Two Films about the Human Mind: Inception vs. Synecdoche, New York

Contains nothing I would call spoilers in the standard sense of the word, but I do present a short interpretation of Synecdoche, which you can copy&paste into your term paper, you lazy person, you! I also reveal stuff that happens fairly late in that film, but it's not exactly a suspense movie.

Christopher Nolan. As far as my personal movie-watching goes, I've spent too much of my limited time on the man's oeuvre: I've seen all but one of his feature films prior to the current blockbuster Inception, despite the fact that none of them exactly swept me off my feet. The reason is that for a while I overused the IMDb 250 for making decisions about what films to watch, and if you trust that lot, you could come to the conclusion that Nolan is the greatest film director that ever lived. I have not seen Nolan's remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia, but I have seen the original, and everyone who's watched both says that the original's better, and that film is not a masterpiece. So it is with some confidence that I disagree strongly with the fictional entity that is "the IMDb voter" because Nolan has never delivered anything outstanding. Not even close.

Watching Inception, hailed as Nolan's opus magnum (or magnum opus, if you prefer), hasn't changed that view. In case you haven't heard, it deals with a band of outlaws who usually steal ideas from people's minds and are now hired by an industrialist to invade a competitor's mind and plant an idea there. Both feats are accomplished by invading people's dreams, so much, perhpaps most, of the film is set in imagined landscapes - either dreams or what might best be described as training grounds.

That's generally a good idea for a film of its kind as it frees the filmmaker from the shackles of having to be somewhat realistic and allows him to let his imagination run wild. Indeed, two of the scenes that the few reviews I read beforehand highlighted as spectacular are made plausible by the setup; a fistfight in a zero-gravity hotel and a scene in which an imagined Paris folded flat and rolled out again. Both scenes are nice, but given the hype about them, I had expected something in the league of the 2001's stargate sequence or the first fifteen minutes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but this expectation was thoroughly disappointed, and it's perhaps worth pointing out that in 1924 Buster Keaton created an action sequence that's easily more spectacular than anything in Inception.* In fact, while the idea for both scenes is excellent, the execution is somewhat pedestrian.

To stay with the visuals for a while (which are arguably this film's most important feature), I was quite disappointed with the cinematography. Throughout the film I kept thinking that Nolan had been foolish not to hire the same man (they're almost always men) who had shot The Dark Knight, perhaps the best-photographed film in the history of colour cinematography. As a little research reveals, he has, but this time the man - he's called Wally Pfister - has delivered work that may best be described as unpleasantly pleasant, a kind of Coldplay cinematography.**

The screenplay has problems of its own. We're clearly meant to side with Leo and his band of intruders, yet, when you think about it, what they do isn't particularly nice. They work for one industrialist rather than the other because, um, he's the one who hired them. At one point they torture someone.

My second complaint concerning the screenplay is more subjective. Inception jumps right into the action, and that's fine, but at some point, I feel, you have to give the audience some time to breathe. Although the film does that to some extent, for my taste it's not sufficient. I guess if you grew up playing Doom and Mortal Kombat you might be inclined to disagree.

Having said all that, Inception is not a bad film. Despite the above, overall the visuals are interesting, and if that's your kind of thing, it's worth spending a few quid on. Although the first half of the film is so-so, the second is entertaining all around, nicely capitalizing on the structural device of nested dreams and, as Antje pointed out, featuring the first appearance of Bochum's Ruhr-Universität in a major international motion picture, which must be worth something.

What's really irksome about the film, however, is how it, rather than being content to be an action flick, tries to make itself look deep, giving us mumbo-jumbo about "converging projections" and whatnot. The movie takes from M.C. Escher the idea of infinite stairs, with the twist that those stairs only look infinite and you pretty soon arrive at the top, from which you can push baddies down.*** When he does, one of our heroes comments: "Paradoxon!"**** It's a shame Niklas Luhmann wasn't available to play the role.

This whole nonsense is specifically designed to make stupid people feel intelligent: "Oh, man, it's not just an action movie, it's like, you know, really phullosophical, man!" And sure enough, people comply. The first 10 of the almost 70.000 google hits for inception philosophical nolan contain the following gems: "Inception is ultimately grounded in basic principles of philosophical pragmatism"*****; "the theme the movie explores – our ability to distinguish dreams from reality – is largely Cartesian"******; Nolan plays "Deleuzian mind games"*******. I say Inception is a deeply Wachowskian film.

So, how to make a good film in which the human mind plays a central role? Well, you certainly should not try to make it philosophical. A fiction film is not a good medium for that and any half-decent philosophy text, or indeed a youtube video dedicated to explaining the philosophy of Descartes in three minutes is going to beat your attempts hands down.******** And, to look at it from a very general perspective, philosophy and art don't seem to go together all that well because they ought to use opposing methods (here you see me grabbing the broadest brush I can find in my collection): Philosophy, like other academic endeavours, should be analytical in the sense that it ought to take its objects apart in order to understand them. Works of art should be synthetic in the sense that they ought to take lots of elements and arrange them into a meaningful whole that is designed to leave an impression on the recipient's mind.

