Playfully Deconstructing “Inception” – Names and References

By bonnie, 18 July, 2010

Here’s a little insight into the way I work.  This is me, sitting in the movie theater watching Inception:

I’m trying to turn off the part of my brain that is taking notes for later and just follow it where it’s going.  I manage to do that almost entirely, so that I can really be open to the visuals and the whole experience.  It’s pretty.  On many, many levels.

About 20 minutes in, that really lovely familiar sensation sinks in and make me feel like the warm, fuzzy fangirl that I am.  You know the one that says “I can’t wait to watch this again!” (and again and again and again).  The one that particularly looks forward to the 3rd or 4th or 5th viewing when I still can’t believe I’m noticing things that I should have caught the first (or first few) times.  I know it’s going to be one of those movies. Yep.  Sold.

Needless to say, this film was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in ages, and I loved it.

But this isn’t a review.  This is the part where I call up the notes my brain did manage to save for later, and share with you some playful research and deconstructing I’ve been doing all day as a result.

- spoiler alert from here on in-

Totems

I thought the naming of this element was very interesting.  Totems make most of us think of totem poles, but that is just one form of an archetypal idea found in many cultures. Totems are traditionally symbolic objects thought to protect a person or group of people.  They also frequently are representative of the person or tribe.

There is more about that here, along with some interesting notes about what Claude Levi-Strauss wrote about totemism.  I won’t get into all that on here, because that would be a whole other essay and his writing is really dense and academic.  However, if you are not familiar with him, his work is some of the most important theory in linguistics, symbolism and mythology.  He was known for taking some radically egalitarian stances and setting out to demonstrate that the “civilized mind” in modern cultures was no more developed than in so-called “primitive cultures”.  What he has to say about totems and their role in culture as analogies or signifiers is very interesting.

Ariadne

Her name, as far as I can tell, is the only obviously referential one in the film.

It’s Greek.  She’s the daughter of King Minos.  Often referred to as the Mistress of the Maze, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur.  She armed him with a sword and a ball of string for him to unwind, to be able to find his way back out of the Labyrinth once he was in it and had defeated the Minotaur.

This plays to her character and her relationship with Dom on so many levels – the maze, the levels of dreams, his memory elevator, the end when she suggests they have to go down another dream level, and her insistence on him facing Mal and his past – I mean, really, we could go on and on.

Minos’ Labyrinth of Crete is thought to be the oldest known Maze.  It is always described and represented as being circular.  Here’s a typical depiction:

Remember the maze she drew that finally got Cobb to hire her?

Another fun fact, the palace of Minos and the maze were located in the city of Knossos.  Knossos like Gnosis, the Greek root meaning ultimate knowledge or enlightenment.  Cobb hired an architect to make him a maze that would be the ultimate vehicle his own arc of becoming aware.

Ariadne’s totem

Her totem is a chess piece.  The Bishop.   The bishop in the chess “court” can move diagonally all over the board, while all of the others (except the Queen) are stuck with linear movements.  In a royal court (which the chess board represents) this is the right-hand person of the King or Queen.   In various cultures this figure had several titles, “bishop” is a Christian-based title, but this is another archetype in many cultures that served as a ruler’s moral or ethical compass.  In Tarot, (which has similar historical roots as Chess) some decks call the same card either “the Hierophant” or “the Bishop” or even “the Pope” (crappy Catholic Tarot?)  When I read tarot, the presence of the card indicates some kind of guide or indicator towards a path to insight or awareness.  Wikipedia says that the hierophant “represents conformity to social standards, or deference to the established social moral order as the guide towards knowledge, insight, and wisdom.”

Arthur

Oh man, do I wish we had more information on Arthur.  He’s “the point man”, so his job is to control as many of the variables in the job as possible.  It therefore makes sense that his totem is a loaded die.

Eames

The name made me think of the famous modernist design couple Charles and Ray Eames.  In Inception, Eames is called “the forger” but in a way he is a kind of designer in that he designs and impersonates important projects of the dreamer’s subconscious.  Implicit in modern architecture, furniture and style design work is the emphasis on choosing clean and simple form over grandiose flourishments.  In the film this character introduces the idea that  inception can only be possible and effective by taking a complex idea and distilling it down to its most simple core to work with.

Mal

French (Latin root) for “bad”.   The character we see is explained by Cobb as only being a shadow of his true wife.  She is the embodiment of his dark side.

