When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, the sight of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a bespoke suit grappling with a similarly well-dressed man in a hallway gave me a sense of déjà vu. As soon as the gravity in the hallway shifted and the grapplers fell to the ceiling, I knew that the movie it reminded me of was The Matrix, and I settled into a defensive posture. My love for The Matrix burned bright and hot in my freshman year of college, but that love began to cool as soon as I discovered David Cronenberg’s Existenz hidden in its shadow. Released three weeks after The Matrix, Existenz explores similar thematic terrain with less CGI gloss and more guns that shoot teeth as bullets. Because many people prefer their virtual realities to follow a clearly explained internal logic, weird films like Existenz always lose out to films like The Matrix. Weird takes too much effort. I like weird.
Considering that half of Inception takes place in the dreams of one or another of its characters, it is surprising that it is not weirder than it is. Inception could easily have been a Freudian affair with little id-people springing up from the unconscious to cavort with Leonardo DiCaprio, the kind of film the audience leaves saying, “What the hell was that all about?” Christopher Nolan is not a student of the David Lynch School of Ambiguous Filmmaking, however. Nolan says that ambiguity in a film “has to come from the inability of the character to know—and the alignment of the audience with that character” and that an ambiguous film “needs to be based on a true interpretation.”
The upshot of this is that Nolan won’t let anything he doesn’t understand into the film. There must be no surplus in the story, nothing unaccounted for in the narrative. If you leave the theater scratching your head over whether a spinning top fell down, it’s because Nolan wants you to scratch your head over it. Indeed, getting his audience to pore over his films in search of the “true interpretation” seems to be something he likes to do. His second feature was Memento, a hip, postmodern calling-card of a film; it was universally loved for its non-linear storyline by the kind of film-watchers who love—nay, need—to sit in front of their televisions and mash buttons on the remote until the hidden “watch in chronological order” feature is selected.1 Even though all this calculation makes Nolan seem a cold, Kubrickian filmmaker, he’s more of a Hitchcock, playing his audience like a fiddle. Among his features—Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception—Nolan has racked up 141 award nominations of one kind or another.2 He clearly knows how get people on board with his vision.
But just because there is no surplus in Nolan’s vision, that doesn’t mean that there is no surplus in his films. It is provided by the viewer, who, along with the protagonist, must confront the ambiguity of not knowing how everything fits together. In Inception, Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends a lot of time explaining the events of the film through expository dialogue with other characters. This is a side-effect of Nolan’s style of storytelling. None of the characters is allowed to say, “Who the heck knows? It’s a dream for goodness sake!” in response to a question about the mechanics of a dream, so everything must be explained more than once. And, boy, does the audience owe those dim characters a debt of thanks.
In the world of Inception, dreamers are able to share the same dream through the technology of the PASIV device (an aluminum-sided suitcase containing narcotics, IV cables, and dosage meters), and Dominick Cobb and his team extract secret information from unsuspecting victims by conversing with their dreaming selves. At an unspecified point before the events of the film, Cobb and Mal got stuck in Limbo (“raw, infinite subconscious”) for what seemed to them like fifty years—long enough to convince Mal that their shared dream was reality. Cobb’s first inception came when he convinced Mal that the dream world was not the real world. He explains the procedure in the film as follows: “I broke into the deepest recess of her mind, to give her the simplest little idea. A truth she had once known, but had chosen to forget. . . . That her world was not real. That death was a necessary escape.” When Mal finally awakened from Limbo, it became apparent that Cobb had performed inception on her: even when awake she was convinced that she was dreaming. In flashback, the viewer sees Mal kill herself, hoping to wake up. As a result of her suicide, Cobb is haunted throughout the film by a dream-projection of Mal.
Mark Fisher writes in Film Quarterly that “in Inception, as in late capitalist culture in general, you’re always in someone else’s dream, which is also the dream of no one.” (Of course, Fisher most likely sees capitalist culture at work in his Alpha Bits.) Cognitive biologist Christof Koch writes in Nature, that “even weeks later, [Inception] leaves me with the queasy feeling that perhaps we too are merely dreaming.” A social theorist sees culture at work, a cognitive scientist watches the film through the precariousness of perception—Inception seems to be a kind of Rorschach test. Hold its shifting dreamscapes before a reviewer for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and then ask her what she sees. Her answer will tell you more about what is important to her than it will tell you about the film itself.
