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Inception and the postmodern sublime.

July 21, 2010 \pm\31 4:09 pm

Disclaimer: Keith S. Wilson and anyone else who hasn’t seen this (excellent) movie should skip on down to the next post. Spoilers aplenty lie ahead, as well as the revelatory endings to a couple of decade-old movies that you’ve almost certainly seen and a few video games you may or may not have played. You’ve been warned.

The other day, Keith asked what the hell Inception was about, and after seeing it last night, I can say that I’m not entirely sure. Like Christopher Nolan’s best films — Memento, Insomnia, The Dark KnightInception is going to require repeat viewings. It’s a dense little mindfuck with the philosophy embedded in the action and enough interstitial ambiguity to keep you unsure of what you just saw even as you wobble out of the theater. Which is to say, it’s one of those rare films that, just for a second, makes you question your own reality. Which is to say, I loved it.

Inception deals a lot with lucid dreaming, multi-layered false realities that are almost indistinguishable from the real world — think The Matrix, but less sinister — that are damn complicated, and unnerving in the way they play with the form of film. Because movies themselves are tricks; viewers become temporarily lost in the world onscreen, willingly give their subconsciouses over to the filmmakers to manipulate, and then return to their real lives when the lights come up. Any emotions we feel while watching movies — joy, empathy, fear — are obviously illusory, but they are no less resonant, and some of us carry them with us long after the movie itself is over. Which is why Inception works on so may levels — it thrills us with action, but its themes and images are designed very specifically to lull us into the “reality” of the movie, only to startle us at every turn with a fresh reminder that the characters are dreaming, that none of this is really happening for them, and it makes us pinch ourselves, remind us that none of this is really happening for us either.

Someone I used to know called it the postmodern sublime: art that breaks the fourth wall in a subtle and startling way and makes us question, if only for a moment, whether our life is real and that is illusion or that is real and our life is an illusion. Like the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsu’s famous quote about dreaming he was a butterfly and never again being certain that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a Chinese philosopher. Blade Runner and The Matrix did this to me the first time I saw them. The ending of The Ring is probably the best theatrical example of it — the static screen and white noise that gives you that half-second of “Oh shit, I shouldn’t have watched that movie because now I’m going to die.” As other media come into their own, we start seeing examples in surprising places — Alan Moore’s Watchmen comics and the video games Braid and Bioshock, and even Metal Gear Solid (if you fought Psycho Mantis in the 90s, you know what I’m talking about), each of which will probably inspire grad student theses for decades to come.

What makes it a postmodern sublime as opposed to a regular old Hegelian force-of-nature sublime is its self-awareness, its knowledge of the limitations and particular quirks of its medium. You could never achieve the power of The Ring‘s ending in a book. Watchmen was long considered unfilmable because there was just no way that the apocalyptic ending would translate to the big screen. It’s too meta. Last year’s film version (which is probably the best possible film version of that book, which is to say it isn’t very good) changed the ending drastically to give it more resonance, but it still doesn’t quite work. Possibly the most gripping example, though, is the third act twist in Bioshock, a game that is until this point just an eerily beautiful third-person shooter. I won’t completely spoil it, but suffice it to say that nothing else I’ve ever seen uses the mechanics and mindset of playing video games against the player this way.  It toys with your very notion of free will.

Which brings us back around to Inception, a labyrinthine story that takes place in dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams, and which may be — here’s the big spoiler, folks — an actual dream itself, Newhart-style. While the film never explicitly screams “LEONARDO DICAPRIO AND/OR MARION COTILLARD MIGHT BE DREAMING THIS WHOLE THING,” there are subtle hints throughout: like the dreams the characters invade, the film begins in media res with almost no context of who these people are, how “dream extraction” works or came about, when this is happening, or what it all means. It’s deliciously ambiguous, especially the final shot of DiCaprio’s top spinning and wobbling slightly, but cutting out before we can see if it falls or spins forever. We know from earlier in the movie that the top falls in real life and never stops in dreams, and although there’s some instability in that final shot, it sure does spin for a mighty long time. And if it is a dream, if the illusion is that elaborate, how can we be sure that we aren’t dreaming our whole lives?

Of course there’s way more to Inception than high-falutin’ philosophizing. The entire ensemble cast is filled out with ringers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, and even brief appearances by Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite. The pacing and action sequences are impeccable, as they were in Nolan’s Dark Knight (the anti-gravity hotel has to be seen to be believed), and the writing is sharp, dense, and suggestive of a far deeper story. The ending is a conversation-starter and the climactic confrontation between DiCaprio and Cotillard certainly casts everything that preceded it in a new light, but what makes Inception such a joy is its ability to function on so many levels at once: a crisp action flick and special effects dynamo on the surface, a human drama about obsession and risk below, and an eye-crossing piece of experimental art underneath all that.

Other thoughts? Who else has seen it?

  1. July 21, 2010 \pm\31 8:51 pm 8:51 pm

    I thought it was fantastic and gushed incomprehensibly about it on my blog for the TU.

    I think part of the genius of Nolan is that despite all the heady philosophical stuff, it’s basically just a hyper-ambitious attempt at a crime noir caper. And it somehow works.

  2. Keith S. Wilson permalink
    July 22, 2010 \pm\31 4:22 pm 4:22 pm

    Why is everyone so intent on making me want to see this so much? I’m trying to take a stand!!

    If I go and see this movie, let’s just keep it between me and you.

  3. Rita permalink
    July 25, 2010 \pm\31 4:47 pm 4:47 pm

    Mandatory IMAX viewing. Don’t bother spending the money if you’re not going to see it in IMAX!

    There is an exciting and, dare I say, beautifully choreographed anti-gravity fight scene that is so great you’ll want to SCREAM! It is truly the centerpiece of the entire film! And the following anti-gravity rescue the follows completes the centerpiece in brilliant dramatic form. Man, you’ll definitely want to see the picture more than once for this scene alone!

  4. Robin Elizabeth Sampson permalink
    August 5, 2010 \pm\31 3:36 pm 3:36 pm

    Have seen it twice now. Yeah.

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