Representation + Interpretation Part III

Read Part I Here.

Read Part II Here.

In the sci-fi thriller, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dominick Cobb, a professional thief and former architect who, along with his partner Arthur, specialises in stealing secrets from his victims by infiltrating their dreams; a process known as extraction. We are introduced to the pair on their latest mission, extracting information from the dream of a Japanese mogul named Saito, who, as it turns out, was auditioning them to perform the highly dangerous task of inception – planting an idea in a victim’s mind that will take root and spread like a virus, fundamentally altering the way the victim behaves and thinks.

At its a core, Inception is a heist movie that uses dreams as a plot device. But truthfully, a multitude of questions arise when one fully appreciates the oneiric themes, not merely as a plot device, but as a critique on our ideas of representation and interpretation. What Inception was able to accomplish on a Hollywood scale, is something we have already known, but probably not able to articulate. It allowed us to question our already imbedded knowledge: is a dream in fact not “real”? Foucault describes dreams as idios, solely mine, as oppose to the world, tout court, which is ours.[1] Yet the shared experience that we all have is the feeling we have during our dreams. Can we not see, smell, touch, hear, taste, and even feel when we are dreaming? If every fibre of our being tells us what we are experiencing when we dream is real, does the fact that it does not occur in perceptual space make it any less emotionally valid; any less real? Our dreams therefore are not mere representations of our waking world; they exist in their own world. They are. One can argue that their existence affects our waking life as much as our waking life affects their existence. Foucault continues to say that “man has known, since antiquity, that in dreams he encounters what he is and what he will be, what he has done and what he is going to do, discovering there the knot that ties his freedom to the necessity of the world.” A strangely familiar yet oddly opposite link can be formed between Foucault’s position and Inception.

In the film, we learn that Cobb is on the run form the law and cannot return to his home in America as he has been implicated in the murder of his dead wife, but if Cobb and his associates accept the mission presented by Saito, Saito will use his influence to clear Cobb of his charges, allowing him to return to his home and his children. Throughout the movie, the audience is reminded of the dilemma Cobb faces: because of the guilt he has over his dead wife, and the pain he suffers through his work, he often does not know if he is actually awake or still dreaming. To test which state of consciousness – which state of reality – he is in, Cobb uses his totem; a small spinning top that keeps spinning if he is dreaming, but if it falls over, it confirms that he is in waking life. He has to continually affirm that he has a grip on reality (though even personal reality itself is questioned in the film) before he becomes a prisoner of his own dreams; a prisoner of a “false reality”. Where Foucault tells us that it is through our dreams we discover the knot that ties our freedom to the necessity of the world, in Inception, the dream is the ultimate antagonist; it is the one thing that is always questioned, that Cobb is always trying to escape.

It should be stated that the movie itself performs a kind of enacted inception on the audience. The final moments of the film have been among the most debated and talked about moments in recent cinema. After completing his mission and returning home to his children, Cobb spins his top to confirm that he is indeed awake, but forgets to check it when his children call out for him. The camera zooms in on the top as it spins and just as the audience is on the edge of their seats, wondering whether or not the top will fall, the image cuts to black and the movie ends. The imagery is powerful, not only because the results of the spinning top will signify if Cobb did indeed return home or is stuck in a perpetual dream, but because it places us in the same predicament Cobb is in. What the cut to black represents (and this is the difference between the mediated film and our own personal dreams) is our yearning for closure; our need to know. What is essential here then is not if Cobb made it home, but whether or not we, the audience, are aware of our own existence; are aware of our own understanding of reality. Was the entire film a dream? Did we miss something earlier in the film which would have alerted us to a deeper meaning or a clearer understanding? We thus question our own grasp on what is real; a dangerous thing, for – and if I may be so bold – as Descartes tells us, the only knowledge that we can trust is our own,  hence his famous dictum cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.”[2]

To be continued…

– Peat

Read Part IV Here.

[1] Binswanger, Michel Foucault & Ludwig. Dream & Existence. Ed. Keith Hoeller. Trans. Forrest WIlliams. New Jersey: Humanities Press International, Inc, 1985.

[2] Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. 4th. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1998.

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