'Inception': Ghost Town, Ghost Faces

by Hua Hsu

Twelve years ago on this very day, I lost one of my dearest friends. In the days, months, years following, I became obsessed—some would say carried away—with cataloging every detail of our interaction that my memory could summon. At the time, this seemed the only way to generate new experiences (I was not interested in moving forward). I scrutinized quotidian scraps, reread books, took copious notes of my dreams, recalled episodes or debates from bygone times. I tried desperately to apply conversations of the deep past to the situations of the present. I was thinking about this as I began reading the reviews of Inception, a somewhat polarizing film that's been criticized most harshly for not being quite as deep as it purports to be.

Like A.O. Scott, I thought Inception was "pretty cool." Not profoundly moving, not as heady as it wanted to be, but far more stirring and thought-provoking than your average film of that scale. In particular, I found this criticism to be fascinating:

Mr. Nolan's idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness—the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity—that this subject requires. The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can't quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill.

In the film, a big hubbub is made of the fact that there is a distinction between dream-space that has been designed "architecturally" and the "unconstructed" void-space of the deeper subconscious. We expect a movie about dreams to be way weirder than what Nolan offers. I don't know if this counts as a spoiler, but it's safe to say Nolan's vision of this "unconstructed" space is not as balls-tripping as you would like. And this seems like the peril of playing around with (or making a movie involving) ideas that are easily conflated—imagination, fantasy, memory, haunting, all that seems immune to our conscious guidance. To me, the point of Inception isn't how screwy, unpredictable and mysterious the mind can be; it's our human insistence on logic and rules, regardless of this. People have always tried to impose some kind of reason upon their subconscious—merely trying to understand it means narrativizing how the mind works, and that's no different than getting your Hugh Ferriss on when presented with an empty, flat void.

Inception reminded me of the concept of the memory palace, most famously described in Jonathan Spence's book about the Matteo Ricci, the famous 16th century Jesuit missionary to China. (Stay with me here...) The idea of the memory palace is fairly simple. A layout is memorized...it can be a house, a city, a palace. "Items"—objects that correspond to whatever needs to be memorized—are placed throughout this map, their locations memorized, and you retrieve whatever you've memorized by walking the map. This is essentially what Cobb and Mal (the emotional centers of the film) "construct" together in their lonely metropolis, and it's the difference between "memory" and "imagination" or "dreaming." We might seek structure to preserve the former—we might need it.

This is what I found moving about Inception: Its suggestion that we would probably just re-purpose the unmapped parts of our brain as an archive, if we could. It's not so much a movie about "dreaming" and letting go as it is about how logical we can be in the name of "not forgetting." The memory palace was useful to an itinerant missionary or people who lacked the technology to back anything up. Scott introduces a lovely irony of our time: the extent to which our imaginations surpass what we see in film, even as we are captivated by images of ourselves floating through space or walking up the edge of a folded-in city. Perhaps with memory and haunting, it is a different problem nowadays. There is no crack in the palace facade, no natural erosion to our memories, when even Facebook preserves the dead and encourages us to get back in touch with them. How many films feature the anguished and heartbroken stoically watching old videos of their late children and lovers? Why can't AOL retrieve my emails from 1998? We dream of letting go, even if we can't imagine what that room looks like.

in memory of KNI