What should I pay attention to the next time I see Inception?
July 21, 2010 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I saw Inception last night and intend to see it again soon. What should I pay attention to? Which details are crucial? What are the red herrings? I'm not looking for theories so much as what clues are in the film I can use to construct my own explanation.

Here's what I've got.

Spinning top
Other tokens
People dying (does anyone die in what is presented as reality?)
The kids (age, appearance, when they appear in the film)
Time shifts
Weather changes
Freudian ideas (e.g. Oedipal complex)
Saito: Who is he exactly? (Should Robert Fischer know him?)
Leo's wedding ring
Chess references
Sounds that shouldn't be there
When does Mal appear?
Repeated phrases
Mirrors

I'm pretty sure there are red herrings put in there by Nolan to distract the viewer from what otherwise might be a tell, I especially suspect the spinning top of being a red herring. So, besides asking what's meaningful, I'm also asking about what only seems to be meaningful but is really just a distraction (Nolan made The Prestige, so should be pretty well-versed in sleight-of-hand).
posted by Kattullus to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
Spoilers in this thread, obviously.

This is the best explanation of the movie I've come across.

Pay close attention to the opening shot with Cobb in the water. If the whole movie is a dream, this could be one exception, showing him falling asleep on the beach with his kids.

Focus on location changes. Characters often move from one place to another "instantly" without their travel being shown. Is this because they're in a dream, or simply because quick cuts to change settings are just how movies do things?

The totems (particularly the final shot in the movie) are a red herring. Several people handle Cobb's, even though it's made clear no one is supposed to. A totem, if you are the exclusive handler of it, only reveals if you're trapped in someone else's dream. If you're trapped in your own, it reveals nothing.

Pay close attention to the explanation of limbo. There's some confusion about whether it is personal, or some kind of shared, collective state that anyone in the world could go to.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:43 AM on July 21, 2010 [11 favorites]


Salon had a pretty decent write up on the movie based on that author's interpretations.

From what I hear, there are two sets of actors playing his children - a younger set and an older set. To me, this means that the children have aged in the final scene, which makes sense according to his two or three year absence from what the children in his memories.
posted by Think_Long at 10:43 AM on July 21, 2010


Looks like TWPL and my links both agree that this movie is, at its heart, about the nature of filmmaking and watching.
posted by Think_Long at 10:45 AM on July 21, 2010


Also, I'm convinced that — like in The Prestige — what happens in the movie describes the movie itself. Movie logic closely parallels dream logic (see my earlier point about quick cuts that imply travel) and the entire 2.5 hour experience is meant to be a dream for the audience. It is also paradoxical, filled with so much detail (and so many red herrings) that it is intended to be ambiguous and unresolvable. There is no "correct" explanation, and every attempt to find one will necessarily fall apart. Also, the devious part is that, if the movie is the audience's dream, the real inception is happening to you, planting ideas in your head that you'll think about for days. Even the movie's tagline, "Your mind is the scene of the crime," suggests this. It breaks the fourth wall without being explicit about it... like in The Prestige, Nolan has crafted something outside of the narrative, targeted specifically for the viewer.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:49 AM on July 21, 2010 [11 favorites]


Okay, third and final comment here: I've heard but not verified that the children's shoes change over the course of the movie. Would be worth keeping an eye out for.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 10:50 AM on July 21, 2010


I didn't find that Chud article (linked by TWPL) convincing--at least, the claim that the whole movie is supposed to take place in a dream. It seems that all the evidence in favour of that interpretation is also compatible with the view that the film is cutting corners and helping itself to the standard deus ex machinas of thrillers. Which of those interpretations you like more depends on how charitable you are.
posted by Beardman at 10:52 AM on July 21, 2010


The best explanation i've read about the story comes from the actor who played the Chemist. He contends that what is interesting about the spinning top at the end of the film is not that we don't see it fall, it's that Cobb doesn't care anymore. He sees his children and runs to greet them. He's no longer plagued by the same thoughts that caused his wife to kill herself.
posted by chunking express at 11:01 AM on July 21, 2010 [24 favorites]


Some comments from someone I hope doesn't mind me copying their email here:
A few other things I was thinking about the movie - Ellen Page's character is named Ariadne, who in Greek mythology was the daughter of King Minos who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur and get out of the labrynth. (Using red fleece thread - does she wear red fleece in the movie? I dont remember). Ariadne is ultimately betrayed by Theseus - was Ellen Page's totem a pawn? Im not sure. Marion Cottillard (his dead wife) is best known for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (for which she won an Oscar). The song they used as a signal in the dream throughout the movie was Edith Piaf. I think the exact song they use is "Non, Je Ne Regrette" (No, I regret nothing).

