The inception of dreams

There are movies we like to watch more than once. We go back to them for any number of reasons – to enhance the specific sensation triggered in us the first time, to understand them better, to see how the film was put together, or perhaps to observe the disciplined consistency in which the actors performed their roles, etc. In other words, there are many levels at which we can watch a film. In my case, the repeat viewing of a film is a very rare event.  I can’t even say I watch movies regularly. But three films, at least, have been compelling enough to make me see them again: The Matrix, Avatar, and, more recently, Inception.

These are great and immensely entertaining films. They are bold in conception and execution. Perhaps, in a technical sense, we can even say they are path-breaking. But they are not extraordinary.  Certainly, there have been far more profound and technically ambitious films. I have enjoyed watching these three films because, apart from being entertaining, they deal with themes that are of immense interest to sociologists and philosophers. One such theme is the elusive difference between the fictional world and the real world, between the dream world and the world we wake up to, or between the world of the unconscious and the world of rational consciousness.  The terror of being stuck in an unreal world – be this a dream, a delusion, or a movie — is a haunting sensation.

We wish to be woken up from a dream that is dangerously slipping out of our control.  We want to free ourselves from the anxieties, phobias, and fixations that paralyze us.  And, of course, we want any movie to end at some point, regardless of whether it inspires or frightens us.

This is a strange game we play with our psyches. First, we lower our defenses by suspending disbelief. This is the admission ticket we pay to be able to connect to another world that is beckoning to us with the promise of new meanings.  Even so, we continue to protect ourselves: within a dream, we strive to retain the awareness that we are just in a dream, and therefore we can snap out of it at will. Inside a movie house, watching a movie that seems so real, we take hold of our ability to close our eyes, or walk away if necessary.  These, as we know, do not always work.  The best movies and the best dreams, like the best neuroses, are those that overwhelm our defenses, lead us to unpredictable paths and situations, and reward us with enduring sensations and meanings – while permitting us eventually to wake up.

Inception, the movie, claims as its domain this whole mysterious world of dreams, neuroses, and constructed reality.  The plot is simple enough (apologies to those who haven’t seen the film): Leonardo diCaprio’s character Dom Cobb is a “dream extractor,” someone trained to enter other people’s dreams in order to steal their deepest secrets.  He is hired by Saito, a Japanese businessman, played by Ken Watanabe, not to steal information but to implant an idea in a target person’s psyche while the latter is in a dream state. The technique is akin to giving suggestions to a person under hypnosis.  The big difference is that in the film, this process is carried out within a shared dreamscape, with the use of a “Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous” (PASIV) device.  Only the target (the scion of a business magnate) is unaware that the whole setup is, from inception, a dream. Cobb and his team, on the other hand, retain their awareness of the dream state, even as they navigate their way through three layers of dreams (a dream within a dream within a dream).

Anything can go wrong in an enterprise as complex as this. The Freudian unconscious is uncharted territory even for the most methodical dream manipulator. Cobb, the professional dream extractor, is haunted by his guilt over the suicide of his wife. Phantoms from his repressed memory surface in the most unexpected places, putting in doubt his ability to tell a dream from reality.  Because he projects these memories into the dream, the phantoms acquire an existential reality and become active participants in an ongoing dream.  On top of this, the target victim does not remain passive. He summons unexpected defenses from his own psyche, thus contributing further contingency to what is already a very complex situation.

I tried to keep track of the sequence of events for the first half of the film, but gave up in the face of a multiplex of dreams that seemed impervious to logical analysis.  After a quick bathroom break, I decided to relax and enjoy the rest of the film, reminding myself that this was a movie, not a dissertation.

One week later, I decided to watch Inception again. I wanted to figure out for myself what the director, Christopher Nolan, was doing in the film and how he was doing it.  In sociology, we call this “second-order observation.”  What you are watching is not the movie itself but how the director is putting it together – what his problems are and what decisions he is making, what he is focusing upon and what he is leaving out, and what sensations he is trying to create and implant in the viewers’ psyche.  This film lends itself well to this kind of reading.  Yet it remains elusive.  The viewer is kept guessing whether in the end Cobb woke up to reality or was stranded in the limbo of dreams.

I felt better after watching Inception for the second time.  It occurred to me that perhaps the whole story was nothing but a multi-layered dream in Cobb’s head.  And that the film itself is not about the inception of dreams but about the making of movies, especially movies that remind us of the thin line that separates illusion from reality.