Saturday, December 18, 2010

Inception & Movie Audience: Not a Disappointment, but Could've Been so Much More

My catch phrase when starting to talk about Inception: It was good, but it could've reached for more and been better.

As an amateur writer, story crafter and science fiction fanboy, I appreciate the narrative technique, creation of continuity and sticking to the rules of continuity. To sum it up: THAT SHIT WAS TIGHT!

Coming from the "artist" and "literary critic" in me, though, Inception could have been so much more. It was about dreams. Dreams are loose and free flowing. When it comes to dreams as a central narrative, strict adherence to continuity can make story and depth dry and shallow. It can take the HEART out of story.

Dreams provide insight into our individual psyches and cultural archetypes. A tight psyche and orderly culture without HEART is boring, uninteresting and oppressing.

Plato and The Republic provides good source material from our common heritage to show how taking the HEART out can make something shallow, a failure at reflecting the truth behind reality and unattractive once the facade is taken off. Plato, in The Republic attempts to demonstrate that the fully ordered life is the good and just way to live life by providing the example of an ordered, good and just society. In sum, The Republic.

Plato makes his argument using cognitive biases that come from holonymy and meronymy. Plato bases his argument on the assumption that individuals and society follow the same rules of logic. Common mistake and one that often gets made by decision makers and academics, but we all should know about a rule of crowd psychology that can tear these types of argument apart: An individual alone is smart, that individual in a crowd is a dumb ass.

Suffice to say, Plato makes a good final conclusion for individuals in The Republic if they desire a good, ordered life with as much control over possible emotional turmoil as possible. A couple good tips to extrapolate: If you have some bad habits that you want to stop, use tricks of cognitive therapy to change your habits and develop all the aspects of your body, intellect and psychology.

As a society, however, The Republic repulses modern individuals. For example: The Republic oppresses individuals and has no problem using ideology, in the Marxist sense, to create false consciousness for the maintenance of order in society.

Plato's idea of utopia and individual psychology, itself, would also repulse a lot of people. It's all utility and function, for the great cause of justice, without HEART. This lack of HEART comes from a big issue I have with Plato's ideals of psychology. Lewis Mumford criticized this aspect of Plato best in The Story of Utopias [full text available]:

Plato has his limitations; and here is the principal one: Plato distrusted the emotional life, and whilst he was prepared to do full homage to man's obvious sensualities, he feared the emotions as a tight-rope walker fears the wind; for they threatened his balance. In one significant passage he classifies "love" with disease and drunkenness, as a vulgar misfortune; and though he was ready to permit the active expression of the emotions, as in the dance or the sexual act, he treated the mere play upon the feelings, without active participation, as a form of intemperance. Hence a great deal of music and romantic mimicry was taboo. Foreign as this doctrine sounds to the modern reader, there is perhaps more than a grain of sense in it: William James used to teach that no one should passively experience an emotion at a concert or a play without trying to express that emotion actively as soon as he could make the opportunity. (p. 54-55)
[Off topic non-sequitur: basis for argument against violent and sexually oriented cultural products in the US today?]

I digressed through Plato to make the following point: Something can be crafted where the parts that make the whole are molded to make the whole technically valid and consistent. If the molding of those parts doesn't respect the part's teleological virtues, though, the integrity of those parts becomes compromised.

For inanimate non-sentient objects, they simply wear down faster, hold back the efficiency of the whole and have a high utility cost. Compromising the integrity of animate sentient beings and the culture they create, however, harms the integrity of other individuals around them and that of the whole.

I do not believe in an objective, ultimate, universal teleological goal. Neither do I believe in in an objective teleological goal for each individual. Rather, I believe that individual sentient beings, especially humans, have a psychological need for meaning, teleology and teleological virtue. It is part of what makes us human. Fighting the existence of the need only provides a self-fulfilling prophecy while fulfilling the need for it.

Following this argument, I also believe that have true meaning and teleological virtue for ourselves, we need to assign teleological virtue to other things and social constructs, even just to label them as irrelevant. Without assigning teleological virtue to things around us, we fail to have a sense of continuity with time and space.

Even labeling something as irrelevant or assigning an erroneous label to something can cause failure to truly understand how our own teleological virtue interacts with other sentient creations of teleological virtue. Conflict arises which can cause a disruption in our sense of continuity, never a fun experience. The more we understand the consensual concepts of teleological virtue around us, the more we can understand ourselves and better reach for our own teleological virtue.

