THE MATRYOSHKA OF PROJECTIONS IN CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S NEW FILM "INCEPTION"
By Helmut Ploebst
In his grand speech on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C., Martin Luther King said: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”[i] The black civil rights activist who was murdered on April 4, 1968 wante to implant a simple thought into his fellow Americans: all people, regardless of their origin or skin colour, are equal. He talked about an aim which before him the United Nations with their Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and all communication on behalf of equal rights had not reached either.
The civil rights activist’s dream still remains largely unfulfilled today.[ii] Even today, the mechanisms causing the persistence of racial resentment are hardly understood. Mainly because they are part of several complex and interacting systems which obviously could not be explored sufficiently until now.[iii]
Martin Luther King’s dream is a utopia. Like utopia, dream is an ambiguous term with sub- and metalinguistic connections and anchorings which are bundled in the “dream” in the sense of a linguistic operator appears as an alterity to “reality” – likewise in the sense of a linguistic operator. The part of our communication system language which is in general use here, too, offers insight into the status of popular perception. At the same time it serves as a carrier system for special perception which either attains a state of generalisation, or doesn’t.
The term dream has several meanings. Firstly, these comprise the brain’s projection efforts during sleep; secondly, the quite wakeful projections of an individual or collective desire, e.g., of a utopia like that of Martin Luther King; or, thirdly, communications projected from outside via film (but also via TV, theatre, video games, sport spectacles, dance, graphic arts and so on). Language offers conclusive evidence for the latter, e.g., when one talks about the “dream factory” Hollywood.
However, popular language creates a dichotomy between dream and reality because it works with simplification, which in this case distracts from the properties of the human perception system. Only that is real which in this perception system – which operates exclusively with projections – is realised as a projection mediating reality (including hallucinations and delusions). The realisation’s processing orientates on stability, but anything but static. Therefore, the parallaxes in the various projections mirrored into the projective perception system determine the measure for new assessments of reality. So it is not only recognition which leads to cognisance (as is often maintained), but the shift to a greater or lesser degree of differences effective in similarity. This parallax motivates the innovative mind as it frustrates the conservative one.
Mind is the spectre in the “cinema” of perception. Moreover, in cinema as a mass medium perception presents itself as a metaphor, a spectre of the mind, so to speak. This is what makes the medium so successful,[iv] and therefore Christopher Nolan’s new film Inception about the utopia of systemic dreaming is fascinating. But how does the metaphor of cinema work? The film is projected into the audience’s perception via a detour over the silver screen in the cinema. Via sensual receptors the perception system feeds the perceptions into the processing system described before, which is projective itself: an active, intelligent, learning, reflecting and processing “screen” which moreover is identical with its projector. This spectral identity is what we call the mind.
Cryptograms in the dictionary
That is relatively clear. But this model becomes adventurous in the best sense only when our knowledge about the fact that the perceiving subject controls only a small part of the selection and processing of mirrored projections is included in our thinking about it. The knowledge itself is a complex of projections and does not mean that we can overcome this extensive lack of control. So, knowledge presents itself as a screening. A translation. And the spectral language of the unconscious has not yet been translated to the mind.
In a nutshell, cinema projects the language of the sending unconscious into the language of the receiving unconscious using the dictionaries of the conscious which is haunted by the terms of the unconscious in the form of cryptograms. The consequence is a double shock: the hue of projection and the cry of uncontrolled translation generate a so-called experience. A movement experienced as being moved and dancing in our dreams while the conscious rests. This dance of projections is a function which unsettles man like his own birth or death in general.
In art, the cryptograms find forms which reproduce the dance of projections in models – i.e., the works of art – and thus open them up for experience. The experience of art is one of immediate translation. Controlled reading and analysis means an attempt to let consciousness participate in this emotional experience of translation. From this point of view, the literary form of the narrative film may represent an aid to thinking disguised as emotional discharge. Nolan’s Inception approximates this as a metaphor for the interdependence between reality and projection and their confusability in the human perception processing system in a simplifying and vivid manner.
A combine talks about combines
When Nolan (e.g., Memento, 2000; Insomnia, 2002; Batman Begins, 2005; The Dark Knight, 2008) deals with dreams in his latest film, he doesn’t immediately resort to the big psychoanalytic schools of thought but first builds a utopian model whose emotionalising hull is fear of the possibility of certain lobbies being able to extract secret thoughts from people. It is significant for our present times that the main issue is economic espionage, a war of combines, and not espionage between states in the power struggle of national or ideological systems of symbols.[v]
Inception is a product by Warner Bros. and thus produced by a combine and intended for a broad and international audience conditioned for the spectacle. This makes it clear that the film operates out of an inside view of the war of combines, and therefore is a function of that which it displays. Nolan’s and Warner’s calculation adds up. Only six weeks after its premiere the film was among the hundred most successful films to date.
