Monday, July 19, 2010

I Close My Eyes, Then Drift Away: Inception

(WARNING: There will be SPOILERS!!!)

Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is currently the internet film community's Rage du Jour. Continuing a battle over the merits of Nolan as a filmmaker that began two years ago with "The Dark Knight", this was also one of the few films being released in yet another barren summer movie season that was worth seeing and talking about. Anyone who knows me is probably aware now that I consider The Battle Over Nolan a low point in film discourse on the web, where both sides of the "debate" have descended into hyperbolic nonsense as if there was a victory to be won on the matter. His films are often wildly misrepresented to simply fulfill a narrative each side wants to create about his abilities as well as those who disagree with their opinions. Either Nolan is the filmmaking genius who is the heir apparent to Stanley Kubrick or he is a complete hack responsible for the downfall of motion pictures.

It is tough for me to write about "Inception", not just due to entering a two week old debate that I consider mostly rancid, but, more importantly, I am absolutely perplexed that this film has actually deserved this fervor. "Inception" inspired so little passion in me (It's the "Avatar" of the moment), which makes me wonder what its most ardent supporters and angriest detractors are getting out of building it up or tearing it down. This movie is the very definition of middling.

"Inception" is about Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is an expert at infiltrating others' dreams. He plies his trade in Europe because he fled America when accused of killing his wife Mal (played by Marion Cotillard). When a job at the beginning of the film goes bad, Cobb is forced by a Japanese businessman named Saito (played by Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea into the owner of an energy company, Robert Fischer, (played by Cillian Murphy). A team is assembled to infiltrate the dreams, all of them bringing their specific talents: The Architect (Ellen Page), The Forger (Tom Hardy), The Chemist (Dileep Rao) and Cobb's Right Hand Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Their job is to enter the subconscious of Fischer and perform an "inception", so that he will think his own father would want him to break apart his energy company after his death. Though Cobb usually performs "extractions", this job requires entering several layers of dreams within dreams. The idea has to be planted so deep that Fischer has to believe that he is the one who came up with it. Basically, think of "Inception" as a heist movie where they leave something behind rather than take anything away.

One aspect of The Battle Over Inception has been about whether Nolan is successful in conveying a dream world. I have seen a couple of bloggers proclaim that no one has dreams that require special effects such as the city that folds onto itself. Dreams are something that no filmmaker can ever quite successfully portray on film. Why? Each of our dreams are unique and formed within our own minds which are also based on our own personal experiences. We may share some of the same imagery, but none of us have a collective style to our dreams. When someone says that a folding city would never appear in anyone's dreams, I can already proclaim that is false because I have had dreams where cityscapes have shifted not unlike that. I would actually say that image is more common to my dreams than, say, the dwarves that pop up in David Lynch's dreams. In fact, I have never had a dwarf appear in my dreams, though I will not discount the possibility that it may pop up in others'. It is quite odd for anyone to proclaim whether a movie dream is truly believable just based on their own experiences.

My feeling is that the imagery of dreams is so hard to remember and capture in the medium of film that directors often tend to fill in their movie dreams with what they believe dreams should have. There is also the reality that dreams created in movies still need to fulfill the requirements of the story, something I would not necessarily penalize the films for. The dreams in Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" are shaped just enough to work emotionally, while the dreams in his "Inland Empire" resulted in three hours of tedious and repetitious wankery that is not necessarily more believable as a dream. However, let us go one layer deeper for "Inception" to get at what bothers me about the film's central notion. Do our ideas always come from our dreams?

As I would like to think of myself as a creative person, that concept does not make a great deal of sense to me. Dreams have inspired some ideas, but, for the most part, they are quite difficult to recall in specific details. Most of my ideas come from unique associations that I make while I am fully conscious. To put it simply, they generally can be described as This + That + Something Else = I've Never Seen That Before. Ideas are formed by our lives and how our brains work, which is why only a small percentage of people are capable of producing inspired ideas, while the less creative often resort to recycling the familiar. Dreams are not unique to creative people, but the imagination to process and channel concepts and thoughts into art or innovation is.

Dreams, at least mine, do not usually take any shape and they make associations that are often unpredictable, but also not feasible in the real world. That is why we spend a great deal of time trying to interpret the meaning of our dreams because they are, at heart, often illogical. This is where Christopher Nolan's concept loses me. He seems to be applying logic to something that can never contain it, which results in a movie that is often too rigid in its execution when it needed to be a lot more trippy or just plain batshit insane.

Admittedly, those were my expectations about a movie that is about a heist of the mind. Instead, what "Inception" becomes throughout its running time is a James Bond/Mission: Impossible movie, which is not good for someone who generally finds those type of films rather dull. The literal-minded James Bond aesthetic, in particular, represents the polar opposite of the unattainable life of the mind that is Nolan's premise. When your dream movie contains ski shootout sequences that have plagued James Bond movies for decades, perhaps those dreams needed a bigger dose of the surreal.

