Tuesday, July 20, 2010

He's Dreamy

Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated with the connection between dreams and storytelling. After all, dreams are the first stories we tell ourselves, the first narratives that – like it or not – engulf and overwhelm our senses, that can move us (at least for a moment) with the same power real events do. Dreams raise the fundamental questions of human existence to us in a way that is impossible to ignore. I don't think that children are afraid to go to sleep just because they fear the specific apparitions who haunt their nightmares – Ronald McDonald, a garbage can with teeth, a taxidermied moose head with hard glass eyes. I think they fear it for a deeper, more primal reason: because sleep is the one place they have to go by themselves, without adult protectors, and whatever lurks there is theirs alone to face. If "no one can die my death for me," as Heidegger suggests, the journey into dreamland may be a more temporary death, but it's no less isolating. And it comes as no great comfort that the monsters there come from inside ourselves. Though that might make them less real in one sense, it also makes them far more difficult to permanently escape.

For those reasons, I have never agreed with Henry James's asinine generalization, "Tell a dream, lose a reader," nor with the more commonly held opinion that dreams stall the action of narrative, that they hold characters in artificial stasis. To know a character's dreams is, in my opinion anyway, to know that character's humanity; it provides the same intimacy as witnessing his birth or death or the intricacies of his sexuality. In fiction, details have to be carefully chosen, whether they're the contents of a wallet or the tchotchkes on a shelf, but although those details may work on a metaphorical level toward developing the protagonist or themes, they also have to operate impersonally, causally, in accordance with the laws of the story's world. In depicting a dream, though, that causality itself functions as metaphor. Objects shift, transform, appear, disappear in ways that mirror the character's psychology; there are no accidents, no rote necessities. Everything means something. In this sense, I think that, only in a dreamscape (or a landscape that functions like one, as in Kazuo Ishiguro's masterpiece The Unconsoled or the films of David Lynch) can plot itself aspire to the lyric condition of poetry.

The Christopher Nolan film Inception does not aspire to the lyric condition of poetry. Inception aspires to the condition of the summer blockbuster, specifically of the whiz-bang variety; it aspires to pack in as many twists and turns and explosions and car crashes, gun-toting extras and special effects, as is legally possible to cram into a PG-13 two and a half hour extravaganza. Like Space Mountain, it is a hell of a ride, and if you can get through it once without throwing up, you may find yourself tempted to get back in line and go again, because it leaves you so exhilarated and refreshed.

These are accomplishments, huge ones, and they're even more impressive when you consider all the seemingly obligatory things the picture doesn't do. Inception is a movie where, in the course of the present action, no one dies or gets laid; it's a heist movie where nothing gets stolen. The characters are ciphers, with hardly a defining characteristic among them – there's a single memorable beat of romance/comic relief, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt cons Ellen Page into a kiss, but other than that the characters are little more than attractive mouthpieces for hefty chunks of technical sci-fi exposition. Yet the story moves: there's always a ticking clock or a ticking bomb, a bullet to dodge, or – in the most literal sense of the word "suspense" – a white van hanging off the side of a bridge, falling in slow, slow motion to the chilly waters below.

It feels silly even to bother pointing out that this film is overcomplicated to the point of absurdity: "Whose subconscious are we going into now?" Ellen Page asks at one point, in a line of dialogue that I suspect was taken verbatim from a confused reader's marginalia on the screenplay. It feels silly, too, to point out the overdetermined Freudian arc of the dream narrative. For the five of you in America who still haven't seen this movie, Leo & Co. are tasked with implanting an idea in a young CEO's mind: they need him to dismantle the energy company he recently inherited from his dad. I WILL BREAK UP MY FATHER'S EMPIRE, Leo pens on a whiteboard during a strategy meeting of the mind-invasion team. "The most powerful ideas have emotional meaning," he explains to those assembled. "But how do we turn a business plan into an emotion?" a clueless flunky asks. I guess for this guy, a cigar is just a cigar.

Perhaps the human mind isn't so complicated after all.

