Mechanical Dances

Catharsis and flow

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Digital culture today is divided between an older aesthetic of catharsis and the newer aesthetic of flow.

The new film by Christopher Nolan is a scifi adventure, but it is also a film that reflects on the nature of filmmaking in an age of digital media. The goal of the team that is to break into the dreaming mind of Australian businessman and plant an idea. The inception of an idea can only be accomplished by inducing an intense emotional release, or catharsis (the movie’s term), in the subject’s mind. Catharsis is of course what “serious” Hollywood movies and television dramas are all about.  Inception is not only an emotionally charged drama; it is also and obviously an action-adventure film with clear references to videogames and the videogame style that we find in many films today. The team has to operate simultaneously on three dream levels (like the levels in a FPS)– each with its own architecture  and a set of obstacles and anonymous assassins.  And videogames work primarily with an aesthetic different from catharsis: that of flow.

Because Inception is a film and not a videogame, it ultimately comes down on the side of catharsis. The main character Dom gets his own cathartic moment at the end of the film. But by putting these two forms (film and videogames) in tension, Nolan is playfully suggesting the danger that videogames and the aesthetic of flow pose for traditional film and its aesthetic of catharsis.

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