Richard Corliss offers an interesting variation on this theme when he says that Inception is a film about filmmaking. Unlike, say, Inglourious Basterds, which shows characters going through the process of planning, filming, cutting, and screening a film, Inception has to be interpreted in order to be seen as metafiction. Corliss thinks Inception is about the movies because he’s a film critic for Time. He’s seen so many films, broken them down into their constituent parts so many times, that he could probably do it blindfolded. I’ll bet he dreams in movies and wakes the next day to critique them. And so, for him, Inception becomes a movie about the process of making movies.
For me, Inception is a movie about choosing between competing realities, about trying to believe in something that one is unsure of. Like Corliss, this reading is based on my experience; unlike Corliss I don’t have an easily explainable reason for this reading. There are lots of reasons to think that Cobb is obsessed with making sure that he is not dreaming: he continually spins his reality-testing top to make sure he is awake. He says he wants to be in the real world because his children are there. But I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out how to argue in the other direction. I believe Inception is a film about Cobb choosing to believe in his dreams over the waking world. I used to think I knew why this interpretation was important to me, but now I’m not so sure.
I am about five years behind on The Matrix. This is because movies were a controlled substance in my house growing up, and I wasn’t all that rebellious. In order to be rebellious, you have to believe that it is a possibility. You need someone to model it for you. I was homeschooled. My parents were my role models. The feedback loop worked in their favor.
I was going to catch up on movies while at college, by golly, and I was going to start with The Matrix. The problem was that I chose a college where an “R” on a movie actually meant it was restricted. I had to get off campus to watch what I wanted (remember, rebelliousness had not been modeled at this point). As a freshman, I have no contacts in the outside world. The university is my world, and it has skyways, so chance encounters on the street aren’t likely.
Enter Brent. “Uncle” Brent is 27, lives on my floor, owns a car, and is going home to Green Bay over Easter Break. I told him that me watching The Matrix was the point of us spending 12 hours in a car together. Brent is a saint. If he hadn’t have been game, I would have had to make friends with someone else who owns a car. (He also puts up with me buying a bag of fruity marshmallows at Piggly Wiggly and getting them all over his back seat.)
I am born again. I see through pair of Matrix-colored glasses—skin-tones take on a greenish hue and lines of code are intermittently visible racing across the surface of tables, tracing the curves of flesh, dropping from the sky on rainy afternoons. With evangelical fervor, I hit campus after break extolling the virtues of the virtual. No one gives me the time of day. The Bride has just killed Bill, and Neo is old news.
I respond to indifference by turning inward. I read as much as I can about The Matrix. In 2010, I will use the Internet to do most of my research, but in 2004 I walk a mile through the desert of the real (downtown Minneapolis is pretty much a wasteland, those darn skyways again) to Borders and pick up a copy of The Matrix and Philosophy. On the second page is a reference to Jean Baudrillard. He quickly becomes very important to me.
In an early scene of The Matrix, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation appears as a hollowed out book. Later in the film, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) welcomes the proto-Neo, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), to “the desert of the real,” while gesturing at a television depicting the ravaged landscape outside the Matrix. This desert of the real is referenced by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation just after he relates Borges’ one-paragraph story “Del rigor en la ciencia” (“On Exactitude in Science”).
In the story, cartography in the Empire has reached the point where maps are scaled in a perfect one-to-one ratio to the territory they cover. Thus, the map of the Empire blankets the Empire. Once this map is made, people realize that it is useless, and they let the elements take care of getting rid of it for them. Baudrillard writes that
if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
In The Matrix, the only real left is the barren slag-fields Neo sees on the television. The Matrix is the map. According to Baudrillard, those of us in the real world have reached this state of rotting reality because “[s]imulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map . . . it is the map that engenders the territory.” How can the map create the territory? Doesn’t the Matrix just mimic the world circa 1999? Maybe, but The Matrix, the film, contains computer viruses who wear sunglasses and look like Hugo Weaving. You can bet that if computer science and AI reach the point where a virtual world like the Matrix is possible, that hackers will create viruses that look like Hugo Weaving. The map engenders the territory, and I am obsessed with the idea of hyperreality, with the precession of simulacra.
I am in graduate school, and I see Baudrillard’s stages of the sign everywhere and at all times. One of my favorite hobbies is regaling my wife of two years with tales of unraveling the secrets of the image. This means one of her favorite pastimes is doing something else while I play the regaler. Once I had switched over to a B.S. (Baudrilliard Studies) in English from a B.A. (Bad At) in Youth Ministries during my junior year of college, I tried to work Baudrillard into every assignment.3 Did you know that you can give a successful PowerPoint presentation in a Celtic Spirituality class on how the Celts’ way of life mirrors Baudrillard’s concept of The Dual Form? Or that Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening are both better read with Baudrillard at hand to interpret them?
