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.

From: [identity profile] kerosinkanister.livejournal.com

I don't have a lot to say about md (naomi watts' acting annoys generally annoys me so I've only watched it once) but I thought this was an interesting take on the movie: ask.metafilter.com/3912/Can-you-explain-the-movie-Mulholland-Drive-to-me

I've seen inception a few times now and come to the conclusion that all the reality vs dream stuff doesn't actually matter. it's really a meta movie about movies and the inception is in the audience's minds. nolan makes this nearly explicit with about fischer's fake dream providing a real emotional catharsis.

From: [identity profile] kerosinkanister.livejournal.com

that was supposed to link to this specific comment: ask.metafilter.com/3912/Can-you-explain-the-movie-Mulholland-Drive-to-me#94654

(im on my phone)
ext_6866: (Blobs of ink)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

ITA agree on Inception--I think that's why it surprises me when people get really angry at the idea it could be a dream because then everything falls apart. To me it seems more like it just doesn't matter whether it's a dream or not since the world of the movie is all there is.

Thanks for the MD link! It's one of my favorite movies, I admit. And it seems like one of David Lynch's more straightforward ones, actually, besides for the ones that really are straightforward. In some ways it seems like Lost Highway redone in a way that actually works. A guy I work with is married to someone who works with David Lynch and he used to give me copies of Wrapped in Plastic, a fanmag about him. It had some great articles about MD when it came out.

From: [identity profile] roisindubh211.livejournal.com

I always found it interesting that they put all this effort into getting Fisher to do something (can't remember exactly what) for Saito, and this whole complicated plot goes into planting the Inception in Fisher's dream, while he basically spends the whole dream trying to save Saito's life. He will wake up with his feelings about Saito affected even if they fail to implant the idea. He almost "incepts" himself, and I think it hints that this "impossible" thing has probably been done accidentally before. Like, if someone's mental security system goes off when you get in and you leave, they'll be slightly wary of you in person without knowing why.
ext_6866: (Don't know yet)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Hadn't thought of that, but you're right. In a way, any interaction with people does that. Ariadne also winds up getting into Cobb's issues and the whole dream idea. But yeah, you'd think that Fisher would especially recognize these people on the plane, like when you have a dream about somebody that's unpleasant and sometimes you feel angry at them before you remember that stuff didn't happen.

From: [identity profile] khilari.livejournal.com

I remember being annoyed by the end of Inception not so much because of the ambiguity as because the top and the slight wobble seemed like such a cheap way of focusing on it. Like writing or is it? in big letters on the last screen.

Overall I liked Inception, but I think the ambiguity is part of why I haven't wanted to read or write fanfiction about it. It seems like to do so I'd have to settle on a single narrative, and I think the movie resists that in general.
ext_6866: (Don't know yet)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

LOL! That's exactly what it was like: OR IS IT....? That's why it seems like a losing battle to say that it couldn't possibly be a dream. That last shot is so obviously trying to make you wonder in the cheapest way possible. You just have to laugh at it.

I hadn't thought about that with fanfiction. I don't think I've ever read any for Inception but I see what you mean about having to pick a narrative. Everyone notices how most of the characters have very little characterization outside of the events of the movie, so as soon as you give them one they're less potentially dreamlike.

From: [identity profile] fanaddict.livejournal.com

I read a book once that made a point I took to heart and have related back to every discussion ever related to books, movies and anything else more than one person will view. The author said that everything is a triangle of interpretation. In one corner is the creator (this gets more complicated with movies/TV where multiple people are involved in the creation process), in another corner is the actual source material (ie book, movie, TV show)and in the final corner is the viewer. Within these corners of the triangle is an area where it all comes together and a myriad of possibilities spills out.

Essentially, the author was saying that the creator may come in with a specific intent, but what they create they then send out into the world to interact with others and what others bring to the table causes them to see that creation differently than the creator intended. And then of course there's the interactions with the creator/viewer where both can change the others' outlook. Basically, it's a fuzzy fuzzy world where everyone sees things through their own lens and we each have our own realities.

