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In Your Memes!

July 30, 2010

Assuming that enough time has passed since Inception has been released for you to have seen it (and if you haven’t, how do you have time to read these long-winded self-important ruminations instead?!), I thought I’d point out why Christopher Nolan’s true achievement is in creating a movie that is simultaneously the apotheosis of meta without the boredom and irritation that ubiquitously accompanies post-modern navel-gazing. At the liminal level, as well as one level deeper (i.e., the supraliminal, constructed meaning of the actual plot of the movie), the movie is utterly entertaining and appealing. It is the rare action movie where the physical conflicts are compelling, but less so than the interpersonal conflicts faced by the protagonists. It never felt trite, to say the least.

Despite the satisfaction of unraveling exactly what happened in the plot of the narrative, there is a question left for viewers in the last frame of the movie, much to the audible chagrin of most popcorn-munchers hoping for some didactic reveal. They forget by that point that the movie had explicitly stated that which side of the distinction between reality and dreaming one was “actually” on was beside the point. At first, I was satisfied with that understanding–that you can never really tell whether “it was all a dream,” but that such ambiguity doesn’t matter–but I had a nagging feeling that there was more to read into the movie. I could tell that Nolan’s careful structuring of the movie and clear intentionality in every character, plot device, and scene was indicative of some more specific thesis than the seeming cop-out of “it doesn’t matter.”

I wish I could claim to have come to my current conclusions on my own, but gets official credit for connecting all the dots for me for the first time (as it does for most Internet denizens, it seems). claims to have gotten its lead from Leonardo DiCaprio’s comment on the red carpet comparing Inception not to The Matrix or Dark City, but rather to Fellini’s 8 1/2. The key: Inception is a movie about making movies. Suffice it to say, SPOILER ALERT (and well worth the full read).

The heist team quite neatly maps to major players in a film production. Cobb is the director while Arthur, the guy who does the research and who sets up the places to sleep, is the producer. Ariadne, the dream architect, is the screenwriter – she creates the world that will be entered. Eames is the actor (this is so obvious that the character sits at an old fashioned mirrored vanity, the type which stage actors would use). Yusuf is the technical guy; remember, the Oscar come from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it requires a good number of technically minded people to get a movie off the ground. Nolan himself more or less explains this in the latest issue of Film Comment, saying ‘There are a lot of striking similarities [between what the team does and the putting on of a major Hollywood movie]. When for instance the team is out on the street they’ve created, surveying it, that’s really identical with what we do on tech scouts before we shoot.’

That leaves two key figures. Saito is the money guy, the big corporate suit who fancies himself a part of the game. And Fischer, the mark, is the audience. Cobb, as a director, takes Fischer through an engaging, stimulating and exciting journey, one that leads him to an understanding about himself. Cobb is the big time movie director (or rather the best version of that – certainly not a Michael Bay) who brings the action, who brings the spectacle, but who also brings the meaning and the humanity and the emotion.

The movies-as-dreams aspect is part of why Inception keeps the dreams so grounded. In the film it’s explained that playing with the dream too much alerts the dreamer to the falseness around him; this is just another version of the suspension of disbelief upon which all films hinge. As soon as the audience is pulled out of the movie by some element – an implausible scene, a ludicrous line, a poor performance – it’s possible that the cinematic dream spell is broken completely, and they’re lost.

And in even more meta mastery than the fact that this is a film about film making, Nolan manages to drop this sense inside the audience’s mind in the same poetically subtle way Cobb implants the idea in Fischer: inception. That’s why the Internet has taken to Inception as though it were its own. And in many ways, that is what it has become. See, e.g.,

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 25, 2010 8:18 pm

    A+ would read again

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