But, although I did find moments in the film unintentionally funny, that wasn't why I was so disappointed in Inception. For me, the biggest let-down here was the simple fact that the dreams did not remotely resemble dreams. As I said before, dream worlds in fiction are fascinating to me, not simply because they can be fantastical, imaginative, wondrous, and strange (though those things can come as additional perks). What makes dream worlds fascinating is the fact that everything within them is the construction of a particular idiosyncratic human mind. If I recall correctly, Freud believed that the raw material of dreams came entirely from objects and images the dreamer had encountered in life; dreams were in this sense vast collages filled with items that never entirely relinquished their initial significance, a whole world hued with nostalgia. Inception takes this idea one step further: since the agents access the dream state consciously, they can build within it consciously too, creating impossible architectures and landscapes that defy the laws of physics at the speed of thought. But given this freedom, what do they create? The sets from the Bourne Identity movies, apparently, and, in the case of Leo and his wife Mal, an empty city of repetitive fascist architecture, with one or two replicas of their former homes at the outskirts.

This looks boring, sure, and it tells us zilch about the characters, but the problem is bigger than that. By showing us dreams but refusing to let them convey any information through suggestion or metaphor, Nolan is devaluing the whole visual aspect of his very visual medium. He's saying, "You don't need to watch; you just need to listen, and everything will be completely explained." And by encouraging this kind of passivity, this inattention, in the viewer, he's drawing attention away from the very qualities that could meaningfully distinguish his work from that of his contemporaries. Like the dream-architects here, Nolan could've made this look like anything in his imagination – he could have made this personal, haunting, zany, or gorgeous. But except for one or two amazing moments (as when a vast gray city folds in over itself like a piece of curling linoleum, or a very old Ken Watanabe eats porridge in a room with a thousand hanging lanterns), he chose to make this world look like any random thriller at the multiplex. Perhaps making us believe the third-act twist, about fantasy and reality being indistinguishable, was more important to him than creating a visually arresting film. But even with that twist in mind, I'd encourage Nolan to take a look around the world outside the shooting set sometime. The Earth can be a pretty weird place. That's why it gives us such bad dreams.


Emily Sue said...

Valuable insight - somehow I hadn't even considered this aspect of the film. Guess I was too caught up in the blockbuster antics? Especially in the limbo world - if you're going to be trapped there for a lifetime the soul-sucking "fascist" architecture seems like a pretty dull way to wile away eternity, although I suppose it IS limbo.

That said, I do think the need to keep the dream environment as "real" as possible was explained, whether or not that was the ideal narrative choice. This would be a different film if the dreams were obviously dreams - so much of the wondering here is "Are we still in the dream?" If it was clear, there would be no twist, and Nolan thrives on the twists and confusion (one of the reasons I have never been a big fan - too many gimmicks).

My favorite element of the film which I do think is quite dreamlike is the fact that you never once see how someone has arrived at a place, you're just suddenly there - like in dreams. And it wasn't until the end of the film that I realized this, fittingly (maybe reflecting only on my poor powers of observation, so be it!).

The Chawmonger said...

Hey Emily, thanks so much for reading and commmenting!

I guess the point I was trying to make at the end of this post was that, even if Nolan wanted to blur the line between reality and dreams, he could have done that by making the film's reality stranger (both visually and in terms of incident), rather than by making the dreams more "normal" (read: cliched). The Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly is a great recent example of a movie where the "reality" is so odd that the moments of hallucination or fantasy don't seem very much out of place. Ditto for Cronenberg's Existenz or most anything directed by Terry Gilliam. I could give more examples but you get the idea.

Weirdly enough (for me, anyway), the "realities" in all of those aforementioned movies also seem more like actual real life situations I've experienced than anything in Inception. What's odd about Nolan's vision here is that it's so stripped of quirkiness, of unexpected specificity -- in fact, of anything outside the action movie canon -- that no part of it feels as weird as ordinary life.

Anyway, I appreciate the read! Hope all's well with you.

Emily Sue said...

I wish I would have known about your blog sooner, I apologize for being oblivious - now I want to go back and read all your older postings!

Existenz was perfect in the reality blurring aspect, one of my favorites.

