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Isaiah’s Inception

A haftorah of dreams and delusions

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A scene from Inception. (Warner Bros.)

Like the best and the worst of Hollywood’s summer fare, Inception, the new film by Christopher Nolan, is one part epistemology and three parts explosion, a gorgeous spectacle that offers one large existential question and many kinetic attempts at an answer.

The question is this: What is reality? Or, more specifically, how can we be sure that what we perceive is really, well, real?

It’s far from a new conundrum, this. With his cave in mind, Plato postulated that we might all be trapped in some deceiving dungeon of false impressions, mistaking shadows for light. But Plato hadn’t at his disposal $160 million with which to make, say, Paris’ arrondisements fold on top of each other like a cheap tourists’ map, or prod Leonardo DiCaprio to put on the same tortured expression that he wore in his last four films and that seems, by now, to be permanently etched onto his handsome face.

DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who infiltrates the dreams of others and extracts their best-kept secrets. When a wealthy Japanese businessman promises to take care of the sordid charges that keep Cobb from returning home to his children, the dream reaper agrees to reverse the process: Rather than steal ideas from slumbering and defenseless minds, he’d plant one instead and convince his employer’s main competitor to make a series of disastrous business decisions out of his own free will.

The premise, such as one exists, is merely an excuse to indulge in layer upon layer of special effects. To carry off his task, Cobb must penetrate the abyss of his mark’s subconscious, which entails going into a dream within a dream within a dream, each with its own set of rules and its designated, beautifully shot action sequences.

Herein, however, lies the problem. As David Denby astutely observed in his review of the film in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Nolan is a literal-minded director, and his interpretation of dreams is little but an excuse for elaborate chases and straightforward shoot-’em-ups. Anyone entering the movie with expectations of surrealist dreamscapes will soon run up against Nolan’s blunt instruments. A villainous, French ex-wife? Let’s call her Mal (as in Fleurs du). A young, hopeful maze-maker? Name her Ariadne. That secret place where we store our most repressed, throbbing thoughts? A James Bondesque snow fortress, of course.

What we have here, then, is failure to imagine. Even with untold riches and unprecedented technology at his disposal, Nolan could not conceive of an inner life more intricate or intriguing than a battery of battered movie clichés.

The prophet Isaiah would have sympathized. In this week’s haftorah, he delivers the first of the seven haftarot of consolation, soothing portions that follow the raging, dark weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. He begins by invoking God’s becalming message—“Console, console my people”—and continues with a dreamlike prophecy of a happy ending for the errant Israelites, with the exiles returning to Jerusalem and the Lord’s glory gleaming everywhere.

Not all, however, would be fortunate enough to enjoy these messianic times. Those who continue to resist God’s laws, those who adhere to their graven images, they shall perish. But even when he speaks of the sinners, Isaiah is never simpleminded; their crimes, it seems, are not so much corporeal as they are ontological. These are the questions the prophet puts before the idolaters: “And to whom do you compare God, and what likeness do you arrange for him?”

In other words, Isaiah is upset not only with the existence of graven images, but with the profound fallacy governing the notion of graven images itself, namely the belief that one could somehow find an earthly representation of the omnipresent, amorphous, and mighty spirit of the divine. Like an ancient, holy movie critic, he laments the silly, simplistic attempts to conjure magic with paltry illusions and trompe l’oeils. To be profound, to be truly meaningful, art and religion alike must transcend the temptations of the literal and the banal and assign themselves to the rarified realms of yearning and redemption.

But as the millions—myself among them—who crowded in cineplexes this weekend to watch Inception can attest, the glossy and the graven and the literal and the loud offer precarious thrills that are hard to resist. Why, for example, struggle to decipher the slow-to-unfold, metaphysical beauties of lust and light in the stunning I Am Love when we can chew on some popcorn and revel in DiCaprio’s delivery of such zingers as “dreams feel real while we’re in them”? Or why bother with mining our minds and souls in search of fundamental truths when we could subscribe to a well-worn set of prescriptions and prohibitions and tropes, a readymade identity that offers no grief and requires no real effort?

This, I suspect, is the elusive lament inherent in Isaiah’s prophecies, the sad reckoning that man, after all, is a tedious animal, a beast that feasts on frozen meals and vampire novels and other forms of sustenance that are easy to consume but contain nothing of real substance. If instead of envisioning a future for ourselves and our children we indulge in name-calling and mud-slinging and such childish stuff, if instead of toiling toward progress we crave ready amusements and easy solutions, if instead of true beauty the best we can come up with is Inception, we’re likely to be among those who shall not be redeemed. Think the path to salvation is straight and narrow? Dream on.

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carlton says:

Spot on. Well put. And refreshingly done.

