Saturday, July 17, 2010

"His Subconscious is Militarized": Mapping Inception

Of all of the fantastic dreamscapes that fill the screen in Inception, freight trains driving down city streets, fights in zero gravity, and cities that collapse into the sea, the most fantastic is perhaps the film’s premise. I am not referring to the idea that, through a combination of drugs and technology, people are able to enter each other’s dreams, but to the fact that in the world of the film it is supposedly easier to extract an idea than it is to plant one, the inception of the film’s title. The entire history of ideology, from those first ideologists, the priests, to the modern entertainment-military-industrial complex, would seem to testify to the contrary: it is very easy to implant ideas. However, given that the film is about just this, an attempt to implant an idea, it is possible to see the film as a narrative about the narrative articulation of ideas themselves: an idea can only be planted, can only become an inception, if it is simple enough and resonates with some kind of emotional core (I am sure that you can find those exact words in some book that claims to teach you the art of screenwriting).

Beyond this premise it is hard not to see resonances with contemporary society in this film. At its core it is a heist film. We have the first act in which the team is assembled: a group that includes, as is de rigueur, an old pro haunted by his past, who hopes to make everything right with one last job; a few new members, whose initiation will provide the necessary exposition; and a few seasoned professionals, each identified by a particular talent or skill (chemist, master of disguise, etc.). The film’s twist is what is generally makes up the background of the narrative, the obsessions and memories of the characters, are not just alluded to, but become part of the narrative as they enter each others dreams. This is especially true of Cobb (played by Leonard DiCaprio) whose absent children and dead wife have a way of showing up in the most inopportune times in the dreamwork, the latter with often deadly results.

It is worth reflecting on this dimension of the film, especially since it makes a rather drastic departure from the standard tropes of the heist film. Somewhere, I forget where, Fredric Jameson writes that the heist film is perhaps one of the few places where work, in its utopian dimension, is represented in contemporary pop culture. Heist films are about the job, the job defined not in terms of fragmentation and isolation, but in terms of a community founded in and through specialization, labor as transindividuation. There are a few directors who have made this masculine professionalism, the work of the heist, the explicit subject of their films, such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann, and they stress just that, the professionalism of the heist, work separated from the mess of personal life. Inception is marked departure from that norm, its central character, Cobb can barely keep his life together, and the figments of his personal life show up in the middle of his work day. This of course jeopardizes the mission, but there is also the suggestion that he is good at what he does not in spite of his neuroses, but because of them. His obsession with dreams and memories makes him good at entering and manipulating the dreams of others.

In this respect it is superficially similar to Splice, another film in which work, in this case the work of genetics research, is simultaneously jeopardized and propelled by unresolved trauma. Taken together these two films can suggest a changing “affective composition” of labor. Labor is no longer marked by the rigors of professionalism, that would leave a home life separate from a work life, but is thoroughly permeated by all of one’s existence. As Nina Power writes, “From top to the bottom of the employment pool, whether one is a jobseeker being retrained for work or a CEO manipulating contacts, your bodily existence at work comes to coincide with the CV that neatly summarizes where you’ve been and how you made profitable use of your time.” This complete exposure, CV-ification of life beyond professionalization, is not without its risks. We have all heard the story of someone being fired for a facebook picture, blog post, or something on twitter. This is exactly how the scene in the film where Ariadne (Ellen Page) discovers Cobb's secret plays out: it is like she has accidentally stumbled upon some pictures on his laptop or his browser history, and wants to inform her coworkers. The work relations of the film are unavoidably personal, all too personal.

Comparisons between The Matrix and this film are unavoidable, both take place within a “consensual hallucination,” a shared dreamspace, and both have interesting innovations at the level of effects: “bullet time” in the former, and zero gravity in the latter. The Matrix was closely tied to its historical moment, the late nineties, in the way it offered an allegory of the anxieties of the early days of the internet. Everyone could go anywhere and become anything, as in the case of ultrahip avatars armed to the teeth, but surveillance was also everywhere in the form of the agents of the matrix. As I have suggested above much of the difference between these two “virtual reality” films has to do with the intimacy of the latter film, the way it breaks down any division between professional self and private self (let alone the stoic cooler than cool avatars of The Matrix) This transformation makes sense given that the internet has become all the more intimate in the ten years that separates these films: it is no longer the place where one fabricates an identity, as in the old chat rooms, but the place where one discloses one’s identity down to the most embarrassing details.

