream moment. When he finally pulls himself free he finds Ken Watanabe's character waiting for him, against all logic. Except dream logic

Going further, Faraci points out another clear nod to the artificial nature of what we're witnessing when we see the events that led to Cobb's wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) eventually taking her life (as far as we know).  As Cobb enters his empty hotel suite, he sees Mal sitting on the ledge of the building directly across the way.  Trying desperately to convince her that she is, in fact, in the real world and no longer dreaming, Cobb watches helplessly as she steps off the ledge to what he perceives as her death.

Now, remember that this event is told to Ariadne (Ellen Page) by Cobb and never depicted omnisciently.  This immediately taints it as an honest account of the events.  Remember too that it's never explained how she got on that opposite ledge.  What was she doing there?  It remains a puzzling and obvious plot hole until we accept it as a projection of the dream-self, in which the metaphorical distance between she and Cobb is given a physical dimension, making his inability to save her that much more pronounced.

In fact, we're regularly hit with plot points within the ostensible "real" world that hit us over the head with their inherent absurdity.  Yet we accept them as givens because they're presented with absolute verisimilitude, and that's what a lifetime of moviegoing has nurtured in us.  By itself this would only mean that Nolan is better than most at navigating us through plot holes without losing our bearing, but taken with the repeated proclamation within the film that the reality we construct in dreams is so flawless that we accept whatever is presented to us while ensconced within them, both the madness and the method start coming into stark relief.

So, if we accept as a given that the events of Inception are another level of dream, one which we share with the filmmakers, the next question becomes that of why.  And to answer that, one need only look at the nature and history of Nolan's work up to this point.  Whether through the disjointed, nonlinear narrative of Mementoor the grayed moral quandaries at the center of The Dark KnightNolan has always excelled at pushing the limits of audience immersion in his films, and Inception is perhaps the ultimate, purest expression of that drive.

The question Nolan is asking of us at the end of Inceptionwithout ever answering, is not whether what we've just watched is a dream, but rather, of course it’s a dream, but so what?  Does that in any way negate the experience we've just had?  Does that make the emotions we've felt any less real?  Just as the totemic top is meaningless without the significance with which we imbue it, so too is the movie itself a totem upon which we've imprinted our collective sense of reality.  Does it mean any less if it's all simply a fiction nested inside another fiction?  Or, more succinctly, “This is an imaginary story – Aren’t they all?"

(Originally posted at Goatmilk)


John Mietus said...

Ah, but remember -- the top is not actually Cobbs' totem -- it's Mal's. So the fact of the matter is, it doesn't make one bit of difference if the top is spinning or not at the end.

Zaki said...

I agree, John. As I say in the piece:

"Whether the top spins in perpetuity or whether it succumbs to gravity's siren song is immaterial to the broader reality that Inception is a dream, from beginning to end."

Anonymous said...

The end was a total cop out. Nolan did not have to come up with a real ending, just threw us an esoteric one and blacked out the screen. The easy, cheesy way out. Needless to say, I was underwhelmed with the film.

David Ferguson said...

I don't think the ending is a cop out. The answer is obvious. It's a dream. His kids haven't aged one bit amongst other things.