I have been challenged to write about Inception once a week until the end of the year. Not that this really changes anything because I was planning on doing that anyway.
September 30. 2010
The withdrawal is finally setting in. With no real IMAX playing Inception in my area, my only option is to ride out this spiritual drought until the end of the year. How appropriate that the end of this challenge coincides with the beginning of my renewal. We will all be able to laugh about it then, but for now, it is pure, unadulterated anguish that courses within my being.
You would think that this new venom-filled column about these so-called “plot holes” would only tense me up and stress me out, and yet – my anger sustains me; this rage drives me. I will survive.
Now, imagine Gloria Gaynor singing.
This week, I’m addressing yet another aspect of the greatest movie ever that people seem to take issue with, that being the matter of Cobb’s totem.
And before we go any further, I shan’t be discussing whether or not it was all a dream.
No, I’ll be talking about why the hell Cobb would tell Ariadne what the specific purpose of his totem was.
Before the team performs inception, Nolan takes us through the preparation for the actual job: Yusuf designing the kicks; Eames suggesting the simplest form of the idea; Ariadne designing the dream levels. Of course, this is also a chance for him to develop the relationships between the characters, none of which are probably more important than Cobb and Ariadne.
The name Ariadne, as a semi-related aside, comes from Greek mythology, the woman who helped guide Theseus out of the labyrinth. Likewise, in the film, Ariadne not only designs the labyrinths of the dream layers but also helps Cobb find his way through the maze of his own guilt and despair.
In the middle of this sequence, Ariadne stumbles upon Cobb performing his late night ‘tests’ after working on her totem, the chess piece.
At this point, the conversation segues into the origin of the totem concept and the origin of Cobb’s actual totem.
For the sake of absolute clarity, we must backtrack:
Totems, as you may or may not recall, are a means to determine whether or not you’re in a dream. They must be something specific to yourself – in the most basic sense, not mass-produced – and no one can know the particular details of your totem: the weight, the texture, etc.
Because of these qualities, no matter how well an architect creates the world of your dream, they will never be able to recreate your totem as it really is. This gives you a way to discern between the dream and the real.
"Hold up, let me check my totem."
Let’s go back, to the point of contention finally:
During the aforementioned conversation, Cobb tells Ariadne how his totem – the top – functions: in a dream, it would spin and spin, but never topple. And this is the thing some people are complaining about.
Why would Cobb tell Ariadne how his totem helps him distinguish between the dream and the real? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?
People will argue that this would allow Ariadne, as well as anyone she bothered to tell, to create dreams Cobb would never be able to tell from reality.
Whew. Now, how to begin destroying this ridiculous argument?
Firstly, let’s go into rant mode. Ariadne was his way – of course – of putting the audience into the film. While she learns the rules of dreamshare, we do as well. Cobb’s confiding in Ariadne the function of his totem is – to be completely clinical about this work of art – an extension of this role. We need to learn how it works so that the rest of the scenes including the top will make sense to us.
Sure, Cobb could’ve been given Arthur’s loaded die, Ariadne’s chess piece, or Eames’ poker chip, but again – HOW UNDERWHELMING WOULD THAT SHIT BE?
Seriously, people – imagine the last scene of the movie and sub out the top with any of the other totems. The only thing that could be reasonably spun is the chip, but other than that, Cobb would just weigh the die or the chess piece or the chip in his hand and we could only rely on DiCaprio’s facial gestures to tell us whether or not it’s real, or in the case of the ending, that he can now take a leap of faith.
The imagery would not be nearly as powerful, and by having a totem test that we cannot see and participate in – having him weigh it in his hand – we are not put in his shoes, distancing us from the dilemma of the protagonist. By contrast, in the film, both Cobb and the audience watch and wait for the top’s verdict, drawing us in.
And now, for the more practical rebuttal:
Cobb never let Ariadne hold his totem. He did explicitly say that whether or not it topples is part of its essential properties, but going only off the information Cobb confided to Ariadne, no one could make an exact copy of his totem in a dream. They could make one that would topple, sure. But if Cobb felt the texture of the top, weighed it in his hand, and it wasn’t right, he wouldn’t even have to spin the totem.
Yeah, if he were to tell Ariadne all of this, I guess it would be more realistic, would cover more narrative bases.
But then again, a concept called artistic license just told you to GO FUCK YOURSELF.
The point is the wobbling is only one of the many features of Cobb’s totem that would help him determine his reality. His telling Ariadne about the wobbling would not be putting him in any danger. And of course, that moment is integral in helping us understand the later flashbacks with the top.
See you all next week, and don’t forget: e-mail me your complaints about Inception to firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can ridicule you about your foolishness in a future column.