How about the power… to move you: On Inception

I should start by saying that, contrary to this otherwise excellent article, I don’t believe that Inception is intended to be “all a dream.” (Spoilers follow.) The spinning top at the end is perhaps too clever by half, but to me it is actually a little moving — Cobb has a moment where he wonders if it could still be a dream, but then doesn’t bother to watch the top once faced with the reality of his children. I could go further down this road, but I want to engage with the more important overarching claim of the article: that Inception is about filmmaking, and more specifically about giving up self-centered “auteur” ambitions (symbolized by Mal) in order to produce an authentic emotional reaction in a stranger. Perhaps counterintuitively, however, this self-sacrifice is actually the only way to make those great films one has always wanted to make.

Reading interpretations along these lines, I wondered if there are any lessons here for theory/philosophy/theology — which for the sake of simplicity I’ll treat as being basically the same kind of thing. It seems to me that Nolan’s wager in making Inception is that, in keeping with the allegorical interpretation of the plot of the movie itself, the non-auteur film can simultaneously be the blockbuster, that the appeal to the “general public” (whichever person happens to present himself or herself, in this case the wealthy heir) is not only compatible with great art but somehow necessary to make the transition from mere self-indulgence to great art.

In the realm of intellectual discourse, it can be easy to have the knee-jerk reaction that of course a thinker’s more “popular” or “accessible” works are going to have a greater impact, etc., etc. — all of us are very morally conditioned to be worried about the perception of stroking our metaphorical “ivory towers.” What I think is interesting about the example of Inception, however, is that everything that’s “masturbatory” about Christopher Nolan’s films — the overly baroque narrative structure, the reflexivity, etc. — is present here, even in a hyperbolic way. I’d say that something similar is going on in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, one of my favorite films of all time, which does not hold back any of Kaufman’s trademark “postmodern” wankery but still creates a very moving and — something that is apparently impossible for Nolan — very funny cinematic experience. In the same way, within the frame of the movie, Cobb doesn’t just stick with standard dreams, but undertakes the daring “Mr. Charles” gambit of letting the subject know he’s having a dream in order to make him an active participant in his own deception and even takes the risk of entering into the limbo space on purpose when things go wrong.

Is there a way for us to do the same thing, to use all the skills learned during “intellectual masturbation” in order to benefit another person? I think that the first step is not to assume that reaching another person means just simplifying — to me, that maintains the “ivory tower” distance by patronizing the audience rather than engaging. Here we can take an example from the film’s plot. Cobb’s “Mr. Charles” strategy may be forced upon him by circumstance — notably, by the extremely high level of resistence he finds in his audience, surely something that philosophers and theologians can identify strongly with — but it succeeds because it manages to bring the subject on board as a kind of “interceptor” himself.

Is there a way to write such that our audience can feel like they are being brought on board to be critical intellectuals themselves? That might feel dishonest insofar as our audience is not likely to have training similar to ours and is in any event taking part in a performance that is directed toward ends we, not they, have chosen. And that’s as it should be — in our writing, if not in our teaching, we of course want to persuade our audience of a particular argument rather than simply equipping them to “come to their own conclusion” in an abstract way. What the film suggests is that, by the end of the process, the conclusion that the subject arrives at is sincerely his own, even if it is also the conclusion that the author has been aiming at and improvising his way toward.

This is a more thorough-going method of persuasion that simple reasoned argument by way of extrinsic premises and logical steps — indeed, it’s certainly intrusive and, at the very least, highly manipulative. But perhaps this represents a redoubling of the initial indirection, whereby one can only make “great films” by giving up the hard kernel of the desire to be the “great visionary/idiosyncratic auteur.” We as intellectuals can only truly engage the public by misleading them in a certain way, by tricking them into convincing themselves, into becoming their own “intellectual.”

