My mother was an artist.

Some of my earliest memories of my mother are centered around her art. The sun-filled back room of her father’s house where she had constructed a studio to make use of the afternoon light, and the collages she constructed there from magazine clippings. Some taller than my childhood body, they were polymorphous abstractions of musicians, pornography, and politics. I remember her postgraduate days when her sculpture and pottery classes occurred in the evenings. She would take me along with her, setting me up between the wheel and the kiln, as she worked. I remember the earthen smell of the wet clay as the wheel spun it about in endless cycles of shaping and trimming, the heat from the kiln.

My mother never limited herself to one medium. Watercolors, clay, pencil work- she took to anything she picked up. During several years of my childhood, she drew nothing but moons- canvas upon endless canvass of stark gray and black full moons, each work only differentiated by the individual strokes but alike in shape and scale. And then, one day, the moons were abandoned as she went on to a period of color studies. She would spend years working on portraits, or still lifes, or abstracts, only to leave them behind to chase the next fascination.

Art is one of the touchpoints of existence that comes closest to magic. It imbues with you the ability to create new fragments of reality by reshaping mundane elements of pigment and ink into homunculus completely within your control. And in the right hands, that magic becomes communication- the way through which you express your inner world to those around you, whether your intent is to inform or manipulate. But art, like magic, can becoming isolating and obsessive. As you seek ways to externalize your inner world, it can sever your connections to reality itself until the only voice you hear is your own.

For every artwork my mother brought to life, I watched her destroy three times that amount. She would repeat the same sketch endless times and then deface them in frustration if there was an errant arc or a shadow which could not be tamed. She would pass entire nights forgoing sleep in favor of working. There was one summer where she took on the commission of creating angelic backdrops for a theatrical performance. For six months, we saw her precious little as she locked herself away in the family garage. Giant scaffolds of cardboard and particle board were cut and painted into swooping, ominous Renaissance archangels emerging from clouds filled with supernatural wrath. By the time it was time to transport the final pieces to the theater, there was a thick stack of dead angels in the garage, slashed open or splattered to prevent rework on a flawed piece.

When art was present in my mother’s life, it contained her mania. It was a form of sublimation for her. In art, it was only her own voice that she had to wrestle with- not her parents, from whom she distanced herself more with each passing year, or her marriages. Not the church friends and coworkers who drifted in and out of her life like dry kindling, burnt up and abandoned after real or imagined slights. If a piece of artwork displeased her, it went into the pile, and no one cared about a piece of paper or malformed lump of clay being thrown out. There were no arguments in the studio about money or religion. She could work for twenty hours and produce something that people would compliment her for, something that could be hung in a gallery or bartered for her children’s’ extracurricular activities. In a life thick with disappointment, the work held value.

My mother was a junkie.

When it began for her, she wasn’t first- or even the tenth- person I had seen disappear down into the black echo of addiction. And it wasn’t subtle. After years of turning her anger on herself, my mother’s body began to rebel. She fought to control it with everything at her disposal, and in those early days after the turn of the century, doctors were more than willing to provide her with cocktails of narcotics and serotonin boosters in the hopes of lifting the fog of her maladies long enough for a window of treatment to open. But instead, the drugs sent her further and further into the echoes of her own voice.

There were many years of the tertiary behavior that comes with addiction. The endless tantrums, the doctor-shopping. A car accident, en route to her former employer where she was intent on violence, that tore apart her hand and led to even more painkillers. Gallows humor became routine and long-running for my sisters who, with the patience of saints, tried everything in their power to convince her of how to change course, even in the slightest of ways. One of my sisters, with years of experience and education in pharmacological chemistry, was horrified when we were allowed to see the quantity and range of what my mother was ingesting after ten years, now expanded to include opioids and antipsychotics. We all dreaded her phone calls where she would call me, slurring, by the name of her murdered brother, or her father, or sometimes my sisters.

But by then, my mother’s voice was the only one she was capable of hearing. Any move made to disrupt her routine was seen as an act of rebellion against her personally, even treasonous. Little by little, she was leaving us behind. In our last group conversation, I sat on the stairs of my house as she told us that she was intent on not changing- that her body was too far gone, and however things went, it would occur on her terms, in her house.

