Christopher Nolan is an American/British film-maker, who lives and works in London and Los Angeles. He first started making films (on Super8) when still a child.
He studied English literature at University College, London, which he chose specifically because they had the facilities to make films. His debut feature was Following (1998), a neo-noir thriller.
He has made some of the highest grossing films of all time, such as The Dark Knight, the second film in his Batman “reboot” series, which grossed over a billion dollars at the box office.
Filmography (as director):
- Following (1998)
- Memento (2000)
- Insomnia (2002)
- Batman Begins (2005)
- The Prestige (2006)
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Inception (2010)
- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
All of Nolan’s films have been critically acclaimed.
- His films have been nominated for 21 Academy Awards. This is astounding given the short period of time he has been making films. Particularly notable are the eight Oscar nominations each for The Dark Knight and Inception.
- His films have won 6 Academy Awards, most for sound and visual editing.
- His films have also been nominated for 21 BAFTA awards (winning 6).
- His films have won many other international film awards.
Nolan has never won an Oscar for Best Director. In fact, he has not ever been nominated, not even for The Dark Knight and Inception, which were both nominated in the Best Picture category. Some consider this a historic snub.
Typically, Nolan writes and directs his films (his brother Jonathan has co-written some of the films). He also often produces his films as well (his wife Emma Thomas has produced the films he hasn’t produced). Having creative control of his films makes him an auteur.
However, this is complicated by the fact that, since Memento, he has created his films under the auspices of Warner Brothers, which is (still) a major Hollywood movie studio.
The easiest explanation for this is that he has proven himself at the box-office, and on the international award circuit, and can command any kind of budget he likes, including the huge budgets attached to Hollywood studio films.
Inception was a summer blockbuster from the summer of 2010. Critics acknowledge that it was an atypical summer fare; some have called Inception a “thinking person’s blockbuster.” Richard Corliss writes that “the picture’s main pull is not visceral but intellectual, in the style of Euro puzzle films of the past 50 years . . . but as Nolan told The New York Times, with ‘way more explosions.'”
The film made over $800 million at the box office and, as already mentioned, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four.
Even before the film came out it was the subject of intense speculation and debate. This is true of its “after-life” as well. Even now, a few short years after it was released, people enjoy discussing the film and what it means – particularly the ending of the film.
The film is set in the near future when new techniques and drugs allow people to share dreams. Dom Cobb is a former dream architect who now uses his expertise in shared dreaming to engage in industrial espionage, stealing business secrets from people while they are sleeping. This is called “extraction.” He is also on the run after being charged with murdering his wife.
After a failed attempt at extraction, Cobb is offered a job by a man named Saito to do the impossible: implant an idea in the mind of a competitor (Fischer), a process called “inception.” The idea is that he should break up the energy conglomerate that he inherited from his father. Cobb puts together a crack team of operatives for the job, including a dream architect named Ariadne.
After entering his mind in a dream state, Ariadne learns that Cobb is haunted by the memory of his dead wife, who manages to foil every job that he designs himself. That’s why Ariadne must design the dream, and Cobb can’t know the details.
In order to fool the host dreamer, Ariadne must design an incredibly intricate dream world with multiple layers. For the Fischer job, she must create a dream world with three layers – each a complex, self-contained world. The three layers are in fact a dream within a dream within a dream.
The main danger in dream architecture is that if it seems too real, the dreamer may confuse the dream for reality. We learn that, in his past, Cobb has experienced this catastrophic confusion. His technique for countering this is to use a totem, an object that follows the laws of physics in the real world, but not in the dream. His totem is a spinning top.
In the film, however, it is suggested that this is not a fool-proof method. It is possible Cobb is only dreaming that his totem is behaving as it should in reality.
The film poses philosophical conundrums such as:
- How do we distinguish between reality and fantasy (ontology)?
- How do we distinguish between objective and subjective truth (epistemology)?
- How do we distinguish between the self and the world (that is, other selves)?
Mark Fisher notes that in the film “there’s a shift from the epistemological problems posed by unreliable narrators to a more general ontological indeterminacy, in which the nature of the whole fictional world is put into doubt.” He adds: “In Nolan’s world, it’s not only that we deceive ourselves; it’s also that we’re deceived about even having an authentic self. There’s no separating identity from fiction.”
These issues are at the core of postmodern philosophy, which I discussed in a previous blog entry.
