Inception (3), follow up from Xen

Xen and I have been discussing Inception and this is the third part posted on Ephemeral Digest. The sequence of posts is as follows: Ephemeral Digest review, Xenlogic analysis and review, Ephemeral Digest follow-up post, reply by Xen from the Xenlogic site.

Ok, now that I’ve gotten to a proper PC, please bear with me. This is kinda long:

I thought your insights on the movie’s failures were rather deep and thought provoking. Yet, I somehow felt that they lacked a bit of sensitivity to the novelty of the material within the context it was used. For example, this:

Joanna:The idea that we find ourselves in the middle of situations in dreams and that they are circular, is not a profound one, it is merely reality (pun intended).

…would have been new to just about anyone who has not:

Joanna:studied dreams in [a] philosophy course at university and did some lucid dreaming practise at one point as well.

…which I imagine is the vast majority of Inception’s audience. It would be tantamount to me berating the Wachowski brothers for being unimaginative in how they pulled off the Matrix Trilogy (which we both seem to have a passion for 😉 ) because their cyberpunk interpretation of Descartes was just for the sake of imitating cool Japanimé special effects.

Have you seen Masamune Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell“? Have you ever read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer“? If you had, then you’d have been equally as critical of The Matrix. None of the lines you’ve quoted from that movie were any more novel to anyone who has watched that Japanese Animation film or read Gibson’s book. All the Wachowski brothers did, was to merge two popular genres into a third one and create a whole new sub genre of Science Fiction in Film.

Chris Nolan’s Inception does exactly the same thing. In fact, you’d be surprised at how often Quentin Tarantino rips off Hong Kong cinema as he did with Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs – but I digress. I think you get the idea.

I can understand why you felt disappointed, but it hardly detracts from the quality of the film. We all have our individual influences and tastes – but that hardly means that our disappointment with the originality in a work of art means that it is any less well rendered. Wouldn’t you say?

Joanna:The scene at the cafe where Cobb asks Ariadne ‘how they got there’ is largely redundant for us because we also don’t know how they got there. We accept that in movies, fiction, theatre etc, there need to be stage breaks and we need to jump into other scenes with the same believability.

You’re missing the point of the dialog in that scene. The audience also doesn’t know that they’re dreaming – and neither does Ariadne, hence duplicating the exact same effect as if one were dreaming. 😉

Joanna:A teenage girl offering profound insight and saving the day (her name was a cheap shot) is a device found in comic books in teenage male worlds (correct me if I’m wrong but it screams of Manga more than Charles Dickens).

There are immediately two problems with this critique:

1. Most people wouldn’t have figured that the name Ariadne is significant to the plot (just as how most people still don’t realise that the name “Thomas Anderson” was significant to the plot of the Matrix) – at least not unless they Googled it.

2. A black man providing profound insight (as is in The Matrix) is not exactly Shakespeare either (forgive me for not using “Dickens” in the same context). Have you ever heard of a plot device called “The Magical Negro“? (a la Spike Lee) The Wachowskis exploit this wantonly and indiscriminately. So did Robert Redford in The Legend of Bagger Vance. That it’s a plot device from other material doesn’t mean that:

Joanna:Nolan’s storytelling is weak and his devices are weaker.

It only means that the storytelling recycles plot devices – which every great movie / novel / story is guilty of – every single one of them.

Joanna:I liked that one although in the context of the movie it becomes a cheap didactic shot at the idea that we try to escape reality to find happiness or at least Cobb is doing so.

I respectfully disagree. It only appears to be cheap because it lacks novelty. I too am familiar with the quote, but I would hardly berate Nolan for his choice. For while it does ring a bell for me, the film doesn’t lose its intrinsic effect of selling to the audience that it’s all a dream. The director needs the audience to make that connection for the movie to have its desired effect, whether or not we’re familiar with the source material. I see movie critics make this kind of mistake all the time. No one has ever done a movie like this and used that quote in the way it was to achieve the effect it was designed for – and thus, the effect achieves its goal, whether or not we’re scholars of the source material.

Joanna:So dream / reality distinctions aren’t that hard once you start along this path although it was a nod towards the same argument that Descartes uses in his Meditations.

I agree – ONCE YOU START ALONG THIS PATH – which is the KEY distinction here. How many people seeing Inception even know that such a path exists? Hmm? 😉 If you don’t know the path exists, how do you know where you’re going in the first place? You can’t know that you’re going somewhere unless you know where you’re going. It’s a catch 22 – and that’s precisely why the plotwise design achieves its desired effect.

Joanna:I didn’t believe it then because I know you can tell the difference.

True, but the point of the film is that Cobb can make this distinction up to a point. The idea behind Inception is that once you’re deep enough, you can accept a reality such that it becomes reality, because you no longer remember what the key distinctions between dreaming and reality even are.

