Only Trouble Is, Gee Whiz, I’m Dreaming My Life Away.

The Creator went to see Inception the other day. That isn’t altogether true, of course. The Creator actually went to see Salt, because the notion of a movie hiding the crimes of the CIA behind an immense pair of bosoms and levitating collagen-crammed lips seemed appallingly appealing. However, Inception happened to be at the house, and the Creator resolved to plunge into the depths of. After all, it isn’t every month that the Creator manifests in an urban area large enough to support a movie-house.
Well, it was disappointing. The Creator had been led to believe that Inception would be a tremendously confusing, hard-to-follow flick. The first few minutes were insufficiently difficult to follow to be confusing, and after that it was essentially a caper movie. It was mildly entertaining at best, and rather dull at worst (as in essentially all of the action scenes and many of the explanation scenes). Why the movie was sold to its audience as a kind of puzzle is difficult to account for. Possibly these days the desire is to sell us simple stuff which we are to pretend is confusing so that we can tell ourselves that we understand it and are therefore clever. (The opposite of conspiracy theory, where the confusing complexity of everything is simplified into something which we claim to understand and are therefore accused of being stupid.)
What the movie is about is fairly simple — indeed, it is rather like the basic US propaganda theme which apparently lies at the heart of Salt. The CIA, it will be remembered, tried to develop ways to do two separate but connected things — to develop ways of absolutely reliably getting information out of unwilling people, and to develop ways of planting false ideas in people’s minds. This was all part of the KUBARK project, much written-about nowadays, which, as Naomi Klein pointed out in The Shock Doctrine, appears to have survived in the degenerate form of the American military torture and humiliation programmes applied against their captives.
This project did not arise out of any sane appreciation of how the world worked. It arose out of fantasy. On one hand, the Americans had been obsessed with the idea that the Nazis had a “truth drug” during the Second World War. (We now know that the Americans and the British were reading the Nazis’ secret communications and therefore must have been very nervous that the Nazis would find it out, but the real basis of this is a fantasy of control.) After the Korean War, the Americans discovered that a surprisingly large number of American prisoners of war in Korea (immensely more than that of any other nationality) had collaborated with the enemy. (This was arguably attributable to their very low morale, which was also the case in the Second World War, although there comparatively few Americans collaborated with the Nazis.) The Americans decided not to speculate on any objective reason for this, and instead concluded that the fiendish Chinese had a technique called “brainwashing” which enabled them to introduce hideously wrong ideas into harmless, innocent American heads. This racist power-fantasy had actually existed earlier (Fu-Manchu supposedly had the power to do this kind of thing, via hypnosis) but, as The Manchurian Candidate shows, the notion of thought control became something of an obsession with Americans (it was also the age when fantasies like “subliminal advertising” arose) and so continued into the present day.
Inception fantasises the fulfilment of both of these dreams. On one hand, people are able to get into other people’s dreams and manipulate them in order to make them, in their dreams, expose the truth. Once the truth is available, one can wake them up and with any luck they will not even know that they have revealed the truth. We know that it is the truth because it derives from the subconscious, and therefore must be true.
On the other hand, the movie suggests that one might also be able to get into other peoples’ dreams and introduce false notions via the dream, which then become real for the people doing the dreaming. Therefore, because dreams are naturally more powerful experientially than real life, these false notions come to obsess the person into whose psyche these have been inserted. Therefore, the false notion introduced via a dream enables one to control the person in waking life.
Now, obviously this is self-contradictory. If it is possible to insert something into the heart of a person’s psyche via a dream, so that the person does not know that it has been inserted, then the person trying to extract something from that dream will not know whether that something has been inserted or not. In other words, this means that the supposed absolute reliability of extracting information via a dream is nothing of the kind. This naturally raises the endless problem of garnering information; how do you know that you can trust it? And, more to the point, the idea that someone’s psyche is the reliable place to get information from is, in any case, extremely dubious. (What if that person has been persistently told lies? Possibly if it had been possible to go to the heart of George W Bush’s mind it might have been discovered that, at that unsteady centre, there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Yet that didn’t mean that there were weapons of mass destruction, only that Bush conceivably had been persuaded, or had persuaded himself, that they existed.)
