All my subsequent thoughts presuppose this and this as the most intelligent things on Inception I’ve read thus far. I think it was these two blog posts that started a process, and at the end of it was the conclusion that Inception may be one of the great films, what Paul Schrader called “canon” films, films which, like the great books, have the power to change us. At the very least, it is one of the best films of the new century. I have done almost no thinking about the film qua film however, how it uses film allusion and genre structure, in what way it is the product of an auteur, those kinds of questions. My attention is directed at the narrative for the time being.
The narrative is more emotionally complex than I had at first thought. It is tempting to think that because Cobb is the central figure, and that therefore the central issue involves his overcoming of grief, that the other elements of the narrative are plug-and-play, just elements because there need to be elements. The longer I think about this, the less true it becomes. On closer inspection, there are several other narrative elements which strike me as important.
First, Fischer’s Story is in many ways a second heart of the narrative; the entire story is in a sense about him. His mind is not merely the setting of an adventure, a mental counterpart to Jan Benes’ body in Fantastic Voyage; like the Godfather films, the narrative is driven by his father issues and their resolution. I know this because the second time I saw it, I literally gasped at the discovery of the pinwheel in the safe, which in an instant concretized all the longing and loss and reconciliation possible in the father/son relationship. By tricking Fischer into “knowing” that his father loved him after all yet wanted him to become his own man, the Team has given him a priceless gift. (Lisa and I had this hilarious discussion last night of how this is a “chick flick for boys”: how else can you concretize the kinds of emotional issues men have with loss and repression except by representing them as a Bond Villain Lair that has to be blown up by a crack team of experts?) The fact that it is Cobb, a man who is ultimately defined by his struggle to become the kind of father he should be, who gives this gift to Fischer, is not without significance. Two of the three climactic moments of the film involve fathers reconnecting with their children, making either the father or the child whole in the process.
Second, other, seemingly less important relationships Cobb has have more importance than meets the eye. Many reviewers characterize Ariadne as a kind of female Basil Exposition, but it would be a miracle if a character with so loaded a name didn’t have more significance. After all, the whole story is the story of an adventure in a labyrinth, which makes her significant, at least for Cobb; it is only through the contribution of Ariadne that Theseus is able to slay the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth at all, and this she is said to have done out of love. We see Ariadne in three connections. First, she is mentored by Cobb, who gives her the remarkable gift of being able to become an architect of the imagination. It is a pity that there is not more narrative art on the male mentor/female disciple relationship, for it is one of unsuspected importance for both figures; perhaps patriarchal fantasies and feminist anxieties make it impossible to look fairly at such relationships and what they mean for both (actually, the film is about all sorts of things that feminist anxieties make difficult to look at fairly). In any case, there is a reciprocity here, for not only does he teach her, but in the process of being taught, she discovers her mentor’s profound flaws and damagedness. We are not shown where this will take her, but we can only assume that she too, like Fischer, will become something more autonomous in the end. And most crucially, she is the only other character present at Cobb’s climactic confrontation with Mal’s shade, and it is Ariadne, not Cobb, who sets in motion her destruction and thus liberates him. It is she who says the words, “don’t lose your self,” which is also the voice of the film to us.
Why is the story not over right there? There is some obscure yet central task that remains, for as central as Ariadne is to Cobb’s liberation, Saito is the one who holds the power to complete it and reconcile Cobb with his children. I confess to finding the scene in Limbo between Cobb and Saito haunting and mysterious, and yet I know on some level that I understand it. It is about death, or more precisely, the desire to die. For while the film affirms the therapeutic necessity of delving into the self and its dreams, it also knows that to lose oneself in the dream self and its self-absorbed desires is the way of death, and, like Eyes Wide Shut, it calls us instead to life, responsibility, awakening. The very structure of the narrative puts all its emphasis on this moment in Saito’s palace; it is how the film begins and ends. It is the top step of the paradoxical, circular staircase that is the film. The dialogue helps here.
Saito: Have you come to kill me? I’m waiting for someone.
Cobb: Someone from a half-remembered dream?
Saito: Cobb? Impossible. We were young men together. I’m an old man.
Cobb: Filled with regret…
Saito: Waiting to die alone.
Cobb: I’ve come back for you. To remind you of something, something you once knew. That this world is not real.
Saito: To convince me to honor our arrangement.
Cobb: To take a leap of faith, yes. Come back so we can be young men together again. Come back with me. Come back.
This is what Cobb will become if he doesn’t succeed: an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone. Becoming young men again is not to return to the past. It is to finally live in the present and to be able to look to the future hopefully, to still have some life ahead of one. And yet he doesn’t say “to become the young men we truly are.” He says to become young men again. It is a kind of resurrection that is on the table with Cobb’s gun, a new vigor without innocence or ignorance: to have lived through and understood all that they have, and yet be able to face world and future with strength. When all awake in the plane, the expression on Saito’s face is perhaps the most unexpected, for he did not enter this labyrinth thinking to be changed, he only sought more power, and yet he emerges from it, like Cobb, like Fischer, like Ariadne, a different person. It is a look of astonishment.
Christopher Nolan turned forty the month the film was released, an age by which, at least in this culture, many times many men have had certain experiences. While I know very few who have experienced the death of someone dear to them other than their parents, it is often said that divorce is a form of grieving. Far too many will find themselves by mid-life haunted with guilt by a woman they think they destroyed, by the children they have walked away from. Whatever may have impelled them initially, by the end they may find themselves filled with regret. Inception teaches that if they are to become young men again, to come back to reality, “downwards is the only way forwards.” And this job, this last job — that’s how they get there.