Between them, Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, and, in the comments to my post about it (starting here), Brian Francis Slattery, have talked me over to their reading of Inception--the film and the concept at its core--as a metaphor for storytelling and the artifice of filmmaking (which probably means that my original take on the film, as an SFnal story about learning the world, is, if not off-base, then probably no more productive than obsessing over whether Cobb is still dreaming in the last scene). As I say to Brian, however, I think that as an analogy to storytelling, dreaming is a very poor fit. Niall is right to point out that most of us don't dream as vividly and imaginatively as the more common filmic represenation of dreams--vividly colored surrealist landscapes--would have us believe. My dreams, the ones I remember at least, usually feature familiar settings and actions (though I did once dream that I was investigating the murder of Kermit the frog--I'm still pissed about being woken up before getting to the bottom of that mystery) that have been scrambled into illogic by my sleeping brain. If it's unfair to condemn Inception for not being The Cell, however, it still seems valid to me to compare it to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the Buffy episode "Restless," both of which feature dreams that are entirely mundane in their settings and events (or, in the latter case, as mundane as settings and events in Buffy get), and whose strangeness is derived from the illogical manner in which the characters move within those scenes, and their atypical reactions to them. Inception's dreams, meanwhile, are entirely linear and entirely logical, and though I accept that this is because storytelling, and not dreams, is actually the film's focus, the discrepancy only serves to highlight how strained the film's central metaphor is.
Niall, Adam and Brian argue that Inception is drawing our attention to the similar actions we perform in dreams and when consuming a story--accepting illogic as logic, filling in the interstices between 'scenes' in order to create a coherent story in our brains. But to my mind these are actually two distinct and very different acts. I mentioned the second season finale of House in one of my replies to Brian. In the opening scene, House is shot, and spends the rest of the episode trying to diagnose a patient from his hospital room. In the climactic scene, he has a revelation about the patient's illness while talking to his fellows, and the next scene shows them in a stairwell continuing to talk. House turns around and asks: "How did I get here? I was just in my hospital room," and realizes that he's still in a coma following his shooting. It's a very neat and wrongfooting moment because it draws attention to an action that the audience performs automatically--filling in the gaps in a story so that it can form a coherent, lifelike whole in our minds--but it also draws our attention to the difference between dream and story, and the reason that reading Inception as a metaphor for storytelling strikes me as empty. When House realizes the illogic of his experiences, he ceases to believe in his perceived reality, in the story happening around him. I'm sure that most people have had the experience of being immersed in a dream and, as they draw closer to consciousness, realizing some logical flaw in it, at which point the dream dissipates. Consuming story isn't like that. Momentarily wrongfooting as it is, the metafictional gag at the end of House's second season doesn't cause the audience to stop believing in the show, because the audience was already aware of the story's fictionality. Unlike dreams, we know that a story is unreal and accept that unreality. We know, even if it's not something we think about very often, that we are active participants in the creation of the story, and that we are lending our intellectual and emotional faculties to something unreal. It's a knowing, conscious act, not the unaware acceptance of the illogic of dreams. Dream isn't a parallel for story; it's the opposite of it.
The other reason that I don't like this reading of Inception (besides, as I say to Brian, that I'm really not sure what Nolan is trying to say when he compares storytelling to what is essentially a mind-rape) is that it reduces the film to this metaphor. The substance of the film ceases to matter because its purpose is merely to call attention to its own artificiality. The experience of watching the film is not the point, and therefore it doesn't matter that this experience is so leaden, because the purpose of the film is the realization that comes hours or days after one has finished watching it. This doesn't have to be an unsuccessful approach--once again I'm moved to compare Inception to Primer, which so completely avoids delivering anything like a satisfying viewing experience that it's almost necessary to watch the film twice in order to get anything out of the experience--but it does require more courage and intelligence than Inception seems to possess. I agree with Niall, in other words, that an intellectual exercise can be thrilling in its own right, without appealing to the emotion, but Inception, to my mind, isn't. That said, it's precisely because Inception is so substance-less that I'm growing more charitable towards it as I move away from it. Like a dream, the experience of watching the film has faded away almost entirely, while the interpretation offered by Niall, Adam and Brian--so much more palatable in a few, well-written paragraphs than in a two hour film--lingers on.