So anyway, I really think that they were purposely planting little seeds into the minds of the viewers to encourage their subconscious to feel certain things. Genius. That movie was so fucked up on so many levels I can barely make sense of it all. It's like the entire movie was an inception mirroring what Christopher Nolen was doing to the audience itself. Ha ha.

One more thing - that last scene in the airport was brilliant because it mirrors the scene that would play out moments later as the audience of the movie leaves the theatre after sharing a common dream and sitting right next to each other going through the same dramas.
posted by chunking express at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2010 [13 favorites]


Beardman, I think what you're saying is what I've been saying about Inception - though a much better example of it is actually The Sixth Sense.

We've been watching movies for almost a century now, and cinema has built up a kind of storytelling language made of cuts and transitions and other techniques that are outside the actual images we see. We've seen so many films that we've internalized that language and we just process it automatically without thinking about it. In the space of one frame we go from one situation to a completely different one, but that doesn't throw us out of the movie because we interpolate what has been skipped.

What made The Sixth Sense so effective was that it used that cinematic language to lie to us. If there had just been a static camera pointed at the scenes from beginning to end, it would have been immediately obvious that only Haley Joel Osment could see Bruce Willis and that he was never truly interacting with anyone else. But Shyamalan used cuts and other techniques in such a way that we assumed things we had never actually been shown.

I think that's one of the techniques being used in Inception, though far from the only one. Note in particular, the early dream where Cobb's showing Ariadne the ropes and she doesn't realize she's in a dream until Cobb points out that she can't say how they got to that cafe. Again, if not for the viewer interpreting the cuts for Nolan, that would never have worked. Like dreams in the film, scenes in movies start in media res. So it's natural to us the viewer that they're just suddenly in this new place, and we fill in the unimportant (we think) details of how they got from point a to point b.

So I'd pay attention to the editing in your next viewing. What do you think happened in that cut, and why do you think that? How could you be mistaken?
posted by Naberius at 11:09 AM on July 21, 2010 [11 favorites]


When we first meet Eames, Cobb comments on his spelling. Shortly after the signage on one of the buildings reads FOREN instead of FOREIGN - which could mean that we're in a dream and the "decorator"'s spelling isn't perfect. Or that it's a foreign country, and they misspelled the signage.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:13 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Someone told me that Cobb wears his wedding band in dreams and does not in real life. I cannot verify if this is true, but if so, that's awfully nifty.

I think the point made by the Chemist is wise. The movie is obviously intended to raise questions about what is real and what is not, but what's ultimately important to the characters is that Cobb chooses a happy life with his children over a sad life where he does not know what matters.

There is an interesting parallel here to what has happened to Fischer: against his conscious will, he is being made to feel happy about a choice he is making. Fischer seems so much more at peace by the end. Is this a happy ending for him? I wager we'd say that kidnapping someone and using ooky-spooky dream technology to make them sell off their company is unethical, but from his point of view, he has made peace with his father and is now free to do whatever he wants.

I would keep an eye out for how Ariadne influences Cobb. She appears to be "incepting" Cobb throughout much of the film, albeit with apparently benevolent motives. Did Caine's character influence her, or is she simply acting on her own accord?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:15 AM on July 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've heard but not verified that the children's shoes change over the course of the movie.

Supposedly their clothing is different, though similar and they do age, though I haven't verified it yet. Watch that closely, might be one of the red herrings.

Mal opens the opening scenes, in Asian hotel.

When I see it again, I intend to pay special attention to the relationship between Cobb and Mal and everything Mal says.

Pay attention to Michael Caine's character also, what he says to Cobb in France and his actions with Cobb in the final scenes.

Listen to the soundtrack and background noise too, I think there was audio clues as when Cobb is dreaming.

What's up with Ellen Page's token?

Saito: Who is he exactly?

He's a rival of Fischer's and yes Fischer should know him since Saito is the head of the last company standing between Fischer's complete domination of an energy market.

