Leonard's existential conflict is so troubling because in the context of Memento it reveals a rather uncomfortable truth about human thinking and memory: it is malleable, always changing in its plasticity. The night his wife was apparently raped and murdered, Leonard was clubbed in the head by the perpetrators, permanently injuring him with short-term memory loss. His mission since has been to find the man responsible, collecting a series of clues that he works into a "system" that aids his mental handicap: tattoos, Polaroid photographs, a police file, etc. His compass is, in effect, a writing utensil. He has efficiently streamlined, so he thinks, a process that will enable him to complete his task and give his life meaning. "You really need a system if you're going to make it work," he tells himself.
But it turns out that Leonard already has killed "John G.," the man responsible for his wife's death and his injury. In fact, he's probably killed several John G.'s, thanks to the help of a corrupt but well-meaning undercover cop, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Teddy reveals, quite convincingly to us, that because Leonard cannot remember the catharsis of avenging his wife's death, he is damned to forever repeat himself. Leonard's a lunatic, and his wife actually lives; but she has lost the ability to cope with Leonard since the incident where she was raped, but not killed. Teddy empathizes, "So you lie to yourself to be happy – we all do it! Who cares if there are a few details that you'd rather not remember?" The ugliness of this truth – that Leonard is not in control of his own thoughts or even his dearest memories – leads him to manipulate matters so that the next time the physics of his crime-solving and clue-sniffing begin to work, Teddy, whose actual name is John Gammell, will be his victim. Facts cannot get in the way of a meaningful life narrative, even if that narrative is based on a delusion.
The dark themes of memory and consciousness in Memento, to say nothing of Nolan's other films as a major market filmmaker (Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight) bear down on how audiences and critics will evaluate his new film, perhaps his most personal and most expensive, the cyber-heist film noir Inception. Met with anticipation months before its release, as a rarity of a studio's big budget risk with an original concept and a talented director given free reign and final cut, it is an object of both adoration and scrutiny, of frustration even from its admirers that try to solve its maze of meaning and intent. If we can believe our eyes and take the movie at face value, Inception is simply Nolan's most optimistic, and certainly least accomplished, work. Yet, if we are to actively engage and assume that the film is itself delusional, it becomes capacious in its implications, and even mighty in its potential impact of daily conversations. Nolan's films are all about deceit, and if we are to take Leonardo DiCaprio's mind-thief and his team for protagonists worthy of adulation, we ourselves have been incepted by the trickery of film magic – as that is how we are, on a plain level, sutured into the picture. This was one of the themes of The Prestige (2006), Nolan's undervalued and increasingly fascinating film about dueling magicians in Victorian England: a magic trick's execution and success is dependent on the audience being fooled, and though they are curious to know how they've been fooled, in truth, unconsciously, they do not want to actually know. Cinema is itself such a theatrical magic trick, and we want to be fooled, and it is by virtue of our own mental workings that this is possible.
Inception then is, regardless of how good it will ultimately be judged, a landmark given its context of release, just seven months after the release of James Cameron's Avatar, a fantasy 3-D spectacle set on an alien world almost wholly created by digital movie wizardry – which is to say, in the context of The Prestige especially, something that is distinct from magic. "Magic" is a trick, an illusion of perception where the magician is getting his hands dirty with concrete tools in real space. "Wizardry," on the other hand, is when we truly create something out of nothing, and the virtual is confused for – even preferred to – the original real thing that existed beforehand. Since Avatar, whose success has ensured the coming reign of 3D cinema for all blockbuster releases and the use of Computer Generated Imagery being more ubiquitous, moviegoers will expect things in the cinema to be more lifelike, more real than real, and much more preferable to the world outside of the auditorium. The ego of the moviegoer is smashed by the agency offered by the lifelike yet strange beings that are seemingly an arm's reach away from them, in a world faraway so close. Every time the movies have gone to "the other world" of fantasy and the spectacular, from The Wizard of Oz to the present (or maybe rather George Melies), these icons of cinema having their own precedent in centuries of storytelling and myth, the Hero has always had to come back and resurrect on earth: Dorothy goes back to Kansas just as Odysseus goes back to Ithaca.
Until Avatar. As Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in an article, interestingly enough titled "The Wizard" in The New York Review of Books, "When Dorothy wakes up, it's to the drab, black-and-white reality of the gritty Kansas existence with which she had been so dissatisfied at the beginning of her remarkable journey into fantasy, into vibrant color; what she famously learns from that exposure to radical otherness is, in fact, that 'there's no place like home.' Which is to say, when she wakes up—equipped, to be sure (as she was not before) with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes up to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she'd temporarily escaped from." He concludes, "The triumphant conclusion of Avatar, by contrast, takes the form of a permanent abandonment of the gray world of Homo sapiens….[The] encounters with radical otherness or with extremes of violence and disaster always concluded, however awkwardly in some cases, with a moment of quiet, a return to the reassuring familiarity of life as most of us know it." Avatar is a movie of its time, when convenience is a download and a click away from anyone with access to high-speed internet. "The message of what is now James Cameron's most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is…that 'reality' is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don't have to wake up. There's no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time."
Inception will not be seen as any kind of enemy combatant, I think, to Avatar, at least in any kind of large cultural way. In fact, much of its glowingly admiring science fiction geek audience is comprised of the same people. Certainly the latter film offers a lot more to chew on in terms of dimensional characters (or an ironic reason for the lack of a character's dimension), and I would argue that Wally Pfister's cinematography blended with Guy Hendrix Dyas' production design is more visually satisfying in its celluloid 2-dimensionality than Cameron's candy-colored 3D fairy tale. But the themes of Reality versus a spectacular Fantasy, of "Pure Creation" as one character puts it, is pertinent here, both within and without the text just as they were with Avatar, not only as a work of art to be consumed by viewers, but as a work constructed by artisans and financed by a corporation ($160 million). The conflict between Avatar and Inception, between the virtual and the real, cyberspace and meatspace, involves the direction and evolution of where the movies are headed. Both films feature protagonists in search of some kind of fulfillment and peace from despair: Avatar's Jake is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, while Inception's Dom Cobb is mourning his dead wife and desiring to see his estranged children. Both men are appropriate stand-ins for an audience going to the movies for escape from the toil of troubled and despair-ridden everyday lives. One film sees hope in technology, a kind of religious singularity where anything becomes possible with the aid of scientific "wizardry.” The other film may – or may not, as Nolan is quite ambiguous – have a more dubious perspective. But in looking at Christopher Nolan – Inception and his whole previous body of work – it is demanded of us to explore these uncomfortable quandaries of time, memory, and mind that may say things we don't like about our own nature and our collective stance as popular consumers. Nolan's heroes are ultimately representative men of our time with a Faustian inheritance, having sold their souls for a mental framework that gives meaning in a meaningless world. But like the devil, the mind obeys nothing but itself.
Inception would appear to be, even on the most superficial examination of its synopsis, the "definitive" Christopher Nolan film, the kind of work he has been preparing to make his entire career, for which his previous projects could almost appear to be demos, preliminary if nevertheless elaborate sketches preparing the way for a showman's opus painting on a grand canvas, the center of his opening exhibition. The main character of Inception is a thief who extracts ideas from the minds of his victims – which is to say, instead of capital or material goods, he steals private and seemingly unknowable elements of another human being that can only find reference in the physical world. Nolan's first film, a 70-minute sparse thriller entitled Following, similarly focused on a thief who, instead of stealing valuable materials that could be fenced, would break into London flats and search for small boxes filled with personal mementos. The thief tells his blooming protégé (and unknowing con victim) that the box is "an unconscious collection, a display." These are valuables of personal experience: photos, cards, trinkets of obscure symbolic value and singular aura, each item saying something specific about the person. "I'm very privileged to see it, it's very rare." The thief's method of operation is to steal the intimate items and then deciphering the victim by reading the visible objects that signify something private, the outward insights into their inner nature. "Insurance will cover what's stolen," the thief says of expensive items. "It's personal stuff that's worse." There is no insurance for memories. He then restructures reality by corrupting the private space – for example, leaving a pair of women's panties in a coat pocket. "Why do you want to fuck up their relationship?" the protégé asks. "You take it away," the thief explains, "you show them what they had." This kind of thievery on anonymous individuals gives the unknown masses faces, selves, identities, a private aura in contrast to their publicly costumed presentation and performance. What’s now more interesting for the curious viewer going back to see Following after being inspired by Inception is the discovery that Nolan has given both of these thieves the same last name: Cobb.
In addition to introducing the theme of private spaces, personal mementos, and signs that communicate individual auras, to say nothing of a non-linear storyline that acts as a loop where we begin with the protagonist talking to someone at the end of the action, Following introduces the common Nolan idea of Truth’s meaninglessness, which relates to the concept of how identity is plastic in a world where everything is systematic. If one needs to adopt a new identity, in addition to getting a haircut and changing a style of dress, simply steal a credit card. This web of written and recorded deceit that is mapped out and carefully plotted, just as Leonard's investigation is "systemized" in Memento, corrupts the actuality of any given event, imprisoning the protagonist (or, in Memento's case, leading to Teddy's death at the hands of Leonard, punishment for a crime that he did not commit and actually helped solve). The protagonist of Following, a loser named Bill who begins following anonymous people out of loneliness and boredom, is simply trying to create a sense of individuality in an urban mass. He is discovered by one of his quarries – Cobb – who takes Bill under his wing and shows him his technique of thievery. "You're now D. Lloyd," Cobb tells Bill, the first time in Nolan's work where he'll give a wink to Stanley Kubrick (Danny Lloyd was the child actor who portrayed Danny Torrence in The Shining). As Bill/Danny becomes enthralled with a woman, credited as "The Blonde,” who he is "stealing from" with the help of Cobb, he is also swindled. It turns out that Cobb is looking for a decoy, his own double to cover up a murder scene he stumbled upon. The girl, in classic femme fatale fashion, is his collaborator in tricking Bill/Danny.
When Bill/Danny finds out, it's too late. He tells Cobb that he will go to the police. "They'll believe me 'cause it's the truth," he says. But he doesn't anticipate Cobb selling out the girl to a local gangster who will murder her for being an insider on a robbery, an act that will be conveniently linked back, through forensic evidence, to Bill. Cobb meanwhile disappears, clean and carefree, into the mass of anonymous people. The actuality of history, of what really transpired in real space and real time, is meaningless compared to a tangible – or official – paper trail. There are no witnesses, and like in Memento, though pictures may be worth a thousand words, the words do not necessarily – well, do not at all – match what actually happened.
Outward objects, whether small personal mementos in private boxes, written records, or credit card receipts, are then much more impactful in terms of real-world ramifications than human beings and their authentic intentions. Ideas are important parts of human beings symbolized by mementos, which are concretizations of abstract ideas, ideas being ephemeral. But once that idea is concretized and fully defined, the memento/record supersedes the ephemeral abstraction. History is altered, mapped out, and one false record or slight misinterpretation on a linear trajectory (as we see viscerally in Memento) leads to complete misinterpretation of reality. As I noted, Leonard in Memento needs a system in order to make his investigation "work," because in addition to his inability to make new memories, he also has an understanding that memory is always changing. "Memories are just an interpretation," he notes. "They're not a record." But the wrong tattoo or written construct is just as subject to human fallibility and failed contingency, like a clerical error or a faulty key-stroke creates an unintended butterfly effect rippling in the wrong direction. It would seem that Leonard's tragic predicament, like many modern individuals saturated in sign systems, is that he lives in a constant present without any sense of grand perspective or deep introspection. He only has the time to remember that which is presented before him now, his mind piecing the visible pieces together quickly until he forgets again. He finds his bliss and meaning in this, a tragic irony given that he seems so tormented, but then again, the mind dealing with reality and loss is an immense burden, memory having an unruly power. Remembering his dead wife, he talks to himself at night, "I know I can't have her back. But I don't want to wake up in the morning thinking she's still here…How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?"
Leonard projects his guilt onto the memory sparked by a name written in cursive on his hand: "Remember Sammy Jenkis." Before Leonard's injury, he was an insurance claims investigator, and his employer had him examine a man named Sammy, who suffered from an injury that similarly led to short-term memory loss. Because Leonard detects Sammy "recognizes" him whenever he makes one of his investigative visits, Leonard helps his company make the decision, based on technicalities, that Sammy's condition and hospital bills should not be covered. "His wife got stuck with the bills and I got a big promotion." When interrogated by the wife as to what Leonard really thinks about Sammy, and not what the insurance company thinks, Leonard can only take the company line. In despair, Sammy's wife has her forgetful husband give her repeated insulin shots one afternoon, until she falls into a coma. Sammy is meanwhile institutionalized, living in a forgetful perpetual bliss of the present.
