Saturday, November 27, 2010


A lot has been written about this movie on the interwebs, and theories about the mechanics of the plot abound. I have no new theories about who was dreaming when, how limbo works, how effective Cobb's totem is, and all that other stuff. The first two or three times I saw the movie, that's what I focused on until I accepted that whether Nolan intended it or not, the whole thing was a meta-dream experience for me. I can't make total sense of my dreams, and I couldn't make total sense of the movie. Instead, I'd like to look at the movie as it examines my favorite subject—death.

For anyone writing in English, death and dreams are inseparably linked. That's just part of our literary heritage. There is something of death in dreaming and something of dreams in living. "Come heavy sleep, the image of true death," writes John Dowland's anonymous lyricist.  "Our life as a dream, our time as a stream glides swiftly away, and the fugitive moment refuses to stay,"  says Charles Wesley. Conrad writes, "We live, as we dream—alone." Donne writes, "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally." And of course, "What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause," says the Dane.

Think about it, when the characters died in a dream, they either woke up or plunged into an infinity of thought and further delusion.

What if Mal was right, not about if Cobb was still dreaming, but that existence as we know it, in any form, is not what it seems—that we are somehow shut out from the larger context of reality? Cobb accused his projection of Mal of being a "shade." (As an aside, there's a possible Dante reference there. He's in the deepest sphere of the dream, discussing his treachery, and he sees a shade. Hmmm.) But don't we feel like we are shades of ourselves, that we are never fully what we are? I think we all sympathize with Iago when he says, "I am not what I am."
It's only when our lives intersect with others we love that we really get a sense of how much more there is to things. It's like what Cobb said to the projection, "I can't imagine you with all of your perfection, all of your imperfection." Somehow, that realization clues us in that we have not emerged as our full selves. Don't all of us feel like we're part of something greater, that the weary life of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow isn't the summation of what we are? When we look at the timelines of those we love, there's an acknowledgement that the time and events are real, but only a shadow of the truth.

And how do we know anything? How do you know, really know, that right now, as you're reading this, you're not really asleep? The totems are worthless in the film. (Cobb's wasn't even his to begin with, and I'm convinced that whether it spins or falls is meaningless. At no point does he spin it and it stay up.) Likewise, any tricks about pinching ourselves or reasoning our way through the physics of a dream are wholly unreliable. I can't tell you how many times I've had a flying dream and was convinced it was reality. No amount of pinching could persuade me otherwise. I've often even been confused as to whether events I remember where dreamt or truly experienced.

In our highest and lowest moments, I think we all feel that life "is a walking shadow." And it's then that those impressions "tease us out of thought, as doth eternity."

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