Very well, but let us pretend that the premise of the story is indeed true. In other words, there is a foolproof system by which information can be extracted from people, and there is a foolproof system by which people may have false behaviour patterns imposed upon them. The dream of the U.S. military and its secret police thus is made flesh in this film. Nobody can keep a secret, for spies can easily extract it, and nobody can be sure that their motives are their own, for spies can easily insert motives and ideas. The secret police and the propaganda agencies therefore, in theory at least, have absolute power over the human mind, and given a properly widespread application of these processes, absolute power over human society in consequence.
This ought to be frightening; it suggests a degree of dystopian mind control greater than almost all the horror stories of the past, but in Inception such issues do not rate a mention.
Any movie or text dealing with messing with people’s minds has impressive antecedents. The obvious ancestor is the various writings of Philip K Dick, from Eye in the Sky (which is about a shared experience of fantasy worlds) to Ubik, but also taking in short stories like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (about insertion of memories) or “The Electric Ant” (about a man who discovers that since he is a robot, his experience of the world is partly conditioned by his programming — but then which parts of the world are real, and which parts programmed?). The interesting thing about Dick’s work is that his fantasies always spin out of control, and are always threatening and dangerous. For this reason, even when they are treated as little more than conceits, they are always opening windows on new worlds. Henry Kuttner’s “Dream’s End” is about being unable to tell when you are dreaming or not; for that matter, Kelly and Kessel’s Freedom Beach is about being in an artificial dream imposed on you for educational purposes — but the artificial dream includes some uncomfortable elements from real dreams and from the dreamer’s own psyche, and the whole world in the book is being made over by a sinister (or is it reassuring?) cabal called “the dreamers”. Who is in charge of the dream?
This is, perhaps, what is so unpleasant about Inception. Granted, it takes no account of the political significance of its ideas, even though it makes it absolutely clear that its entire world is dominated by a narrow, corrupt and mentally damaged power-elite. (In other words, its political naivete is almost certainly conscious and deliberate.) However, fair enough; this is a movie made by the power elite so why should we be surprised that it urges us to surrender to them? Unfortunately, though, the movie has an enormous potential simply because it is dealing in dreams.
And it fails.
These dreams which it describes are not dreams. This has been noticed by numerous people, so the Creator does not have to pretend to be clever. In dreams you don’t quite know what is coming next because you are not in control — to be precise, you do not know whether you are in control or not. But in daydreams, of course you are in control — you can imagine anything. Daydreams are all about power. Dreams are about not having power. Daydreams are fantasy; dreams are reality.
And in this movie, the dreams are carefully planned. They are architecturally designed, and nothing interesting occurs in them. Nothing interesting except absurdly overcomplicated structures which, in the end, are not even interesting, like gigantically inflated shopping-malls and pedestrian plazas. But nothing happens in these dreams. Nobody is tricked into exposing their truths. There are no passions, no hopes or disappointments. Shit just happens. Neither visually nor conceptually is there anything interesting about the dreams in Inception, and as a result there is nothing either challenging or encouraging about the movie.
So the movie does not say anything interesting at all. It provides no ideas. It is not even exciting visually, in the way that, say, Avatar attempted to rise above the blandly unimaginative narrative with a vaguely interesting, if overstated, use of computer graphics. This banality is surely an element of Inception’s attempt to undermine our minds. Not only does it refuse to raise socio-political questions, it also refuses to ask any questions at all. It is merely drab and mindless. The only challenge is provided by the drab and mindless attackers who arrive in their vast numbers to protect the mind of the person in whose brain the dream is taking place, copied without productivity from the “agents” in The Matrix. But in a real dream, either these attackers would win effortlessly or they would be defeated effortlessly; in a real dream, the proper challenge is in the structure of the dream, in the fascinating distortions arising out of the part of your brain which you can’t access.
But it is axiomatic in Inception that all of the brain must be accessible, for otherwise, how could you control it? So the universe of this movie is as shallow and empty as the universe projected onto the world by the American power elite. This is, if you like, the banality of evil; this is what is wrong with the American daydream domination of the world, the fact that this domination is not rooted in desire to do anything or learn something, but simply in power for its own sake. (Like a kid who was bullied at school taking her resentment out on the universe.) Not Dr. Faustus, but Ernst Blofeld is the model upon which the American power elite depends. Perhaps for this reason, the movie is worth having seen. But not worth seeing. Don’t blame the Creator for sitting through this. Have the knowledge of having seen Inception implanted in your mind. Perhaps it will change your life.


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