The closed loop: 9 notes about the mysteries of Christopher Nolan's Inception
“A film is a ribbon of dreams.” ---Orson Welles
"I'm not sure what I just saw, but I liked it." ---overheard after watching Inception
While I had issues with some of its cynical/ cheesy The Spy Who Loved Me action scenes, I liked the way Inception provoked all kinds of associations and questions:
1) Some opening definitions:
inception: the act of planting an idea in someone's mind in his/her subconsciousness via a dream (or dreams).
architect: the designer of a dream. Architects build M. C. Escher-esque mazes that disguise how they are closed loops. Ariadne (Ellen Page) gets the job of being an architect by drawing mazes that frustrate Cobb's ability to decipher them within a minute or two. At first, when she draws rectangular mazes, she does not succeed. When she switches over to a circular maze, Cobb is more impressed. Similarly, Inception circles back on itself by the end of the film.
extractor: the main person who steals secrets from people's dreams.
totem: a small device that can tell the dream infiltrating crew member if he or she is still in a dream. Cobb carries a top that he spins. If the top keeps spinning, he knows he's still stuck in a dream.
forger: someone who pretends to be someone else in a dream.
2) Some authors, such as Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, liked to write in a hypnagogic state, when they had some access to the free associations of the unconscious. In Through the Looking Glass, for example, Alice suffers an Inception-like moment when Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell her that she's only a "sort of thing" in the red King's dream. When she starts to cry, Tweedledum retorts"You know very well you're not real."
3) The gang of operatives in Inception work much like specialized thieves in a heist film, but one can also compare them to the members of a filmmaking crew, with the architect being the set designer/ cinematographer, the extractor as the director, the forger (s) as actors, etc. More than most recent movies, Inception is about the making of itself, a meta-cinematic film, and it increasingly moves toward a feeling of enclosure in the psychological hall of mirrors or multi-layer wedding cake of its dreams.
4) Inception views like a revised and improved Shutter Island at times. Shutter Island has two large problems for me:
a) No sane insane asylum director would allow one of his clearly insane inmates to run free through the compound, attacking guards and blowing up a car, etc.
b) I found the big secret of the film--Teddy Daniel's wife flips out and kills her children--too melodramatic and histrionic, although it certainly justifies why Teddy (DiCaprio) would have to repress his knowledge of that crime and invent a system of delusions to replace it.
Similarly, in Inception Cobb has to repress what happened to his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) so that he can continue to meet with her in his dreams. As a projection of his guilt and love, Mal proves highly problematic to the success of his various missions to extract things from people's dreams. If Cobb is a kind of Daedalus who, along with Ariadne, manufactures mazes, Mal is the Minotaur. It makes sense that Ellen Page's character is named Ariadne, because she assists Theseus (also Cobb?) in overcoming the Minotaur. I'm not sure that she fully succeeds in Inception.
Both Shutter Island and Inception feature scenes where DiCaprio washes his face and looks in the mirror. Instead of fully repressing his memories, however, Cobb keeps Mal in a sequence of subconscious spaces much like floors in a building, what Ariadne calls a "prison of memories to lock her in." On the basement floor (reminiscent of Dante's Inferno and Angel Heart (1987)), she finds the room where Mal committed suicide.
obsessions? Is this dream entrapment a metaphor for our media-saturated age where, given unpleasant things like global warming going on outside, we manufacture air-conditioned high-definition environments of perpetual distraction and delusion? There's a scene early in Inception when Cobb comes upon a group of sleeping men in a near-perpetual dream state. Is this opium den-like atmosphere a metaphor for the audience of the film?
6) When Ariadne comes upon two mirrors facing each other, she brings them together to create an infinite series of reflections of herself and Cobb, much like a similar scene late in Citizen Kane. In the Orson Welles film, the mirroring emphasizes how Kane has gotten lost in his lying yellow journalistic media reflections, but what does the image imply in Inception? Something about the replicating dream reflections of Cobb's grief and guilt over Mal?
scene of Inception where Nolan leaves it ambiguous as to whether the film has a happy or a sad ending. With dreamlike ease, Cobb arrives in the United States, breezes his way through customs, sees his gang cheerfully arriving as well, and then abruptly gets a ride from Miles (Michael Caine) to his own house where Cobb can finally see his long lost children. To check to see if he's dreaming, he spins his totemic top on a table, but then, for the first time in the movie, he sees his children's faces. Overcome with emotion, he walks up to hug them, and then the camera swerves back to the spinning top. Will it stop spinning? Shouldn't it have stopped by now? The top almost seems to slow down a bit, and then the movie is over. In the theater where I saw Inception, the audience loudly gasped. What just happened?
8) One could say the ending is perfect for the marketplace, which demands reassurance at the end of a movie for it to be successful. Or is the ending a perfect Rorschach test? If the audience wants a happy ending, Nolan has supplied it. That positively inclined audience member needs only to assume the top will stop spinning. Meanwhile, the more cynical critical types (such as myself) can assume that the top will not quit, thereby negating the entire mood shift of the end of the film, which makes the conclusion resemble the ironic "happy ending" of Robert Altman's The Player.
9) The last scenes do have a suspicious wish-fulfilling ease to them. Once their last plan succeeds, Saito (Ken Watanabe) makes a phone call to obtain official permission to allow Cobb to return to the States, but is that possible? What of the extra smooth quick transitions when Cobb arrives home so quickly? Why haven't his children noticeably aged? Perhaps, like Mal, Cobb has allowed himself to get trapped in a maze of dreams, a closed loop of his own, and by implication Inception's construction. In a manner reminiscent of the Bierce's conclusion for "An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge," Nolan ironically ends his film with Cobb deluding himself of his wish fulfilled.
If Cobb dreams the end, who is responsible? Where is he sleeping? What's going on? At this point, I have no idea.
Dileep Rao's interpretation of Inception
Salon's explanation of the movie
interview with Chris Nolan
Cinematical's 6 interpretations of Inception