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Friday, October 1, 2010

Artificial Inception

I'm failing miserably at being timely this month, but though Inception has almost exited from local theaters, I still wanted to write a few words about it. The puzzle-like film has generated a lot of conversation and speculation on the internet, but there's one interesting aspect of it that hasn't, to my knowledge, been covered much -- an aspect that relates to the use of simulated virtual environments in psychotherapy.

Inception is a twisty enough movie that I think it's difficult to truly "spoil," but if you haven't seen the movie, I wouldn't recommend wading through this blog post.

One of the common knocks against Inception is that, for a movie which takes place inside dreams (or even better, inside dreams inside dreams inside dreams), it doesn't feel very "dream-like" -- it doesn't have the shocking plasticity of true dreams. Some film-makers are experts at conjuring the dream-state -- David Lynch, Satoshi Kon, Apichatpong Weerasethakul -- but Christopher Nolan isn't one of them. He approaches the nested chinese box structure of his film less as a metaphor than as an engineering problem.

That wasn't a issue for me, because I thought the movie's space wasn't really dream-space, it was fantasy-space. The images were attuned more to the desires expressed in daydreams than the free-associative cognitive state expressed in nocturnal dreams: the thrust of the movie was more psychoanalytic than surrealist.

It's become reflexive to name-check Philip K. Dick when you're writing about stories that question the fundamental reality of the apparent world, but the "what-is-reality" whiplash in Inception seemed less a throwback to Dick than to Jorge Luis Borges, whose fictional attacks on the nature of reality are rigorously logical, in their way. For Dick, the interrogation of reality boils down to the question: what if the world is merely a dream, or some sort of induced hallucination? For Borges the question is: what if the world is merely a system of information, or some sort of game? Considering that Dick was a drug-user, and Borges worked for many years in a library, the differences in philosophical temperament could probably be boiled down to differences in biography.

(To use another binary comparison between artists, the dreamscape of Inception owes less to the unbounded vanishing points of Dali than it does to the seamless grids of M. C. Escher, whose infinitely recursive flight of stairs provides a memorable punchline for one of Inception's action sequences)

Several reviewers noted that Inception has echoes of video-gaming, with its variety of action-scene "levels," and its faceless antagonists, who swarm on the heroes as if programmed with rudimentary artificial intelligence. Gaming is definitely one of Inception's models, but the movie seems more deliberately pointed at the intersection between gaming technology (or "simulation") and therapy. I wrote elsewhere that "part of the appeal of games is to give us a world we have some degree of control over: a portable universe that is bounded by rules that can be understood. Games give us fun, diversion, stimulation -- but most fundamentally, they give us the illusion of mastery."

And that becomes most concrete, perhaps, in “virtual reality exposure therapy” -- where the patient, suffering from PTSD, interacts with a virtual reconstruction of the memories that are causing distress. Soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are entering virtual warzones, built from the game Full Spectrum Warrior, where they essentially re-live events like a rooftop firefight, or an IED attack. PTSD, as I understand it, is being overwhelmed by a past event -- it bleeds out from the past to the present, making innocuous things like a stairwell, or the act of driving down the street, triggers that release all the traumatic emotion of that past event.

Therapists have been virtually reconstructing the particulars of vets' memories, so that the vets can replay the traumatic events, until they're drained of the initial emotional charge. There's a good article about it in the New Yorker here:

And some clips of "Virtual Iraq" here:

From the article, here's a summary paragraph of the technique:

Virtual Iraq is a tool for doing what’s known as prolonged-exposure therapy, which is sometimes called immersion therapy. It is a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy, derived from Pavlov’s classic work with dogs. Prolonged-exposure therapy, which falls under the rubric of C.B.T., is at once intuitively obvious and counterintuitive: it requires the patient to revisit and retell the story of the trauma over and over again and, through a psychological process called “habituation,” rid it of its overwhelming power. The idea is to disconnect the memory from the reactions to the memory, so that although the memory of the traumatic event remains, the everyday things that can trigger fear and panic, such as trash blowing across the interstate or a car backfiring—what psychologists refer to as cues—are restored to insignificance. The trauma thus becomes a discrete event, not a constant, self-replicating, encompassing condition.

Of course it's easy to see a reflection here of Dom, the protagonist of Inception, building a chain of elevator-accessible rooms in his subconscious, where the traumatic events of his life are fussily preserved, like interactive museum pieces. It's like he's trying to transcend his most awful moments and choices by making living dioramas out of them. He bills himself as an "extractor" of dreams, but he's just as much a virtual reality exposure therapist, with himself as the patient (or, per Bilge Ebiri's intersting reading of the film, perhaps Ellen Page's dream-architect, Ariadne, is the therapist).

And if you're modeling simulations rather than dreams, the element of "reality" that the Inception dream-architects pursue is crucial -- and not an expression of a failure of imagination. "Realism" isn't necessary for a dream, but it is necessary for the process of healing.

As part of the push and pull between simulation and memory, I think Inception says something very smart about the nature of fantasy. Dom's farewell to Mal, the dream-projection of his deceased wife, seemed to suggest a fairly ruthless (and I think true) definition of what constitutes reality: we know reality because that's the place where things don't turn out as we'd like. The texture of reality is full of failure and regret and loss. The real is defined by our lack of control, and the inevitability of our failure. That's a pretty spiky and bracing message to tuck inside an escapist summer film.

One last recurring objection to the film that I find funny is the complaint that, since so little (or perhaps none) of the film occurs in "reality," then it's impossible to have an emotional investment in what's going on. But the emotional throughline and the central objectives of the characters don't change from level to level of the story. It reminded me of Alan Moore's story of Superman's death -- which he states, in a preface, is only an "imaginary" Superman story. The conceit of the "imaginary story" was something that had been used several times in the long run of Superman comics, when writers wanted to create a narrative that would have disruptive consequences for the prolonged stasis that readers expect from a serialized comic. It would be disastrous for Superman to marry Lois Lane, or to reveal his identity as Clark Kent (or, of course, to die) -- but regardless, writers were drawn to tell these sorts of stories, which were permissible to publish so long as they were told outside of canonical continuity.

After reassuring his readers that the death of Superman was only an "imaginary story," Moore goes on to say -- "Aren't they all?" Some people have a reaction against characters that explicitly embrace their imaginary status, I guess. The objection that it's impossible to emotionally invest in characters that are disputably "real" within the context of their stories is particularly amusing when you consider that the crucial scene in Inception -- the thing the whole movie builds to -- is when Dom fundamentally rejects Mal on the grounds that she's a merely imaginary character. If an imaginary character rejects an imaginary character, does that short-circuit will deliver us once again to the real? We can only be sure if the top stops spinning.

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