The trick of the movie is that Leonard has unknowingly also disrupted his long-term memory, to the extent that he confuses himself with Sammy Jenkis and his wife for Sammy's wife. It turns out that Sammy Jenkis actually was a con man, and that it was Leonard's wife that had diabetes and could no longer handle taking care of her husband. She abandoned him to an institution and he constructed a completely false narrative of fulfilling fiction that would be forever repeated. If Leonard's short-term memory is broken, his long-term memory is dishonest, an unpleasant insight considering that this is probably a universal fact that involves all of us.
In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer examines Marcel Proust – among other modernists – and how the French author grappled onto the unreliability of memory in In Search of Lost Time long before neuroscience caught up. Lehrer mentions how Freud was, by accident, the first scientist to document memory's malleability at roughly the same time Proust was writing, though the famed psychologist dismissed his findings. "In the course of his psychotherapy," Lehrer writes of Freud, "he dealt with a staggering number of women who traced their nervous hysteria back to sexual abuse in their childhood. To explain their confessions, Freud was forced to confront two equally dismaying scenarios. Either the women were lying, or sexual molestation was disturbingly common in bourgeois Vienna….The psychotherapist would never discover what really happened, for the moment the women 'remembered' their sexual abuse, they also created sincere memories. Even if their tales of abuse were fabrications, the women weren't technically lying, since they believed every word of it. Our recollections are cynical things, designed by the brain to always feel true, regardless of whether or not they actually occurred." In Memento, Leonard is not a liar, and does not feel that he is delusional, but he suffered a trauma that has rendered him helpless against the adaptive measures of his mind. To point out to him that his memories do not check out with an objective measure of Reality will only incur his wrath. He is almost religious to his system of constructing reality, and like a zealot he will become violently frustrated if that faith is jeopardized. An unquestioned devotion to his ignorance is his bliss, the tattoos on his body being his stigmata as he rewrites, directs, and acts in his drama. Memento is a tragedy of subjectivity, and the moment after Leonard is smashed on the head in his bathroom and lies bleeding as his wife's seemingly lifeless body stares back at him, blood beginning to spread across the tile, the camera begins to pull back creating an image that deliberately alludes to the famous bathroom moment in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, where the camera began on Janet Leigh's lifeless eye and slowly pulled back to show her dead face, a protagonist's subjectivity – and audience's agency – stolen unexpectedly as we moved uncomfortably with too much grace into the mind of Norman Bates. Psycho was a critique on subjectivity in cinema, and a critique on its audience; Memento is much more than a "gotcha twist" film and presumes to enter the same arena of audience engagement, a seed sewn that would bloom into the entire structure of Inception nearly 10 years later.
After Memento, Nolan readied himself for mainstream Hollywood financing, albeit with material that would allow him to explore the ideas that interested him with an auspicial clout (embodied by producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney) enabling his work to be nevertheless uncompromising when compared to the bulk of big studio manufacturing. Insomnia (2002) is an example of an American remake that is on equal footing to the foreign-language (Norwegian) film that preceded it (released in 1998). Working from a script by Hillary Seitz and suggested to Warner Bros. by executive producers Soderbergh and Clooney, Nolan, in being hired to direct Insomnia, brought along several of his small-budget collaborators from Memento, setting up a kind of compacted and consistent mini-production company of artisans aiding him in constructing a consonant oeuvre as a singular film artist: cinematographer Wally Pfister, producer Emma Thomas, and musician David Julyan, in addition to beginning a fruitful relationship with production designer Nathan Crowley. A marvelously well-acted and designed genre thriller about a highly regarded Los Angeles detective named Will Dormer (Al Pacino) sent to Alaska in search for the killer of a teenage girl, Insomnia is less interested in tired crime drama norms as it is focused on the plague of memory and guilt. Dormer, who is already under investigation by Internal Affairs, accidentally shoots his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) in a foggy haze while pursuing a suspect. The blame for the shooting is pinned on the escaped suspect, while Dormer, who had reason to silence Hap being that his partner was talking with an Internal Affairs administrator interested in Dormer, works to cover up his own guilt by tampering with forensics. There are two problems: for one, the suspect, a bad mystery writer named Walter Finch (Robin Williams), saw the shooting as it happened; for another, Dormer finds that he cannot go to sleep, something not helped by the fact that in northern Alaska at this time of year the sun never sets. Time has lost its meaning and nothing is hidden in the 24-hour full light of day. Insomnia becomes a strange film noir in reverse, the dark corruption of the old noir (black) world replaced by the uniquely more unsettling transparence of how everything is seen.
Dormer then becomes a curious double for Leonard in Nolan's filmic universe, a man also burdened by mind and memory, though for different reasons. Instead of being unable to remember, Dormer's problem is that he cannot forget, which sets into motion a series of errors that will imprison him; in contrast. Impulse and emotion, in both cases, lead to gross misunderstanding; just as Leonard inadvertently kills Teddy because his anger allows him to set Teddy up (a motivation that will be conveniently forgotten), Dormer admits that he is not sure if his shooting of Hap was accidental, considering his unconscious drives would have been adequately motivated. A smart cop of impeccable reputation, Dormer understands that it's the areas between the cracks where mysteries are solved and human nature reveals itself. Upon arriving in Alaska, the local investigators keep referring him to "the report" on the victim, though he knows that the way he can scent out his quarry is through intimate contact with the dead girl's corpse. It's through this method of hands-on investigating that Dormer is able to understand that the killer was someone who knew the girl, as after killing her, the killer was probably very gentle with the body. "He cut her nails," he observes, and is then able to deduce that whoever did it had probably never killed before, but "he crossed the line and he didn't even blink. You don't come back from that."
Dormer's understanding that the killer will inevitably strike applies to his own introspection. The first images of Inception are enigmatic, which we can at last recognize as blood being applied to cloth. It's revealed that this has nothing to do with the dead girl's murder – which midway through Insomnia becomes something of a Macguffin as Dormer's struggle becomes gradually more internal – but is a flashback of Dormer tainting evidence from an old case involving a child rapist whom he knows was guilty, but there was a lack of concrete evidence. Dormer's intuition of human nature, of guilt ("That's what I do, I assign guilt") does not measure up to the demands of paperwork, of the official, unless he can tamper with the visible materials. We realize that this was hardly a one-time affair, and that Dormer, who is so hands-on as an investigator, needs to be corrupt in order to catch the bad guys; in fact, all detectives do, seeing how Will believes bureaucracy protects criminals in the guarded cloak of language. But one taint leads to another taint, leads to a whole trail of taints, which lead – in Dormer's case (much like Leonard in Memento) – to his downfall.
Again, the paradox between an invisible actuality that existed in time but has evaporated into the past, and a controlled "reality" penciled in by documents, forensic evidence, and mementos, is addressed. Real Truth is inscrutable when compared to a "public record." "Will, is that what happened?" the sheriff (Paul Dooley) asks, after preparing a written account of how the suspect killed Hap. The realities of the incident are relegated to paper, to the neat scripting with words that can be structured in such a way to alter reality. "Write it up," the sheriff says, "It doesn't have to be Shakespeare. Just enough to fry the son of a bitch for a few seconds longer." Of course, the strange and dark twisted truth of the moment is still in Dormer's mind; he cannot sleep as he lives in bad faith. We notice how he focuses on a pencil, rolling it beneath his hand as he calls Hap's wife to tell her that her husband has been killed. Lying to her about who killed Hap is hard enough, but she then asks if her husband suffered or said anything. We know, as seers, just as Dormer knows, that Hap was in quite a lot of pain, and that Hap's last thoughts and words were directed at Dormer, as he believed he was intentionally shot by his partner. "No," Dormer answers the wife.
The lies of Will Dormer are ultimately harmless, aren't they? The truth as it was seen only exists in the ephemeral minds of two living people, himself and the killer, Finch. Finch actually calls Dormer and asks to meet, so that they may come to an arrangement. "We're the same," Finch insists. In response, Dormer does not deny killing his partner, but still distances himself from the man he calls a "lousy writer, lonely freak, murderer." Finch only gets closer to Dormer. "Killing changes you," Finch says. "It's not guilt. It's an awareness. Life is so important so how can it be so fucking fragile?" Conscious or unconscious of whether he meant to kill Hap, Dormer and Finch become doubles. When we first see Finch on screen, Nolan cuts away from Dormer's point-of-view after he has snuck through Finch's apartment, and then focuses on Finch standing outside with a grocery bag. Awareness and subjectivity, which is usually compartmentalized in genre films of cop and criminal, is shared here. In the omniscient eye of the film, Dormer and Finch are indeed the same. Their doubleness continues as they privately negotiate, scripting the reality of the dead girl's bludgeoning so that they can get away with their crimes and so the truth will never be revealed. As Dormer tampers with forensic evidence and oversees paperwork, Finch feeds the police information that would make the whole crime and its investigation seem like the kind of hackneyed generic plot found in one of his trashy dime novels (saying cheesy lines like, "The thing that got to her was the gun"), the murder ultimately to be pinned on the girl's violent boyfriend. To keep Dormer in line, Finch even has a "wildcard": a taped conversation of them talking about their crimes.
A troubling aspect of Insomnia is how the Justice of the Law and the Justice of Daily Ethical Life are not necessarily the same. Dormer is wrong to do what he is doing, and we sympathize with him, but all of his corruption is there for the right reasons. The Internal Affairs officer he talks with on the phone is right about Dormer’s corruption, but Dormer is also "right" when he attacks him verbally: "Don't presume to know what happened. You weren't here. But then again you never are, are you? You're always sitting safe behind your fucking desk reading some bullshit report. And that is why I have nothing but contempt for you." A false, virtual character devoted to paper, such as found in a theatrical politician who is grandstanding and aiming to take Dormer down for selfish career-oriented reasons, is less admirable than a hard working detective who has to play with recorded reality in order to maintain justice, regardless of the ethical quandary (this is another huge theme in Nolan, seen most explicitly in The Dark Knight), so we the audience are caught up in this paradox too. "The ends justify the means, right?" Dormer asks a hotel worker (Maura Tierney) in confidence. She replies, "I guess it's about how you felt at the time, and what you're willing to live with." Does time wipe away a guilty conscience? Apparently not. In Nolan's cinema – which is filled with clocks – the past in the characters' minds is always hurrying up behind them, appearing in sharp and loud flash cuts: we see this in Memento when Leonard rushes into his bathroom to rescue his wife, in Insomnia with quick cuts to the girl's murder and Hap's murder, and we will see it in Batman Begins as Bruce Wayne is tormented by both the childhood terror of being attacked by bats, and the trauma caused by seeing his parents killed. And then finally in Inception, with Cobb's mental frenzy, haunted by the memory of Mal and his two children.
Tormented by too much light and too many sleepless nights (as if he were existing, like Leonard, in a hellbound perpetual present), Dormer gives up. He won't send the boyfriend to jail and will tell the whole truth. "You're too wrapped up in the details," Finch protests, trying to keep their alliance of silence intact. "He's innocent," Dormer says of the boyfriend. "No he isn't, he beat Kay." "You're a liar and a killer. You're tainted forever. You don't get to pick when to tell the truth. The truth is beyond that. The tape is the only physical proof you and I ever had a conversation." But Finch addresses the even keel of the situation in this carefully scripted scenario, where the genuinely bad guy who was always a bad guy (the abusive boyfriend) is going to prison, the honorable cop gets to go home, and the pathetic one-time murderous writer gets to continue writing. "But everything is as it should be!"
Another theme that will be more transparent in Batman Begins emerges: is Justice simply Balance? Or is there more to the sense of a feeling and nuanced human being taking the fates of other sentient beings into account? Dormer is corrupt, but he is not at all evil. Insomnia itself seems to recall at times Orson Welles' great noir (and considered by some the last of the classic film noirs) Touch of Evil, where Welles' Hank Quinlan, a reputable cop, is also guilty of planting evidence to catch criminals. It's that touch of evil, ultimately, that separates Quinlan, at the end of his life, from his younger and more noble self, and what separates a character like Dormer from Finch, whose death – after he and Dormer shoot each other at the same time – evokes Quinlan's, as they both plummet in deep water looking up dreamily at their shooter. As Dormer lies dying on a dock, the Alaskan cop Ellie (Hillary Swank), who used to idolize him but now has uncovered his guilt and culpability by virtue of her own sight and intuition ("She's got sharp eyes, eh?" Dormer says of her earlier), offers to throw away all the evidence that would incriminate him. "Nobody needs to know," she tells him. He stops her from throwing away the bullet of proof. "Don't lose your way," he says, and with his mind at rest and life slipping away, he closes his eyes to sleep and dies relieved.
