I’m not an admirer of director Christopher Nolan’s work (except for The Prestige, which had a pleasant combination of gorgeous period detail and clever plotting), but Inception started me thinking about the conventions of film narration in Hollywood, and narrative formulas in general.
Hollywood movie narratives are inevitably wedded to formula, having evolved through a process driven by capitalism. Making money meant satisfying audience desires and expectations (“giving them their money’s worth”), which led to the overarching principle of clarity. Hollywood film technique evolved as a means to deliver a coherent and comprehensible story in as clear a manner as possible. All questions arising out of the story events must be answered and all the significant open storylines should be closed by the end of the story. Under this framework, deviations from these principles are traditionally perceived as flaws in the storytelling.
A narrative formula facilitates the storytelling, allowing audiences to fit the pieces of the story together more quickly, leading to a faster understanding of the story’s meaning. Many people don’t want or expect to be challenged too much by a Hollywood movie, the idea of effort being antithetical to entertainment and escape, and Hollywood is nothing if not an industry of diversion.
Formula is fixed, stable, and closed, and to create a story according to a formula is to create a variation, which is a finely calibrated balance between repetition and alteration. A story that is “formulaic” and “predictable” (both dirty words in storytelling) is really just one in which the formula is poorly, nakedly deployed, with the scale tipping too much towards repetition. Too much towards the other end, and the story becomes incoherent and incomprehensible, and therefore alienates all but the most determined moviegoer. Formula, it seems, works best when it’s invisible, so that we believe that it isn’t there, even when it is.
And it is there, even when it isn’t intended or supposed to be, if Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp are to be believed. What began as a descriptive exercise was soon interpreted as prescriptive, spawning a sub-industry of how-to-write books that thrives on the assumption that all stories can be distilled to a finite, ever-smaller number of models—20, 7, 2, 1. The idea that human beings inevitably end up telling the same stories over and over again, and preferring the same story, is persuasive, if deflating.
Formulas are familiar and therefore reassuring. They satisfy needs for completion, closure, and consistency, imparting the feeling that all will be well once everything clicks into its proper place. Misplace an element in a formula, and immediately something feels amiss in the universe. We forgive children for wanting to hear the same story or watch the same movie repeatedly, but this hankering for the comfort of the familiar hounds us into adulthood, where it butts heads with age-appropriate notions of tolerating and accepting diversity, novelty, and change. It seems we continue to seek formula in stories, at least in the Western tradition, whether it’s as simple as the 3-part structure articulated by Aristotle (beginning-middle-end), or the complicated exertions of Syd Field, with plot points and pinches, or the fine-tuned Hollywood narrative formula, with its clarity-driven, protagonist-centered twin storylines.
Filmmakers are usually lauded for resisting or rejecting formulas and refusing to reassure and comfort their audiences. That said, it is equally challenging to work successfully within the confines of formula, though its masters tend to be less acclaimed than their iconoclastic counterparts.
As a Hollywood product, Inception operates squarely within the Hollywood narrative model, delivering a protagonist (Dom Cobb) with a goal-oriented storyline (one last job), a romantic storyline (reconciliation with his wife Mal), and a happy (if ambiguous) ending, as well as deploying the familiar patterns and elements of the heist movie subgenre. It uses a conventional framing device (the flashback), ratchets up the tension with complications and obstacles, and speeds up the logical resolution with various deadlines. Under this model, the answers to all questions about the narrative should be found within the film.
Furthermore, under this model, it’s impossible to “spoil” Hollywood movie stories, because they tell variations of what is essentially the same story. If you take pleasure in the variations, and are sensitive to plot spoilers, stop reading this blog post now.
A common response to Inception has been that it makes viewers think, because so many questions appear to be unanswered, or answered unsatisfactorily, at the end of the narrative. The questions can be roughly grouped into two categories: those about the story events as reconstructed, and those about the internal logic of the story’s world, particularly its dream physics.
Answering “what really happened” should be fairly straightforward, after reviewing the information delivered to the audience and figuring out how to fit it together, which can be a very satisfying and pleasurable process, as it was in The Prestige. A typical Hollywood movie tends to make the connections between pieces of information numbingly crystal-clear, and indeed, much of Inception is spent by characters explaining things to each other—the character Ariadne partly functions as a device for eliciting exposition. This is partly because events that could have made the cause-and-effect connections clearer are often not shown, perhaps due to running time constraints (although Nolan has shown similar disregard for articulating causality in previous movies), and characters are burdened with talking about things that happen offscreen.
But Nolan muddles the process further by also omitting the conventional transitional cues that signal a shift from one plane of reality to another. This omission is a ploy that David Lynch also uses in the genuinely confounding Mulholland Drive. For instance, the only editing transition used in Inception is the cut, even between dream sequences and “reality” sequences, ostensibly because in the story’s world, a dream is just another reality, and characters step in and out of them as they would a room. The vaunted shifts between dream-levels are a variation on the technique of cross-cutting, which allows audiences to follow simultaneous events in a story. While the narrative of Inception supposedly operates on varying levels of “depth,” cross-cutting flattens the dimensions and renders them linear and lucid.
To me, the evidence in the movie points to the conclusion that the entire narrative is Cobb’s multilayered (or not) dream, perhaps engineered and orchestrated by himself, or by the characters who play his colleagues. This conclusion makes explicit the notion of all films as a shared dream, which is a sophomoric move at best. At worst, it nullifies all the stakes in the story, effectively eliminating whatever sympathy and involvement the audience might have invested in the characters and their predicaments. It also neatly takes care of all questions about the internal logic of the film’s story world, for better or for worse.
This outcome is analogous in the film to budding tycoon Robert Fischer’s epiphany about his father, which is treated and presented as one of several climactic catharses in the movie's last 10 minutes, complete with drawn-out dramatics and blaring orchestra, belying the fact that it only happens in a dream, one three levels deep at that. It’s a cheat, as is an “it was all a dream” conclusion, and while it’s arguable that all fiction is a cheat, suddenly coming clean about the deception after luxuriating in it or, worse, using it as a tease at the end, only doubles the offense.
The joy of metafiction comes from acknowledging the awareness of the artifice of storytelling. This awareness is established at the outset of the narration, and informs and deconstructs the story as it is reconstructed. It is founded on the idea that people willingly submit to a deception, suspend their disbelief, for pleasure and insight. This is a transaction based on good faith, and one that has been experimented with in far more interesting ways elsewhere. The half-hearted meta-noodling of Inception takes the film neither here nor there, and only manages to generate obsessive speculation about How Things Really Work Over There. The film thus shoots itself in the foot and while, as Mal explains, pain is real in one’s mind, the film can take comfort in the fact that it was only a dream.