Operation: Mindcrime — Inception

In his book Speaking into the Air (University of Chicago Press, 1999), John Durham Peters points out that if telepathy — presumably the only communication context more immediate than face-to-face interaction — were to occur, how would one know who sent the message? How would one authenticate or clarify the source? Planting an idea undetected into another’s mind, subconsciously in this case, is the central concept of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. [Warning: I will do my best to spoil it below.]

Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made real

All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head
— Peter Gabriel, “Mercy Street”

The meta-idea of planting an idea in someone’s mind, known to some as memetic engineering, is not new; however, conceptualizing the particulars of doing it undetected is. Subconscious cat-burglar Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in extracting information from slumbering vaults. After a dream-within-a-dream heist-gone-wrong, he’s offered a gig planting something in one: and idea that will grow to “transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” Cobb reminds me of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) in the 1984 movie Dreamscape. Gardner is able to enter the dreams of others and alter their outcomes and thereby the outcomes of “real” situations. Cobb and his team do the same by creating and sharing dreams with others. The ability to share dreams — or to enter other worlds together via dreams, computer networks, hallucinations, mirrors, lions, witches, wardrobes, what-have-you — seems to be a persistent human fantasy. Overall, Nolan does a fine job adding to that canon of stories.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff gets theory-checked mid-film when Cobb’s partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt — standing in for Heath Ledger?) explains inception with the “don’t think of an elephant” ploy. What are you thinking about right now? Exactly. The problem is that you know why you’re thinking that right now. Successful inception requires that you think you thought of the idea yourself, independent of outside influence. It’s the artificial insemination of an original thought, “pure inspiration” in Cobb’s terms.

For better or worse, this concept (which takes the entire first act to establish), its mechanics (designer sedatives to sleep, primitive “kicks” to wake up), and the “big job” (a Lacanian catharsis culminating in the dismantling of a global empire) are just the devices that might enable the estranged Cobb to return home to his children. His late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard — standing in for Brittany Murphy?), or rather his projection thereof, haunts his dreams, jeopardizing his every job. Mal is a standout strong character and performance in a cast of (mostly; see below) strong characters and performances. She is beautiful, scary, and maintains an emotional gravity intermittently missing in this often weightless world. She is the strange attractor that tugs the chaos along. Whenever the oneiric ontology of Inception feels a bit too free-floating, Mal can always be counted on to anchor it in anger and affect.

The first time through, I thought that over-explaining the “idea” idea was the movie’s one flaw, finding myself thinking, “Okay, I get it” over and over. The second time through though, I honed in on it: The one thing preventing the concept from fully taking hold in the holiest of holies in my head is Ellen Page. Sure, she ably carried the considerable weight of Hard Candy (2005) and manhandled the tomboyish Juno (2007) to breakout success (admittedly with Michael Cera’s help), but her character and performance in Inception is the splitting seam that unstitches the dream into so many threads of sober consciousness. She’s supposed to be a brilliant architect yet simultaneously unaware of the ins-and-outs of inception and extraction, but she only believably excels at the latter. Where Keanu Reaves’ bumbling and understated Neo made The Matrix (1999) work by asking questions and pulling the viewer into the second world, Page’s clueless Ariadne drags us, the pace, and the other actors down. With the inexperienced patron Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) cues and clues to guide us through the intricacies of dream-theft, Ariadne is rendered all but unnecessary. She’s mostly redundant.

The seed of every story is a conceit, an unrealistic event or idea that the rest of the story sets out to explain. The survivors of a loved one who has committed suicide can never really know why he or she did so. The living can always see another option. If nothing else, Inception succeeds in explaining the suicide of a completely rational person, but I think it succeeds at much more than that.

Note: This post greatly benefited from discussions with and thoughts from Jessy Helms, Cynthia Usery, and Matt Morris.

