Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

The Key to 'Inception': It's a Movie About Making Movies

ON THE 'SET'I should love to claim the credit for having figured out what Inception is really about, but Devin Faraci of C.H.U.D. is the one who started the ball rolling for me. I don't know whether or not the essential clue was in Faraci's possession before he wrote his review, but even if it was, all I can say is, dang. I can't remember the last time a review succeeded in making me change my mind about a movie so absolutely, and so satisfyingly.

The clue is this: in recent a red-carpet interview, Leonardo DiCaprio compared Inception not to The Matrix or Dark City, but to 8½.

It's the merest cliché, that a movie is itself a shared dream. The lights go down, and the audience shares a vision created by others. We are the real targets of the inception, here.

After I read the Faraci review, I had to go and see the movie again. And having done that, it now seems to me that Faraci did not go nearly far enough with the 8½ analogy. Like 8½, Inception is a movie about making movies; it's not that the whole movie "is a dream," though, but rather that the whole movie is an allegory of creation. It's the story of Dom Cobb/Christopher Nolan, and his struggle with his own youthful, self-absorbed aesthetic in order to return "home," where he can be united with his "real" children-his works, his films.

People have asked: why are the children generally wearing the same clothes, and why are they mostly the same age, throughout this movie? It's because they're the perfect vision of his creation, the ideal works of his mind's eye; they symbolize the movies Nolan would like to make, or to have made.

The easiest way to access this interpretation is to examine the character of Mal, the wife of Dom Cobb. She represents Cobb's personal inspiration; the Greek kind of muse, not just the beautiful-girl kind. Young artists conceive a passion for their métier that is analogous to a love affair. "He's wedded to his work," people will say. The indescribable beauty of books, paintings or music that strikes us with such brilliance and force when we are young; we fall in love with that. Some fall in love to such a degree that nothing will suffice but that they too must become painters, writers, musicians.

Young artists often come to feel that that great love will provide all the inspiration they'll ever need to fuel their own works, that they can call on the muse and she will come, like a bolt of lightning, and then they will create works of equal brilliance out of the passion they've felt for the works of others. That feels inevitable, because the love is so colossal, so perfect, so overwhelming. Nothing so beautiful and fulfilling can possibly be mistaken; it is hard not to feel that.

OH OOHHH DREEEAAAM WEAVERBut no artist who relies on passion alone is ever going to create meaningful work, it turns out. The world of personal inspiration is sealed to the outside. In the movie Mal, the symbol of inspiration, says this directly to Ariadne: "Do you know what it is to be a lover? Half of a whole?" Please note, there is no room for children or anything else in that formula. Then, to Cobb, in distress: "You said we'd be together! You said we'd grow old together."

(By the way, in Greek mythology, Ariadne provided Theseus with the ball of thread or "clew" he uses to escape from the maze after slaying the Minotaur, you will recall. This Ariadne is the same.)

The artist has to struggle and eventually to break with his muse, however seductive and beautiful she may be, if what he wants is to move an audience. The muse will always be tempting him to indulge his own vision, rather than trying to reach outside himself for it. This is the real story of Inception.

The deficiency of pure inspiration is illustrated quite baldly in the first scenes with Mal, at the cocktail party of Saito, the tycoon (or, studio honcho) whom Cobb is hoping to persuade to hire him. Cobb asks her to sit in a chair; he's begun to fashion his illusion for Saito, in furtherance of which he fastens a rope to the chair's leg, and then uses the rope to climb down the outer wall to a lower window. Stay there, he tells her, before he pops out the window. Mal immediately displays the caprice and unpredictability of inspiration: she betrays him instantly, lets him fall. We see her empty chair, the fleeing rope, and Cobb plummets far lower than he'd intended. He can't rely on inspiration to help him get where he wants to go. This disturbs him, but it doesn't stop him; he climbs up to the intended window, muse or no muse. He has a larger purpose, one that doesn't include Mal.

Eventually that purpose will lead Cobb to Fischer, who represents on one level you, a single viewer, and on another, the audience and the culture at large. It's Fischer that Cobb must reach in order to "go home." Tellingly, Cobb doesn't care much about Fischer, to begin with. But by the end he is fully invested in Fischer's responses to all his machinations. As "Mr. Charles," Cobb takes the risk of revealing to Fischer that they're both in a dream. That's like letting you know that you're watching a movie; a directorial aside, a lifting of the curtain. There's a leap of faith required from Fischer, too. When he makes that leap, even though Cobb is deceiving Fischer, it's as though Fischer's story has now got a certain hold on Cobb; now Cobb cares about Fischer, and will even dream Fischer's dream, in a sense.

By the end Cobb will have to choose, explicitly, between Mal and Fischer. This is a very exact analogy: who are you doing this for? For your own vision, or for the audience? By then, reaching Fischer has created its own justification for undertaking such a risky enterprise. For Fischer's epiphany, however artificially-induced, however staged, is strangely moving, beautiful and sad: it's real, for lack of a better way of putting it. Note also that it comes to Fischer alone. Cobb doesn't see this redemption; he only has to have faith that it's happened. How sad it is that no director can ever really see into the heart of a viewer who is seeing and understanding his work for the first time!