There are also many issues relating to psychology that are addressed in the film, such as the importance of dreams in understanding the unconscious mind and the way unconscious ideas shape the formation of the person.
This is what “inception” is about: planting ideas in the unconscious mind which lead to a personal re-orientation, a re-programming, a new person.
In the film, both Cobb and Fischer have this experience: the action within the dream becomes a kind of psychotherapy.
Leon Saunders Calvert makes the observation that “for a filmmaker within the Hollywood system, Christopher Nolan is unusually pre-occupied with psychological human states to the degree that they often act as primary theme of his films.” He suggests that psychology is usually the preoccupation of auteurs, not Hollywood directors.
Calvert has analyzed the film from an psychological (or more specifically psychoanalytical) perspective, based on ideas of Sigmund Freud, such as:
- The rebellious unconscious: “The unconscious mind of the individual is a mass of contradictions and by definition remains uncontrolled and unordered.”
- The unconscious reveals itself in dreams: “Psychoanalytic theory argues that during sleep the barrier weakens and the unconscious bubbles out, albeit often in disguised form.”
- Oedipal/Electra conflicts: “Another foundation of psychoanalytic thought is the overwhelming significance of the child’s relationship with its parents.”
- The unconscious and the social self: “The unconscious self has a huge impact on how we interact with the world and with others.”
- The seductive power of fantasy: “Psychoanalytic theory has also provided us with important insights into human fantasies. . . . The psychological pull of the fantasy is all the greater when we perceive it as simple reality.”
Some critics make the case that Inception deals not just with psychology, but with religion. There are a number of ways the film can be read as a religious story.
Throughout the film, characters are urged to take the leap of faith. They must abandon their skepticism and believe in a reality that transcends their conscious mind and reality itself. This is a religious impulse and imperative. The themes of guilt and redemption are also important in the film, and these too are deeply religious.
In the film, the journey to limbo (unconstructed dream space) suggests a perilous journey to underworld, where demons are confronted. This is the central theme of quite a few religious texts, including Dante’s Inferno and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name just two classic world religious texts.
Dreams and Film
Many critics of the film have pointed out the similarity between dreams and the experience of viewing films. According to Corliss, this is nothing new: “The idea of movie-going as communal dreaming is a century old.”
Colin McGinn argues that
movies delve into our dreaming self, that submerged and seething alter ego that emerges when the sun goes down. In the cinema we relive the life of the dreaming self. Movies thus tap into the dreaming aspect of human nature. Moreover, they improve upon our dream life. They give us the dreams we yearn for. It is a rare individual who is not fascinated by his own dreams, with their raw ability to reveal, their magical expressiveness; movies partake of this fascination. The impact of movies stems, then, at least in part, from the primal power of the dream. To be sure, the dream component of the movie experience is augmented by the special qualities of the medium, but the primary emotional hook originates in the evocation of the dream. (Qtd. in Calvert).
Jason Staples describes how Inception functions like a dream:
The construction of dream worlds for shared dreaming serves as an excellent metaphor for film itself (and ‘myth’ in general), as it involves the creation of a virtual reality, a shadow-like imitation of the real world into which people can journey together, guided by the ‘architect’ (writer/director). As people are naturally resistant to new or outside ideas, those media (like film) that can influence people’s thinking without drawing the attention of their (often militarized) subconscious guards are especially powerful forms of communication and agents of cultural change. Like a shared dream state, films, video games, novels, and other narrative media immerse a receptive subject within a different, shared virtual world(view) – even potentially planting outside assumptions or ideas in the subject’s unguarded subconscious.
But the idea of Inception as an analogy for film can be extended beyond the experience of viewing film to the business of creating film. According to this interpretation, put forward by critics Devin Faraci, Mark Fisher, and Richard Corliss:
- Cobb is the director
- Arthur is the producer
- Ariadne is the screen-writer
- Saito is the studio honcho
- Fischer is the audience
In interviews, Nolan denies that he was trying to create an analogy in the film between dreaming and film-viewing or film-making. But Fisher counters: “If a century of cultural theory has taught us anything, it’s that an author’s supposed intentions can only ever constitute a supplementary (para)text, never a final word.”
