[This consideration of Inception is not for the spoiler-wary!]
With Inception, Christopher Nolan has evocatively architected the mind of the dream. Which is in and of itself nothing new; but, admirable for being accomplished through film. Architecture has long been a tool used to envisage spatial relations within dreams. A house is, after all, the classic Jungian dream symbol for the psyche. In this, Inception is not too dissimilar from Charlie Kaufman's filmic constructions—Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—absent their humorous whimsy.
I won't bore anyone with crafting a plot synopsis as review. Rather, I express regret that Christopher Nolan was not made available to me for interview. I would have tailored our conversation to talk less about his film—which stands on its own merits—to talk about what he has discovered in his explorations of dream theory.
The image I find most resonant in Inception occurs late in the film when Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) hazard limbo in search of Mal (Marion Cotillard), who has—in effect—kidnapped Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). True, the scene is ponderous with exposition but this allowed my perception to slow down to take in the image of the houses in water. Memory has placed these past homes in the fluid matrix of the dream. As Cobb explains, he and Mal built their world in limbo to include the first apartment they shared, the house in which Mal bore him children, and Mal's own childhood home. Walking straight on into her childhood home, one faces the dollhouse, which when opened reveals the safe, in which Mal has hidden her totemic top. By placing it in the safe Mal has made her totem a secret even to herself; however—by Cobb touching her totem and setting it to spin within the safe—he reminds her of its purpose and meaning; a shift which will provide the film's narrative its tragic subplot. I love Nolan's image of the spinning top, not only for being—as Ariadne recognizes—"an elegant solution" to the problem of knowing when one is in a dream; but, because it frames the concern, which I find interesting in its own right. The distinction between the waking life and the dream life is an impassioned concern.
In shamanic dream theory this crisis of discernment would be an opportunity to locate "the scout." I understand "the scout" to mean that which is authentic to the dream in contrast to the many phenomenological and visual distractions with which the dreamer populates and decorates the dream. I'm not convinced that this is something taken into the dream by the dreamer—i.e., by way of the totem, let's say—because I believe "the scout" needs to be something endemic to the dream recognized by the dreamer. In that sense, Nolan is more true to "the scout" in the scene in the bar where Cobb is alerting Fischer to the strangeness of the dream as a means of alerting his awareness that he is in a dream. As I understand it, that strangeness would alert the dreamer to the proximity of "the scout", or to what is most endemically authentic to the dream. Lucidity, however, is always a hazardous dance within a dream. Too much lucidity causes a dream to call attention to itself, which—in Nolan's vision—is represented by projections attacking the dreamer. I'm impressed that Nolan has thought this one out with regard to his introduced fiction of extraction and inception. The notion that one can thieve the dream does, indeed, strike me as criminal.
The central convention of Inception is that a dream can be dreamt within a dream. Nolan structures this as a vertical descent as if one were riding an elevator between the levels of a department store. This premise is, again, not original. In shamanic dream theory these levels would be called "gates" and, allegedly, there are seven gates. If one can manage the instability of the various gates to arrive at the seventh gate, this is when the accomplished shaman (i.e., dreamer) is entitled the choice of not returning to the starting point of the dream and opting instead to propel forward into infinity, which is not quite the same as oblivion. The press notes for Inception are correct when they allow that dreams are where the intimate and the infinite meet, not so much through memory as one would expect or as limbo allows, but through the discipline and process of traveling through the gates, dreaming within dreams.
I appreciated Nolan's texturing this discipline of traveling through the gates with, first, the expansion of time so that a minute in the waking world becomes five minutes in the dream world becomes five years in the dream within the dream and five decades within the cubed dream. I found this a provocatively simple understanding of how the spatial-temporal empties into infinity. Second, I was impressed with the importance of the instability factor in successfully maneuvering within the cubed dream; that something like a van carrying dreaming passengers tumbling over and over will create weightlessness in the embedded dreams. I found the scenes where Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was fighting subconscious security in a depth without gravity to be profoundly thrilling. His strenuous performance involved levitational hand-to-hand combat in a whirling tube set up in an old zeppelin factory in England. Its sensual simulation of the physical qualities of torque was fantastic. And here I must insert applause for composer Hans Zimmer's exciting score, essential to the scene's tension.
Other than for that, I have only two semi-complaints about the film. Ariadne, the name of Ellen Page's character—i.e., the architect hired to create the labyrinths for the extraction—was such an obvious association that it kept pulling me out of the story. One could say it called attention to itself and I wanted to attack it. I get that she builds labyrinths. I get that she guides people out of them.
Secondly, is what I've come to believe is an in-joke—if not a mere synchronicity—structured into the film, though I'm not sure it was intentional. Intentional or not, any joke from Christopher Nolan is appreciated. (When he appeared at WonderCon, he never once cracked a smile.) Here's the in-joke: in Inception, a musical cue is affiliated with the "kick" to bring the dreamers back from their dream state. The chosen musical cue is "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" written by Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire in a signature performance by Édith Piaf. Nolan stages limbo as a place where one grows old filled with regrets and my understanding is that regrets are illuminations that arrive too late. In this sense, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" is an apt choice, though rendered a bit eerie (i.e., familiar) for Marion Cottiard having won the Oscar® for her performance as Édith Piaf. Again, within Nolan's own visuals, this choice of song made me turn to look at him directly.
My final note: I've watched the film twice, which does it service.
Cross-published on Twitch.