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-
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 entry. Tom 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.
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.