In a discussion of the methods he laid out in his book, The Archaeology of Knowledge, the French philosopher Michel Foucault admitted:
A nightmare has haunted me me since my childhood: I am looking at a text that I can't read, or only a tiny part of it is decipherable. I pretend to read it, aware that I am inventing; then suddenly the text is completely scrambled, I can no longer read anything or even invent it, my throat tightens and I wake up.
In his book, Farewell to an Idea, the art historian T.J. Clark describes modernism as a "holocaust":
That already the modernist past is a ruin, the logic of whose architecture we do not remotely grasp. This has not happened, in my view, because we have entered a new age. That is not what my book title mean. On the contrary, it is just because the "modernity" which modernism prophesied has finally arrived that the forms of representation it originally gave rise to are now unreadable.This ruinous present, what Clark calls "modernity's triumph" is the moment in which Inception takes place - modernism is this film's antiquity. It tunnels down into the layers of logic which we can no longer grasp. Nolan drills into that logic with the carelessness of a thief - he plunders modernism like one of Ken MacLeod's Combat Archaeologists. Doing so means that he plunders the logic of modern story telling, but also the logic of the places that give those stories meaning.
Ferris Wheel sets from 2001 and Inception
More than any building project the hubris of that moment is film that most perfectly embodied by Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In it the bureaucratic modernists purposefully move through a world of their own making with God-like assurance. The white low-ceilinged interiors of their corporate towers was looped back on itself to create a non-place suspend between the earth and the moon. While the film has no architect, it is the modernist Master Art's finest hour. American Cold Warriors are shown within well ordered worlds, unshadowed by doubt. At the time it was made it was the fullest flowing of Corbusier's dream of total design, but instead of steam ships it was enormous space stations that housed the design and slimmed down corporate identities developed in the 50 year rise of the modernist masters. It was also the first time the claim can be made for film making as the new Master Art.
Inception is a director's dream of film making. Just as serial killers are Hollywood's representation of artists, caper films are Hollywood's representation of film making itself. Bank robbers, con men, magicians and prison break movies often have the same sort of material focus as sculptors, and the planning, plotting, fabricating, and execution can all be likened to mounting a complex installation or especially large sculpture, but in fact what the activity of the caper most resembles is making a movie.
Architectect optically cutting Paris in Inception, Gordon Matta-Clarck's Conical Intersect (1975)
It is simple enough to chart the resemblance: It starts the moment The Overseer says, "Assemble your team Mr. Cobb." Mr. Saito is Cobb's financial backer. He's giving the go ahead for a blockbuster caper - one with a budget that will absorb the purchase of an entire airline (that's gotta feel nice). Cobb, who's job it is to plant ideas in people's minds (The Inceptionist?), is the most likely projection of the director himself. We then see him scramble to gather the talented and trusted villains needed to pull off this high risk creative enterprise. Aurthur is Cobb's Pointman; a slick detail driven job runner who also happens to be a demolitions expert. Eames, the only character with an easily identified modernist name, is The Forger. Unlike the slim deferential Arthur, Eames is Cobbs physical equal, and ready to confront and question him. He is flamboyant, even slightly fey, but works with deadly precision once the game is on. His stated value is that he is creative - he's Cobb's star. Yusuf, is The Chemist. Again not a small guy, he provides Cobb with the effects needed to stabilize the story. These men are all experienced veterans of past capers. The sorts who can, and are, left to there own devises.
From the very beginning of the film it is made apparent that Cobb is unsure of his hold on reality. By the end of the film he is (or should be) losing faith in the small metallic top, his "totem", that is meant to be a test of what is and isn't real. Long before the last shot of the spinning top Ariadne has become a far more reliable reality check for Cobb. In that mythic role she too is able to stand up to Cobb, to call him out, but she is no Master. But it not just that she young and inexperienced; Cobb knows he is offering her something no architect could resist - a chance to build whole cathedrals, even whole cities, free of all material constraints. Its no wonder one of my architecture professors, Haresh Lalvani, told me the most exciting work was in Hollywood.
