Jul 10

all alone in my dreaming

Do You See + FT7 comments • 448 views

phwoar, look at the angles on that oneSome characters thump awake, panting, in a snarl of sweaty sheets. Some characters open their eyes with a snap, hold the pose for a full two camera seconds, sigh. Depends what it’s been – lurid wish-fulfilment, vicious tragedy, traumatic flashback. A shortcut to backstory, a cheap bit of misdirection. Rarely surreal, no abrupt shifts of scene or familiar places in illogical shapes. High emotion. The reason dreams in films so often don’t convince isn’t that they’re unrealistic. It’s that they aren’t unrealistic enough.

No surprise, really. This is the economy of fiction, and what exists must work in service to the plot or it’s out on its ear. But, still, all these characters on all these screens who seem to spend every night staring at a slideshow of memory – after a while you start to wonder if the screenwriters have actual dreams at all.

So what’s great about Inception is that there aren’t any real dreams in it. No-one falls asleep naturally and drifts through the various stages until they cruise into the REM state and find themselves driving a car downhill in their boxers despite never having learnt how, then curled up in a treehouse library whose rabbit-warren corridors curve overhead and underfoot with 360-degree shelving, reading a red book that turns out to be the morning sun. In Inception, all sleep is drugged; all dreams are built by conscious minds. If the scenes seem suspiciously coherent, if the buildings (bar a Penrose staircase or two) are all too structurally sound, if for some reason the subconscious is supposed to be on alert against logical inconsistencies rather than gleefully piling them on top of one another – that’s okay. These are less dreams and more fictions, stories thought into the minds of their target audience by a team of great imaginations, built worlds that can’t recreate the maker’s own familiar places for fear of giving too much away.

The comparison makes itself, really.

Inception is carefully, intelligently put together, the seed of a final twist (or is it??) planted half-way through, the various layers of the story worked together with delicate art. It knows about dreams what filmmakers tend to ignore, that they are strange sideways things that we can only interpret through metaphor, even if sometimes the metaphors are so crude and obvious we feel disappointed in our own subconscious minds. It knows about creation that it’s dangerous psychic territory, that when we think we are in control of the narrative the details may be letting our secrets slip. It’s a slick piece of work, the beautiful sharp suited young fraudsters of an Ocean’s Eleven exploding through the transnational spaces of a Bond or Bourne film, street markets in Mombasa and energy markets in Japan and the US, plastic chairs and first-class plane travel (and a French extradition reference!). Fractions of the familiar world, giving nothing away.

Yet — there’s another way we give ourselves away, not by what we put in but by what we leave out. A man must go home; a father-son conflict must be resolved (not an Oedipal one – there isn’t a mother in it. Which by the way is weird); economic competition must flourish, no time to wait on antitrust laws. None of these motivations seem any more important than the next gorgeously detailed set-piece. There’s a lot of charisma but not a lot of human sympathy. Ellen Page’s Ariadne is perfect, here, her curiosity intellectual and practical and unromantic, taking her place in the group for the thrill of immaterial creation. She’s an architecture student, her professor’s favoured pupil, enchanted with the idea that any environment she imagines can take shape without the tedious business of getting it built. She thinks up a world so another mind can realise it, so yet other minds can interact with it and finally, somewhere down the chain, it will make one mind feel something and so betray itself. It’s all craft, all contrivances, the final purpose lost in a huge Heath Robinson machine.

It’s not that emotion is lacking – it’s that emotion would sap the delight from this film, would upset the delicate balance of image upon image, fantasy upon folly. Like all heist films, the joy is in watching sharp minds think their way out of the inevitable unforeseens, use every tool they know to keep their plot in motion. We’re supposed to find it sad that Inception‘s team of creators can no longer dream spontaneously, but that’s hard to do. The only real threat in the film is the loss of lucidity, the thing that cannot be explained, the dreams one cannot control.


  1. 1
    cis on 30 Jul 2010 #

    facts learnt in the process of writing this: ‘social dreaming’ is an ACTUAL THING (it’s a form of group psychoanalysis).

  2. 2
    swanstep on 30 Jul 2010 #

    Not sure what I think of Inception overall, but I’m pretty sure that Ellen Page’s Ariadne is underwritten (assuming she’s not a master inceptor hired by Caine to incept Leo out of guilt/grief – a fanciful theory that would be irritating if correct). There’s the clunky ‘Basil Exposition’ function of her character, there’s the fact that she never expresses any ethical worries at all about invading people’s minds and manipulating their lives (Are we supposed to believe that Michael Caine selected her for not just for her smarts but for her amorality?), there’s the fact that she doesn’t actually seem or act especially smart (Page read as smart in Hard Candy and Juno, but not here), and in any case in the film she quickly becomes just an emotional support for Leo, with no smarts required.