Perhaps undervalued at the time of its release, Insomnia evokes the great dour American cinema of the early 1970s, just as it does Hitchcock and classic film noir. It may be Al Pacino's last great theatrical screen performance (not including his work in HBO television productions like Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack), playing the kind of character that epitomized his best roles from 30 years before, subtle and unshowy, tortured, always cerebral, and completely aware of a world closing in on him. The film itself is about bureaucracy and detection, but is committed to the display of a landscape's wide spaces that seems as chiseled and unruly as the minds it portrays in shaky close-ups. It was understandably under-evaluated by intelligent critics, given how it was an acquired studio project for Nolan, a remake of an equally superb foreign film, and too "linear" for indie cult fans of Memento. But its harsh vistas of icy mountains, rocky cliffs and saturated greens in the Northern woods seem to flow right into the beginning of Nolan's most mainstream, and most unexpected acquired assignment, Batman Begins, where a fashionably "smart" independent filmmaker had jumped into the command of a summer franchise that was left for dead eight years before, in 1997, with Joel Schulmacher's Batman and Robin. Nolan retained his crew of technical collaborators and brought a brand new sense to a comic book movie, very distant from the often interesting Wagnerian Gothicism of Tim Burton's films, or the spectacle-laden campy gloss of Schulmacher's travesties. Batman Begins is an amalgamation of the gritty noir naturalism found in Insomnia, and dystopian urban science fiction, the latter trait evoking some of Nolan's lasting influences, such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). And though Batman Begins is a mainstream summer action movie with the kinds of all-too familiar tropes and winks that an escapist mass audience is looking for (it is one of the most unexpectedly purely entertaining films one can imagine, quite a ways from the cerebral mind-bending maze of Inception or even the borderline nihilism of The Dark Knight), its central ideas are purely related to the themes Christopher Nolan explored in his first three films.
Batman Begins is a super-hero story about neurosis, about how signs and symbols trump the reality of a moment or the objective nature of a being, about how systems create people and determine their actions. Playing for a PG-13 audience, Nolan is forced to address the consoling illusions of mass appeal, as a pessimistic and deterministic Hobbesian view of the universe is at war with an arguably less honest but more endearing one believing that Truth and Justice can exist on the same page. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a walking neurotic, a billionaire son (not too unlike the protagonist of Metropolis) who takes it upon himself to defend the defenseless. At age 11, Criminals murdered his parents just outside of an opera house. He blames himself because he insisted to his father, the architect of revolutionizing Gotham City's rail system, that they leave the opera mid-way through, as the dark bat-like imagery in the opera's production design reminds him of a recent traumatic experience of falling into a cave and being swarmed by multitudes of bats. He deduces thus, his own fear killed his parents and made him an orphan.
Analyzing the circumstances of Bruce's neurosis, we should note a crucial allusion, which may apply to much of Nolan's work as a kind of perennial mythic framing for where his characters are coming from within his own imagination: the Faust legend. The opera that the Waynes see just before they are assaulted is Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (Mephistopheles), based on Goethe's Faust, the play/poem about a German alchemist who trades his soul to Mephistophes for youth, knowledge, power, and the ability to control the signs of his secret art. The toiling alchemist of the first scenes in Goethe's drama is replaced with a new Self of revitalized awareness, though his new power carries the price of being alone and never being able to have a fulfilling relationship with others. A quick and generalized survey of Nolan's seven films reveals an array of Faustian-Mephisto style relationships, of temptation leading to newly acquired secret powers that can only result in ruin: Bill and Cobb in Following; Leonard and Teddy in Memento; Dormer and Finch in Insomnia; Bruce Wayne/Batman and Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins; Danton/Angier and the Bordens to each other (and both to the Mephisto-like Tesla) in The Prestige; Bruce Wayne/Batman and Harvey Dent to the Joker in The Dark Knight; and Robert Fischer and Dom Cobb to, well, probably Dom Cobb (and everyone else, given the almost infinitude of mirrors) in Inception. And also like Faust, there is the woman, Gretchen, who is lost and dies because of the Faustian hero's obsession: the Blonde in Following; Leonard's wife in Memento; Hap and the dead girl in Insomnia; all the women in The Prestige; Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight; and Mal in Inception.
The Faust myth is the framework for Nolan's grand master narrative, and Batman Begins, with the scene from Brocken Mountain in the opera with its bat-winged demonic specters as part of the costumed set, literalizes this sense. Bruce flashbacks to the opera, as he is tutored in the present by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), making it clear that the older sensei here, a representative for something known as the League of Shadows, is acting as a Mephistophelean enabler for the protagonist seeking flight from his anxieties and turmoil. We observe that as Bruce grew older, his mourning for his parents only was more affecting. Ducard identifies with Bruce, and his words evoke the sorrow of Leonard Shelby: "You wish that the person you loved had never existed, so you'd be spared your pain." The pain of being alive disables the ability for an individual to grow; Ducard offers a path to fighting injustice through strict discipline and mastery over both space and one's own psychology. It's probably no accident that Neeson's physical appearance seems oddly like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who similarly prepared the way for the "over-man," the lone and rare individual able to go under within himself in order to over-come his weaknesses, his human-ness. Ducard says to Bruce that he must make himself "more than just a man." He must become a symbol, "become a destiny" to use Nietzsche's own words, staring into the abyss of un-meaning as it glares back, and accepting it, adopting its fears and demonic semblances as one's own mask, a fusion of self into symbol. The final step for Ducard, as it was for Nietzsche, was the individual's need to conquer Pity. "Your compassion is a weakness that your enemies will not share!" Ducard instructs. Bruce will graduate to the League of Shadows by beheading a helpless thief who must be punished. But Bruce pities the cowering man, understanding from his youth and observations of Gotham City that economics and systems are instrumental in determining a person's actions, particularly petty thievery. The League disagrees.
Bruce Wayne flees the League of Shadows, burning the castle to the ground while saving Ducard's life. He goes back to Gotham to become the idea of being "more than a man." "As a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting," Bruce says to his other mentor, the kindly butler Alfred (Michael Caine), who has a far more humanistic, and we must note perhaps willfully – but lovingly – dishonest view of the world. Alfred tries to console Bruce by telling him that the man responsible for Bruce's parents' deaths was the criminal shooter, "and he alone." But we know better, from Insomnia, that such an assignment of guilt is not necessarily so easy (Dormer says after Hap has been shot, regarding the trouble in Alaska, "Everything that happened is the fault of one man, and one man only. That's the man who beat Kay Connell to death." Criminals are convenient for pinning all of our troubles to make things, as Finch says, "as it should be.") Of course, on a linear/rational line of causality, young Bruce Wayne is responsible for leading his parents outside the opera at such a moment that an armed gunman would be outside looking for prey; and the acquisition of the neurosis that would lead him to do that (fear of bats) was not an accident either, but a result of young Bruce stealing a recently dug-up arrowhead from his playmate – and future love – Rachel Dawes, and running away from her until he falls into the deep well where the bats are waiting. Alfred's words are consoling – but even if they are true they are not necessarily factual in a material universe (the kind of universe that Ducard has taught Bruce in which to exist and master).
Bruce Wayne conquers his fear and merges with his personal archetype of fear, the bat, hence becoming "The Batman." "Theatricality and deception are powerful weapons, Alfred," Bruce tells the skeptical and weary butler, and he is right. Bruce Wayne has become a theatrical performer, a self-scripting destiny managing the drama of Gotham City, just like the bat-creatures in the fearful Faustian opera. After all, the Nolan motif is repeated, Ideas, Symbols, Signs, Projections, etc. are much more important than the interior motivations of complex People. Human beings are always projecting outward signs of themselves, and this determines how they are able to control their reality, as individuals process other individuals, whether that person is George W. Bush (who presented a certain kind of Sign to a segment of the population), the Ayatollah Khomeini (who projected quite another), or Muhammad Ali (a master of another set of signs). "It's not who you are underneath," the grown-up Rachel (Katie Holmes) tells Bruce (whose billionaire playboy image projects another Sign), "it's what you do that defines you." This runs in opposition to what we know about the complexities of modern psychology and neuroscience, to say nothing of existentialist literature; Nolan understands this, and has created perhaps the most psychologically complex set of characters in any big budget Hollywood franchise, but like his cinematic hero Michael Mann (whose Ali and Public Enemies deal with this theme greatly), Nolan understands that the judgment of an individual and his legacy depends on how he is able to project and communicate his theatrical sense of self in a social space, a melancholy truth that can work both positively and negatively for social change. The paradox of Batman is that in order to save Gotham – and himself – Bruce Wayne must be the Batman; yet to be the Batman means that he will always be isolated and estranged from close human contact and peace of mind. The principle fear, identified by Alfred, is that Bruce – like a schizophrenic – is in danger of being swallowed by the Shadow self with which he has identified. "You'll get lost inside that monster of yours," he warns, adding that Bruce should focus on the other Social Mask, the heir to Wayne Industries: "You have a name to live up to." Titles and signs are much more important than motivations.
The Batman's double and nemesis at this point in time is Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychologist who runs Arkham Asylum. Crane is in the pocket of the local mob boss, Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and frequently declares criminals insane and unfit for prison. But he also is working for the League of Shadows, preparing to release a strange hallucinogen on Gotham City that will corrupt the inhabitants' minds and distort their surroundings into objects of private anxiety. Appropriately for a Christopher Nolan film, a terrorist attack in his first comic book saga is a terrorist attack of the human mind and the impact of the mind's distortions, not bombs. Crane has his own archetypal projection of fear with which he has assimilated. He is the Scarecrow, putting on his mask while he sprays the fear-inducing toxin into the face of his prey. "In here," Crane/Scarecrow speaks of the asylum, "only the mind can grant you power." The Mind is the master controller for any individual's sense of the world, holding precedent over the body (another theme to be verbally recalled later in Inception). Thus the virtual and unreal elements constructed by the machinations of the Mind are detrimental to one's sense of Reality.
Bruce is able to develop a vaccine to Crane's gas, allowing him to get an upper hand over his rival and interrogate him, which not only makes Crane disclose secret information (the fact that the League of Shadows and "Ra’s al Ghul" are his employers), but also completely crushes his sense of ego. Crane, in a fit of paralyzing fear after being injected with his own poison, shuts down and resorts to becoming a machine, his humanness destroyed: "If you'd like to leave a message for Dr. Crane, please wait for the beep." Any idea of our social "identity" is a construct, a performance, a skin and mask held over the primal mechanisms of fear and desire dwelling underneath.
The plasticity of Self, in addition to the importance of a Sign over grounded human integrity, reveals itself as the confrontation between Bruce and Ra’s al Ghul begins. It turns out that Ra’s al Ghul has been Ducard all along, and he has survived his wounds and come to Gotham in order to destroy it, the reason being that it is the most corrupt and ignoble city in the world, a cesspool of decadence. Ghul points out to Bruce that the name "Ra’s al Ghul" in its symbolic weight is much more important than the human face attached to it (Ken Watanabe played the decoy Ra’s al Ghul in the early scenes, perishing in the fire). "Ra’s al Ghul" has existed for centuries, sacking Rome, burning London, and is now preparing to wreak insanity loose on Gotham. Bruce is game to play along with the theatricality of masks, pretending to be drunk for his birthday dinner guests and telling them, "two-faced sycophantic suck-ups," to please leave him alone. He is willingly sacrificing the dignity of his name as a Wayne ("Mr. Wayne – the apple has fallen very far from the tree," an old associate of his father says, shaming Bruce) in order to save lives.
Ra’s al Ghul implores to Batman/Bruce that this nihilistic path is the only path to a new creation, to cleansing, as "Justice is Balance." Compassion is Irrational. And yet, for Nolan (and this will be more fully dealt with in The Dark Knight), altruism is an essential part of human psychology that has little to do with reason. The Batman is able to save Gotham City from the League of Shadows, allowing his mansion to burn to the ground and his father's city-wide connecting train system to derail. But the resolution has pitfalls. Rachel cannot see Bruce as anything but a neurotic tied into the dark but necessary Jungian archetype that haunts him; the spectacle that he made of himself at his party in order to save his guests has only made him more infamous, and something of a journalistic joke; and finally, any comic book hero is not unlike Leonard Shelby, being that there will always be another villain, and thus another repeated adventure, never ceasing, eternally recurring. His law-abiding secret partner, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), the one reliable cop in Gotham, shares with him a conspicuous "Sign" found at some recent highline robberies: a Joker card. "This guy also has a thing for the theatrical," Gordon says. The sci-fi metropolis of Nolan's Gotham City is a depressed wasteland where people are oversaturated in symbols, victims to their undisciplined psychologies, and, like the audience, enthralled onlookers of a smoky and elaborate stage where the mythic archetypes duke it out, the humans underneath the personas suffering and being insignificant.