And that is how it ended. In her house, on her terms. The attending county official’s statement made dry observations about how she was found: the cold temperature of the house, and its disarray. The glass of alcohol found next to the pills, so severely depleted for how soon the latest prescription was fulfilled. The medical record pointing to a known abuse of medication. Just another Appalachian opioid overdose in an epidemic of overdoses, occurring on an anonymous side street in a mundane retirement-era subdivision. “Accidental” is a word that becomes meaningless when it arrives at the end of decades of what we all saw coming, the terminus of that black echo.

It seems foolish to mourn a passing that occurred exactly as the decedent wanted it to occur. But I do feel the loss of all those lives that my mother left strewn behind her. The abandonment of the world and all it includes, just for your own voice- a voice that, in time, lost even its own artistry and wit. Just an echo of its former self, looping back over itself endlessly, focusing you away from art, away from family, away from reality, and telling you that just this thing, this one thing within your reach, is necessary to keep going.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on the Eulogy

In those occasions when the authoring of a eulogy becomes necessary, it is often written through a veil of recent grief which equally elevates and obscures memory. A period of mourning is the most likely time to elicit a touching memorial, but perhaps lends itself most towards the tendencies of the living to imbue the departed with an ill-fitting narrative. It is that error which I find myself thinking about today.

There are few among us who are equipped to accurately write a eulogy for anyone but ourselves. Save for those circumstances where a parent outlives their child, it is rare for a person to have an all-encompassing knowledge of another’s external life. A son cannot speak to his father’s life before his birth except what he was been told through story; likewise, a spouse may only know pieces of their love’s life before them. Those with the most intimacy or proximity to a man’s life are often asked to pen a memorial, but even the best secondhand knowledge is just that-secondhand, with gaps of years or even decades of life left unexamined. And captured as we are in our roles with one other, the eulogy is further narrowed through the prism of the deceased’s relationship to the author, burdening the script with our own prejudices and expectations.

Perhaps the most grievous of these expectations is that death fulfills the arc of one’s life. A lifetime of being fed stories conditions us into expect events to fit a preconceived narrative, even when the story may be tragic or uncomfortable. That belief is a powerful urge to dispel when attempting to package a person’s life into a set number of lines and paragraphs. We often speak of death as being the ‘closing’ of something, as if an individual life is a book which can be taken off the shelf for highlighting and editing. But it is rare that a life concludes itself so neatly, each storyline and subplot concluded. More often, death is an interruption of those narratives, one which careens others’ stories into unexpected directions. And so our eulogies attempt to wrestle the dead back onto the path which we believed they were predestined for, speaking about things the dead were going to do or what they would want, were they still drawing breath. But the dead do not want anything.

It is difficult enough for a life to be sustained without disease or unnatural injury long enough for a third act; it is a darker and rarer magic still if a person’s life can be distilled into a story worth telling, if left unflavored by those who remember them. There is nothing dishonorable about that; merely an acknowledgement that life is a sequence of events upon which many will not or cannot imprint with meaning. And it is not a dishonest thing to say that some die with their shadows taller than their souls, the narrative of their life little more than a sigil scrawled on to a cavern wall in warning.

If life is the cloth from which a eulogy is to be cut and fitted around one’s memory, it is best to consider in what condition you leave those materials for those remaining in your stead. Is the cloth hidden away so deep that no one can find it, or a skein of fragments cross-stitched together so that others are forced to imagine a pattern? Is it undyed and blank from never bothering to imprint its fabric with worth? Is is burnt beyond recognition? Or was it left half-formed for others to take up the needle and sew into something for warmth in your absence, taking scraps from their own lives to complete?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Man Got To Be Invisible: Heist

'Heist' characters Pinky (Ricky Jay), Joe (Gene Hackman) and Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) in the film's opening scene.

‘Heist’ characters Pinky (Ricky Jay), Joe (Gene Hackman) and Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) in the film’s opening scene.

When I’m out doing my thing, I like to be invisible. Man got to do his work, then he be invisible.” -African-American professional burglar, 1981, ‘In Their Own Words; Criminals on Crime’.

The opening lines of dialogue in David Mamet’s Boston crime film “Heist” reveal everything that you need to know about the rest of the film. In a testy exchange while getting their morning coffee, two men quibble over people’s motivation in life. The first man stakes his claim on money; the other man believes in love. The first man, played by Gene Hackman, initially seems to agree, saying, “Well, they’re right, too. It is love,”- before twisting the knife- “Love of money.”

