Inception: A Movie about Movies.Posted: August 7, 2010
Watching Inception, I began to realize what director Christopher Nolan was up to. On a narrative level the movie is about a character who can enter the subconscious dream state of another in order to determine its direction; he goes in there with a team who, in sharing the mission, share in the manipulation of the subject’s dream. Isn’t that exactly what movies do? For two hours in the dark we enter a dream state with the other members of the audience, a dream state we have collectively, willingly allowed the moviemaker to direct (in all senses of the word) for us.
This dawned on me when I realized that Inception’s action set pieces—while unquestionably cool and going beyond what we’ve seen in movies before—are basically not different at their core from what we have seen in other action and disaster films, and even musicals. (One of the set pieces is an homage to, and was filmed in much the same way as, Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceiling in Royal Wedding.) That is to say, they are different, but not qualitatively different; and the realization to which that leads you inescapably is that every action movie, indeed practically every movie, contains sequences that simply never will happen and could not happen in our daily lives, yet which we experience as real for the duration of the movie. Only dreams are comparable. In fact, the state in which a movie puts the mind may be indistinguishable, psychologically and physiologically, from the unconscious dream state. It’s said that Hollywood is a dream factory, but usually when we hear this we think of “dream” in terms of “hopes and fantasies”; we don’t realize the statement is literally true. Even the most prosaic romantic comedy contains moments that cannot happen, yet which feel as real to us while they are happening as dreams do–they are events the likes of which the audience will experience nowhere else but the dreams it dreams in the middle of the night.
I think Nolan wants us to become conscious of this. He wants his action sequences to echo, in their slightly crazier way, action sequences we’ve seen in other movies, because he wants us to wake up to the fact that when we saw those movies we were dreaming then, too. None of us will ever dangle from a helicopter over an erupting volcano, nor will we ever know anyone else who has, nor will we ever know anyone else who knows anyone else who has, yet while we’re in the action movie, we give our tacit assent to the reality of the scene with a silent “yeah, that could happen.” The Leonardo DiCaprio character in Inception, who enters and shapes other people’s dreams, is a proxy for Nolan, and for every movie director; and the members of DiCaprio’s SWAT-like crew who go into the dreams with him are proxies for the writers, actors, cameramen, editors, composers and all the other artists who expand and compress time for us at will, and direct us to places we will never go except in dreams, and the dreams we agree to call movies.