Car-Race Meat Spiral Chief Restaurant Snail Button

No, it’s not some new awesome, all-purpose web widget. That was the subject line of an email I just received. The next one read “Butterfly Drink Book Army Data Base Aeroplane Space Shuttle,” and “Worm Data Base Rainbow Jet fighter Compass Pocket Telescope” was after that. They were spam of course, and, as much as it still frustrates me that there’s an entire industry dedicated to intruding my inbox (and phone line, and hard drive), I’m trying to see the positive.

Mind Performance HacksThe subject lines above are perfect fodder for Mind Hack #19 [Seed Your Mental Random-Number Generator] from O’Reilly’s Mind Performance Hacks (edited by Ron Hale-Evans). I mean, you can make that stuff up, but randomness is easier if it just arrives via email.

Another one I use a lot is Hack #27 [Play Mind Music]. Though I still often play Hip-hop when I work, I’ve been listening to more and more instrumental music. Here’s a sample of my recent playlist of “mind music”:

  • Explosions in the Sky All of a Sudden I miss Everyone, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, Friday Night Lights OST
  • Cliff Martinez Solaris OST, Wicker Park OST
  • Pelican City of Echoes, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw
  • Red Sparowes At the Soundless Dawn, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun
  • Main Hz, Motion Pool
  • Mogwai Zidane OST, Mr. Beast, Happy Music for Happy People
  • Peter Gabriel Long Walk Home (Rabbit-Proof Fence OST), Passion (The Last Temptation of Christ OST), Birdy OST
  • Brian Eno Eno Box I: Instrumentals, Music for Airports, Apollo, Discreet Music, etc.

(Brian Eno might be the best creative catalyst available, what with his cannon of ambient music and his co-creating the Oblique Strategies [Hack #23]). Mind Performance Hacks has nearly a hundred tricks and exercises to rattle your brain out of its usual patterns.

A Whole New MindI also just read The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown) by Tim Ferriss and am in the middle of Daniel Pink‘s A Whole New Mind(Riverhead), both of which have exercises that will make you think differently. The former has more for achieving personal goals, delegating responsibility, and getting free of your work, while the latter has more regarding cognitive and creative concerns. Pink contends that the next revolution will come not from left-brained engineers and accountants but from right-brained creative types like designers, teachers, and storytellers (good news for artists that want to be formerly known as “starving” — thank you, Govone), and his book is rife with exercises for your right hemisphere.

Anyway, I’m now thankful for weird subject lines in spam messages. Anything that makes me think about things in a different way is welcome.

What tricks do you have for tackling problems creatively?

Pranks 2, Applicant, and And Your Point Is?

Twenty years later, Vale Vale and Company finally return to the land of pranksters with Pranks 2 (RE/Search). These interviews, mostly done by V. Vale himself, illustrate just how deep pranks run in our current cultural milieu — and how far they’ve spread since the last volume (RE/Search #11: Pranks). From the spread of culture jamming and parody to the mainstays of satire and social commentary, pranksterism is standard fare. Heck, just the mainstreaming of the lyrical spoof, which has nearly put Weird Al Yankovic out of business, is proof enough. All of this makes it that much more difficult to shake things up with a good prank. Well, the time has come for the O.G.’s and the current reigning few to get their due. Continue reading “Pranks 2, Applicant, and And Your Point Is?”

Sticker Nation by Srini Kumar

I don’t know how most people feel about stickers, but they make me get all smiley. Sticker Nation (Disinformation) contains over 400 stickers emblazoned with subversive themes. Classic slogans like “Let the good times roll,” “Express yourself,” and “Power to the people” are peppered amongst “I just changed the world,” “Listen to Marshall McLuhan,” “Eat more veggies,” and “Talk nerdy to me.” My personal favorite is “When I hit the drum, you shake the booty,” but it’s difficult to have a favorite when there are so many good ones in here. Continue reading “Sticker Nation by Srini Kumar”

Conversations on Consciousness Edited by Susan Blackmore

After exploring the newest science of cultural evolution in her last book, The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore returns now with twenty interviews with some of the world’s biggest minds. What does one talk about with the world’s biggest minds? Well, minds of course. Continue reading “Conversations on Consciousness Edited by Susan Blackmore”