Thursday, August 26, 2010

Inception Interpretations, part 1: Dream as Metaphor for Film

(Warning: Spoiler Alert! Blah blah blah...)

One of the many wonderful things about Inception, Christopher Nolan's latest masterpiece, is that there are about a bajillion different ways you can interpret the film. Some reviewer whose name I forget posited the idea of the film being a metaphor for the process of making movies: Saito is the executive who comes up with the idea and pays a talented artist to turn it into a reality for his own financial gain; that artist is Cobb, the director, who takes on the job and assembles a team to help him complete the project--Arthur as the producer, Ariadne as the screenwriter, Eames as the actor, and Yusuf as visual effects.

That seems to be about as far as he took it. But I'd like to explore this idea a little more.

From what I can tell, he was looking at the film as being about making movies on the surface level, but really Inception is also about the simple act of storytelling in general as well. The act of Inception is the act of planting in the mind of your intended target (or audience) a certain idea. The passing on of lessons or messages--themselves simply ideas--is the root and purpose of the storytelling itself. After all, more often than not simply telling someone a lesson they should learn will not make it stick. That's why stories were invented, to weave morals and messages into a narrative fashion that both represents real life so that the audience may connect to it and also provides an emotional release. So it is with inception. Our team of storytellers must weave a narrative (a dream) for their intended audience, Robert Fischer Jr., in order to teach him the message they want him to learn: that he must divide his father's business empire. In order to work, it must be literally realistic by drawing on elements from Fischer's true life, so that he finds relevance in them both while dreaming and when he awakens; and it should conclude with a positive release of emotion (something Cobb explicitly states in the film) in order to satisfy Fischer's need as a human being to experience catharsis. Cool, no? Now on to more specific parallels.

You'll notice I mentioned that part of the storytellers' job is to make sure Fischer's attention is not drawn to the artificial nature of the story. However, the Mr. Charles gambit appears to do just that--Cobb tells Fischer he is dreaming. But it is all in the name of further deceiving Fischer in order to immerse him even more in the story. This is akin to all kinds of storytelling devices, including the numerous tricks employed by Inception itself (but more on that later). The way a film may seem to reveal something about its own plot structure or dramatic sensibilities that makes an audience think they know what will happen when in actuality they don't, the only truth Cobb tells Fischer is that he is dreaming; everything else is another deception in order to lower Fischer's guard, make him think he knows exactly what's going on, thus making him a partner in his own deception, the way audiences willingly suspend their disbelief under the guidance of a skilled storyteller.

Let's go to the start of the process. Saito is a businessman. His ultimate goal is his own financial gain. Such gain can be had by getting young Fischer to think what Saito wants him to think--to learn a lesson if you will. However, Fischer is certainly not going to do something beneficial for a stranger and harmful to himself just because the stranger tells him to, so Saito, as businessman only, needs to bring in someone skilled at weaving deceptions. He, the executive, has the money and the pitch. Now he just needs the creative types to make it work for his intended audience.

So he hires Dominick Cobb, the best director/extractor around, and promises a hefty reward for getting the job done. Cobb is highly experienced and knows best how to organize such an elaborate operation, so let's call him the producer as well. Now he needs to gather his crew. His partner and second-in-command is Arthur, assistant director/line producer, who manages things while Cobb is looking at the big picture. (This is also why I see Cobb as a producer also--both the line producer and the AD answer to the producer, not the director.) Eames is the actor, who must convincingly portray the role of Peter Browning. I'm gonna differ from that reviewer here and say Ariadne is not the screenwriter. If anyone gets screenwriting credit its gotta be Eames, as his dialogue is pretty much improvised. However, I'd say if anything the process of the writing of this plot is more like the goings-on of a television show's writers' room. The team takes Saito's concept and fleshes it out together, bouncing ideas off each other to get to the strongest scenario. No, Ariadne is without a doubt the art director/production designer, creating the look of the story in all its complexity. (In this way you might also credit her as director of photography, though there's no clear parallel for that job really; this would also work with the fact that just as a DP is one of the director's most important lieutenants, Ariadne is Cobb's companion right until the very end.) As for Yusuf... I'm not really sure what Yusuf is. On the one hand, his role can be seen as post-production work: he gathers all of the elements together and ensures that experience works and the audience is not distracted from the illusion. On the other hand, his is the process of generating the environment in which the story can be viewed--is he perhaps marketing and distribution? The flip side of that other hand is that he is the director of photography (thus negating the earlier bit about Ariadne filling that role), because Fischer would not be involved in this story at all if it were not presented to him for him to see(/hear/feel/etc.), and Yusuf is the one that makes that happen. Mal, though not part of the crew, has her own place in the metaphor, representing the fact that no artist can go into the creation of art without bringing some of his or her own personal baggage. In the case of Mal, its the kind of baggage that can derail the experience altogether if the director cannot keep his own mind under control.

