Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mendacious metaphors

Inception, this summer's sci-fi thriller blockbuster, ranks at the time of writing at number 3 in the all-time movie rankings on IMDB. A similar phenomenon was seen two years ago with director Christopher Nolan's Batman relaunch sequel The Dark Knight, which reached similarly dizzying heights on IMDB and has only now fallen out of the top 10. While The Dark Knight does not pretend to be anything but a well thought out take on a classic comic book action story, Inception broaches far more philosophical topics and has loftier ambitions. Though it is a textbook example of narrative complexity, and derives tremendous tension from its pinnacle of quadruple jeopardy, in essence it says absolutely nothing. Though the script is full of references to the subconscious, and the entire story takes place in a multi-layered dream, the movie makes no effort to discuss the importance or relevance of dreams or what psychologists call the subconscious, they are mere tools and excuses used to create dramatic tension. It is an outstanding example of modernist filmmaking, concerned only with form, only with the cinematic experience of watching it. Philosophically speaking, it is totally vacuous. The concepts and references are just there for the sake of creating a point in the story where the success or failure of the protagonists rests not on a single or dual factors, but on a succession of well-sychronised 'kicks' that wake our heroes from several successive 'levels' of 'dream state'. The twist at the end appears to be the rather obvious in-story joke that the entire thing is one big dream of Leonardo Dicaprio's character. As far as cop-out, obviously leaving it open for a lucrative sequel endings go, it was a tour de force of which Nolan is presumably very proud.

The movie is a well designed trick. It convinces people that it must be about something, because there's always something going on and you have to add it all up to make sure you follow the plot correctly. But that is all it is about - the plot itself. As an intellectual experience, it is completely insular. An analysis of the essential plot points and creative decisions made in the story telling process illustrate that this can only be intentional. The movie is ostensibly set in a world different to ours, but the only exploration of the way in which it is different is the existence of a technology that allows people to enter other people's dreams. Basically they all sit in a room together, wired up to a silver suitcase. The only other information that we're offered about the world is when a Japanese businessman (cliche alert!) hires Dicaprio and his anonymous, one dimensional band of associates to attempt 'inception', the use of the technology to try to plant an idea in a rival businessman's head.

Briefly, it is explained that the rival is about to inherit a monopolistic energy company with which no one can compete, and so the Japanese businessman wants to implant the idea that the rival should split up the monopolistic company and sell it off. This is the only other information we're given about the 'real' world in which the story occurs. Unlike virtually every other sci-fi story set in a different world, the narrative conceit of setting isn't used to say anything about our own world. It simply isn't part of the story.

Instead we are invited to try to get interested and engaged by Dicaprio having a dead wife, who for reasons that are too tedious to get into, he is wrongly thought to have killed and hence he is separated from his children. The last Dicaprio movie I watched was Shutter Island, which also involved having to sit through two hours of his shitly-bearded face try to convey the emotion of having a dead wife. The central character in Memento (which is identical to Inception in several regards) also has a dead wife. As does as least one contestant on The X-Factor every year. Indeed, the story of 'man with dead wife' is about as overused as having a fat black guy play the busdriver. There is, incidentally, a lovely moment in season two of The Wire where McNulty jokes about having a dead wife in a playful attempt to curry interest from Beadie. Nolan himself shows that he knows this is a cliche by making this plot element entirely subservient to the story. That is to say, there is no exploration of the experience of a man who has lost his wife, it is merely a fact that is necessary for the climax to happen in the way that it does.

Indeed, several other factors are likewise subservient, to the extent that the entire plot is supporting one climactic sequence of cutting between successfully dependent events. Ignoring the storyteller's mantra to 'show' rather than 'tell', we are told virtually the whole story explicitly through dialogue to make sure that even the thickos at the back can grasp what's going on. We are told that in order to plant the idea (incept? inceive?) in the business rival's head they need a three-layered dream - a dream within a dream within a dream - so they can ensure the idea goes 'deep' enough. (This is only one of a dozen different uses of the word 'deep' in the script, more on that lower down) Why is this the case? Why a three-layered dream? Purely because the plot demands it. We are told that three layers is highly unstable. Why is this the case? Why would dreaming within dreaming within dreaming involve experiencing a reality that is less stable than mere dreaming within dreaming? No explanation is given. It is purely because the plot demands it.

