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Inception and Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by the subconscious. In the 1940’s books about Freud were on the coffee tables everywhere in Los Angeles. It was little wonder that Hitch would center a movie around solving a mystery using dreams. In one of his earliest Hollywood films, Spellbound (1945), Gregory Peck is a mystery man with a mysterious past who isn’t quite sure if he killed the man he is impersonating at a Vermont insane asylum. With the help of a beautiful psychoanalyst played by Ingrid Bergman and an old Austrian doctor that isn’t Freud, Peck investigates his dreams to learn what the hell is going on. This month we take a look at dreams with Spellbound and Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010).

Hold me, you lunatic. Spellbound poster, 1945.

Dreams have been a large part of movie making. Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurasowa both directed movies titled “Dreams,” and both of them directed more acclaimed movies that featured dream sequences (Wild Strawberries and Kagemusha). Wizard of Oz takes place almost entirely within Dorothy’s dream, and everyone was there, too.

For nearly a decade Christopher Nolan worked on his pet project to put dreams and the rules of dreams into film before he made Inception. While Spellbound concerns itself with the rules of symbolism in dreams, Inception is a science fiction movie based on the rules of actions in dreams, such as “if you die in a dream, you wake up,” or that if you know you are in a dream you can take control of it. The science fiction aspect of Inception adds rules concerning shared dreams and dreams within dreams that do not involve Bob Newhart.

Salvador Dali acting natural with his pet ocelot. Public Domain, 1960.

A dream sequence is the ultimate opportunity for a director to dive into the surreal. The dream sequence in Spellbound does not hold back on surrealism enlisting Salvador Dali as the art director. The sequence is only a few minutes long, but it was originally designed to be about twenty minutes long. Dali’s use of surrealness comes in oddness of distorting objects. The Red Hot Chili Peppers strongly alluded to this dream sequence in one of their music videos and they didn’t even have socks on their dongs.

Inception uses shots of reality and makes them look impossible through distortion without animating to create mind being images. One of the most iconic sequences of the movie is the Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the spinning corridor and hotel room set piece. This is a bit of cinematic dream fulfillment in an attempt to emulate sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey as so many others that have aspired.

Although Hitchcock is one especially famous for his interest in the world of psychoanalysis, Spellbound wasn’t exactly his baby. He didn’t really want to have Dali working on the movie because he thought it was a bit of a stunt and as the production was in its last months, Hitch’s heart was not in the project anymore. The movie was spurned on and pretty much finished due to pressure from producer David O. Selznick. The relationship between the two was never very warm, to the point that Hitch ultimately dressed the villain played by Raymond Burr in Rear Window to look identical to Selznick.

Raymond Burr in Rear Window on top, David O. Selznick on the bottom.

Hitchcock tended to work on his own around the time after Spellbound. He wouldn’t be the screenwriter of his own films, but he would handpick the writers. His wife Alma pretty much acted as the producer of his movies, and pretty much making everything come to Hitch’s vision. Christopher Nolan is pretty much an auteur director himself, working with his brother Jonathan either officially or unofficially as a co-writer on nearly every project.

One of the most prominent theories of symbolism in Inception is that the characters are all representing roles in filmmaking from the financier, producer, director, cinematographer, actor and guy with a grenade launcher. This symbolism works pretty well although I’m not sure it was necessarily one that was consciously figured out. The brothers work so closely in the business of film that those might be the only types of people they are closely relating to in creating characters.

Inception works on a few different levels of symbolism, much like its dreams within dreams, even if they don’t result in having much depth in the characters. At points the action of dreaming is treated like opioid addiction to get away from the pain of the world. There are opium dens of dreamers who enter chemically induced sleep at every chance they get. Moll kills herself to try to break the circuit of endless dreams. Leaving reality in their dreams mean that they cannot be with their children. Leo DiCaprio’s character has been so involved in chasing dreams that his children are taken away from him and he has to go to great lengths to get back to them.

A sleeper not a snooze. Inception poster, 2010.

The use of the titular “inception” is much more benign than an addiction to dreaming. It is much like the psychotherapy of Spellbound except it is the Cillian Murphy’s character who is getting therapy from the invaders of his dreams to help him come to terms of getting out of his father’s abusive shadow, finding his self and leaving his stake in the family business.

This view of inception as therapy is pretty optimistic, except for the fact that he doesn’t consent to it. Non-consensual therapy has a pretty dark history like of the cases of patients gaining false memories and believing they had been abused when they had not. It’s also pretty devious that the whole purpose to get Cillian Murphy out of the family business is that the financier played by Ken Watanabe, a man so rich that he buys an airline on a whim, wants to have a monopoly in his unspecified business.

I won’t get into whether the top stops spinning at the end. That’s what the rest of the internet is for.

Next Month: We'll be taking a little break from Alfred Hitchcock to touch on Akira Kurosawa with Rashomon and Jim Jarmusch's reinvention of the samurai genre with Ghost Dog.

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