In true Mamet fashion, a few slippery sentences manage to encapsulate the core message of what he intends to show you. Mamet’s two enduring themes continue in ‘Heist’: the desperate extremes to which men take their vocations, and how those vocations are often illusions evoked from their own, and others, trickery. In ‘Glengary Glenn Ross’, these themes destroy a cabal of shady real estate brokers trying to outvie each other for another day of survival; in ‘Homicide’, Mamet similarly destroys a detective torn between his vocation and a desire for ethnic recognition. Over and over again, Mamet has written scripts about how desire is dangerous- dangerous to a man’s ability to think clearly (Oleanna), dangerous to the completion of his professional goals (Ronin), dangerous to his life (Redbelt). In Mamet’s worlds, men who desire nothing are the safest, but Mamet’s worlds are built to trap men into accidently coveting what may not really exist.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stand By Me

The night that Trump won the presidency,  I saw several people who voted for him justifying themselves on social media. Invariably, their posts fell into a general template of:

“To my [Democratic/POC/LGBT] friends, please know that I will always [stand by you/be your friend/value our friendship] but my vote today is because I care about [taking away your rights/hurting brown people/Hillary’s emails].”

Most of their reasons for voting Republican have, over the course of the last three and half years, been overcome by events- but that’s an argument for another day. What I’ve been waiting on, and continue to wait on, is for them to stand by me, like they said they would do.

Every month since Trump took office, I’ve donated to non-profits working to blunt the effects of his policies: the Southern Poverty Law Center, RAICES, Common Cause, and a few others. Every month, a new donation, paying up like a green-grocer. These groups bug me for money constantly and clog up my email. I don’t expect to see any immediate national course correction, but I pay them because I want there to be lobbyists and lawyers working for my interests.

Every month since Trump took office, I’ve sent emails to my representatives demanding they vote against Republican bills that are harmful either to my family, my community, or the nation at large. The numbers for my Congressional leadership are programmed into my phones so I can call them to demand action when there’s a big bill on the line. I live in a blue state with a centrist Democrat House representative who’s old and reluctant to make a stand on things; but I still make the calls and write the form emails because I want to contribute to the demand signal for action.

I vote in every primary and local election. I’ve donated more money to Democratic politicians in the past three years than the rest of my life combined. Most of them aren’t ideal candidates for me, but I donate to the one who most aligns with my interests until they’re out of the race, and then I donate to whoever is going up against the GOP. The person I wanted to win the Democratic nomination is out of the running, and I’m not wild about the nominee. But I’m still going to back their play, because a blue win would result in repairing some of the damage inflicted on the nation.

I’m not reciting all this as a humblebrag. Most people don’t have the resources to donate to a charity every month, so I don’t expect that of them. I don’t really even expect most people to take the effort or time to connect with their elected leadership- most humans only have one or two core voting issues that they get excited about, and then it’s back to apathy until the next election. I’m saying all this because-

Where are all these Trump voters?

They said they’d stand beside me.

Since Trump took office, I haven’t seen a single one of these people post up a link to a donation page.

Or advocate for calling their representatives.

Or march in a protest.

Or sign a petition.

Hey, look, maybe they’re quiet in their political donations or charity work. I get it. Advocacy should be because of your personal convictions, not to attract likes on Facebook. But the thing is…

When I pushed links for a donation page, or a political candidate, or even just a cause that needed attention, none of them responded in support. If they responded at all, it was in disagreement.

So where was the back-up we were promised by these folks?

If they really wanted to [stand by us/be our friend/value our friendship], where were they? When it was time to soften the impact of their vote, what did they do? When people asked for help, where was their answer?

Most of my adult life was incorporated within result-oriented organizations. Actions, not words, they said. Results, not excuses. And because of the organizations I belonged to, more than 90% of the people I know lived by that same credo, Trump voters included.

So what do their actions say, instead of their words? What are the results of the excuses they gave on election night?

A lot of empty air.

It’s almost like those people didn’t mean what they were saying; maybe more like they were making themselves feel better. Just a vague promise of future support, without actually committing to anything. Make yourself look sympathetic, they thought; that’s the important thing.

It’s easy to stand by someone when that’s all you do.

