Inception and Lucid Dreaming

My earliest memories are dreams. In the very first I awake up on a beach in China, with snakes coming out of the sand. How could I not love the opening of Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb in the surf with a pagoda in the background?

I’ve been blessed with cinematic, powerful dreams all my life. Sometimes I’ve lived a lifetime in one night – I didn’t know other people had experienced that but, in Christopher Nolan’s film, the characters grow old in the dream, only to wake up young again the next morning. Often, I’ve died in my dreams, so it was good to see that Nolan’s film didn’t promote the popular misconception that if you die in your dreams, you do in real life. In the movie, as in my dreams, it means you (normally) wake up.

Lucid dreaming is having the ability to be aware that you’re dreaming and remain in the dream to control it. The classic conundrum is to know what is the waking state, the “real” world, and what is the dream state. A corollary is to ask which is more important. Read Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto and you may easily become convinced it’s the dream.

In the film the characters carry personal totems so they can tell if they’re dreaming or not. Cobb is never without a small spinning top that apparently only topples in the real world. In dreams it can spin forever. The technique I tend to use is to deliberately look at a scene or view, turn away, turn back and look at it again – if it’s changed it’s an indication I’m in a dream world rather than reality.

When you discover you’re dreaming, the secret is to remember this while staying in your dream. Do that, and you can do anything you want – literally. You become a god, in charge of everything and anything. My first step is normally to fly – there are few things more liberating than swooping across the sky feeling the wind on your face. Sometimes you change your form – if battling a gigantic monster of some description, I reckon I’ll be more successful if growing razor-sharp claws (and just growing).

The Penrose staircase

A slight disappointment of Inception was the lack of “physics”. Near the beginning of the film, new architect Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) asks the question about changing the laws of nature and folds the world in on itself, but that seems to be where it ends. There’s just one later point where Tom Hardy’s Eames magics himself a bigger gun, but that’s all. On the whole, the rules of reality seem to permeate all levels of the dream worlds within the film. A nice touch though, was the inclusion of impossible objects, specifically a Penrose staircase that the characters referred to by name. I’ll be sure to mention it when Sir Roger’s next in my office.

The dream within the dream is a very common by-product for lucid dreamers. Many’s the time I’ve woken up, spent most of the day at work, only to wake up, realize I’m still in bed and now late, got up and spent most of the day at work, woken up again and discovered that was all a dream too, and so on. My bosses have always been very understanding, but it can be hard to keep track of what you’ve done and what you’ve only dreamt you’ve done.

The holy grail for lucid dreamers is to share their dreams. In the film, the characters use drugs to access other people’s dreams. A technique I’ve tried with people on several occasions is to arrange to meet at a certain time of the night (say 4am) in a place we’re both very familiar with. The idea is to go there in our dreams, have a conversation or go on a trip together, and then discuss it in the real world the next day and see what happened. Sadly, I’ve only rarely got there myself and have never met up with anyone else.

I’m thrilled Nolan has brought questions about the reality of the dream world to a mass audience in the way he has. The biggest question surrounding the film is whether the whole thing is a dream, in Cobb’s (or even someone else’s head) or whether the wrapper at the start and finish of the film is, indeed, reality, with dream states only taking place in between. The most conventional reading of the film would probably be the latter viewpoint, yet there are hints towards the alternative interpretation.

Cobb & Mal on the beach

At one point Cobb’s supposedly dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) suggests to Cobb that his life of being chased around the globe by nameless organizations can only be a dream state and he needs to wake up so they can be together again. Also, a theme in the film is that you can tell a dream because you don’t remember its beginning – you magically appear in a particular place with no recollection of how you got there. At the film’s end, Cobb seems to have achieved all his goals and is in his home with his children and their grandfather, yet he just appeared there – there was no journey involved from the airport to wherever he lives.

In the end, that doesn’t matter to the main protagonist – maybe Cobb’s in “limbo” or maybe he’s found redemption in the real world but, whichever is true, he’s with his children and that’s what matters to him. The ambiguity of the ending is something that echoes Verhoeven’s magnificent Total Recall. If Cobb has retreated into his own fantasy world, then the ending is strikingly similar to Nolan’s early Memento, where the main protagonist’s blissful self-deception is only revealed at the end of the movie.

I hope something that sets the Johnny Mackintosh books apart from other books aimed at a similar audience is their ambiguity. The world’s a complicated place and I have little time for stories that are very black and white. Readers familiar with my stories will certainly recognize how important dreams are in the books. Nolan’s triumph is to have created a thoughtful, fantastical world around ideas I’ve always loved. It didn’t appear as complex as some critics have suggested, but I look forward to a second viewing just in case.

~ by keithmansfield on September 19, 2010.

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