defining or defying the dreaming…

Contemplations on Inception (2010) by L.

The film may be best viewed before engaging in conversation,

but it is not necessary (except for probable spoilers).

We open as the film suggests: in the middle of a ‘scape, not knowing how we (or Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb) got there. More than once we are told that a test of having entered the Dreaming is that we do not recall how we got to where we are (Ariadne at the café, Fischer Jr. at the hotel bar). DiCaprio washing up on the beach is a similar experience.

The sequence to follow is equally mysterious due to an absence of context. From here we soon transition into a memory, with the elderly Ken Watanabe character Saito recognizing Cobb’s spinning toy top/totem. The transition is not a simple flashback where we are eventually (and rather immediately) returned back to a “present” (the table and totem). We reside in the memory through most of the film where we encounter more and more layers of dream, memory, and reality. We are led to forget that we had entered in a dreamlike state.

Near the film’s end we return to the scene in which it begins, with Cobb across the table from the aged Saito. We’ve circled round. We’ve negotiated a labyrinth of various states of consciousness, but have we ever occupied the most lucid state that we would call the Waking, Reality, at any point in the film?

Two-thirds of the way in, Marion Cotillard’s character Mal, Cobb’s late wife, questions Cobb’s lucidity, his sense of what is real versus what is imagined. Did he “dream” up the action-packed fantasy of corporate espionage and the heart-pounding thrill of being hunted?

Was everyone he encountered and interacted with a projection of his subconscious (and in some cases facets of his own self)? Was he assuaging his guilt for abandoning his children by displacing the reason for the separation on his late wife, and even the government that would imprison him? I’ve many questions, and some possible answers. I would like to have another viewing with the questions in mind so that I might look for visual cues, and possible-theory eliminators.


Writer/Director Christopher Nolan weaves a tight plot; very well thought out and carefully executed. He has to manage layers and Time and not too much ambiguity– just enough so that his closing shot creates the greatest impact of uncertainty while maintaining some catharsis.

Strangely, no matter how one reads the ending, or even the whole of the film, we can feel release with the scene of Cobb and Mal, of Cobb’s letting go. Yes, their conversation creates more doubt and distrust of Cobb. And not even Ariadne can direct us in the way we should go (flying off toward the surface). What follows after the Cobb/Mal exchange appears to be a projection of an audience’s collective dream: a tormented man finds peace, no longer haunted by a tragic past and gets to be reunited with his children. He gets to go home. A happy ending. Whether a Dream or Reality, does it really matter?


Now, if the whole film does not reside solely in Cobb’s imagination (dreamscape):

A way to enter people subconscious dreamscapes has been engineered; and is not a completely uncommon idea or practice within the context of the film.

What I found intriguing is the idea that an architect is brought in to recreate a familiar place, down to the materials with which the carpet is made. The person’s consciousness they would inhabit needs to believe that they are not vulnerable/asleep. The person’s Waking is simulated by bringing the sleeper into another’s dreamscape (the simulation). Everything for that person must register as logical. None of the illogicality of a dream must bring them to a consciousness of their state which is unconscious. [Apparently these people do not experience any sense of the illogical or magical realism in their Waking.]

The dreamer controlling the dreamscape must be lucid enough to maintain the ‘scape and the motivations behind it. They have to negotiate at least two people’s consciousnesses, theirs and the others.

An aspect that interests me is how the other participants (even the hijacked individual) influences the maintenance of the ‘scape and its outcome. The control, the ‘scape, is never absolute, nor does it merely belong to the one individual named ‘the dreamer.’ Also, that Reality is Real as long as everyone is participating in it, is believing it is Real. The worldscape does not begin to shudder until doubt surfaces.

Does the premise read too much like the Director/Dreamer and the Film Set/Dreamscape? Dreams and Film experience are likened often enough to one another. (I think there is a lovely quote about this in a Cinema Textbook I have, but it is packed away.) However, there is this Federico Fellini quote:

Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something as in a dream.

