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Inception in a World of Real and Unreal

July 28, 2010 3 comments

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Richard Weaver wrote, “Ideas have consequences.” GK Chesterton once said (and I paraphrase), “There is a thought that brings all thought to an end.” Christopher Nolan’sInception” is a mind-bending trip through dream world upon dream world upon dream world, exploring the consequences of ideas and the power of ideas to bring our world(s) to an end.

Many of Nolan’s film wrestle with ideas about our perception, and the struggle to discern the real from the unreal. Both Batman films (Batman Begins and the Dark Knight) immerse us into a dark world where the hero (Batman) must face an ambiguous evil that disrupts the mind and turns the world upside down. In a strange way, it reminds me of 1 and 2 Kings. In his commentary on Kings, Leithart suggests that these books may really be considered wisdom books because they tell story after story where the ruler is thrust into ambiguous settings, and is called upon to make a decision.

The prime example is Solomon. Being forced to choose between two woman who both make claim to the same baby. Solomon needs wisdom to shed light in a situation where good and evil are not clearly in the light. Nolan’s films reveal characters thrust into those same murky places that confuse the mind. His characters need wisdom to know how to choose, how to act in the middle of the mess.

Ebert sees a connection between Inception and an earlier Nolan film, Memento. I agree. The story of Memento is told by a man with short term memory loss. His blind sight is our blind sight. At times, the film is disorienting as we try to make sense the story in his world. His body is covered in tattoos. Gradually, we realize that these tattoos are his memory. It is not until the end of the movie that we understand the story we’re in.

Memento tells a story backwards through bits and pieces of narrative, fleeting images, a body marked with memory. All these questions come alive in his newest film. Inception follows a man and his wife into a confusion of reality between waking and dreaming. As the lines blur, discernment about what is real and what is not fades.

There are multiple points through “Inception” when we the viewer almost lose our bearing. We are experiencing the chaotic struggle of the characters caught up in a world that intertwines fantasy with reality. While Inception delves inward toward a Jungian subconscious dream world, it explores themes that are just as real in our waking world.

The premise of the film rests on the idea that we can enter into another person’s dreams and learn ways to extract their secrets or even suggest new ideas. This is not the simple dream combat of Dreamscape from the early 80s. This dream tinkering requires a team of professionals: an architect to build the world, a druggist to control the dream state, a forger who is a master of becoming other people in dreams, a researcher who prepares the details, and of course the action man who steals the idea or in this film attempts to plant an idea.

All this inner exploring can be confusing. At one point, the viewers of the film are submerged in four different dream worlds occurring at the same time. All these worlds have been created through ideas. All these worlds have the power to  entrap, deceive and threaten life itself. These worlds are supposed to be about the inner world of dreams, but these inner worlds are not so very different from our outer world.

In the movie, they created symbolic worlds or worlds that carried and expressed meaning, even hidden meaning within a person’s soul. Our dream worlds are filled with all sorts of fascinating images and structures and people. Memory and meaning are blended in fantasy where it is difficult to discern what really real or true. But this isn’t just our dream world. In our waking world, we face the same challenge to discern the real from the unreal.

We live in a world where ideas give birth to homes, clothes, cars and entire cities. The power of a spoken idea is the power to set worlds in motion. As Weaver and Chesterton pointed out, ideas have real power, and some ideas can lead to the end of ideas, to the end of our world.

In this film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams. He knows this can be done because he has done it before with disastrous effects. Cobb himself is a man tormented by the power of deception and guilt to twist the waking and dreaming mind into confusion and limbo.

In this film, we see how ideas can twist our perception and our ability to know the true from the false, the real from the unreal. We see how some ideas can lead to the distrust of every idea.

In his day Chesterton realized there were ideas being planted in people’s mind that would eventually spring up and cause men to question rationality itself. In other words, he saw the danger of some ideas that would lead us into such a state of confusion, we’d be trapped in a limbo.

These ideas were not planted through dreams because the real place of influence is not through our dreams but through our ears. Speech has the power to change the world. To create the world. False speech twists the world into a confusion between the real and the unreal.

Hitler built a world on speech that twisted the real and the unreal. This speech took form in bodies, buildings, books, tanks, and war. Augustine built a world on speech in submission to Christ. The words he speaks in “Confessions” and “The City of God” still resound and still take shape in lives, cities, and societies.

As a rhetorician, Augustine understood that speech touches to heart and the mind and the body. Classical rhetoric is about learning how to speak. Quintillion said that rhetoric is the “art of a good man speaking well.” Great rhetoric integrates the mind with the emotions and moves the body to act. What is often called rhetoric in our world today is simply a shell of what once was a great art, thus it is often seen as manipulative and dishonest.