So, they drug the target with a powerful sedative, and drug themselves with it too. Once in the first level of the dream, we are told that because of the sedative if they 'die' in the dream that they won't wake up, but will go into another, apparently parallel, dream state they call 'limbo'. No one bothers to ask 'what happens if you die in limbo, do you wake up then?' which is important, because the film has no answer for that rather obvious question, at least at that point in the story. Again, the whole 'limbo' diversion is an excuse for something else that needs to happen so that the narrative conclusion can be what the writers want it to be. It isn't saying anything about the nature of experiencing death within a dream, or being conscious of experiencing death in a dream, and it sure as hell isn't saying anything about humans being the only creatures that know that they are going to die. It's just a piece of a jigsaw. If people are satisfied with themselves for having put the jigsaw together by the end of the movie then they will go home happy with the cinematic experience, happy to have consumed Inception as a product.

And here is the crucial factor in the deception of Inception. It isn't even Titanic. Titanic was a largely meaningless blockbuster, also starring Dicaprio, but at least it gave its audience a good emotional work out. It may not have taught them anything, it may not have informed them, it may not have inspired them, but at least it made people feel something. Inception doesn't even accomplish that. All it is offering its audience is the prize of being able to follow the plot, which isn't even that complex relative to, just for example, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It is the cinematic equivalent of a Sudoku puzzle. In many tabletop games, in particular most board games, the multiplayer aspect means that one is testing oneself against other people within the framework of the rules. There is an unpredictable exchange that requires an ad hoc mental process. In Sudoku, either one 'gets' it and completes the puzzle, or one doesn't. In Inception, either you follow the plot, or you don't. In a movie where so much is at stake for the characters, virtually nothing is at stake for the watching audience.

Indeed, even the title is misleading gibberish. The word 'inception' means the beginning of something. It does not mean planting an idea in someone's mind through their subconscious. 'Insertion' would be more accurate. However, Nolan clearly isn't concerned with actually using words to mean what they mean, but solely with finding a single-word, cool sounding title for a movie that says nothing about anything. Calling a movie 'insertion' would make it sound like an unimaginative porn film, presumably based around people placing objects in their bodily orifices. The title 'Inception' plays the same role as the sunglasses and long leather jackets in The Matrix. It is almost empty data - signifying nothing other than the filmmaker's desire to be thought of as having made a cool movie. All the talk, in both films, of perception of reality is not an effort to explore ontology through cinema, but as part of a carefully arranged group of symbols which are collectively meaningless but individually compelling enough to appear meaningful at least for the duration of the film. The film is not only driven by almost pure formalism, it engages in a form of psychological deception.

That is not to say people shouldn't find the movie enjoyable, more so that they should realise what it is that they are enjoying. That is, their own ability to follow a reasonably complex plot, their own capacity to solve a puzzle so that they can buy into the dramatic tension of the climactic sequence. Inception does make its audience work a little harder than most mainstream action thrillers, but this is only to make the film more compelling as a physical, formal experience. It's the equivalent of using more contrasting colours in a painting, or slightly cruder language in a sitcom. Not subtle, not particularly clever and most certainly not philosophical. David Denby of the New Yorker twigged this:

Christopher Nolan(...) appears to believe that if he can do certain things in cinema—especially very complicated things—then he has to do them. But why? To what end? His new movie, “Inception,” is an astonishment, an engineering feat, and, finally, a folly...

...“Inception” is a stunning-looking film that gets lost in fabulous intricacies, a movie devoted to its own workings and to little else...

...Bizarre oddities, which complicate the puzzle but are meaningless in themselves, flash by in an instant. The actors, trying to suggest familiarity with the task of dream invasion, spin off gibberish in the most casual way. Parodies, I assume, will follow on YouTube...

...But who cares if Cobb gets back to two kids we don’t know? And why would we root for one energy company over another? There’s no spiritual meaning or social resonance to any of this, no critique of power in the dream-world struggle between C.E.O.s. - Inception review, New Yorker

There is something much more important at stake than Nolan's aesthetic philosophy, and that is that Inception works as a corporate psychological operation, as mass propaganda. This is most obvious in its treatment of dreams-within-dreams. The characters are seen entering a dream, and then falling asleep within it and entering another dream, and then falling asleep within that and entering another dream. These dreams are arranged in a linear, vertical formation so to fully wake up they need to wake up from the 'deepest level' (3rd dream) to the 'deeper level' (2nd dream) to the merely 'deep level' (1st dream) and from there wake up to reality. The neat planning and execution of these four successive 'wake ups' is what creates the quadruple jeopardy - to successfully wake up, all four must work in the right way and the right order.

