This is a hard post to write. On the one hand, my head is still swirling with thoughts about Inception, but most are related to the film itself and its structure. I’ve fully absorbed the music and I’ve seen the film, but I’m still trying to synthesize the two into a complete whole. The film itself is layers upon layers upon layers…upon layers. There is the heist movie cliché of the old thief doing this one last job to settle old debts/scores/whatever so that he can finally retire. It’s a film about reality versus dreams, and the uncanny nature of reality and memory and dreams…and the unreliability of it all. It’s both summer action and a mediation on life and love and regrets…and how they can haunt us even while we dream…especially when we dream.
SPOILER ALERT!!!!! If you haven’t seen the film, you might want to wait to read on until you do. Don’t worry, it’ll still be here waiting for you.
In many ways, what is referred to as “inception” in the film – the planting of a new idea into a mind in the hopes that the dreamer will accept it as their own – is like how Nolan constructs many of his films. He shows you something right from the beginning, usually something key to the plot, if not THE key, but then leaves it. Lets it worm into the viewer’s mind and allows them to try and figure it out. He might return to it in flashes, but not always. He might show it from some different angels, but not always. But no matter how he does it, it’s there, just waiting to be explained. The Batman films aren’t as explicit about it, but do it to some degree, but Insomnia, The Prestige, and now Inception all follows this model much more closely – Following and Memento do so also, but not as well, I think Nolan was still honing his craft. In Insomnia, it was the image of blood seeping into cloth and for Prestige it was a forest full of top hats. With Inception, it opens with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb washing up on a beach, meeting with an old man and spinning a top (something that was also part of the film’s early, cryptic website).
I have the sense that in all three of the aforementioned films that musically the composers (David Julyan for the first two, now Hans Zimmer) have tried to achieve something similar. The Julyan scores are a bit harder to get a handle one, especially Prestige…so I’ll leave those for later and lets focus on Hans’ latest and greatest.
The first cut on the album, “Half Remembered Dream” actually begins while the logos and are on the screen. It’s the first time since Batman Begins that a Nolan film hasn’t opened in almost utter silence (and even Begins was only a “sound” of wings flapping). As I mentioned in my first post, this cue introduces us to two of the main thematic ideas of the score. The first is a four note motive that has a few different harmonic settings and weaves in and out of the score and the second is what I shall call “the trombones from hell” even though I know there are more than just trombones being played. But…eh.
Let’s pull apart that opening track for a moment because it does something very interesting. The four-note motive is basically a pair of ascending perfects fifth a half-step apart. Most often heard as C-G-B-F#, which means that it ends exactly a tri-tone away from the first note. In music theory terms, that F# is exactly equidistant away from both a higher and lower C and musically doesn’t really have a logical resolution. If the F# had come from C, we would want it to resolve up to the G, but instead it’s coming from a B, so we could hear it as merely the fifth of B. There are two conflicting tonalities built into the motive that are never resolved because the four notes simply fold back to the beginning like the never-ending staircase that is one of the visuals present in the film. But there are variations, at times of great stress, occasionally the motive will change to C-B-B (an octave lower)-F#, heightening the tension and maybe emphasizing the B more, but no, it loops back around to C again. It is also heard, the first version followed by the second and then back to the first. So C-G-B-F#-C-B-B-F#-C-etc.
Both of these versions are present in the opening track and are also the versions most heard in the film, but there is another transposed version heard only once (at least that I’m sure of, explained later)…at the very beginning of the first cue over the first logo. This version is the motive, but transposed down a fifth to begin on F: F-C-E-B. This is followed in the cue by the first appearance of the trombones from hell that will soon become the most iconic part of the score. After that cacophony subsides though, we get the motive again, but now in the soon to be familiar C version and then followed by the second variant with the high B, though the final F# is not played (at least on the album, I’ll have to see the film again to confirm that is how it plays out, again see below for more).
