Movie Review: Inception, Magic Realism and Dzogchen Buddhism

I don’t recommend that you read too many reviews or critiques of Inception before you see it–if you plan to see it. The director himself has said that many journalists are trying too hard to turn it into a riddle to be figured out. It’s really not that.  As Nolan says, it’s more of a ride to be enjoyed. Please don’t worry that you’re going to be confused by a million plot twists or anything like that.  I am one of the simplest-minded movie viewers.  Too many double agents in a spy flick and I’m lost, having to depend on my companion to explain things to me after the film.  I did not have a bit of trouble following Inception all the way through.  I cannot say the same of Nolan’s earlier film Memento, though I did enjoy that one as well.  No, here everything is laid out plainly with good signposts as the movie takes us from the waking world into a dreamscape and then into a dreamscape within a dreamscape and so on.  It was very clear to me which dream-level every character was on at all times.

Another caveat I would give movie goers is not to expect science fiction. I personally am not a big sci-fi fan, but I am a huge fan of magic realism.  I came away from Inception thoroughly convinced that it is a work of magic realism rather than sci-fi.  My suspicions were validated when I looked for articles and reviews this morning and found an interview with the director in which he names Jorge Luis Borges as “the chief spark for this flame.”

One clue that we are looking at magic realism is that the script does not attempt to explain the science behind what is going on–people entering each other’s dreams. The movie is not set in the future and we are not speculating about something that might be possible in the future. Rather, a magical component (ability to enter others’ dreams) is presented as fact without the smallest bat of an eye from a character like smart university student Ariadne when she is asked to join a team of dream crashers for a special job.

One tool of magic realism is to interweave the magical element with the common, everyday details of life so seamlessly so that our brain accepts one along with the other.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges are considered by many to be pioneers of the genre.  One scene in the movie where Ariadne (Ellen Page) turns two large mirrors to face one another with the slightest offset of the parallel angle so that we see a series of reflections diminishing in size toward infinity struck me as a nice tip of the hat to Borges, who was obsessed with facing mirrors as well as with labyrinths–which also play a central role in Inception.

Another feature of magic realism that I encountered in Nolan’s Inception was evidenced when we left the theatre. Our world view and sense of reality had been altered, and the alteration was still with us.  As Sylvain put it, “that movie messed with my head.”  I didn’t realize it had also messed with mine until a few minutes later when I couldn’t get out of the bathroom stall and found myself wondering if I were dreaming.

Bruce Holland Rogers points out in this article, magic realism tries to convey the reality of a worldview that actually exists.  I can vouch for the fact that there are people (me included) who entertain the possibility that what we experience every day is a dream. Many lines of Buddhism, such as Dzogchen,  teach us to view life as a dream. Allow me to bring in an excerpt from Wikipedia:

According to contemporary teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, in Dzogchen the perceived reality is considered to be unreal. All appearances perceived during the whole life of an individual through all senses, including sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations in their totality are like a big dream. It is claimed that on careful examination the dream of life and regular nightly dreams are not very different, and that in their essential nature there is no difference between them.

The non-essential difference between our dreaming state and our ordinary waking experience is that the latter is more concrete and linked with our attachment; the dreaming is slightly detached.

Also according to this teaching, there is a correspondence between the states of sleep and dream and our experiences when we die. After experiences of intermediate state of bardo an individual comes out of it, a new karmic illusion is created and another existence begins. This is how transmigration happens.

One aim of dream practice is to realize during a dream that one is dreaming. One can then dream with lucidity and do all sorts of things, such as go to different places, talk to people, fly and so forth. It is also possible to do different yogic practices while dreaming (usually such yogic practices one does in waking state). In this way the yogi can have a very strong experience and with this comes understanding of the dream-like nature of daily life. This is very relevant to diminishing attachments, because they are based on strong beliefs that life’s perceptions and objects are real and, as a consequence, important. If one really understands what Buddha Shakyamuni meant when he said that everything is unreal or of the nature o fshunyata, then one can diminish attachments and tensions.

The teacher gives advice, that the realization that the life is only a big dream can help us finally liberate ourselves from the chains of emotions, attachments, and ego and then we have the possibility of ultimately becoming enlightened.[57]

If such a view of life intrigues you or resonates with you, you would probably enjoy Inception. If you like magic realism, see Inception. If you don’t like sci-fi, don’t let that scare you away from Inception. For us, it was a very enjoyable ride.

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8 responses to “Movie Review: Inception, Magic Realism and Dzogchen Buddhism

  1. We NEVER go out to movies anymore! So when it’s on On Demand I may watch it. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. We both get in for $10 and even more cheaply on Tuesdays since Sylvain has a “companion gets in free” card of sorts.

  3. Thanks for the review Kelly! I really love magical realism. I’ve always been a big fan of Alice Hoffman & have read One Hundred Years of Solitude & another story call Sundog by Monique Roffey. We have cheap Tuesday here also, so may get to see it tomorrow. Will let you know if I like it :)

  4. It just occured to me to google “dzogchen” and “film” and I would up here reading your review. I wasn’t going to see Inception, but now maybe I will. My understanding of Dzogchen derives mainly from reading a single chapter in Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s Healing with Light, Energy and Form and I’ve only related that experience of Dzogchen to a certain cinematic engagement with a luminous imagestream for maybe the last 12 hours. It’s an idea I’d like to continue to explore.

    Now, having read your post, I think I’ll reread Wangyal’s book on Tibetan Dream Yoga, although I don’t have anyone to wake me throughout the night and inquire if I am sleeping the sleep of ignorance. Which I would quite likely be.

    • Amarilla, Thank you so much for leaving a comment. Your blog is cool, too! I especially like the Museum of Laundry! Not long ago someone asked if they could have a poem I wrote about laundry day. They are compiling an anthology of writings about laundry.  K

  5. Pingback: Rá. « Quixotando

  6. http://www.amazon.com/An-Adventure-in-Indianapolis-ebook/dp/B001F0QG7U Has elements of magical realism within the context of very true-to-life urban Indianapolis. The type of crime is drug manufacturing, see how a lawyer occultist helps the Mayor to stop this crime from occurring. He is helped by an unlikely squad, including a cleric, a soldier and a burglar. If contemporary urban fiction with a touch of fantasy: if both the inner worlds of the mind and action both interest you, then you just might love this novel!

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