Yet is one limited in terms of language or perception by the other? Cinema seems to have decided what dreams look like; what elements should reside within a film to signal a dreamscape so as to distinguish the Waking/Realism in a film from the Dreaming…{still working on this if you found little coherence, carry on}.

The idea of Inception is to go deep enough into a person’s unconscious state in order to plant a very simple idea that could then grow as if it were organic/inspired. I will have to look up how many layers down with which a film connects, because the cinema experience is its own portal, incision, into our conscious and sub-consciousness. Our senses and imaginations are engaged. Ideas are planted. The most simple and thematic idea of Inception is “this is not real?” —and thus, what defines “real,” etc? Mal of the film is not the only one asking the question.

What if the whole film exists solely in Cobb’s mind, spiralling outward from Limbo. Say he decides (subconsciously) to now build a world where he can grow old with his children. This sounds like a wonderful unreality, especially once he is no longer haunted by his late wife. Our entrance into the film and the ambiguous (yet highly suggestive) exit argues for the prolongated and layered dream experience. Our clever and highly-informed and daring Cobb has formulated a way through the complexities of his consciousness to place himself where he would rather be; perhaps still trapped, but his cell has been re-formed.

Mal isn’t manifested to anyone but Cobb (via memory) in the Waking as she does in the Dreaming. Yet we also see that she is kept in a “Basement” apartment when Ariadne takes Cobb’s elevator. The apartment is where Mal is supposed to remain. Yet whether visually manifested or not, she is still a disruptive figure in the Waking (preventing Cobb’s ability to architect, affecting his sanity, his authority).

If Cobb is in a continuous state of dream and we follow the information given, then where are those projections conscious of the invading figure. How does Cobb describe it to Ariadne? The projections turn on the invader like white blood cells, like a body’s immune system. Much of the film’s action is facilitated by this idea. When Cobb visits the forger Eames (Tom Hardy) Cobb points out two “agents” who have taken notice of him and a thrilling chase ensues. Cobb is ever in danger of being noticed. He never seems to be “allowed” anywhere; the Dreaming is as dangerous as the Waking.

Is the plot too well-conceived, too populated by individuals in intimate dealings, too successful in outcome, too lacking in whimsy to be the habitat of a dream? Was it that it lacked Indie-film quality music, vibrant color schemes, and planned “glitches”, clowns, or talking animals–or animals at all? I asked (the husband) Sean:

“There were birds,” Sean says.

“Where/When?” I ask.

“In the world he created with Mal, in Limbo,” he answers.

Needing confirmation I ask, “But there were no clowns, right?”

“There were no clowns,” he assures me.

(Our friend Nathan will be pleased to know this.)

Could the whole of the film/dream not be the latest draft, the most successful and accomplished variation of the play?–thus figuring into the sense of an overly-snug plot.

I know Sean and I dream differently and that our ways differ from others, but I can sustain a singular dreamscape (to include characters) over time, even after waking. I store them under “file names,” a trigger so I may pick up where I left off. This one form of dream is one I have the greatest control over re-forming. With a dream that forms out of my sense of control that turns terrible I have to become somewhat conscious to take it over and re-form it to a less horrific end.  Cobb is relayed to us as a gifted navigator of dreams (the best, he tells clients). He is preternatural as an Architect (so the Professor, Michael Caine’s character notes, among others). Cobb could sustain a well-conceived dreamscape and still the truths therein would be no less valid.

If there are truths to be excavated, I return to Cobb/Mal’s final conversation and the idea of a shade. No matter how convincing and fantastically emotive Cotillard may be as Mal, she is still limited in scale and dimension, as is the world she and DiCaprion/Cobb inhabit on set and in ‘scape. They are limited by both imagination and logic. As well as one can be known, there is more withheld from the most intimate and intuitive perception. There is an unpredictable quality to life, and the living we know in the Waking/Reality. The unpredictability in Inception is illustrated in the outcome of Mal’s suicide. The simple idea grew from inception in a damaging and unanticipated (undesirable) way. Cobb has to come to terms with this unpredictability and the film weighs the value of the risks.



