The final shot of the film is a slow zoom on an object in motion. The screen cuts to black. Credits roll. A collective sigh of disappointment goes up from the audience. I laugh out loud. My movie buddy Chris, who had seen the film already, giggles at my response. We’ve come back to reality. That final cut must have been the kick.
Freudian psychology, Irving Thalberg, and Avant Garde have been dreamy fodder for filmmakers and film critics throughout the history of cinema. Film is inherently tied to dreaming. The experience of cinema is like that of a dream. Dreams and dreaming may be best expressed or relived through the cinematic form. Just think of the sheer number of dream sequences, or dream-themed movies in existence. Whether going “Over the Rainbow” or Be[coming] John Malcovitch , the ability to shift location, time, place, color, and sheer reality exists in film like it does in no other form. The film world is completely elastic. Editing and camerawork have been manipulated in this way since early in film history (one classic example is Un Chien Andalou). But nothing is more elastic than the animated form. And now CGI animation (used brilliantly in this film…see the Paris sequence alone) has caught up to the cinematic form. Avatar may have blazed a trail with CGI creation, but Inception moves from spectacle to art.
It would take far too long to explain the plot, but for those who have not yet seen the film: multiple layers of dream worlds are transgressed by characters who are well aware they are entering into temporary dream worlds.
If the movie is the dream, the main characters are a proxy for us, the viewer. We also enter willingly into the dream narrative. Our emotions come into play. We project our own thoughts and this manipulates our experience (although not necessarily the experience of others) of the dream world. We too must wake up from the dream world when the film is over, and go about our lives discerning what was real, and what was just a movie. We are therefore active viewers…or are we? While the mechanics of dreamworld is exposed, the film still uses classic Hollywood techniques to suture us into the narrative. Action sequences still look like typical action sequences.
Which begs the following questions: Have you ever had an experience that felt like it was part of “the movie of your life”? Have you ever mixed up a memory and something you saw in a movie? Have you ever had movie characters show up in your dreams (keep it clean, folks…)?
The plot of Inception deals with all of these questions, plus more. Critics often praise a film’s ability to be self-reflexive: to let the viewer know they are watching a movie, and emphasize that what is being watched is a film. Quite often this is done by exposing the mechanics (the means of production) of the film. Jean Luc Godard made a point of this. Inception is a film that is inherently about filmmaking, coded as dreams. And Inception is the hybrid Irving Thalberg envisioned: the crossroads of magic (the dream, the entertainment) and positivism (what you see is what you get, the real world is what can be seen and held). In fact, Inception is a textbook on magic and positivism.
Added to this clarity of purpose, plot and theme is a well written script, a visual tour de force, and extremely good casting. In general, I have to “get over” Leonardo DiCaprio being in a film in order to enjoy it. Despite my bias, ten minutes into the film I forgot it was Leo and bought into the character. Congrats, Jack, you finally won me over. This doesn’t mean it will last… The cast also contains indie darlings Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Add in the likes of Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard, and I would have bought the ticket, regardless.
But the real kudos go to Chris Nolan (The Dark Night, Memento,etc.) and his editor Lee Smith.
My mom is a quilter. The best I can do with a sewing machine is sit down and play with levers and thread until I get a semi straight stitch somewhere near the intended material. But I know enough about quilting to recognize good work when I see it (and give a shout out here to Susan P:) People who are conversant with needles and thread know how to look at stitches and see craftsmanship. Generically speaking, the more tight and neat the stitches, the better the quality.
Editors are much like quilters. They start with a lot of raw material, then cut it up and piece it back together in an artistic fashion. It’s one thing to put the pieces back together, it’s another to make a bigger picture out of the pieces…and it’s a third level (without sedation) to use extremely precise cuts and splices. Inception‘s editing is phenomenal. How much suspense can the audience take? How much can we be invested in an emotional moment when the suspense is so high? How long can in take for that blasted van to hit the water?! In my book, Inception wins the blue ribbon.
This the film critics and fans will be talking about for the next year, and then some. Because of our alignment with the characters and our association of films with the dreamworld, Inception can and does make us question our own fascination with illusion, memory and reality. A million conversations start with the experience of this film. Play the music, reality is coming back soon.