As much as I like Faraci's conceit of the various characters mapping to the various roles in a film production, it also appears that Nolan is a total auteur who writes all his own stuff. He's married to his producer, even. So I prefer a reading where the different roles here are played by the different parts of Nolan's own psyche (not that these readings are mutually exclusive; far from it.) In this case Arthur represents the director's reason, experience or conscience-as well as the idea of "producer," Eames, the "thief and forger," represents daring, playfulness, invention-"actor"; Yusuf, the technical, illusionist's part-"production design"; Ariadne represents craft, curiosity and intuition-and, perhaps, "writer." (One need not even mention the striking resemblance of the film's star to its director.)

"MAL"All these are played off against the Other represented by Mal. She is the enemy, here. Why? Because the Muse wants only Cobb, Cobb alone. She could care less about anything but the private magic between them-not even their children. Their "real" children, she claims, are beyond the veil. So Cobb's destruction of Mal provides the real climax of the movie.

"Fischer is real," says Ariadne, the leader out of the maze. "Mal is just a projection." Cobb has to follow Fischer, whose catharsis is now revealed to be the real reason for Cobb's work, down into the deepest part of himself: the intuition that guides his craft (in the form of Ariadne) leads him to believe that success can be achieved, Fischer reached (and all brought out of the maze!); otherwise even Cobb himself would have given up.

Cobb goes home, where his mentor and father-in-law Miles is waiting with his "real children." (It's no accident that Cobb first meets up with Miles in Paris, the old capital of art, and of film, and then he magically shows up at "home.") Cobb sees his children's faces for the first time in the movie and, also for the first time, he doesn't care whether or not the top, his totemic indicator of "reality," ceases to spin. Audiences have been moved to speculate on the ultimate fate of the top, as if what were being said is merely that "reality" is in question. Which sure, that is being said. But the real point is that Cobb leaves the top spinning, in order to go outside and find his children waiting for him. Whether or not reality is "real" has stopped mattering to Cobb, and that final leap of faith is what redeems him.

All the seeming inconsistencies that bothered me on a first viewing evaporated instantly on the second, after I had read Faraci's review. Every line of the movie finds its place, viewed through this lens. Take Saito, the studio executive who is willing to give Cobb a job, but just a job isn't enough; Saito must tempt Cobb with the promise of reaching his children: creative autonomy. "How do I know you can deliver?" Cobb asks, and Saito responds: "You don't… but I can." That didn't mean much to me when the players were rival titans of industry, but when I saw Saito as a studio head extending the offer of creative control to the director of the movie I was watching, whoa. And line after line, it was the same.

"A man possessed of radical notions."

"The world needs Robert Fischer to change his mind."

"How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?"

The most fun part of this whole thing is that Nolan's attempt at Inception has worked really beautifully, so far. He's made an idea, "like a virus," enter millions of minds, and we don't quite know what it is, not yet.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

41 Comments / Post A Comment

Blackcapricorn (#4,791)

I thought Selma Hayek was inspiration.

A key to making movies, maybe, but not writing dialogue.

Tim Maly (#6,225)

I think this is exactly right. As I watched the movie, I kept thinking "this is a movie about making video games". I mean they have all the roles there. The chemist builds the engine of sedation that allows the thing to run, the architect builds the environments and then the levels get populated by the players and the various actors.

They call everything levels, the NPCs (subconscious) are shallow projections that have no will or motivation of their own. Enemies are spawned in.

And then there is the portion where Ariadne is learning to make the environments and they spend a bunch of time talking about how to trick the dreamers into thinking they are in a complete world by using weird geometry and other rules to keep them confined to the area that's been designed.

Your insight about the dialogue seals it for me.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

Very elegant, but the same metaphor could be used for religion or any sort of statement of expression meant to convince.

mathnet (#27)

I loved the experience of being totally in it the whole time, even during the Spies-Like-Us scenes, and then realizing all the strangeness only afterward.


mathnet (#27)

Also. I'm super annoyed that DiCaprio made both Shutter Island and Inception. At all, really, but especially so close together in time. Too many similarities.

HiredGoons (#603)

did Leonard DiCaprio used to be attractive, or was that just a dream?

mathnet (#27)


I was part of this dream once.

melis (#1,854)

Now it's all self-tanner and jowls and weird Van Dyke goatees.

HiredGoons (#603)

So is it more or less narcissistic than a Woody Allen film?

In the sense that Christopher Nolan does not appear as the lead who is banging a 20 year old, nor does Leo playing Nolan bang a 20 year old, no.

Make that less.

jaimealyse (#647)

The thing about Inception is that I find reading about it – all the theories and interpretations – about a million times more interesting than I found the movie itself.

jaimealyse (#647)

Oh also where is the explanation for all of Ellen Page's scarves?

HiredGoons (#603)

Ok, now I need to see it.

@HG Brooks Brothers abounds.

HiredGoons (#603)


synchronia (#3,755)

@jaimealyse: Men like scarves – or so I learned from Mad Men.

This movie is strikingly overrated and people are putting forth far more effort reading way too much into it than Nolan did writing it.

