Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Self-Reflexivity and Surrealism of ‘Inception’

By  · Published on July 20th, 2010

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate (now with even more Doctoral candidacy!) Landon Palmer. In this week’s installment, he takes on the biggest film of the summer, name drops Andre Breton, and tackles the notion of art dealing with the real world.

Not that Armond White’s anti-for-anti’s-sake, straw-man-constructed brand of film criticism deserve the merit of serious examination, but there was something in White’s review of Inception that struck me as particularly problematic…

Inception’s gee-whiz tricks permit disbelief in reality. it substitutes fascination with exploring the physical and spiritual reality of the world (which the great critic André Bazin posited as the glory of movies) with an unedifying emphasis on shallow, unreal spectacle…[Nolan’s] shapeless storytelling (going from Paris to Mumbai to nameless ski slopes, carelessly shifting tenses like a video game) throws audiences into artistic limbo ‐ an “unconstructed dream space” like Toy Story 3 ‐ that leaves them bereft of art’s genuine purpose: a way of dealing with the real world.”

White’s rather passive and blanket assertion that cinema’s strength is in its preoccupation with the ‘real’ is not only a blatant, selective parenthetical misreading of Bazin’s theories of realism, but his claim (delivered with minimal further explanation) that “art’s genuine purpose” is “dealing with the real world” ignores cinema’s long and important history (much of it predating Bazin) of preoccupying itself with the fantastic and the impossible. Cinema’s preoccupation with reality as we see it, after all, can only take on an effectively significant function if a dichotomy is present: for cinema to present a sense of the real requires in turn an equal ability to present events that exist outside the laws of reality, the surreal.

I have little interest in further analyzing Armond White’s many precarious monuments of argumentation (the dubiousness of his authority on the subject is already firmly in question, even for his obstructionist approach to discourse alone), but his misinformed, unconvincing, and ultimately dispassionate “championing” of realism does provide an entryway to an important oppositional reading of Inception as an object of cinema rooted firmly in the tradition of surrealism, and all the practices of self-reflexivity the classical form of this art of the fantastic takes with it.

Surrealism and Cinema

Surrealism was an early twentieth century European art movement that ‐ alongside similar progressive art movements like Cubism and Dadaism ‐ aimed to not only deconstruct and alter our perceived reality, but the social and ideological structures which define that reality. André Breton, credited as the principal founder of the movement, defined surrealism as such in his “Surrealist Manifesto” (1924):

“[Surrealism is] psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express ‐ verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner ‐ the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

One way in which Surrealists sought to achieve the “absence of control exercised by reason” was through their preoccupation ‐ articulated in their literature, paintings, cinema, etc. ‐ with the dream state. Breton continues: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Their fascination with the dream state provided the Surrealists a means to examine behavior free from social and cultural restraint, and in turn manifest images resulting an unmediated subconscious ‐ think, for example, of the melting clocks and uncanny landscapes of Salvador Dalí.

While there has been a long history of surreal imagery in film, arguably only two films can be said to be explicitly surrealist in the classical and contemporaneous sense of the art movement (in other words: many films are surreal, but not all are surrealist), those films being Luis Buñuel’s short Un Chien andalou (1928, the 17-minute film can be seen in full here or on Watch Instant) and his feature L’Âge d’Or (1930), both in collaboration with Dalí. These films not only manifested the dreamscape of images, mood, and logic that Surrealism concerned itself with across an array of art forms, but also did so by toying with cinematic convention and its traditional expectation of delivering something comparable to a coherent, lived reality (after all, the moving images of cinema allowed a spatiotemporal access to the dream state that another medium simply couldn’t). In doing so, these films revealed the entire enterprise of cinema as deceptively operating on a pseudo-logic comparable to the dream state. These films were as much about cinema as they were about dreams, and it is in this respect that Inception can be read as following this tradition.

I ‐ Time

Inherent to cinematic expression is its ability to manipulate time. Within the span of two hours in a movie theater, the degree of time covered or experienced within the narrative of a film can encompass days, months, even years (in the unique case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, millennia, or in many of David Lynch’s films, no traditional linear conception of time at all). The conditioned patterns of juxtaposition allow cinematic time to be represented and experienced in a number of ways. The simple cut between scenes implies the passage of time, while more complex leaps in time can be understood simply through a title card (‘6 years later…’) or signification of characters or objects within a scene (a character aging, vehicles or attire that reference certain eras). For those conditioned in even the most passive means of watching films, this active manipulation of time is not only easily readable, but expected.

