Reality in Inception, with spoilers

I saw Inception this past Friday, but couldn’t come up with a way to write about it until now. As pretty much everyone has already noted, the movie is meant to make you think, which doesn’t lend itself to immediate blogging. I was trying to come up with some sort of angle to tie together my observations when Roger Ebert pointed me to Steven Boone’s review. Ebert’s point is that Boone’s review is useful even if you don’t agree. Well, I’m certainly going to get some use out of it.

I don’t think Inception is a perfect film, but I do think it is fabulous. I don’t want to entirely recap Boone’s review (I encourage you to read it), but I will summarize the points that I want to respond to. First, Boone argues that there is too much exposition – characters speak too much when the actors could show more. Then, the dream worlds are too slick, with no messes along the lines of naked people suddenly showing up. In combination, you get a slick heist or caper film that doesn’t reveal all that much about anything.

This is totally not how I read the film.

Arthur and Cobb

Inception deals, at its most basic level, with the question “What is real?” or “What is reality?” On a superficial/expository level, Cobb questions reality repeatedly. But the techniques used throughout the film undergird that questioning and spread its influence. We go from “Cobb has questions about reality and might be insane” to “Cobb may not have ever woken up at the end of the film – or may never have been awake at all.” The very things that Boone dislikes as bad filmmaking are necessary to support this questioning. He brings up the absence of, to continue the example, sex. Yet, if Cobb suddenly found himself looking at a pile of hot, naked women, he would probably realize that he was in a dream. In order to really question reality, the dream must resemble reality on some level. No dreams of riding purple elephants.

You might respond that this is a cop-out, and that one needs to address what dreams are really like in order for this questioning of reality to work. But Nolan does answer that: the dreams in the movie are not set up to be actual, what-you-see-at-night dreams. Inception‘s dreams are, in fact, almost anti-dreams. They do not leap and dodge across times and places like real dreams. Inception‘s dreams are carefully made in a maze-like pattern by a dedicated architect. The movie reminds us many times of how hard it is to build a dream correctly. The target of these dreams only peoples them with projections of her subconscious, she does not create the locales. And those projection-people are characterless.

That leads to Boone’s other criticism, that the actors explain too much without showing us all that much. I think the actors show us quite a bit (there was a great moment when Cobb saw how quickly Ariadne was learning to manipulate dreams and was clearly uneasy, for instance), but he’s right that there is a lot of explaining going on. However, we have the projections to consider. Inception is similar to your slick caper flick in a variety of ways, and Nolan exploits that where the character Mal is concerned. Not a “real” character, Mal is a projection of Cobb’s mind, his subconscious exerting itself to keep her alive in some way. Everything about Mal’s introduction in the film screams femme fatale of the caper flick variety. They’re at a party thrown by a wealthy man, she’s wearing a slinky dress, Arthur’s comments suggest that she has tripped up Cobb in the past and that there is romance involved… we trip through the standards of caper flick femme portrayal throughout that dream, even getting in some light bondage when Cobb ties her up, until the betrayal we all knew was coming. Mal behaves like a stock character because she is a stock character. As Cobb finally admits to himself at the end of the movie, Mal is not his wife. She does not have a fraction of the complexities his wife had. She is just a character in his mind.

(Sidenote: In a sense, Marion Cotillard had the hardest job of all. She had to fill out a number of Cobb’s memories, be the personification of Cobb’s subconscious will, be inhuman and yet believable as Cobb’s wife. Well done.)

Mal blurs the line between the other projections and the other characters. Most of the projections never speak; they simply go about their business. When they sense an incursion into the mind they look for it, then at it and finally they chase and “kill” it. Mal is different. She makes incursions into other people’s dreams. She acts on her own to achieve her own objective: the destruction of Cobb. The discipline needed to be a dream thief is hinted at throughout the film. The thieves need to go into others’ dreams while keeping their own subconsciouses out. Mal shows that Cobb has lost that discipline.

As you go through the film, whether or not the “real” characters are, in fact, real people, is called into question, particularly through the filming techniques that Boone decries. Think about a scene, focusing on Arthur, for example, which shows him considering something at length. No words, just pure acting, with a focus on one of the “real” characters who is not Cobb. It suggests, to the viewer, that Arthur is, indeed, a real person, does it not? After all, we’re seeing him outside of his interactions with Cobb. The more we see characters outside of their interactions with Cobb, the more they seem real. The more they express themselves by talking to Cobb, the more indeterminate their existence. It’s not a coincidence that we see characters acting outside of their relationship to Cobb more and more as the movie progresses: even as Cobb’s discipline is breaking down more and more the other characters’ independence reassures the viewer and keeps the scales weighing the real versus the unreal in balance.

To pick up on something else Boone mentioned, the biggest expressive moment in the film featured Fischer learning that his father wanted him to be a better man (than the father). But Fischer isn’t talking to his real father, he’s talking to one of his own projections. Fischer’s change of heart is spurred by himself. Could this be paralleled by Cobb’s change of heart being spurred by himself? Perhaps Ariadne’s insistence on entering the final dream sequence was imagined by Cobb, and her presence there was just another of his projections gone amok? Why not take it farther – could the entire team be projections? Boone wants a slower film, with less cutting from place to place and scene to scene. But we’re cutting from scene to scene, because, as the characters explained to us, one way to tell that you are in a dream is that you don’t remember how you got there. We criss-cross the globe in this film, but how much travel really happened? What, exactly, was real?

Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Cafe?): Adaptation

Sorry for the long delay in posts – something great is going on IRL that I will be able to mention shortly.  In the meantime, an overdue post on a book and its film, with spoilers.

