Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Christopher Nolan, Inception (2010)


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.

Except...

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:

10 comments:

Martin said...

I too found that scene extremely moving. This sensation only lasted for a second though. You are right that Nolan preps the scene perfectly but then I realised it had been prepped and executed in exactly the same way as his other films. I am happy to be emotionally manipulated - that's what cinema is all about! - but I would like the director to be able to conceal this manipulation at least until I am in the pub afterwards.

I think I could have borne this if it hadn't been for the bloody spinning top. I've not seen Stalker so I missed any allusion and that final shot (to me) is just a great big directorial wink. The comparison the Onion makes is apt: "In a way, the final shot (and the slowed-down "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien") are as cocky as Quentin Tarantino ending Inglourious Basterds with the line, "This might just be my masterpiece." It's Nolan's way of saying, "I did it. I kept the top spinning, and it's spinning still."" That works in Inglourious Basterds because it is like that all the way through, it is jarringly out of place in Inception though.

But yes, that look.

Adam Roberts said...

You've never seen Stalker? What an echoing void your life must be.

Not to spoil: the (famous, I think) last shot of Tarkovski's film is of the protagonist's young daughter sitting at a table. There is a glass on the table. For complicated reasons it matters whether she is just an ordinary girl, or has telekinetic powers. The long last shot shows her moving the glass over the table top without touching it; and she does so, you hear a passing train, and the table starts to tremble, and that's where the film cuts.

Adam Roberts said...

Actually, here. I'd forgotten about the whimpering of the dog. Also, I now notice that right at the end, she looks at the camera. McCalmont has an old post on that film that's worth reading.

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Eric M. Edwards said...

Not my movie. Oh boy.

In so many ways, it was simply... not... my movie. It didn't move me at all save to give me a sore seat. But then I have two kids, and sat through Toy Story 3 - and that movie *did* move me, or my skin at least. It crawled.

I've seen worse movies this year (than TS3) but none more empty of a good message (instead we get sharing toys is BAD, day care centres are full of unwashed Proles, private property rights start at Birth, Sentimentality will cover all Sins, and a thousand more, equally awful things to throw at kids let alone the adults in the room) and more filled with cloyingly stick-in-your-caw-and-choke-you mawkishness than the latest installment from Woody and the Gang. Of course, the kids liked it but they'd watch anything which has bright colours and which you can pick up toy figurines from the Golden Arches afterwards.

As for Inception, I found it to be just a "clever movie for shallow people." That's my take anyway. It's not clever of course, or even very well done - but it's got just the sort of slick, reflective surface to trick some people into thinking so.

Each to their own, and that's twice as true when it comes to hell. Sometimes, it's another person's paradise. Mine was in part the collective sucking sound that was my dwindling life being extracted through a silly-straw during the combined hours of watching those two movies.

I am surprised you liked both these movies however, considering how well skilled you are at sniffing out bull-sh*te in the novel format most of the time.

Your reviews of WoT are classic - both in giving the devil his due and in masochism.

Keep up the good work (and occasional lapses).

E.

redrichie said...

@Eric M. Edwards

a "clever movie for shallow people."

is a little harsh, no?

Yeah, it was slick and undoubtedly manipulative, but it is a Hollywood movie. Granted the things that Inception is compared to, measured by the tiny remaining nub of the Hollwood yardstick, mean that the standards it has to attain to stand out aren't particularly high. That doesn't mean, however, that it's 2 hours of unrelenting awfulness. Naturally, you may not have liked it, and that's fine. However, I think that you are skating dangerously close to something that Adam alluded to in his WoT reviews (and he never does):

(b) say to yourself: the review, by calling this book crap, is saying that my taste in books is crap which is tantamount to calling me a big crappy crap-crap. Nobody calls me a big crap-crap and gets away with it. Where does this motherfucker get off calling people big crap-craps like this? Why can’t he keep his offensive opinions to himself?

Perhaps I'm being a little over-sensitive to this - but you have to admit that you do make a clear suggestion exactly who this movie is aimed at...

For my money, it was decent enough. It's very far from the best movie that I've ever seen, that said, it's almost equally as distant from being the worst movie that I've had the misfortune to see.

There's a peculiar thing that I've noticed in a lot of criticism lately. If something isn't THE BEST THING EVAR! it's TOTALLY THE WORST THING EVAAARRR!!!

As I suggest, I may be doing you something of a disservice here: you are entitled to your opinion, as is Adam (or indeed, anyone).

I think what I'm trying to say, in my own unwieldy way is that it's possible to enjoy, say, Inception for what it is and also enjoy, say (to stick with as per this blog post, the films of Tarkovski...)

halojones-fan said...

Eric: You think that TS3 had a message that sharing toys was bad?

...really? Really?

David Moles said...

clever movie for shallow people

nonsense. it's a shallow movie for clever people.

Beloved Snail said...

I was also moved by that scene, but it was for me too little too late to save the experience. And while I found the ending made me more willing to reconsider Nolan's merits as a director, it wasn't enough to make me reevaluate the film.

Part of the problem I had was that where you said you were enjoying it more-or-less, my enjoyment was considerably less than more. I was not willing to forgive the gaps, perhaps because I had no guilty (I mean guilty in terms of plot holes, etc.) pleasure that could be justified.

I get your point about the film being more about cinema than about life, but that's an exercise which only interests me if it uses its artificiality (a la Sirk) to point me back towards life with a changed gaze.

I had the feeling that Nolan was trying to cross Sirk with Tarantino. I felt it failed, leaving me neither educated nor entertained. The few moments of genuine emotional connection I had with the thing only made the gap larger.

The Stalker moment nearly lifted me out of the seat with irritation (even anger) and ruined the sympathy I was starting to have with Inception. I haven't really analyzed why this is so, but I felt it as a cynical smirk. An inappropriate wink from an unwelcome bystander. A comparison which was not only unearned, it was for me nearly offensive.

regenklang said...

Hey there Adam, longtime reader, first time poster. Have enjoyed a lot of your recommendations, and only really disagreed about your massacre of Anathem, which still managed to be hilariously ingenious.

Was hoping that, if you aren't utterly sick of the kerfuffle about this film by now, you might spare ten minutes or so to have a look ar my scribblings on the subject and leave a comment if anything seems salient to you. Cheers either way, keep up the good work.

http://nouncertainfelines.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/improving-the-rule/