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Inception: How An Unspiritual Film Treats Time and People

17th of August, 2021

Barthes describes plastic as a “disgraced material”, and he also notes that in its cultural mythology plastic retains a reputation as an interloper for the bourgeois textures of fur, silk, and diamonds. When used as an adjective, plastic is functionally synonymous with cheap: plastic chairs, plastic cutlery, and plastic plant pots are poor compromises when wood, silver and terracotta are too unwieldy or expensive. No comparison to plastic is ever taken as a positive one, and indeed the charge that “the time of Inception feels like plastic” looks at first like a more evocative way of calling it cheap. I intended to open this essay with that sentence, but without qualification it reads as a non-sentence, a sort of linguistic gruel in which every individual word fails to affirm the meaning of its neighbours.

Plastic in its original adjective form describes matter that can be shaped. A plastic time, then, should follow: time that allows for (or necessitates) the infinite transmutability of experience—its substance is essence rejecting, not really substance at all but an immanence inside which substances can be found. Plastic in its modern noun form is more immediate to our experience: It surrounds us as dead hardness which is fundamentally at odds with plasticity as “less a thing than a trace of movement” as Barthes puts it. The plastic of 21st century living, particularly in most workplaces (21st century living) is a collection of textureless forms which embody nothing but protrusions into, or the negation of, useful space. Plastic is something that pushes air and light and latent possibility out of the way, replacing it with an opaque use value. The regular 24 moments per second of film lends itself to a feeling of linear time—and linearity has its natural analogue in solidity—but there is something about the time of Inception that feels less like the lush solidity of wood or metal and more like a blank dry-wipe whiteboard.

Plastic is made from the compressed souls of billions of marine curiosities from older geological epochs, so how these creatures from the Pliocene and Miocene are mythologised by us, in the Anthropocene, vitalises the various plasticenes that they now substantiate. Indeed, in practise no whiteboard is properly blank: the faintly discernible traces of old marks are there for the curious and the incontrovertible noise of those marks in aggregate are there for everyone else. Plastic isn’t synonymous with anything really—there are too many other meanings embedded for another word to mean the same thing. They are not secondary meanings since they are just as vital as whatever primary sort is intended, and they are not implied meanings since—implied by whom? There are hardly any true synonyms in any language. A reading of plastic which centres cheapness, or any one descriptive property over another, is a reading which deadens one's perception to these contradictory sub-conceptual properties.

This is the time of Inception then. Dogged adherence to the causality of the heist narrative and Nolan’s reluctance to ever have two characters talk about the same thing for more than 20 seconds inform a time delivered to us in cubes of pristine and unyielding solidity. The text, that of dreams and of the echo of a dead woman haunting a conman’s doomed skull, expects of us the passive acceptance of a time of local eddies and distant distortions, like the polar infinites of a Mercator map projection. The reconciliation of these contradictions is the familiar absurdity of the Hollywood picture: romance and death, humanity and capital, and rigid narrative causality set across a space and time visually and formally atomised by hyperactive cutting and monomaniacal framing.

Memento’s premise would’ve overwhelmed a more sensitive director—can you imagine David Lynch or Martin Scorsese trying to tell this story? There’s too much to explore here if you care about the human mind or the human heart, too many psychological variables to play with and too many emotional screws to turn. Kubrick, who only cared about scoundrels, would’ve played to Leonard’s personal failings and turned his very serious condition into farce; Nolan, who doesn’t care about anybody, approaches Leonard and his situation as a set of exercises in narrative logistics, interesting because of the challenges they impose upon a filmmaker and the strategic choices they engender.”
—Lucy Frost, on Christopher Nolan's Memento

Frost is probably the person most keenly receptive to Christopher Nolan’s fascinating disinterest in human beings. I think that when she and I designate Nolan’s work as being fascinating by way of its depravity, the apparent contradiction of value there means that readers might wonder how it is that this designation is in any way a good thing. The metaphysical thought experiment film, whether in the Magical Realism of Groundhog Day or in the science fiction of Minority Report, is usually treated as a way of asking questions about humans—our souls and societies—by putting characters resembling humans in some funky situation. Groundhog Day isn’t at all interested in how or why Bill Murray wakes up every morning and relives the same day, it is only interested in how the character of Phil Connors reacts and changes over time—the film is a machine that uses the mechanisms of repetition and extreme linear time as artifacts of experience to think through the development of a human being.