Do not get me wrong. I certainly did not hate "Inception", nor was I ever bored during its two and a half hour running time. As a James Bond movie with a team played by very good actors, there is an undeniable entertainment value in watching an action movie built around the idea of entering another's dreams. Despite the many accusations leveled at Nolan's directing ability and his relentless pacing, with a few obvious exceptions, I do not usually have that difficult time following his movies nor do I mind the editing choices. I do think he is lacking a bit in conceiving action sequences, but I find the claims about his technical expertise a bit odd when there have been so many more obvious examples of completely sub-standard filmmaking technique that generally gets let off the hook like J.J. Abrams' atrocious "Star Trek", Michael Bay's entire oeuvre or George Lucas' green screen addictions in the Star Wars prequels or the last Indiana Jones film.

While entertaining on a superficial level and as an intellectual exercise in puzzle-solving, "Inception" is a bit of a botch in its lack of any big ideas and, more importantly, emotional payoff. The complexity of entering other peoples' dreams requires possibly the biggest deluge of exposition I have experienced in a film for some time. Nearly every scene in the first half of the film explains and explains and explains, inventing rules and then tossing them aside for newer rules which also get explained again and again. Even during the more action-oriented second half of the movie, the characters provide running commentary, as newer rules get explained. One of the funniest lines is when Ellen Page asks a couple of levels down in the dream world, "Whose subconscious are we entering now?" because even she got lost in all the exposition.

The bigger problem with "Inception" is that Nolan treats the emotional content the same way, which made me feel that the movie was built on nothing but plot. In the dream world, Cobb is still attempting to deal with his mad dead wife, who keeps showing up trying to foil his missions. This actually is an intriguing idea and could have pushed the film closer to noir, where Nolan took "The Dark Knight" quite successfully. Instead, it is just another piece of the puzzle wrapped within an action extravaganza. When Cobb and Mal talk to one another, these scenes are not written with any sense of drama as they merely announce their emotions to each other the same exact way the exposition is handled.

As much as I generally like Nolan's films, any notion that he is the second coming of Stanley Kubrick should be dispelled with this film. Do you want to know who Nolan actually reminds me of in both his strengths and weaknesses? Wes Anderson. I know there will be many out there, who like one and hate the other and can never conceive they are made from similar molds. But I believe they are. While Wes Anderson fusses over the background of his shots and stories, Nolan over-thinks the foreground and does not mind the surroundings as much as he should. Both Nolan and Anderson, at their worst, forget to build their scenes dramatically, which often results in characters blurting out their emotions or revelations in a way that feels completely unearned. Both directors seem so tightly wound emotionally and would rather reveal their fetish for either knick-knacks or gadgetry rather than let out any of the personal fetishes that Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock, often falsely accused of being cold, allowed to be revealed in their films. Though Anderson makes generally comedic films, there are times when I think both he and Nolan seem to approach humor as if touching a hot stove, telling concepts of jokes rather than the jokes themselves. Neither of these filmmakers would ever be considered candidates to be the second coming of John Cassavetes. Raw emotion is something meant to be buried way, way underneath.

Yet, Christopher Nolan needed to loosen up his collar on "Inception" and find the humor and playfulness that can come from this odd group of under-developed personalities entering other people's dreams, though Tom Hardy's Eames comes closest to having any fun doing his job. The film seems to feel too ashamed to embrace itself as a caper, so it is weighted down with the same crazy dead wife story device that DiCaprio has already tackled in both "Shutter Island" and even the very end of "Revolutionary Road". Is there any insight into this relationship or is it merely supposed to supply the "depth" to make this movie Serious with a capital S? What does it say when the final shot of the movie leaves you with the question whether Cobb is still in a dream state and my reaction to it was that it did not matter one way or the other?

Perhaps, it is time for Nolan to come to terms with the notion that he is not really meant to be a director of the big-budget action extravaganzas. As much as I like his Batman films, they meant more to me because of the characters and the moral dilemmas they raised rather than the action sequences. While I am not necessarily complaining about Nolan's directorial chops as an action filmmaker, what I feel he is lacking most is in the conception department. The very idea of "Inception" requires action sequences that needed a dose of the absurd rather than the functional chase and shootout stuff that dominates the movie. While the filmmaking style of "The Matrix" has been recycled to death, the Wachowski Brothers knew how to construct their set pieces employing the flexibility of reality in their world. Or think of the sequence in Alex Proyas' "Dark City" where Murdoch is chased by the Strangers while the city shape-shifts around them.

The only time "Inception" truly approaches a level of visual wit is during the sequences where Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles henchmen in a hallway that has no gravity. It is the only time Nolan lets loose on an action sequence, nearly turning it into a violent dance number. Most of the other action seems plodding and standard with extensive shootouts, where he seems unable to embrace the possibilities of creating elaborate action choreography to suit the world he created. I kept asking myself why we needed to go through this elaborate build-up just to end up watching people shoot one another while on skis.