Her totem (which becomes his) is the spinning top that spins endlessly in the dream world.  (Infinite dream worlds)  When it is his, it also points to this interpretation but also could easily lend itself to a metaphor of his world spinning out of control, stopping only when toppling around him.

“Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”

The song they keep playing to activate the “kick” that will wake them up is Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”.  Which means “No, I regret nothing.”   Marion Cotillard (Mal) won an Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in the film “La Vie En Rose.”  Several times in the film there are allusions to Cobb trying not to become an old man, alone and regretful.

Robert Fischer Jr.

The only thing I could think of was chess legend Bobby Fischer.  Doesn’t have much in common with Fischer in the film, however, his name might be ironic.  The Fischer in the movie is a central pawn in a high-stakes heist.  He believes himself to be making decisions of his own accord, but is not.

Only other thing that interests me is that Bobby Fischer spent the last few years of his life in Iceland where he had applied for political asylum.  He did in a hospital in Reykjavik.  Of course the last “act” layer of Fischer’s dream in the film is in a land of ice and snow, where he has to go find his father.  He dies in the hospital there.  This could be a metaphorical parallel, however I recognize it’s a reach.

Dom Cobb

I left this one for last because it is long and also where I begin to really go off the rails into mad speculative thought.  As a happy accident, when I was looking for any connections to his names, I accidentally typed in “Tom Cobb” and found this Wikipedia entryTom Cobb was a play by Gilbert and Sullivan, a farce in three acts.  This is where it’s likely to be reaching and is barely coincidence, but I found some of it interesting and want to include a brief summary anyway.

In the first act, the character of Tom Cobb is a surgeon, who is poor and engaged to be married to a woman named Matilda.  He fakes his own death to escape debt.  In the second act he returns to his social group where no one will believe he is who he says he is.  He becomes blackmailed to keep quiet and he assumes a new life and identity as a poet/soldier.  According to Wikipedia, he says: “”I’m so hungry, and seedy, and wretched, that I’d agree to anything.” Hilarity ensues, as it always does in G & S pieces, especially with the mad-cap, mistaken identities tropes abound.  In the third act, he gets his identity and livelihood back.  He has a new reality as his true self, having rid himself of his debt only by going through this ridiculous scheme.  His former love, Matilda wants him back and he declines.

Thoughts?  I mean, what at the odds that Chris Nolan is a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan?  I don’t see much of a possible link there.  Still, a farce involving multiple “realities” in 3 acts, and the emphasis on the 3 levels of dreaming.  A character named Tom Cobb who runs from a debt, a character named Dom Cobb is who called “the extractor” on the run for a criminal past.  A tidy ending where he rejects his former love, gets everything he wanted and gets to be “himself” again?  It is interesting, no?

You can also go with the whole Ariadne Greek mythology thing and see him as a modern-day Theseus.  Theseus had a long resume in Greek mythos.  He battled a lot of monsters, notably facing the gatekeepers to the six levels of the underworld.  There is a lot in there that could fit somehow or be compared certainly.  But that brings us into Joseph Campbell territory, with some very heavy archetypal hero symbol kinds of talk.  Again, that is a whole other conversation.

Really that goes for all of these little bits and pieces of connection I’m throwing out there.  More intelligent detail and discussion could probably happen after I’ve seen the film a number of times and I’m armed with better sources than googling, Wikipedia and fragments of history and theory from my education.   That is how we really should “go there”.

Alas, for today, I’m no academic.  I’m just a giddy fangirl who saw a great movie and really enjoys picking apart the details.

Last thought

Did that last scene remind anyone else of the unicorn at the end Bladerunner more than a little bit?  I remember reading that it is one of Nolan’s favorite films and that he said he had wanted to do Batman like Bladerunner, and I’ve found many mentions (and versions) of that story, but no source anywhere online.  It wouldn’t surprise me.

9 Comments

  1. Boogle says:

    It’s an origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner referencing a dream sequence only left in the Directors and Final Cuts.

  2. bonnie says:

    Boogle – You are right! I can’t believe I forgot it was a unicorn. It’s been 11 years since I’ve seen it. However, I’m fairly sure all versions have the unicorn, don’t they? I thought the difference in endings was what happened immediately after? I could be mistaken, I’ve only seen it twice and while I respect its legacy, it is not one of my favorite films.

  3. [...]       « Playfully Deconstructing “Inception” – Names and References Diving further into “Inception”: Where to Read [...]