However, this isn't how dreams work. No one falls asleep in a dream and finds themself in another dream. Sometimes, people experience 'waking up' in a dream but that is usually the beginning of the dream (insofar as they remember it), not a transition from a prior dream state, and certainly not a passage up some imaginary ladder of different dream states. No one actually experiences lucid dreaming in the manner portrayed in Inception. The film is also asexual. Aside from Dicaprio's dead wife, there is no indication that any of the characters even have a sexuality or any kind of romantic emotion whatsoever, and yet this is perhaps the number one topic for real dreams. This confirms that Nolan has no interest in discussing people's real experience of dreams.

In reality, most people experience dreams within dreams laterally, not vertically. As is portrayed in the far superior film based on a very, very similar premise Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we tumble sideways, never in full control, finding the world of our own mind a constantly shifting, unsteady ground, rather than the rigid military formation demanded by Nolan's plot. But Nolan could have created the same quadruple jeopardy without arranging the dreams vertically. Had the various dreams been parallel, he could have simply had the characters explain with their psychobabble that they needed to exit the dreams simultaneously at the same time as the target, the rival businessman, so he didn't realise he'd been in a dream all along while they were planting the idea. Or whatever. It could have not been dreams at all, but three or four events needing to happen in different places for the desired conclusion to happen. Instead of parallel dream states one could have Sliders-style parallel universes, causally interconnected. There are an infinite number of possible scenarios where four stories or situations have mutually dependent influence.

So why all the crap about dreams, the subconscious, perception of reality, and saying 'levels' and 'deep' like there's a legal quota to be hit? Two key reasons springs to mind. The first is to make the film appear to be about far more than it really is. Bombard people with words that sound clever, and a fair number of them will think you are being clever. Whether you are saying anything meaningful is irrelevant. It's akin to the infamous Milgram Experiment in the 1960s, where participants were told they were to give electric shocks to subjects. The experiment found that in a scientific setting, told to do so by an apparent authority figure, the majority of people would gladly administer what they believed were lethal electric shocks. This experiment has been recreated several times, including by the BBC:

In these experiments, the symbols of authority are that of science. The authoritarian white, middle aged male wearing a lab coat, in a room with the sort of functional equipment one would expect in a lab experiment. In Inception, the symbols of authority are those of science fiction, pseudo-psychological and technical dialogue, paradoxically complex plots reminiscent of those in the Back to the Future films, and pretty young things/swarthy middle aged hacks doing the walking and talking. But Inception is solely concerned with its own exposition, with blending the established elements of the sci-fi thriller in a sufficiently familiar but sufficiently fresh way to attain blockbuster status. It is an exercise in the balance of entropy and redundancy, the predictable and the unpredictable.

As such, using metaphors like 'deep' and 'levels' to describe different dream states/parts of the story is a reasonably cunning move. These are extremely common metaphors, the Swiss Army Knives of critical language. 'On one level' 'an another level' 'on different levels' are used to fill in spaces in sentences where the analysis is lacking, or even where it fails. Commonly, 'deep' is used to mean 'profound' but, significantly, it is also often used to mean 'compelling'. The two meanings are quite different. An illusion can be compelling, people who think they've seen ghosts and UFOs (or maybe actually have seen ghosts and/or UFOs) find their visions compelling. Whether those visions are profound, or the results of a superficial failure of the senses, or a deliberate illusion, or of a willing mind seeing what it wants to see, remains uncertain. Inception plays on this dual meaning, as it is very compelling to watch, but ultimately lacks any kind of profundity. Its adherents will defend it, claiming to see all sorts of fabulous and wonderful meanings (or just appreciating it technically) but the conjunction of the signs in the film show that this is probably not the case.