Be careful about red herrings and mistakes Nolan might have made.
posted by new brand day at 11:16 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


From what I hear, there are two sets of actors playing his children - a younger set and an older set.

Yup, both sets are credited with their ages explicitly listed at the end.

The thing that cracked me up was Saito's discovery that the rug wasn't his rug and the architect's "I didn't know he was gonna put his CHEEK on it!" This is a conversation straight out of VFX work-- "wait, what, you want THAT? You didn't say you wanted THAT, we're going to have to re-do the asset."
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:16 AM on July 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, I'd pay attention what happens when they're at the snow fort. Why exactly does Ellen Page's character agree to tell Cobb about the secret passages, knowing that Mal could find out?

Also, supposedly it's Fischer's dream (even though he thinks it's Browning's), but then he gets shot. I'd be interested in how they display that collapsing dream of his and does Fischer then wake up the dream the next level up (the hotel). I don't think he does, but just curious.
posted by new brand day at 11:28 AM on July 21, 2010


I didn't find that Chud article (linked by TWPL) convincing--at least, the claim that the whole movie is supposed to take place in a dream.

About a quarter of the way into the movie, I suddenly came to the realization that "Oh, crap. That's how they're going to end this, isn't it?"
posted by schmod at 11:28 AM on July 21, 2010


More than once, a character talks about how in a dream you will be in a place and not notice that you don't really remember how you got there.

The film has no opening credits and no title card.

I don't believe that's accidental.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:40 AM on July 21, 2010 [32 favorites]


It's also worth mentioning that I don't particularly subscribe to one interpretation over another, although the sap in me would like to think he finally made it home to his kids for real, but ultimately I think it's kind of an inkblot test as far as that goes. Anyway, yeah, the lack of credits. Probably there on purpose, if only to plant doubt, like the spinning top.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:41 AM on July 21, 2010


The film has no opening credits and no title card.

I mentioned this to my husband after the film and he implied that we had just missed it. Nope. It just wasn't there.

One of the scenes that I assume happen in "real life" is when Cobb visits his father (or is it father-in-law?). Does he wear his wedding band then?
posted by morganannie at 12:09 PM on July 21, 2010


Another thing to look for - people staring. There are several scenes when we know everyone is in a dream, where all the people turn and stare because Cobb et al have drawn attention to the dreamness of the dream. By the end of the movie we are retrospectively questioning whether the initial scenes and the airport scene are reality or not. Do we ever see people staring in the background?

Mal's presence. We know that Cobb cannot help putting Mal into every dream he enters, he is unable to control his subconscious. Does she appear in any of the initial "real life" sequences, even in the background? Someone mentioned to me that they remember Cobb seeing a woman's silhouette in a window during a real life sequence.
posted by Joh at 12:11 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Next time around I want to pay particular attention to the opening scene (Cobb in the water, sees kids, poked with machine gun, dragged to Saito's lair, etc.) to compare it to the reprise at the end. I suspect there will be important clues. For instance, the later version of the scene seems to be taking place in limbo; it looks like the cityscape he and Mal designed together, plus that's where we're told Saito will be. So does Cobb simply outfit it with remnants he remembers from the opening version, as dreamt by Leonard and as designed by the dead architect?
posted by carmicha at 12:11 PM on July 21, 2010


And by "Leonard" I meant "Arthur" (Joseph Gordon Leavitt). Doh!
posted by carmicha at 12:15 PM on July 21, 2010


I wondered at:

When Cobb is dreaming and Page's character slips into his dreams and takes the elevator all the way to the bottom:

It's pointed out that (against his own advice) we're looking at Cobb's memories. Yet, later in the film, his wife is shown to be on the ledge across from their anniversary room.

Yet Page's character encounters her IN the bedroom. The basement is not a memory at all, unlike the other "floors."
posted by Windigo at 12:52 PM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Still could be a memory. Remember, they spent every anniversary in the same hotel room. Could just be a conflation of similar memories.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:05 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I might pay attention to age and limbo. Saito is obviously aged in what appears to be limbo, and we get flashing glimpses of Mal and Dom as an elderly couple, again presumably in limbo. But there are other scenes of Mal and Dom in limbo where they still appear to be young.