So, in order to save them some time, I’ve pre-written their next election-night justification. Instead of typing out anything, they can just cut and paste one of these:

To my Democratic friends, please know that the only political act I make is to vote every four years. I’m going to stop paying attention after the results come out.

To my Democratic friends, please know that I’m perfectly willing to make your life incrementally harder and make you work more, if it doesn’t personally affect me.

To my Democratic friends, please know that any danger or risk posed to your family or community because of my vote isn’t my concern, and that you’re on your own.

To my Democratic friends, please know that spending a little bit of money, time, or effort to lessen the effects my vote isn’t going to happen.

To my Democratic friends, please know that I would never actually use one of these pre-formatted sentences, because I’d rather go on calling you a friend when I don’t mean it.

There, one less thing for them to do. More time for them to do nothing else.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Transubstantiation: Analysis of The Exorcist

Karras' frailty, against the imposing symbol of an immortal spirit, parallels the true weakness of his faith when confronted.

Karras’ frailty, against the imposing symbol of an immortal spirit, parallels the true weakness of his faith when confronted.

Amid the various monsters and maniacs of modern cinema, the fact that William Friedkin’s film adaptation of a minor Catholic superstition not only became one of the highest consistently rated horror movies of all time, but that it inspired a whole new subgenre (via a slew of inferior imitations) is astounding. A horror film with relatively little gore, it is nevertheless terrifying because of Blatty and Friedkin’s shared understanding of basic human fears: the things that we imagine to be the demons in our life, and more than that, the human condition’s inability to reliably face, much less overcome, these fears.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Game In The Windowless Room- Shel Silverstein

This is a transcription of a Shel Silverstein poem recited by Ricky Jay at the end of his autobiographical documentary, “Deceptive Practices”. I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Internet, which tells me that this poem was either written by Silverstein as a private commission, or that Jay wrote the poem himself. Either way, I thought it fun enough to copy from the film and put online.

The Game In The Windowless Room

Of all all the games I’ve ever played

Of all the hands I’ve dealt

Of all the pots I’ve ever raked

From matchsticks

to nickels

to untold wealth.

From the beckoning lights of the Vegas strip

to the Pittsburgh roadhouse gloom,

The most dangerous game I played with the man

In that locked-door windowless room.


His eyes were yellow as the golden crown

on the King of Diamond’s head;

His teeth were black

as the mustached Jack,

And his mouth was bloody red as the crimson gown on the Queen of Hearts.

And his hand was marked with the sign

That’s found on the hand of the Diamond King.

And he smiled

As his eyes met mine

And he said,


“What a shame,

I’ve been watching your game,

As you fleece these witless fools.

How would you do,

At a hand or two?

My game,

my stakes,

my rules.

A sealed room,

No windows, no phone,

An unbroken seal on the cards.

No watches or rings,

Or jaggedy things

That can clip or chip or mark

On a non-metal, clear glass tabletop.

No mirrors, no overhead lights,

With foot-thick walls

and just one door

that’s locked…from the outside.

For as long as it takes

For one man to break

Be it an hour

Or a day,

Would you dare take a seat,

When there’s no way to cheat?”


Well, what could I say?


So in the silent tomb of that sealed room

We both sat down to play.

Well, he was no Joker,

He was an Ace.

And although I was the King of this pack,

I knew that the lady would have to smile on me

If I were to win all his jack.

So we played for hours;

Or was it a week?

I lost all track of time,

And he won a few,

And he bluffed a few,

But the final pot was mine.


“Well, I don’t know quite how you did it,” he said,

As I raked in his last buck.

“But shaves, or seconds, or a frigid deck,

It had nothing to do with luck.

You’re a hustler, a sharp, a mechanic,”

he said,

“Now the real game’s about to start.”


Here he pulls out his knife,

And me with just this deck of cards.


“Ain’t it funny to learn

How the odds can turn,” said he,

As he thrusted

And flicked

And fanned.

But I dodged his blade

And my eight of Spades

Knocked the knife right out of his hand.


“Hell, I’ll beat you to death with my hands,”

he laughed,

And he raised a powerful fist;

But my five of clubs

Left a bloody stub

as it sliced his hand off at the wrist.


Yeah, he screamed,

And he pulled a gun from his boot,

“Last hand and the dealer dies,”

But my one last card- my Ace of Hearts-

caught him right between the eyes.