The success of Batman Begins allowed Nolan to work on more personalized and darker material that would not be as easily accessible as his comic book vision was. He cashed in his chips with The Prestige (2006), perhaps his most interesting work, which was met with much critical indifference upon its autumn release. Based on a novel by Christopher Priest and set in turn-of-the-century Victorian London with some scenes in the mountains of Colorado, The Prestige is strikingly unique as a period film with far more psychological complexity than the most high-faluting speciality-house cinema treats for arts and croissants-type moviegoers. With its hand-held cameras and emotional performances by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as dueling theatrical magicians (continuing the motif of "performance" in his body of work), The Prestige stands out from the more accommodating leisure of period films that have populated screens since the success of Merchant Ivory and Miramax Films beginning in the late 1980s. Returning to Memento's non-linear structure of story-telling, with a plethora of mirrors and doubles that will anticipate the even-more mind-blowing complexity of Inception, The Prestige benefits exponentially from repeat viewings, not because of its "gotcha" twists, but for its resonances on human obsession and showmanship. In addition to uniqueness of structure, The Prestige continues Memento's – while anticipating Inception's --
interrogation of an audience that likes to fool itself.
After the opening mysterious image of a collection of hats lying in the woods, the elder character Mr. Cutter (Michael Caine) explains the process of a magic trick, which is constructed of three parts: the Pledge, where the magician shows you something ordinary; the Turn, where the magician takes the ordinary object and makes it extraordinary; and finally, the Prestige, where the trick is completed, with normality re-established and the ordinary object back in place – though the mystery of its extraordinary nature still in place. "You want to be fooled," Cutter informs us. This is more than an address to a group of onlookers during a magician's performance, but relates to us as an audience, and to the audience as human beings in the real world, once again brining us back to the tragic theme of Leonard Shelby in Memento.
The Prestige is about two magicians, the American, Angier (Jackman), and the working class Londoner, Borden (Bale). The two were apprentices working in collaboration, learning the secrets of the previous generation. Angier focused on the theatricality of performance, the importance of spectacle; Borden, meanwhile, points out the importance of the magician's commitment where he takes that theatricality home with him. Angier thinks on the exterior, Borden on the interior. Angier seems to be the more socially ambitious and thirsty for power, while Borden is the more precocious one. Their relationship begins to disintegrate when Angier's wife is unable to complete a disappearing trick in a vat of water, probably because of the knot Borden tied around her hands. Borden had prior been warned by Cutter about tying such a knot, but even Borden is not sure of what knot he made; his guilt or estrangement from guilt is comparable to Will Dormer's confusion about whether he meant to kill Hap in Insomnia or not. When Angier angrily demands to know which knot he died, Borden can only admit, "I can't remember."
The two become independent performers adopting alternative theatrical masks. Angier is The Great Danton, a name suggested by his late wife (and thus a memento of sorts, which is why he will not drop it even though Cutter thinks it is a silly name), while Borden is the more working class character of The Professor. Angier's reason for taking on the alternative name has to do with his family: "I promised my family I wouldn't embarrass them with my theatrical endeavors." Angier wants to create a new self, a new persona distant from his perhaps humble origins. When told the name "Great Danton" is "old fashioned," he retorts, "No. It's sophisticated." He's a paradoxical character, creating a new self while also hanging onto his past, as he dwells morbidly on his dead wife, whose death sparks his competition with Borden and thus his obsession with absolute mastery as a showman/magician.
But family means something in the context of this film. Borden flirts with a girl while performing a disappearing bird trick for her young brother. What the audience does not know is that the trick requires the first bird (the pledge) to be crushed to death, while a sibling bird (the prestige) replaces it after it disappears (the turn). But the little boy knows something is wrong when the bird disappears. "Where's his brother?" the boy cries when Borden shows the prestige bird. This moves Borden, because the trick of the transported bird requires real flesh to be destroyed, while a sibling bird must replace it. This is the dark secret. But it also informs that which will become Borden's trademark trick, the Transported Man, a seemingly impossible illusion that troubles Danton/Angier to no end.
While the two men do battle, interrupting the other's tricks in order to ruin them (Angier shoots off two of Borden's fingers during a “Magic Bullet” trick; Borden ensures that Angier visibly kills a bird on stage during a Transported Bird performance), we again notice Nolan's focus on memory and consciousness. The original quandary of the knot troubles Angier: "He must know what knot he tied." But memory, diaries, records, and truth can bring us no closer to the past, in spite of whatever clues they offer. Through elaborate cross-cutting over various time periods, we learn about the characters as they read each other's diaries, the diary being read for us the audience actually recording another diary being read. Both men ultimately have a plethora of identities, which are chosen to deceive and fool the reader of recorded history. The "Secret Truth" remains elusive. Everything, even history, is a trick
Danton's obsession to know the trick of Borden's Transported Man (where Borden is able to disappear at one side of a stage and instantly appear at the other) leads him to retrace his rival's footsteps. He discovers that Borden visited the famed scientist Tesla, an inventor who may have helped Borden acquire a kind of apparatus to complete the Transported Man. Upon arriving in Tesla's hometown in Colorado, Danton is struck by what he feels is real magic – the whole city is lit by electricity, with bulbs placed in the snow being lit without wires. A new kind of binary is addressed in Nolan's body of work, which connects to the beginning of this essay – the Magician, who deals in tricks, and the Wizard, who is able to create out of nothing. The coming age of electricity, mass electricity, is for Danton an age of real magic, and the fact that this is a movie about trickery that employs plenty of sight tricks in order to fool and suture us into a narrative is an additional irony about the story's context. Cinema was becoming real in the late 1890s, where screens and electronic projections showed worlds apparently created out of nothing, giving The Prestige a sense not unlike that found in Coppola's Dracula, a film set during the same time period and filled with similar naïve in-camera special effects, which in 1992 was a conscious form of cinematic illusion that contrasted to the computer graphics that James Cameron's Terminator 2 employed and made popular in 1991. Cinema artists nowadays are Wizards, not Magicians who "get their hands dirty" – another line found in Insomnia. Cutter insists, "You have to get your hands dirty is you're going to achieve the impossible." But Danton does not believe this is necessary; he is eager to make his own Faustian pact with Tesla, who will build him a machine to help him become a "Real" Transported Man.
Danton meets with Tesla (played by the Man Who Fell to Earth, a man who came out of nothing, David Bowie – who also has a myriad of masks as a pop musician), who tells the magician, after Danton asks for help in achieving the impossible, "You have heard the phrase 'man's reach exceeds his grasp'? Is wrong. Man's grasp exceeds his nerve. Society only tolerates one change at a time. The first time I tried to change the world, I was hailed as a visionary. Second time – I was asked politely to retire. Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive," this last line being another self-conscious remark regarding special effects in cinema. But Tesla is dubious, and he knows the power of the mind. "I can recognize an obsession," he says to Angier. Tesla himself admits to being a slave to his own obsessions, "and one day they will choose to destroy me." That is to say, the elements of a man's mind do not belong to the man, but in fact control the man while holding his fate in the balance. There is no choice for these characters, regardless of their will, talent, or intelligence. Free will is itself an illusion, hardly a reassuring thought for a modern humanist.
As Tesla begins constructing a "machine" for Angier, the Great Danton goes back on stage with a theatrical double, a drunk actor (also played by Jackman). Angier wows his crowd, but has little control over his double, too prone to recklessness and alcohol. "I don't need him to be my brother. I need him to be me." An illusory trick is inadequate for Angier, and his theory of lacking control is right. Borden is able to deceive Angier’s double, which ruins a Great Danton show and possibly Angier’s reputation.
Tesla finishes the machine just as he flees Colorado (his own feud with Thomas Edison is kind of a mirror of feuding craftsmen). The "box," as it is called, is a machine (a computer?) able to clone whomever goes inside of it, though one is not sure which of the two beings that come out is the original. Danton/Angier is the world's first digital performer, able to infinitely clone himself out of nothing like modern CGI artists, inducing awe in his audience as he achieves the impossible, while secretly ensuring that one of the two clones that emerges from the box is killed by method of drowning (To console Angier regarding his wife's death, Cutter tells him that death by drowning is blissful, continuing the Nolan motif of dishonest reassurances – in more than one occasion verbalized by Sir Michael Caine!)
Angier frames Borden for his own murder at the conclusion of the Great Danton's 100th performance, after which Angier will retire into yet another identity as a respected aristocrat. Balance, for Angier, is restored as his wife's murder is avenged with Borden's hanging, but he doesn't anticipate the secret of Borden's Transported Man trick to make one more appearance (the prestige of the film's plot). It turns out that Borden's silent assistant throughout his whole career was in fact a twin brother, a double more similar than any actor, and more genuine than any digital recreation. Borden is the true magician, obsessed with his art to his own detriment, but committed to the performance of illusion off-stage as well as on, whereas Angier is a murderer with 100 corpses floating around him, clones of himself preserved in their disappearing tanks. Borden's victory is Pyrrhic, but it is nevertheless the re-establishment of family, of the solid world and bodies in communication producing something magical (the same way Tesla demonstrates how bodies together conduct electricity). Angier's justification as he dies (after Borden has shot him), sounds not unlike a contemporary graphic designer or video game addict, or 3D cinema enthusiast: "The world is miserable. Simple. Solid all the way through. But if you can fool them, then you can make them wonder. Then you got to see something very special." The Wizard looking for ways to make the world more interesting is not unlike the Platonist or Christian pining for a world of Ideal Forms and Heavenly bodies floating above a debased earth – men and women losing their direction as they are swallowed by the archetypes they have concretized, submitting to Ideas when they should be looking for love embodied in flesh and blood.
A sequel to Batman Begins that seems strangely removed from the first film, thus being able to stand independently as a significant work on its own, The Dark Knight suspends the Metropolis-inspired overt futurism in its visualization of Gotham City for a less opaque futurism reminiscent of cyberspace noir in Information Age art. Gotham is able to exist as the contemporary Chicago where it was shot, with an occasional CGI touch-up here and there. In interviews, Nolan stated that the sense of Gotham City he wanted to give The Dark Knight derived from Michael Mann's 1995 crime epic Heat, the best genre film of its decade: a city of scattered citizens, anonymous lives unwittingly colliding, a metropolis of surveillance and videoscopy, cell phones and mass communications, where forces of justice and criminality collide while any meaningful symbolism is lost in the chaos of mechanical noise. The Dark Knight mirrors Heat aesthetically (the whole beginning bank robbery is based on Heat, the score even a blatant homage to the Kronos Quartet/electronic programming/layered guitars put together by Elliot Goldenthal for Mann's film), thematically, and also in terms of Christopher Nolan's construction of his legacy as a highly regarded director. In an article on Heat published in the March 1996 edition of Film Comment magazine, Richard Combs notes how Mann had become a kind of conglomerate industry-of-one filmmaker, the director who is not only a writer and conceptualist, but also a producer handling high level administrative duties, while creating expensive idiosyncratic art in a major corporation, something which connected Mann to his hero (and Nolan's), Stanley Kubrick. Combs noted how Mann even played some Ligeti music, a composer so vital to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, during a scene when Pacino's cop prepares to see De Niro's bank robber on an electronic surveillance camera image, and how the whole film felt like the cosmic sense of 2001 applied to the pulp material of Kubrick's first great film, The Killing (1956).
Mann and Nolan have a certain kinship in how they are both filmmakers with origins in both the United States and England. Nolan is from London, but also spent many formative years in Chicago. Mann is from Chicago, but learned filmmaking at London's International Film School. They are decidedly modernist in their approach to thematic material, while being surrounded by the more rococo post-modern cleverness found in their colleagues (Heat was released just after Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects; The Dark Knight was released soon after Iron Man, and Nolan’s contemporaries include the more hip and humorous tastes of Wes Anderson and David O. Russell). They are both obsessed with time, sign systems and mass communications, the pitfalls of linear contingencies (like Kubrick), the notion of the 'Double,’ the social truth of 'it's not who you are, it's what you do,' and in the way that they both return to their respective themes, very heavy-handedly, their respective oeuvres may be said to be, much like the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald for example, one basic narrative with different masks.
The technique of allusion is a tool that writers (James Joyce) and some filmmakers (Martin Scorsese) use not simply to homage another artist or work, but to texture their own work with a kind of dialectical meaning, connecting itself into the stream of that which influenced it, considering that no art is simply born out of a vacuum; we've already noticed how Nolan has given allusion to Psycho in Memento and to Touch of Evil in Insomnia in order to make those stories more meaningful, and this kind inspirational pathway of ideas will be a vital element to interpreting Inception, where Nolan’s playground of influence is on full display (Mann, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, George Lucas, James Bond). Heat seems to be one of the principle works of inspiration regarding Nolan's career (along with Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hitchcock, and Welles), and it may be no coincidence that Bill and the thief Cobb in Following have their first discussion of criminality over a cup of coffee, considering that Nolan's first film began production a year after Heat's release, and Cobb himself is not too different from Mann's master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro, in arguably his last great performance, and certainly one of his most subtle), a sociopath who takes other peoples' spaces and private areas for granted ("You want out, there's the door," Neil tells his girlfriend in her apartment). Going back to Heat's opening moments, we are introduced to Neil transparently melding into the crowd at a train station, dressed as an ambulance driver, attuned to remaining inconspicuous and not leaving a trace of himself. Like a ghost he is able to slip from one hyperreal environment (a train station) to another (a hospital), casually stealing an ambulance which will be used for a complex armored car heist. Before the robbery begins, each member of Neil's team puts on a hockey mask – some black, others white .
