[Image credit: collider.com]
Have you seen John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink (1986)? I ask because I want to you cast your mind back to Molly Ringwald’s Andie: the attention that was given to her sartorial choices, her purported design talent, her quirky fashion statements—and then the heart-stopping horror when you realised she had taken not one, but two perfectly nice dresses (one was even a little vintage number), ripped them up, and turned them into a formless high-collared sack, that dripped from her shoulders at disturbing angles, and which was frankly, not to put too fine a point on it, hideous. Perhaps this crime against fashion did not outrage you in quite the same way that it did me; for me, that dress has served as an important lesson that sometimes films are unable to visually deliver on the promises they make.
So what about the promise made in Inception? The one about “the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that have never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world…” Inception has been called out for using “architectural clichés, dredged up from Hollywood’s collective memory bank”12; for promising a world of pure creation and delivering a collage of hand-me-down compositions—artfully stitched together, but pre-owned nonetheless. Dream levels composed of downtown L.A., a bland hotel, a Bond-esque snow fort… Even Cobb’s home in limbo would be ‘impossible’ in the real world not because of any physical limits, but more likely because of residential zoning codes.
(You must admit, the brutally modernist skyscrapers in Cobb’s limbo are a tad unimaginative.)
[Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)]
(‘Ascending and Descending’ (left) is MC Escher’s famous rendition of the Penrose steps optical illusion.
'Waterfall' (right) is based on a similar illusion.)
[Image credit: Jill Britton]
But assessing the inventiveness of Inception based on the creativeness of its architecture is hardly useful. What is more important is how this architecture has been used. While Arthur’s Penrose stairs may be a neat trick—as is Ariadne’s Möbius strip Paris—there is a reason why Nolan doesn’t indulge in fantastical architecture: the dreams need to feel real. “We didn’t want to have dream sequences with any superfluous surrealism,” Nolan says. “We didn’t want them to have any less validity than what is specified as being the real world. So we took the approach of trying to make them feel real.”13 Naturalistic lighting, familiar settings, contemporary clothing… even slow-motion is used not as a stylistic device but as a narrative element and for world-building. “It’s fantasy,” explains actress Ellen Page, “but instead of feeling like some strange surreal world it feels very honest.”14
(Cinematographer Wally Pfister prefers a naturalistic approach) [Image credit: collider.com]
Of course, this honesty only goes so far: the film never tries to achieve perfect verisimilitude—that would be at odds with its carefully-constructed ambiguities. “When you’re in it, it feels real,” warns Cobb, and while Inception may seem honest on the surface, it does not try to hide its artfulness. Costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, tried to create a timeless corporate atmosphere which was “definitely forward thinking, without being futuristic”15. Even in the waking world, the characters can’t be pinned to a specific time, or even a specific place; events could be unfolding either years or just minutes from our current time. Each character also has his or her own palette that follows them into the dream: Ariadne’s bright red jacket, Cobb’s sultry greys, Eames’ loose-fitting colour-combos, Mal’s bruised purples and deep reds. In the final scene, Cobb’s children may have aged but they are still wearing similar colours to their younger selves, keeping the ending open to interpretation.
Kurland’s costumes are also important visual clues for distinguishing the dreams layers: rough-and-ready leather jackets in the first layer, crisp suits in the second, camouflage snow-gear in the third. “We decided early on that we didn’t want to do any sort of formalist differences, tinting of the image or this, that or the other,” Nolan says, talking about the difficulties of distinguishing between the intersecting layers. “So what we decided to do was construct visual differences in each actual world, so it’s raining or it’s a night interior or a snowscape. The whole movie rests on a massive amount of cross-cutting in the last act, so you want to be able to identify, from a close-up that you just jump into, exactly where you are.”16
(Dreams; now colour-coded for your convenience.) [Image credit: screenshots from Inception (2010)]
You also get a sense of character from each of the dream levels in the Fischer job: the crumbling decay of Cobb’s inner world; the clean efficiency in Arthur’s dreams, with their geometric patterns and sharp lines; Eames’ snow-clad fortress, where the thief proves he always has an ace up his sleeve. Early in the film, Mal comments that a Bacon painting “Looks like Arthur’s taste”: our first clue that dreaming is immersive, subjective—it’s also possibly a clue that Arthur, if only unconsciously, understands the fragility of Cobb’s psyche. The dream worlds lend themselves to poetic storytelling without disrupting the hyperrealism.
Beyond the necessities of storytelling, the mise-en-scène in Inception teases the viewer. The more subtle nods to famous con-artists and chess-masters may go unnoticed by the majority of viewers, but other clues were meant to be found. Hans Zimmer’s reverberating score mimics the slowing down of time experienced in dreams: “Just for the game of it,” he says, “all the music in the score is subdivisions and multiplications of the tempo of the Edith Piaf track”17 used throughout the film as a countdown to the end of the dream. While early viewers were patting themselves on the back for noticing, Zimmer was surprised how long it took them to figure it out, claiming it “wasn’t supposed to be a secret.”18 Likewise, the conspiracy theory about Cobb’s wedding ring was effectively confirmed by Kurland in an interview.19
The ‘realness’ of the dream sequences, the characters’ spatiotemporal ambiguities, the aspersions cast on Cobb’s totem—all of this draws to a point in the final shot, where the questioning of one man’s existence takes the shape of a silver top spinning, spinning, spinning in place. It is an image that has become famous. Above and beyond any gripes about missed opportunities to showcase architectural prowess, this is the visual crux of the film, the throwing down of the gauntlet, the moment that prompts fascination, frustration, admiration and analysis. This is where the game begins. Rather than produce a surrealist vision of dreaming, Nolan concretises the dream state, playing with perception until the lines between reality and dreaming appear as seamless as Penrose’s infinite staircase. He masterfully keeps us guessing, purposefully holding off on giving an answer one way or the other right to the very end of the credits.
[Image credit: screenshot from Inception (2010)]
Inception, Nolan maintains, is “a movie that doesn’t try to bamboozle the audience continuously….it really tries to draw the audience into the logic of the world and lets the audience in on the joke, if you like.”20 While the visual mixed messages may be confusing, they do not inhibit meaning; rather, they open the film to multiple readings. Rather than considering the film as a headache-inducing infinite loop of contradictions, another metaphor might be Escher’s rendering of a grinning skull nestled in a dark pupil: both obvious and oblique, in the end it is up to you to decide what it means.
12 Hawthorne 2010, ‘‘Inception’ dreams big, unlike its architect’, Los Angeles Times.
13 Heuring 2010, ‘Dream Thieves’, American Cinematographer.
14 Boucher 2010, ‘Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’- Hollywood’s first existential heist film’, Hero Complex, Los Angeles Times.
15 Laverty 2010, ‘Inception: Jeffrey Kurland Costume Q&A’, Clothes on Film.
16 Strauss 2010, ‘10 Years After its ‘Inception’ Leonardo DiCaprio Personifies Director Christopher Nolan’s Dream Manipulator’, Daily News, Los Angeles.
17 Itzkofe 2010, ‘Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the ‘Inception’ Score’, Arts Beat, New York Times.
18 Itzkofe 2010, ‘Hans Zimmer Extracts the Secrets of the ‘Inception’ Score’, Arts Beat, New York Times.
19 Laverty 2010, ‘Inception: Jeffrey Kurland – Follow Up Costume Q&A’, Clothes on Film.
20 Itzkofe 2010, ‘A Man and His Dream: Christopher Nolan and ‘Inception’’, Arts Beat, New York Times.