“Life is but a Dream”
“We are the stuff that dreams are made of.” So said William Shakespeare in his last play, The Tempest. And this, in a nutshell, is the theme of Inception. This is the movie the summer has been waiting for. Only rarely does one go to a movie and see something that is actually inventive and imaginative. Most films are recycles of older films and reruns of time worn ideas. But in the sure and steady hands of director Christopher Noland and thanks to a remarkable group of digital artists, Inception reminds you that movies are us: the stuff that dreams are made of. Noland takes a very basic premise about human beings—we use very little of our conscious mind and that much of our mental activity takes place while we sleep. Our minds are unexplored and under utilized territory, but this terrain is inhabited. Beware.
Dreams happen each and every night, but we remember little of the content. From a Freudian point of view, dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious.” There, in this buried kingdom, our deepest longings are secreted, our most profound fears are cached, lying under layers of traumas and very resistant to excavation. Freud described the unconscious mind like the city of Rome, a place he never visited but the analogy was apt. As anyone who has been to Rome knows, you can walk down many streets and many strata of time are laid out in front of you, like an Escher drawing: the ancient world, the world of the Renaissance, the time of Mussolini, and today. The mind, like Rome, has its own archaeological layers of experiences that have to be mined. The psychologist uses the dream images for what they are, metaphors that must be interpreted. Noland is asking the audience to both take dreams literally but to also remember that dreams stand for something else that is hidden away.
Noland also plays with another, more Eastern, more mystical concept: suppose we are the dream of a greater being, a fantasy of some kind of god? For philosophy, psychology, for theology, and for us all, the real question is what is existence? The answer has to be is that Being must include that vast amount of time we spend on our fantasy worlds, not just our night dreams but also our daydreams. Like Shiva, we dream ourselves into an existence. Noland is fascinated with the mechanics of the dream: that we create the dream but do not know that we are creating all elements of the dream. In other words, those who chase you and persecute you are you. Suppose we are the gods of our own dreams and we are dreaming ourselves? Then what is real and what is the dream? That is the key question of Inception.
The plot is simple. The main character, “Cobb,” played by Leonardo Di Caprio, is an “extractor,’ a trained operative, who can go into the dreams of other people and direct the dreams in such a way that allows him to find hidden corporate secrets. In order to go into the dreams of another, one needs a team, people who will enter into the dream with you and add to the false fantasy. His team is “Arthur,” who looks like a serious bank clerk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an incredible “acrobat,” as Noland termed him, doing his own stunts. These stunts, which take place in zero gravity are worth the price of the film ticket. Not since Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling in Royal Wedding has this effect been so well done. Other members of the team include “Eames,” played by Tom Hardy, and “Yusuf,” played by Dileep Rao. The key member of this team is “the architect,” played by Ellen Page, who is called “Ariadne.” She shows off to “Cobb” by building an amazing dream world that folds itself over and lands on top of itself. Amazing. Obviously, the architect builds a dream world that does not have to obey the laws of logic, but the dream must function logically like a labyrinth constructed in three levels, each borrowing deeper into the mind of the target. The target in this case is “Robert Fischer, Jr.,” played by Cillian Murphy. Even the veteran actor, Tom Berenger, is on hand to play the lawyer for the Fischer family. According to “Saito,” the corporate client, Fischer is on the verge of making his late father’s energy empire into a total monopoly, and only Saito has a company that could break such a totalizing control.
This plot, of course is a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin. The quest or the task or the object in question was always unimportant to Alfred Hitchcock. For this director it was always the couple, the romance and the need to resolve the relationship between the man and the woman. Often, as in Vertigo, the relationship was obsessive compulsive, with the characters repeating their mistakes on an endless loop. In Marnie, the couple is daunting combination of repression and obsession. In a Hitchcock film, the male must control and contain the female; but the man does not always succeed, as in Rear Window, where, the hapless James Stewart is ensnared by a triumphant Grace Kelly.
The couple at the core of the film is “Cobb” and his wife, played by Marion Cotillard. “Mai” also has/had the power to penetrate dreams and to manipulate their outcome. Hitchcock warned men over and over in many of his films—beware of the powerful woman, the femme fatale. “Mai,” apparently a figment of “Cobb’s” imagination, has the nasty habit of suddenly appearing in his dream jobs and sabotaging his work. Every time “Mai” appears, the beautiful Cotilllard slows the film down. In an action film, it is a problem for the audience to get bogged down in a relationship. But Noland is a brave director. He allows “Mai” to be a drag on the film, because this stopping of the flow is absolutely necessary for the concept of the film and its plot.