Well, that I might say

was the game of my life.

When the police

did finally arrive,

They found a windowless room,

A corpse on the floor,

The door

Still locked from the outside.

And no one there but him and me,

A classic locked-room mystery.

But where is the murder weapon?

They searched, but they can’t find it anywhere.

Oh where can it be?

They don’t look at me,

I’m just playing


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Gateway To Literacy: 10 Comic Books Begging For Adaptions to Television

Television, it seems, has finally discovered that comic books can actually attract viewers without having to venture into Captain Tightpants territory. AMC’s Walking Dead has essentially nothing in common with its graphic novel base material except its characters, but has been a commercial success by dressing up its melodrama with zombies; likewise, Marvel is squeezing every bit of juice from The Avengers by moving to the small screen and focusing in on the human agents on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And in the coming year, we’ve been told AMC and Netflix are both launching miniseries or seasonal shows based off of comic books; sadly however, all these new series (AMC’s Preacher; Netflix’s run of four Marvel shows, beginning with a reboot of Daredevil under Drew Goddard) are centered around relatively mainstream, superhero-based titles: Preacher, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and, mind-numbingly enough, Jessica Jones. By this time next year, basic cable and streaming availability of superhero fare will be commonplace- especially if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. overcomes its’ lackluster ratings and gets a broader audience.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blood-Red Lodge: ‘Only God Forgives’ Review

2013; written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm.

2013; written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm.

“To me, a story can be both concrete and abstract, or a concrete story can hold abstractions. And abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words.” – David Lynch

There is no more fully realized modernist American filmmaker than David Lynch. Although he’s most often accused of post-modernism, Lynch’s use of modernist techniques- counterpointing artificiality with dream states, powerful symbolism through color and shapes, and a penchant for grotesque supernatural monsters- are constructed no less carefully than Faulkner, Cather or Morrison. And as Lynch’s legacy sets itself in place, watching his cinematic children rise up to imitate his works is inspiring, even if their visions are frustratingly clouded by virtue of the fact that their employment of modernist techniques have not settled.

Continue reading

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Coo-Coo Who’s Wearing My Skin: ‘Eastern Promises’ Review

Eastern Promises' use of almost completely interior settings, and lack of the character's personal space, enforce Cronenberg's mood of intimidation and forced society.

Eastern Promises’ use of almost completely interior settings, and lack of the character’s personal space, enforces Cronenberg’s mood of intimidation and forced society.

“While I slept a coo-coo came
As naked as could be
And put on the skin
And screwed on the head
That once belonged to me.
Now wearing my feet
He runs through the street
In a most disgraceful way.
Doin’ things and sayin’ things
I’d never do or say.”

– Shel Silverstein, Skin Stealer

Of all the transformations in the films of David Cronenberg, maker of such films as Videodrome, The Fly and The Brood, none are as startling as Cronenberg himself. For thirty years, Cronenberg’s penchant for body horror, surrealism and use of physical symbolism forced him into a niche market of horror films; even when he acted in movies rather than directed, Cronenberg was often relegated to forgettable B-grade horror movies. Although appreciated within horror circle for connecting physical transformations with character evolution or psychological movement, Cronenberg seemed destined to never break into the cinematic mainstream.

But the last ten years have been exceedingly kind to Cronenberg, simply because he came to realize that he could find less dramatic ways to use the bodies of his protagonists to convey narratives about sexuality, identity and violence. Cronenberg translated these ideas into his best-known work, A History of Violence, in 2005; and since then, he has reexamined the same ideas in three other films, of which only one mainstream enough for audiences to appreciate. Cosmopolis, with Robert Pattinson, was considered too avant-garde by many (and Pattinson’s association with the Twilight films drove away many viewers), and 2011’s A Dangerous Method, which focused on the personal and professional vendettas between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, was dismissed as dry and hyperfocused on repressed sexuality. This leaves 2005’s Eastern Promises as Cronenberg’s best work, post-Violence, and the only film in his repertoire which he uses within the confines of a genre film to cleverly disguise his intentions. Continue reading

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Novelty-Seeking: Inception


‘Inception’ stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page (with Ken Watanabe).