So, artistically, I think Inception was simply "not a disappointment" instead of something more positive because it failed to push itself and have HEART. Dreams are the central concept of Inception. The characteristics of dreams are loose, free flowing, free association, ambiguity, subjective and plenty of other adjectives you, the reader, can think up better than me. Taking away these characteristics in Inception violates the teleological virtues of dreams as we have all experienced them.

The majority of dreams in Inception no longer have the characteristics of an act of the subconscious. Dreams simply become an objectively ordered literary device to provide an environment that poses an obstacle for the protagonists. Characters could choose to break away from certain rules of conduct, but doing so would attract attention from the dream defense systems.

Dreams effectively become The Matrix in the sense of acting as a literary tool. The biggest differences being: protagonists in Inception can exert more control over the dream environment but choose not to do so, while protagonists in The Matrix often need to exert reality bending powers to survive in their protagonist roles.

Respecting the teleological virtues of dreams could have produced a movie with more depth, insight into existence, the human condition and the psychology of all characters involved. Inception comes closest to depth with the relationship between Dom Cobb and Mal and the uncertainty of events that transpire with and between them. This whole set up gets kind of annoying if you saw Shutter Island, though. Practically same relationship with significant other, just different circumstances.

I could have gotten beyond the similar character relationships if the teleological virtues if dreams were respected more. Lack of control and lucid dreams fascinate me and a lot of people out there. Unless these behaviors of the dream world and the codes of conduct were created and integrated into wider society by Dom Cobb as reaction against his own negative experiences with dreams before turning to a life of crime. This argument doesn't really hold, though, since public perception of consensual lucid dreaming in relation to this imaginary world was never explored.

In some sense, Inception made the easy choice: have the subconscious try to gain control of the dream again by using conventional real world tactics, have dream constructs or a dream security team try to kill the perpetrators. Goons work for an action movie, but so much more could have been done to freak with the viewers mind. Why not have the subconscious manipulate the dream environment, destroy the physics of the environment, destroy the sense of continuity from moment to moment and test the limits of imagination? Reality bending as a defense mechanism strikes me as much more effective than sending goons after perpetrators.

Again, in terms of craft, I can appreciate the choices made within the lack of ambition (despite the pretensions of ambition released to the media). Christopher Nolan made a tight movie that met the rigors of continuity. For that, he has my admiration. I just think a lot more could have been done to make a more fascinating movie that provides a novel experience.

Nolan has gone record saying that he started writing the movie 10 years ago, but he didn't try to produce it until recently. He wanted the experience and credibility to have it released in the wider, more mainstream market. His two Batman movies did that well enough.

On the same token, I've heard the argument that if Nolan made Inception with the ambition that I would have liked to see, the movie would have been a box office failure. Per Box Office Mojo, the movie pulled in about $290 million domestically, cost approximately $160, so profiting about $130 million. Foreign revenues come to approximately $530 million. I'm not familiar enough with the industry to know whether that's considered a flop, average or really good.

The argument being made is essentially that by making Inception more out there and crazy, box office receipts would have been a lot less. From my perspective, though, the movie didn't even come close to "out there" from what I saw in the previews for the movie. Previews made me think Inception would have been a lot more crazy, freaky and reality bending. I feel like the product itself didn't meet the hype of the marketing.

The argument being made is that movie audiences don't want anything novel, groundbreaking and that will really question our sense of reality. The movie audience doesn't want to be pushed outside their boundaries of comfort. They want to go to action movies that don't have emotional depth, new ideas or question the current status quo, whether it be political, psychological or reality. The audience apparently just wants big explosions, fart jokes and sexy bodies.

I beg to disagree. I've made my argument. People want the movie with better depth and they want to respect the teleological virtues of dreams for entertainment and to better understand their world and themselves. This is just my perspective, though.

More perspective would be useful and interesting. Discuss.

Links of Interest: Inception,
Plato, The Republic, cognitive biases, holonymy, meronymy, crowd psychology, false consciousness, Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias [full text available], teleological virtues, self-fulfilling prophecy, The Matrix, Dom Cobb, Mal, Shutter Island, Christopher Nolan, Nolan has gone record saying that he started writing the movie 10 years ago, but he didn't try to produce it until recently., Box Office Mojo