Film: Christopher Nolan: Inception (2010)

The troubling thought Chris Nolan plants in my brain in Inception – and I’m sure he was aware that he was doing it, although he might not have found the thought quite as disturbing – is that movies as we know them are essentially predicated on other movies.  He litters the film with dramatic truisms lifted straight out of Robert McKee’s dogmatic screenwriting tome, “Story”: the bigger the stakes, the bigger the catharsis; the mind naturally turns to the positive, toward catharsis; etc.  And then he proceeds to build an entire film out of dramatic tropes borrowed from every potboiler thriller you can think of: the detective on one last job before he returns to his family, along with the crack team of specialists who all impart exactly the right piece of information when we need it; the ghost who haunts him; the gratuitous shootout that has no dramatic purpose except to punch up the pace of the thing; etc.  In addition to a detective story, it’s also a corporate morality tale (as was The Dark Knight), a love story, a science fiction story, and a consummate action film.  Did I miss any?

What becomes interesting about Inception is how well Nolan directs the actors.  Their timing never feels unduly rushed; the editing doesn’t seem to have truncated interactions in a way designed to speed the film up.  Yes, the actors are also plunked into their generic types and need to transmit a hell of a lot of facts to us along the way – and there is no time to spare in this film – but there’s also a real sensitivity toward finding the right beats, the right gestures, letting things happen on the edge of frame that remind us that behind these characters, behind this entire construct we’re watching, is a human being talking to us.  There’s one tidy little grace note that I imagine Nolan directed, but even if he didn’t, he’s made the film in such a way that these things can happen: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb charges down a hallway, he guides himself into an elevator with a hand on the outside edge.  The gesture itself is somehow extremely real and right in the midst of Nolan’s dramatic chaos, but the presence of Cobb’s wedding ring on his finger rejiggers the scene, just a hair, back to what the film is really about.  The beat is over as soon as you notice it, but the framing and movement takes your eye straight to this hand – and for a moment, Nolan is close to being a real filmmaker.

But what then undoes this film – or at least relegates it to the puerile Choose Your Own Adventure video game fantasy it really is – is the suggestion that it’s not dreams that inspire filmmakers, but their memories of other movies.  Alex Proyas at least took the time to plant Dark City firmly in the ’40s noir genre, letting us know he doesn’t necessarily think all movies are to blame for the (narrow, amusing) scope of his (shorter, better) film, but Nolan’s pretenses are catching up to him.  I believe he’s actually got an imagination of his own, and he’s getting better at spatial orientation in his films, which indicates that perhaps he’s taking things a bit more seriously on their own terms instead of thinking all things cinematic are simply about effect – but then, all things in his films are simply about effect.  And so what?  How many countless, perfectly harmless movies have been made from and about movies?  My own addendum: how many of those are great films, inspiring the sort of self-reflection that gave birth to the concept of art to begin with?

The point is that this is, I think, a reductive and potentially harmful way to look at movies.  Our attention spans are growing shorter and less muscular every day as cell phones and computers speed up, causing the mechanical and practical concerns to slow down and piss us off.  If I’m committed to a film at home, I really need to close my laptop, or else I will tap the mouse pad every now and then to check my email – I can’t help it myself.  Neither can Nolan – he’s got no patience beyond complicating and explaining and building on his plot, and you feel carried along inside Inception as on a raft in whitewater, thinking just enough to skirt the rocks ahead.  There’s really no motivation to think any further, since Nolan isn’t actually saying anything (my co-attendee at the screening remarked that Inception is a perfect Rubik’s cube, which it is; once solved, there’s nothing else to do but solve it again ad infinitum, until it becomes rote).  Nolan’s not without skill, he’s just recycling things we’re already familiar with to make the whole concoction go down easier.  I’d be just fine with that if he didn’t also indicate, at every step, that this is how movies are made, this is what movies are. Theo Angelopoulos suggests films are an extension of our souls, David Lynch an extension of our psyches.  Nolan tells us they’re nothing of our own making anymore, that movies are made of what we recall – or imagine we recall, or can’t tell the difference anymore between conjuring and recalling – from movies.

He’s hardly the first to go down this road.  Spielberg, Scorsese, Bertolucci – they’ve all implied roughly the same thing.  But Nolan has made this idea an explicit part of Inception, in a film about planting ideas in people’s heads and making them think the idea is their own.  At best, this is just sad, indicative of our unwillingness, laziness, or indifference to exploring what’s in our own minds, but at worst it suggests the way a lot of filmmakers these days really approach filmmaking: as an appeal to things we no longer need to think about, because they’ve simply become part of the language we use to talk about movies, not life.  It’s a pulpy, self-reflexive attitude championed by guys like Tarantino, who at least goes out of his way to make a coherent, enjoyable experience filled with surprises.  Invocations of film history used to have a softer touch, in the hands of Woody Allen, Truffaut, Bertolucci.  There was a whimsical remembrance of the warmth to be found there, not this leaden immutability (see Bertolucci’s The Dreamers for a purer account of the dangerous mix of nostalgia and unreality inherent in cinephilia).  It’s detracting from the efforts of guys and gals who’d rather try something unique to themselves, and wrap this whole mysterious film medium around their own wayward thoughts and feelings instead of the other way around.  The Kelly Reichardts and the Gus Van Sants, the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Ramin Bahranis need all the encouragement and support they can get; we do not need audiences requiring cliches to feel satisfied from a cinematic experience.  Where else will all the future great films come from?

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