Joanna:However, in movies like the Matrix, the storytelling doesn’t have to worry about ignorant fears such as ‘oh no, what if I’m stuck in a dream’, it realises that there are bigger issues such as the reality in which we are dreaming. What if that is fake?

AAH! But Inception asks that VERY same question! That’s what the final shot was for! 😉

Joanna on The Matrix (1999), Morpheus:What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can hear, what you can smell, taste and feel, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

By the same opening logic of your post, I wouldn’t call that profound. I would quote that as Rene Descartes! See where I’m coming from? All of the other profound quotes you used suffer from the same fallacy. By this reasoning, we are inadvertently rendering what is “profound” as being synonymous with “novel”!

I will admit though, Joanna, Agent Smith had some really good lines. 😀 My personal favourite:

Agent Smith:I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

Now that, my dear, is AWESOME!

Joanna:Nolan seems to ignore the storytelling rule of “show don’t tell”.

That perception may only be a function of exposure. For if that were true, then how do you explain why so many people were confused about what the final shot meant? It was pretty blatantly obvious to me (and to you as well). But most other folks were like “WTF?!” LOL! Do you think if that final shot wasn’t there, that you’d have re-examined the rest of the film and thought it was all a dream?

Joanna:He wrote weak dialogue and weak characters on purpose?

OMG! And yet you forget that last scene in Limbo where Cobb says that his projections of his wife, Mal, are only a shadow of her former self? C’mon! Don’t tell me you missed that! That’s a key part of the puzzle! 😀

Joanna:Excellent point that the totem at the start of the movie doesn’t fall down but then we know that it’s a dream because the children are there.

The children weren’t in that scene. The children were shown very briefly as a part of a series of flashbacks near that scene. I think you DO need to see it again! 😀

Joanna:Not sure that his subtle foreshadowing works well alongside the obvious one of ‘who would want to be stuck in a dream for 10 years’.

Excellent point! BUT, 90% of the film’s audiences didn’t get that! Where you say Nolan wasn’t subtle, they would say he was being too vague! LOL!

Joanna:A big problem I have with the story is that once we know that he is trying to escape reality (he is the only one who doesn’t want to distinguish between reality and dreams, everyone else has a totem) there is nowhere else for the story to go.

That’s amazing. Would you believe me if I told you that Michael Phillips made exactly the same criticism of The Matrix (1999)? Word for word even!

You should become a professional movie critic (if you aren’t already). No joke. I think you’re good enough for it.

Joanna:He had to escape into a dream and the story had to follow this particular arc because there was no other storyline.

Again, you’re missing the point. The audience would not have known that without the final shot. The final shot is what makes all the difference.

Joanna:I like the idea that it might have been reality but you don’t leave much room for it in your analysis.

If it was reality, then all of your criticisms of the story would be flawless and Inception would be a rip off.

Joanna:Why call her Mal though which means evil or bad?

A plot device – similar to the one where the architect is called Ariadne. But in this particular case, it was a part of a trick meant to convince the audience into thinking that she is a villain, when if fact, she is Cobb’s only hope.

Joanna:However it was quite creative and enjoyable at times.

– hence, “cleverly written“. But I concede to your point. Perhaps I could’ve worded that differently. Maybe “cleverly conceived“?

Joanna:The idea of inception itself isn’t one that I find particularly original.

…and that was the whole point of my original rebuttal and why we’re having this most entertaining discussion! 😀

Joanna:Also, one last point: how sitcom and soap opera-like were those glances that the other characters give him when he passes customs? Was that really needed?

LOL! Yes, even I can admit that was a tad over done – but only for the likes of us. The rest of the audience gobbled it up though. Remember, the movie needs to make money! If all audiences were as perceptive, Hollywood would go bankrupt! lol!

Do you do any other movie reviews? I’d love to read them. Actually, I love the way you write – period. It’s very deep, provocative and satisfying. So I’ve taken the liberty to follow you up on Twitter. I’m going to plough through the rest of your blog. Great stuff, Joanna. I love your mind. 🙂

Cheers,
Xen

2 responses to “Inception (3), follow up from Xen

  1. Haven’t even done reading this yet but had to look for the important of Thomas A Anderson from Matrix and post it just in case somebody else is looking for it
    http://www.voidspace.org.uk/cyberpunk/matrix_spirit.shtml

  2. Thanks for the comments Xen, I think we’re pretty much done in terms of debate.

    Not sure what kind of an argument it is to say that ‘ most people were confused, most people liked it, most people understood it, most people wouldn’t have got it’ etc. I don’t have a reply to that and can’t comment about what most / other people do.

    Also, I doubt Descartes would have understood about reality being related to electrical synapses and sensations being translated to the brain since he was writing in the mid 1600s.

    The opportunity to discuss Inception to a slightly greater depth was interesting and I look forward to your next review.

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