I'm guessing you saw "The Prestige"? Now that I'm thinking back on it - Nolan did a better job there of creating this mystery dream world, especially the Tesla field of lightbulbs scene. So apparently, he's capable of it?

stephen said...

Very well written post, but i disagree with the flaws you saw in Inception... the dreams had to be presented in a scope where the actors could be unnoticed, and the dreams were made by architect as to make it that way. The architect creates the dream world and the marks subconscious populates it with their own thoughts. If you want a lucid/ more vivid dream see Alice in wonderland... this movie defined the rules that it was playing by, so you can't say it was bad cinema because it doesn't follow some cliche version of a lucid drem were normal people will stand out and therefore not be able to plant the thought(inception) in the persons sub concious unknown to the dreamer. Also you said yourself that dreams define a persons humanity, so in inception although none of the characters were given i back story i felt that each was fleshed out with the way they acted and interacted within the landscape of each dream.... its nothing personal i really enjoyed your post i just disagreed with your two main "flaws" inception had

The Chawmonger said...

@ Emily Sue -- yes, I totally agree that The Prestige had scenes that were trippier and more dreamlike than anything in Inception. Nolan's definitely an imaginative guy, and capable of making some very off-kilter choices in his films (like his nightmarish re-imagining of the Joker), so I'm not anywhere near giving up on him just yet.

@ stephen -- thanks so much for reading and commenting! My feelings are not hurt in the least; I love argument and dialogue (that's what the comments section is for, right?). I do see where you're coming from about the way that Inception defined its own rules -- in a way, the dreams here are more like a virtual reality simulation than anything else. But I have to say that Alice in Wonderland (if you mean the Tim Burton film version), far from living up to my expectations, disappointed me even more massively than Inception. If you're curious, here's my post on it: http://chawshop.blogspot.com/2010/03/blunderland.html

Snowden Wright said...

An article on Salon addresses all things Inception. One part seems specifically relevant to your argument:

"Some of the most piercing criticisms of "Inception" have come from those who accuse it of falsifying the nature of dreams, betraying the traditional of surrealists from Luis Bunuel to Terry Gilliam -- which it would if it were attempting to join it. But "Inception" isn’t a movie about dreams. Let’s say that again:

"Inception." Is not. About dreams. Not real ones, anyway. The dreams in which much of the movie takes place are artificial constructs, rational, rectilinear simulacra designed to achieve specific ends. The dreamers are lucid, exercising conscious authority over its landscape, which means that the mercurial logic of dreams never has a chance to assert itself.

Is it convenient that the worlds the dreamers construct so closely resemble the landscape of a James Bond movie? Well, sure. Warner Bros. isn’t about to shell out $200 million for Nolan to make some arty thesis film. But it’s not merely commercial calculation that dictates the goal-oriented nature of what "Inception" calls dreams."

Here's the link to the article, if you're curious: http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/inception/index.html?story=/ent/movies/film_salon/2010/07/19/inception_explainer

Paperbagwriter said...

I would also argue that one of the things Nolan did consistently well — that falls in line with how actual dreams work — was repeating key visual images. Yeah, we're all tired of action movie snipers because they're so generic, but small instances that occurred mostly through Leonardo DiCaprio's POV — such as the hotel room, the house, the kids, the spinning top — they did have a ring of authenticity insofar as they acknowledged how powerful emotional experiences can imprint themselves into a person's dreams. Granted, this imprinting rarely translate as literally and exact as in the movie, but there's still some truth the idea.

Otherwise, I basically agree with you that the movie was crap (J/K). It's still a very intelligent film that actually might have been more impenetrable and unappealing to popular audiences had it not laid down a somewhat simple set of dream rules and let the rest play out like a typical action film without fantastical dream flourishes. That a complicated, intelligent film about dreaming at least adhered to its own rules for the most part is an achievement in itself.

To this day, I still have no idea what Christopher Nolan's Momento is actually about, nor do I care because of its despicable characters and "who cares" plot. His earlier film Following is more enjoyable, more beautifully shot, infinitely more plausible, and more rewarding to understand (not that it's a masterpiece either).