    I can’t understand your final paragraph about emotion etc.. I wasn’t emotionally moved by Inception, but others have been, and I’m pretty sure that their response is the intended one.

  3. 3
    cis on 30 Jul 2010 #

    I feel like the emotional bits in Inception were mostly there because a film is supposed to have emotional bits? Which is related to why Ariadne is so refreshing – as a newbug girl character she’s supposed to be the one having ethical concerns and feeling sympathetic worry over people’s issues and blah blah emotionalintelligencecakes. But why shouldn’t she be as amoral, as focused entirely on the art of it, as everyone else?

  4. 4
    Pete on 30 Jul 2010 #

    As someone who no longer dreams, I wondered on leaving the film if dreams had gone through a sea change of format change and were now as generally dull as the set-up for the dreams in Inception were. The big metaphor in Inception is that of dreaming itself, these are not natural dreams, and not like actual dreams: the best trick Inception pulls is that of convincing us that this dream logic is some sort of real thing. I am pretty sure the film is actually more about film-making and fiction than any dreams anyone actually have. And then the process of actually having an idea – where do they come from?

    The usual complaint about heist movies is that they are often unsatisfactory because they are usually too slick and lie to the audience so we can be baffled by their internal magic. Inception oddly dodges that criticism (by spending an hour pretty much explaining everything that will happen, and then breaking said rules) but then falls back on the “It was all a dream” problem from five year story telling. And perhaps that’s Nolan’s real point. “It was all just a dream” is not a lame ending if the dream is entertaining – just as Lewis Carroll.

    (Alternate reading that this is a sequel to Shutter Island also works).

  5. 5
    swanstep on 30 Jul 2010 #

    @3. Why shouldn’t she be as amoral as everyone else? 2 reasons. (i) The others are hardened crims. She’s joining them, having to become like them, presumably forfeiting a glittering legit. career etc. and generally just getting into violating people. If Caine’s selected her for her sociopathic character as well as brilliance then fine, but otherwise not. (ii) I’ve known and taught many brilliant undergrads and they’ve almost without exception been hyper-idealistic even fiercely moral prigs. They’d all need *lots* of convincing to do anything seriously shady, and would really think any such proposal through very carefully and verbally argue it out. Principles typically matter to them incredibly, whereas Ariadne as far as we know just craves the buzz again after she’s had a taste, no further questions asked. Ha ha. I call bullshit and poor writing on that.

    Nolan’s no budget first film Following has a big noir-ish con on its mind finally, but it *begins* by taking pretty seriously the idea of the thief who enters houses and who always looks for a person’s secret box of treasures/mementos, explores how violating that is, how the ability-to-violate could be intoxicating, and what sort of fatal step you’d be taking if you joined forces with someone who did violate people in that way. Inception feels shallow and hollowed out to the extent that none of this ‘moral stakes’ stuff comes up.

    Unrelatedly, can anyone explain why ken watanabe’s characetr Saito wouldn’t choose to kill himself to escape from limbo rather than wait for Leo to show up to take that step?

  6. 6
    stephen graham on 30 Jul 2010 #

    ‘The reason dreams in films so often don’t convince isn’t that they’re unrealistic. It’s that they aren’t unrealistic enough’

    Even though I realise the dreams in Inception aren’t supposed to be of the ‘conventional’ sort, I thought that what the film fundamentally lacked was a sense of the uncanny. It was all a little too straight for me. Still enjoyed it very much, though the much greater depth with which similar subjects are treated in Solaris, even Stalker, puts Inception a little in the league of the middlebrow.

  7. 7
    swanstep on 31 Jul 2010 #

    @6. Dreams in films are a conundrum because they build on several illusions we have about ourselves. Our ordinary perceptual states are much less cinematic than we tend to think they are – we don’t build up detailed inner representations of our local environment rather we always just re-engage/re-sample/re-perceive anything we need to on an ad hoc basis. Our dreams are then even less cinematic – it’s as if the re-perceiving steps that allow the illusion that we have a fully built up inner representation of the world around us in the perceptual case get handled by narration (perhaps generated in part by a fast, partially randomized auto-complete function and select cycle). At any rate, without constant new input from the world, dreams are typically very vague and schematic: you’re in a room – but no room in particular with walls that are no particular color, and so on.

    Text is much closer to the stuff of dreams than pictorial/photographic media are (you can confirm this by comparing the film adaptation of any dream or level-shifting scene in a novel with its original, e.g., the end of Fight Club – the vagueness and ambiguity and compression that the text gets you for free inevitably requires ridiculous heavy lifting and juggling of fully-fleshed out alternative realities in the film version to get even half the effect). But we don’t believe that’s so because we have these persisting, probably inevitable illusions about both our perceptual and dream states, and movies have to cater to/work with our illusions/prejudices about psychology just as they do to/with our illusions about physics.

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