It’s the difference between a book that shows how smart the author is and a book that makes the reader feel smarter. That feeling is an illusion, because the reader has not, after reading only one book, actually become considerably smarter. Yet by introducing them to the gut-level satisfaction of intellectual work, we might arouse in them a hunger, that peculiar intellectual hunger that can only work through an initial overconfidence. I’m sure we all remember those heady days when we first got into serious intellectual work and gobbled down book after book that we could not even begin to understand — books that, if we looked at them again today, we would be horrified at how poorly we read them. Doubtless we also remember that dogged loyalty to a particular thinker who “turned them on” in some way, even though in retrospect we didn’t even begin to fully understand the teaching to which we were such dogmatic adherents. It’s embarrasing in retrospect, but we never would’ve understood unless we’d started with the illusion that we already understood — we would never have known the satisfaction of real critical thought without that initial illusion that we were already engaging in real critical thought.

It’s impossible to “practice” something we don’t already know how to do, so we need to kick-start the process with the little white lie that we already know how. The truly great film — and Inception may or may not reach this level, though I do think it demonstrates an awareness of the standard — is the one that makes its viewer feel like she knows what it’s like to be a creator, and the truly great intellectual work is the one that makes its reader feel like she knows what it’s like to be a thinker. That, and not superficial popularization or even superficial clarity of style, is what we need to focus on learning how to do if we want to reach and move a general public.

20 thoughts on “How about the power… to move you: On Inception

  1. I think that working with an audience in mind helps combat bad intellectual tendencies. It forces you to tone down the self-serving cleverness, to describe your thoughts more carefully, and to construct your arguments more rigorously. But as an audience member (ha, ha) the main thing is to feel as if you “own” the experience, as you’ve suggested. Anything less just becomes language games– I can debate for or against an idea if that’s what it takes to pass the course, but to really advocate for something it’s important to believe in it.

    Oh, and here’s another thing– why is it that Inception is the only movie of recent vintage that has provoked such a response from intellectual bloggers? The movie’s complicated, but it’s not exactly complex, and the only two viewpoints that are ever argued are exactly the same as those offered in the movie: dream or not-dream. All the interpretations I’ve read are obvious from the first viewing; it makes the movie almost self-criticizing (though I guess that’s just post-modernism for you).

  2. I though the end was predictable. As soon as he explained that totems could help you tell if you were dreaming or not, I knew Nolan would do the final cliff-hanger.

    What I thought was one of the most interesting ideas of the film, and sadly left unexplored, was the nature of long life. Why did they find their 50-year sojourn so intolerable? I really wanted him to get into the psychology of long life, and whether quantity of life (or seeming quantity of life) really was an unconditioned good… it was a shame that this aspect of Saito’s dreamlife was also left unexplored. Meh.

  3. Just a quick comment about the ending (sorry that this comment is not really about the topic of this blog post). To me, it does not matter whether or not the spinning totem at the end revealed Cobb was in a dream state or not; rather I took it that if he is dreaming, it is without the assistance of a dream device (a bit speculative I suppose), or it really is just reality-either way Cobb’s character achieved catharsis (contra Shutter Island).

  4. the only two viewpoints that are ever argued are exactly the same as those offered in the movie: dream or not-dream

    That’s not true of either my post or the post I link to. I think the artistic creation element works either way you decide the dream/not-dream question.

  5. Adam remarks on: “the difference between a book that shows how smart the author is and a book that makes the reader feel smarter. That feeling is an illusion…Yet by introducing them to the gut-level satisfaction of intellectual work, we might arouse in them a hunger, that peculiar intellectual hunger that can only work through an initial overconfidence.”

    This is (for me) practically a definition of either successful art or successful philosophy, or indeed just successful teaching. A novel can carry you along with it, awakening in you the almost-sense of creating it as you read it. This is also why one sometimes has a frustrating, no-no-no! sense when a plot takes a turn or a character makes a move one would not have taken if one were writing it oneself. Harold Bloom (who I, unlike many of my acquaintance, don’t consider to be a mere windbag) opines that art provokes in us a kind of competing, agonistic urge, an urge to “do that too,” and doubtless gives you the (illusory) sense that you can. Hence the remark, “they make it look easy.”

    Plato does this all the time, and shows Socrates doing it too. Of course, he also (sometimes gently, sometimes not) punctures his interlocutors’ pretensions. And I wonder (to come back, tangentially, to the film in question) how closely the cave-allegory matches this process?