Given that the trombones are most associated with the dream world itself, could this cue during the logos be our movement into the dream world of the film – one that we never come out of? Unless the motive starting on F is heard again at the end of the closing credits…which is possible. More research is required. It’s actually plausible that Hans does play this game because towards the end of the credit the French song that I mentioned as being present in track ten of the album (“Waiting for a Train”) comes back. This song, “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I regret nothing), is an important plot device in the film, and I would like to talk a little about it because it shows just how cagey a director Christopher Nolan is.
This song is best known in a 1960 recording by singer Edith Piaf. This is notable on a few levels. First, in the recent biopic about Piaf, La Vie en Rose, the song is used in the final sequence when Piaf is signing it for the first time as her death is also shown via parallel editing. Now, as many other reviews have mentioned, Dom Cobb’s wife (who is dead when the film begins) is played by Marion Cotillard, who portrayed Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Layers upon layers. Some may think that it is a cute inside reference, but given how the song as used in Inception as a cue that it’s time to get out and also for Dom is a reference to his dead wife – who still haunts his subconscious for reasons slowly explained in the film – I believe it’s more than an inside joke. It was a cagey move on the part of Nolan about how dreams can work, how the outside world can intrude and infect them, as shown in the film when a character is dunked in water in a higher level and it starts flooding in the lower dream. It could be that in reality that Dom’s wife looked nothing like Marion Cotillard, but because, for him, that she is associated with the song, which is linked to Piaf’s death in La Vie en Rose, she has come to look like her in his dreamscape. Layers upon layers upon layers.
The song itself is used as a cue for those inside the dreams to get ready to leave. The person’s whose dream it is has headphones placed on them which are connected to an mp3 player with the song. Then the song itself emerges into that dream, so it is in this capacity that it is heard throughout the film. And in the end credits, if one stays long enough, it is heard towards the very end, right before a final statement of the four note motive…I think. I wasn’t listening as intently this morning becuase I was just getting a sense of the film.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve actually put most of these thoughts together while typing this post. The very act of writing has helped me to sort some of this out…and I have one more thought for you, loyal reader.
On the album, the first and last tracks end much the same way, with the sound being, in effect, choked off. It’s actually not unlike an effect used in The Prestige, but that is for another time (are you watching closely?). This sound could indicate a second level movement in the dream space. If the first sound choke occurs right after the logos (which I can’t remember exactly) it could be our movement into the dream space of the film. And as the sound occurs again at the very end before the credits, it is also our movement out. So the film itself could be seen as a dream within a dream. First is our movement into our dream space (represented by the modulation via trombones from hell of the four note motive) and then via the sound choke into the dream space of the film, which can be seen as Dom’s dream. In this sense, then, the music of the credits, if the motive does indeed move back into the “home” F version after the last occurence of the Piaf song, moves us back into reality.
I guess all the people who left before the end of the credits are stuck forever in limbo. (See the movie to understand that)
I’ve spent most of this time on the finer technical details of music’s use in the film, ignoring the bigger picture ideas of how the music conveys the sense of the film. I addressed that, in part, via my earlier posting, but it would help to reiterate that the music really does help to convey the sense of dreams. From the “dreamy” guitar licks to the trombones from hell, everything is either amped up or slowed down to some sort of extreme, and the most pedestrian cue, “Mombasa,” occurs, ostensibly, in the real world of the film’s characters – though the levels of reality in the film are open to debate.
In conclusion, Zimmer’s score for Inception is a multi-dimensional work that, to an astute listener, is an integral part of the film, as is the Piaf song “Non, je ne regrette rien.” They both assist in Nolan’s execution of the film which is a fitting conclusion to what can be seen as a trilogy of film meditating on the nature of reality and illusion: Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception. And these films also furthered themes present in Nolan’s first films, Following and Memento. It is well-known that his next project with be the conclusion of his Batman trilogy and it will be interesting to see where the filmmaker and his team go from there. Here’s hoping that Zimmer is along for the ride.