July 30, 2010

Personal essay: Is "Inception" actually a film about filmmaking?

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Still image from Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

(WARNING: This entire essay is one giant spoiler from its start to its finish. If you haven't seen Inception yet yourself, you will most definitely want to postpone reading this at all until you do.)

It's too long a story to get into, but last night I found myself at the high-end Icon movie theatre at Roosevelt and Clark, half-drunk, there to see Christopher Nolan's latest movie, Inception, while sitting 15 feet away from a 75-foot-wide screen; and needless to say, this may be the best freaking way ever invented to see a Christopher Nolan film, and I ended up overwhelmingly enjoying the movie in a way I haven't with a Hollywood film in a long, long time. And so this morning, then, I finally pulled up the 50 different blog articles and cartoons about Inception that I had come across in the last few weeks and had bookmarked without reading; because anymore with big movies like these, I try to maintain a complete and total media blackout before actually seeing it myself, even the stuff considered non-spoilerish, so that as many details as possible will remain a surprise, something I highly recommend to others as well. (And seriously, this is your last warning, that I am about to reveal nearly every single plot point found in the film.)

One of the most interesting things I came across online, in fact, was the theory first put forth by Devin Faraci at cult-movie site CHUD.com, and then expanded on by Maria Bustillos at The Awl, based on an innocuous remark that star Leonardo DiCaprio made at the movie's premiere, that instead of The Matrix or other sci-fi fare, the movie that Inception actually most reminded him of is 8 1/2; to be specific, the theory that much like that notorious Modernist classic by Federico Fellini, Inception is ultimately a clever autobiographical film about Nolan himself, about the relationship he has with the filmmaking process, and why narrative creative projects like movies and novels seem to be so important to humans in the first place, which is why we keep seeking them out by the billions year after year after year. And in fact, once you start looking at the film in more metaphorical terms (and be aware that Faraci and Bustillos were the ones to first point a lot of this stuff out), the similarities between it and Hollywood start becoming more and more obvious -- how DiCaprio as Dominic Cobb is in effect the "director" of the dream-manipulation project they're undertaking, with Ellen Page's Ariadne (the dream's "architect") as his screenwriter, Tom Hardy's Eames (the "forger") as his cast, Dileep Rao's Yusuf (the "chemist") as his tech guy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Arthur (the "point man") as the producer who sets up all the logistics and makes sure things are running smoothly, and Ken Watanabe's Saito (the client) as the studio head, willing to give Nolan's stand-in creative control and a ton of money, but demanding specific results in return. (And in fact there are plenty of lines with double-meanings in the movie to support such an interpretation, like when Cobb at one point says to his creative team, "How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?"; and I also think it's interesting that it's Ariadne who ultimately comes up with the last-minute plan to save the day, which says a lot I think about which part of the filmmaking process Nolan treasures the most.)

To continue the metaphor, then, Cillian Murphy's Fischer (the mark) would be the audience itself, with Cobb's job (as with Nolan's real past, in films such as Memento and The Dark Knight) being to weave through evermore complicated layers of stories, to ultimately sell a specific idea to Fischer without him ever being aware of how much he's being manipulated; and let's not forget, just like the movies, these dream manipulations utterly fail the moment the dreamer becomes aware that they're in a dream, which apparently in Nolan's mind also involves menacing stares from the audience and eventually them tearing the creative team apart with their bare hands. (Sheesh, talk about unresolved artist/audience issues.) And that's ultimately why this film succeeds on an emotional level, argues Bustillos, because ultimately Fischer really is sincerely moved after coming to the final reveal in his third/fourth/?th level of dreaming, despite all of us knowing that it's a patently false implanted message; after all, as she reminds us, the tears you cry during Pixar's Up are very real tears, based on a very real sadness you're experiencing, despite it being inspired by a bunch of cartoon characters and a story that never really happened.

And in fact you can expand this autobiographical metaphor even more if you want, and see Cobb's angelic children as a stand-in for Nolan's inner-brain picture of what his finalized film would look like in its perfect form, the version that exists when he's merely fantasizing about how cool it would be to make it; if he succeeds at his job, then, he'll be reunited with these perfect forms, while failure will keep him away from them forever, with his creative team existing basically to throw more and more problems from the real world between him and his idealized 'perfect picture.' (And let's not forget, as Bustillos reminds us, it's no coincidence that the movie starts in Europe where Nolan is originally from, and ends in the US which is his new home in real life.) And this then brings us to the most intriguing character of all, Cobb's wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who he creates these perfect babies with through an act of shared intimacy; and that then pretty much metaphorically makes her one of the artistic muses of Greek mythology, who let's not forget are supposed to be both the best friend and worst enemy of artists trying to do their jobs, as Nolan nicely shows by having Mal keep popping up as the villain in so many of Cobb's own dreams. (And I also think it's interesting that the day is ultimately saved by Cobb eventually having to emotionally disown Mal, admit that many of the things he's dreamt about her are merely figments of his overly optimistic imagination, and that it's ultimately more important for him to listen to his creative team and all their practical concerns; this says a lot, I think, about how Nolan must feel about bringing his head-scratching art films to life within the Hollywood world of multi-million-dollar budgets and mouth-breathing studio executives.)

This is a big reason that I love Nolan so much, is that you're able to apply so many different yet neatly contained analyses and messages to his work; because to make it clear, I'm also a big fan of the theory floating around out there that the entire film from its first minute to its last is one big dream inside Cobb's head, that the entire malarky about him being a futuristic dream manipulator with personal issues is merely his own subconscious's fantastical way of coping with something a lot more banal in real life, like maybe a recent nasty divorce. I love that both of these interpretations are pretty much water-tight; and I love that you can also simply accept the film at face-value if you want, and see it just as an exciting genre actioner that doesn't mean anything deeper at all. It's so refreshing to see a filmmaker like this be so successful and so passionately embraced by a general audience, when we're otherwise surrounded by so much unwatchable crap from Hollywood these days, and I have to say that despite the valid criticisms that have been made of this film (AO Scott's is especially astute), Inception still turned out to be one of my favorite movie experiences of the last decade, ironic because of Batman Begins and Memento being in that list as well. It comes highly recommended, and I especially encourage you to see it on the big screen if you have the chance.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:00 PM, July 30, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |