On the Film Inception and The Merits of Art

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Finally, Inception has come out on home video. I enjoyed watching it the second time as much as I did my first viewing in the theater. With that said, I find that this is one of the most over-analyzedfilms in recent times. As I’ve written previously, the film is very good, but ultimately is not primarily designed as an intellectual or philosophical exercise.

There are many theories out there, some far-fetched, others more realistic. I won’t respond to the veracity or “correctness” of those theories: Inception just isn’t worthy of all of that analysis and thought. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, the reality we choose to accept has no real bearing on the plot. What do I mean, you ask?

You see, we can largely simplify the debate and draw the line to distinguish the two schools of thought. Inception is either a dream or it’s not. If the movie is a dream (i.e. we see no glimpses of supposed reality), the entire movie is irrelevant. The entire story is an abstraction of some guy’s mind. I mean, why do we care what Dom Cobb is dreaming? Why do I care that he is trying to work through the loss of his wife? By framing the entire movie as the figment of one man’s imagination, it loses any intellectual, cultural, or philosophical importance. It becomes immensely self-indulgent, becoming nothing more than Nolan’s very expensive yet financially successful autobiographical expression in the form of a two and a half hour film.However, if we accept Inception‘s relatively straightforward explanation (that is, that in this alternate film reality, there really exists a military technology called dream sharing, and that Dom Cobb is really a man who can perform Extractions, and so forth), the question to be asked merely concerns the ending: did the top fall or not? If it did fall, then Cobb has returned to reality, and his happiness is real. If the top did not fall, then Cobb is living in a fantasy. Either way, it is not the Matrix-type philosophical mind bending that people make it out to be. And I don’t feel that Inception is even attempting to do what the Wachowski brothers did in the Matrix trilogy. In The Matrix, there are plenty of philosophical references from within the film (one example being the hollowed-out book that Thomas Anderson takes a disc out of: Simulacra and Simulation).Contrast this to Inception, where there are no such references. To be honest, I don’t feel that it even fits Nolan’s style to attempt to create some fantastic intellectual discourse. The film itself is modeled after the heist movie, and the special effects are less fantastic than they are rooted in reality. As much as I argue against looking at a creative work outside of its own context, if one looks at Nolan’s filmography, it becomes quite clear that he is not interested in asking big mind blowing philosophical questions. His films seem to be more like a somewhat detailed look into a man’s personal demons: from Bruce Wayne’s catalyst that births the Batman to the lonely aspiring writer who stalks the wrong people in Following, they are gritty films grounded in reality that happen to light a spark of particular line of thought. And people should enjoy and appreciate his films for what they are. Inception is not a science fiction flick designed to shake the very foundations of your personal philosophy. It’s far more subtle than that. Personally, I’ve ultimately decided that the spinning top ending is merely a way to ask the audience: do you value reality or happiness more?

Now that I’ve given credit where credit is due, I’d also like to speak on the point of Inception‘s portrayal of dreams. There is nothing dream-like about it. While it istruethat I have a cinematic eye in my dreams (yes, i really do see myself in third person, and my dreams are replete with over-the-shoulder shots, medium shots, the whole nine yards), the truth is that there are lots of things in a dream that I just happen to know and accept as truth; there are jump cuts that transport me from one scene to the next with no scene continuity from the last one to the next; things are hazy and morph from one thing to another. I imagine that very few people dream with such vivid images and such precise cinematography. One major weakness of the movie lies in the fact that it neglects to make us feel like we are actually in a dream. Rather, it presumes that the dream world is essentially just an imitation of the real world.

Impossible staircase from Wikipedia.Additionally, I don’t understand how the Penrose stairs work. A dream takes place in three-dimensional space. Those stairs are, in reality, nonsensical: they don’t work. For a person to be fooled by a Penrose staircase, they must be viewing it from a very specific perspective (think echochrome). For the stairs to work that way, perspective must be reality for whoever is walking those stairs. In which case, the scene where Arthur is chasing the thug up a flight of Penrose stairs, the only “logical” explanation for that illusion to become “reality” is that they are both experiencing the dream world through that specific perspective granted to us by the camera.

On the whole though, there really is such a thing as over-analyzing something. The truth is that many creative works can be interpreted differently. The only distinction between various interpretations is the logical strength of each one. Personally, I do not believe in taking any evidence outside of the film itself. That is, I don’t think it’s useful to interpret a creative work by interpreting the creator’s life. Art, be it a painting, novel, or a film, should be self-contained.

I know that there is the idea that all art is affected by all art that came before it, that no art can be created in a vacuum; and therefore all art is interconnected and influenced by each other. This is true. But the interpretations and analysis of such art should be confined to that which is presented from within the content itself. Otherwise, if a work begins to presume that the audience is privy to specific knowledge not presented within the work itself, it starts to become a sort of experimental piece of avant-garde garbage. Considering the relatively traditional format of the film, Inception can barely be regarded as experimental despite its somewhat fresh intellectual premise. There is nothing to suggest that this is a film that regards itself as an intellectual or philosophical development: from the cinematography to the dialogue to the soundtrack, everything is absolutely standard fare when it comes to what you would expect from a Hollywood production.

It certainly is fun to entertain various theories and to discuss and debate varying interpretations of films and other creative works. But ultimately, Inception does not appear to aspire to such heights of intelligentsia, and as such should not be treated as such. Treating it as more than it is – a well crafted and entertaining movie that contains some novel ideas – would be unfair. Summarily, my main contention is with all the attention it got and the brouhaha that arose when the film came out; the film stands on its own merits but is given far too much credit by many people. I blame that on the lack of any decent and smart movies that came out in recent years, as well as on an intellectually stagnating public who would seem to jump at anything remotely debatable that doesn’t involve politics.

  • Josh Kat

    I couldn't agree more with your comments. While I enjoyed this film imensely the furst time I saw it, after seeing it a forth, fifth, sixth time at home with friends I found it to be exactly what you described. And I'm lost on those who try to make it this profound experience.
    Bravo for expressing what i've come to feel about this entertaining film.

    • Thanks Josh for writing in, glad to hear that there are others who echo my sentiments!

  • Though ultimately conceptually boring, Inception does throw some bones to chew on.Its fun spotting paradoxes in the film.Like for example, the scene where Cobb asked Ariadne to draw him a maze(where it was supposed to be "the reality"), we can see the pipes in the background are in paradox, which gave the whole movie up; that it was about Cobb waking up from a limbo/comatose.The names of the characters also gave the movie up, Ariadne especially, and the less subtle Saito and Cobol Industries.You have to give props to Nolan for his style of universal symbolism that agrees with the public, and that itself somewhat redeemed this movie.