Permanent Damage

Wed, August 4th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: August 4th, 2010 at 2:10pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I saw Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION the Sunday after it opened, and figured, following the film's critical and box office acclaim in its opening days, the anti-INCEPTION backlash was due to hit by that Tuesday. I was pretty close; by Monday night, the first big "INCEPTION is unimaginative gibberish!" pieces started hitting the blogosphere, and since then such venues as ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (I'm looking at you, Owen Gleiberman) have been beating the drum regularly.

Nolan may be most famous for THE DARK KNIGHT, but around these parts MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE are more highly thought of. (I still like THE DARK KNIGHT fine, but it ain't MEMENTO.) These are clever films, built on puzzles, sleight-of-hands, misdirections that require close attention and a little thought to unravel, but Nolan doesn't make films that can't be understood. (It is something of a recurring complaint about INCEPTION now that Nolan makes clever films, not intellectual ones. Possibly true, and I'm unaware of any requirement that his films be overtly intellectual. At any rate, at least they're clever.) By and large, the grenades lobbed at the film now insist a) for a movie whose subject is dreams, INCEPTION has a paucity of dream symbolism, and b) the action, and the film, are ambiguous and incomprehensible. What does it all mean?!!

In fact, neither are true. Nolan's structuring of his dream worlds meets the requirements of his plot perfectly. INCEPTION turns out to be totally unambiguous, easy to understand, and even more satisfying once it's understood. It doesn't even take much explanation.

And I can prove it.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

IF YOU HAVE NOT ALREADY SEEN INCEPTION DO NOT READ FURTHER. SIGNIFICANT ELEMENTS OF THE FILM WILL BE DISCUSSED. SEE IT FIRST, THEN COME BACK. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

If you insist on reading on anyway, that's your problem.

To make avoiding the discussion easier, we now take a short intermission.

While we're waiting:

Despite all the talk for years that no way would the draft be brought back, it's on its way back – courtesy of the Democrats this time. Longtime Congressman Charlie Rangel took time out a couple weeks ago from his busy investigation by the House Ethics Committee to introduce bill H.R. 5741, the "Universal National Service Act", requiring (if passed) all Americans between 18 and 42 "to perform national service, either as a member of the uniformed services or in civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, to authorize the induction of persons in the uniformed services during wartime to meet end-strength requirements of the uniformed services, and for other purposes." Given that Iraq drove recruitment way south, and that the ridiculous continuation of our involvement in Afghanistan (our Pakistani allies are feeding the money we give them to the Taliban we're fighting in Afghanistan – the Taliban they invented?!! Gosh, I never saw that coming!) is putting further squeeze on military capabilities, and there are a couple other "defense of American corporate right to make profits" wars brewing under the guise of "fighting terrorism," the reinstatement of the draft has seemed a foregone necessity for several years now. Given how the Ghost rerouted the National Guard (intended to operate in the USA in times of emergency) to Iraq, with terribly insufficient training and supplies, when standard military forces and private mercenary armies proved inadequate, it doesn't stretch the imagination much to foresee the conversion of anyone, er, "rangeled" into service under this measure being somehow rerouted into the military, since we seem to have entered a period when we will not go without war. We'll just go without, and have gone without, much press coverage of it. A military without an endless supply of, let's call a spade a spade, slaves for cannon fodder is a military forced to pick and choose its battles. A draft is absolutely necessary for the sort of multi-front permanent war neo-cons have envisioned for at least 30 years now, and it makes a certain amount of perverse sense that it is the Democrats (let's face, Democrats have historically not been especially opposed to war, and whenever they get into power are especially prone to "proving" they're not "weak on defense") who are trying to slip it through. The press has been especially cooperative in not widely mention it. Time to write your Representative and tell them to do everything in their power to strangle this baby in its cradle.

I've noticed a new flood of "Has Comic-Con gotten too big?" and "Where are the comics at Comic-Con now?" type articles popping up in the wake of San Diego, and this year, as last, I reiterate: piss off. You people would bitch if they were hanging you with a new rope. Just accept it as the monster celebration it has become and figure out a way to work it.