(Ed. note: For the beginning of my series of favorite film reviews, the order of reviews was selected by a random number generator, rather than in order of preference- which is how they were initially listed in my first post to this site.

This review, like the rest I’ll be posting, assumes the reader has seen the film and understands its basic plot points. With that in mind, spoilers galore.)

 “Against boredom even gods struggle in vain.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In medieval Buddhism, clergy were instructed in yoga methods designed to allow for self-awareness even in periods of sleep. The goal of these disciplines was to allow monks to separate reality from unreality, even during meditation or death. As lucid dreaming became known in the Western world, however, it became used as a psychological distraction; a game to amuse playwrights and psychologists. More often than not, lucid dreams in theater and media is seen as a character’s way to expand the extravagances of their mind beyond the boundaries of what they can control in waking moments.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has been argued about since its release in the respect that, like a dream, it is impossible to know for sure what happens in the final few frames. That Cobb, the dream-thief portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is an unreliable narrator is established almost from the beginning. Cobb is hounded by feelings of guilt following the suicide of his wife, Mal; which in turn was motivated by Cobb’s insistence on the two of them engaging in deeper and deeper levels of lucid dreaming, where seconds turn into years, and the psychic landscape of the subconscious can be rearranged by the dreamer. Cobb and his wife, emerging from a dream that-from their perspective-lasted half a century, were unable to believe in the fixed reality around them, and they destroyed their lives, and the lives of their children, trying to regain a footing in a world where they couldn’t mold the world with a single thought.

Over the course of the movie, Cobb and his compatriots (among them, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page) move from one dream state to another at the bequest of a mysterious corporate benefactor (Ken Watanabe) who promises to fix Cobb’s legal problems following Mal’s death. Among the chase scenes and fight sequences, however, there are layers of meaning if looking at the film as a reflection of social anthropology on dependency issues and psychiatric illness.

The set dressing of Inception clearly infers that the lucid dreaming the characters partake in is an illicit behavior. The dreams are induced intravenously, sedating the participants and removing their ability to interact with the ‘normal’ world, instead placing them in an isolated setting where only other drug users can communicate, or even be aware of, their actions. The dream replaces the laws of science with a world based on emotion, where geography represents mental conditions and physics bend to the condition of the doped body the dreamer left behind. Mental urges and subconscious motivations are represented by ‘projections’, human shapes that alternatively ignore or attack the dreamer.  And dreamers, given enough use of the drugs to induce their condition, are left unable to dream without chemical support, and begin using stronger amounts to create longer periods of the dream state, which is their new reality. Dreaming is a communal but secluded activity, taking place in mostly in bedrooms (one of them is referred to a character’s “love nest”), drawing an inference between the dreaming and sexual addiction. One of the notable exceptions to this a scene in Kenya where Cobb is smuggled in to see the effects of a powerful dream sedative- in this scene, a whole roomful of men are slumbering under the drug’s effect. The similarity of this setting to a 19th century opium den is unmistakable, from the low ceilings to the sober, cantankerous guard the den employs to watch the users.

Beyond those obvious parallels, though, the movie goes out of its way to demonstrate symptoms of addiction in the characters. Two scenes are set in bars (the first appearance of Tom Hardy’s Eames, and the ‘Mr. Charles’ scene where DiCaprio demonstrates to confidence game victim Cilian Murphy that he is dreaming), and three other scenes show the protagonists partaking in alcohol, including a scene where DiCaprio sedates Murphy with a drink laced with a knockout drug. Two more of the supporting characters (Eames, and the mercenary Arthur portrayed by Gordon-Levitt) are also referenced as having active gambling habits.


Dream states in ‘Inception’ takes place most often in hotel rooms, abandoned spaces or vehicles. None of the characters are shown as having stable residences or personal lives.

By halfway through the film, we are aware that the film is showing us differing levels of addiction, from the newcomer (Ellen Page) still in thrall to the exhilaration of the dream-drug; to the still-functional users Eames and Arthur; and finally, the end user near the ‘bottom’ of his addiction in Cobb- a man who cannot sleep without using dream- drugs, who can no longer construct worlds in his subconscious, and struggles to separate one mental state from another. Throughout the film, the characters talk to each other as though they are sharing the dream experience like drugs: Arthur and Ariadne (Page) refer to Cobb’s problem of his subconscious manifesting as murderous projections as “getting worse” much like one would refer to an illness or addiction spiraling out of control. Ariadne also brings up the danger of sharing dreams with Cobb, whose mind is riddled with neurosis he brought back with him; from this perspective, the character Mal- who, although dead, reappears in Cobb’s mind as a traumatic memory- could represent AIDS or hepatitis: the shared infection that jumps from one user to the next, dependent on their shared usage for survival.  The characters also refer to waking up from their dreams as “kicking”- the same term for drying out from drugs.

