Christopher Nolan is what I like to call a “puzzle director.” He’s into recursive realities, prismatic narratives and events and characters that double back on themselves, and then back again until they become something else entirely. He’s more of a technician than a dreammaker, but he’s one of the most clever Hollywood filmmakers at work today (see his excellent “Interstellar” for evidence of what he’s capable of at the peak of his abilities) and he’s deftly managed to make some very good, very profitable films from within the black soul of the Hollywood machine. One of the British auteur’s most divisive films remains 2010’s mind-heist movie “Inception,” a cool, cerebral head trip of a movie played in Nolan’s signature minor key. Some folks dug Nolan’s pastiche of shifting realities and exposition-heavy action sequences, others thought his attempt at a Hollywood art flick was pure fooey. A common criticism leveled at Nolan’s film is that, despite being a movie about dreams, it doesn’t feel very dreamlike: that Nolan, as a filmmaker, is too practical and rational to make a great, untethered dream movie. A new video has landed online courtesy of No Film School examining the layers of dream logic and elements of possible homage in “Inception,” and there’s a lot here to dig into.
The first misconception – and I’m fairly certain the narrator would agree with me here – is that “Inception” is a surrealist film. It is not. Nolan’s film does, in fact, examine various levels of reality, sometimes acting in conjunction with each other like the seamless gears of a Swiss watch. But these elements do not a dream movie make, and the key difference is that the great purveyors of surrealism – David Lynch and Jean Cocteau get special shout-outs, although I would argue that Luis Bunuel belongs in that conversation as well – imbue their work with a ragged, sometimes terrifying alien edge that possesses the unpredictable rhythms of a real dream. Dreams never make sense. They aren’t supposed to. Filmmakers like Lynch and Cocteau know this, and they also seem to know how to tap into the main vein of the viewer’s subconscious. While Nolan is an imaginative and tremendously gifted director, the dreams on display in “Inception” are pretty… well, literal.
The video goes on to explore a few more theories in regards to the film: one involves Nolan’s possible paying of tribute to Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera.” Several elements of that classic film – including a cityscape folding in on itself and a key scene set at a train track – are also present in “Inception.” Dziga Vertov was also a pseudonym (the director’s real name was apparently Denis Kaufman) which, in Russian, means… spinning top. It’s not confirmed whether or not Nolan was deliberately tipping his hat to Vertov’s radical 1929 film, but given the visual parallels on display, it doesn’t seem too unlikely.
Another argument that gets brought up is that “Inception” is really the ultimate movie about moviemaking. Look, there’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the scary-smart producer calling all the shots. Tom Hardy, obviously the leading man. It’s a bit of a flimsy theory, but the narrator does touch on one genuinely fascinating point. “Inception,” and almost all of Nolan’s other films, is all about the duplicity of surface and the allure of the lie – a description which also befits the act of moviemaking and movie-watching. It’s a theme that runs through all of Nolan’s work, from the spectacular manipulations of his underrated magician drama “The Prestige” to the elemental self-deception at the heart of his breakthrough “Memento.” It’s true that a movie’s ludicrous plot hardly matters if we allow ourselves to be seduced by it. In that regard, “Inception” could be interpreted as a meta-treatise on the inherent artifice of narrative structures, but in this writer’s opinion, the notion that it’s also a metaphor for moviemaking is a point that gets stretched a bit thin.
What do you guys think? Is “Inception” a modern exercise in surreal filmmaking, a meta-movie about creative manipulations or a moderately cool excuse to see Joseph Gordon Levitt fight a dude in a gravity-suspended hotel hallway? Sound off and watch the video essay below.