However, just how much the con has changed since my first couple visits in the late '70s and early '80s really hit home this week. Not like many in comics were grousing – "it's all about Hollywood now!" sniffle moan (my pal Marc Mason – don't know if he has an article detailing it up yet, but you should go check out his Comics Waiting Room site anyway and find out – points out that when the con first moved to its current locale, comics occupied ~rows 100-3000, as they do now and much more besides; it's not comics that got small, it's the Con that got big) – but in two other very noticeable ways. 1) It used to be that genuinely good looking women would only be at the Con if they were with their boyfriends/husbands, reluctantly, or if they were in the business, and even then it was often only in the company of their boyfriends/husbands. Now they're everywhere, in packs or singly, and they seem thrilled to be there. That may seem a shallow observation, but that's big progress in my book. (Though it has wiped out one of the great perverse joys of Comic-Con, watching some slackjawed guy drooling over some passing hot woman in, say, a Wonder Woman costume, then pointing out it was a guy in drag.) 2) The sheer proliferation of costumes, worn with unabashed lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment, and I say that without a trace of irony or scorn. It's amazing and wonderful that the Con has become a place where people can joyously and openly become their secret selves for four or five days, and it's worth its existence just for that.

For Hollywood, though, the Con may be becoming a double-edged sword, since as much as it has been, for the last few years, a place to quickly drum up big buzz, it now seems to also have become something of an early warning system. Take ABC's upcoming fall series No Ordinary Family. Despite plenty of promotion during the show, including an airplane periodically ejecting "flying people" balloons over the area, I was struck, in hindsight, at the sheer absence of talk about it by anyone. It wasn't even bad response. It was anti-response, a vacuum of response. This doesn't seem promising for the series. Despite this, I'm loathe to leap on the rising "everyone's sick of superhero movies" bandwagon. Not that I'm any great champion of superheroes these days, but as long as there are reasonably good superhero films, that bring a little something new to the table, I doubt audiences will flee from them to any great extent. The one thing movies really have going for them is that, despite lots of other entertainment options, people really like to go to the movies. It's not the same experience as watching a DVD on your sofa, and for the audience that covers a multitude of sins. What will kill the superhero film is if lots of derivative crappy superhero films pop up, in significant enough numbers to outweigh the others. The apparent general lack of interest in No Ordinary Family can be chalked up not to a growing distaste for superheroes from Hollywood but to everything revealed about the show so far (ironically, including the title) sounding so...ordinary.

Right, wanted to mention DITKOMANIA #80, available from Rob Imes (13510 Cambridge #307, Southgate MI 48195; $2 + $1 postage), an old school style labor-of-love fanzine spotlighting all things Ditko but this issue pinpointing Ditko's '80s Marvel work...including a pretty good article on a Shroud story I did with him and Mark Gruenwald for Marvel's black-and-white magazine line. Always a great read, with one of the best letter pages in fandom. Get it while it's hot, and you might want to lay in an order for #81 (same price) while you're at it. Or just get a six issue subscription for $15. It's worth it.

Okay, the first two things you need to realize about INCEPTION:

1) Only one scene takes place in the film's real world. All worlds depicted are dream layers.

2) There are only four real characters in the film: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio); Miles (Michael Caine); and Cobb's two children. The other characters, save Cobb's wife Mal, are strictly constructs of the dream.

Much scorn has recently been heaped on both the lack of "dream imagery" and the "rules" of INCEPTION's dream worlds, and the almost pedantic statements of the latter throughout the film. But all these are central and necessary, Nolan also playing his script on several levels at once. From the moment INCEPTION begins, we – and the "characters" in the film, beginning with Ken Watanabe's Saito – are told how the mind blurs reality and dream while in the dream. In the first scene, Watanabe is "awakened" to the idea that he is already in a dream, to his surprise. When he "awakens" for "real" following Cobb's failure to rob his mind, he's caught off-guard when he finds he's still a dream, but a different dream. When Cobb later inducts Ariadne (named for the princess who in Greek myth provides Theseus with the means to escape the inescapable labyrinth; this is no coincidence) into his heist crew, he meets with her at an outdoor café and asks, "How did you get here?"

As far as the audience is concerned, there's no mystery until the subjects come up; Cobb and Adrienne arrive at the café, Watanabe at his meeting, via the simplest of film conventions, the cut and the fade in, respectively. Nolan's challenging of this conventions as story mechanics is his invitation to view events in INCEPTION as never being what we think we're seeing. This holds true across the board. The heist is not a heist. The objective is not the objective. The least seen character – Miles – is the most important.

This is important to perceive about INCEPTION: inception. It's not a heist film. The "heist" is simply setting, or, in the film's terms, architecture. It's "real world" is just another dream level that Cobb believes is the real world, as Saito believed the world he first appears in is the real world. The chase in Mombasa tips us off that Cobb's world isn't real, in the scene where he escapes gunmen by fleeing down an alley whose perspective never changed with Cobb's position, until he (barely) slips through the narrow far end, reflecting the "Escher staircase" Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) demonstrates later to Ariadne.

