Monday, July 19, 2010

Trying to Reconcile My Two Minds on Inception



For better and for worse, Inception (2010) is probably the film its writer and director, Christopher Nolan, has been working toward his entire career to date—a folly comparable in ambition to, say, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) or Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), among others. It's the kind of shoot-the-moon effort that demands to be marveled, if nothing else, for the fact of its mere existence...and the even more astonishing fact that such an intellectually ambitious film exists as a big-budget, heavily hyped Hollywood summer blockbuster. A cerebral, philosophical epic exploring the intersection between reality and dreams, with whole sections taking place within mental landscapes? If Nolan hadn't scored such big hits with his two Batman movies, it would be hard to imagine that any major studio would have risked granting him $200 million to pull off such a cut-from-original-cloth, difficult-to-easily-summarize endeavor. But he did, Warner Bros. granted him the large budget, and now Inception—based on a script Nolan had been working on for over a decade now—is here for all of us to watch, contemplate and passionately argue over.

I know I'm still arguing about it...with myself.

In an attempt to try to evoke my experience of watching Inception at midnight Thursday night, allow me to explore the two minds in which the film leaves me.


Mind No. 1

As its characters kept delivering the mumbo-jumbo Nolan had written for them, I began to realize that the detractors of Inception have missed the point in complaining about the overly explanatory nature of the dialogue. For one thing, the people that are involved in this operation of trying to plant an idea into a billionaire's brain are professionals in their respective fields—so wouldn't it make sense that their way of talking to each other would be overly technical? Especially since much of the first hour involves master idea thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explaining the nature of his vocation to young mental "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page)? Complain about the supposed woodenness of the dialogue all you want...but in context, it makes perfect sense given the situations and characters.

This brings me to a larger point about this film that some of those detractors are, I think, missing: Inception is not a "dream film," not in the sense that, say, David Lynch's frequent forays into his irrational subconscious are. For about an hour, at least, Nolan's film is meant to be a rather clinical deconstruction of the genesis of ideas and dreams, not necessarily an embodiment—a laying of the groundwork for the narrative blowout that follows.

And what a blowout it is! Its final act—in which Nolan juggles five different dream planes into one exhilarating cross-cutting mélange which might have made D.W. Griffith proud—is a stunning achievement of editing and narrative construction. But even during the set-up, there are plenty of instances of mind-blowing imagery to provide plenty of eye candy. (Ever seen a town literally fold upon itself, allowing its inhabitants to leisurely walk up and down the way Donald O'Connor ran up walls in Singin' in the Rain? Or what about people floating through zero gravity while engaging in combat? You'll see that here.)

Amidst the action fireworks, Nolan is aiming for both philosophical and psychological grandeur: He's trying to explore the ways dreams plant their way into human subconscious and fester, but he also wants to explore how human psychology affects the way people dream. It's a laudable ambition, especially for a major Hollywood blockbuster—and once in a while Nolan hits upon an idea that will resonate deeply. Perhaps its most successful thread, in that regard, revolves around Cobb's trauma over his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose death haunts him to degrees that causes causes roadblocks to pop up in Ariadne's carefully imagined dream worlds. As a visualization of the way people hold onto mental scars, unable to let go of the past, it's pretty potent, and it provides at least a signifier of emotion to latch onto in an otherwise antiseptic environment.


Mind No. 2

I use the word "signifier" above, however, for a specific reason: That thread may signify an emotional thread, but that doesn't mean it delivers genuine emotion. I found myself unable to emotionally connect much with, really, any of the characters in this film...and I highly doubt that Nolan did, either. Because, if his previous work is any indication, human emotion simply isn't in his artistic arsenal.

With the possible exception of his Insomnia (2002) remake, Nolan's films are generally concerned less with people than with narrative gimmicks and intellectual/philosophical allegories. They aren't really about the human experience—or, at least, if they are about humanity, they go about trying to access it in ways that end up shining a light more on Nolan's cleverness and pretensions than on anything you or I would recognize in our own daily lives. Nolan may have hit upon killer gimmicks in Memento (2001) and The Prestige (2006)—gimmicks that could be argued to support the human stories being told in both those films—but the limitations of his techno-geek approach to cinema became painfully evident in perhaps his most financially successful effort yet, The Dark Knight (2008). An utterly soulless affair, stubbornly lacking in resonance or poetry of any kind, the film presented a relentlessly conceptual allegory about chance and free will in a world seemingly without morality—one in which all the characters, however energetically performed by its actors, were imagined as mere stick figures in a glorified thesis paper.

Inception, alas, contains more of that same soullessness, but this time blown up to elephantine proportions. The thing about the Cobb/Mal thread is that while it contains some of the film's most interesting ideas about the connections between dreams and human psychology, it also exudes barely any emotional affect. In context, the thread plays merely like a calculated attempt by a clever filmmaker to provide an emotional through-line for the film; it never actually delivers the real McCoy. Because of that, the ostensible catharsis of its supposedly operatic climax never quite hits home the way Nolan seems to want it to do. And there certainly isn't much to latch onto with the film's other characters: they are barely given personalities at all, conceived as mere mouthpieces for Nolan's reams of technological/psychological babble.