Gilbert Brodsky says:

Liel,
You ended with “Think the path to salvation is straight and narrow?…”

Actually, Isaiah emphatically answers that question in the third verse of the Haftarah, and his answer is an emphatic YES:
A voice calls: “Prepare the way for God in the wilderness, MAKE STRAIGHT in the desert a highway for our God.” [caps added for emphasis]

So at least in Isaiah’s view, the path IS indeed straight and narrow, at least if our destination at the end of the path is God.

And for those who venture to do so, God will do His part to make your road-building easier. In the next verse:
“Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked will become level, and the rough places a plain.”

The trick for us mortals, Liel, is to make the commitment to go and endeavor to build that straight road, in spite of the apparent geographic–and spiritual–obstacles. Yet even before we start paving, it’s not easy: we have to leave our comfortable environments, we have to venture out to the desert!

So in the end, I guess I do agree with your lesson: for too many of us today, it’s just a whole lot easier instead to go to the movies…

Shabbat shalom!

Roisin Gorman says:

Interesting too the Diana was the goddess of silver and she is depicted as the goddess of the silver screen. As Solomon said “there is nothing new under the sun.” She has just morphed. People go to cinemas that are now her temples of excess and paganism rather than the temples of old that sat upon high hills.

Dear Roisin,
Perhaps the reason for that of one of ‘intention’.
For Christopher Nolan and his ilk – their intention is to entertain – period!
That means to detract, to divert etc. For the prophets it is to seek illumination and true reason. The almost scientific type which allows us to deduce a meaning, then have it repeated again and again under the same conditions with the same result.Hence establishing a permanence.
Shabbat shalom to you all from London Charlie Salem (www.iamcharliesalem.com)

I actually enjoyed this film, although I do think there were times when the emphasis on special effects seemed to be responsible for the direction of the film, and not plot or character development. While it did touch on the concept of lucid dreaming (being consciously awareness that one is in a dream state, and to some extent, potentially exercising a degree of control over what occurs within the dream) they did not go far enough in exploring this idea. Frankly, I would have preferred one or two less explosions and a little more time spent on the subtext and substance of the dream state. The author’s comments on the nature of perception are astute, and I am inclined to agree that Isaiah would be less than pleased with the manner in which we (in the modern west, at least) are often overwhelmed by aesthetics, and mistake flashy form for deeper substance. I think there is a distinction to be made, however, between the times when we are taken in by the escapist nature of a Hollywood movie, and the idea of worshipping the stars (and not the one who made the stars) because we are somehow limited in our theological imagination from envisioning a creator that/who exists behind what we can visibly perceive. I would suggest that the former is simply human nature, while the latter is a much more serious failure of the intellect and spirit.

miha says:

Did Nolan read Isaiah? Maybe, in a Bible class, but not for this film. All associations to Isaiah are Liel clever writing and his way to entertain us, in a Jewish way, which not too liberal and not too orthodox (never too orthodox).

The movie can be also compared to Dianetics, Ron Hubbard science fiction writer who created the Church Scientology and the science fiction “Solaris” written a polish writer forty years ago. When dropping the books from hands, one is alleviated that these artificial worlds of dreams are non-existent, although they want us to believe the contrary. All yak, is artificial, is ugly and story could be told in two pages.

The actor who dominated the screen, is the one who appears only for three minutes or so: Michael Caine. Every time I saw him, there was hope in the 200 minutes plus, plus, plus… that seemed an eternity.

This was a total contrast from “Leonardo DiCaprio’s … with the same tortured expression that he wore in his last four films and that seems, by now, to be permanently etched onto his handsome face.”

Anyway, the movie makes zillions, whether we like or not. This is the only value by Hollywood standards. Naming the people like Mal, Shmal is like explaining a Jackson Pollock painting this way: this stain is the infinite, this yellow area is all about his lover. and this circle, it show Pollock himslef does not have the answer.

I have to disagree with most of your blog. Isaiah was not a critic. He was a vessel for G-d, and although he decried the state of the world, it was only in order to help create a new world.

And Inception, I think, was more than met your eye. It seems as if your real desire was for a specific kind of special effect. But still a special effect. The truth is that there was a lot to think about, if we really took the time, in Inception. Christopher Nolan made sure to turn this movie into a tightly connected tapestry, weaving something that is beautiful, if you allow yourself to go a little deeper.

Anyway, just my take.

Feel free to look at more of my thoughts: http://popchassid.com/inception-part-1-reality/

Miha’s allusion to Solaris is interestingly the first mention of this connection I’ve seen. Solaris (the original) deals so eloquently with dream vs. reality. I enjoyed Inception, but Solaris left me with so many more existentialist things to ponder.

And nice work Liel looking at Inception from an Isaiah perspective.

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Isaiah’s Inception

A haftorah of dreams and delusions

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