Noland, who wrote and directed Inception, is well aware of film studies that have equated film with dreams. We leave the light filled ordinary world and go into a dark theater, we sit immobilized and stare at a screen upon which images are projected. Our state of watching a movie is similar to our watching ourselves in a dream, full of projected images. The camera in the theater is behind us, just like we are the mind behind our screen where we experience the dream. In a dream, we are unable to know that we are dreaming but in a theater we have the choice of suspending belief or not. We are asked to surrender ourselves to the fiction, as we surrender ourselves to the dream. Film language uses dream language—particularly important is the effect of “elision,” or the jump cut. In a movie when a character says something like, “Let’s go out to dinner,” we immediately jump to the restaurant. As in dreams, in movies, we are spared the logistical details of changing clothes and getting reservations and driving to the restaurant and getting a parking place, and so on.
Noland uses the resemblance of film language to dream language to great effect in this film, seducing the audience into assuming that we are experiencing film language. But pay attention; ask yourself—-are we witnessing a film or a dream? The fact that the viewer will be run through a maze is obvious, given the name of the architect, “Ariadne,” a character from mythology who led a Greek hero, Theseus through a maze built by the first architect, Daedalus, to confront a minotaur, the half-man, half-bull. In the world of dreams, we are Daedalus, the true architect, but we are also Theseus, encountering our deepest fears, the Minotaur, the monster, who is also ourselves. Ariadne is the psychologist who is following a thread through the dream construct to find the truth and to heal the patient. We assume that “Ariadne” is the grounded member of the team, the one who holds the string or thread that will lead the hero to the surface. But what is the Minotaur?
The movie begins with a failed mission, one undertaken to get into the mind of Saito” who subsequently hires “Cobb” to get into the mind of “Fischer” to get him to break up his father’s monopoly by planting the idea to do so in his mind during a dream. “Cobb” can no longer be an architect, we are told, because he suffers guilt over his wife, “Mai,” who committed suicide because he planted an idea in her mind about the power that the mind has over reality. This idea caused confusion between the real world and the dream world in her mind. For those in a dream state, there is a “bump” that can wake you up, such as your own death. In order to wake herself up to bump out of the real world she was convinced was the dream world, “Mai” leaped to her death and staged the scene to make it look as if her husband had killed her.
Separated from his children, Phillipa and James, cared for by their grandfather, “Miles,” played by Michael Caine, “Cobb” agrees to take on the job offered by “Saito,” played by Ken Watanabe. “Saito” offers to make a single phone call that will allow “Cobb” to go home to his children. The team goes into the mind of the target—will they succeed? Will “Cobb” be allowed to go home? And that is the McGuffin. The real clue is the implanation of an idea and the effects of this idea, which can take over the mind.
To Noland’s credit, he is absolutely straightforward with the audience. We are given all the facts up front. From the very beginning we know everything, but we chose to go along with the dream world that Noland has written for us. The director tells us that the mind, even the unconscious mind, has defenses that protect the secret. In real life such defenses are responses to the trauma of bad memories. We compulsively repeat certain kinds of dysfunctional behavior or we project onto others our own feelings. In Inception the mind of Fischer creates guards, guns, entire armies to resist invasion with the same single-minded resistance that a compulsive gambler will show to a therapist. The “secret,” a last will and testament is also a glimpse into the mind of his father. The mind of the parent is always a mystery to the child who is always futilely trying to interpret the adult way of thinking. It is the parent who inflicts the first wounds and the primal trauma on the mind of the child who buries the agony in the deepest vault of the mind. To get to this vault, the team must go deeper into the mind and encounter greater resistance to break into the castle, where the safe is to be found.
For a two-hour film, Noland is exceeding generous to his large cast of actors. You never feel as if there are “stars,” who are in the lead or eat up most of the screen time. Each actor gets his or her due and is as fully developed as dream characters get. I have read comments about the violence in this film, but there is actually more action than violence. Fasten your seatbelts; this is a fun ride. Because we are in a dreamscape, the special effects are believable and amazing and you never get the effect of “digital effects” or “CGI” that have become so common to the run of the mill movie. Though less complex than Avatar, the artwork is just as compelling and powerful.
To film audiences unfamiliar with Hitchcock or who did not get the references to Greek mythology or who don’t see Noland’s play with film theory, the ending of the film might come as a surprise. To those of us who knew where the film was going after about ten minutes, it simply doesn’t matter. Like a dream, you just go with it.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
Tags: Alfred Hitchcock, Christopher Noland, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Elllen Page, Inception, Josephk Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Sigmund Freud, Tom Berenger, Tom Hardy