I think that's plenty detailed enough, but as I've just discovered, there is another layer to the metaphor--the autobiographical one. This guy points out the parallels between Inception and Federico Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2 (and also echoes the literal filmmaking parallels of the reviewer I mentioned). For those of you not in the know, 8 1/2 is a trippy Italian film from the 1960s about a film director named Guido Anselmi who is suffering from writer's block. The film is itself very dream-like and not the easiest to follow. Trying to make literal sense of it, in fact, will almost certainly cause you some hurting in the brain-parts. While the film is itself literally about a film director trying to work through his creative process and dealing with issues in his personal life, the way the film progresses is much in the form of a dream--much of it is surreal, jumping through space and time, not strictly concerned with presenting events in a realistic fashion. It's all about feelings, specifically the feelings Guido has in the moment concerning the various problems in his life. The title itself means nothing in the context of the film; Fellini had directed two short segments and six features, and co-directed another feature, making 8 1/2 his eighth and a half film. All of this is part of why 8 1/2 is considered one of the greatest films about filmmaking ever made, because not only does it depict the creative process of Guido, but it emulates it at the same time.

So the point is, KyleLibra is saying that, like Fellini, Nolan has made a film about and as a metaphor for his own creative process as a writer-director. While the metaphor is a bit more extreme in Inception--which, unlike 8 1/2, is not about filmmaking on the surface, only underneath--the similarity does stand. It may not be semi-autobiographical, but there is every reason to believe that, on some level, Inception is about Nolan himself (And hey, anyone else noticed here how Leonardo DiCaprio-as-Cobb and Christopher Nolan look suspiciously similar?) Now this does not mean that Inception is not also truly the story of people who infiltrate the dreamscapes of others, or the story of a widow struggling to move on with his life after his loss--it just means that, on a meta-textual level, that it is also a depiction of how Nolan goes about his work. Perhaps it is portrayed in such a metaphorical fashion because Nolan feels that this the process is so difficult to explain that this is actually the most accurate way. Certainly anyone who has read interviews and behind-the-scenes articles on Inception knows that Nolan has been fascinated by dreams for a long time, so perhaps in his mind he equates his films with dreams. And perhaps the actual process of Cobb's plan for inception directly reflects how Nolan feels his own creative process works. Would anyone be surprised that the genius responsible for complex, cerebral action thrillers goes about weaving a story in the same methodical and calculated way Cobb goes about plotting inception? I think not!

Whew! Anyway, tune in soon for part 2, in which I will discuss the ways in which the film itself is like a dream--including some of my personal reflections on that now-iconic ending.

P.S. Wait a second, if Cobb is Nolan's author avatar, what does that say about Nolan's relationship with his wife (and producer) Emma Thomas?

P.P.S. Ah, that's it! The film is a metaphor for Nolan's creative process, not his real life. Now think about that for a second...


  1. Does the meta-textual interpretive interests make its poorly-explained action any more forgiveable?

    Oh, and dude, one of the interns this summer rolled calls with his boss and wound up listening in on a conversation with Chris Nolan. Nolan himself revealed the truth about the ending.


  2. The explanation for the action in the film never bugged me, but as I discuss in part 2, elements of it have been used by some to support the idea that Cobb is dreaming the whole time.

    And yes, I am VERY interested!


    According to Nolan himself, the ending is real. I know this now carries little weight, but, for what it's worth, I KNEW IT ALL ALONG!

  4. Yeah I'm more on that side myself, but all this business with the ending I discuss in the next post.