As I watched Inception, I thought about the power of speech. I thought about how wrong ideas can cloud out ability to perceive our world. Our perception can be distorted by anger, hurt, pride, and self ambition. False words can cloud our ability to see what is really real. But I also thought about the power of true speech to rebuild a world that is crumbling.

Paul writes to a people in Corinth who are being seduced by an idea that suggests the physical world is unimportant and only the spiritual is of value. He sees the danger in this idea. He proclaims true speech over false speech. He challenges the distorting power of false ideas with the true idea. He proclaims gospel (good news). He proclaims resurrection: the bodily resurrection of Christ and the bodily resurrection of His people.

In so doing, he reaffirms a real world. A real material world that really matters. His words still resound in people who need the wisdom of God to make wise decisions, speak wise words and act wisely in a world that confuses the real and unreal, the significant and the trivial, the true and the false.
Categories: Film Tags: , , ,

An Education (in relationships)

February 26, 2010 3 comments

Kelly and I wandered into “An Education” last Saturday night armed only with a Rotten Tomato rating of 95%, and a preview we watched on the iPhone. We walked out of the theatre enraptured by the magic of film. Great script, great costuming, great soundtrack, and the acting was pure joy. For 99 minutes, we were caught up in teen social world of 1960s Twickenham, Middlesex.

On one level, the basic story seems fairly simple: a precocious young lady is seduced by an older man and suffers the pain of heartbreak (while getting an education). This moral story plays out in homes across the globe every day. The film director weaves this simple plot into an aesthetically fulfilling work that captures the imagination and the heart. I’ll leave it to real film critics to explore the elements of film and subtleties of the plot. I want to briefly comment on the education I experienced in relationships (as seen from a Trinitarian perspective). The sets of relations that captured my attention include Jenny and David (the older man), Jenny and Miss Stubbs, and Jenny and her father.

The transforming power of an outsider
As Jenny stands soaking in a surprise rainstorm, David drives up in his shiny sports car to rescue her Cello and eventually her from the rain. In her mind, he really does rescue her from the rain. At one point in the film, she says that her life was all drab and dreary before David. She even suggests that he may be the one person in the world who is truly alive.

As the tale proceeds, we come to discover her initial assessment as mistaken. David appears to be a man who creates dreary and drab lives for others. He certainly brings grief and pain into her life. And yet, he really does bring her in from the rain. In this pairing and Jenny and David, I see a glimpse of the good and bad of human relationships. We live day after day after day in routines and patterns and habits. Then someone new enters our life.

This person might be a romantic interest, but they also might be a new friend, a new boss, a new co-worker, a new child. Their presence in our life breaks the cycles, the patterns, the habits. A new relation may have the power to transform our whole world. Suddenly our story collides with another story, as we talk and spend time with this new person, they may cause us to think new ways, try new things, create new patterns. In David’s case, his intentions were hurtful and manipulative. He violated Jenny and her family on multiple levels, and yet, his presence still changed her and her family, and possibly opened horizons that previously seemed closed.

Now this may sound off, and I am willing to be challenge, but I would suggest that even people who wrong us and may cause us pain could still ultimately initiate changes that are for the better. Their action and intentions may not be for our ultimate good, but they still could open new horizons in our lives that ultimately enrich us.

I am introducing an “argument through the back door” so to speak. Alvin Plantinga responded to the problem of evil in our world by suggesting that it is possible for a good and all-powerful Creator to create a world where evil exists. While I am probably botching his argument, I understand part of it like this. The presence of evil does not necessarily mean that the world is ultimately. We cannot see the final score. But it is possible that a good and all power God could create a world that allows evil if it allowed the world to become even better (if moral goodness requires free moral creatures).

Now that I’ve probably messed up his main idea, let me just say that presence of another person in our lives even when they may do us harm (intentionally or not) can still bring ultimate benefit in our lives. So while loving friends and lovers may cause pain, I enjoy an enrichment as well. Obviously, Jenny learns that her precocious intellect could not prevent her from making serious mistakes in the way of relationships. She learns there is a real cost of suffering for her mistakes. But she may also discovers new eyes to see her drab world as more beautiful than she previously imagined. It is not David’s gift to her, but rather God’s gift that is part of the fabric of human relationships.

Seeing the Old in New Ways
This is realized when Jenny enters Miss Stubbs house, pleading for help to prepare for college (after she abandoned school in pursuit of David). Up to that point in the film, Miss Stubbs appeared as a tragic figure. She taught teenage girls classic texts and ideas, but she appeared sad and empty (as though life had passed her by). When she warns Jenny of the danger of this new found young man, Jenny responds with hurtful words about Miss Stubbs’ sad and empty life.