    Thanks for this beautifully succinct account of good teaching.

  6. I don’t know about this one. I read the article linked and I could see its points and it’s very interesting and smart, but I kept wondering whether it is about the same movie I watched, especially this part:

    “Inception is such a big deal because it’s what great movies strive to do. You walk out of a great film changed, with new ideas planted in your head, with your neural networks subtly rewired by what you’ve just seen. On a meta level Inception itself does this, with audiences leaving the theater buzzing about the way it made them feel and perceive. New ideas, new thoughts, new points of view are more lasting a souvenir of a great movie than a ticket stub. ”

    I agree with all of these observations and how great films indeed do a lot of that, but Inception? I mean surely it’s completely understandable that it could make such an impression on the author of the piece, but because I have experienced nothing of this sort, I begin to wonder, after reading the piece again and again, if I’m missing something here. I went with two other people and we all were rather underwhelmed, but now I’m reading all these very thought-provoking posts on it and I’m wondering if we are so starved for a good movie at a theater that anything that is remotely hinting at greatness is just blown out of proportion? Is it really that great?

    Just an opinion. I already managed to offend some sensitive soul over at Kaufman’s blog by joking that people who liked this movie must be idiots (although I had a good class discussion about it)… Maybe I should see it again, but my sense is that it’s not going to be that one film that everyone talks about for years. I’m probably wrong though, I should get out more and stop watching my “Criterion Collection” stuff…

  7. Sorry, my comment was mostly about the linked essay which impressed me with its elevated prose. The linked essay sort of made a number of points about the kind of interpretation that suggests some intentional parallel between dream-making and movie-making. I don’t think I’ve noticed many of the things author thought were obvious allusions to this parallel, but aren’t all good movies self-reflective to some extend (i.e. make suggestions about the connection between life and film?)? In a sense, if the author is correct and Nolan’s task (one of many) was indeed to “examine the ways that cinema, the ultimate shared dream, can change an individual,” then it’s not clear (to me, judging by my own experience of the film) how Inception is doing a better job of it than, say, Crimes and Misdemeanors?

    You write: “Is there a way to write such that our audience can feel like they are being brought on board to be critical intellectuals themselves?” I think this is a great question, but Inception felt to me like a movie that does not follow the implied rule (to write in a such a way as to bring the audience on board to be critical intellectuals) – there weren’t many real intellectual challenges in 2.5 hours. In fact, there were more odd things that made little sense (conjuring up a gun by “thinking big” or the long and tiresome scene of blowing charges to move the elevator to wake up the crew while smacking them against the wall would have done the trick etc etc) than there were deep profound moments during which one really felt that one is taken for an equal.

    I kept whispering to my wife around 1.5 hours mark “There better be some mind-blowing twist at the end a la Memento!” – at first jokingly, and then seriously. Maybe I expected too much and just needed to relax and enjoy it, but then again, maybe I expected to be treated as a mature movie-goer, as an intellectual, not as a summer blockbuster lover.

    What sort of immediate reaction did you have to it? I mean I can see that you liked it, but was it really that awe-stuck dumbfound feeling one has after a truly good movie? As I said, I found myself disappointed, but also immediately thinking how it could be interpreted as a decent movie, a kind of immediate excusatory explanation of how it could have worked were they to do X and Y which made for a nice after-movie dinner conversation…

  8. I didn’t walk out thinking it was a great movie, though I wasn’t as disappointed as you — I thought it was a good action movie that moved along nicely and was at least “interpretable.” The point of the post is basically that the film and this particular interpretation led me to some tangentially related thoughts on intellectual work — and I wouldn’t hold film to quite the same standard as philosophy, etc., in terms of getting the viewer to experience what it’s like to be a critical intellectual.

