Watch Inception for the fun of it, for some imaginative spectacle, and its disturbing mood. With its puzzle-like structure and even the way it’s visualised it feels like playing a computer game, except that you’re not in control. Among Nolan’s films it’s most like The Prestige, keeping you in a place where you’re never quite sure what’s going on, and that’s absorbing and mostly gratifying.
It’s a film overtly about dream states, playing with ideas about consciousness and reality. Apparently there are some formal philosophical underpinnings for all this. I don’t think you need that knowledge to have a good sense of what’s at issue, and how it plays out.
There is however an insuperable problem with films which challenge your sense of reality by taking you a place where you don’t know whether what you’re watching is supposed to be real, or a figment of the hero’s imagination: you know it’s not your imagination because all this is being delivered by a picture within a frame in front of you, and all the while you may have a cup of coffee or glass of wine in your hands.
We’re not really confused about reality when we let ourselves be drawn into a story. All we’ve done is allow the willing suspension of disbelief. Films like Point Blank and Total Recall are good or bad-humoured enough to demand that you accept their premise and then just enjoy what unfolds. Films like Inception which end in studied ambiguity risk bad faith with that willing suspension of disbelief: we watch or read stories because unlike real life they can be brought to some resolution. Inception offers the show of resolution but undermines it with the deliberate suggestion that it could be a dream the hero has sunk into in order to be at peace with his past.
At times the film’s unfolding seemed to trace the contours of a pyscho-therapeutic journey. The DiCaprio character is haunted by the memory of his dead wife. The narrative is on one level about his attempt to explore his memories through the film’s dream control technology, and in that process halt the havoc those memories are playing with his subconscious. I found myself thinking again of the way in therapy we must revisit the stories we have always given ourselves about our past, the stories we believe make us what we are, and recast them.
I’ve had cause recently, listening to a friend talk of her therapeutic journey, to wonder how much it matters if those recast stories are themselves fictional (or at least as partial as the ones they replace). Inception’s final ambiguity allows the possibility that the DiCaprio character has found this comfort in a self-willed reality/dream. I wonder if a therapist had a client who developed an alternative but still distorted sense of his own story, which enabled that client to cope better with his life, whether that would be an acceptable outcome, an improvement. I suppose the worry would be that this settlement was unstable, that it could be contradicted too easily, and then would crumble.
I’m not sure. Though that risk seems obvious, if you consider that we’re talking about the nuances in our self-regard, it might not be so hard to hang on to the illusions that help you keep the rest of the world in order. Away from the therapist’s couch, do people who repeatedly do bad things like to think of themselves as good? I’m not talking about hardened, acknowledged criminals: I’m talking about politicians who commit their countries to avoidable conflicts, knowing that the innocent will be killed as a direct result of their decisions, or business managers who recklessly pursue short term goals to line their own or their shareholders’ pockets, but in doing so damage the long term viability of the company, and the people whose lives depend on it. I’m sure the people who do this would argue that their actions are necessary, not bad, or at least reflect the real and compromised world in which we have to live. But that’s the whole point. This is the story they are telling themselves, but it’s not the whole story.
Generally though, and probably on the therapist’s couch, we tend to believe that truths are available, and even that there’s an ethical imperative to seek the truth and live in its light – and this is what it is to be a whole and fulfilled moral actor. Indeed this is one of the foundation stories we tell ourselves, one of the basic plots (crossing all genres) in which the hero goes on a journey to uncover a truth, which once uncovered will restore harmony where there was discord, peace where there was conflict.
The young Tennyson caught this idea in the Lady of Shalott, who “half sick of shadows” breaks the mirror she has always used to look at the world and promptly dies: better not to live at all than live in illusion.
To those inclined to see brain states and consciousness as synonymous this probably seems like romantic twaddle. To the rest of us it underlines the importance of keeping the two apart.