  4. More about the Bishop and having fun deconstructing this movie that seems made for it:

    Ariadne is French. In French, the Bishop is called Fou, or Fool, Arcana 0, which depicts a character obliviously walking toward a cliff’s edge. But Ariadne’s Fool plunges forward, like should Cobb who is repeatedly instructed to make a leap of faith.

    And Mal: The only name this could plausibly be a diminutive for is Mallory, which means “ill fated”, “unfortunate”.

  5. bonnie says:

    Stephane, thank you for commenting. Interesting note about the Fool. I didn’t realize that Bishop was called Fou. The Fool card in tarot can also be read as the person in question needing to give up foolish pursuits and find their true path. This is quite relevant to Ariadne’s insistence that Cobb needs to stop bringing his issues with Mal into the work and dreamworlds!

  6. [...] the list of now Her name ]Ariadne], as far as I can tell, is the only obviously referential one in the film. [...]

  7. Inceptor says:

    Hi Bonnie,
    Your stream of consciousness memory has brought out many, many insights.
    It would be folly to think that any one person can “crack” inception. What follows is only my personal gleanings. You’ve already said many of the things that struck me as particularly of note. The aspects to keep in mind when watching Inception, apart from the “Dream layers” is that there is a deception happening here, that the audience all too readily forgets. The real levels of Inception include the level where the film is a fiction and we, the audience are entering a dream and are populating it with our subconscious. In other words, the movie, Inception performs a type of Inception on ourselves by drawing us into it’s apparent complexity to make us forget the one essential thing: We’re not seeing something that is happening. We’re seeing a story that’s being told. And as with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s journey” it is the experiential journey that’s as essential to Inception as is the brilliance required to plant the idea.
    How often in our daily lives do we quote movies as if they were a component of our experience? That is also Inception; Making information come alive by experiencing it through emotion. Which is what a story does. And the movies do it even better since they immerse our senses to the point where we feel real emotions when we empathize with the characters on screen.
    Which brings us back to Inception.
    If we examine the characters, certain key sentences and certain key aspects stand out:

    Yusuf: He brings us to the dream: He opens the door with his key to bring us to the Dreamers.
    He’s the Gatekeeper, Morpheus.
    Mr. Saito: He’s the Samurai. Electricity, power his domain. He is order. He is omnipotent. He has at his command the entire real world. In the world of the dream where imagination rules, his earthly powers have no value. Here he is wounded, destroyed. Yet, his realism and hold on life are crucial to allow the dream to come to completion. If he didn’t hold on as tenaciously onto life as he does, the last dream wouldn’t be complete, the projections would stop Cobb and Ariadne from bringing Fischer back. He saves the dream and it is his power that returns Cobb to the natural order. The relationship is symbiotic: Without Cobb he can’t keep the world intact, without him, Cobb can’t return to an intact world. His goal of avoiding the creation of an empire, a mono-culture is so very close to the way that in nature no single species or organism can have the fully dominant role. As soon as a species threatens to overwhelm all other species a natural rebalancing occurs. Mr. Saito’s role is to ensure that this rebalancing, the inception, the creation of a new idea, a new phase in evolution occurs.
    Eames: The forger, his “specialty” is “references”. He’s Loki, the Trickster, the maker of connections. He creates metaphors, finds ways of translating from one realm to another. On his own he’s not much good: He doesn’t have the drive or the mission to bring about inception. Without him, without his wit and brilliance, an endeavor like Inception, which requires “Imagination” is impossible to achieve.
    Arthur: He’s order, “specificity”, his mission is to create the structure that allows the dream to transition, he controls the transition from reality to dream by maintaining the outside structures required to let free reign to imagination inside. He, literally, ties up the loose ends and brings it all together. He’s the one who maintains the Dream inducing machinery. He’s the Engineer to Ariadne’s architect.
    Robert Fischer:
    He’s the inner child. The wounded self that is looking for validation. Inception shares the rage against the distant father with Kafka, Spielberg and Lucas. Fischer is the Luke Skywalker, the hero who’s journey allows us, allows Cobb to regain faith. His emotional catharsis, when his father returns his individuality to him, is the trigger to Cobb’s release: If Cobb succeeds with inception, with making Fischer his own man, he will “go home” to “his kids”. In the course of the story, Fischer moves from “child”/being kidnapped to “waking”/learning of his illusions to “making his own choices”/acting to discover the truth and gain validation. Of all the characters in the movie, his role is the most symbolic and the least self sustained. Where with any of the other characters you feel a sense of purpose and self-interest, he seems to be entirely devoid of purpose except to lead us through the journey and to give us our own catharsis. It is remarked somewhere that the actor, Cilian Murphy has had a bag placed over his head in the last three films he shot with Nolan. The symbolism couldn’t be more clear: The child is being held prisoner, is hiding. Until it emerges, until the boy becomes the man there can be no whole. The way to becoming a man then isn’t through hardship and suffering. The way to become a man is to receive validation, in a dream or in reality, of one’s own worth and power.
    Mal:
    She’s the symbol of Love gone out of proportion. Mal, as in malignant is the deformed shape an emotion takes when the source was overpowering. Just as the image of the overbearing mother can remain so strong in a child’s mind that it overpowers healthy relationships and emotions, so can the love of a wife who demands the ultimate sacrifice become an image that is too strong to overcome. Losing her and blaming himself for her loss is the “Guilt, guilt, guilt” that Cobb feels, that keeps him from allowing the Inception to complete. Mal sabotages Cobb every step along the way. What he perceives as his love for Mal, his eternal devotion, becomes a vicious circle trapping him in a debt he had no need to pay. Mal “had herself declared sane by three independent psychiatrists”. Thus it must be Cobb who’s not sane. Rather than allow himself to destroy the perfect image he’s created of her, he’s willing to forsake his release, his catharsis and return to normality. Because of what they built together, what she signifies to him, he can’t let her out of his life, even though her presence is no longer needed for him to continue.
    So in our lives do we often refuse to let go of what has become our emotional normality, whatever situation, parental love we’ve come to know as good. Only when the wounded self (Fischer, shot by Mal) can no longer function, can no longer move towards independence can we choose to free ourselves from the burden of Mal’s poisoned love.
    Ariadne:
    Is the one who ultimately leads Cobb to his own freedom. She’s the one who see Mal’s negative influence. She is the pure spirit of Cobb’s gift and talent. Where Cobb has let the “basement” prison of Mal’s anger trap him and rob him of his gift to dream, Ariadne’s free to discover creativity and to create a pure dream. She is strong enough to confront Mal and to protect Cobb from his attachment. Her motives are pure, she acts selflessly and has compassion for Cobb. She is the saint, the savior and the pure spirit that stands on the other side of the conflict that Cobb faces between creation and destruction, between letting an idea become a cancer that destroys and giving an idea away freely to allow the self to be. She “kills” Mal to protect Cobb. Her act is not done against Mal, it’s done for Cobb. She sees what is right and in doing so, she frees everyone from Limbo: Cobb can make good on his promise to Saito, Fischer can move forward and discover his emotional release. Her action is to “cut the Gordian knot”. She refuses to see a dilemma in Cobb’s choice of “changing memories” and “growing old with Mal”. Cobb doesn’t have to stay with Mal and live his life to be “an old man, filled with regrets”.
    Cobb:
    He’s the Dreamer and the dream. Mal challenges him if his reality isn’t like a dream, chased around the globe by giant corporations. And throughout the movie he questions his reality, uses Mal’s totem to establish what’s real and what’s not. He clings to Mal’s definition of reality. Her love that is poisoning him is irrefutable because she’s the one who established his values for reality. His brilliance, drive and determination allow him to create the plan that will bring Fisher to his truth and restore him on his path. Yet, it’s only after Ariadne creates his release that he can free himself and return to his life and his children, knowing in his memory now that there was a way for Mal’s love to be whole and for them to live old together. All that happened was that in their lives they couldn’t. So instead of regretting a past he can’t have, he learns to focus on a future, the children, that is there. Mal’s “murder”, his guilt over losing her was what was keeping him from returning home. He had to do something to change that situation. There was a way that required letting go of his perception of her: He says that he can’t imagine her with her perfection, with everything she is. In other words he retained the painful emotion that had overpowered his life, when the relationship was so much more than simply this emotion. In order to let go, to become himself, he had to descend three layers into the dream and let his “child” his innocent self discover his true worth.
    That’s my 2 cents . Not sure it’s worth that much…

  8. An honest Fool says:

    I think we must refer to the “zero gravity elevator” motif and its resemblance to Einstein’s Thought Experiment leading too the Theory of Relativity. Though I cant really describe the depth of it.

  9. [...] I think even my dog was tired of hearing me talk about this movie.  I blogged about it here and here if you want to read more.  Needless to say, I really loved it and plan to watch it a few [...]

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