Kitorin (kitoky) wrote,

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THE THEORY OF TOTEMS [an inception essay]

title | the theory of totems [an inception essay]
author | kitoky
summary | my thoughts in response to an inquiry about my opinion on the wedding ring theory as cobb's real totem. my response turned into a gigantic, long essay that is gigantic and long and possibly boring and has many, many typos. Thank you, Tumblr, for this glorious Inception Day. originally posted at my tumblr.

So, this was started out as a "what is your opinion" type of deal sent to me by thisisapoet, and wildly became a huge essay that is huge. But I'm oddly proud of how it turned out so I'm posting it out for anyone who cares or is interested and don't mind me essaying on their dash. IT'S INCEPTION DAY WEEK, FOLKS. Because I can't contribute with beautiful graphics, I offer you BORING ESSAY OF DOOM.


Lol, well. The great thing about Inception is that there's certainly a possibility of many, many theories about the true nature of Dreaming and what actually occurs at the end of the film with Cobb. The fact of the matter is, we will never know and be sure about every aspect of the film unless we sit MY MASTER, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN down to drill him about everything and make copies of all his notes. I'm certainly not knocking this theory, and many people have come up with the wedding ring theory many times before and it's a very popular one -- but I don't particularly buy it, because I have quite a few qualms about it for the following reasons. 

what is cobb's totem? | We may never truly know what Cobb's previous totem is, but it's safe to say that Cobb's totem from the time of Mal's death onwards is the spinning top. This is proven by how resilient he is, and how paranoid he is, by his constant checking to see if he's Dreaming. To further analyze all the possibilities of totems, we should fully understand what a totem is and how it works. Naturally, however, delving into specifics only raises other questions -- that will discussed as followed. 

a totem: what it is, how it works | Per the film...

arthur: So. A totem. You need a small object, potentially heavy, something you can have on you all the time that no one else knows. 
ariadne: Like a coin?
arthur: No, needs to be more unique than that. This is a loaded die. I can't let you touch it. That would defeat the purpose. See, only I can know the balance and the weight of this particular, loaded die. That way when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt that you're not in someone else's dream.

Per the Inception Shooting Script...

arthur: So. A totem. You need something small, potentially heavy...
ariadne: Like a coin?
arthur: Too common. You need something that has a weight or movement that only you know.
ariadne: What's yours?
arthur(holds out a die) A loaded die. (ariadne reaches for it -- arthur snatches it away--) I can't let you handle it. That's the point. No one else can know the weight of balance of it. 
ariadne: Why?
arthur: So when you examine your totem... You know, beyond a doubt, that you're not in someone else's dream. 

By this basic definition we know that the key components of a totem is that 1) no one else knows or has touched a person's totem, and 2) it must be unique so that only he or she who has it. Based on these two key details, one can infer that no one else alive can be familiar with your totem. How does it apply to dreaming? I want to point out that, both in the film script and the shooting script, Arthur emphasizes the totem helps you know that you're not in someone else's dream. This is an extremely important point for a lot of people who theorize whether or not Cobb is still dreaming at the end of the film. 

So, to clarify, we can use Arthur's die as an example. Let's say you're Arthur and you're smoking hot in that three-piece suit and you know your loaded die, IN REALITY, should always land on say... 4. Naturally, if you're in a dream and you're the Dreamer (ie, the one who can bend the dream to your preferences), you can easily roll your die and it will land on 4 because you know you're dreaming your own dream. If you, Arthur, were in someone else's dream -- you would expect to roll the die and find that it doesn't perfectly sit on 4 (ie. it lands on 2, 6, 1, etc) on all the test rolls. This suggests that you are not the dreamer, it is notyour dream. 

I should note that like Dreamsharing, the idea of the totem is still not a definite, mastered idea. This can all be speculation. We know that Dreamsharing is relative new, only developed in Miles's days (and as old is Michael Caine is, it wasn't that long ago). Both Arthur and Cobb both talk about how new Dreamsharing really is. From the film, we infer that Mal is the one to create the idea of the totem - that thing to ground you to your reality. And it is very possible that other mindcriminals out there do not have totems of their own. The idea of the totem could be purely a feature in Cobb's group of mind crime. The only other person we know previously who has a totem is Arthur, who has an established past with Arthur. There are many speculations on Eames's pokerchip as a totem, but this is never verified. The only three canon totems are the top, the die, and the bishop.

the faults to the wedding ring theory | Again, I'm not saying that the theory is wrong. Christ Nolan may very well mean for Cobb's true totem to be the wedding ring, but from what we have before us, we don't know for sure. I've heard the theory several times and loved it. Went to the theater multiple times to trail Cobb's left hand in all the scenes for the sheer purpose of validating this theory, but in the end, I found I had too many qualms with it for it to rest peacefully in my head. The problem with the wedding theory is that it violates one of the key components of what a totem is, and how is it even supposed to work? There is no true way to "test" if you're in someone else's dream by way of your wedding ring. A person who knows Cobb well enough and has worked with him knows that he Dreams himself with a wedding ring. This caneasily be compromised if Cobb was pulled into someone's dream without realizing it. All they'd have to do is Dream him without a ring, the many perks to being the Dreamer.

