“Fake” Inspiration, and Story

When I was in kindergarten, my favorite movie was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.

I loved the battle and the speeches and the music, probably, though the only physical evidence I have of this is a series of drawings I made of the Battle of Agincourt (as seen below, preserved by my wonderful mother).

Henry V is exciting. It’s got the best speeches and the best battles. But when I took Shakespeare in college and actually read the play, it became clear there’s more going on here. My professor made a compelling argument that the play was all about Henry’s Machiavellian performances, about manipulating his people and their emotions for his own selfish gain. When I countered that the sincerity of his private prayer to God showed that his intentions couldn’t be entirely false, she made the point that even his prayer had a very transactional nature.

If Henry V was just playing the part while delivering the famously inspiring “band of brothers” speech — that not only inspired his men, but also everyone who watched the play or movie adaptations, but also thousands of military narratives in the centuries since — what does that mean for the inspiration itself?

“True inspiration is impossible to fake.” “No, it’s not.”

Ten years ago, my favorite movie was Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I loved the special effects and the puzzle-like nature of its science fiction elements. But I especially loved how, to me, the entire movie was a metaphor for storytelling.

Look at these words the characters use when trying to describe inception: catharsis, art, inspiration, subtle, depth, emotion, imagination. It sounds like they’re trying to describe the next great American novel, not execute a money-grabbing caper.

But isn’t storytelling a caper? It requires countless moving parts, a huge arsenal of tools, adaptation, vision, and, at an almost definitive level, deceit. You’re sucking the reader into a dream world that you don’t want them to remember to be fake.

Each member of the team embodies part of the writing process. Cobb has the vision, Eames has the character development, Ariadne has the setting, Arthur has the editing, and Yosef has the drugs–all critical elements of storytelling.

And what’s their big plan? It’s literally a three-act structure:

“On the top level, we open up his relationship with his father. Say: ‘I WILL NOT FOLLOW IN MY FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS.’ Next level down we’ve accessed his ambition and self-esteem. We feed him: ‘I WILL CREATE SOMETHING MYSELF.’ Then, the bottom level, we bring out the emotional big guns: ‘MY FATHER DOESN’T WANT ME TO BE HIM.'”

Inception can’t be a logical procedure wherein they persuade their mark to an idea. Emotion must drive it, and so their plot becomes intimate and personal. In fact, the most emotional part of the movie, for me, was when Fischer finds the pinwheel in his father’s safe. As I was hit with this powerful emotion, I suddenly realized, “Wait a minute. This is all fake, and I know it is because I saw them plan and execute it. Why is it still emotional?”

Apparently, Cobb is right: you can fake inspiration. It’s called storytelling.

But “fake inspiration” is a label I’ve never attributed to it. When you read a great book, do you think to yourself, “That was really inspiring, but it was all fake, so it doesn’t matter?” Are great works of art nothing but fake inspiration, a manipulation of our human nature?

In fact, sometimes I do think a creative work can be so manipulative, so ingenuine, that the worth of whatever inspiration it brings is cheapened. Even as the scene of a gratuitously dying child rips the tears from this father’s leaky face, I still feel dirty somewhere important.

But I think great art is still engaging in some form of manipulation. The difference is I don’t think great art fakes inspiration so much as it forges it, if that makes sense.

I agree with the conclusion that Inception asserts, which is that when it comes to inspiration, the boundaries between Fake and Real can start to lose meaning.

So was my kindergarten drawing just an unwilling patsy in an elaborate Machiavellian scheme? Was my childlike excitement worth less because I didn’t fully appreciate the creative nuances of a man who refers to himself as “Kenneth?”

I don’t know. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio and Bane are running endlessly through my subconscious, yanking my emotions this way and that. Sometimes I think about all the media and all the narratives we encounter today, and can’t help but feel somewhat violated.

And sometimes I remember Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and the drawings I made as a kindergartner, and I feel okay about a little inspiration.

This article first appeared in the Duzett Gazette, the really official newsletter of Carl Duzett. Sign up here to get more content like this in your inbox, as well as some other content that isn’t quite like it, but is probably also good.

read a free story

Get a copy of the award-winning short story THE ONCE AND FUTURE CLEAN by subscribing to the Duzett Gazette.

Other Articles

Spiderman: A Review

Spiderman: No Way Home is a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of spoilers, stitched together by the thin, stretched threads of Marvel humor.

Falling With Style

Fall is upon us, which means one thing: hastily written content haphazardly related to the current season, by yours truly!

“Fake” Inspiration, and Story

When I was in kindergarten, my favorite movie was Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.