'Subconscious' and 'subconsciously' are likewise overused, from pop-psychological studies of why women eat less when men are around to highly convenient and misleading explanations of what motivates terrorists. Again, the 'sub' prefix implies a vertical arrangement, a hierarchy, though ironically most claims about the subconscious grant it great authority. The word 'subconscious' is mentioned throughout Inception, but no notable exploration of its role takes place. It is merely the place where the anonymous team of nubiles and veterans have to plant the idea in the target. All this language firmly encourages the audience to phrase their thoughts, not just about the film, in a language which presumes hierarchy, which presumes authority, which assumes some kind of chain of command. Shit rolls downhill.

Of course, people repeat this nonsense, further encouraging these thought patterns. People come to accept the hierarchy, because they find it difficult to articulate thoughts in the absence of such hierarchical metaphors. Not only does Inception dupe its audience into thinking it is about far more interesting and complex things than it really is about, it further encourages them to accept a top-down order of things, by further propagating and entrenching a vocabulary that wholly presumes and affirms such an order. That it does so while satisfying people through the use of their own minds, feeling as though they are getting a mental workout when they are actually being blinded by propaganda, makes Inception a work of supreme doublethink. It rewards you for accepting its precepts and presumptions, which themselves entail you thinking in such a way that is wholly unrewarding. Well done for staying in your designated place. We thank you for not smoking.

I refer again to George Orwell's essay Politics and the English language. In the essay, Orwell criticises several passages of writing for their 'staleness of imagery' and 'is lack of precision'.

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not...

...As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. - Orwell, Politics and the English language

Inception is guilty of many of the charges Orwell was levelling at writers several decades ago, in particular 'dying metaphors' ('deep') and 'pretentious diction' ('subconscious'). My interpretation of the film outlined above is not an exposition of a meaning contained within it, but of the role it plays linguistically. It has a carefully arranged veneer of appearing meaningful, but is ultimately meaningless. Yet in duping its audience in this way, it makes use of words (and indeed, images and plot elements) that maintain in the audience habits of thinking that keep them susceptible to this sort of deception. Indeed, 'deception' would be a far more accurate title for the film.

Ultimately, Inception makes a philosophical error common to many sci-fi films, namely of upholding the dualism and binary opposition of appearance and reality. The danger implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the movie's dramatic height is that while the characters could simply be woken from their dream state, that they would have lost their grip on reality. The conceit at the end of the film indicating that Dicaprio is still in a dream, having lost that grip, firmly upholds this opposition and dualism. But dreams are not mere appearance, they are compelling fantasy, apparent visions that we generate for ourselves when asleep. They conform to a different logic to waking life, but they aren't the opposite of waking life. They are experienced in much the same way, and have very real effects, perhaps more than we presently understand. It is an opposition of convenience - asleep/awake appearance/reality falsity/truth - but not one that is easily upheld. You can dream and know you are dreaming. You can be awake and think you are still dreaming. The line is far from clear, without the need for any ludicrous, convoluted, jargon-laden exposition through cinema.

The most famous assault on this binary opposition came a century before poststructuralism in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. He argued that there is only appearance, that when we replace one 'appearance' with 'reality' (for example, due to a new observation or deduction) then all we are doing is replacing one appearance with another. The metaphysical realism and rationalism of Immanuel Kant in particular would have us believe that if only we use our faculty of reason to disengage from our particular subjective motives and interests is the knowledge we produce an adequate presentation of reality. This understanding has reality as a thing in itself, out there, which we generally only understand through the veil of our subjective perceptions of it. For Nietzsche, this distinction is a nonsense, an attempt by philosophers to look round a corner they haven't reached. Appearance is reality, as far as we can ever know. While this idea is contested and explored through Nietzsche's work, perhaps his most simple deconstruction of the opposition of appearance and reality came in Twilight of the Idols:

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, "I, Plato, am the truth.")
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man ("for the sinner who repents").
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The "true" world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato's embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.) - Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
And so, as he concluded:
The antithesis of the apparent world and the true world reduced to the antithesis "world" and "nothing." - Nietzsche, Will to Power §567

As such, I am not calling Inception 'shallow' or 'superficial' as these are analogies of the same type, language from the same wrongheaded conceptual scheme Nolan seems to subscribe to. Rather, the film is vapid, meaningless and willfully deceitful, a carefully constructed psychological operation that will only contribute to a world of mendacious metaphors that make clarity of thought and word that much harder.