Mann's thieves, whether in Thief or Heat or Public Enemies, may be social criminals and ex-cons, even sociopaths (Mann says of them, "He cares about his kids, he doesn't care about your kids"), but they have a kind of fraternally structured morality, a camaraderie based on trust enabling them to act effectively. In The Dark Knight, this is the kind of criminal ethos that is collapsing with the Joker's arrival. The bank being robbed at the beginning of The Dark Knight is used by Gotham's gangsters for funneling their money; the bank manager (William Fichter) reminds this to the clown-faced thugs, while firing his shotgun at them. He mentions "Honor, loyalty," and he seems to represent the closet morality of criminals, an underworld conscience with a coherent structuralism. Appropriately, this group of masked thieves represents a "wildcard" with no moral code, trumping cohesiveness with anarchy. The perfection of the constructed plan, just as we would expect from Neil McCauley in terms of timing, is dependent on each criminal acting as a single mechanism within a larger structure; the joke is, this is dependent on an elimination of all relationship-based traces: they kill one another. The alarm guy is shot by the safe cracker. The safe cracker is shot by a coverage guy, who is then killed by the bus driver. The Joker kills the bus driver. There is a certain lack of identity here, as the masked criminals are clones of each other (The Prestige), with no common denominator or base, indicating that the Joker truly is a wild card worthy of his title. The reason why Heath Ledger's performance is so powerful is that Nolan has successfully executed a character who is more of a force than a person restricted by space or time; the Joker is not a body, but a panopticon, which makes him more fearsome because he can arrive at any moment at any time. With no ground concept of character or stable back-story, he has no identity, no morality, nothing. "What do you believe?" the bank manager demands to know. Nolan frames the Joker in a stunning close-up, removing the clown-mask with a burst of music: "I believe that whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stranger." The Joker disappears, much like Neil McCauley, driving the school bus into the simulacrum: other buses in front of and behind it, a hyperreal array of elements dissipating in the ether of urban living (evoking the end of Following when Cobb walks into the crowd of anonymous faces). That the Joker's face uttering absurdly cryptic credos should match the mask on top of it indicates that this character is not a Self with a genuine center and a past. His stories explaining the scars on his face, after all, contradict each other, making him not unlike another Mann criminal of the hyperreal, Collateral's "Vincent". This Joker is far removed from the Jack Napier of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, here having no explanation, existing in no geographic reality, with no motive. This only makes him more frightening.
This leads to the compelling juxtaposition between Batman and the Joker, both men wearing masks, and both men with moral cloudiness surrounding them. In Heat, Neil is devoted to keeping himself away from a stable "identity," having no mementos of symbolic value in his home (which is all white, reduced to basic, necessary furniture). This is disrupted by a love relationship with Eady (Amy Brennenman), a young graphic designer. It is through the television that Eady learns of Neil's true identity and occupation, indicating that the post-modern technological world in which this film takes place acts the prime indicator for truth in physical space (also observe the heat-seeking surveillance tools used by the police, as they spy on Neil at night). Neil's double is the obsessed cop in black, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who cannot sustain a meaningful relationship with anyone, including his current, and third, wife Justine (Diane Venora), as long as he is committed to his work. A master detective who intimidates snitches for information, Hanna can never "turn off," as his angst keeps him “sharp, on the edge, where I got to be." He has nothing to give his family once he comes home, and the only item of discourse that interests him is the small television in the kitchen. This television emerges as Hanna's own ironic link to intimacy, indicated by the hilariously disturbing scene where he discovers Justine's infidelity. He intimidates his wife's clueless lover Ralph like one of his informants. "You can borrow my wife if she wants you to, sit on her couch in her ex-husband's dead-tech post-modernistic bullshit house if she wants you to – but you do not – get – to watch – my FUCKING TELEVISION SET!" Hanna grabs the television and walks out.
McCauley and Hanna are the perfect marriage, and the most honest conversation between two characters in Heat transpires during their famous mid-movie cup of coffee, where their duel techniques of trying to intuit information about the other gives way to a discussion about dreams and private motivations. McCauley reminds Hanna that he will not be able to sustain a marriage if he continues to work as a detective, just as the Joker reminds Batman that the winged vigilante might as well give in to his freakishness: "You complete me." Bruce Wayne is not permitted to have his dreamed-for relationship of fulfillment with Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllanhall) or any sense of normalcy. The Batman needs the Joker, and the Joker needs the Batman.
The paths to freedom and fulfillment that McCauley and Hanna seek in Heat are obscured by their occupational personae – superhero or supervillain masks, signs and symbols that generate meaning to those interpreting the visual information. The final moments in Heat communicate this idea. The wonderfully spectral chase through LAX leads to an environment filled with technology, showcasing machines built solely for other machines. The passions of the two rival men are drowned by the booming airplanes above, Hanna having the drop on McCauley by locating his quarry's shadow. The dying McCauley holds Hanna's hand, and the two are framed in a wide-shot, with McCauley on the left with runway lights flashing behind him, indicating his need to constantly be in movement and always hiding, while Hanna is on the right, the city's buildings static behind him, positioning him (in a very Batman-like fashion) as a doomed administrating crime fighter. The two are opposites and paradoxical mirrors. The Dark Knight's relationship to Heat is based on the fatal dance between doubles/opposites that are microcosmic representations of a technologically advancing world disallowing individuals to realize any genuine and grounded sense of identity, technology being tied in with corporate structures, giving us a whiff of a cyber-noir literary motif, which will be in full bloom throughout Inception, just as it was in Mann’s film following Heat, The Insider (1999).
Attention to information technology is vital here. The era of Information, where everything is digitized, compresses space and time to the extent that the biological "meat-self" evaporates and becomes virtual. In The Dark Knight there is a confusion over the real and unreal, or hyperreal (the clone of what's real – though the real is nullified because there seems to be no point of origin), where meat-space, or real geography, is taken for granted; notice the gangster Maroni (Eric Roberts) and his flippancy after being threatened by Batman with a two-story fall. Batman reminds Maroni that this is his point, as the actuality of real space ensures that the gangster's ankles are broken, causing immense pain and reason for him to cooperate. The Joker, however, seems to transcend temporal and spatial boundaries, which is why he is such a horrifying villain. He is the walking panopticon, always seeing, always present, in any disguise or form, with no concrete origin and past (even gender, after we see him in a Nurse's uniform). He is a Baconian contradiction, a modern artwork of nihilism not existing in a real link-chain with other beings. The Joker wants Batman to give into the same virtual identity, to embrace "freak-ness" and place himself outside of morality’s circumscriptions. This is the Joker's challenge when he desires Batman to hit him with the bat-cycle, the hypothetical head-on collision being a confirmation of the Batman's neglect for appreciating the physical impact of real space. The Joker would fuse his rival with the deadness of just another digital movie effect of computer generated dead bodies without substance. The Mannian credo of "in the real world there are ramifications" applies here philosophically to how human beings interact with their environment, a kind of ground concept that the digital era of mass technology obscures, and something that is tangible when we compare the aesthetics of most summer action and franchise films to the sparseness of CGI found in The Dark Knight.
The Joker, representative of the Post-Human, seems to win. His evil plan literally evaporates Bruce Wayne's love, Rachel, into nothingness. In retaliation, Batman (who now has no limits) adopts an unethical technique of mass surveillance, utilizing a sonar system via cell phones, allowing him to completely master space by mapping the entire inhabitants of a geographical area. The cell phone, tool of disembodied information, is what separates us from the human world of honest relationships and communication. It is by these tools that the Joker finds his release from the confines of a jail cell. It is inexplicable how an inmate got a cell phone implanted within his flesh, which is triggered to explode by the Joker ("I want to make my phone call."), but the abstract meaning is clear: technology decimates the Real Body. We are all sonar in the anarchy given by the villain. Batman becomes the "dark knight,” someone morally or ethically ambiguous, committed to the designs of social structures more than to the integrity of the people he seeks to protect. The narrative of Gotham City, of "the happy ending,” is re-scripted by Batman and Commissioner Gordon, as Gotham's "white knight," Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a noble politician and DA corrupted by the Joker after Rachel's murder and his own disfigurement, has his recent vigilante and amoral history erased by the individuals (Batman, Gordon) able to handle the paperwork. His crimes will be pinned on Batman, and Gotham City will be able to endure because of the symbolism's consoling illusion. We are all prone to easy manipulation in this brave new world of mapped environments which eliminate private spaces and intuition. "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded," Batman remarks. This is reflected in the moment when Alfred decides to hide Rachel's final letter to Bruce, an item that contains hurtful – though true – words. The world is cruel and unfair, and in The Dark Knight the way individuals handle that cruelty, once it becomes visible, is by either embracing illusion, or embracing the nihilism of pure chance.
The Joker, hyperreal as he is, cannot be simplified into just being representative of the Post-Human. He is nihilism, he is rapid movement, he is dissolution. He is then not like the deluded Leonard in Memento or the tormented Dormer in Insomnia, given to the tragic flaw of relying on the rewriting of history. Rewriting and reframing things, the "official" sense of History, does not interest him. After all, one of the first heinous things we see the Joker do is making a pencil “disappear," standing it upright on a table, then grabbing a thug and presumably ramming his victim's eye directly into the writing utensil, killing him. It's a brilliant masterstroke for both Ledger and Nolan, shocking the audience and displaying the Joker's power while also communicating how the Joker recognizes that beneath all of the writing and mass-perception going on, there is nothingness (pencils and eyes are prominent Nolanian motifs). During the same scene, the Joker ridicules the false world of mass communications by pointing directly to the Hong Kong gangster on a television hook-up, identifying the gangster not by name (he’s not a person to the Joker), but simply as "the television set." The Joker understands the absurd echo-chamber of television and technology obscuring true human nature. He talks about the people of Gotham, "Their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve." Later on, he describes why his weapon of choice is a knife, as it does not kill his victims instantly. "In their last moments, people show you who they really are," he tells a police officer. "So, in a way, I knew your friends better than you ever did."
What's more troubling here is that we know that the Joker is probably right about human nature, or at least it makes more sense. We hear mantras, "Please don't lose your faith in people," which ring hollow when compared to the Joker's chaotic sagacity. Harvey "Two Face" Dent, after his disfiguring, completes the Joker's thesis. He reveals the ugly truth of human nature, the thing that beauty and performance cover up on a day-to-day basis with every single one of us, as we go to our jobs and seek advancement and love. It's significant that when the Joker confronts Dent in his hospital bed that we see the x-rays behind them, the transparency of human beings and their animal nature revealed. The Joker is critiquing the will of other people. "I just do. I'm like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one!" The Joker's modus operandi is to disrupt all masks of cohesiveness and order – making him not unlike Cobb in Following, who takes stability away from people in order to make them appreciate what they had. This also becomes interesting when we think about The Dark Knight in the context of post-9/11 Information Age cinema, expressing the anxieties and panic when a seemingly reliable and fail-safe technological system is disrupted by raw passion (the best examples being Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Martin Scorsese's The Departed). When things "according to plan" go wrong, people panic and don't know what to do (a character in The Departed is shot in the knee and cries out, "I'm supposed to go into shock! Why am I not going into shock! This fucking hurts!"), a feeling that has haunted the Western world with revelations of how willing large blocks of people in a democracy were to throw away civil liberties and embrace unethical investigative behavior in order to be safe and have revenge. The Joker is like the specter of 9/11, tricking us into embracing the Dark Side (to use Jane Mayer's phrase, which she got from Dick Cheney). "Madness, as you know, is like gravity," the Joker tells Batman, swinging upside down but framed by Nolan right-side-up. "All it takes is a little push!" Our systems of security are much more fragile than we could have believed, the capacious inner space and mazes of the human mind like an existential atomic dirty bomb shattering our sense of calm perspective.
However, the Joker does not foresee that his theatrical performance art will fail – and neither do we. The Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives. One ferry is filled with convicts on their way to prison; the other with normal, everyday people. Both ferries are given a detonating device and 15 minutes to blow up the other ship first. The Joker's view on human nature dictates that chaos and despair will win out over altruism and hope. After all, the everyday folks can easily justify convicts who've "had their chance" being blown up, while the convicts, most of whom are probably corrupt and the worst kind of human beings, would have no problem with taking the lives of innocent people.
But neither side blows the other up, and the reason is not necessarily Hollywood moviemaking, where the film is consoling its audience about human nature. Rather, what happens in The Dark Knight here may in fact be an accurate depiction of human nature from what we know of modern neuroscience regarding moral decisions, this insight giving another layer to the theatrical and illusory rewriting of history and incident (on Batman and Gordon's part, or on Alfred's part) performed in order to make life bearable. Hamlet, a play about plays and theatricality, after all is not about a character that loses his wits and has a crisis because he knows too much, but it is because he knows too well. Repression is necessary in order to make life bearable.