In grad school, things aren’t much different. Where the phases of the image might be, I fit them. Where they aren’t, I have a hard time paying attention. For me, they stand out clearly in the relationship between The Lord of the Rings and The Stand (Stephen King’s “American Lord of the Rings”), so I write a paper about it. It seems to work for my professor, so I keep at the project of finding the seeds of the hyperreal in everything.The problem is I don’t really know why the project is important. Maybe I should just quit and find something more remunerative to turn my attention to. After all, who’s going to pay me to sit around and think about Baudrillard all day long?
Near the start of Inception, Saito (Ken Wanatabe) offers Cobb the chance to return to his children in the United States in exchange for planting an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the owner of a multinational energy company. Saito hopes that this planting of an idea will lead to the breakup of the company, which threatens to overtake Saito’s company. The only way for the idea to take is to perform “inception” on Fischer, and Cobb is the only dream-extractor ever to have performed it in the past.
Inception requires the gradual buildup of the idea in the subject’s brain, so that subjects cannot trace its genesis. This gradual condensation is accomplished through multiple dreams-within-dreams. At each level, a different part of the idea is planted, until, in the final level, the subject owns all of the ideas introduced by the extraction team. These dream-levels echo Baudrillard’s stages of the sign:
1. The first level of the dream takes place on busy city streets. As the analog of the first stage of the sign, “it is a representation of reality.” It’s a copy but a faithful one.
2. The next level takes place in a hotel. Cobb admits to Fischer that it is all a dream, but hides the fact that he is a fellow dreamer, pretending to be “Mr. Charles,” a subconscious projection of Fischer’s. In this way, Cobb “masks and perverts a basic reality” the way a second order sign does.
3. This level takes place in a snowbound mountain fortress hospital (!): the kind usually occupied by the main villain in a James Bond movie. Movie-like, the third level “masks the absence of a basic reality.”
4. Dying under the kind of sedation necessary to reach three dream-levels will send dreamers into Limbo. Limbo is not a level, but as an “unconstructed dream space.” Anything can happen there; it is a “pure simulacrum.”
Arthur goes on to describe Limbo as “raw, infinite subconscious” with “nothing there but what was left behind by anyone on the team who’s been trapped there before.” We learn in the film that Cobb and Mal were trapped there for about 50 years. Trapped in the hyperreal for a lifetime. No wonder Mal thought she was still dreaming when she woke up and Cobb spends so much time talking with a mental projection of her.
Through the lens of hyperreality, Inception is about the blurring of two worlds: the dreaming and the waking world. In an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur,Baudrillard says of The Matrix’s version of hyperreality that
Sadly, the mechanism is roughly done and doesn’t arouse any trouble. Either characters are in the Matrix, that is in the digitalisation of everything. Or they are radically out of it, as it happens at Zion, the city of the rebels. Actually, the most interesting thing would be to show what does happen at the joining of these two worlds.
Unlike Neo, Cobb and Mal do not know for sure where they are at any given time. Maybe Inception fulfills Baudrillard’s wish to see hyperreality portrayed in film. Maybe the ease with which the stages of the image can be overlaid on the dream levels means that Limbo really does represent the hyperreal. Maybe, just maybe, Cobb is not haunted by Mal, but by the hyperreal in the guise of Mal. Maybe Inception reveals a truth about the subject’s relation to the hyperreal. Maybe I’m reading what I want into the film.
I am 11 years old, and I often stay up reading late into the night. Three nights ago, I read Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories. When I finished it, I dropped the book into the gap between my bed and the wall and tried to forget I had read it. I couldn’t sleep when I finished it, and I can’t sleep now. After few nights of tossing and turning, I dredge it up, rip The Mysterious Stranger from the other stories, and throw the loose pages away. When shoved between two hard covers on the shelf, the thin Dover paperback doesn’t look much the worse for my mutilation, and I sleep better at night. When I go back to the book later, its deflated look and the memories associated with it will cause me to throw it away.
In Twain’s unfinished novel, the eponymous stranger, Satan (the nephew of the Satan), appears to some boys from a village in Austria during the “Age of Belief.” Satan wows the boys with the ability to breathe fire into a pipe, creates a dog the size of a mouse, and materializes grapes and oranges in their pockets (and makes no jokes about bananas, either—surely this proves he is an angel). Soon he takes to creating a castle full of hundreds of tiny animated people. I skipped to the end once Satan began to kill the little clay people he’d made by pinching them between his fingers. In the final paragraphs, Satan reveals just what has been going on since his arrival:
“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.”