Nolan showed in his depiction of Gothem City that he had a complex and nuanced urban vision. The great majority of his audience walked into Inception trusting him and was rewarded with a smart and at times pleasurably confounding blockbuster. This latest film deepens his architectural bona fides, and as a vision of the blockbuster as the new Master Art it is heartening. Nolan doesn't step into the role vacated by the modernist architects - he side steps it. Inception acknowledges the modernist project, but their collapse isn't celebrated. Their triumph, the hubris to believe they knew exactly how to build a better world, isn't treated with contempt. Nolan seems to genuinely mourns the loss. But all the same. his urban model is one very much at odds with the regimented purism of the Cold War era Masters.
The Parisain neighborhood of Beaubourg demolished to make way for the Pompadu Center and other modernist (and post-modernist) improvements - Cobb entering the Sorbonne
Nolan has shown himself to be a rigorous and disciplined filmmaker, even as he has made the transition to blockbusters. In an interview with Elvis Mitchel he explains that before Inception he had never used slow motion in his films, that it seemed a "purely aesthetic effect," but that with Inception he was able to making it a physical part of the story, "part of it's architecture." Nolan's composer Hans Zimmer sampled and radically slowed horns from the Edith Piaf song the characters play in the film to create the foghorn like blare in the score, thereby simultaneously cleaving the diagenic to the extragenic and making the score an structural element of the narrative architecture.
It seems reasonable to assume then that locations weren't chosen for "purely aesthetic effect." That Cobb finds Ariadne in Paris; that her first awareness of shared dreaming is an explosion of violence that wrecks facades, blows up wooden push carts and tears up the cobble stones of the street; that he explains the new rules as the two of them walk aimlessly discovering the city anew; and that she proceeds to tear apart and reassemble Paris from memory, all this feel as carefully considered as Nolan's use of slow motion. While it is clear that Nolan's regard for Corbusier and other modernist architects is sincere, his film makes it clear that their logic is not his.
Nolan and I are contemporaries, and like him I grew up in and around Chicago. For a time my family lived in a modernist utopian townhouse complex on the South Side. In first grade I moved to Oak Park and went to school acros from Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio. I went to middle school near the Cabrini Green housing projects while living with my father on the 25th floor of a luxury high rise not far from the John Hancock Tower. (kids I knew got busted selling tickets to the roof of the Hancock after they figured out a way to jimmy the door.) In high school I lived with my mother who had by then bought a old Victorian boardinghouse. Chicago is a city built on a grid - none of these places varied even slightly in their north-south axes. I was in my twenties before I lived in London and visited Paris (on exchange - dressed in neck kerchiefs and ill fitting t-shirts), but I remember the effect that visiting Boston and other cities without a grid had on my childhood self - it blew me wide open. The thrill of seeing building breaking at odd angles to one another still excites me. It's the Chicagoan in me.
I expect that Nolan's upbringing was very different from mine, but I recognize all those places, and the need/desire they instilled in me: to see the city, all of it. Everything I have ever read about the Situationist International makes me love them. They were urban activists and pranksters. Guy Debord, the Marxist contrarian at the heart of the group, I have never found much to love in his theories of the spectacle - an idea that is admittedly at cross purposes with blockbuster Hollywood movies - but Debord was a filmaker, and his ideas about experiencing city life fit nicely within Inception's architecture. I'm betting Nolan does too. Debord is infamous as a combat urbanist - for his central role in instigating the 1968 student uprisings in Paris that nearly toppled the French government. Its worth remembering they did it with absurdist tactics, that excited the students and confounded the authorities. Debord's surrealist urban theories of Pychogeography in which maps of Paris were torn appart and reassemble according to the a dream like alogic. Inception made Debord's Pychogeography into spectacle.
Nolan's first film, Following points to another aspect of the dream thief's labyrinthine trip home that is simpatico with Debord's urbanism: The dérive or drift. This is another equally slippery idea of Debord's. Building on the proud Parisian tradition of the flaneur it was an act of resistance to the rationalism the modernist were imposing on Paris. A tactic of misusing and misunderstanding the functions of the city and instead enjoying the city for itself, and it amounted to nothing more than walking the streets and talking, a kind of spacial free association intended to defamiliarize and renew the city. The greatest example of drift that I am aware of is the the artist Sophie Calle's 1979 conceptual work Suite Venitienne:
For months I followed strangers on the street. For the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.Eventually she chose a man at random (or nearly so) and followed him to Venice. In Following Nolan gets the action rolling in exactly the same way. In that film a young aspiring novelist fills otherwise empty days by trailing strangers until, like Calle, he is confronted - but the novelist is confronted by a thief named Cobb.