Un chien andalou, in its effort to deconstruct the processes of cinematic time, toys with this manipulation. One scene in the film features a protagonist moving across a room, continually interrupted by intertitles like, “3 Years Later” or “6 Years Before” and he is seen after these titles in the exact same position, appearing no differently, the film thus playfully revealing the construction of cinematic time as largely arbitrary and manipulative (as no time at all, in fact, has passed).

Similarly, Inception employs its own specific rules of cinematic time through its employment of precise temporal principles of the dream state (dream time is extended from real time, while a dream within a dream is an extension of the time of the initial dream). Inception’s rather inventive use of parallel editing ‐ concocting an entire host of events within events that take place simply during a seconds-long freefall of a van, then extending this to one character’s decades-long internment within the dream landscape depending on one’s interpretation of the ending ‐ creates within itself a relative and extended subjective sense of time simply through the employment of basic cinematic devices, not unlike Un Chien andalou’s intertitles.

II ‐ Juxtaposition

Similarly to editing’s importance with regards to establishing a sense of cinematic time, we also follow a succession of filmic events through a particular cinematic practice of juxtaposition, also operating on a specific pseudo-logic. Events are cut-up, segmented, and we merely infer through cinematic conditioning that one follows another. In Un Chien andalou, this inference that one event logically follows another encounters contradiction as images and events are so obscure and enigmatic that they hardly connect in the cause-effect chain expected of otherwise traditional narrative cinema. Our inherent ability to connect events between scenes or shots are challenged in the experiment of this film.

The self-reflexivity of cinematic juxtaposition, however, occurs quite differently and, in some ways, more playfully in Inception in a segment of the sequence early on where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains to Ariadne (Ellen Page) the rules of the dreamscape. Cobb asks her, “How did we get here?” when explaining that one enters a dream in the middle rather than at the beginning, to which she realizes she is in a dream. Like Ariadne, we the audience also infer that there was a beginning — a “how they got there” ‐ to her interaction with Cobb at the café, for in watching scenes through juxtaposition we as viewers fill in the gaps between those scenes. When seeing two characters at a café, we infer without question that they somehow arrived and got a table at that café. Thus, Inception’s logic of the dreamscape operates on the same inferential logic of cinema: our minds automatically infer, dismiss, or fill out where gaps exist.

III ‐ Logic

Finally, cinema operates on a relative logic all its own, a logic incompatible with the logic of everyday, experienced reality. With its constraints of time, its juxtapositions, its three-act structures, its genre implementation and subversion, or simply for the necessity of an accessible and compact narrative, cinema employs its own relative pseudo-logic. Even in the “realist” films vaguely referenced in White’s review (examples of Bazinian realism include the great Bicycle Thieves (1948) or The Rules of the Game (1939)) operate on a select logic distinctly separate from reality in their condensation of time, their implementation of plot structure and closure (however open it may be), the presence of off-screen music, etc. (cinema seems hardly fit to honestly or directly explore “real life” as White so earnestly urges it to, for realism ‐ which is the impression, not the recreation, of the real ‐ is still, like the subject at hand in this article, such an aggressive –ism).

Even in its haphazard inconsequential succession of events, Un Chien andalou still operates on a particular cinematic logic, even if that logic is the deliberate lack or avoidance of logic ‐ the dismantling of traditional cinematic expectations, then, becomes a logic all its own.

In narrative terms, films employ a set of rules, and how convincingly these films come across depends on how devoutly they abide by them. These rules don’t have to correspond with the rules of reality, but must simply be consistent. This is why we can “buy” the logic of sci-fi and fantasy films: as long as the film exists in a universe that is relatively logical ‐ that is, can be easily understood in terms of the rules and limitations specific to the universe introduced ‐ then it remains convincing and doesn’t have to pertain to that broader logic: the supposed logic of reality. The way dreams operate in Inception may or may not have any relevance with regard to how controlled lucid dreaming can function in our lives, but Inception is remarkably consistent and convincing with the relative logic it explores throughout the film (as any film with over an hour of introductory expository scenes should). Suspense of disbelief is the central functioning process which allows us to not only experience a film, but enjoy it; films work because of our desire to suspend our disbelief, our desire to spend two hours in an alternative universe convincing us of its corresponding logic. It works because we want it to. Likewise, Cobb explains the non-lucid dream state in the film as containing a logic that has no correspondence with reality, but this pseudo-logic goes unquestioned when the dream is so convincing ‐ an instance in which the term “dream” could easily be substituted with “cinema.”

Armond White might think art’s genuine purpose is to deal with the real world, but I’d prefer Andre Breton’s take on the function of art:

“…Why should I not grant to dreams what I occasionally refuse reality, that is, this value of certainty in itself which, in its own time, is not open to my repudiation?… Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?”

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