If nothing we see in the film is real, bits of reality slip in. While there's no way to judge the accuracy of the tale, we can pick up from context that Cobb's tale of his tragic adventures in the dream state with wife Mal, and the "inception" he puts in her mind that inadvertently causes her to kill herself are not only, at heart, true, but form the emotional core of the film, though the circumstances of her death, as described, and Cobb's subsequent flight from murder charges, make no apparent sense except in dream logic. Again, Nolan plays with the idea of the invisible hand: Mal's persistent state as least developed character in the film makes her one of the most developed, since what we see of her is not Mal herself but a vengeful manifestation of Cobb's overbearing guilt over her death. His guilt taints all his experiences, and constantly taunts him to take his own life, for atonement. Offsetting but not quite balancing the guilt is Cobb's guilt over abandoning his now functionally parentless children – but he can see no way to get back to them, since if he tries he'll be punished for Mal's "murder."

And this is what INCEPTION is really about. It all takes place in Cobb's dream, though (we can infer) controlled by Miles, who's credited with inventing the "group dream" technology in the first place, with "dream architecture" strictly controlling the circumstances and imagery to prevent the dreamer from recognizing his environment as a dream (hence the lack of talking dogs or women with horse heads, though the freight train down main street was a great bit of imagery) and "the rules" constantly reiterated not only as an expositional gimmick for the audience but to constantly reinforce them in Cobb's mind. (This suggests Cobb is as much in hypnotic state as dream state, but it's no secret dreamers are more open to suggestion.)

The entire film, save for the last scene, is an elaborate game, designed to turn Cobb against his subconscious (as he later does with Cillian Murphy's Robert Fischer), force him to confront his conflicted feelings about Mal once and for all, and drive Cobb to the depths of his own subconscious where, via his message to lost Saito in his desert island fortress (Cobb's own "safe"; the "guards" – also Cobb's subconscious defenses – are "tricked" into dragging him inside the safe, where he needs to be) an idea can be "incepted" into the core of Cobb's psyche in such a way that he seems to have thought of it himself (again, as is spelled out via the Fischer plot). A very simple idea:

We have to go home.

Once that idea is placed there, events pass in a blink. Cobb and Saito return to the dream jet, signaling the success of the plan. Subsequently Cobb passes through customs – a final test to make sure Cobb's subconscious has fully accepted the inception – and then he moves through the only scene in the film genuinely dreamlike, as all the other players freeze in place and watch with beatific smiles as he passes among them, heading toward the exit. And Miles – the only player on the scene not directly involved in the heist – is abruptly there to greet Cobb with equal giddiness, and guide him "out," the indication that Miles is the "dungeon master" of the whole thing. (It's also the conversation with Miles in Paris early on that plants the initial idea – you have to go home to your children – that Cobb carries with him to his depths.) Then Cobb and Miles are home; Cobb pauses a moment to disbelieve it – he starts his talisman, the top, spinning – but accepts his children as his reality and goes to them. The top itself is a red herring. The talismans are set up as a means for the dreamthieves to tell what's the real world and what's not – Arthur states you never share yours with anyone so they can't copy it – but the top isn't Cobb's, it's Mal's. It has no objective reality for him, and ultimately can point him nowhere but back to her. But he abandons it for his children, and the top's faltering spin – there's really no question that it's collapsing – is the end of the story. (It's possible the other characters are real people also taking part in the shared dream, but there's no strong indication of that, and some indication – occasionally knowing things they shouldn't be able to know, if it can be chalked up to intent and not sloppiness – they are strictly constructs.)

The film is called INCEPTION because it's about planting an irresistible idea in Cobb's mind. He is the target of the film's plot.

Have I proof this was Nolan's intent? I don't know him, I haven't asked him, so, no. I only have story logic to go on. But if that isn't what's going on, INCEPTION is a fun caper film...but only a fun caper film. If Cobb's the target, it takes on a wholly different, and more satisfying, emotional dimension – and adequately demonstrates Nolan's demonstrable skill at wry but decipherable puzzle stories. Anyone who puts their mind to it can fit the pieces together.

I may be I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure I'm right. Or maybe I've been subject to an inception too, because the interpretation makes so much sense that not only am I unable to shake it, but it now seems to me the only interpretation.

And it is.

TAGS:  permanent damage, inception

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