In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer points out, "When you are confronted with an ethical dilemma, the unconscious automatically generates an emotional reaction. Within a few milliseconds, the brain has made up its mind…These moral instincts aren't rational – they've never heard of Kant – but they are an essentially part of what keep us all from committing unspeakable crimes." For all of his grand-standing about chaos, the Joker's flaw is that he thinks rationally about human decision-making. He does not count on moral decisions themselves being the by-product of irrationality. "Moral decisions require taking other people into account….Doing the right thing means thinking about everybody else, using the emotional brain to mirror the emotions of strangers." Over millions of years, our morality evolved, and like most of our decision-making, it is informed by what is emotional, not linear or rational. Perhaps if the Joker simply gave the people on both boats a detonator and told them that in order to save their own lives they needed to push the button – and then neglected to tell them that anyone else would be killed – they would have no problem in pushing the button. Lehrer points out that during World War II, only 20% of troops said that they discharged their weapons, even while under attack. It was killing, rather than being killed, that clammed people up in the heat of the moment (which is why the military then actively engaged in more dehumanizing measures of training, beginning with Korea, and currently in full glow with the ubiquitous military videogame phenomenon). Lehrer's conclusion, based on the scientific data, points out that the reason for this irrational human sympathy and irrational altruism is rooted in the simple fact that it feels good. "The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable; being nice to others makes us feel nice." Lehrer points to a study of subjects who were both giving away and receiving money. "[Several] subjects showed more reward-related brain activity during acts of altruism than they did when they actually received cash rewards. From the perspective of the brain, it literally was better to give than to receive."
This is an optimistic note on the Mind within Nolan's body of work, where Mind has for the most part thus far been an impartial despot governing people tyrannically, imprisoning them in delusion and tormented consciousness. The Dark Knight was simultaneously the most pessimistic summer blockbuster ever released, and strangely also Nolan's most hopeful film, continuing his flurry of paradoxes. It also confirmed him, like his empire-unto-themselves forebears Kubrick and Mann, as a filmmaker who was more of a force than simply a talented director, giving him a lasting critical respect that would ensure that each subsequent release would be viewed with avid interest, and the kind of commercial success (over $1 billion worldwide) making him capable of creating personal visions on a grand scale. Inception, a film he conceived during production of Memento, was able to be finally born.
The first impression I had of Inception was expected admiration mixed with unexpected disappointment. It seemed like a very good film, certainly an amazing spectacle, but also somewhat exhausted, out of breath, and far from great. A second viewing has given me doubts of my primary impression, and I am fairly certain now that Nolan's suturing technique for large spectacle moviemaking is part of his trick. Inception digs into its audience on a feeling-level, resembling other action heist films in how it fools us into being sympathetic with its heroes, and then reassures us at the end with their success. To reiterate one of my primary points, if we were to take it at face value, Inception would be the most optimistic movie in Nolan's body of work; but upon revaluation, its "psychic" victories, where the main character of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) completes one last heist of mind invasion and also conquers the demons of his subconscious (personified in his dead wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard), should off the bat make us suspicious of what we see, which is why a prior knowledge of the rest of Nolan's work is probably essential to its understanding. Inception is difficult because it may be an insoluble maze, a paradox unto itself, an Escher painting of consciousness not unlike elements from other Nolan films, where down is up and up is down, truth is illusion, and illusion the only way to make life bearable. It demands more than one viewing, not simply for a viewer to mine its dense plot, but because the viewer, whose consciousness we've learned (from neuroscience) is always changing and malleable, will necessarily have a noticeably unique reaction upon every viewing. History, as with Memory, is always changing, and our reading of a film is no different. Inception may be a film of its time, a bleak mirror to its audience caught up in mass delusion and need to escape, as individuals suffer from Post-Partum Avatar Depression Syndrome, so enthralled were they by James Cameron's virtual computer-generated world of Pandora, and so utterly boring and solid is life outside the theater, removed from the screen and looking glass. Inception could simply be a comely heist film like Ocean's 11 or The Score, but then it wouldn't be a Christopher Nolan film. Our subjectivity as an audience is the thing undergoing inception – the implanting of an idea that will delude us – as we will neglect to see the suspicious things presented. Most depressingly, the film hints that, just as in The Dark Knight where exterior landscapes were mapped out by sonar, the seemingly more boundless world of the Mind and unconscious as revealed in Inception has also been mapped out to a certain deterministic physics of stable architecture. That Inception's dream-worlds do not measure up to the way David Lynch handles the unconscious/subconscious self in his masterpieces Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE, where things are completely ephemeral (though like Nolan, all is illusory, theatrical and cinematic – "There is no band!") may not necessarily be an inadequacy on Nolan's part. This is, again, a cyber fiction reminiscent of the literary work of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, portraying a world where human beings have become hollow, their mental processing more concretely linear as their technology has grown more powerful. The Minds being invaded and on display seem to have the personality of a computer, the femme fatale projection of "Mal" ("Evil") akin to a wandering virus shutting things down. After all, the glories of cinema have been overtaken by computers and graphic designers – why not our dreams then also? Nolan himself has admitted that the film is related to information age video game technology. "The geography of online video gaming has a lot to do with the approach I take to dreams in the film. In online gaming, you can have a shared, genuine, human interaction in a virtual space," he tells Amy Taubin in an interview.
"Ideas are the most resilient, highly contagious parasites, impossible to eradicate," Cobb tells the Energy Industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) early on, in a strange room where the lights above are reflected on the table below, giving a visually paradoxical effect of reflection, reality versus illusion, and generating the idea of "as above so below." "Your thoughts are vulnerable to theft." Cobb's amazing ability to get into a person's mind is reduced in this world to a late capitalist sales pitch. This whole introduction turns out to be a double con-job, however, as Saito's rival, Cobal Engineering, has hired Cobb and his team to extract vital ideas from Saito's mind, and Saito is merely rehearsing Cobb and his team to see how good they are for his own proposed heist.
The cosmic imagery of Inception stands in opposition to how we are to judge these characters, who are all working professionals and little else. A criticism of the film is that for a film about dreams, most of the characters in Inception seem to lack an inner life. Such may be – may be – the point. This world of corporate espionage where the criminals at hand seem lacking in relationships but are bountiful in tools and money is appropriate for the landscape of cyborgs found in other cyber/science fiction epics. This has frustrated many viewers and critics who criticize the film's lack of emotional resonances as opposed to its vast intellectual exhortations: Inception seems to be a film that is all mind and no heart.
But we're deceived too easily if we believe this is a flaw, for Nolan at least. When Fritz Lang made Metropolis in 1927 he still had a sense of socialist utopian optimism that would enable the Heart to actively mediate between the Hands and the Head. This was before Nazism and before Lang would escape to Hollywood, being swallowed within its system, creating iconic film noirs like The Big Heat (where the noble protagonist loses his wife due to the machinations of corrupt politicians) along the way, where morality and earnestness have dissolved in the post-War world. Though Star Wars has much emotional power to it, the vital character of Darth Vader, whom Joseph Campbell has called representative of all mechanized systems, is said to be "more machine now than man. Twisted and evil." 2001: A Space Odyssey has a certain coolness to it that audiences have complained about for decades, and yet that chilly sense of emotion is vital to Kubrick's vision; the human astronauts have to seem estranged from their naturalness, having become more mechanical and less "human" than the computer HAL, to say nothing of their ape ancestors. Michael Mann's heroes are also afflicted with a blankness, reflected in the production design of his films, such as Neil McCauley's domicile, and the safe houses of Crocket and Tubbs in Miami Vice, two more characters who because of the technological apparatus in which they work are denied an interior life (songs with titles like "Strict Machine", "Numb", and "Auto Rock" decorating the soundtrack behind them). The most impactful film on Inception may be Blade Runner, a film that flopped upon its original release and is now considered a classic, filled with provocative ideas about existence and consciousness. But even its admirers will admit its lack of "emotional depth." Considering it's a film about the manufacturing of cyborgs – "Replicants" – for manual labor, the lack of what we think of as "emotional closure" is essential to how we process the form and content of what we are seeing. By insisting that Inception is lacking emotion is to take for granted how the filmmaker is looking at his audience as something to be manipulated, and as we've seen, manipulation by what we are shown and how the strings of emotion can then be pulled is an essential component to how we collectively analyze Christopher Nolan as an artist. The film is designed to have its emotions tied into the thoughts it conjures up, which can happen long after one has left the theater. Indeed, the succumbing to pure emotion may be something it is warning us about, whether it is in the love handles of Avatar, the utter stupidity of What Dreams May Come, or the siren call of a popular love song. One of the things that we should take note of is the song Cobb's team plays in order to wake up from their dream extractions: "Non, je ne regrette riens,," or "No, I Regret Nothing," a statement we love to utter in our positivist-humanist world of self-help books and don't-sweat-the-small-stuff go-to thinking, but is more suspect when we realize that it is often the credo of immoral governments, unethical corporations, and sociopaths, unwilling, unable, to be introspective and measure themselves with an honest and measured sense of perspective. Even stranger is that the song is sung by Edith Piaf, whom was portrayed in an Academy Award-winning performance by Marion Cotillard, who here plays "Mal," the projection and "image" that haunts Cobb's consciousness to which he is hopelessly attached. (Nolan has said, however, that the song was in the screenplay before Cotillard's casting, and he even considered dropping it upon her casting. The fact that it remains does not prevent an additional dimension to how one looks at Inception). Our sentimental projections, whether in delusion or in a movie house, may be beautiful and touch our hearts, but also obscure a rather malevolent (Mal is Evil) nature that destroys us and renders us incapable of surviving in real space with real people.
The plot is set into motion – or rather, the audience is prodded into the rat maze – when Saito's offer is given to Cobb. Saito has captured Cobb's architect Nash (Lukas Haas), who apparently "sold out" the ideas stolen for Cobal Engineering to Saito, which in turn has led the Japanese industrialist to kill him as a sign of good faith to Cobb, though he admits, "I don't know what will happen to him. That's up to Cobal Engineering." In a world where nothing is technically personal and everything is – again technically – business, individuals do not bear personal responsibility for acts carried out by corporations (ask the Supreme Court). But Saito gives Cobb a new opportunity, so impressed was he with how the thief worked. Saito's rival in the energy industry is Maurice Fischer, a billionaire who has monopolized energy production. "We can't compete," Saito admits. Fischer (Pete Postlewaite) is dying and bed-ridden, his conglomerate empire inevitably going to fall into the hands of his son, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Saito needs Cobb and his team not to extract ideas from Robert Fischer, but rather to plant an idea ("Inception"). The idea is for Fischer to break up his father's empire, which would enable Saito to once more compete and possibly even crush his competition.
The job is difficult, and maybe even impossible – because to "incept" an idea on which a person would act means manipulating the most primal of decision-making mechanisms in the mind, which means going deep, into dreams beyond dreams beyond dreams, within the target's subconscious and rewriting the dynamics of primal relationships, in this case the strained relationship between father and son. In The Dark Knight, Nolan communicated to us that decision making was not easily rational, but involved immediate emotional responses that are way ahead of our conscious egos. Nevertheless, "True inspiration is impossible to fake," Cobb's research assistant Arthur (Josh Gordon-Levitt) insists. Ideas do not exist in vacuums any more than works of art do, but in a digital age of CGI and "Pure Creation," or Cameronesque "wizardry" (recalling The Prestige), anything is possible and the endless chain of analog evolution can be trumped, perhaps, by digital emergence.
To manipulate memories which would reconstruct Fischer's processing of reality, Cobb needs a "forger," recalling Nolan's motif of "writing". Eames (Tom Hardy, from the excellent Bronson, in probably this film's most impressionable performance) is recruited for this job, and Cobb even humors him about how his "spelling hasn't improved." Form though, we are told, is not as crucial as imagination. It is Eames who understands that in order for Saito and Cobb to achieve their politically motivated goal of giving Fischer anti-monopolistic ideas, they need to get to the root of the self, as only there can they change emotions and affect prejudices: "The relationship to the father," he says, is the key. What Eames does is learn how to impersonate people, playing out parts as an actor in the target's subconscious, deceiving them as a theatrical performer.
