Monday, July 26, 2010

Inception: the elusive architecture of the mind

Okay, I think Inception warrants a series of blog posts. I'm doing my best to resist blind fandom, but I thought it was a brilliant movie, rival to The Prestige, Nolan's other personal masterpiece. Still, I have to make a number of remarks that don't have much to do with each other, and unless I split this endeavor into a few different critical exercises, my thoughts will end up sounding as fragmented as these films I've been reviewing lately.

On that point -- I've been watching films that replicate the dreamlike experience, and writing about them, over the past week or two. Originally, that was because I wanted to see some films by Terrence Malick, and "dreamlike" seemed like a good access-point for his work. However, after seeing Badlands, Days of Heaven, Inland Empire (Lynch), and Heart of Glass (Herzog), it seemed appropriate that the series would culminate in a discussion of Inception, which leans heavily on dreaming as a plot device. It didn't hurt that I've been excited about Inception since the first trailer hit.

Now, having seen Inception, I've realized (drumroll) it is NOT a dream-film in the way those other films are. Lots of reviewers mention this in the course of their reviews. It's true... directors like Lynch and Malick recreate the hazy, loopy experience of oneiric unreality, and Nolan simply doesn't do it, probably because he's not really interested in it. He's less a poet than a crypto-mathematician engineer of narrative architecture, a speculative baroque fabulist whose aesthetic is becoming more focused with every film. There's nothing deeply intuitive or organic about Nolan's worlds. It's all lucid, logical, and aestheticized, without the murky inscrutability of images from the subconscious. Indeed, in Nolan's world, the subconscious is embodied as generic bystanders or militarized Agents (*coughmatrixcough*), prone to hostility if anything breaks the glassy surface of the world they've been placed in.

How different from Lynch, whose worlds are the product of many significances but no clear connections or translations! Whose language is an organic mass developing on a scene-by-scene basis, rather than a streamlined structure of jargon giving names to the rules of a complicated, unwinnable game! But despite their vast difference in tone, Nolan and Lynch are kindred spirits in some ways -- both love creating puzzles for us to solve, fractal structures of mutually-referential ideas. Both love narrative mobius strips and recursive motifs. Both have an unmistakable style that acts like a signature on their most important films. And some day Nolan, like Lynch, will have an adjective of his own (Nolanesque -- I'll explore this idea more in my next post).

If you'd like an academic-sounding way to describe Nolan in general, and especially Inception, I'd say "Baroque" is your best bet. According to Webmuseum, baroque art and culture is defined by its self-confident aesthetic, its dynamic movement and emotional intensity. It's an inarguably ornate, dramatic, uninhibited style that (like all broad artistic styles) was expressed in painting, music, literature, sculpture, and especially architecture. It's the forerunner to the formalism of neoclassical and modernist styles, more sweeping, less focused, but absolutely distinctive.

Baroque was an unapologetic "stylistic" style, focused on appearance and decoration, on outward displays of opulence and complexity, and on overwhelming sensory effects. Read over the features listed on Wikipedia: it was all about spectacle and display and illusion. Inception follows the same sort of philosophy, presenting dream-space as a series of nested interiors for the display of different sensory experiences: a gritty urban landscape, opening up into a 5-star hotel, whose rooms contain a snow-covered mountain fortress, which contains a vast blank canvas, reconstructed by the protagonist's imagination.

Normally, the building/mind metaphor is articulated in terms of levels, from elevated to subterranean. Zizek's analysis of Psycho using Norman Bates's house as a metaphor for his mind is the perfect example of this kind of reading: the top floor represents the superego, the ground floor the ego, and the basement the id. Inception has a much more explicit treatment of the "mind as building" metaphor, but it doesn't just structure this as a question of elevation. It also structures it as a question of container/contained, of security and vulnerability, and of infiltration. In Inception, the mind is a stage for theater (the theater of con-games), an archive, and a bank vault, something to be deciphered, navigated, and penetrated.

Strange, isn't it, that there's no comfort zone, anywhere in Inception's myriad dreamscapes? If the mind is a building, a space to be penetrated, shouldn't it feel like a place where the dreamer can be at home, at least until the thieves arrive? In the spaces Ariadne designs, there is never a sense of true safety: from the urban landscape to the busy hotel to the mountain fortress, and even in Limbo, which was Cobb's own creation, there is never a place where we, the audience, identifying with one of the dreamers, feels at home. Vigilance is a constant requirement in the dream-worlds of Inception, even though they're in our own heads.

I was tempted, at first, to say this is a side-effect of Nolan's large-scale, high-stress baroque narrative constructions, his drama and stylistic flair getting the best of him. But then I think about it, and realize something that Nolan already seems to know, and that David Lynch certainly realized long ago: there is no safe space in dreams, either. According to my sources (okay, I only really have one source), anxiety is the most common emotion experienced in dreams. And maybe Cobb and his team could steal something from a euphoric dream, but it doesn't seem too likely, when their strategy is clearly to make the mark feel paranoid, off-balance, and intensely aware of the secret that's supposed to be stolen.

By and large, the insides of our heads are actually twisted, hostile, and unknowable places, steeped in uncertainty, the expressions of voices issuing from so deep in our minds that they may feel entirely alien. And these are some of the central motifs of Inception: when so many of our thoughts come forth from beyond our reach, can we really trust them to be our own? How much of ourselves can we access, and how hard should we try to do so?

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