That flash of the characters as elderly reminded me of the flash of the character in Memento smiling and showing his tattoos, in that it was short enough to make you wonder what was going on, but also seemingly pivotal to understanding the whole movie.
posted by bevedog at 1:15 PM on July 21, 2010


I was also thinking of the flashes of Cobb and Mal in limbo as an elderly couple.

I think if one is really going to try to grasp all of the interrelatedness and separate the wheat from the chaff, it might not really happen until you have a personal copy that you can view and review while diagramming the levels of dreams on a big whiteboard and filling in details and drawing lines between things.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:19 PM on July 21, 2010


Still could be a memory. Remember, they spent every anniversary in the same hotel room. Could just be a conflation of similar memories.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates


I thought off that, but the room is torn apart in exactly the same way when he enters it and sees she is on the adjacent window ledge. He also steps on the very same glass Page's character does when she entered the room in his dream. It seems very specifically the night of her death, down in that basement.
posted by Windigo at 1:20 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, supposedly it's Fischer's dream (even though he thinks it's Browning's), but then he gets shot. I'd be interested in how they display that collapsing dream of his and does Fischer then wake up the dream the next level up (the hotel). I don't think he does, but just curious.

Common misconception due to the way the movie phrased it - there's the architect, who designs the levels in the real world, the dreamer, who is the member of the team who dreams the levels they've been taught and can control the world, and the subject, the mark who isn't aware they're dreaming and populates the dreamworld with their projections.

Like how Ariadne is dreaming the Paris scene, and can mess with it as she wants, but it is populated by Cobb's projections. She's the subject, he's the dreamer.

The snow level is Eames' dream. Fisher is the subject (just as he has been the subject of Yusuf and Arthur's dreams above them.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:22 PM on July 21, 2010


damn, I meant HE's (Cobb's) the subject, she's (Ariadne's) the dreamer. Oh boy, just shows how mixed up this all can get.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:25 PM on July 21, 2010


I think if one is really going to try to grasp all of the interrelatedness and separate the wheat from the chaff, it might not really happen until you have a personal copy that you can view and review while diagramming the levels of dreams on a big whiteboard and filling in details and drawing lines between things.

I think at some point you'll find that there are some really fundamental (and intentional) paradoxes in the movie - there's plenty to deconstruct, but Nolan obviously wanted to leave things wide open for individual interpretation.
posted by Think_Long at 1:26 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The best explanation i've read about the story comes from the actor who played the Chemist. He contends that what is interesting about the spinning top at the end of the film is not that we don't see it fall, it's that Cobb doesn't care anymore.

I believe this is the intended interpretation. In point of fact when that scene began I expected Cobb to spin the top... and then deliberately stop it before leaving it behind on the table when he goes out to greet his children. I still believe that would have been a slightly stronger narrative choice but it would have precluded the wobbling top as the final shot of the film. Whether that is a good trade-off is left as an exercise for the viewer.

Katallus: I think there are probably a lot fewer visual tricks and clues than a casual viewing might imply. The narrative itself struck me as straightforward. It is the implications that are more complex. So I'm not sure viewing the film with the intention of ferreting out hidden clues and details will be as rewarding as you think. As someone else said, Inception is both the title of the film and the point of the film; the real action happens in your head after your viewing.
posted by Justinian at 2:34 PM on July 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


The best explanation i've read about the story comes from the actor who played the Chemist.

Yes, but he got the third level wrong, perhaps. It's Eames dream (he's the one left behind), but the actor in the interview says it's Fischer's dream.

Christ, I'm gonna have to diagram this out, with one finger on the pause button of a DVD.
posted by new brand day at 3:15 PM on July 21, 2010


Ariadne is ultimately betrayed by Theseus - was Ellen Page's totem a pawn?

No, it was a bishop. There's an angled notch in the head of the piece distinctive to many simple bishop forms, in contrast to the typically smooth head of a pawn. The ambiguity at a glance may itself be intentional, though, if you want to interpret Ariadne's role as a mix of pawn and giver-of-law; if you want to crawl down that particular hole, the notch that most clearly distinguishes the bishop form from the pawn form is something Ariadne herself cut into the totem, which could be read as an expression of her own agency in making herself a figure of control rather than just one to be controlled.
posted by cortex at 4:25 PM on July 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm going back to see it tomorrow, and the one thing I will be looking for is second shots of printed/written items. I swear that in the scene where they are preparing and reading about Cillian's character every time they switch back to the file the page has changed slightly. I am sure Nolan did a lot of "X is different when you're dreaming" research, and switching printed content around would be a subtle background way to convey a dream state.
posted by haplesschild at 4:51 PM on July 21, 2010


I've seen the movie twice already and when I watch it again, I'd listen more carefully to Mal when Cobb and Mal are laying on the train tracks and Cobb tells her that they're waiting for a train. As the train is barreling towards them, Mal raises her voice and the last word is garbled by the train. I specifically strained to hear what she said the second time I watched and missed it again. Also, count the number of people who hold Dom's totem, and also pay attention to the amount of times different members of Cobb's team remark on the fact that Cobb does exactly the opposite of what he tells the others to do. I watched Memento the day after seeing Inception and that helped my understanding of the movie a lot.

There's also a post on the blue about Inception that's worth a read as well, barring some users vehement dislike of the movie. Someone linked an article about the fact that Nolan's movie made no product placement or reference any particular technology of any kind. Watch for those things; lack of branding on anything from cell phones to airplanes.

Also, let me just say that Inception was the most magical movie experience I've had in years.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:04 PM on July 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


What I find interesting is that he didn't immediately spin the top when he wakes up on the airplane. That it doesn't occur to him to spin it until he gets to the house, seemingly only out of habit in stressful situations, supports the idea that he doesn't care anymore if he's in a dream or not. But this coming to terms with enjoying experience (as opposed to authentic experience) seems to contradict his final conversation with subconscious-Mal about how she's only a poor representation of the real Mal, and that that will no longer do. It seems to say that he doesn't know his kids well enough to care if his experiences with them are authentic or not, which I find both sad and compelling.
posted by ifandonlyif at 5:15 PM on July 21, 2010


Christ, I'm gonna have to diagram this out


Here's a handy chart!
posted by spec80 at 5:20 PM on July 21, 2010 [8 favorites]


I've seen the movie twice already and when I watch it again, I'd listen more carefully to Mal when Cobb and Mal are laying on the train tracks and Cobb tells her that they're waiting for a train. As the train is barreling towards them, Mal raises her voice and the last word is garbled by the train. I specifically strained to hear what she said the second time I watched and missed it again.

She's shouting "Because we'll be together." The "solution" to the riddle Cobb was just telling her.

“You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You can’t be sure where it will take you. But it doesn’t matter – because we’ll be together.”

You don't have to take my word for it, I could be wrong, but that's what I heard and it fits.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:47 PM on July 21, 2010


That's what I heard, too.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:57 PM on July 21, 2010


Thanks Solon and ocherdraco. I thought that was what I heard the second, but when I was thinking of it after the fact, I couldn't quite remember. The second viewing has a rowdy crowd (which was fun, but also annoying at times such as these).
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:14 PM on July 21, 2010


There was, actually, one shot of product placement that was so bizarre as to take me out of the movie: There's a scene where they are standing in front of a Famima, which is (I guess) what the chain Family Mart (a Japanese convenience store chain) is called outside of Japan. The name is how people say it here, and the name has been changed to that. Other than that, I don't really recall seeing anything remotely branded. It seemed like such an odd choice, that the sign should be so visible.

Anyway, I'd guess it's a red herring, in that it might seem like 'dream spelling' but it's actually how it's spelled.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:41 PM on July 21, 2010


Good calls, Ghidorah.

There's a scene where they are standing in front of a Famima

There's a store here in Santa Monica, and my boyfriend noticed it, too.

Anyway, I'd guess it's a red herring, in that it might seem like 'dream spelling' but it's actually how it's spelled.

And if that isn't dreamy enough, it's actually Famima!!, with two exclamation points!!
posted by Room 641-A at 10:00 PM on July 23, 2010


I think the Hyundai that Cobb and Ariadne were driving in the kidnapping level was product placement. There were several seconds with the rear decklid logo pretty squarely in frame.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:04 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't understand how Dom and Ariadne enter limbo. They're seen setting up one of the attaché case shared dreaming thingies, but it's not clear how they actually enter limbo with it.
posted by banter at 8:19 PM on July 25, 2010


There is a LOT of priming going on in the movie. Listen to the dialogue...if a scene tells you something new about how the dreams work, you can bet that the next scene will demonstrate this explicitly (but in a disguised context). For example...the scene where Ariadne learns about how projections can turn on you...the next scene is Cobb trying to lose his 'tails'; he's trying to convince the projections in the restaurant to chill out and demands the waiter bring him a coffee. Doesn't work.

