“THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, irreverant manner.
Each debater makes their opening argument, followed by a rebuttal.
The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of their argument.
The first motion: “The top stopped spinning at the end of INCEPTION”
For the motion: Mark Maccora
Against the motion: Zaki Hasan
FOR THE MOTION: MARK MACCORA’S OPENING ARGUMENT
“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.” -Federico Fellini*
Is Inception all a dream or what? I can debate this point all day. Actually, it’s been over a week so far, and the debates keep coming. You’re probably reading this to better understand the resolution- it’s why I’ve seen Inception three times. That’s exactly the filmmaker’s desire. Christopher Nolan worked hard to sow visual ambiguity into his picture. This seductive confusion creates a demand for repeat viewership, endless analysis, and public debate. Kubrick achieved the same thing with the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan is a Kubrick fan, as cited in his quotations section on IMDb. It is quite admirable that Nolan tries to use a communal dream with a hidden message, sorry, I mean a major movie with a theme to inspire thought. Wait, movies are a lot like communal dreams, huh? Hold on to that idea. I’ll get there. Thought provocation has been missing from tent pole pictures for, oh, 2 decades or so. Upon my first watch, I thought the whole thing was a dream. I found it thrilling. Then, instead of getting caught up in my own thoughts, I went reinspected the movie without so much awe at the crosscutting action sequences. I revised my conclusion because the images did not support it. Visual evidence exists to conclude that what we are told is true. The film ends in the reality of the near-future. Clues to the truth are purposefully opaqued, both by the style of the filmmaker and the language of cinema itself, but they exist. The main confusions & clues are in the costuming & casting of the child actors and the repeated test of the spinning top. They prove that despite his purposefully ambiguous, debate inspiring style, the story is that Dom Cobb ends the picture awoken from his dreams, free of his neuroses, and enjoying a real moment with his children. In his life. Not in a dream. Really. I promise.
My first stop on the explanation express is a brief discussion of Nolan’s intentionally dreamy cinematic vocabulary. I know movies. I study the breadth of the medium to write and direct commercial movies that transmit pertinent messages to an audience. I read A LOT of Joseph Campbell and highly respect Nolan’s goals. If you search my name on ye olde IMDb, you’ll see my decade of experience in various positions. Please do. Like all people in Hollywood, I love watching my IMDb searches spike. There are some well-established techniques Nolan uses. He chooses color palates to associate with characters and locations. He does so because colors mean things to us emotionally and culturally. More on this in my next point. Nolan uses the tried and true trick of starting his movies with a scene from the climax of the film’s 2nd or 3rd act to tie the audience in immediately. It’s a great technique, as it is disorients and hooks the audience, sucking them into tension and conflict. Who is this Leo DiCaprio looking character washed up on the beach? Who are these appearing and disappearing kids? Why does Ken Watanabe look so old? An audience wants answers, and they are kept in anticipation for nearly two and a half hours. Lots of movies do this. Check out Mission: Impossible III- same deal. Nolan also manipulates his editorial concept to compress story time and get to more plot quickly. He cuts shots short and overlaps sequences to create a rapidly flowing pace that sweeps the audience up in the story, which is long, detailed, and full of confusing concepts. He’ll often imply important action instead of showing it to further his pace.
A great example is the sequence when Cobb reminds Saito of their deal, Saito lifts up the gun, and then we cut to Cobb waking up in the real world. We don’t see Saito shoot Cobb or himself. It’s implied. The magic of using these concepts is that they are so dreamy, by which I mean they are the aspects of cinema’s language that closely resemble dreams. By using these techniques, he makes the film more ambiguous, since his movie is about dreams. It makes the film more debate-able, and thereby engrosses the audience for a longer period. And here we are, debating it. Win for Nolan.
A primary confusion rests with the child memory. Those kids look SO similar in the dream memories and the last scene of the movie. It must be a dream because the kids are dressed the same in the same situation. Cobb’s just rewriting his memories with his desires in his dream. Well, it’s not true. Watch the movie again. It’s a very cheap, yet clever trick.
The kids are wearing similar clothes. Warm colors shot in gold afternoon light- colors that make us feel safe and comforted (Remember those palates?). The easiest difference to see is the difference in the cut of the girl’s dress. While their faces are obscured in the last shot, they kids are positioned in front of the camera (blocked) differently. The boy is in front of the girl with his back turned, and his head keeps hers from view. In the early shots, both have their backs turned. The real tell, though, is in the credits. Check them out. There are two sets of kids playing the kids at different ages. The two Phillipa’s are credited at 3 & 5 years, and the James’s at 20 months and 3 years. One appears to be the director’s son Magnus (The next Next Karate Kid perhaps?), and the other three are siblings in an acting family. I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me. I assumed he would use the same kids. They looked the same, right? It is much cheaper and easier to shoot the same kids. He changed them for a reason. This was not just the old experience with a new resolution. This is the present, two years since he last saw his children. Though he’d seen them in his dreams moments before, those were his fake kids. The ones of his memories. the real present the Cobb has sought the entire movie. Going to all the effort to change the kids, yet keep the experience similar, means that he’s probably doing so to eff with us, the audience. To keep us talking. As we are. That’s two times win.
Dom Cobb is quite aware and worried that his reality may be a dream. That is why he uses and reuses the test of the top. Within the dream, we never even see the top wobble. It spins in perfect perpendicularity. During the scene at the beginning of act 2 while he waits to leave Tokyo, Dom spins the top with the gun in his hand. It wobbles and drops thus proving he is in the real world. Dom is nearly addicted to his dream world. He knows this. He could be seduced into staying there quite easily, but the happiness it can grant him is limited, like his version of Mal. He repeats his test at the house during the resolution. Only when he sees the top wobble does he know that this experience is not just a dream. He is clearly in reality, which is his utmost priority. Only in reality will he finally give himself permission to enjoy his happiness. Nolan cuts away early from this moment to imbue it with ambiguity for a specific purpose- which I discussed- our continued discussion. Nolan win trifecta.
Maybe it is all just a dream… reading that comforts you, doesn’t it? Anything too powerful in a dream can be rationalized away as impotent spurts of our subconscious. Inception equally disturbs an audience by calling into doubt the reality of the protagonist’s transformation, a fact that we deeply desire in our stories, as we do in our selves. The ambiguity is what ties us in, makes us continue to think about it, which ultimately is the goal of Inception. A movie is very nearly a communal dream, a dream that can transmit a message through the ideas cleverly hidden by the “dream’s” designer, the director. Inception transmits keys to achieving happiness in our real lives: releasing our guilt of the past and accepting the transient nature of existence. Only through Nolan’s purposeful ambiguities do we continually re-approach these concepts. The evidence is in the pictures, though. The details which Nolan layer in clearly demarcate the space of the dream and the real world within the fiction. It’s all a movie, but not all a dream.
*(If you don’t know who this genius filmmaker is because he never directed a comic book movie, please copy and paste into google. Information dissemination is why we made the Internets.)