Sowing Ideological Seeds

This dialogue between Ben Walters and J.M. Tyree at the Owls site (via 3qd) raises lots of good points about the film Inception, which I saw over the weekend and promptly forgot. They note that for a film about dreaming, it is very undreamlike and unfolds more like a video game. It wants to make us think about identity but does so in the most mundane and circumscribed way.

I too had hoped it would be an evocative exploration of identity in the era of social networks and invasive advertising and so forth. Instead, like all Christopher Nolan movies, it was an incoherent mess, with lots of unnecessary and incompetently staged chase and fight scenes shoehorned in, basically defying you to care about any of its cardboard characters or the outcome of its shambolically constructed plot.

It is probably my own incompetency, but as I watched Inception I spent the entire time asking myself, What is going on? Who are these people? What are they trying to do? Why? Which guys in the white snow suits shooting at the other guys in white snow suits should I want to get killed? Do they even die? Is it all a dream? Who the hell cares then?

So while I was engaged with those annoying questions, I wasn’t mulling over the interesting possibilities suggested by the movie’s premise of dream invasion. Is dream invasion a good metaphor for how ideology works, planting a seed in your mind and making you believe it is your own idea? How do manage to blend with your dreams and make you accept the alien idea as natural, desirable? How do the invaders find out what will move you? What sort of dreams can they get you to build with them? What sorts of resistance are really possible?

The apparatus for developing those ideas is all there in Inception, but they are never taken up. Instead, the character who is getting “incepted” and having ideas planted in his mind is manipulated through a hackneyed and scantily developed father-son conflict, and the nature of the internal ego defenses are presented confusingly, to say the least. We never are truly disturbed by what should be terrifying, the idea that our dreams could be driven by someone else’s agenda, and we have been blithely content to call that our unconscious. I wanted to walk out of this film paranoid and stoked to think about identity construction and ontological security and all that, but instead left apathetically confused. To make meaning out of Inception one has to do it against the grain of its own shallowness, reading in things the film’s producers did not consider and have worked into the film almost accidentally, symptomatically, as a result of the milieu that has shaped their vision of what is entertaining.

What Hollywood deems entertaining seems a less pressing question to me than these philosophical questions about identity construction, but maybe that exemplifies my own ideological mire — I’m screening out the dismal social truths to be gleaned from Hollywood films with my preoccupation with these more abstract concerns about manipulation. But what if the specter of invasive identity manipulation is an excuse to avoid confronting the more insidious problem of our own collusion with the culture industry in shaping an acutely limited self, programmed to receive pleasure from films structured around visual spectacle rather than narrative coherence. This then perhaps carries over to our own self-constructed narratives of identity, which end up filled with chases and explosions but not much in way of ethical consistency.