Hollywood filmmakers generally shy away from ideas—but not Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight and Inceptionby Mark Cousins / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Dream on: Inception captures the collective online experience Ideas are to cinema what the ramps used to build the pyramids are to the pyramids themselves. They are crucial in the making of the movie but are seldom visible once it is completed. This is for two reasons. The first is that the makers of mainstream films don’t want the fingerprints of thought to be visible on their gleaming, reflective surface. They want us to fall under the movie’s spell without us knowing that it is appealing to our ideas about heroism or beauty or eros. The second reason is that the medium of film is better at inspiring thought than containing thought. It is so alive, so present tense, so much about what things look like—and less good at what things think like. One exception is Christopher Nolan’s Batman film The Dark Knight (2008), which foregrounded ideas. The movie argues that cities are places where human beings fester. At one point, the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, says: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it… I just… do things. Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.” The Dark Knight was an extravagantly cinematic, somewhat conservative work of anti-urbanism—rather like those movies of the 1920s that wrung their hands over high-density living and the decline of rurality. As many critics have noted, Nolan’s new film, Inception, is just as thoughtful. Its plot, in which people enter the dreams of the owner of a vast business empire to convince him to break it up, is a metaphor for corporate espionage. And its depiction of dreams within dreams made movie buffs like me search their memories for other films that have done the same—The Wizard of Oz, the Spanish movie Open Your Eyes, and the work of Jean Cocteau and David Lynch spring to mind. The ideas in Inception are slightly less visible and far more contemporary than those in The Dark Knight. The key scene comes near the end. The business owner wakes up in the first-class compartment of a plane. Those around him—the gang who have entered his subconscious—also wake up. Some of them look embarrassed, because they have committed a crime against thought—but, also, because they have been so intimate with the owner, and with each other. They’ve swum under water together, plugged in (literally, in the film) to the same heightened experience. They’ve lived, and nearly died, together. There’s something slightly post-orgasmic about the scene, but there’s the flavour of something else too. It reminded me of a moment I saw last year, in a videogame shop in a town in northern Iraq. About a dozen teenage boys, each at a different screen, were playing the same online game, together with other boys in South Korea. When two of them finished, their faces were flushed with the excitement of having a pre-conscious adventure with others in the room and elsewhere on the planet. This is the experience that I think Nolan’s new film depicts so well: the coming to from second life, the dissolve from avatar back to self, where the body is once again aware of being offline, but the brain is still drunk with the liberties of online. Some critics have complained that the dreamscapes in Inception aren’t very imaginative—they’re not, for example, like the dream that Salvador Dali designed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, all eyes and scissors. But in the story of the film, the main designer of the dream places is an architect, so her schemes are bound to be urbanised, quasi-real spaces in which the owner of the business empire can be hoodwinked and, therefore, defrauded. And if part of the pleasure of Nolan’s film is that it captures the collective brain experience of joint gaming, or the atmospherics of the best chatrooms, then the dreams cannot look like the singular fantasies of Dali, or of Powell and Pressburger in The Red Shoes. You have to be able to have a car chase through them. And Hollywood always loves a good car chase, even if it takes place in the collective unconscious. When the internet and online gaming came along, it looked like they would replace the movies as the alternative reality screen, occupy its space in our dreamlife. But films like Inception and Avatar, in which people also go under together, show that instead, cinema has been provoked into figuring out these immersive experiences. Hollywood is in no danger of becoming a think tank any time soon, but at least it’s made room for Christopher Nolan.