In a larger context, the characters of Cobb, Eames, Arthur and to a lesser extent, Ariadne, demonstrate poor impulse control capabilities that would be consistent with drug-seeking behavior and imply underlying personality disorders. Cobb, the main protagonist, is impulsive and secretive throughout the film, from the opening scene where his initial rudeness to Saito (Watanabe) costs him the element of surprise, to resisting Arthur’s urgings to walk away from Saito’s offer of a corporate espionage job against a business rival. Cobb repeatedly lies to his teammates in order to get them to go along with his scheme, which nearly derails the narrative and almost costs Arthur and Eames their lives. (It is worth noting here that this is the second film by Christopher Nolan to have a central character named Cobb, both of them being thieves. In Following, the character Cobb is a serial burglar and voyeur who is addicting to watching the lives of others and manipulating a younger, more inexperienced thief into taking a fall for him).

The characters proudly tout job titles that refer to an illegal lifestyle, alternately calling themselves ‘thieves’ and ‘forgers’, or in the case of drug dealer Deelip Rao’s character, a ‘chemist’ that is reminiscent of ‘Breaking Bad’. And Ariadne, despite seeing the cost of dreaming and the ravages it has had on Cobb, is unable to resist the impulse to return to Arthur for another fix, after her first taste of controlling dream architecture.

More troubling than these characteristics, though, is the troupe’s shared characterizations of self-harm and suicide, both of which are strongly connected to the novelty-seeking behavior of substance abuse and poor impulse control. The characters can only escape dream with the assistance of an outside force (the aforementioned ‘kick’) or by dying in a dream, which allows them to awaken in their true body (or at least at the next ‘layer’ of dreaming). Cobb kills Arthur in the first scene, allowing him to escape a dream that’s been sabotaged by Mal, and there are three suicides (Mal and Cobb lay underneath a train together to escape their long-term dream kingdom, and Mal then kills herself again under the delusion that she is still dreaming), and one attempted suicide that Cobb derails for his own ends. As a metaphor for rehabilitation, these are bleak options but realistic; comorbidity rates of substance abusers with suicide, particularly those with self-image problems or past self-harm, is grotesquely high. The dream-users of Inception, who change their self-image to fit in among dreams, and use self-harm as an escape hatch, seem to be purposely created under this criteria as strong cases for psychiatric care.

The only character not included in this symptomatology is Saito, the powerful syndicate kingpin who uses Cobb and his partners as his cats-paw to eliminate a business rival from global energy dominance. Despite his lack of any previous dreaming experience, Saito insists on accompanying Cobb on his mission and winds up stranded in ‘limbo’, a formless dream state where the dreamer is forced to construct reality around him from the dream fragments of those around him. Wounded and abandoned, Saito is left to rot in the bottom rung of the dream state for what is implied to be decades of time, left only to be rescued by Cobb in the opening/closing scene of the film.

Under our previous paradigm, one could look at Saito as an example of the ‘first time use casualty’ drug user: the inexperienced user who dies from an overdose or “hot shot”. But looking more carefully at Saito’s character, we can ignore the fact that he is (or seems to be) a newcomer to the dream-drug experience and see that he has some capabilities that appear to violate Christopher Nolan’s rules for the world of Inception.


Loss of a significant other, particularly one with the power to assign social rewards, is often the trigger for impulse control problems and reward dependence.

Saito is the only character in the film besides Cobb-who also spent time in limbo-who shows the ability to create dream projections that talk directly to him: his servants who, in the opening scene, present the bedraggled DiCaprio to him. In that same scene, Saito also picks up and spins Cobb’s top, which is a ‘totem’- a psychic marker used by the dreamers to distinguish between reality and dreams. It is later explained that totems can only be used by those that bring them into the dream, and that the top was originally Mal’s until her death, when Cobb began using it. Lastly, Saito ages in his limbo state, which neither Mal nor Cobb did, despite being held inside a dream for fifty years; and despite this time alone, Saito recognizes Cobb upon his appearance, and asks if he is there to kill (free) him.