Evelyn and Ninny, Idgie and Ruth

As (I think) I’ve written before, I am interested in adapting works – manga to anime, for example.  Awhile ago I saw the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, which is adapted from the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.  Now, I saw it for a reason which is, ultimately, unrelated to why I like it so much. Well, tangentially related.  Every so often I see an actress or actor in something and just suddenly realize that whoa, s/he is goodNCIS: Los Angeles spurred that realization for me where Chris O’Donnell is concerned.  (Stay with me, I am going somewhere.)  In NCIS: LA, O’Donnell plays an undercover federal agent who is supposed to be one of the best.  As such, the show often features him, in particular, suddenly changing his character, onscreen, while O’Donnell himself is already in character.  It’s impressive to watch.

Okay, so I was inspired to hunt down a bunch of O’Donnell’s previous works.  Fried Green Tomatoes was one of the first ones I found (many thanks to my local library and IMDB).  It’s one of those insta-classic films, like A League of Their Own, that you watch and pretty much immediately know you want to own.  Not because it has Avatar‘s special effects, or Saving Private Ryan‘s gut-wrenching realism, but because you see yourself sitting down to it on a lazy summer evening some years down the road.  You need good acting for that sort of impact, but what I didn’t realize when I rented the movie was that O’Donnell’s character dies shortly into the film, after perhaps two minutes on screen.  Oh well, those were a good two minutes.  (The following minutes were all sorts of confusing, because I had rented the movie for O’Donnell, so they couldn’t have actually just killed him off, right?  Right??  … No.)

Anyway, I liked the movie and found it interesting enough that I returned to the library for the book.  Which I also liked, for totally different reasons.  Which I also found interesting, for totally different reasons.  Okay, to be honest, practically the only attraction the two shared was the Southern accent.  In the intervening months, I’ve thought off and on about how the book was adapted, why and to what effect, and now I’m going to share a bit of what I’ve observed.  A lot of the differences lie in little details, so the next two paragraphs will be relatively long descriptions of the two properties.  If you’ve seen/read them, the jump should take you straight to the analysis.

I saw the movie first, so I’ll start with that.  Fried Green Tomatoes is the twinned story of two pairs of women, Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison, in between-the-(World)-wars Alabama, and Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode in the mid-1980’s in the same area.  The movie opens with the middle-age Evelyn meeting Ninny, an elderly woman residing at the same nursing home as Evelyn’s cantankerous mother-in-law.  Evelyn and Ninny become solid friends over the course of the film, with Ninny encouraging Evelyn to turn her boring life around and Evelyn eventually inviting Ninny home to live with herself and her husband.  This turnaround involves Evelyn’s becoming a successful Mary Kay saleswoman, taking hormones for menopause, exercising, dieting and generally standing up for herself.  In part, Ninny encourages Evelyn by telling her stories about the tumultuous lives of Idgie and Ruth, which we see as flashbacks.  Idgie was incredibly attached to her brother Buddy as a child, so it deeply changed her when he (O’Donnell) died in a train accident.  She runs wild for a few years, until Ruth (depicted as Buddy’s girlfriend) is roped into trying to reform her one summer.  Things go well for awhile, but at the end of the summer Ruth marries, and Idgie returns to running wild.  Unfortunately Ruth’s husband beats her, and she eventually returns to Idgie.  They set up a household in town, and start to raise Ruth’s son, Buddy, Jr., together.  All goes well until Frank Bennett’s car is found in the river sans Frank Bennett.  Idgie and a black family employee named Big George are taken to Georgia (the husband’s home) to be tried for the crime, and it looks bad until a preacher perjures himself to get them both off.  They return to town; Buddy, Jr. loses his arm in his own train accident; Ruth dies of cancer.  There are grounds to think that Ninny is actually the elderly Idgie, and we later hear that Big George’s mother killed Frank Bennett while he was trying to kidnap Buddy, Jr., and Big George cooked the body and served it to the locals via the cafe.

Ooookay.  The book follows that general structure – scenes of Evelyn and Ninny interspersed with scenes from earlier on – but encompasses much, much more.  The movie is increeeedibly simplified in a variety of ways, and the reasoning behind that is clear.  In addition to the stories of Idgie, Ruth, Evelyn and Ninny, the book includes an awful lot about Big George’s family: his mother (who we find out adopted him), his wife, their kids and even their grandchildren.  Big George and his mother are prominent in the film, but the family as a whole is covered about evenly with Idgie and Ruth in the book.

Idgie, Ruth and Buddy

Aside from that family, Buddy Threadgoode’s story was also simplified rather a lot, as was his impact on Idgie or the reflection of him that you can see in Idgie.  In the film, Buddy is portrayed as the perfect son, a bit of a rascal and a horrible flirt, but ultimately a good boy who is devoted to Ruth.  In the book he is more complicated.  He and Ruth do not have a relationship – he never even meets her.  Instead, he has a long-running, serious and somewhat scandalous relationship with a woman called Eva Bates, a loose woman from a lower class who is devoted to him – and is later devoted to Idgie and then Buddy, Jr.  She doesn’t show up in the film.  The book has many sections about hobos and hobo life, and excerpts from various newspapers and newsletters that illuminate life in that time and place.  Finally, the book goes into more detail about Frank Bennett’s character – namely, in addition to beating Ruth, he also impregnated and beat a number of women in his own town, which helped convince a judge to sweep his maybe-murder under the rug.  As for the contemporary sections of the book, we mostly learn more about Evelyn’s trials and tribulations, including her time at a fat farm.  Ninny is clearly not the elderly Idgie, whom a short chapter shows selling honey at a roadside stand, and she dies at the end. Continue reading