Satan’s actions throughout (he is kind and soft-spoken with the boys, but kills his little creatures with a horrifying indifference) unsettled me to the point that finding that it was all a dream was a release of sorts. But it wasn’t just Satan’s visit that was a dream; his episode, he explains, was merely one dream among others:
“I am perishing already—I am failing—I am passing away. In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!”
The possibility that someone somewhere could actually believe what Twain wrote unmoored me. Limitless solitude in shoreless space? How could dreams make that reality any more livable? How could you dream better dreams once you knew them for what they were?
* * * *
At one point, Cobb asks Mal, “If this is a dream, then why can’t I stop this?” Presumably, he is referring to the fight they are having over whether they are dreaming or awake. Mal answers with, “Because you don’t know you are asleep.” Later, after Mal jumps to her death in an effort to wake up, Cobb desperately tries to dream other dreams—better dreams—in which his wife is still alive. When Ariadne hooks herself up to the PASIV device Cobb uses to dream on his own at night, she sees a series of dreamed locations connected by a cage elevator. Cobb explains the significance of the locations when he says, “These are moments I regret. Moments I turned into dreams so I could change them.” He seems to think that if he can get the Mal-projection to realize that she is not really Mal, she will go away or at least stop throwing monkey-wrenches into his dream-extractions. The problem for Cobb is that it just doesn’t seem to be working.
Why, then, does he keep dreaming of her? Dreamers have the ability to think their projections out of a dream, as Yusuf (Dileep Rao) does in a scene cut from the shooting script. In a worst case scenario, Cobb could shoot her and she would die, at least for that dream. It seems that Cobb’s conception of a better dream is one in which Mal exists, regardless of how awful she acts.
* * * *
After I read The Mysterious Stranger, I asked my parents how I could be sure that they were real, that I wasn’t just imagining them. Before the words were completely out of my mouth, I’d come to the realization that their answers wouldn’t cinch the deal. There was no way to tell if they weren’t just my mind feeding me what I needed to hear. Maybe my encounter with Satan in the pages of Twain was my way of telling myself that I was asleep. I knew one thing for sure: in order to keep functioning, I needed to believe that my parents were real beings in their own right. Strangely enough, their reassurances to that effect helped me believe they were. I knew very well that there was no way to know, but all the same, their belief helped me believe.
In his essay, “I Know Very Well, But All The Same,” psychoanalytic critic Octave Mannoni revisits Freud’s concept of Verleugnung (“disavowal”) as it relates to belief. He tells the story of when one of his patients was mistaken for a visiting poet and told that he was invited to Mannoni’s office for a drink. When the client arrived for his scheduled analysis, he told Mannoni, “I knew it was a joke, the drink. But all the same, I am awfully happy. . . Especially because my wife, she believes it.” According to Mannoni, “[w]e are so accustomed to it that the formula, ‘I know very well, but all the same,’ does not even seem that surprising to us.”
Through this formula, we are able to maintain beliefs in things we have disavowed. As long as there is a dupe, a gullible other, who will believe for us, we can cope. Mannoni believes that this formula explains quite a few things:
The need to “mystify” children with stories of the Stork and Santa Claus,
The practice of going to church “for the children,”
The enjoyment of coincidences,
The avoidance of omens,
The value of reporting false news.
To the list above I would personally add the following:
The need for going to church in general,
The habit of going to school,
The value of reading Baudrillard.
The truth is, I switched from Youth Ministries to English because I took a class where we read C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Chesterton and realized that if I was going to remain a believer in a world I’d in many ways disavowed, I needed gullible others who’d clearly thought through what they believed, who didn’t seem gullible. I kept going to school after graduation for the same reason. I needed two sets of dupes to do my believing in two diametrically opposed realities for me. And I needed Baudrillard to remind me that even smart people sometimes believe in crazy things—crazy things that might just be true.
While Cobb never goes so far as to say “but all the same,” he does enough in the following exchange with the Mal projection to get the ball rolling:
Cobb: They’re not real, Mal. Our real children are waiting for us—
The children run off. Cobb opens his eyes.
Mal: You keep telling yourself that, but you don’t believe it—
Cobb: I know it—
Mal: And what if you’re wrong, what if I’m what’s real?
Cobb is silent.
Mal: You keep telling yourself what you know . . . but what do you believe? What do you feel?
This is, in effect, Cobb on the analyst’s couch saying, “I know very well that those are not my real children (and by extension neither is Mal or this dream).” It is possible that it is implicit in the Mal projection’s very existence. Cobb says that what he does is visit Mal every night in order to change his memories, but they appear to be immutable. He also reasons that he visits her to soothe her or contain her.
