Tattoos & Totems

Part VII: Inception (2010)

Is our identity defined by our creations?


“I don’t like trains.”

“Inception” is Nolan’s most existential film, by quite a long shot. It was also a huge summer blockbuster, a combination that hasn’t been seen since the Golden Age of film, when the big movies were actually the movies that received the Oscar nods (see: “Ben-Hur”, “Lawrence” of “Arabia”, “Gone With the Wind”, even the first two installments of “The Godfather”). It also absolutely intends to ask more questions than it answers, and I have no desire to attempt to explain or say one way or the other whether it was a dream, or what in the blue hell it could have possibly all meant, or if whatever it meant or didn’t mean mattered if it wasn’t or dream or if we are dreaming now, or we were dreaming then, or will be later, or anything really concerning the film’s general relevance to Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least not here. But concerning the definition of our identity through the things we create…

Creation is our only link to God/Nature. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and most people believe something along the lines of, if there is a higher power in the first place, it is responsible for creating pretty much everything. This is one of the core beliefs of most religions; its one of the few things that we “know” about God (in other words, we don’t know what he/she/it looks like, how influential he/she/it is in our daily lives, or if he/she/it has itches to scratch, too, but we have “proof” of its creations). Evolution is simply a slow hit-or-miss form of creation. It’s right before our very eyes. Stay with me here…And if we have “proof” that God creates, that Nature evolves, then when we create something, we are, in essence, doing one of the few things that we truly believe the Higher Power can do. Creations are one of three types of products that didn’t exist before we created them, or at least a new arrangement of physical objects or intangible ideas that we filter through ourselves with our soul or our mind – you know what I’m referring to – acting as the filter.

There are three categories of humanly creation: 1.) Art – constituting of pictures (photographs, paintings, sketches, etc.), three-dimensional objects (sculptures, architecture, fashion), sounds (music), and words (phonemes and graphemes – spoken and written). 2.) Dreams – vivid subconscious hallucinations both visual and aural. 3.) Children – this one, the most critical for our continued survival as a species, however, needs two individuals, co-creators (co-producers, since I can never resist a filmic pun), leading not only to the physical creation of a child, something that didn’t exist – and couldn’t have, without those two specific people – before, but also leading to the creation of something else that didn’t exist before: a family.

All three kinds of creation are widely prevalent in “Inception”. The film itself takes care of the Art – photography, music, design, language, storytelling, etc. – although there are blatant artistic and literary references throughout. Dreams are not only something that the film forces us to ponder, they are often the setting of the film, and where the majority of Cobb’s past occurred. His children are his driving force; they are his search for himself, since they were the most tangible and important objects he’s ever created. Mal (Marion Cotillard) is the rest of his family; however, he realizes that she doesn’t exist anymore, indirectly due to an inherent problem in existing for so long inside your own creations: she confused the intangible and less important of her creations with her true reality and her real creations, and allowed herself to find contentment in being defined by them. Because of her creation/reality confusion, she kills herself in the misguided search for her true self, no less, and in Cobb’s quest for himself and the most important of his creations, she constantly interferes; she haunts the place where he has spent the majority of his past – assuming “dream time” is perceived as “real time” – the majority of where his creations lie, the place where he works, and the place he must conquer in order to finally reach his goal of being with his children: his dreams.

The nature of the film as a whole was very circular, not only in narrative structure but also in the dream structure, as well as the thought processes behind the technical aspects of dream espionage. In the narrative structure, we return to limbo at the end of the film, giving us a sense of déjà vu – or redundancy, depending on your association with the film’s parallel to the circular nature of our daily lives – eat, sleep, wake, eat, sleep, wake – coming back full circle to where we began. The hallways spun in the fight scenes, as did Cobb’s totem, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), after two failed attempts at quickly drawing a complex square maze, finally created a labyrinth suited to Cobb’s approval – in the form of a circle. I shouldn’t have to mention the Ouroboros by now.

In one of the most telling moments in the film (both in dream structure and Cobb’s emotional makeup due to his past – a large part of  his identity), Cobb scribbles onto a piece of paper a simple drawing representing the essence of what he does. He drew two curved arrows chasing one another, with a single straight arrow intersecting their path. He said that one curved arrow was dream structure, for which Ariadne was responsible, and the other arrow indicated dream population, or the subconscious – Cobb’s “projections”, since they were both in his mind. These arrows together not only look like the tail-chomping snake, but they also call to mind the familiar “sync” logo so prevalent in our technological society today. But there is a dark, foreboding straight line impeding the dream sync from occurring. What could that represent?