I cannot help but think "Inception" was a missed opportunity for Nolan. I do not know what it says when his in-between-Batman projects like this and "The Prestige" come across more impersonal and more reliant on narrative trickery than the ones he does strictly for the studios. Perhaps, it is more telling when these two movies are the ones most reliant on science fiction, as Nolan does not comes across as a director who embraces the fantastic, as much as he seems more suited to grounding the semi-outlandish in a real world setting. That quality is why I consider his terrific Batman films more successful than the over-designed world of Tim Burton's films. Nolan, at his heart, is as much of a noir/crime director as Michael Mann. He is best when setting up moral choices for his characters that can never quite be reduced to right or wrong. Dipping his toe into the land of science fiction makes him come across as more leaden and flat-footed because there is a ceiling to his imagination. That is not an insult, as most directors do not have the ability to go there. If I were choosing a director for fantasy or science fiction, I would choose the likes of Guillermo del Toro or Steven Spielberg over Martin Scorsese or David Fincher. Some people have the feel for it, while a director like Nolan does not.

One wonders why Nolan never attempts to address the issue of invading someone else's mind as a moral issue in this movie. In fact, he seems so caught up in the mechanics of the plot to develop any larger theme about dreams and the ideas contained in our mind. For a movie that proposes itself to be a thinking man's blockbuster, did "Inception" ever have anything to say beyond telling us to not hold onto the memories of our past? That is not exactly a groundbreaking revelation, considering how many films feature men being haunted by their dead wives. Nolan needed to show us the life of the mind, as John Goodman said in "Barton Fink". Instead, he introduces a fascinating concept and shows ambivalence towards exploring its implications.

Despite the fact that I was clearly not enthralled by the film, I wish "Inception" as well as any other movie can be discussed without it turning into a referendum on the career of a filmmaker. This also happened early in the year with "Shutter Island" and "Avatar". As usual when the internet decides to collectively lose their shit over a film, whether it be critics or the deluded man-children who populate comments sections, the actual film seems to be the last thing that ever gets discussed.

That was the most surprising factor when I walked out of theater at the end of "Inception". I asked myself, "THIS was the movie that inspired such nonsense for the last two weeks?" I can understand a more impassioned debate over Charlie Kaufman mind-benders "Synecdoche, New York" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Mind", which even their detractors would admit have emotional content to debate on top of their plot construction. Nolan's film is a trifle by comparison. Its reaches towards depth seem so half-hearted. Much like Robert Fischer at the end of "Inception", most of what I had experienced dissipated from memory. Unfortunately, for Nolan, the inception that there was a truly mind-blowing thought to be found in his movie outside of the plot never took in my mind.

"Inception" was viewed in IMAX at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.


Craig said...

While Wes Anderson fusses over the background of his shots and stories, Nolan over-thinks the foreground and does not mind the surroundings as much as he should.

I'd have never thought to make this comparison, but I believe you're onto something. I do think Anderson's style is more deliberate, that the emotion comes out of the tension between the foreground flatness and the background ephemera (though I haven't cared for his last couple of live-action films). Nolan seems to stumble onto things quite by accident -- as you indicated, a more suitable style for noir than for dreams.

I think Inception could have been a truly great film had Nolan directly confronted his own shortcomings as a filmmaker -- by exploring the tension between his apparent need for order and the chaos that inadvertently burbles out of it. True to form though, he comes at this topic almost elliptically, and makes a big mistake by not investing more in his characters, so that the visual depictions of the dreams derive more from their subconscious thoughts and desires rather than retreads of the movies that they (and the director) have seen. You'd think a director who casts the same actors over and over would have some sense by now of how to suss out their personality quirks. Those actors must enjoy working with Nolan to keep coming back, but I don't think he's doing them any favors.

Jason Bellamy said...

The bigger problem with "Inception" is that Nolan treats the emotional content the same way, which made me feel that the movie was built on nothing but plot.

Nailed it. The plot takes the forefront here, even if that might not be Nolan's intention. When toward the end of the film he goes into the aging flashback (which is just b-roll for DiCaprio's verbal play-by-play, of course), it's almost awkward.

As for the dreams part:

I agree with your arguments about the way dreams work and don't. But, as I mentioned in a comment today at Craig's blog, I actually think it's misguided and problematic to criticize the dream logic or structure when it comes to this film. Why? Because I don't think Nolan ever intended to be showing us "real" dreams. Heck, DiCaprio's character even admits he can't REALLY dream anymore. This is a different kind of dreaming, a kind of subconscious state that can be controlled, whereas dreams cannot be controlled.

My overall reaction to the film was similar to yours: I admire parts but I'm mystified by others, and I found it mostly middling. Still, as I've caught up on reviews this weekend I'm alarmed at the number of them that are focused on Nolan's "botching" (or some other word) of dreams. It strikes me that Nolan could have avoided at least 50 percent of his criticisms just by saying that his characters were entering "the matrix" or something like that, rather than using the term "dreams." I suppose that's his error, but I don't think that's something to be hung up on (not to imply that you are).

Steven Santos said...


I do think Nolan could have avoided the criticisms if he used another term than dreams, but, perhaps, my bigger issue is what's the point of entering a subconscious state if it can be controlled this much? I think if his film employed dream logic, I would feel the unpredictability of dreams would have made "Inception" seem less rigid in structure.

I think most of us feel when Nolan says "dreams", the possibilities of a more dream-like narrative would have been more promising than the James Bond-level material he leaves us with. It's like he raised our hopes by using that word.