Multiple Possibilities at One Time

A few weeks ago I was talking about Christopher Nolan’s Inception with a friend who had just seen it (this is a common occurrence – kudos again to Mr. Nolan for making a blockbuster film that is so imminently discussable and compels people to want to think about it and talk about it after seeing it). I haven’t seen it since opening weekend in theatres, so in some ways I’m not as well-equipped to discuss the question of the ending and what it means for the reality or non-reality of the rest of the film as those who have seen it more recently or more often, but even from the first time I saw it I found the question of “which parts were a dream” and “whose dream was it” and “is he still in a dream” interesting not because I enjoyed trying to figure out the answer, like a puzzle, but because I think the film invites multiple interpretations that are all supportable. Close reading the film, studying each frame, etc. to try to figure out what really happened is far less intriguing to me than the multiple possibilities the film seems to allow.

I was trying to explain this to my friend, that I thought it was less interesting and perhaps not worth it to try to answer those questions, but in the discussion I almost inadvertently allowed that yeah, there probably was one real answer, though we couldn’t really know what it was, because the film is so well constructed for ambiguity that at least three or four interpretations are supportable. I want to take that back, maybe not for Inception, because Inception is also constructed as a puzzle film and Nolan is enough of a left-brain filmmaker that a determinable answer isn’t out of the question, but for film in general.

I ran across the two-paragraph quote below on Jim Emerson’s excellent scanners::blog, always a great source for in-depth film criticism, talking about the recent Abbas Kiarostami film Certified Copy. For context (and this description has spoilers, but the film doesn’t depend on its secret), the film is about an author, James, who wrote an art criticism book. While on a promotional tour in Italy, he meets Elle, a woman who has read the book and wants to discuss it, but doesn’t totally agree with him. They meet to talk, start getting to know each other, and then suddenly in the middle of the film start acting like they’ve been married for several years. The film never reveals whether they’re really strangers or really married, and Emerson suggests that trying to figure out whether they are or not is not useful. The comments to his post have people both adamantly sure they are strangers and adamantly sure they are married. I prefer Emerson’s stance – focusing on the facts of their particular relationship distracts from focusing on the truths of relationships and art that the film is really about (my full review is here). Here’s the relevant quote:

So, I’ll just chime in here to say that I think these are both good answers to the wrong question. Or, one that isn’t worth answering definitively, because it offers only binary options, and the movie requires that you hold multiple possibilities in your head at the same time. What you see is what happens in the movie. There is no “reality” apart from what is there. (Mr. Scorsese, please: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”) You don’t look at Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and say: “Well, that dinner party is real, but when they’re walking down the road it’s a fantasy.” You don’t look at That Obscure Object of Desire and say, “The scenes with Carole Bouquet are the real ones, and the scenes with Ángela Molina are imaginary.” Where would that get you? You would be denying the essential movieness of the experience.

Sicinsky has his reasons, well-argued, for his point of view, but I think he’s closer to the mark when he cites Bordwell and says that the events depicted in the movie just don’t rigorously correspond to what we experience as viewers watching the movie. Look at James’s entrance: Late for his own lecture, he enters from the rear of the room and is immediately stopped by a woman and a boy, for whom he stops to sign a copy of his book — until the host asks people to hold off until afterwards. That woman is Elle and the boy is her son. How do we square that with the moment in the trattoria when James grills Elle (both of them adopting new, amped-up, soap-operatic acting styles) about the road accident she almost had when she dozed off at the wheel while their son was in the back seat? Well, we don’t. How can we? Why should we? They are married and not married, strangers and intimates. What’s unknown — that is, what is deliberately left out of the movie — is as important as what’s known. Perhaps, like Billy Pilgrim, these characters have come unstuck in time, or have slipped into multiple alternate universes (Glenn Kenny said the movie “can be seen as the first great science-fiction film of the year”).

The point is that cinema is what is on the screen. If it’s not on the screen, if it’s not ensconced in that frame, it doesn’t exist. You can conjecture, you can guess, you can infer, but in a very real way, especially in films that so carefully construct what they do and don’t reveal, you’re conjecturing about something that doesn’t exist in the film – not simply something that isn’t definitely knowable, but something that is not there. Film is not life; it creates its own frame of reference. It’s still fun to talk about what might be outside the frame, and some films are more amenable to such conjecture than others (for instance, many people conjecture that Sammy Jankis in Nolan’s Memento is, in fact, Leonard, and that conjecture, while probably not provable, is certainly believable and adds a layer of meaning to the film). Maybe Inception is one of these. But I find it more interesting to “hold multiple possibilities in your head at the same time,” even about Inception. The film may mean different things depending on which interpretation you choose – why can’t it mean ALL those things? That seems much deeper and richer to me than having to choose one and disregard the others when Nolan has done such a careful job of making multiple interpretations plausible. Is he just throwing red herrings at us, when he has one single interpretation and meaning in mind? Maybe. But I feel no call to match my mind to his. I think it’s great that his film has made me and so many other people think. But I have no desire to reduce those thoughts to a single “answer,” nor debate which answer is the best.


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1 Comment

  1. It comes down to implicit vs. explicit. I think it’s riskier for a storyteller to delegate too much to the realm of the implicit, but I also think we’re far less likely to be rewarded by storytelling that is too explicit. Spoon feeding an audience is insulting, but we also shouldn’t have to do all the work ourselves, either. Also, there is of course a difference between telling us what happened, and telling us what it meant. The greatest storytellers tell us what happened, and we desire to reconcile for ourselves what it has meant.

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