I've been having this ongoing conversation about Inception recently--yeah, I know, a year too late. But it got brought up again! It was the standard convo about whether it's a dream or not, and my position is always: could be. But it got me thinking about the compulsion to have a set narrative for a story that doesn't want to have one.

Spoilers ahead for Inception and Mulholland Drive.

So like I said, my position on Inception is that it could be a dream, but that doesn’t mean that it is. I think it's written so that the part we consider reality is reality, but that there are hints and weirdness here and there that are intentionally making you question if it's a dream. Because that seems like something Nolan is really interested in is the idea that people create meaning for things by giving themselves a narrative and a purpose, even if it's not real. Memento is obviously all about this, with a guy who can't create new memories literally writing out a purpose for himself and leaving himself clues even he knows they're false. I think he brought a little of that to Batman as well. Bruce Wayne had an incident happen to him at a young age that shaped his life completely while Nolan has the Joker retell the story of how he got his scars several times, with each one being different and implying a different psychology driving the Joker.

In Inception Nolan's back to making it literal, implanting false narratives into somebody's head with their unwitting help. So of course on a meta level he can't resist throwing that uncertainty out at the audience. Even if you're sure you saw the top start to fall the movie's obviously cutting abruptly to tell you it's not telling you for sure.

I'm fine with that, but I'm always kind of interested in people coming up with concrete answers to replace that ambiguity. Like, if you want to think that the whole thing is an inception on Cobb and Ariadne is really his psychiatrist that's cool, and thinking about that can bring something to the movie. But it's weird to me when people want to pick one idea as the answer to the movie to stamp out the ambiguity—and the rest of the plot--as if this solves the story. I mean, so that rather than thinking about the idea of Ariadne as psychiatrist and looking at her scenes with Cobb and how she relates to him etc., you're looking for proof that this is what's "really" happening, that this is the story Nolan really wants you to get out of it.

It's not that I think it's wrong to have a favorite theory or a reading that resonates most with you and makes the most sense for you--that's the good thing about an ambiguous movies. And I totally get arguing the different interpretations to see how each one holds up or doesn't. But sometimes that becomes about creating some completely new story and hanging it off the original one and saying we're supposed to care about it, especially when it means forgetting about things that the actual story seems interested in. Like I rarely see people talk about how such and such a theory illuminates or is illuminated by the Fisher story. That just becomes a device or not important because it’s not real.

For a better example, I remember once reading a whole essay on Mulholland Drive arguing for a whole backstory for the main character that was "really" the story of the movie. My personal reading of MD is that the first 2/3 are a dream being had by Diane, and the second half is Diane's waking life. That's how it read to me, but I'm open to other interpretations, including ones where both parts of the movie are a dream. (As Dan tells his friend at Winkies "It's the second [dream] I've had. But they're both the same.) The theory in this essay was that Diane had been molested by her grandfather as a girl. There were a lot of clues talking about this. I can’t remember a lot of them, because frankly they were pretty weak.

What I thought was so strange about it was not only was it making everything that happened in the story a clue to this sexual abuse idea, but the sexual abuse story had nothing to do with the themes of the movie. Sex in the actual movie is always with mutual consent, there's no hint of a preoccupation with abuse. Nor are there any themes of betrayal of children by authority figures. What the actual movie is interested in is success and failure and trying to make sense of why some people get the love and others don't etc. Diane (or Betty) going to Hollywood because she won a jitterbug contest is totally in keeping with the themes of the movie in ways that Diane (or Betty) going to Hollywood after being traumatized by abuse totally is not. The abuse story doesn’t really bring anything to the movie. Nothing in the movie has anything to say about it. Yet the person writing the essay considered it a win because I guess it was a coherent story.

I guess thinking about it what I'm talking about is the idea that all stories ultimately rest on a concrete series of events that happened in a location we know. MH and Inc both have narratives--it's not like they're just a series of random things happening. But they don't depend ultimately on knowing if they happened while asleep or awake. Since any reality outside of the one in the movie is unknown to us, it really only illuminates the actual movie if it resonates with things it’s already saying. The “it’s all a dream theory” stubbornly works in Inception in part because doubting reality is already a theme. Disagreeing on whether Betty or Diane or neither is real doesn’t change the things Mulholland Driveis about, but making Betty or Diane motivated by past abuse actually does, because it conflicts with the motivations set out in the story.
Stories about dreams, like dreams, rely pretty heavily on the repetition of ideas or set ups (The line “leap of faith” and inceptions/the line “this is the girl” and multiple people being replaced in their homes to evade authorities) that are ultimately more important than the details of the plot (who’s chasing Cobb/who controls Adam’s movie). But that often gets described as a flaw or is assumed to be sloppiness when imo it isn’t. I remember reading somehwere, actually, that reviews of MD in the west were always focused on figuring out what "really happened" while reviews in Asia didn't.
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