Getting back to your Inception point, I think Nolan is one of the few creators who understands and respects that reality differs for each person. His movies assume we will each come out having viewed a different movie than the one the person next to us saw, and therein lies his magic.

As for the MD sexual abuse thing... Well, if we each have our own lens, then someone's lens who has a slant toward seeing sexual abuse could easily see it. That's what she's bringing to the table pre-made and the movie is made to fit her reality, which we all do to a certain extent - it's just than some people's lens have a heavier slant a certain way than most based on their past. It's still their reality.

Of course, then that begs the question of can anyone be completely wrong in an interpretation. I'm sure in fandom we've all run into people who see things so completely different than us we have no idea where they are coming from - but I think it's usually possible to figure it out if everyone is willing to reasonably explain where they got their ideas. Where I see things going wonky in fandom is when people get interested in a fandom based on fanon and never go to the source material, because they are taking other people's lens and fitting their own over those, creating a super-distorted interpretation. I tend to think if everyone has viewed the source material, then even the most outlandish interpretations (to me) have a "true" reality to them for someone else and there's enough room for both. Luckily ideas don't take up physical space so there's always room for more.
ext_6866: (Two more ways of looking at a magpie)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

Love that triangle idea--that really does cover it. I always feel like there's a big grey area for interpretation. Because sometimes I'll support somebody's personal interpretation for them, but then challenge it as an objective interpretation of the actual work in question. Some people would probably disagree and give the reader even more power, but I feel like that if you go too far in that direction we might as well not be talking about the actual canon. We lose one side of the triangle.

Like with MD, I wouldn't argue with a personal interpretation that Diane had a backstory that included sexual abuse because she certainly could have. It was just a problem for me to think of it as important to the story because it left out most of the story without even really adding anything to it. Or sometimes something can mean something to a reader personally but if it was actually part of the canon it would change a lot of other things.

But you did put your finger on something I think is interesting about Nolan. He might not always do it brilliantly, but the idea of everybody making up their own reality is really interesting. If an author's going to have a pet idea he likes to explore that's a good one!

From: [identity profile] khilari.livejournal.com

He might not always do it brilliantly, but the idea of everybody making up their own reality is really interesting. If an author's going to have a pet idea he likes to explore that's a good one!

I'm thinking about other autho's who have done this now. Neil Gaiman is an obvious one, everything in Sandman really comes down to this and even the very different art styles as it changes artists comes back to that idea.

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones is a fascinating one, I think, because it takes place in a field of unreality which, as I see it, mimics the process of writing a story. One of the things that everything hinges on is the fact that the Bannus field replays key scenes again and again to test out what different decisions would lead to. And it often doesn't do this in chronological order, something decided later can affect something earlier.

From: [identity profile] ramalama.livejournal.com

Oh man, I love ambiguity. I don't want Nolan to tell us whether it was a dream or not. I don't want to know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson. I don't really care where the four-toed statue came from. Heck, the two movies I'm recently obsessing over are open-ended: Did Zoe marry Whit in the end? Did Roy recover and/or embrace life again, or did he resume his suicide quest? I find open endings very tantalizing. Sure, as someone mentioned above, it can sometimes be an easy or lazy way out of the story, but that's a measure of the quality of the writing. If the writer has managed to engage you in the story, it can be a great way to make the audience part of the story as well.
ext_6866: (Might as well be in Chinese)

From: [identity profile] sistermagpie.livejournal.com

I love ambiguity too--in horror movies it tends to be even more important, because it's like things have to be understandable enough that you think something's going on, but the more it's explained the less scary it is. If you cross the line to where it's too explained it's just boring. In other movies it's almost like it's dead, like there's no room to move around. And you're right, it does give the audience more of a role.

Not that I think you need heavy handed ambiguity like these moments in every movie. Sometimes the story can give you all the information but it still gives you things to think about. But that's more like ambiguity that you just don't recognize as easily.


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