Most audiences in 1993, writers and producers perhaps correctly assumed, would find it tedious for Bill Murray to conduct a series of experiments to test the boundaries, rules, logic and implications of his newfound imprisonment in the flat circle. What audiences are willing to put up with is historically mobile though—the collective consensus for what sorts of narratives are acceptable relies on a constant social negotiation that societies have to make with the media they engage with. This YouTube video by jan Misali, called hangman is a weird game, is a 20 minute description of the game of Hangman and how it conforms (or does not conform) to our collective understanding of what a game is. There is no plot, but there is a narrative structure: we are introduced to the rules of the game, we then examine the win conditions, and then the practise of cheating, and then we synthesise what we have learned in a general discussion about the conventions of game design and how Hangman manages to subvert these conventions. It is a compelling audio-visual experience: It is a film about exploring the rules of hangman. As of the time of writing, it has three million views.

Would there be a receptive audience for Bill Murray conducting experiments, slowly uncovering the mysteries of his predicament, and largely ignoring the task of talking to his fellow human beings? I think hangman is a weird game proves that there would, if it was written in a compelling way. I know I’d enjoy that, and Christopher Nolan… well I don’t know if he’d enjoy it exactly but he might extract something resembling pleasure from the exercise. Where Harold Ramis used a never ending day to tell a story about a callous man transcending the prickly shell of his individuality to develop an empathy for and love of other people, I can only assume that a Christopher Nolan rendition of this premise would be a film about the formal challenge that repetition poses for the telling of a pulp narrative—in which Phil falls in love with Rita because she is the only woman on screen and so is essentially the driving mechanism of his otherwise abstract action. And so, Nolan’s Dominic Cobb: a man who loves his children because they are the finish line of his narrative arc, and a man who grieves for his wife so that a phantom might plausibly haunt his subconscious.

My characterisation of Inception as a heartless and masturbatory exercise belies my enthusiasm for the thing as a work of art. As in the plastic comparison, a heartless thing is not necessarily a worthless thing. I expect that meeting Christopher Nolan in person would be a deeply uncomfortable experience (and I would be remiss if I didn't bring up his treatment of women in his films), but here in the distillation of his aesthetic ambition is something of a horror movie which treats paranoid alienation the way a slasher film treats violence. When Cobb tells Mr Saito that an idea is “the most resilient parasite”, we are treated to a laugh at the film’s expense—Inception apparently cares so little about the content of its own philosophy that it is willing to compare its own ideas to roundworms—but Nolan really does seem to deeply care about the ideas themselves. He may not care about people, but he cares about roundworms. There are no real people in Inception, and no feelings except those that we are able to project onto them, but there are ideas, and there are systems. The presentation of these ideas through a narrative medium, in which invented characters explain and demonstrate them via a dramatic framework, is the reason we might describe them as parasitic.

No matter what sort of plot hole you think you’ve found, nothing is more absurd than the image of Joseph Gordon Levitt setting a bomb with a clock timer. Inception is very fond of using popular truisms about dreams to inform its logic: you never know how you got to where you are, that feeling of falling that jolts you awake, but a moment’s reflection of any dream one has ever had that involves a clock is enough to make the notion that one might use it to measure time consistently and in the right order a completely ludicrous idea. This might be explained away by the practical reality of the dream states in the film having been induced by drugs, so that the subjects can share a single dream together, but this is just kicking the can down the road. The centre of indeterminacy which is central to the subjectivity of a consciousness is evaporated by the process of sharing a space within that consciousness. These are dreams not as psychological and spiritual phenomena, but as spaces, and as logical frameworks for narrative storytelling. The story could be about people playing a video game with a few minor tweaks, only in that story the souls of the characters are saved. As it stands, the quantisation of time—its conversion from an abstract medium of possibility and concept into a concrete medium of length and depth—is a process which renders these people as automatons. There are no conscious beings in Inception, there is only space and mechanism.