Now, I don't demand that every single movie give me a reason to "care" about the characters in them. Stanley Kubrick, for one, was never particularly interested in giving you reasons to warm to the people he depicted onscreen; he left it up to the viewer to find something in these people with which to personally identify. But Kubrick took at least a passing interest in exploring the humanity of his characters; Nolan's chilliness seems less like a directorial strategy than a mere inability to imagine human beings in the first place...and when he tries to muster up some kind of genuine feeling, the results generally feel insincere and secondhand. Nolan's attempt to explore one man's grief over a lost wife in the context of his puzzle-box narrative here looks especially thin alongside Martin Scorsese's far more powerful look at deep psychic wounds in Shutter Island (2010).

And then there's the matter of Nolan's conception of dreams, which some have faulted for being too literal-minded to approximate the way dreams actually operate. I wouldn't presume to know better than Christopher Nolan how we all dream; dreams are such a beautifully mysterious thing that psychologists are still trying to explain it, decades after Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Mystery, alas, is the one thing that is missing in Nolan's linear, prosaic, puzzle-box approach to imagining his dream worlds in Inception; there is precious little of the wonder and illumination that dreams at their most feverishly unhinged can inspire in all of us (and that you regularly see in Luis Buñuel's or David Lynch's surreal cinematic visions). Nolan is too calculated and precise an artist to inspire a milieu of mental freedom...but then, perhaps that was never his aim. Instead, he has used the premise of dream worlds to add more layers to what is, when you get right down to it, a standard (read: clichéd) heist movie. Apparently, Nolan's subconscious consists entirely of a diet of James Bond flicks, with the occasional stray high-minded reference to Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and other superior reality-versus-illusion dreamscapes.


Neither masterpiece nor disaster, Inception is basically a big-budget rock-'em-sock-'em action picture disguised as an intellectual exercise. I can't say that I (yet) love it the way its most ardent defenders do; the experience of watching it left me more in a state of glacial admiration than anything else. As mind-numbing and unpoetic as it is, however, I think its intellectual substance is still worth taking seriously; plus, viscerally it works like gangbusters. There has certainly been nothing like this in megaplexes so far this year, and for that alone, it deserves to be seen and respected.

The right and left sides of my brain remain unreconciled...which is quite possibly more than I can say for the right and left sides of Christopher Nolan's artistic mind, which has always been more left than right.


Anonymous said...

I mostly agree with your analysis, but the one area that I think people are missing is that Nolan didn't draw on standard dream archetype for a reason -- he wanted to set up his own rules and then show how he would subvert them.

Perhaps it killed some of the verisimilitude and authenticity for hardcore dream analysts, but it's much more accessible to the lay person.

Instead of going to deep in Jungian analysis, Nolan basically presented the rules of the game and used the Ariadne character as an exposition machine-audience proxy.

I did call the last shot about an hour into the movie, so I got a kick out of most of the audience groaning. I was shocked that people haven't picked up Nolan's trick of introducing the "twist" ending in the first act similar to a Checkhov's gun. He did it most plainly in the Prestige when he had Michael Caine flat out say that Christan Bale's character was actually twins.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Fair points all, Anonymous.

The reaction to that (admittedly pretty awesome) final shot among the members of the audience at the screening I was at reacted in a way that struck me not so much as a collective groan as collective amazement—the kind of "Ohhh, snap" reaction greeting someone who had just come up with an awesome finishing move in a video game. Or, at least, that's the way it seemed to me. At the very least, I didn't hear the same outraged complaints that greeted, say, the final cut-to-black in No Country for Old Men (which I called even before the movie began, because I had read Cormac McCarthy's book).

If I read the audience reaction correctly, it proves that mainstream movie audiences can be more receptive to ambiguity than Hollywood-studio executives seem to think. I hope, anyway.

Steven Boone said...

Great piece, Kenji. I'm with mind #2, mostly.

Everybody should have been there in 1997, when a packed house of New Yorkers from all walks of life made the most unnatural collective noise at the end of Lost Highway. It sounded like amazement, fury and delight.

Folks gathered in small groups in the lobby, giddy, woozy, furious, discussing what they'd just experienced.

I suspect Inception can produce such a result only in the Batfans who've already guzzled Nolan's Kool Aid, not the general population. It's the difference between a filmmaker and a math club showboater.

Anonymous said...


The groan wasn't because they disliked the end, but more because they, inexplicably to me, thought that Nolan would resolve the question of whether Cobb was in a dream or not.

They weren't used to or didn't expect his use of ambiguity. I blame the Dark Knight for that.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Thanks, Steven! Yeah, it sounds like that Lost Highway crowd would have been amazing to be a part of. (Funny you mention that film; the blog Not Coming to a Theater Near You recently hosted a screening of Lost Highway at 92YTribeca! Now I kinda wish I had gone. Who knows? Maybe that "unnatural collective noise" would have been heard again after that screening...)

By the way, folks, Steven Boone has his own review of Inception that is very much worth reading. (Hey, even Roger Ebert compliments it in his most recent blog post—though he accidentally calls him "Daniel," amusingly enough.)