  9. Adam’s thoughts about how to write in such a way that the reader is involved as a co-worker in the process of thinking remind me of his similar thoughts about how to teach at a level that is challenging without being totally obscure. I think the face-to-face of the classroom makes teaching in this way possible, and writing in this way would sort of require translating that style of teaching into written form. Sometimes this means using dialogue form (Plato, of course, is the prime example, but other philosophers use dialogue, too); sometimes it means that the best one can do is collect one’s lectures into a book, although this is often a recipe for posthumous publication only (think of Aristotle, Schelling, and the great lecture series of Foucault finally coming out in recent years). Then there is Derrida (who for me acted as that sort of thinker Adam speaks about whose books we “gobble down”), someone whose writing and lectures (those I heard, at least) seemed to be one and the same thing (I can say the same of Stanley Cavell’s lectures that I heard), and one and the same experience for the reader/auditor. So, I guess the ideal would be to write in such a way that if you read it before an audience they would be both swept along with the words, thinking with you and thinking ahead of you but also surprised by the turns you took that they couldn’t predict and learning from their suprises to better and better think with you, but always, in the end, holding a surprise in store for the audience. Yes, like Inception a bit, whose final shot just might be its best shot.

  10. BTW, I agree with Mikhail’s judgment of the movie entirely. I kept thinking, what if Nolan had actually tried to do justice to Philip K. Dick’s Three Stigmata instead of just using its main idea to make a summer blockbuster?

  11. I kept thinking, what if Nolan had actually tried to do justice to Philip K. Dick’s Three Stigmata instead of just using its main idea to make a summer blockbuster?

    Answer: his accountant would be a lot less busy these days.

  12. Brad Johnson: I also had difficulty hearing the dialogue, especially during the first ~third of the film, and especially Saito’s. (And I don’t think it’s because of the accent; I’m usually pretty good with Japanese accents.)

    It was noticeable enough I wondered if it was an intentional feature of the film. It did seem to get a little better later on, but I was never sure this wasn’t just my getting used to shitty audio.

  13. i like this auteur/authorship reading. regarding the “inception is about filmmaking” in a slightly different respect, the way the film played up to how films/dreams as a “medium” coincide. by that, i am referring to the lack of transition acction (ie how one got somewhere) indicates that one is in a dream & how this is matches up with how we ‘read’ films (ie we read cuts between scenes as assuming that the necessary transition action has taken place; scenes of people getting from one place to another only feature to serve as the setting for an important plot point or conversation).

    re: points from the comments
    * i too had problems with making out what saito said & don’t usually have accent issues.
    * i imagine inception is getting this attention because it is “popular” (as in, a summer blockbuster of sorts) and clever & the combination of the two is what excites people. i agree that it wasn’t an amazing film, but i enjoyed it.

  14. Mikhail, to suggest that anyone enjoyed the movie is an idiot is rather snobbish. After all, even that POS The Rock is in the Criterion Collection. I saw the movie without having heard much hype so my contrarian tendencies were curbed. The main problem for me, for me it was simply a clever and enjoyable film, was the lack of development in the final scene with old Saito and Di Capri. I hate him.

    I like what Adam did here because it’s not a fanboy piece. It does something more interesting than the slew of quasi-philosophical stuff were going to see by ignoring the content of the plot and examining its form.

  15. For an episode of Mission Impossible, Inception is certainly very good. I think Adam does a fine job of parsing some of the questions of “popular” vs highbrow (not all in these terms), and asking why a film of this kind gets both mass and critical attention. For my money this is head, shoulders, torso and feet above either Avatar or any of the pseudo-“think-about-it” movies of M-Night-Shameonhim, at least because it admits of more than one possible reading. No, not Citizen Kane, not Roshomon, not even Brazil, but for a movie with slo-mo special effects and a fairly cheap mindfuck everything-you-know-could-be-wrong premise, quite well done.

    As for the lesson Adam drew, about the way this pertains to writing or teaching in a way that incites learning, I had some further thoughts I posted here.

  16. I waited until I watched the movie to read this post. Great tangent Adam.
    This seems to be the basic kierkegaardian question of whether you can plant faith in another. I wonder if K’s corpus and trajectory can be read as the inverse of Inception. Nolan says, “we must go deeper to go further.” Kierkegaard says, “I must become simple and boring.”
    My initial reading was more nihilistic as a sort of ‘end’ of Freud getting lost in ourselves . . . and after coming to this post thinking again of the basic ignorance of my ‘open letter’ to AUFS . . . that I would be led to the safe with the combination!

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