July 27, 2010


One of Auden's poems talks about a 'nightmare of the dark'. Its an important image for the poet contemplating the locust years of the thirties, during which all the dogs of Europe barked, but its just as important as a summary of what modernity has done to humanity. We have looked into the soul and found the monsters of Babylon contained within it. Dreams have turned from a language of God into a language of the spirit. From describing the events of the future, dreams turned, in the hands of Freud and Jung, into signifiers of what it was to be human. That psychology may be old but it still holds a sway over the popular imagination. Dreams are important- and they have been important to cinema. Christopher Nolan's Inception is one of a long line of films to deal with what dreams are, what goes on in our sleep when we dream. His film is novel in the sense that it deals with an individual, Cobb, who seeks to change our dreams. In this sense Cobb is a post-Freudian figure: dreams are no longer the reserves of the id, though the ego cannot understand them, they are accessible for others and others, like Cobb, may interfere with them. Cobb's industry is the removal of ideas from dreams, but Inception is about a more profound object: the placing a dream inside someone else's head.

Cobb is given this task by an Asian businessman (why he receives it is unimportant though it is disclosed) and proceeds to recruit a team. The key members of which are his ally and friend, Arthur, a student of his father-in-law's called Ariadne, the forger Eames, a chemist called Yusuf and Saito, the businessman who has to be there to see the deed done. They must implant an idea into the head of a young tycoon- Robert Fischer- and persuade him to break up his father's business. Again the purpose of the plot is a McGuffin: it does not matter. Fischer's sub conscious tries to stop them from this Inception. Cobb's memory of his ex-wife Mal will also try and stop them from implanting the idea inside Fischer's memory. The team are thus faced with two principle and interesting conflicts: the first is between themselves and the sub conscious of the character whose mind they interact with, the second is between Cobb and his own sub-conscious regrets over his ex-wife's death. Both are powerful agents in the storyline that develops.

It is important though to grasp the novelty of what Nolan is doing here. For whilst in films most dreams are passive, things that happen to you, in Nolan's world dreams are things which you create. This is most visible when Cobb educates Ariadne in how to construct a dream world. She excitedly begins to flip cities over, so that the squares of Paris fold onto each other. She creates mirror walls. But it is not only the conscious mind, the hand of the artist who creates a dream, it is also the subconscious a dreamer. As Ariadne fiddles inside Cobb's dream, his subconscious begins to stare at her, the characters in his dream look at her, brush against her and finally push back against her. Dreams are creations. Memories are also creations. Cobb's memory of his wife does not relate to a 'reality' but to the reality inside his head which he has created. To be trite the film reminds us that what is inside our heads is created by us. We create our thoughts- we decide to have those thoughts based on our beliefs about the world. Cobb and Ariadne create that dream because they believe in it: in Ariadne's world she creates a world inside Cobb's dream, in Cobb's dream he creates a resistance to her and he finally creates the memories which inhibit him.

Creation is central to inception but then so is time. The point about human dreams is that they like humans themselves are bounded by time. We are creatures of the clock. Ariadne's dream landscape can only hold for so long before the individual's self conscious begins to realise what has happened. More importantly, Cobb's character reveals that we create the space inside our heads but that we always have to struggle to reality. Cobb's relationship with Mal ended at some point in the past. His memory attempts to keep that relationship alive. Cobb strives to hold her in his arms again. But he never can. Never is a word that recurs with Cobb- his attempt in the film is to evade an inevitability through his use of the powers he has in the dream world. The whole film in that sense resembles Cobb's memory of Mal: it is an attempt to make memory reality. If we are endlessly creative, the film reminds us of the boundaries of our creation: one of the most formidable of which is time itself.

Creation and constraint: these are two constants in human experience. They are constants, as Nolan shows, inside the head as well as outside. The constants of time, death and sorrow are ever present. This is perhaps Nolan's darkest film to date. Creation can be the creation of a world but it is also the creation of a truth. When in a dream the characters believe that they are in reality. Only a 'kick'- the feeling that you often have in dreams of falling backwards- or the fact that a talisman weighs a particular way or spins a particular way in the real world can identify that this world is this world: that this world is uncreated. Creation thus can be the creation of a thing that looks a lot like truth. The audience definitely feels this: we fail to comprehend the distinction throughout inception between events taking place in dreams and events taking place in reality. At one point, Arthur kisses Ariadne to distract Fischer's sub-conscious: have they kissed or has one of them or both of them dreamt it? What does it mean to kiss in a dream or to kill in a dream? What is agency when the agent is unconscious or subconscious? These questions are not idle because they probe at our definitions of reality. If reality cannot be created, then nothing that happens in the film is real save for the slumbering, but if so then nothing happens and 'something' does happen. If reality incorporates the world of dreams then it incorporates a world in which the dead walk and smile and dance, a world in which human beings play God.

I do not want to go further and spoil the film. One last point though must be mentioned. This is that Nolan is quite clearly playing into a line of argument which sees advertising and the media as in some senses mind control. One reviewer ended his review by asking whether Nolan had seen Fox- but actually the point of the film is that he has seen Fox and the rest of the TV channels and movies that we've all seen. The mind is a social place in Nolan's imagination: it is a place that others shape as much as we shape it. This point is crucial to an appreciation of his film. The film is an allegory and not a falsehood- we don't enter dreams and manipulate them but we do continuously manipulate each other's imaginations. We plant images within those imaginations, pictures, and even ideas. What Nolan's film is about is the place of those ideas in our created worlds, created within constraints formed by time and death, but created none the less.