Today, Matthew, I shall be reviewing Inception in reaction to my friend Scott Eric Kaufman's 'colour me most unimpressed' review. Read his review, picture me saying the exact opposite to him pretty much paragraph by paragraph, and there you have it. Scott is antiinceptive. The only thing that prevents me calling myself 'proinceptive' is that the word starts with 'proin', which sounds to my ear like zebedee bouncing down the hallway. And we don't want that.
I'll be a little more specific. As I watched the film I found myself enjoying it, more-or-less, but wondering if it had to be quite so emotionally weightless. And, as the film continued I started fretting increasingly over plotholes (the one that bugged me the most: they go to great lengths to say that falling -- even falling to the side -- wakes you up; then they go out of their way to put characters in a van that hurtles round corners, crashes down a roadside slope rolling 360-degrees & the like, and nobody wakes up). Abigail and her commentators note some other plotholes; as do Scott and his commentators. But the emotional timbre of the film is probably more important. I particularly like Luther Blisset's thesis that Leonardo Di Caprio's character is so unlikeable that the film's belief we'd root for his desire to get home to see his kids 'would be like if The Odyssey was about a child molester and wife beater trying to get home to his wife and children.'
Almost up to the last scene I was ready to come out of the cinema snarky, geared to join the the Nolan-ripe-for-a-backlash mob. Then with only a minute to go, the two kids turned and looked at the camera. I felt as if somebody had sheathed a sword in my chest. I felt genuinely, suddenly, unexpectedly, very moved.
That's why SEK is wrong.
Of course, I need to say some more about this. It's not unprecedented for me to be moved by a film. Rare, but not unpredecented. I felt the prickle of tears (which, of course, I manfully choked back) watching Toy Story 3 for example. That's because I have two small kids, and the film twanged my parternal chord. Conceivably the vibration of that same chord was behind my reaction to the moment in Inception when the kids turn to face the camera. But I don't think so: the quasi-parental dilemma of the toys in Toy Story 3 resonated with me, as it will with most parents; where the dilemma of the Leonardo Di Caprio character resonated not at all. I felt neither empathy nor sympathy for him. His kids were ciphers. The whole set-up was escapist-absurd, heist-movie-Matrix nonsense, not reality-absurd like the Pixar flick. Yet, to paraphrase Galileo, I was still moved.
In part I think this is because Nolan prepped the scene with just enough, but not too many, earlier shots of the kids playing with their backs to us, and exiting camera right without turning to look at us. And in part it has to do with the peculiarly cinematic emotional entanglement of the scene: because I wanted the kids to look at me, but at the same time I kind-of dreaded the kids turning to look at me. I think the dread has a lot to do with the kid in Don't Look Now. Of course, I take it as axiomatic that Nolan's film is not really about life, but is instead really about cinema. That seems to me a feature, not a bug; because cinema is about life in imagistically distilled intense ways, and the moment of horror in Don't Look Now depends upon our actual psychological fears and desires, especially where kids are concerned. Children are uncanny, you see? At the same time as being lovely, you see? (If I'm pressed on this point, I'd mumble something about kids being abjected from us, being us but not us; and go on to talk about how we have kids so that they can still be alive when we die (that, after all, is the root point of kids) but that this very fact makes them cute, cuddly and horrific momenti mori just by virtue of their existence. But I'm thinking you won't want to press me on that point).
This, I think, entails two things: one is that the logic of the film is designedly dream logic, and picking it apart for inconsistencies and plotholes makes as much sense as doing that with a dream -- which is not to say that such picking-apart has no point, of course; just understanding that this exercise needs to be what those aporiae mean about our imagination. The second thing is related: that the currency of dreams is motion and emotion, they are us doing stuff (reactively and actively) and feeling stuff. Dreams are a way of thinking, but not a way of thinking rationally. And they're about secrets but only in a very specialised sense: because we always already know the secret content of our dreams; they're hidden in plain ego.
All of this seemed to me well matched in the movie. The action sequences had the curiously flattened unengaged feel of cliché because cliché, that clinch, is the currency of dreams. Scott's charge of 'pot-logic' (I hoped he meant to coin after the manner of 'pothole', but he means 'the sort of thing you say when you're listening to Floyd in your dorm and everyone has their own bowl and is abusing it') also seems to me beside the point. Scott's example of pot-logic is 'what if we're all, like, in a dog's dream? And the moment it wakes up to lick its balls we like cease to exist?'. But Inception isn't interested in the moment when we wake up. It pretends to be, for narrative purposes, but it really isn't. It's about the moment when we see what we could have seeen all along and what we wanted to see all along but have been too scared to see. Scott calls this 'an infuriatingly stupid conceit' although any analyst worth her salt would surely ask him: if a mere film premise provokes fury in you, we may need to start to delve deeper to try and understand why.' And on the subject of depth, SEK:
Instead, I'll just note that psychological complexity in this film was figured like a wedding cake: "depth" literally entailed layers stacked one atop the other, such that the "deeper" one went, the "deeper" one was. Which is deep, dude.This does seem to me wrongheaded, in part because the film seemed to me to go out of its way to upend this: the 'dream' was at sea-level, the 'dream within the dream' on the 5th floor of a skyscraper, the 'dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream' on top of a mountain, and so on. But that's nitpicking. My beef is with:
the film felt like an exercise in empty formalism.Because that's what I was beginning to feel, until the two kids turned to look at me right at the end; and until Nolan visually quoted the end of Stalker with the metal spinning top. Because that's the moment I realised that cinematic formalism can never be empty; that on the contrary what we take to be 'content' is actually only form. The shape of causation and motivation and the heft of emotional connection, that is the heighth and breadth of what cinema does so well, is deliberately stretched and diverted in this film until the very end because these formal qualities are what the film is about. Not emotional connection, but the convincing simulacrum of emotional connection we call film (oh look, it's Michael Caine! And Cillian Murphy, and Ken Watanabe! All these Chris Nolan regulars, they're like old friends ... but of course they're not old friends, not friends of ours). Not actual causation, and consequence; but only the dessicated imitation of these things we know from action cinema, where killing people is just smoothing-out aggressive psychic projections. All that. The film emptied itself out (in an entertaining-enough way) because that's what cinema is.
The one thing which cinema can't traduce, because it is the horizon of all cinematic possibility. The look. And the selective withholding that look in order to make the look, when it finally happens, worth something at the end.
I liked that very much. That retroactively rewired the whole picture for me. Look: