As you probably know, most of Inception takes place in dreams. At one point, during a gun battle with the dreamer’s security forces, Leo DiCaprio’s gun isn’t having the desired impact. His British colleague tells him to use a little imagination, and to illustrate, he pulls out…a somewhat bigger gun. Now, this is a dream, right? You could zap your enemies with a super-mega-ray-gun from the dreamer’s childhood toybox, or crush them with Terry Gilliam’s giant foot from Monty Python, or strafe them with Rabelais’ flying bomber pigs, or whatever. Brit dude’s solution seems neither very imaginative nor very realistic, given the strange turns that are typical of dreams.
The dream-worlds of Inception have for me a strangely un-dreamy quality. Much of the movie is set in a strangely impoverished fantasy where people plod through generic offices or hotels or try to drive a few blocks–I suppose that this may really be what dreams are like for the dreary, obsessed executives who are DiCaprio’s clients and victims, but that is a pretty depressing thought. Does our culture now need a new set of Jungian archetypes for its subconscious: the Office, the Car, the Gun, the Business suit, the Woman in a Short Skirt and a Long Jacket?
Later in the movie there are some other sets, but the orderliness and consistency remind me much more of the successive levels of a video game than the shifting, incongruous stages that the nightmare’s inept property-man builds for us (Nabokov’s phrase, I think). It is this stability that especially makes the dream seem so faux, though I suppose it might be justified because these are collaborative dreams created by DiCaprio’s team as well as the main dreamer. The resulting flatness might be taken as a metaphoric observation about the ‘dreams by committee’ that Hollywood produces.
I concede that there are risks to a more lifelike vision of dreams. What in the world is more boring than someone else’s dream, described in mind-numbing detail? Is there not a universal law of etiquette that dream accounts must be limited to three sentences? Even though some of the patterns and motives of dreams seem to be so widespread, there is also something terribly hard to convey about the emotional associations that make the dream so compelling for the dreamer.
So I’ve been thinking about works of art that do give me the authentic feel of the world of dreams, and I keep coming back to Lewis Carroll. There are too many surreal scenes to name, and you will, I hope, have your own favorites. I think of the croquet game with hedgehogs for balls and uncooperative flamingoes for mallets, the shop with insulting sheep shopkeeper, which morphs into a boat…but beyond any of these is the constant uneasy sense of almosting it, that everything is a little off, you are constantly trying to figure out the rules you’re supposed to play by, and just when you start to get adjusted everything slips into a new frame. As the Red Queen says, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place. Although the Surrealists themselves tried to follow the logic of dreams, I don’t know that they ever succeeded so well.
I’ll finish with a little clip about the iconography of dreams from Steve Buscemi’s Living in Oblivion, a movie about a nightmarish attempt to produce an indy film. They are trying to film a dream sequence involving a dwarf, and things have already gone pretty badly wrong (IIRC) with an out-of-control smoke machine.