Two Points About Inception

Now that everyone has pretty much stopped talking about Inception, I have something to say. I actually saw it on opening day in IMAX, so I’ve been simmering on this for a while. Anybody who knows me will probably be able to guess that I like it, but, for what it’s worth at this late date, here it is.

1) Inception, as a film, seems to not care at all about human emotions. Notice the mechanical acting (even from actors who in other films are decidedly less rigid), the barely-sketched relationship between Cobb and Mal, etc. As a consumer of media in the early 21st century, the last thing I need is more fake, sentimental emotion. Rather, the film makes a statement about the nature of human experience, creativity, etc. structurally. The epistemological dilemma at its core is not there simply to ask us in that bullshit Matrixy way, “What is REAL?” but to divorce us from the necessity of treating its characters as “people.” When each character is viewed not as a stand-in for a human with a mind and a heart, but a structural element in the description of an utterly fictional world, things get clearer.

1.1) This gesture makes sense if you think about Inception as a work of T.S. Eliot-style modernism. Not the T.S. Eliot of Four Quartets and “Ash Wednesday,” but the T.S. Eliot of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and the objective correlative and “impersonality” and all of that.

1.1.1) So the critique that the film is “mechanical” or that it reduces psychology is, I think, misguided. The individual psychologies of the characters in the film are not psychologies, they symbolize the structure of the film itself. Ultimately I would say that what Nolan is doing is inverting how we normally think about the relationship between formally innovative films and the things they purport to represent, or question the representation of. That is, the film’s “psychology” is rigid because it’s not psychology, but a representation of the way the film is structured.

1.2) Yes, it’s true, the film is ostensibly about Cobb’s search for emotional fulfillment, but that is clearly the weakest, most tenuous, and ultimately irrelevant aspect of the film. It’s a necessary narrative element that sets the structure in motion and ultimately a MacGuffin.

2) Inception looks great. Rarely do we get a film that rejects Hollywood-style conventions of character and form while blowing things up with impunity. As a person conditioned to enjoy that kind of thing, I enjoy that kind of thing.

2.1) Thinking about Inception also entails thinking about its development and economics. Did Nolan conceive of this as a huge action movie draped over an ingenious structural model, or were the absurdly expensive and elaborate action sequences added later when his career blew up and it suddenly became possible? In the ten years it took him to write the film, he went from zero-budget indie filmmaker to the man in charge of one of the most famous franchises in the world – I assume the scale of one’s ambitions changes.

More to say, but that’ll do.


  1. On the topic of the film’s structural model being “ingenious”…

    I enjoyed this Hollywood film, but dude, there isn’t even a plot twist!!

  2. I know! Exactly! Fucking awesome! I don’t need that from Nolan – that’s not what he does. He defines narrative as something like “the controlled release of information.” That’s so apt – he’s an information manager more than anything. That’s just the sort of guy he is, a really rigorous formalist. There’s something exhilarating about watching the film play itself out to its unavoidable, logical conclusion, like watching a game of chess you’ve seen over and over, but you rewatch to admire the ingenuity of its players.

    Also, I don’t know if anybody ever does that, watches chess matches over and over.

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