Cobb also needs a new architect. He goes to Paris, where he was educated, and visits his mentor – and father-in-law – Miles (Michael Caine), to see if he has any talented prospects. This is an interesting scene, probably with a lot of important detail that subsequent viewings of Inception will help reveal. We know that Miles was Mal's father, and probably introduced Cobb to her. We also begin to understand that Mal's death in Reality was probably a result of something Cobb did; we learn that he is a fugitive from America, living in countries like France, where extradition is difficult. Yet Miles seems too amiable to Cobb for a man who has lost his daughter, whether or not the old man understands the specifics of the marriage that we will see – or at least be shown – later on. As Cobb explains how he needs an architect in order to complete "one last job" which will give him the ability to return home (Saito has promised to buy Cobb's way back to America with a clean record if the inception of Fischer is successful) and see his two children, I noticed the way that Miles interacts with him seems similar to how Ben Kingsley's Dr. Cawley talked with U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (also DiCaprio) in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. In that film, Daniels was in fact an asylum inmate named Andrew Laeddis, who had constructed false memories in order to cope with the horrible reality of what his wife did to their children, which in turn led him to kill her. Delusion was a blissful escape for the torments of the mind and a "bitter earth." It is suggested by the nature of how the two actors are working off each other that Cobb may in fact be suffering from his own delusions, which moves Miles to pity. "Come back to reality, Dom. Please," Miles says compassionately, which recalls Tesla warning Angier in The Prestige about the nature of obsession.
We also should note the importance of "space" here, on a symbiotic level. Before he became a thieving extractor and wanted criminal, Cobb was, as Miles' apprentice, an architect, a builder, a constructor of mazes and spaces, of cities and civilization (civilization being, according to Freud, repression). Miles himself needs to do his professorial work in a lecture hall because he doesn't like the tight space of his office. "No space to think in that broom cupboard," he says. The architecture Miles has developed in this future world is the architecture and geography of the human Mind, the outer reaches of inner space. But like in the real world of outer space, Cobb admits that it "takes money to build things." And talent. Miles has an architect that he believes is better than Cobb, Ariadne (Ellen Page), whose name of course recalls the mythical character who helped Theseus out of the Minotaur's maze. Ariadne is a prodigy in the creation of spaces, not able to master linear levels (the square mazes Cobb figures out quickly), but her circular maze stumps him instantly. In the future she will be warned never to create actual places from memory, or to complete entire areas. Real space is dangerous. And we – as an audience – feel its impact during the (presumably) Real World scene in Mombasa where Cobb recruits Eames and is chased by Cobal Engineering spooks. Never in the movies have I heard such a visceral "thud" as when one of the spooks' head collides with a wind-shield, and Cobb's life is held in the balance when he desperately attempts to squeeze himself through a very tight space between two buildings – though the kind of anxiety of such a tight squeeze and inability to master space is also made of the same stuff that comprise the worst anxious nightmares. We are clued into the ambiguity of this “reality.”
Cobb introduces Ariadne to the world of dreams, to “pure creation,” where she will create worlds and fill it with the subconscious of the target. The whole system is based on a paradox of creation and perception happening simultaneously ("Paradox" is a word that is written all-too-much in this Nolan analysis, but it is what Inception may ultimately be: the film is a paradox). Spaces are also paradoxes, as Arthur reveals to Ariadne the Escher-like Penrose steps that can easily fool anyone's perception. Eyes are not to be trusted, a reminder to the passive audience.
The "whole new world" reminiscent of Avatar's wonder of "what dreams may come" is evoked when Ariadne realizes that she is in a dream. The apparently "real" space of a Parisian street where she is talking with Cobb bursts into a wonder of CGI enhancement and explosions, slow-motion spectacle and jaw-dropping amazement, as the city seems to close in on itself. This "system" of a subconscious has its mapped-out physics, its deterministic mechanisms, unlike the Lynchian view of dreams where the unconscious defies space and time. It is as mechanical as our solar and biological systems. The individuals walking on the street are "projections" of Cobb's subconscious, and if Ariadne notices them too much they will attack her, "like white blood cells attack an infection." Time is another thing that can be determined; in a basic dream level, five real-world minutes equal an entire hour of existence in the dream.
Nevertheless, the subconscious cannot be controlled, we are told. As Ariadne creates dual mirrors that look at each other, making a vanishing point of mirrors within mirrors with an array of cloned Cobbs reflected, I cannot help but think of Citizen Kane, which was the first film to create this startling effect, representative of how beneath one layer of our Self was simply another layer, and then another layer, and then another layer: human beings, like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, are enigmatic and unknowable, the mementos of their life ("Rosebud") private and inscrutable to all but themselves, or an onion like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
Cobb's own subconscious enigma arises as the projections begin to swarm around Ariadne and a dark figure approaches. Armed with a kitchen knife (Psycho), Mal stabs Ariadne, waking the young architect up, as to die in a dream means to wake up in reality. She is startled and upset, leaving Cobb and Arthur, uninterested in having to deal with Cobb's troubled subconscious. "She's quite a charmer!" she yells at Cobb about Mal, hastily exiting. Ariadne seems to be a kind of weak and disappointing character, and maybe she has to be considering that she is, if we take a conventional approach to Inception, the agency for the audience into this brave new world. Cobb has given her a drug of sorts, the same way videogame virtual reality gives a large segment of the population an alternative world, the same way that James Cameron gave millions of eager viewers an alternative reality (again, Google "Post Avatar Partum Depression Syndrome). "She'll be back," Cobb says. "Reality's not going to be enough for her now."
He’s right. And so Inception begins to become a very self-reflexive film, being that it is in essence addressing us, the wowed audience, as something akin to helpless drug addicts who go to movies because solid life (remembering Angier's final words in The Prestige) is miserable. The world given to people in Inception recalls the cyberspace of William Gibson's novels like Neuromancer, or Katheryn Bigelow's magnificent film Strange Days (1995, which had a plot almost as dense as Inception's, and being without the hype, required a decade to be ingested by many and be considered a near-masterpiece), where virtual worlds given by technology are a kind of narcotic that feeds off our infantile weaknesses. When we see Ariadne hook herself back into the dream world, she looks like a heroin addict shooting up. The lair of the chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), where Cobb's team goes to find the kind of chemicals needed in order to allow them descend into deeper dream levels, has the aura of an opium den. "After a while," Yusuf admits of the old men sleeping in his lair, all tied into a hookah-like device, "it becomes the only way you can dream," as if they were addicts always in need of a bigger dose in order to feed the demands of the body.
Yusuf is the last piece of the puzzle for formulating a team that will infiltrate Fischer. The fact that he is able to create drugs allowing people to go to dreams within dreams is significant given his nationality, as he evokes the Hindu god Vishnu, who sleeps on the lotus petal, and whose dream is the dream of the universe, where the characters within the dream are also dreamers. The mythological references – also integral to Gibson and Dick's fiction – thus continue, and we have to take mythology into account along with the nature of illusion and theatricality. For Hindus, the whole of existence is a theater, presided over by the Great Mother (an image presented in the Transcendental Meditation proponent David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. at Club Silencio), an illusion, a curtain before the final reality within, which only the noblest of yogis can see. But it also makes me think of the simpler kind of metaphorical nature of mythology, where metaphors may buffer us from the harshness of ugly truths. Nolan will later visually allude to The Empire Strikes Back, which in our popular consciousness we know as the film where Luke Skywalker finds out about his father's true identity, a truth that was obscured to him by his mentor, the wise old man archetype Obi-Wan Kenobi, who said that Luke's father was murdered by Darth Vader. "What I told you was true – from a certain point of view," Kenobi says in the next sequel, The Return of the Jedi. But it still can reek of deceit, albeit compassionate deception, such as is found in the perennial Wise Old Man in Nolan's films, seemingly always played by Michael Caine, whose lying is motivated by the right reasons, in The Prestige, the two Batman films, and we can presume (we do not know) Inception. Myth is a system, a path, a framework, but it is – paradoxically – a delusion and lie.
Cobb's team is able to infiltrate Robert Fischer's subconscious torments by identifying the strained relationship to the father Maurice. As the old man lies on a bed, moaning deliriously and held together by wires, more machine than man indeed, the son looks on. A sentimental photograph featuring the two of them shatters on the floor. The interloper between the father and son is Robert's godfather, a lawyer named Browning (Tom Berenger), who may be a good man but whose power grows every passing minute and may possibly be a threat to Robert's standing in the company and its direction. Eames understands that if he can forge Browning in Fischer's subconscious, he can effectively alter Fischer's mind. The plan is set up on three dream levels.
Firstly, the crew has the basic inception idea: "I will split up my father's empire." To ensure that this happens, they need to go to a deeper dream level and convince Fischer of another idea: "I will do my own thing." And for that to happen successfully, they must go to even one more level, deeper and at the root of emotions and all relationships: "My father does not want me to be him." The change in Fischer will be cathartic, reinforcing a "positive emotional reconciliation." We need to remember this, because it may tie into Cobb's own fate regarding his fears and subconscious. Cobb and company are deliberately distorting the target's memories and subjectivity, altering his record of history (Maurice Fischer may honestly not at all even like his son), then giving him a consoling delusion, a happy ending of sorts, though which will prove negative to Fischer as a businessman in the long run. This is the sick, amoral joke of Inception, and why Nolan may be a great filmmaker as the hype suggests. Perhaps Ariadne is not our surrogate and agency as much as Robert Fischer is.
After all, a key theme in Nolan's work is that Memories are Prisons, no matter how we alter them. Ariadne investigates Cobb's subconscious and memories, finding a world where he is still with Mal, still happy, though he is unable to look at the faces of his children. In the bottom floor of his subconscious (there are levels, and Ariadne is brought to them by means of an old elevator) is the room where Mal and Cobb spent their anniversaries. She waits there, standing in front of a television, accusingly looking at Ariadne, who is alarmed after stepping on a broken wine glass. "Do you know what it is to be a lover? You are waiting for a train. A train that will take you away." Mal's words make no sense, as she is not talking, but rather Cobb's projection of whoever Mal was. "You cannot contain her!" Ariadne tells Cobb, who will not listen. This is another aspect about Cobb that is hard to fully accept. How can someone so good at what he does, a prodigious expert, also be so clueless about some matters? This glaring discrepancy also leads me to believe that he is more delusional than we are led to believe.
Once the crew finally descends into Fischer's subconscious, they are attacked by faceless agents. It turns out that Fischer has been trained, probably because of his importance in a corporate hierarchy, to mentally combat extraction thievery. In a shoot-out and car-chase through dense streets – further contaminated by Cobb's own tormented consciousness after Mal’s train bursts through traffic – Nolan once again recalls Mann's Heat in how he captures Cobb's team under fire from the lawful mechanisms of Fischer's mind. In the corporate cyberworld of Inception, the mind is militarized unconstructed dreamspace. It turns out there was a flaw in Cobb's system, considering that Arthur, who studies the targets, missed a lot of details regarding Fischer. With Fischer as their hostage, they interrogate him for numbers that will give clues for the next dream level (528491), and Eames forges Browning to plant seeds for ideas regarding the fate of the Fischer energy company.
Fischer is haunted by the photograph of his childhood, where he exists blissfully with his father; the photograph projects its own sense of a wished-for reality for which adults yearn as they grow older. But it may not correlate at all with anything in actual space. Fischer heard the words "Disappointed" spoken by his father just before the old man died, and it has pierced his heart, disabling him from coming to peace with his place in the company. He's rendered impotent as a mobilizing force. Eames – as Browning – can only tell Fischer that the old man loved him, even though communication in this mechanized family of corporate suits died long ago. When Fischer's mother died (he was 11, the same age as Bruce Wayne when his parents died), the father only said to the boy, "There's really nothing to be said." Moments of meaning were confined to a brief few, held within the memento of a single photograph.
As ideas in Fischer's mind are implanted and sewn, so too is Ariadne interested in learning more about Cobb's relationship to the virus-like projection of Mal. We see Mal sleeping, though she's framed right-side-up, indicating that her stance in dreamworld is a reality, a waking state. Cobb and Mal spent a lot of time together in "limbo," the deepest dream state, where a single hour translated into decades. They built an entire city and lived happily. But Mal was "possessed by an idea." Upon waking up from this dream, Mal wants to go back into limbo. "Our world wasn't real. She needed to go 'home,' into limbo." Mal became addicted to this world of infinite virtual creation, "Pure Creation," CGI alternative reality, absolute Projection. But she wanted Cobb to go with her, he says, and here he narrates something that strikes me as being odd: "She loved me too much." In my experience, whenever a man says that about a woman, he's probably deluded and lying to himself. He adds that Mal "sent letters to her attorneys saying that she was fearful for her safety, and had three psychologists declare her sane." In Cobb's mind, Mal demanded that Cobb kill himself with her so that they can die in this [real?] world and wake up in the [dream?] world of limbo, so addictive and boundlessly beautiful. But it nevertheless seems like too much of a coincidence that Mal would go through the trouble, in spite of her addiction, to say that she feared for her safety and had professionals declare that she wasn't suicidal. More troubling – and unnoticed by many Inception audience members, though I couldn't help but be disoriented by it – is how in Cobb's flashback of their anniversary hotel room, as we see him look out the window and talk Mal off the ledge, he is waving her to come forward when she is, from his perspective, standing on the ledge across from him – as if he was looking at a mirror. Is Mal even real? Are his children real? According to Jung, when it comes to our lovers, the unconscious archetypes of anima and animus are projecting themselves onto anonymous strangers, our unconscious doing the writing for us and filling in the spaces. The way Nolan frames this moment, while also consciously not calling attention to how the characters are placed, might be absolutely crucial to how we understand things. Dom Cobb may perhaps be even closer to Andy Laeddis in Shutter Island than we first thought. Going back to Cobb's encounter with Miles, it is not necessarily outlandish to propose that Cobb has been the victim of inception, even at the hands of his old mentor. And, considering most of the characters' lack of depth – as corporate shills and dedicated workers – we should ask if they are also just subconscious projections, program-like downloads in the computer of the Mind, aiding the inception victim.
