August 16, 2010


Last Thursday I went with a friend to see ”Inception,” a film that explores dream- like states as an extension of reality. He said the movie was good, but I suspect he wanted to go because of the popcorn. Once his container is empty, he usually falls asleep. He never snores, I’m happy to say.

During “Inception,” however, a film about sleep, he stayed awake. One probable reason is the film was ornate. The story line repeats through several layers of dreaming for two-and-a-half-hours. If he nodded off, he’d risk not knowing which dream state the film was in when he awoke. The edgy fear of getting lost kept him alert, I suspect.

Most of the time, watching a film is passive, even if the scene is suspenseful or full of action or humor. “Inception,” however, involved a different part of the brain. Not only did the movie resort to numerous scene changes and flashbacks but the audience had to remember the story line was moving along on three levels simultaneously. In other words, the film worked like a video game. We had to keep asking ourselves, “What level are we on?”

I came out of the theater thinking “Inception” was a greater breakthrough in filmmaking than Avatar with its 3-D innovation. Here was a film that changed a passive activity into an active one. It kept my friend awake, didn’t it?

Nonetheless, there is a limit to how far a movie can go in this direction. A filmmaker has to consider the bladder quotient: how long an audience can sit without a break.

Reading a book has no such limitation. It can be put down or picked up at will. That difference means a book has the leisure to challenge a reader with greater complexity than a film.  

That’s why I describe “Inception” as ornate rather than complex. It’s a layering of dream sequences repeated with variations, the way someone who knits can create ornate designs with two basic stitches, knit and purl. Given a film’s time constraints, it would be difficult to introduce multiple characters, plot lines and themes without the complexity becoming chaotic, like trying to pour 12 ounces of cola in a 6 ounce cup. For this reason, books made into films often drop characters or scenes, or the story is broken into sequels. 

Because a book can offer complexity, the brain is active even though the reader is sitting in a chair or lying in bed. Unlike movies and television which are passive and therefore said to be bad in excess, no one makes that charge against books. 

So congratulations readers of this blog. You just did something good for your body.