I read somewhere that this was a 10 year project.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

They say it took Christopher Nolan 10 years to write it.

And in 1-2 weeks, America will forget it. WHAT A COUNTRY!

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

Very well put. An enjoyable thought to an enjoyable movie-going experience. You got a little Jeffrey Wagner there at the beginning which, like, is always relevant.

Ian Epstein (#6,209)

1) Salma Hayek is always inspiration.

2) Alternative title: 'Conception' literally, to get all Latin about it, 'doin' it together.'

3) What about all those daddy issues?

Belmondo (#6,210)

The Awl's support for this film makes me sad. There's nothing to see here, people. Disperse!

Slava (#216)

You know, it's weird.
I hate a loooooot of movies, but not once was I tempted to seek out articles on those movies and leave comments telling everyone who liked the movie to stop talking about it and go away.
Sooo odd.

ragold (#2,746)

It's important to remember this logical fallacy when reading critiques that claim an inconsistency in a work is intentional.
E.g., If 'dream logic' then 'inconsistency'; 'inconsistency'; therefore 'dream logic'.

cellular_bus (#3,024)

Pleased to see so many commentators on the Awl hatin' on this film, as I totally agree: Overrated and unimpressively explained, dissected and analyzed. The CHUD review is excellent, though, definitely made me reconsider my general disappointment…might even like it better than the actual movie.

alorsenfants (#139)

Well everyone I normally read to consider whether or not I should see a movie isn't especially happy with "Inception" — and then I have seen curious takes on it from you guys and (!!!) Roger Ebert this evening.
Now I may go try to see it.
I'll just forget, before it starts, that Roger Ebert had anything to do with my getting out there?

vespavirgin (#1,422)

But what about the real CHUD? Is that also based on 8-1/2? The clogged drain scene is an allegory for the difficulties of creativity.

The essential problem with saying that THIS is wholly and totally a metaphor for THAT is the question "so why didn't he just make THAT"?

brad4424 (#6,249)

i think you might be reading into it a little too much. sure the analogy that this is a movie about making movies could be made, but i don't think that is what nolan intended. clearly that is the point of 8 1/2, but i don't think it's a deeper meaning in inception. plus you say what is real has stopped mattering to cobb, which i'd have to disagree. if it didn't matter he would've just stayed in limbo with his projections of mal and his kids and have the best of both worlds, but he makes a deliberate decision to go back to his real kids, because they are still in reality. i think the point of the movie is more about losing the grip on what is real and what isn't, rather than creating a movie.

but one movie about movies that needs to be mentioned is 2001 a space odyssey. it's not widely known but there's a deeper meaning of the connection with the audience and the fact that it is a movie. the sole reason the monolith was changed from a pyramid in the book, to a rectangle in the movie (the shape of a movie screen), hugely important.

melis (#1,854)

There is never any reason to mention 2001: A Space Odyssey. No reasons suffice.

Louis Fyne (#2,066)

Well – one…the scene in the vault with fischer and his dad was a direct homage to 2001.

Aatom (#74)

This theory seems a bit thin to me. But it's certainly an interesting idea. I have a feeling Nolan had bigger things in mind than making an introspective treatise on artistic inspiration. But I also think that he enjoys the type of mental gymnastics that a story like this inspires, so job well done here. I enjoyed this one, it's rare that the buzz about any movie actually drives me to a theater, and this one didn't disappoint. I'd be curious to know what some of the people here did not like about the movie.

NinetyNine (#98)

Isn't there an inherent laziness to the knee jerk self-reflective position that "Movie X is about making movies"? Particularly when 8 1/2 and Godard (and Tati and Day for Night) did such an effective job of making movies that pretty much postured (successfully) with the notion that, yup, you really never could get away with that allegory ever again because is was so obvious.

drinkingclub (#6,299)

I thought it was a good movie. Well worth the price of admission, the popcorn, and it did not hurt to sit in an air conditioned theatre for the running time. Cobb was also the name of a character in Nolan's first movie.

StanleyRumm (#6,455)

It's a nice way to look at it. I don't think it's necessarily _the_ way to look at it, or that it's "about film", but it's a nice theory.

There are alternative ways to view it, or perhaps you might like to see how these extra bits fit in with your analysis..

Superman's Underpants and the movie "Inception"

I liked it. And I think it is a metafiction. And, given all the explosions, probably mostly about movies but I think it is a bit more tongue-in-cheek. The pinwheel? R. Fischer talking to "Browning" on the riverbank? The top at the end? These are clearly jokes. Jokes about how movies jerk you around.

All-in-all a rare example of the remake expanding on and surpassing the original. The original being the beautiful but stupid Shutter Island.

benpeters (#7,214)

Definitely a metafiction. The inception is into the mind of the audience. Maria, I think you are correct on all counts. This is a film about screenwriting, film making, and, most of all, the art of story.

Incidentally, I felt quite peculiar after the first viewing of this film, as did some of my friends. I think perhaps there was some fleeting confusion in my subconscious – an overlap between the world of dream catharsis/resolution and of that induced by the artifice of film. I don't know to what extent Nolan intended this as an effect, but, in any case, I consider this film a work of some genius.

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