Fisher thinks, despite Nolan’s intentions, Inception is very much about the film-making business, and not in a good way. Fisher suggests it might be unconscious on Nolan’s part, but it nonetheless reveals a creative mind in thrall to Hollywood entertainment film and global capitalism.
Inception is less a meta-meditation on the power of cinema than, more interestingly, a reflection of the way in which cinematic techniques have become imbricated into a banal spectacle which – fusing business machismo, entertainment protocols, and breathless hype – enjoys an unprecedented dominion over our working lives and our dreaming minds. . . . Inception‘s arcades and hotel corridors are on the contrary those of a globalized capital whose reach easily extends into the former depths of what was once the unconscious. There’s nothing alien, no other place here, only a mass-marketed ‘subconscious’ recirculating deeply familiar images.
Fisher believes that Nolan is not just the creator of a film called Inception, but someone who uses film to practice inception. Just as in the film inception is used for the benefit of corporate interests, it is used in the multiplex to indoctrinate movie viewers in the ideology of capitalism.
He writes: “Nolan’s films are preoccupied with . . . the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy. Yet the situation is worse even than that. It’s one thing to lie to oneself; it’s another to not even know whether one is lying to oneself or not.”
In Marxist terminology this is called “false consciousness,” the process by which we are unconsciously socialized and indoctrinated into the values of the ruling class.
Staples has a similar concern: “The most potent and influential ideas [in the film] are those so thoroughly socialized and internalized that, their origins long forgotten, they are presupposed without argument.” What Staples is writing about is ideology, which we have been discussing all throughout the second half of the course, beginning with Far From Heaven.
Critics like Fisher and Staples argue that the process of “false consciousness” is at work in the film, in the same way that inception works. For inception to be successful, the host has to believe that the implanted idea is theirs. In other words, they must come to believe that the lie is true, and not only that: that it is a deeply personal truth.
According to Fisher, “in Inception, as in late capitalist culture in general, you’re always in someone else’s dream, which is also the dream of no one.” It is the dream of capital, and those who control capital.
I would suggest this is particularly true of the violence in the film. Viewers consume shocking amounts of violence in the film without thinking about it because it is entertaining in itself and part of a story that is written in such a way to make the violence seem inconsequential (it’s all just a dream). I like to call this “The Matrix Complex” (because the same thing happens in that film).
Critics like Fisher insinuate that Nolan is the purveyor of the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, cleverly masquerading Inception as an art film. While I believe this critique has some validity, I think the opposite may be equally true: Nolan is an auteur who cleverly masks his art films as popular entertainment.
That is the main reason I chose Inception as the last film in this course. Nolan is a master of film technique, an auteur; he is prescient in his grasp of the zeitgeist; and he understands how to insert “big ideas” into his film without seeming pretentious. But he does all this in Hollywood, which is quite an accomplishment. It is something that the online film critic Eileen Jones would applaud, and hold up as a shining example of what Hollywood film studios can accomplish, as long as they embrace their own pro-business aesthetic and refuse to slavishly follow the standards of European art film.
Inception: Thought for Food
Richard Corliss says of Inception:
Though the plot is really one giant hallucination, it’s an experience that doesn’t blow your mind so much as challenge it. Viewers will have to work to keep up with all the shifting perspectives and layers of deceit. Inception is like the coolest, toughest final exam – or like the dream of one, in which you’re suddenly in class and you realize you didn’t prepare for the big test. This is a movie that you’ll wish you had crammed for.
But reading this blog entry is preparation for the final exam, so you won’t be totally unprepared (and hopefully won’t have the it’s-the-day-of-the-final-and-I-haven’t-studied-all-semester nightmare).
Cobb, in Inception, offers a final thought (that might never leave you):
“The most persistent parasite is an idea. Once it takes root in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
University of Maryland
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Leon Saunders Calvert, “Inception: Film, Dreams and Freud,” Offscreen 15.5 (May 31, 2011).
Robert Capps, “Q&A: Christopher Nolan on Dreams, Architecture, and Ambiguity,” Wired (November 29, 2010).
Richard Corliss, “Inception: Whose Mind Is It, Anyway?”, Time (July 14, 2010).
Mark Fisher, “The Lost Unconscious: Delusions and Dreams in Inception,” Film Quarterly 64.3 (Spring 2011).
Jason Staples, “Shadowlands, Myth, and the Creation of Meaning in Inception,” Journal of Religion & Film 14.1 (April 2010).