“All that we see is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allan Poe
“Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey.” – Budd in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (but the Masters of Reality were vegans and decided to take a lie in instead of sampling breakfast à la David Carradine)
It used to be that everything was real. Back in ye olde ancient times, people thought that everything was actual, true and genuine. Angels appeared and conversed with prophets and no one doubted it. Everyone saw the emperor’s new clothes. Moses really parted the Red Sea without having to play the tape backwards and get crafty in the editing room.
It was only when the writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe, realised that life was “a dream within a dream” that human beings started to question the truth of the world around them. Just over 150 years ago in Baltimore – before it became America’s homicide capital and the home of Hairspray – the man who scribed The Raven, The Pit And The Pendulum and other masterworks, eventually turned into Roger Corman B-movies, changed our understanding of existence forever.
This discovery was a disaster for prophets, but a huge relief for the Master of the Macabre. Disgraced after marrying his cousin and inventing the Red Death plague, Poe successfully revived his reputation in intellectual circles by presenting his grand theory through the medium of poetry.
Though the Forrest Gump school of thought (“Life is like a box of chocolates”) looked like it might eclipse Poe’s acclaimed theory for a short time during the 90s, the “dream within a dream” idea has held firm for over a hundred years. Then came Christopher Nolan and his groundbreaking movie Inception, and the universe was turned on its head again.
Inception has taken things up several levels by proposing that life is possibly a dream within a dream within a dream ad infinitum. This is a bold new frontier for blockbuster cinema and the idea of multiple layers of sleeping reverie hasn’t really been investigated in mainstream motion picture production before.
Take The Wizard Of Oz, for example. Accepting the whole technicolour trip to be a dream (“and you and you and you were in it!”), we never get an insight into what’s going on in Dorothy’s head when she drops unconscious in the enchanted field of poppies.
We’ll never know what the ‘dream within the dream’ is, though I bet it was a romantic fantasy in which she and the Scarecrow elope and raise a happy little family of sandbags.
Christopher Nolan’s The Wizard Of Oz, however, would keep on sliding through the levels of imaginative slumber and feature Michael Caine in a cameo as the charlatan trickster of the title. With Inception, Nolan has basically taken established concepts – heist movies, ideas about manipulating the subconscious, the blurring of dream and reality – and taken them several steps further to make something unique that challenges, stimulates, entertains and astounds at the same time.
I believe in Christopher Nolan. I believe in him more than the naked emperor who’s telling us his new outfit rocks and am therefore more inclined to accept him as an authority figure. In this confusing postmodern age of conflicting realities and technological advancement, I’m left looking to the masterful director of The Dark Knight for a clearer understanding of the world’s metaphysical make-up.
Thanks to Inception, I think we’ve cracked just how this life and existence shenanigans really works.
Dispensing with Forrest Gump theories and accepting the movie as truth, life is actually a form of limbo within a dream. It’s a prison of memories and painful desires either self-constructed or perhaps built by a tormented Leo DiCaprio or a geriatric Japanese businessman. This is a bleak place of perpetual unease, guilt and grief, and the shades of past loves and problems are always going to be hanging around to keep on hurting you. No box of chocolates, just an everlasting gobstopper of grimacing disappointment.
Luckily, limbo isn’t real, but really just an offshoot state of being from a different, higher dream place. This dream scenario is more real but it isn’t reality. It’s just 007-esque wish fulfilment where you can storm mountain fortresses and go skiing. It’s a fantasy coming from sleep in a swish hotel with suspended gravity, but wait! That’s just a dream within a dream that takes place on a car journey away from the threat of thought goons.
The next level up is presumed to be reality, the higher plane of actuality on a long distance plane trip to America where Michael Caine is waiting to welcome you beyond customs.
However, we never see Leonardo DiCaprio’s reality check totem spinning top settle, and hasn’t Mr Nolan taught us to question the truth of everything around us? I suspect that the layers carry on. We won’t arrive at true actuality for a few stops yet.
You can’t overlook the fact that, as illustrated by The Matrix, human beings are actually comatose slaves to the machine overlords who are draining them as organic batteries. Who’s to say that the plane and Michael Caine are just computer simulations? The dream scale thus goes up another degree, and reality is really subterranean living beneath the scorched earth in which a hacker society fights for survival against the artificial mecha-antagonists.
So, the Matrix is a dream concocted by the Architect (not Ellen Page, but a long-winded old man who sits in a room of TV screens), but what if he’s not real and is actually someone’s sleeping vision? What if androids don’t dream of electric sheep but instead fantasise about psychobabble spouting supreme creator blokes who can explain the workings of the universe to them?
What if the androids are just imaginary inventions of some creative type, like Gael García Bernal’s character in The Science Of Sleep, albeit made of more high tech material than cardboard?
The dream states just keep on revealing themselves and the anti-gravity elevator keeps on climbing the metaphysical floors. Occasionally, someone’s naked mother pops up to keep Sigmund Freud happy and it’s suggested that this is the real deal, but that’s not true.
Inception has revealed that life is actually a set of paradoxical stairs that constantly present the illusion of being at the top when you’re actually at the bottom level.
I guess we’ll never know what’s real. Until the Masters of Reality wake up, dream on and on and on and…
James’ previous column can be found here.