A totem has to have a unique function for it to be valid (ie. Arthur's loaded die, Mal's ever perfect spinning totem, Ariadne's easily tipped bishop). In addition, we know at least that the wedding ring couldn't have been Cobb's previous totem (before Mal's death), because Mal (presumably) has touched his ring, knows it like it was her own heart. This couldn't have been his previous totem, but it could (if all else stands) be his current totem (post-Mal's death). It's implied that a totem must be tangible. Where is Cobb's ring in real life? How does it compare to the "dream ring"? Cobb has to know these differences in order to use it as a totem, else anyone could deceive him in the Dreaming. If this wasn't significant, why have a tangible - touchable totem at all? Why would Arthur need a specific loaded die? Why not recreate this die in the Dream only?

the spinning top: why it does and doesn't work | Cobb frequently uses the totem in the film, and it's clear that he relies on this top to tell him he is not dreaming. He pulls the top out in the hotel room in Tokyo, in the office at the workshop, in the bathroom of Yusuf's dream den, and most importantly, he pulls it out at the end when he sees his children for the first time in 2 years. This is a man who has a dependency on this particular totem, but does it work? Yes and no. And most of the no is more of wandering thoughts from speculations. Is the spinning top unique? We can presume yes, because I've certainly never seen a top quite like that - that looks and sounds very heavy, and by this we can assume that the top at least fits the criteria that it has unique features to it. Does no one else alive know the details about the totem? We can say, yes, since Mal is dead - no one else alive and able to Dream, would be able to recreate his totem exactly as it is. 

So why does Cobb blatantly tell Ariadne how his totem worked? Was it a slip of the mind? A fond reminiscent to his long-dead wife? Or is it that significant? We know, quite plainly, that the totem continues to spin and spin. But is there more to it than that? Is there a certain heaviness to the totem, does it require an ever perfect spin? Assuming yes, Ariadne -- based on this cursory knowledge -- should not be able to recreate his totem in a Dream. And what if it wasn't a slip of the mind? What if Cobb pretty habitually break his own rules (a theme throughout the film)? The problem with the spinning top is that it has been touched by three different characters: Mal, Cobb, Saito. But does this compromise the totem? 

Again. Yes and no. This all depends on the mechanics of Limbo. Very frequently, Limbo is referred to as a shared subconscious, much like how reality is a shared conscious. And we see from Cobb's, Mal's, and Saito's experience in Limbo that everyone has the potentiality of Dreaming in Limbo. Cobb and Mal both build their city, Saito creates his own perception of his castle. There is mutual control in Limbo, which means anyone can manipulate each other's totem in Limbo. During The Cobb's field trip to Limbo, Mal eventually loses sight of reality. She begins to believe that Limbo is her reality and by consequence, manipulates her totem in a way that tells her that lets it confirm that this is her reality (ie. she recreates her totem to drop as if it were reality). When Cobb goes searching for Mal's totem and touches it -- this is essentially the same as Cobb compromising Mal's totem in reality, simply because Mal is presumably molded it as though it were reality. Because of this, Cobb takes Mal's "reality" totem and manipulates it back into the "dream" totem with the perfect spin with enough believability in order to convince her that she is still dreaming and that they need to escape. This answers the question that yes, because even though the totem was touched in Limbo (and not reality), it still had the same compromising effect because Mal made Limbo her reality.

But what about Saito, you ask? At the beginning of the film, we see Saito spin Cobb's totem, and by the end of the film, we see that it still holds a perfect spin. How is this possible? It's possible because Cobb did not manipulate the totem - it still had the components of the "dream" totem. So when Saito spun it, it held a perfect spin. But did Saito compromise the totem for Cobb like Cobb did for Mal? In this case, no. Because Saito doesn't know how the totem holds in reality. In the end, when Saito comes out of Limbo, he would not be able to identify the difference between Cobb's "dream" totem and his "reality" totem unless Saito were to be able to get his hands on Cobb's totem in reality.

what then, is the controversy of the ending? | I'm actually wondering that myself, and it's easy to doubt yourself and the film by staring at the spinning top long enough. The thing is, remember, the totem tells you whether or not you're in someone else's dream. And the controversy, mostly, is whether or not Cobb is still dreaming. If Cobb is the Dreamer of his own dream, there is no way to use the spinning top as an indication of whether he is dreaming.He has absolute power over the totem as the Dreamer. He may very well be dreaming, but he has to realize it is not a dream in order for the totem to fall. If he's dreaming and he realizes it, he can control the top to keep spinning. 

There are other theories that exist about the others "incepting" Cobb himself. What if Mal is alive up in reality and is trying to "wake him up"? This certainly is a very valid theory. It was very much explain the controversy of the spinning top at the end. Mal as the Dreamer, can very much control the top to drop or fall throughout the story of the film. Is this theory too far-fetched? Maybe. Is it plausible? It certainly is. Will we ever know? Not if we violate all standards of morality and probably a few laws to stalk and ambush Christopher Nolan. 

Will we always go on to theorize about this film? I sure hope so.

Never die, Inception fandom. 

Tags: movie: inception
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