This idea becomes possible when we see Cobb enact the "Mr. Charles" gambit, where he plays a projection of Fischer's subconscious designed to save Fischer's memories from extraction. "I'm not real," he tells Fischer in a restroom, "I'm a projection of your subconscious." He is playing a hyperreal self. During this scene, I couldn't help thinking of another possible allusion (and which Shutter Island also heavily alluded to), Kubrick's The Shining, where Jack Torrence was basically the victim of inception while talking to the ghost of Mr. Grady in a restroom. Mr. Grady's temptation to Torrence is something we see in a lot of Nolan's work: the temptation to always exist in the present. "You were always the caretaker, Mr. Torrence." The specters of the Overlook Hotel give Torrence original information about outside forces that might try to break up Torrence's power monopoly (the cook Halloran, the son Danny, and wife Wendy, who require, according to Grady, "corrrrrrecting.") A steady thought about this scene in The Shining, in addition to Nolan's love for Kubrick (stills of The Shining are on Bill's wall in Following), convinces me that Nolan had that film on his mind when creating this scene, and as such (like Shutter Island) we cannot trust anything we see, including Cobb. In fact, we must not.
The team infiltrates the final level, a huge ice-fortress with graffiti on it that says WARNING and CCTV. This may be a reference to the monopolistic television programming in the UK, "One nation under CCTV" being the popular graffiti. It also deliberately evokes Citizen Kane once again, not to mention the snowy scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, appropriate considering the heart of the ice fortress is where the son will confront the father, just as Luke must confront Darth Vader. During this sequence, I couldn't help but go back to my suspicion that Inception was taking place in a computer, as it feels an awful lot like a videogame where individuals are allowed multiple lives and can shoot a multitude of faceless enemies attacking them. The whole world gives the sense of being hyperreal and digital, which is why the fact that Nolan shoots so much of the action with real-life stunts and in-camera effects makes the whole film more resonant, interesting, and yes, paradoxical.
This ice fortress penetrated, Cobb's team is derailed by the appearance of Mal, who shoots Fischer. Meanwhile, Saito, who was shot during the first stage of Fischer's subconscious, also dies. As Eames waits outside the giant safe where Fischer's father is bedridden, Cobb and Ariadne willingly descend into limbo to save their friends. Limbo is a strangely beautiful world – but it is all architecture, all buildings, and the only nature being the ocean surrounding it. The world is also crumbling and collapsing, a hostile maze wherein Mal waits like the Minotaur. In order to retrieve Fischer, Cobb must confront Mal and come to terms with how he actually, in his memory anyway, incepted the idea of staying in limbo in her head. "The idea came from me," he says of the act which made his wife go crazy with obsession. The verbal duel between Mal and Cobb, both making cases for Truth and Illusion, ends when Ariadne shoots Mal in order to save Fischer. Cobb says that he will stay in limbo, searching for Saito.
The inception can now occur, and it may be significant that it happens to both Cobb and Fischer at roughly the same time. Fischer is resuscitated (note the x-rays behind him, much like those seen in The Dark Knight when the Joker confronts Dent in the hospital, as the DA will undergo his own form of inception) and enters the safe within his subconscious. The room looks eerily like the “zoo” where Dave Bowman grows old in 2001: A Space Odyssey, going through his own cycle of life like the human race. Fischer approaches his dying father. "I'm sorry that I couldn't be like you, dad," he says. The inception and catharsis can take place once the old man (and Cobb's team) corrects/corrupts history. The manipulated father replies, "No, I was disappointed that you tried." With this closure, Fischer sees a box near the father's bed. He opens it and finds an idea inside. He now sees what his fate is. He will break up his father's company. Meanwhile, Cobb undergoes his own catharsis and redrafting of history as he tells Mal, "I have to let you go." Indeed, while in limbo, the two did grow old together and had a fulfilling life, and this projection of Mal is insignificant when compared to the woman he lived with while in the real world. He releases her and there is closure.
Hans Zimmer's blaring music rises and we are taken to the scene that opened up Inception, where Cobb, in limbo, is taken to see Saito at what could be 80 years of age. They repeat a mantra they spoke to each other earlier, of how they would not grow old "filled with regret, waiting to die alone." As Saito reaches for a gun on the table, we are meant to assume that both men die and then awake to the real world in real time. Everyone is safe, Fischer has been properly incepted, and the job is done. Saito makes a phone call and it is assumed that Cobb is a free man.
Success is ensured as he gives his passport to customs, framed on both sides of the image by peering surveillance cameras. This makes me a little suspicious, considering how the two cameras, looking at each other with Cobb between them, comprise a sort of mirror, which again references the Kane image of mirrors within mirrors, and then again the mirror-like image of Cobb trying to talk Mal off the ledge, as if he were talking to himself. He passes into safety, Miles there to meet him. The film cuts to his house, where his children are present. For the first time he is able to see his children's faces (he would not allow himself to looks at them in his projections), and they are happy to see him. They all embrace and walk outside.
Now, we note how the children are wearing the same clothes they were wearing during Cobb's subconscious periods, and we also may note that they do not seem to have aged that much (this varies in different viewers' accounts). We also note that Nolan does not allow Cobb's "totem," the memento that lets him know whether or not he's in reality or not (a spinning top), to communicate his whereabouts: if the top keeps on spinning, he's in a dream; if it falls, he's in reality. The top keeps on spinning, but then seems to teeter. Nolan cuts to black.
If we trust our eyes and our ears, the totem will stop spinning, and Cobb is home. Everything is safe. He has succeeded. But if we think critically – for instance the childrens' clothes, the same light of Cobb's California house and how it matches the earlier memory of it, those mirroring cameras at the airport, the structure of how Cobb's catharsis with Mal mirrors Fischer's catharsis with the father – we are not so sure. The allusions to Blade Runner in the music score and some of the framing – to say nothing of mementos (the Replicants in Blade Runner had their own kinds of distinctive totems also, the origami unicorn being the most famous one), also gives us pause. In Blade Runner, the director's cut in any case, it is implied that the blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) is actually a Replicant, and thus he is equal to that which he has been hired as manpower to hunt down. Again, remembering the uses of allusion in art (Psycho to Memento, Touch of Evil to Insomnia, Heat to The Dark Knight), we are given aid to guide our interpretive intuition. Much has also been made of how Hans Zimmer's blaring alarm-bell music theme matches a slowed-down version of "Non, je ne regrette riens," meaning that everything we have seen is simply a dreamspace level far removed from any kind of objective waking reality.
It also feels like a sham; after all, these men are criminals, and quite hollow, however afflicted they are with their private neuroses. The glorified "Individuation" that occurs at the end, the "catharsis," is not based on biological impulse or spiritual glory, but the will of a major corporation geared towards wasteful and environmentally unhealthy energy production, which makes me think of another recent film, Duncan Jones' Moon, where energy miners on the moon are cloned ad infinitum to keep profits high; after three years, like Blade Runner's Replicants, the clones die and are replaced by another. The New Yorker critic David Denby, not known for his a critical sense of modernist irony, has asked, "But who cares if Cobb gets back to two kids we don't know? And why would we root for one energy company over another? There's no spiritual meaning or social resonance to any of this, no critique of power in the dream world struggle between C.E.O.s." I believe, of course, that Denby is answering his own question, and that this is precisely Nolan's point. We should be asking these questions, and in fact there's the possibility of Inception having a very important resonance about where we are today in the world. That Denby wants a simple, didactic declaration exhibits some of the worst aspects of how we are looking at modern movies.
The density of Inception's plot doesn't help in unraveling its capacious mysteries. There is simply too much of it, and I am not saying that this is a flaw. In analyzing film noir, a criticism you often hear is the phrase "style over substance." But when you understand noir and its origins, dating back to German Expressionism, and then its relation to literary modernism, you understand that style is substance, the form is the content, sometimes making the work harder to ingest, but over time making it more worthwhile and gratifying. Inception is a film noir too, of a wonderfully complex form; there is very little breathing space in its structure, as the film rushes along in a constant present, deliberately not allowing itself to slow down – or for frustrated viewers to catch up. That there is so much content only makes it more challenging. For Inception, there's a mirror reversal to the old noir formula: the content is part of the form. It takes a computer, it would seem, to map everything out accordingly and perfectly, finding out exactly what happens within its maze.
Many viewers point out that there is too much ample evidence to suggest that Cobb finds fulfillment at the end, while other viewers point to the evidence that suggests otherwise. Could it be both? I do not like the kind of relativity scale, where we get to decide things based on our own reality, though indeed this may be Nolan's intent, the film being the Penrose steps, a closed loop, an Escher-like paradox. The construction of Inception suggests fulfillment, but that construction of our own inception is based on a gross manipulation of the audience and our enthrallment with images and our own projections – whether in a movie house, an idea of a loved one, or a beautiful actress who played a singer insisting that we regret nothing. As the song "Non, je ne regrette riens" comes back on during the closing credits, there is a dark distortion towards the end, something dissonant, unruly, and hardly consoling. I can only go back to Nolan’s previous work and how he handles the mind. The mind’s delusions are necessary, a kind of theatrical dressing up helping us to digest the pain of being alive. At the same time, Nolan laments that such a thing has complete power over us. Leonard Shelby regrets nothing in Memento, as do the characters at the end of Inception; tragically, to do so is to void oneself of character and perspective, and to become a machine. Personally, I believe that Nolan may be forcing us to use our intuition in solving his mystery science fiction epic; the paperwork, the "official" proof will always be inadequate in tying everything together. So like Will Dormer and Leonard Shelby, in writing this essay I've constructed my own understanding of it, as an antidote to a cinematic movement that disturbs me, and as a testament to views on the Mind and Memory that I held before I saw it. "That's what I do," to echo Will Dormer’s assignment of guilt in Insomnia. I assign reality. Inception is a motion picture that seeks to have us understand that we be conscious of doing so.
Christopher Nolan Filmography
Following. Scr. Christopher Nolan. Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw. Zeitgeist Films. 1998.
Memento. Scr. Christopher Nolan. Sty. Jonathan Nolan. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano. Summit Entertainment. 2001.
Insomnia. Scr. Hillary Seitz. Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hillary Swank, Martin Donovan. Warner Bros. 2002.
Batman Begins. Scr. David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson. Warner Bros. 2005.
The Prestige. Scr. Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlet Johanson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis. Touchstone. 2006.
The Dark Knight. Scr. Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan. Sty. Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllanhall, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall. Warner Bros. 2008.
Inception. Scr. Christopher Nolan. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Josh Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger, Lukas Haas, Cillian Murphy. Warner Bros. 2010.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Scr. Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke. Keir Dulleah, Gary Lockwood. MGM. 1968.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Scr. Hampton Fancher, David Peoples. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young. Warner Bros. 1982, 1992, 2006.
Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. Scr. Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton. RKO. 1941.
Combs, Richard. "Micheal Mann: Becoming." Film Comment. March/April, 1996.
Denby, David. "Dream Factory." The New Yorker. July 26, 2010.
The Empire Strikes Back. Dir. Irving Kershner. Scr. Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan. Sty.
George Lucas. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. 20th Century Fox. 1980.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. 1984. Ace Edition. Berkeley Publishing Group. New York, 2000.
Heat. Dir./Scr. Michael Mann. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Diane Venora. Warner Bros. 1995.
Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. New York, 2009.
Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. New York, 2007.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Scr. Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang. Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm. UFA. 1927.
Moon. Dir. Duncan Jones. Scr. Nathan Parker, Duncan Jones. Sam Rockwell. Liberty Films, 2009.
Mulholland Dr. Dir. David Lynch. Scr. David Lynch. Naomi Watts. USA Films, 2001.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Scr. Joseph Stefano. Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam. Universal. 1960.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. "The Wizard." The New York Review of Books. March 25, 2010. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/mar/25/the-wizard/?page=1
The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Scr. Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd. Warner Bros. 1980.
Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Scr. Laeta Kalogridis. Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley. Paramount. 2010.
Strange Days. Dir. Katheryn Bigelow. Scr. James Cameron, Jay Cocks. Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore. 20th Century Fox. 1995.
Taubin, Amy. "Dream Work." Film Comment. July/August, 2010.
Touch of Evil. Dir. Orson Welles. Scr. Orson Welles. Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh. Universal. 1958.
Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Scr. Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor. James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes. Universal. 1958.