But then Jenny experiences the pain of deception and betrayal. With bridges burned, she cannot return to her old school. Her prospects look dim. She visits Miss Stubbs’ at home with hopes of finding tutoring help. Jenny notices Miss Stubbs piano and the beauty of her home. After her painful encounter with David, Jenny can finally see the gift and life of Miss Stubbs in a new way. Her blind eyes have been opened. (see note 1 at bottom).

Weakness and Love in Relation
In the relationship between Jenny and her parents, a very different angle of light caught my eye. The vulnerability of her parents and the challenge of loving and protecting those nearest to us. Throughout the film, Jenny’s father (a humorous figure) is a bit demanding and closed-minded to the outer world beyond their home. But then he encounters David and is seduced right alongside Jenny. He is convinced that David is good for Jenny.

He fails Jenny. But in failing, he is forced to find new words (new articulations of love) for Jenny. He finds words to confess to his beloved daughter that he is weak, and he has not always made the right decisions but his heart is for her prospering. In other words, in his weak and stumbling speech, Jenny’s father gives her a blessing of his love and dedication that the story does not reveal at any other point. In the depths of failure, her father is freed to become a truer, more authentic father.

In this sweet, tragic, funny and beautiful film, I behold images. I behold persons. Persons created in the image of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. People created to love and be loved. People created to live in relationships of real sharing, real giving, yes real suffering, but also real glory. In the film, my eyes are also opened like Jenny, and I walk out finding new ways to love and be grateful for all the wondrous people that I have been privileged to know.

Note 1 – While their may have been other ways to this newfound vision that didn’t involve the seduction by David, this is the particular path that Jenny walks down. And even in the midst of this path, there is a hope. I am not confusing this hope with the hope of Jesus Christ in the gospel. Yet as a person who believes in that sure hope in Christ, I also see a certain hope revealed in Jesus about the nature of His creation. According to John, we are created in and through Jesus (by the Father and through the Holy Spirit). So as a Christian, I under that all human are created in and through the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. Relationship is not an extension of who we are, it is the very essence of who we are (Christian, non-Christian, nice, mean, and so on).

In all human relationships there is exchange not necessarily rooted in a selfish social exchange but in an essential social exchange. Relational exchange is at the very heart of who we are. So even when we know the very real pain of failed human relationship, we may still be able to find transformative elements in that exchange that were/are positive.

Reviewing Flixster

November 11, 2006 3 comments

Every week I sign up for a new social networking site just to explore their features and see what’s out there. With so many socialnet sites, I lose track of what I’ve joined, and I usually never do much with many of them. I signed up with Flixster on Wednesday and wasn’t sure if I’d use it much or not. Flixster may turn out to be a useful site. It is definitely like Netflix’s Friends feature combined with MySpace. The nice thing is that users can simply rate movies; they don’t have to sign up for a rental plan. This makes it easy to build a larger friends database and connect with a variety of people who like movies. And for someone like me who prefers to hear movie recommendations from other people, I find this very appealing.

If Netflix was smart, they’d follow Flixster lead and offer an expanded version of the Friends feature with no requirement to join. Of course, once people enter into a network and come to visit their movie page, it would be easier to encourage them to sign up for a plan, download a film or buy a film.

Flixster – Movie matchups

November 8, 2006 Leave a comment

I am testing out Flixster, a socnet site for sharing movie recommendations with friends. It has some interesting integration potential with MySpace and your address book, but I am not sure if it has any advantages over Netflix yet. We’ll see.

My Copyright Muse

October 25, 2006 Leave a comment

With excited anticipation that Hollywood was responding to the customer centric worldview, I posted news about My Movie Muse last July. After three months, I am disappointed to say that so far this supposed panel of movie goers has had little opportunity to offer real opinions on the content of films or the current film-making industry.

Instead, this has primarily turned out to be My Copyright Muse, giving us lessons (disguised as surveys) about why downloading movies illegally is so naughty. Oh well, so much for thinking and communicating with real people from Hollywood. Their surveys are just as two dimensional as an old Western set.

Let the Downloads Begin!

September 8, 2006 4 comments

Amazon Unbox Video Downloads unveils today with a variety of movies and TV shows available for download. Unfortunately their not DVD burnable but the quality is supposed to be good. By the end of the year, there should be a wide variety of downloading services and all our movie access options will expand.

(Via NYT)

Itunes Movie Downloads

September 5, 2006 Leave a comment

Business Week reports today that Itunes will soon start downloading feature length films, and Walmart is fighting tooth and nail to hinder it. Looks like we’ve got us an old-fashioned “grudge match.” May the best behemoth win!

(Via TechCrunch)

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