Cinematic Narration and Inception

If you haven’t seen Inception, the latest movie spectacle written, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan, then find the largest cinema screen that you can, book your ticket, and read this blog entry after you’ve watched it because I’d hate to spoil the plot. If you’re still reading I’ll assume you’ve seen this visual extravaganza that tells the story of a team of individuals who are enlisted to plant an idea in the mind of the heir to a gargantuan business empire. The film tracks the team as they collectively make their way through different layers of the sub-conscious, battling various sub-conscious defense mechanisms, and adapting to radical changes in physical laws amongst other conditions that also helpfully make room for some stunning visual effects.

In Inception the plot is split amongst several layers of the subconscious and the deeper the characters go into the subconscious the quicker the experience of time. For example five minutes of real-time asleep may be experienced in a subconscious state as an hour of elapsed time. In our own cinema experience we are in the theatre for a couple of hours and yet somehow we can track days, months, and even years of narrative time (and in the case of Inception we can even track nested temporal orders). Just how we accomplish this is one question in the philosophy of film.

Fictional films are the bread and butter of Hollywood movie studios. But some philosophical questions related to cinematic narrative arise: how do moving pictures and synchronised sound go about communicating narrative? When we are watching a film we may see shots from the first-person point of view of a character in the movie. These may be edited together with many shots from different angles and are somehow “interpreted” as a narrative. Should the narrative content of the moving pictures be interpreted as some individual’s imaginative experience? If so whose imaginative experience is it? Christopher Nolan wrote the script for Inception so could we attribute the narrative to his imaginative experience? When there are multiple people involved in writing/directing/producing a film should we posit an implied narrator? Is it the viewer’s imagination that is responsible? And does every film that is based on a fictional narrative portray the story of a narrator? For a survey of various philosophical accounts of cinematic narration see the article by Katherine Thomson-Jones below. For additional movie trailers that contain snippets of the film narrative see here and here.

Related articles:
Cinematic Narrators
By Katherine Thomson-Jones , Oberlin College
(Vol. 4, March 2009)
Philosophy Compass

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