The character of the protagonist Dominic Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio) together with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) had – thus the love drama within the crime drama as plot within the plot – created the world of their dreams in the sense of a utopia, on the level of common dreaming in the sense of the brain’s projecting efforts used as a real strategy. The two characters existed on two parallel levels: that of lived reality and that of the self-created dream world. The project miscarried due to arbitrary acts of the pair – exactly where they tried to influence each other. Due to manipulation by Dominic, Mal confuses the reality levels and pays with her life.
Dominic, who has made a profitable business out of stealing secret thoughts on behalf of a sinister enterprise, pays double for his mistake: he is wanted for murder of his wife, and he tries to preserve Mal in his dream reality. Here, Sigmund Freud is clearly present with his model of ego, superego and unconscious as basic auxiliary construction.
But the tragic love story is not just a gimmick for the film’s consumers but also has a narrative function: as an exaggerated “system error” with regard to reproduction biology and cultural dynamics in the construction of bellicistic plans aimed at success. In the film, the concept of romantic love as a dream become ideology about the overcoming of mere reproduction technical preservation of the species in the sociotope is presented as the nightmare which western culture especially has produced: the other in a contract of mutual possession for life. A fortunate or tragical counterinsurance against the real solitude of the subject thrown into fatally finite life.
Classical material, once again told in a new way. For Dominic’s last, ultimate job is infiltrating one power system with a trojan on behalf of another power system. On the level of digital communication systems, a trojan means smuggling a disturbance into an opponent’s territory – with an intended reference to the famous Trojan Horse from Greek mythology which is rich in infectious love stories.
Ariadne as an angel
The second and at the same time more important female character in Inception, Ariadne (Ellen Page) is borrowed from classical Greek literature. She is the film’s actual heroine, a figure without a biography, a presence constructed only out of its actions and in this sense the protagonist’s superego, which as an angel-like Lolita presents the “anti” of Nabokov’s fatal nymph: pure intelligence and ideal humaneness, uncomplicatedly positioned as a symbol for the saving flash of inspiration in the connection between plan and chaos.
Ariadne is hired as an architect for staging backdrops for the dream constructions, she detects Dominic’s weak points, and she accompanies him even into the underworld of his inner conflict. She is the youngest member of the team who undertakes a venture no one has dared before, and she has the thread in her hand that could lead out of the narrative’s labyrinth. Or, with other words, the environmental architect who creates projections becomes a choreographer against the disintegration of the protagonist’s infected organisation. Thus, Ariadne also is modelled a bit as the labyrinth-building director’s alter ego.
The latter manages to present his narrative’s complexity to a mass audience as a comprehensible construct, which changes from a reality basis into the dream within a dream – and from there, into another and into a third dream level, and from there again into the last, and most dangerous one: into the gentle lesser hell of limbo, the counterpart to purgatory, where those souls abide who fell into the abyss through no fault of their own.
Projection within the projection, the matryoshka of illusions has been the basic concept of information societies since the very beginning of all cultures. But what is considered as maximum confusion in present-day mediocracy also carries the instruments for finding one’s way out of Platon’s cave into reality, or for getting an image of reality in the labyrinth of pretenses. At the height of conflict in Inception Ariadne calls out: “I’m improvising!” Like the director, she operates with maximum reduction, with intuition – that is, the greatest possible systemic risk, when everything known concentrates on a certain point and generates an action.
The film’s ending is surprising because it follows exactly that principle: the open outcome of the improvisation in the master plan’s crisis. At the same time, it doesn’t surprise – because it isn’t about the narrative but about the organisation of dynamics in the matryoshka of illusions’ usage. Or about multiplicity in the construction of perception and its potential for failure.
A fundamental background of preferences depends on this; they decide between catastrophe and problem solving. A conflict in the global sociotope which has remained unsolved since times immemorial, as we have to admit in the final consequence. With the help of a simple, dramatically treated model the director manages to communicate in a universally understandable manner that dreams and projections determine the human concept of reality on all levels.
Furthermore, Nolan tries to point out in the character of Ariadne that orientation is possible, however complex the interlocking systems may be. Especially so if the systems – be it intuitively, rationally or in mutual interaction of both – are understood, and if this understanding is not self-sufficient but leads to ethic action like it was characteristic for Martin Luther King.
[i] Cf., among others: http://www.usconstitution.net/dream.html
[ii] Note how U.S. Americans treat their president Barack Obama, the absurd debate about the mosque near Ground Zero in New York, and migration policies not only in the USA, but in Europe, too: France’s treatment of the Roma, Austria’s preposterous deportation programme and Hungary’s abstruse shift to the right.
[iii] This needs adequate social conditions; as long as racist resentment and moralist protection mechanisms set against them determine the field of communication, this area of discourse will remain a “war zone” of polemics.
[iv] Cinema is more like the sleeping dream than theatre, where the audience is a witness instead of a dreamer.
[v] Excursion: the power systems of combine and state exhibit themselves as competitors for the strongest performance. A core statement of Inception is that the combine’s influence on the state is so big that it only needs a telephone call by a combine’s boss to overrule the state’s legal system.