The Business of Designing Dreams: Christopher Nolan’s Inception

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An entertaining hotel corridor

One day during my architecture studies, a lecturer gave the game away. He said that the fun part of architecture, coming up with an idea for a building, was only about ten percent of the whole job. The dreary bit, the part after the initial thrill of creation, the part for which architects perpetually wear black in mourning and for which they are paid, is the part which takes up so much time that most architects find themselves giving up the fun part entirely, if only to save time. The ones who end up designing great buildings don’t resist their plight, but dive headlong into the reality of working drawings, doorknobs, hinges and balustrade details. Those who love architecture, but find themselves unfit to join the inner circle, where it is said acolytes literally kneel down before travertine skirting boards, might take heart from the career of Rem Koolhaas (who himself is in that circle, even as he gazes outside). In the mid-nineties, while designing a new headquarters for Universal Studios in Los Angeles, Koolhaas found the practice of architecture redefined right before his eyes. As the design progressed, it became clear that the client was having trouble committing themselves to a work of architecture. Their circumstances were in flux, and were changing too fast to be defined in concrete and glass. As a result the project remains unbuilt, but the experience taught Koolhaas that there was more to architectural practice than designing buildings, that the architectural design process itself had resulted in certain insights into the state of his client and the world which were of value with or without the final edifice. 

Inception, Christopher Nolan’s new film, could be considered a film about architecture. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays an agent skilled at invading and manipulating the dreams of others, finds it easy to recruit a star architecture student (Ellen Page) to design the space in which the film’s climactic dream takes place. If architectural ideas have intrinsic value, then why not design dreams, especially if someone’s willing to pay? For Page’s character, as for Koolhaas, the invitation to produce ideas without buildings is an invitation to unburden. When she runs from DiCaprio’s initial offer, he knows she will come back. For an architect with ideas the opportunity to design a dream is itself a dream, or at least an opportunity to shoot a kind of mega-Imax movie without time, physics, or money between those ideas and their realization (DiCaprio does provide a design brief for the dream, a constraint essential to architectural creativity). Among other things, Inception is a rare film which takes architecture seriously, as process rather than just backdrop, and anyone with an interest in the subject will find themselves with some fascinating questions to ponder. For example, just what does it say about someone if Robert Moses-style tower slabs constitute the deepest level of their architectural dreaming?

The film’s plot, whose many twists and turns I wouldn’t dream of revealing, revolves around the idea of ideas. Several times (Hollywood demands repetition), DiCaprio’s character describes ideas as the most persistent parasite of all; once one has taken hold it cannot be shaken loose. It is rare to see a movie, especially a big action movie, preoccupied with ideas, even if it is hard to shake the feeling that the film does not, and cannot, do justice to them. Inception is an action movie, and its genre obligations are both an asset and a burden. As in Shutter Island, DiCaprio plays a character disturbed by the loss of his family, a situation which, in the absence of generic constraints, could have overwhelmed the film with plodding sentimentality. It is almost as though Inception’s premise is so jam packed that it presents a choice: ideas, action or character development — pick only two. Nolan seems to have chosen wisely, even though action eventually overwhelms ideas. 

Though its subject is the subconscious, Inception is not much concerned with character development. The relationships between the characters are have a professional coldness — they could be a team of management consultants flying from Denver to Houston — which, rather than detracting from the story, creates a subtly ironic relationship to contemporary reality. Rather than impose nuance where it might not be welcome, Nolan uses genre archetypes for their storytelling efficiency — we have a flawed leader assembling a crack team intent on ‘one last score’ — and concentrates his imagination on the admirable project of using the resources of a Hollywood action movie to explore the nature of dreams and the subconscious.

Just as in the film we pass between dreams within dreams, there is a more interesting Inception within the Inception we have. It is in the nature of action movies that the burdens of the genre weigh heavier as a film progresses toward its climax, and Inception does lose its mind toward the end. The quietest scenes, those with the most talking, are by far the most interesting. The action scenes are edited with the video game-like incoherence characteristic of contemporary action movies, and for me they were an intrusion, if not a sensory assault. The sound effects and score often so dominated the mix that important lines of dialogue were unintelligible. This problem bedevils many contemporary films, but in the case of Inception it is particularly damaging; the loudness and repetitiveness of the action prevents the film from exploring the nature of dreams with much subtlety. Do we dream in action cliches? How are dreams edited? Are dreams loud or quiet? Do they have original scores? These are interesting questions, and Inception is good enough that I wanted answers. The conventions of dreaming in movies and our own familiarity with ‘real’ dreams offers a chance to explore the true nature of dreams, and the difficulty of conveying dreams without turning them into stories, an Everest which Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut attempted from another corner of the collective unconscious entirely. To do this, Inception would have to be a quieter, more precise and more disturbing type of action film. Perhaps it is the ultimate in unfairly subjective criticism to say that Inception failed to capture the essential qualities of dreams, but dreams, like buildings, are lousy with detail, and the film just doesn’t seem to exist at that close scale.

The article on Inception in July’s American Cinematographer makes it clear that many dollars were spent on its making (Nolan dubbed one elaborate set “the tunnel of expense”). The production involved a number of complex, moveable sets and admirably relied on them wherever possible rather than digital effects. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film whose influence Nolan acknowledges, a grounding in physical reality makes the film’s unreality all the more enjoyable. This is simple human nature: we long for actuality in the movies, real tears and real stunts. The film’s few digital flights of fancy are generally used to depict moments of true spatial abstraction in the dreams, as opposed to the depiction of a heightened working through of everyday emotions in an everyday setting. 

Those sets combined with Rem Koolhaas’ ideas about expanding the definition of architectural practice to get me thinking more generally about the relationship between films and buildings. As a young man, Koolhaas was a screenwriter. This exchange from a 2006 interview in Der Spiegel suggests, as Inception might be trying to, that architecture, movies and dreams are in the same business: 

SPIEGEL: You are also an author. Can architecture be compared to a story, a novel or even a poem?

Koolhaas: Yes. I used to write screenplays for Russ Meyer?

SPIEGEL: … who became famous for his sex films starring large-breasted women.

Koolhaas: In a script, you have to link various episodes together, you have to generate suspense and you have to assemble things — through editing, for example. It’s exactly the same in architecture. Architects also put together spatial episodes to make sequences.

Extrapolating crudely from this, the economics become interesting. If we seek visceral entertainment, is it better spend two hundred million dollars (Inception’s rumored budget) on an action movie, or a work of contemporary architecture (the proposed downtown branch of the Whitney, designed by Renzo Piano, is expected to cost less than $200 million)? Both take years to create and involve the progressive compromising of an idea on its way to reality. With maintenance, the building will last indefinitely, it will infiltrate the daily life and memories of countless millions in unpredictable ways. If done well, it will tell a different story in different weather, at different times of year, at various moments in history in a way which is refreshingly open to interpretation. The building will also keep the rain out. For the same price, the action movie is entirely experienced in a couple of hours, may or may not turn a profit, may end up on the streets of Hong Kong the day of its release, is usually diminished by repeated viewing, hardly exists as a physical object (may in fact only exist on a hard drive) and could well cease to exist entirely before many years have passed. Buildings would seem to be a bargain then, even with all the headaches involved, and yet a human need for movies, for their dreamy ephemerality, their attempts to plant ideas in our heads, persists. Godard said everything when he called them “the most beautiful fraud in the world.”

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