I should start by saying that, contrary to this otherwise excellent article, I don’t believe that Inception is intended to be “all a dream.” (Spoilers follow.) The spinning top at the end is perhaps too clever by half, but to me it is actually a little moving — Cobb has a moment where he wonders if it could still be a dream, but then doesn’t bother to watch the top once faced with the reality of his children. I could go further down this road, but I want to engage with the more important overarching claim of the article: that Inception is about filmmaking, and more specifically about giving up self-centered “auteur” ambitions (symbolized by Mal) in order to produce an authentic emotional reaction in a stranger. Perhaps counterintuitively, however, this self-sacrifice is actually the only way to make those great films one has always wanted to make.
Reading interpretations along these lines, I wondered if there are any lessons here for theory/philosophy/theology — which for the sake of simplicity I’ll treat as being basically the same kind of thing. It seems to me that Nolan’s wager in making Inception is that, in keeping with the allegorical interpretation of the plot of the movie itself, the non-auteur film can simultaneously be the blockbuster, that the appeal to the “general public” (whichever person happens to present himself or herself, in this case the wealthy heir) is not only compatible with great art but somehow necessary to make the transition from mere self-indulgence to great art.
In the realm of intellectual discourse, it can be easy to have the knee-jerk reaction that of course a thinker’s more “popular” or “accessible” works are going to have a greater impact, etc., etc. — all of us are very morally conditioned to be worried about the perception of stroking our metaphorical “ivory towers.” What I think is interesting about the example of Inception, however, is that everything that’s “masturbatory” about Christopher Nolan’s films — the overly baroque narrative structure, the reflexivity, etc. — is present here, even in a hyperbolic way. I’d say that something similar is going on in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, one of my favorite films of all time, which does not hold back any of Kaufman’s trademark “postmodern” wankery but still creates a very moving and — something that is apparently impossible for Nolan — very funny cinematic experience. In the same way, within the frame of the movie, Cobb doesn’t just stick with standard dreams, but undertakes the daring “Mr. Charles” gambit of letting the subject know he’s having a dream in order to make him an active participant in his own deception and even takes the risk of entering into the limbo space on purpose when things go wrong.
Is there a way for us to do the same thing, to use all the skills learned during “intellectual masturbation” in order to benefit another person? I think that the first step is not to assume that reaching another person means just simplifying — to me, that maintains the “ivory tower” distance by patronizing the audience rather than engaging. Here we can take an example from the film’s plot. Cobb’s “Mr. Charles” strategy may be forced upon him by circumstance — notably, by the extremely high level of resistence he finds in his audience, surely something that philosophers and theologians can identify strongly with — but it succeeds because it manages to bring the subject on board as a kind of “interceptor” himself.
Is there a way to write such that our audience can feel like they are being brought on board to be critical intellectuals themselves? That might feel dishonest insofar as our audience is not likely to have training similar to ours and is in any event taking part in a performance that is directed toward ends we, not they, have chosen. And that’s as it should be — in our writing, if not in our teaching, we of course want to persuade our audience of a particular argument rather than simply equipping them to “come to their own conclusion” in an abstract way. What the film suggests is that, by the end of the process, the conclusion that the subject arrives at is sincerely his own, even if it is also the conclusion that the author has been aiming at and improvising his way toward.
This is a more thorough-going method of persuasion that simple reasoned argument by way of extrinsic premises and logical steps — indeed, it’s certainly intrusive and, at the very least, highly manipulative. But perhaps this represents a redoubling of the initial indirection, whereby one can only make “great films” by giving up the hard kernel of the desire to be the “great visionary/idiosyncratic auteur.” We as intellectuals can only truly engage the public by misleading them in a certain way, by tricking them into convincing themselves, into becoming their own “intellectual.”
It’s the difference between a book that shows how smart the author is and a book that makes the reader feel smarter. That feeling is an illusion, because the reader has not, after reading only one book, actually become considerably smarter. Yet by introducing them to the gut-level satisfaction of intellectual work, we might arouse in them a hunger, that peculiar intellectual hunger that can only work through an initial overconfidence. I’m sure we all remember those heady days when we first got into serious intellectual work and gobbled down book after book that we could not even begin to understand — books that, if we looked at them again today, we would be horrified at how poorly we read them. Doubtless we also remember that dogged loyalty to a particular thinker who “turned them on” in some way, even though in retrospect we didn’t even begin to fully understand the teaching to which we were such dogmatic adherents. It’s embarrasing in retrospect, but we never would’ve understood unless we’d started with the illusion that we already understood — we would never have known the satisfaction of real critical thought without that initial illusion that we were already engaging in real critical thought.
It’s impossible to “practice” something we don’t already know how to do, so we need to kick-start the process with the little white lie that we already know how. The truly great film — and Inception may or may not reach this level, though I do think it demonstrates an awareness of the standard — is the one that makes its viewer feel like she knows what it’s like to be a creator, and the truly great intellectual work is the one that makes its reader feel like she knows what it’s like to be a thinker. That, and not superficial popularization or even superficial clarity of style, is what we need to focus on learning how to do if we want to reach and move a general public.