Christopher Nolan, 2010
#13, 2010 Skandies

So here we have a movie that's all about dreams. One of my evaluative patterns — #29, to be exact — rattles off my main objection to dream stories in general and dream movies in particular: "Film is a visual medium, but dreams tend to be a tissue of internal states that can't be seen. Narrative is a web of causality, but in dreams the links between cause and effect are tenuous at best. Therefore dream logic is the enemy of narrative and should be avoided, particularly in movies." But this is not a problem where Inception is concerned. Nolan is careful to explain exactly how the logic works in his movie's version of dreams. I've read a number of critics complaining about precisely this, arguing that the movie is 150 minutes long and that 135 of those are about the characters explaining the mechanics of the premise to one another. I'm generally a show-don't-tell advocate myself — it's pattern #7 — but in this case I found that over-explaining was definitely the lesser evil. It keeps Inception from becoming Primer, Shane Carruth's impossibly convoluted time-travel movie of 2004. Primer could just barely kinda sorta be followed on a third or fourth viewing if watched with the movie in one window and a detailed diagram of the plot in another. Inception makes sense the first time through, even as it simultaneously unfolds on five interdependent planes of reality. I think that counts as a real achievement, so bravo on that score.

Inception earns another plaudit from me because, in explaining how its version of dreaming works, it implicitly acknowledges that dreams in movies are nothing like real ones. At any rate, they're nothing like mine. As noted in the quote, my dreams tend to consist primarily of ever-shifting knowledge — and then I knew this, and then I knew this, and then I knew this. There is some action, but it's usually what screenwriters call "shoe leather": moving from one location to another without much happening in transit. A rule of screenwriting is to eliminate shoe leather whenever possible; just cut from one location (as early as you can) to the next (as deep into the next scene as you can) and the viewer will fill in the rest. Which is why I found it kind of amusing when one of the characters explained to another that in dreams you just find yourself in a place without knowing how you got there. Heh. No. That's not how dreams work. That's how movies work.

Similarly, I couldn't help but chuckle at the scene in which the characters sit in a room planning how they're going to invade the mind of a billionaire's son and plant the idea of breaking up the company he's about to inherit. Listen to this dialogue: "The subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason, so we have to translate that idea into an emotional concept." "You need the simplest version of the idea — the one that will grow naturally in the subject's mind." It was basically every story discussion I've ever been a part of while working on scripts! When the dreamweavers take the idea they're going to plant and whittle it down from "I will split up my father's empire" to "I will not follow in my father's footsteps" to "my father doesn't want me to be him"… I've been on that call! I've seen a lot of movies that were explicitly about making movies, but Inception is as meta as any of them.

One drawback of watching the characters do this sort of by-the-numbers dramatic engineering of the dream they're creating is that it makes it all the more obvious that they are products of the same process. Watching the protagonist go about his business, you can practically hear David Mamet lecturing, "What does the hero want? He wants to go home. In this section, which we will call gathering allies, he wants to recruit an architect, but his superobjective is to go home." The result is that Inception winds up feeling like a hollow exercise in convoluted but ultimately pointless clockwork, like nearly all the Mamet films I've seen.

One line I've found myself using from time to time is that a work is better to have experienced than to be experiencing. I say that an awful lot when I talk about some of the better interactive fiction titles. They're very cool to sit back and think about once you've played through them and can see how everything fits together, but actually sitting there and figuring out how to get the next event to trigger is a pain in the ass. It seems to me that the approach Mamet advocates (explicitly in On Directing Film and implicitly in the movies of his that I've seen) leads to works that land on the opposite end of the spectrum. Mamet contends that the one and only thing the audience cares about is whether the hero gets what he wants, and so telling the story of that quest must be the exclusive concern of the dramatist. "People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people's lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn't work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn't." The positive side of narrowing your focus to the progress of the hero's quest is audience engagement; the negative side is that writing in such a manner makes for an interesting story to be experiencing, but an empty one to have experienced. In On Directing Film, Mamet and some Columbia film students work up a treatment for a short film about a man who has to sell a pig. Mamet contends that the pig story works because it (a) keeps its focus on the all-important question of whether the hero gets what he wants; (b) gains depth by touching on universal themes such as "eradicating danger" (without really saying anything about them); and (c) concludes with an unexpected yet satisfying twist. Well, you can say much the same thing about Inception. It has a pleasantly complex but not bewildering plot, all ultimately pointed at the question of whether the hero gets to go home; gains depth by touching on universal themes such as accepting loss (without really saying anything about them); and concludes with a fairly predictable twist ending. But what are we supposed to take from it once it's over, or from the pig story for that matter? If all you care about is the hero's quest, doesn't the story just dissolve once that quest is over — not unlike a dream? Apparently I've been quite lucky: the discussions I've had working on scripts have been a lot less myopic, and we have talked about the ideas we're trying to communicate, what we want viewers to take away from the film. Given that you'll spend a lot more of your life having experienced a story than experiencing the story, can't an argument be made that the takeaway is ultimately a lot more important than the twists and turns?

One more observation that I couldn't fit in, so I'll just add it as a postscript — here's an edited version of something I once wrote about an old interactive fiction piece:

Let's jump back to the time of Shakespeare. But not our Shakespeare — this Shakespeare lives in an England where theater audiences are mad about juggling acts. Day after day, the Globe is witness to an endless succession of balls, pins and torches being flung into the air. But juggling alone isn't enough; audiences want the juggling folded into a little story. Enter Shakespeare, who soars to fame on the strength of Romeo and Juliet, in which a pair of young people fall in love at a masked ball (the chief entertainment there: juggling), but then the boy's friend and the girl's cousin get into an ill-fated juggling contest and it all goes downhill from there. Now Shakespeare decides he might like to try writing a history, perhaps something involving King Henry V. But he can't just tell that story — where's the juggling? If there's no juggling, it's not a real play! So the first act ends up foregrounding a bunch of jugglers at the bar while Falstaff and Prince Hal talk in the background, and proceeds to the point where the jugglers accompanying the army are told that the English have won the battle... and the audience response is tepid because while the historical stuff is interesting, the juggling is better in Doctor Faustus.

This was supposed to be an allegory for puzzles in interactive fiction, but I think it's equally applicable to chases and shootouts in film. So much of Inception is devoted to various vehicles vrooming after each other while bullets fly back and forth and it's all so tedious. I guess you can't really get a movie made in Hollywood without gunfights but as far as I'm concerned the action sequences could have been replaced by blasts of static and the effect would have been about the same.

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