“I don’t like trains,” Cobb tells Ariadne in the understatement of the century. In order to end their prolonged stay as dream Gods, Cobb and Mal laid their heads down in front of a train to end their dream life and return to their waking life, where their children remain. Unfortunately, because of their use of this train to end their lives, which eventually led to Mal ending her real life, Cobb’s fear and hatred manifests itself in his mind into the form of locomotives, which haunt his dreams along with, or as symbols of, the memories of his dead wife. They were on a train when inside Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) dream in the beginning – the first dream which Mal interrupted, where Cobb literally attempted to anchor himself to her before she disappeared, permitting him to fall. A train crashed through the city street in Yussuf’s (Dileep Rao) drizzly dreamworld, effectively blocking Cobb and Ariadne from joining the gunfight with Fisher’s projections. When Ariadne visits the depths of Cobb’s dream, she finds Mal locked away in a dream-version of their apartment, but not before the descending elevator passes by a roaring locomotive; Cobb has buried Mal under a train in his subconscious. This straight arrow through the perfect dream-sync is what keeps impeding him from doing his job, impeding him from returning to his children, which is the only form of identity he truly knows.

Because Cobb can’t let go of Mal’s memory – his manifestation of her, of family, of creation, of his past – she serves as the battle within himself, forcing him to choose between living a life over which he has absolute creative control – his Heaven, where he and Mal spent fifty years playing God – all the while knowing that it wasn’t really Mal but a subconscious manifestation, or to let her go forever and accept the life of a broken man trying desperately to get back to his children, his only real creations, his purest form of identity. In one of their final conversations, Cobb doesn’t want to stay in the dream world because although Mal sits before him, he knows that he can’t recreate her essence, and can’t be satisfied with some carbon copy simply recalled from his humanly imperfect memories. She asks him which is more important, “What we know, or what we believe and can feel?”  He realizes that his true identity doesn’t lie with a projection of the woman he loves, but with their only real and tangible creations, their children.

Cobb’s totem was the perfect symbol for the film and for his and any quest for self-enlightenment. The top was a reminder of who he was, where he was, and it was his savior, the thing that kept him on the uroboric path; it fit perfectly with the circular theme of the film, spinning swiftly, only remaining upright because its own centrifugal force pulls it in every direction at once. In the final scene of the film, we are finally allowed, along with Cobb, to see the faces of his search – those of his children, more beautiful to him than any possible dreamscape, while the top spins and wobbles on the table. In the nature of Cobb’s life, whether the top remained spinning or wobbled and fell was his failsafe – its movement dictated how he lived. The reason we weren’t privy to whether it finally tipped over was because at this point, it simply doesn’t matter.

Much like Leonard Shelby’s flash of Heaven in “Memento”, his wife alive, her killers murdered, and Leonard happy, we are shown a flash of Cobb’s, simply content being with his only creations, his children. And since he’s reached his goal, and much like Leonard, it simply doesn’t matter what came before. Leonard’s tattoos were his totem, allowing him to “know” a few facts that help him find a purpose in the series of mini-lives that he’s forced to lead. Cobb’s totem was his tattoos, allowing him a way to find and keep his bearings on the search for his identity in his own string of mini-lives – the dreams of others. Cobb, like Leonard, would suddenly be somewhere, unsure of what came before or how, or even why, he was supposed to navigate his world.

The name Cobb should also sound familiar, since its shared with the main character in “Following”. But the same identity? Hardly. “Following”‘s Cobb isn’t looking for himself at all; he’s practically running away, searching through other people’s lives and identities as a means of avoiding the consequences of his own. “Inception”‘s Cobb, however, literally can’t escape himself. He’s pulled in more than one direction, like the force that keeps his totem spinning, having to look deep inside himself to discover what he honestly desires in his life, and with which of his creations his true identity resides.

“How did I get here?” is the ultimate paradox of life, the ultimate search for something we can’t find, an answer we can’t know and wouldn’t understand. And if we honestly ask ourselves “How did I get here?” – as Leonard does in ever mini-life of “Memento” and which Cobb discusses in “Inception”, stating that if you can’t remember how you got to where you are, then you’re dreaming – how can we answer? Does anyone remember being born? So does that mean that this is all a dream? Does it matter? Are we capable of truly “knowing” anything in this life? Should we still strive anyway? Why? For what purpose? What are the consequences if we don’t? Is it a question not of “who” we are, but “if” we really are at all? Which of those questions is more important? Does any of this matter, for the love of God or Nature, in the grand scheme of Life, the Universe, and Everything?!? So what am I supposed to DO?

We all relate to the films of Christopher Nolan because we can relate to the struggles of his main characters. Their plight is our plight – we were put on this earth for something, not that any of us remember exactly how we got here, and we can’t be sure what that something is, so we have to create our own goals, and make the search for them our unyielding pursuit in whatever it is that we call this whole shebang called “life”. Nolan’s endings aren’t all necessarily happy, but they do rest on the more positive side of spectrum, except for his prelude/warning to us in Following. His characters usually obtain the goal they seek, although more often than not they have to sacrifice something immense in order to obtain it; some die, some find new ways to live, but they all obtain some form of their goal. Their ultimate fate of their physical manifestations doesn’t matter to them, however, because they’ve obtained that which they sought. We are able to gain insight into the human condition and the never-ending quest for something to have a never-ending quest for, and we are given a little hope in the form of a hint that something good might await us once we finally find it. Of course, Nolan also raises some interesting questions and tells some amazing, deeply thoughtful stories on the way, which can do nothing but help all of us in our tireless search to discover who we truly are.

Now, where was I…