It is also possible to see a different kind of intimacy in the way in which the film deals with one of the real limits of a film set in dreams or virtual reality. One of the problems with making movies within dreams (or virtual space) is that dreams are not real and thus without consequence. There must be some sense of risk for narrative to work. The standard way to resolve this is the old “die in your dream and you die in real life.” (or die in the matrix and you die in real life) The film eschews that cliché; if you die, you wake up. This means that the real threat, the real danger is not death but harm, pain up to the limit of death. There has been a lot of discussion about torture in popular culture as of late, and there is very little of that in Inception, at least explicitly. What we get instead of torture, or the image of torture, is its generalization into the narrative of the film as a kind of biopolitics. Death is no longer an issue, but physical pain and psychic destruction are an ever-present possibility. This vulnerability is compensated for by the fact that, in the world of the film, everyone’s subconscious (the film uses this term rather than unconscious) is populated by vaguely hostile “projections.” Which can, given proper training, become militarized, rendering literal the old grafitti about a cop in everyone’s head.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, and the one that it has the most to say, at least indirectly, about the current world is in its representation of time. Gilles Deleuze argues that montage is always an indirect image of time. Even the most clichéd montages, the training montage of the boxing/martial arts film or the falling in love montage of a romantic comedy, give us time, but time that is generally homogenous and empty, the quantitative addition of moments into a transformed situation. The standard action movie montage, the parallel action associated with D.W. Griffiths, is often based on an acceleration of cuts, and tension, that assumes a shared time. The imperiled innocent and the hero rushing to the rescue are part of the same moment, separated only by space. Inception ends with three parallel montages, three actions that must be carried out in order for the mission to succeed, but they take place within different temporalities. In the film, dream time is more intense (the brain is working faster) and thus faster than waking time, five minutes in the waking world equals an hour in the dream. The rate of time speeds up at deeper levels of dreams, in the dreams within dreams, so much so that a few hours of waking can become years in dream time. Thus, in the final moments of the film, the action cuts between three different temporalities all of which are happening at different rates, a siege of a mountain fortress takes as much time as a van falling off of a bridge. (The film incorporates two common aspects of dreams: the difference of time, a short nap can produce a dream that seems to last for hours, and that dreams are always in media res, in the middle of things, without a clear beginning.)

This disjunct temporality, which is visually compelling, becomes all the more interesting viewed through the narrative of the film itself. The final third of the film, the heist itself, all takes place on a Sydney to Los Angeles flight. Such a flight is necessary for the team to knock out, through drugs, their target, or mark, long enough to enter his dream space in order to plant the idea. At the same time, or almost, their “inception” will provoke the sponsor of their heist to make an important phone call, a phone call which will transform the legal status through a kind of incorporeal transformation. The disjunct temporality within the dream time, is reflected in the much more mundane disjunctions in every day time, in which a phone call can travel exponentially faster than a jumbo jet. (The setting in the trans-Pacific flight also draws together the unavoidable biological passivity of sleep with the modern waiting of flight, a time spent disconnected from cellphones, smartphones, and the internet: a period of interminable waiting for the modern business class who never move as fast as capital). We live not in one time, but in multiple times, multiple times which no longer add up to a unified present. The question "what time is it there?" carries more weight than we tend to think. Here the film’s different locales, the globetrotting that is required of a spy movies, Kyoto, Paris, and Marrakech, all of which are situated in their different historical moments, as parts of a disjunct world where bullet trains coexist with street cafes, and the walls of medieval cities. All of which brings to mind Louis Althusser’s critique of the homogeneity of historical time, the Hegelian moment where everything coexists in one essential contradiction. Against this it is necessary to think of the differential history, the coexistence of different times, of what could be called a past, present, and future existing all at once (although Althusser rejects those terms as well, since they suggest a standard time, a normal present from which things could be identified as past). As Althusser writes, “The specificity of these times and histories is therefore differential, since it is based on the differential relations between the different levels within the whole: the mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations of the whole.” One could take this further, given the narrative of the film, and suggest that subjectivity, the stuff of neuroses and obsessions move at a rate that is much slower than the technological and political transformations of the world. Or, more to the point, at the exact moment that the film tries to represent absolute interiority, the different subjective times of dreaming, it actually gives us absolute exteriority, the coexistence of different rates of time that define postmodern existence. Its failures are its successes, which is the best that one could expect from a Hollywood film.


jane said...

As always, I am thrilled with the incision of your account. But I am a bit puzzled that a historical account of this film doesn't refer to the fact that the "idea" on which the caper/heist and thus the full narrative hinges turns out to be I WILL SPLIT UP MY FATHER’S EMPIRE, which makes it a funny double to Tim Burton's Alice, after all, wherein there is also a single idea brought back from a dream underworld, which turns out to be I WILL EXTEND MY FATHER"S EMPIRE TO CHINA.

unemployed negativity said...

Jane, That is interesting. I have not seen Alice, so I could not make the connection. I think that you are right, however, that more should be said about the ambiguity of inheritance in the film. The son who inherits both a fortune and an idea is an odd double of Batman.

jane said...

Jason, yes indeed. But not just that. It's hard for me not to locate this film — or rather, to understand it as locating itself — entirely explicitly as part of what me might call Cinema of Hegemony Unraveling, since the "empire" is evidently not simply a business but empire itself (there's a reason that the business in question is compared openly to a "superpower," right? The match in Alice is that father's business is a stand-in for the East India Company, a/k/a the British Empire's essence).

I wonder how one might coordinate your accounts of temporality (and mediation) with the understanding that the preservation of empire (in this case via something like creative destruction) is the film's stated problematic?

unemployed negativity said...


One thing that occurs to me is the relationship between the unraveling of hegemony, as you put it, and the unraveling of subjectivity. The Leonardo DiCaprio character and the Cillian Murphy character (I think that is his name) were both hyperexposed, openly exposing their anxieties,and thoroughly militarized at the level of subconscious. I do not want to go to far with a homology between empire and subjectivity, hegemony and self, but it does seem to me that the film's explorations of the psyche work better as maps of the world. Second, I think that the use of locale is interesting. The opening scene gives us three Asias: a Hollywood Japan of feudal castles and henchmen; an unspecified Asian country in turmoil; and, lastly, Kyoto of Japan's past economic dominance complete with Bullet Trains. Later the Paris/Marrakesh scenes suggest that when empire fades all that remains is the image. Once again I tempted to tie this back to subjective loss, but I do not want to go too far in that direction.