—Ariadne. Really? If I’d had my druthers I would have used Ariadne but given her a nickname throughout. To hear her name every time dredged the complexities of her mythology with her—every time. The experience was a bit exhausting. But I was pleased to see Ellen Page. I am ever pleased to see her, because I forget that her name is Ellen Page when I see the cast list. She is a very talented actress and carries her own amidst the company with whom she takes the stage.

—That Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in a film should draw a large crowd. He is uber-talented and has the serious demeanor that can easily fracture into a clever-witted smile (and stolen kiss). His dark hair and eyes, height and build, are a nice compliment to DiCaprio’s, and even Ellen Page’s. Gordon-Levitt as Arthur is the cool, competent half to the fevered, faltering Cobb. And Arthur is the rational, rule-abider to Ariadne’s creative ingenuity and emotional negotiator.

—Hmm. Eames. Name sound familiar? An imaginative and celebrated Architect and Designer? The forger-charmer given to the better imagination and schemer of an elaborate (and accurate) manipulative plot is named Eames. Tom Hardy as Eames is the handsome devil, charming and kick-ass. [Really, where do these people get their combat training? In the Matrix they downloaded it.]

>>As individual as most of the characters seem, they revolve around our central character Cobb. They are brought in and dependent upon him for the thrill, the financial gain. And even after they feel deceived by the withholding of information, i.e. that they could all be trapped in Limbo if they die while asleep because of the anesthetic they’d been given, they hold an unerring loyalty.

—Fischer Jr. is a caricature (and a brilliantly played one by Cillian Murphy). He’s an alienated son who, according to Saito, would use his power to destroy the world around him via monopolizing the market. Our ideology is horrified by this. We must stop Fischer Jr! Cobb can be heroic and self-serving; which is also heroic in his instance. We must reinforce family values and reinstate the Father figure. Fischer Jr. is not unlike Cobb, with paternal expectation issues that need resolving. Both find their embracing resolution by the end.

—DiCaprio gets wet. Is there a film where he isn’t at some point? DiCaprio is great. The struggle to make him personable enough to care for while shrouding him in ambiguity was a challenge. I am still working out my reaction. The shade he talks about with Mal (a fantastic moment, beautiful) brings him to mind by film’s end. I’ve an idea of Cobb, but I am not getting all the complexities. Was I supposed to? The love for his wife is convincing, and his desire to be reunited with his children connect-worthy. How much development is required, or even allowed? How much is the work of the audience and their personal projections?

Serious exchanges are interspersed by action sequences. The mind isn’t allowed to settle into a contemplation of the information exchanged. We are like Fischer Jr. allowed to be still just long enough to not register possible unrealities. Inception is a fun enough ride to not care to linger—though lingering in Ariadne’s Paris Landscape would be wonderful fun. Typing the cast makes the pace easier: the tormented, the cool logic, the charming/deceitful, the brainy (nervous), the newbie who is preternaturally gifted—also female, thus emotional, communicative, compassionate. The familiarity of type aids the characterization where short interactions would otherwise fail the viewer (though some may feel the lack).

If the character comes off as a mere shade, is that good acting–as in purposefully flattening for the sake of arguing imaginative and logical limitations of residing in dreams/films? Nolan casts proven actors.

In the end–at least after viewing Inception only this once so far–I am not sure it matters if the film is better read as entirely the Dreaming or partially in the Waking. Either could have valuable examinations. Either could be equally entertaining–consciously or no.


Director/Writer: Christopher Nolan
Editing: Lee Smith
Director of Photography: Wally Pfister
Music: Hans Zimmer
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Legendary Pictures/Syncopy Films; Warner Bros, 2010.
148 minutes.
Starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine.


links to reviews: The esteemable Roger Ebert’s “Dreams on top of dreams inside of dreams” ; and the enjoyable A.O. Scott’s “This Time the Dream’s on Me“.

A.O. Scott added another article in response to Inception, “Everybody’s a Critic of the Critics’ Rabid Critics

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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