Charlie Kaufman knows all this, or at least that's what I'm inclined to conclude on the basis of watching his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, which, as these things go, I did for the first time shortly before watching Inception. (I've now seen Synecdoche a second time.)

The film tells the story of theatre director Caden Cotard, who, after a successful production of Death of a Salesman, receives a large grant. Meanwhile, his wife grabs their daughter and leaves him, moving to Berlin. Cotard uses the grant to stage a play "about everything" in a huge hall. And boy, does he mean it: Almost twenty years after the rehearsals have begun, they're still not finished.

The film boasts excellent production design (Mark Friedberg), cinematography (Frederick Elmes) and music (Jon Brion) and contains the quirky little ideas that one may expect from a film written by Kaufman. All of these elements support the overall feel of the film that is driven by its gradual movement from the realistic to the outlandish as the years flash by while Cotard integrates more and more elements of his life into the play and the line between reality and illusion is also blurred by the fact that it becomes gradually harder to tell what we are supposed to take as really happening and what we are supposed to interpret as representations of Cotard's imagination. Cotard's self-centeredness suggests that every element of his life is important, so there is always something new to add to the play as long as his life goes on, and the former can't be finished before the latter is. Synecdoche combines two themes Kaufman has written about before, namely the way the mind works (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and the pains of trying to create something worthwhile (Adaptation) into a portrait of the artist.

Brilliantly, the film not only shows this but manages to create the same feeling in the viewer. This is well characterized by unenthusiastic critic Lawrence Toppman who complains that watching the film is "like assembling a puzzle from a box into which a sadist continually pours new pieces. I was still processing details when the abrupt ending snatched the puzzle away." Well, that's exactly the point!

Roger Ebert writes about the title:
As I should have positively known in a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, it is a word that has a meaning. Wikipedia informs me:

Synecdoche (pronounced "si-nek-duh-kee", IPA: /sɪˈnɛkdəˌki/; from Greek sinekdohi (συνεκδοχή), meaning "simultaneous understanding") is a figure of speech in which:
* a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or
* a term denoting a thing (a "whole") is used to refer to part of it, or
* a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
* a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
* a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material.

In other words, the playwright's life refers to all lives, and all lives refer to his life.
I wouldn't put it quite like Ebert (who seems not to have noticed that the protagonist's name has a meaning too). Let's forget the fifth definition and note that the term refers to two versions each of a pars pro toto and a totum pro parte. Just like in the film: (i) the play is supposed to contain the artist's life, which contains the play - no wonder it doesn't get finished; (ii) the artist's mind contains a portion of the world, which contains the artist's mind. Now, there's paradoxical for you!

Where does that leave Charlie Kaufman? Well, he hasn't managed to make a film about everything, but he's certainly given it a good shot.

Self-linkage: Those who liked the more humorous parts of this post may also enjoy my comments on The National Review's list of the 25 "best conservative movies of the last 25 years". And there's a very short review of Batman Begins.

The footnotes, where the real action is:
*Forward to 31:00 if you can't wait. The actual action doesn't start until three minutes later, but there's something at 31:00 that you need to see in order to understand something that happens later.

**Poor Coldplay! They're always used when this kind of thing pops up, aren't they? For the record, I think "In My Place" and "Viva la Vida" are both excellent pop songs; my metaphor refers to all of their other songs I know.

***To be more precise, they look infinite to the audience
because they're shot from a certain angle. Which makes you wonder how they're supposed to look infinite to the characters in the film who see them from a variety of other angles, but, hey, dream logic!

****I saw the film dubbed into German; perhaps it's simply "paradox" in the original English version, not that it really matters.

*****I'm no expert on philosophical pragmatism, but judging from the linked post alone, its author seems to mean by "philosophical pragmatism" what other people just call plain "pragmatism": If it works, it works. You can call that philosophical if you like, but then, "My aim in life is to get laid as much as possible" is philosophical, too. Neither is exactly the
Critique of Pure Reason.

******Our ability to distinguish dreams from reality is not a "largely Cartesian" theme. One, most people think about this sooner or later because it's such an obvious question. At the age of five or so, my late sister asked our parents how she could know that she was not "an ant that's dreaming", and that wasn't because she'd read Descartes. Two, Descartes isn't interested in dreams
per se. He uses dreams as the most obvious example of our senses leading us astray, the occurence of which he uses as an argument against the epistemological posititon of empiricism, which promotes knowledge on the basis of the impressions our senses deliver; Descartes then goes on to present his alternative epistemological view, on which Inception has little to offer, which is fine given that it's not a philosophy textbook.

*******I have no opinion on Deleuze except my general prejudice against 20th century French philosophers, but I daresay Deleuze didn't invent mind games. Everybody knows those were invented by Alex Ferguson!

********Trying to make a film with
no connection to philosophy whatsoever would be futile, as the questions tackled by philosophy are so basic that you can't make a film without touching them: What is moral behaviour, how do we know what we know, etc.

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