The priming, however, both sets up our expectations and gives us a sense of continuity (in a very seemingly convoluted plot).

Also, try to not focus so much on which layer is active...it ultimately doesn't matter. People are motivated consistently...it's all just different or deeper forms of the same desire. If you get the gist of each character, you can focus on how every detail supports that idea, rather than trying to follow the maze as it unfolds.

Another thing...Inception is a friggin' treasure trove of metonymys, metaphorical constructs and tropes ("Don't think of an elephant" or 'the pawn' or dying vs. waking and on and on...even the characters themselves!) There's a lot of flipping of perspective going on, similar to the movie UP! (where the same thing that carried him away - the house - ended up being his burden to carry...the whole movie kept flipping between the metaphors like GOOD IS UP and BEING HAPPY/HEALTHY IS BEING ON THE GROUND). Note: Metaphors are always written in caps, with source listed first and target last.

I need to watch it again, but next time I will sure as heck be paying attention to tense, aspect and syntax. People/characters often betray their knowledge of realities or events in their language, even when they are lying or unknowingly supressing information (the field of Forensic Linguistics deals with this specifically). You can bet Nolan planted these subtle cues for us.

I also noticed that there are many instances where he borrowed phrases, narrative styles (including poetics and intonation patterns), and themes from his previous movies. It both heightens the dream sense and creates an intertextual dialog between this and all his previous work. One example is when Cobb is talking about Mal (about the middle of the movie)...everything about that scene mirrors the one in Memento, when Leonard is reminiscing about his dead wife...I wish I could remember more details, but those two scenes sounded and felt eerily the same. I got chills.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:57 PM on July 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't understand how Dom and Ariadne enter limbo.

They follow Fischer's dream/mind down to limbo i.e they're in his head. Eames shocking Fischer with the defibrillator is the signal that they need to kick, which manifests itself as lighting in the sky.
posted by new brand day at 3:08 AM on July 26, 2010


iamkimiam, you just gave me the angle I needed to get excited about seeing Inception again. Forensic linguistics? Hell, yeah!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:11 AM on July 26, 2010


One minor thing to look for would be the stack of Japanese magazines on the coffee table in Cobb's hotel (where he's waiting for the helicopter). That might be someone's favorite magazine or otherwise be a tongue in cheek reference to something--I don't read Japanese so I couldn't say.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:13 AM on July 26, 2010


I need to watch it again, but next time I will sure as heck be paying attention to tense, aspect and syntax. People/characters often betray their knowledge of realities or events in their language, even when they are lying or unknowingly supressing information (the field of Forensic Linguistics deals with this specifically). You can bet Nolan planted these subtle cues for us.

Sorry, could someone expand on this? I'm not sure what specifically I should be looking for next time I see it.
posted by Think_Long at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010


Well, it made ME snort.
posted by Windigo at 7:52 AM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Sorry, could someone expand on this? I'm not sure what specifically I should be looking for next time I see it."

Simply put, look for weird or inconsistent language. It may not jump out at you, though. For example (and I'm making stuff up here), if Cobb or someone were talking about Mal in the past tense versus the present tense - "She was beautiful..." vs. "She is beautiful..." - it suggests that the scene in which the statement was is spoken takes place in a time and state after she died and that this death is commonly understood by everybody there. Therefore, the statement "She was beautiful" can only occur in a waking state after she actually died, and "She is beautiful" can only occur in dream state OR in a waking state before she died.

It gets even trickier when sentences contain ambiguous constructions or words. A sentence like "He would have loved her forever" can mean many things...maybe something happened to him, maybe something happened to her, maybe he never got the chance to start loving her, and on and on.

We implicitly take in clues from the language we hear around us...it orients us to the place, time and perspective of the person(s) talking and the content of their speech. In a movie like this, I bet there will be many lines of dialogue that are ambiguous...making sense in both the local context (the current scene), but also (or even more so) within a larger context...maybe what the line is REALLY doing is giving us a clue about what's going on at a different level, but we don't see it because we naturally draw the shortest line between two points. i.e. If a top spins and falls, we think it means that Cobb is awake before we think that maybe he's dreaming and willed it to fall.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:17 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


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