Aside from this scene, Saito is shown as an almost omnipotent deus ex machina for most of the film. He initially sets up Cobb for an audition to determine if he is skilled enough to extract memories, and upon Cobb’s failure to impress him, kidnaps one of Cobb’s teammates and has him murdered. He also saves Cobb twice during the film-once by whisking him away from pursuers, another by purchasing an entire airline to create privacy for the act of inducing a dream state on his rival. Saito even forces Cobb to allow him into the mission, despite no knowledge of how to navigate dream geography or basic combat training. Until he is wounded near the end of the film- and it’s important to note that he is the only one of Cobb’s team who suffers as much as a scratch- Saito appears to be the only whole, healthy character in the film.

Thematically, it is easy to see Saito as God: he demands obedience from Cobb and faith that he will fulfill his end of the bargain once Cobb accomplishes the tasks Saito has set before him. Cobb, on the other hand, would represent Satan- the creature that emerged from the void (limbo) and exists outside of the promised land where the rest of his family resides; he also insists that “they have to be given a choice” when speaking about his desire to recruit Ariadne to his cause, depending on free will rather than Saito’s fate or omniscience to coerce her into joining. However, Cobb’s Satan undermines that free will by tricking Ariadne into thinking that they are awake when, in fact, he has drugged her and placed her in a dream. But Cobb and Saito, unlike Satan and God,  seem to be working at complimentary purposes- Saito needs Cobb to eliminate his business rival, and Cobb needs Saito’s power to escape Purgatory (in this case, Heaven being the U.S. that Cobb is exiled from following Mal’s death).

The Catholic overtones of Nolan’s reference to Limbo and Purgatory aside, it is entirely possible that Saito is not God, or at least, not a true God. His ability to violate Nolan’s laws of dream-state (aging, speaking dream projections, taking custody of Cobb’s totem) point to him being the lowest, most decayed form of addict of any of the characters. Twice in the film, characters refer to limbo as “hitting bottom”; parlance in substance abuse rehabilitation as the lowest point in life an addict can achieve before having nowhere to go but up (or to death).

Looking at Saito as an addict then, we see that he has progressed beyond being able to spend any time in the waking word, and is totally trapped and isolated away from other humans in the dream world. The beginnings of addiction that we see in Ariadne, who was immediately hooked after creating a dream from imagination, is now fully realized in Saito, whose resides within layer upon layer of self-created dream structures. From Tom Hardy’s character of Eames, we know that dreamers can assume the identity of another in order to trick projections into thinking they are someone else-and that this can also be used to trick other dreamers not aware of another human’s presence. Like all addicts, Saito has withdrawn so far away from humanity that his self-imposed exile is now the reason for his addiction: with no one to assign him social status or psychic rewards for positive behavior, he reinforces his own negative behaviors.

Paired with Saito’s level of addiction, it is not a far leap of imagination to suggest that Saito has moved beyond constructing architecture for his dream worlds and is now indulging his addicting by creating dream projections of other human beings that he can steer around and direct like playthings- which is exactly what he sees Cobb and his teammates as. It’s an interesting aside that all the totems shown in the movie-those belonging to Cobb, Arthur and Ariadne- are all toys and game pieces (respectively, a top, a loaded die, and a chess piece). Even as semi-autonamous dream projections, the dream projections of these ‘humans’ know at a certain level that they are nothing but diversions for Saito. Further, two of these potential projections- Cilian Murphy and Leo DiCaprio-suffer the deaths of immediate family members in the film, a traumatic event that is often an impetus for relapse in addictive personalities.

Saito, as a character, took a certain pleasure in demonstrating his ability to outwit Cobb and his team, as well as the ego to demonstrate his financial wealth to them; the only difference in Saito as an Earthly character and Saito the dream-addled addict is the canvas upon which they draw their designs. One is addicted to the manipulation and exploitation of actual human beings; the other might only be addicted to doing the same thing to figments of his own imagination. And as the elderly guard of the sleeping dream addict says in the movie, “The dream has become their reality. Who are you to say otherwise?”

Posted in Movie Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment