A reflection on the promise and limits of American power in Afghanistan.
This is the 10th anniversary year of Inception, one of Christopher Nolan’s typically extraordinary movies, about to be re-released in theaters for your viewing pleasure. It’s an opportunity to celebrate and to remember that, until recently, it was still possible to make movies that made a billion dollars, received many Oscar nominations, attracted and amazed the young, rewarded adults with wonderful productions, good acting, and elegance of design, and also aimed to educate us.
Nolan is himself about to turn 50 later this month, so we should celebrate him, too—the most influential director or our time. His ten movies over two decades are a unique combination of prestige, popularity, technological and cultural innovation. Hence, seven of them are in the IMDb top 250, the primary measure of influence in the digital era. His new thriller, Tenet, releasing on August 12th, looks as impressive.
Nolan himself, however, seems a reactionary, like Tarantino: He’s against digital filming, he’s for practical effects and intriguing stories to amaze audiences, and trying hard to make movies that look like Lawrence of Arabia rather than the vulgar commercial films (and their immensely-profitable merchandise) that Disney is so successfully peddling around the world. His defense of cinema’s history seems important to his conservative vision. His movies, Inception above all, convey resignation about the danger humanity faces—our future is dark, and even preventing despair will be difficult.
The Age of Vulgarity
The political madness of our times was preceded by moralistic ugliness in pop culture, fantasies of destruction and rage, and the elite abandonment of the most impressive talent, especially visible in our most talented directors, given the prominence of cinema in our arts. We are reminded that the great Leo Strauss said liberal education is nothing but the opposite of vulgarity, the Greek word for which is a lack of experience of beautiful things—apeirokalia. This is the future of Inception, and the main worry of Nolan, who benefited from a liberal education himself.
Inception is a post-democracy, post-liberal story, a future where science won and humanity lost. Energy corporations dispute rule over a planet where politics has been obsolesced by globalization, and one corporation is about to install a monopoly, indeed a dynasty. This political problem sets the plot in motion: Saito (Ken Watanabe), a magnate about to lose everything, desperately resorts to a criminal conspiracy led by mastermind Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get to Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to the monopoly, and prevent universal hegemony.
The story suggests, as in Moliere’s comedy, that assassination is the surest, shortest way, but our criminal protagonists instead specialize in industrial espionage through poetry—dream theft. Why the complication? Because corporations matter in themselves, and so does legitimacy: Killing an heir would not save freedom, but persuading him not to assume hegemony might—Fischer seems to have a choice, he might be the last free man in the world.
In a world of technology, poetry becomes a criminal enterprise—it produces mere images, deceptions, and does nothing to change the world, but it makes people vulnerable instead. Technology has not fully conquered the soul and poetry has one last chance to stop the onslaught. So our protagonist, Dom, who usually steals people’s secrets when they’re asleep and their reason is weak, decides to instead plant an idea and change history.
Think of it as a new Hamlet: Why is that prince so weak and vacillating? A man like his father would know what he had to do and do it! But Hamlet’s a Christian, indeed Protestant, and he cannot even act on his desire for vengeance against the body because he’s afraid of losing his chance to take vengeance on the soul. Even tragedy becomes strangely complicated—so also with Inception’s attempt to reverse catastrophe and restore freedom.
Education and Poetry
So Dom and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recruit a team to mount an assault on Fischer’s soul: Architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), a master of drugs, and an actor. They put on show after show, confusing the dreaming man with stories where he must make strong moral commitments, beset by uncertainty. By adding dreams within dreams, they force him to face the fear of disappointing his dead, ruthless CEO father. He proves weak indeed—his father was right about his character.
The son lacks the father’s desire for empire, but he has not learned of the madness of that desire by seeing it end in a lonely death. Unmourned, unhonored, and unsung, Walter Scott would say. Indeed, the bitter guilt the unloved son feels might just get him to do what his nature, circumstances, and common sense all stopped him from doing before—imitate his inhuman father. Denied love, family, and everything else, he might try to be great, or simply tyrannical.
Dom understands that attacking the dead father would be catastrophic; instead, he works his way around to deceiving the young man that his father eventually understood the error of his ways and wanted a better life for his son. He tells a noble lie that gives a power of conviction to the truth—the boy is nobler than the man, if much weaker, given his doubts and humiliations, susceptible to persuasion by tyranny.
Neither of the two would have ever listened to Dom, since he’s not a technological ruler, but Dom has taken what technology despises—the human soul—and mastered its secret longings. From his point of view, men delude themselves they are free, when in fact they are chasing dreams.
It is not an accident that Dom should be tasked to save freedom from this tyrannical burden of guilt in face of death and a cluelessness bred of long habituation. The very power of the institution the father created crippled the son morally. Like the son, Dom feels guilty, because, like the father, he is a creator—not of a corporation, but a fantasy world he inhabited with a wife who ended up loving it more than their real life, children and all. His attempt to get her back to reality instead persuaded her to commit suicide.
Dom thus once attempted to replace reality with imagination, because the world has become unbearable for poets, and he thought his genius could use technology to recreate the freedom lost in the real world. So he and his wife dove deeper and deeper into their dream world, increasingly seduced by the beauty of their own creations, by their power to make a world according to their free desires, until she lost her mind, after which he lost her. Only by paying this price could he learn that poetry should be prudent and preserve freedom from tyranny—the imagination is also a tyranny, if liberated from nature. Without his wife, he is again working for a public, rather than a merely private purpose, but he nevertheless does it to return to his kids—what kept him sane is family.
His life of crime involves both great skill and discipline—he never looks at the faces of his children in his fantasies. He cannot let his greatest desire enslave his mind. He wishes to return to them in real life and that means doing what is necessary to return to America. His Bond-like adventures around the world in glamorous, exotic, remote settings, only present obstacles and temptations.
Much of Dom’s teaching and the burden he bears has to do with fixing his mind on his purpose. Even in the midst of all his designs, plots, and deceptions, he recognizes the necessity of clarity. This is of course an image of movie-making, as the team represents the crafts put into cinema, but it is also an image of education. Inception is a rebellion against technology in defense of the soul—humanism in cinema.
The other side of Dom’s nature, what most obviously separates him from his antagonist, is that he has friends. They admire his skill, they play their parts freely in his grand design, and thus unite their own remarkable powers with his—they face death together and thus learn not only to trust, but to help each other. Their friendship is an image of freedom and it is superior to what justice can offer, as Aristotle said.
This is what’s at stake in the movie, said in the simplest way the story will allow. Ever since his debut and first Oscar nomination, Memento, Nolan has justly enjoyed fame for his complex stories and the challenging way he presents them. He understands that if you do not amaze audiences with intelligence, they will not respect the artist. But when you watch the movie again with these thoughts in mind, you will see that the complicated, baffling sequences have important things to reveal by themselves, not just as they contribute to the revelation of the few important secrets.
Moreover, Nolan makes his movies the way he does because he understands that it is not enough to tell the audience a story, but it is also necessary to do it in such a way that people experience the moral and intellectual problems at the core of the story—that they come to see what the protagonists see and judge for themselves whether this is the truth about human nature, our striving for freedom and the threat technological and institutional powers pose to us as citizens and human beings.
Today, it does not suffice tell people they have souls, they must come to believe it by certain experience. The temptation to abandon oneself to authoritative accounts of the cosmic forces ruling our lives is too great for people to withstand, unless they experience their power to act, which requires an act of rebellion which only conviction can set in motion. Unfortunately, there is a great plausibility to Nolan’s fears about our time—despite their great popularity, his movies have not taught artists to become serious, and audiences instead decided to sacrifice their souls to the fantasies Disney offers. It will be very difficult to save people from this fate, but that is the task of cinema in our times—not to madden people with fantasies, but to use fantasies to return people to sanity.