Why Inception Went Further Than 8 1/2

By Leroy James King · July 22, 2010

Movies about movies (or TV shows.)  There usually isn't a gray zone of mediocrity when it comes to these types of films – they're either brilliant, or fall dreadfully short of being anywhere close to interesting.  Here's some brilliant ones:

8 1/2
Adaptation (yes, I will continue to plug this film every chance I get)
Mulholland Drive
Ed Wood
Barton Fink

Some horrific ones:

The TV Set
The Pickle
Looney Tunes: Back In Action
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (a cult favorite, but c'mon…)
The Dead Pool

And the 2 gray zone movies:

Get Shorty
What Just Happened?

Now, I acknowledge the huge deficit between high and low brow subject matter from what I've listed above, but the fact of the matter is that self-reflection only works well when one of 2 things (or both) is happening in the film:

1) We get into the sometimes surreal inner workings of either the screenwriter or filmmaker's head (either the actual screenwriter/filmmaker, or the one being depicted onscreen… or both)

2) The attention to detail and understanding of the filmmaking process is totally spot on and realistic

Even with Bowfinger, which dabbles in a borderline slapstick satire of the industry, still captures an amazing (and often hilariously painful) caricature of Hollywood politics in action – the weirdness of Scientology, the lying to production personnel about the presence of funds, the hounding of agents, the cinema verite scheme method of shooting (aka guerilla filmmaking), etc.  This is a film that was lambasted pretty thoroughly when it came out, but has since become a cult must-see amongst the doe-eyed dreamers who come out to Hollywood without any connections (I of course being the self-appointed President of this lackluster fraternity.)  The others on the brilliant list… they speak for themselves.  Watch them if you haven't already.

The horrific ones on the list… well, they use the backdrop of the film industry as a gimmick (with the exception of The TV Set – this is just a bad movie, albeit with good intentions.)  Not that I'm expert when it come to the entire studio process of filmmaking, but if you've worked in entertainment for even a hot minute, you're baffled that these movies about making movies were made/written/produced by anyone that actually works in the film industry.  It feels like they hired a screenwriter who has theories and preconceptions about the film industry that are kind of close to reality, but have never actually been "in the mix" so to speak.  The end product reeks of "well, it could be cool to like… make this a movie within a movie… yeah… lets see what THAT feels like…"  Then it just feels like once the project was (somehow) green lit no one ever bothered to do a fact check on realism, etc.  Granted these horrific list holders are inherently gimmicky to begin with, but still…

Now, I'm ever-aware that Hollywood "insiders" aren't the audience for these types of movies.  They're popcorn flicks for a popcorn audience that shares the same preconceptions and theories about Hollywood that I've described above.  But I'm hard pressed to imagine any screenwriter who writes a movie about making a movie (no matter who the audience is) to not have some sort of uber self-satisfied clever streak running down their spines when they finish their final draft, even if it's Looney Tunes: Back in Action.  Egotism is like hepatitis – if you root in your own feces long enough you'll catch it.

But what all movies about movies have in common is the simple fact that they're about getting someone's germ of an idea (albeit, many times a grandiose germ) made.  They're about taking an idea and putting it in front of people, and the process that it takes to get a story from the internal phase, to the external one.  With a movie Adaptation, it's specifically about the process of getting the story to a place where's it's presentable, and the mental obstacles a writer has to go through to get to that place.  For 8 1/2, it's about (among a ton of other things) knowing where to draw the line when it comes to injecting yourself into a film – where to say, "This film is no longer a film – this film is a moving picture memoir."  Adaptation has this going for it too, but 8 1/2 is certainly the end-all-be-all when it comes to the disillusionment a storyteller faces when they're pressed to make a marketable piece of media during a time of personal strife (i.e. a mid-life crisis.)

I'm not going to pretend this is my original philosophy (I won't pretend I had the wit to walk away from this film with this really heady perspective), but the more and more I delve into fanboy deconstructions of it, Inception is the latest movie about a movie.  SPOILER ALERT…

On its surface, Inception is an inverted heist film (check out Preston's review – I actually agree with it for the most part…) – it's about planting an idea in someone's head with the hope that they will change their way of thinking and/or decision making process once they've been infected with said idea.  Cobb (Di Caprio) continually makes an analogy to ideas being like parasites or viruses – they're things that spread and grow over time.

Now, you can definitely say that this is a movie about ideas in general – they're impetus (namely in the dream state), and the pretty off-the-wall mental visualization of those ideas before we transfer our energy into making them a reality, or even just the ability to connect the dots and articulate the ideas into words or pictures.  But I'm definitely moving into the camp that the entire movie is definitely about planting ideas in the heads of audiences via films.  The movie itself is essentially Nolan's dream, a la 8 1/2, but with a big difference – a difference that sets it apart from any other movie about making movies…

Going to back to 8 1/2, Adaptation, and even Mulholland Drive, all three of these movies DO spend a lot of time in the dream or fantasy world (Mulholland definitely for almost the whole film.)  BUT, each movie still has a "base" reality – a time and place that is absolute that you go back to.  I understand that Adaptation and Mulholland Drive make their absolute realities pretty ambiguous, but I'm hard pressed to be convinced by any argument that says this is just totally untrue.  In Adaptation "reality" is up until the point when Donald has obviously taken over the screenwriting (when Charlie goes to McKee's seminar) – so the first half or so of the movie is "real," and the last half is a "fabrication," as it's no longer Charlie's movie anymore.  For Mullholland, it's the last 10 or 15 minutes of the movie, when we see the bizarro version of the movie's reality – simply put, the crazy Naomi Watts is real, not the sweet, wholesome one.

Inception bypasses the concept of reality all together.  Reality is actually reality in this movie – that's to say reality is you as a viewer sitting in the theater watching the giant projection on the screen.  The dream is the movie itself – Nolan's dream – his thought process of what making a movie is like for him.  Make sense?  Eh?

So there's been a lot of critical complaints regarding the clarity of the film – that it's stilted, disjointed, logic holes, etc.  What I think these critics fail to realize is that Nolan is simply trying to project his dream of a movie on the screen, not necessarily a "movie-movie."  Dreams by the natures of themselves are in fact disjointed, hard to follow, totally absent of logic.  They're like mood collages – images, actions, and desires are fueled by subconscious or gut feelings.  

Again, I'm not going to pretend this is my original philosophy.  The only real new thought I think I've thrown into the blogosphere is the fact that if Inception is indeed a movie about making movies, it's shed a convention that no other film in the genre has – the total lack of reality.

Stating that, I realize I'm contradicting myself from earlier regarding what a good movie about making movies almost always needs to do: "The attention to detail and understanding of the filmmaking process is totally spot on and realistic."  On the surface this definitely is a contradiction as it relates to Inception.  But when I let it marinate for a second, I realize that there is such a thing as presenting the surreal as wholly realistic – that is to say Nolan presents the dream world very realistically – the dreams feel like dreams.  He took 8 1/2 and said, "I'm going to make a movie like that, but I'm never going to show myself in the movie – I'm going to show the projection of myself and see if the audience can keep up."

I just reread this post and I gotta say, I apologize for essentially writing in clicks and whistles.  Would love this to spark some sort discussion.

Inception.  The funnest movie to talk about in a looooong ass time.