What I wonder is how we really know how she came about in the first place. It is clear from Ariadne’s tutorial that the subconscious of the mark populates the dream levels and, from a scene in which the characters discuss the layout of a level, that the other dreamers are able to suppress their own projections. Cobb is the only one with a rogue projection, and Ariadne figures it out during a discussion of dream layouts:
Cobb: Don’t tell me. Remember, you only want the dreamer to know the layout.
Ariadne: Why’s that so important?
Cobb: In case one of us brings in part of our subconscious. You wouldn’t want any projections knowing the layout.
Ariadne: In case you bring Mal in.
While Cobb acts as if he cannot prevent Mal from showing up in his dreams, he could remove her from the equation if he chose to. He draws a bead on her in the mountain shootout, and Aridane actually shoots her in Limbo, which seems to have a part in her death (along with Cobb’s revelation that she is not real).
Simply put, Mal exists because she believes that Cobb’s dreams are real, and as long as someone believes they are real, Cobb can function. This would explain why every time he disconnects from the PASIV device, he has to pull out his reality-testing top—the absence of Mal throws him for a loop.
And if Mal’s immateriality would give us pause (how can Cobb use a dream to believe in reality?), here is Zizek on that point:
[F]or the belief to be operative, the subject who directly believes need not exist at all: it is enough precisely to presuppose his existence, to believe in it, either in the guise of the mythological founding figure who is not part of our reality, or in the guise of the impersonal actor, the unspecified agent—“They say that. . .”/ “It is said that. . .”
It is not terribly important that Mal is only a dream, as long as Cobb believes in her. And he does, as we see when Ariadne encourages him to shoot Mal because it is “not really her,” and he responds by saying, “How can you know that?”
I’m beginning to get the distinct impression that no one outside of our church believes what we do. I’m supposed to invite my friends to Sunday school, but why aren’t they going already? If God is real, why are there people who don’t believe in him?
* * * *
“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
If Cobb was using Mal’s belief to believe in the reality of his dreams, what does he do once she is exorcised from his unconscious? Is his need gone because he is presumably in the waking world with his children? His doubt clearly remains as he spins the top in the final scene. According to Zizek, an object can take the place of a person through “interpassivity.” His perennial illustration of interpassivity is his VCR (one wonders if one day he will replace it with a DVR):
Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction, and occasionally enables me to simply relax and indulge in the exquisite art of far niente—as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place.
Interpassivity is the externalization of something the subject wants to be doing. The subject can feel as if they had had done it, without having to do it. And if a VCR can go beyond merely recording a film to watching it for the subject, maybe a top used to believe in reality can go beyond merely reflecting the state of reality to believing it for the subject.
Zizek sets the VCR to recording, Cobb sets the top to spinning. Both are recipients of a profound satisfaction.
“And straightway the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!’”
I am at a literary gathering in St. Paul talking to the host. A friend of mine mentions that he teaches at a small Christian college in Minneapolis. He makes a self-deprecating comment about the challenges of teaching literature and writing to conservative kids, and the host leans in and sort of mumbles (he’s had a few glasses of wine) something about “those Neo-Nazis” in a tone of commiseration. I understand the frustration of dealing with small-mindedness as much as the next guy but Neo-Nazis? Maybe my Sunday school teachers were right. Maybe we are living in different worlds.
Zizek has his VCR.
Cobb has his top.
I have Cobb and his top in my DVD player and Boaz Hagin’s “Examples in Theory: Interpassive Illustrations and Celluloid Fetishism” in my hand. Hagin believes that maybe, through interpassivity, films can go beyond merely illustrating concepts, like belief, through a gullible other and help us believe in the things they illustrate. In short, he thinks films might be propositioning us. I read this and know that Inception can’t help me believe whatever it is I currently believe about Christianity and its relation to reality. But maybe it helps me believe in the way I believe it.
1 His first feature was the micro-budget (as in $6000 [almost invisible, really]) Following. In the economics of filmmaking, it was a success, earning $48,000 at the box-office. At the point of its widest release, however, it was in two theaters. It was a perfectly serviceable calling-card until Memento came along.
2 In contrast, the ambiguous David Lynch has 65 nominations, at least as according to the Internet Movie Database.
3 The “B.S.” doesn’t really stand for Baudrillard Studies, and it doesn’t really stand for what it sounds like either (but there is something suspicious about getting out of a taking the language requirement for a Bachelors in English). What it stands for is Bachelor of Science, which, looking back at it now, makes sense in my case. I treated finding the stages of the image in a text as a science. It was as if I thought that just identifying the process of simulacra moving away from reality was a useful public service.
Chris Fletcher lives in Minnesota and writes creative criticism. He blogs at 10 Billion Canons.
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