Saturday, July 17, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon Day 7: Inception


Well I guess it’s a bad year for Leonardo DiCaprio having nightmares about his wife.

Inception may not quite hit the lofty heights presented. It might not be the transcendent experienced promise. But only just.

There are plenty of critics whose opinions I highly respect who are saying that Inception is nothing more then an above average blockbuster. I can’t help but disagree, Inception is too audacious a film. A blockbuster? Yes. An entertainment? Yes. Small sighted? No. The audacity (the only word that really fits) is just too stunning. Brian DePalma for all his slow motion, for all his motherfuckery, never made a moment so devilishly sustained as that forever moment in time that that van falls. Terry Gilliam for all his seductive visions has never painted a dream like this one, which drags its audience right down to the bottom with it like a millstone tied to someone’s leg then tossed into a lake.

But I’m getting ahead of myself aren’t I?

By now you most likely know the plot of Inception. A tale of dream thieves recruited to plant an idea into a subjects mind. Beyond that I will say no more except to say
It plays like the ultimate William Gibson novel as envisioned as the ultimate Terry Gilliam film.

What makes Inception so exciting is that it feels, not perhaps like Nolan’s ultimate work, but a kind of final crystallization of said work.

THERE ARE MAJOR MOVIE RUINING SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH


Di Caprio’s character isn’t simply unable to move on from his trauma. His life IS Trauma he’s ensnared by it. Like a fly in amber. The personalities are not merely codependant but literally dependant upon DiCaprio believing that they are real for their survival.



END MAJOR MOVIE RUINING SPOILERS.

It’s a movie from which half of the excitement comes from a filmmaker finding the perfect instrument to say what he wants to say how he wants to say it. The other half of course comes from the sheer audacity (the word that keeps running through my mind) and grace with which he brings that world to life. There’s so many images that sent my mind reeling, things that I have literally never seen before. (Note the way that Nolan even responds to the Kubrickian comparisons with a cheeky Bathroom scene)

And Nolan anchors it all in a broken perfectly human story. Partially due to Nolan’s underrated gift at casting. Ellen Page, as adorable and vulnerable as a wet Puppy. Who is multiplied with Joseph Gordon Levitt for an event horizon of precociousness. Tom Hardy makes a hell of a heavy, Cillian Murphy brings it as always. And even Pete Postlewaith brings it with his limited role. But DiCaprio anchors it, as indeed he must, bringing a real weary soul to the film. Sometimes Leo’s reach exceeds his grasp when it comes to the hardbitten heroes he likes to play. But there’s a doomed romanticism with Cobb (A name Nolan seems to like a lot) that he’s perfect for.

This review is a bit shorter then my usual (“Thank God,” I can hear some muttering). But that is because there is some stuff I’m still genuinely unclear on. What for example to make of the ending? I think its pretty clear what’s happened but for those of you who have seen the film I think its definitely up for debate as to whether Cobb has been in the dreamstate from the beginning or fallen into Limbo.

I want to catch it on my next viewing. And I’m sure that on the viewing after that I’ll be looking for something else. And the one after that. And the one after that. Nolan makes films that don’t give up all their secrets at once, and that makes him rare and valuable.

19 comments:

Mike Mariano said...

I couldn't buy into Inception because I refuse to accept Nolan's definition of a dream. Everything is orderly, explainable, and as mundane as real life.

Does Nolan really dream like that? If so, this man has no imagination. He's got creativity, but he's thoroughly whipped it into submission.

There's nothing wrong about this. Nolan explains away all my concerns—DiCaprio and his team create orderly, non-memory-based dreams in order to best do their work.

But I don't want that explained. I want to dream like Terry Gilliam, not Christopher Nolan.

That said, Nolan delivers all that he promises and always plays fair, and I won't begrudge anyone who thinks my complaint is unimportant.

Regarding the ending, the scenes with DiCaprio and Watanabe only have a payoff if we accept his wife's version of events. Their shared look at the end of the film says so much—it's amusing that they have better chemistry than DiCaprio and Cotillard.

Simon said...

The thing is, the audience has to be able to empathise with the characters who need constant reassurance of whether or not they're in a dream. If the dreams were abstract Dali paintings, we, the waking viewers, wouldn't be able to fathom how they didn't pick it up.

The ending, I'd like to think he made it home, the top was going to fall, but really, we're not getting off that easy. If the whole movie was a dream, where, exactly, did it start? Where is he sleeping? Is it even him sleeping?

Planet of Terror said...

I can't wait to see this. Great review and not too spoilery.

Andrew Green said...

I'll be seeing it, but not expecting anything Earth-shattering....

Mellanumi said...

I'm sorry -- to say that Brian DePalma and Terry Gilliam have never matched or sustained a moment like that before the van crashes is pure hyperbole. For starters, who, at that point in time, really believed that they wouldn't make it back in time before the van crashed? Narratively, there were too many unresolved issues for you to chomp on your nails, thinking, "oh gee, golly, are they really gonna make it, Sue? "

Quite Frankly, Kirk Dougla's slow-motion bravado in "The Fury," where he shoots an oncoming car in the middle of the street, while Steven Spielberg's former wife is being chased by bad men, is a moment of cinematic brilliance. The sequence is a nail-biter because at that moment, you still don't know what is going to happen (of course, it ends tragically).

If you ever read the "Epistemology and Ontology of the Virtual World," you would know that Virtual Reality is so compelling because it provides a tangible metaphysics of how we think, and more importantly how we dream. So the Wachowskis didn't mention "dreams" in the Matrix... but how is the Matrix of virtual space, any different than the matrix of mental space? They aren't. They are both virtual constructs. One uses the on and off switches of binary numbers, and the other uses the on and off switches of glia to create their separate universes. In other words, Nolan hasn't said anything new about the construct of our universe that hasn't been delivered by Matrix, Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City (which relied heavily on both dreaming and virtual reality). To get stuck on the semantic difference between dreams and virtual reality is to show ignorance regarding their revolutionary similarities.

So to sit there and pretend that Nolan's vision of dream space somehow has more validity, or to pretend that his technique is greater than two of the greatest stylists in the history of motion pictures is really naive and pointless. You are just revealing you are a product of hype.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ MM: I think you defintely have a point. But I would argue that the mundanely of what we dream is often what leads to their power.

If I dream of some fantastic place, well that's just it, a dream of a fantastic place. But if I dream of a place I go every day that's just a little off. Well that's alot more resonate and disturbing.

And you're not wrong about Wantanabe v. Cotillard.

@Simon: This is where I think the real question is. Either its from the beginning (which could definitely work) or he fell in when he went to get Wantanabe.

@PoT: I look forward to hearing what you think.

@Mellanumi: Oh good. And here we come to the reason I'm commenting tonight. I mean I was just going to take a night off, but that mixture of self satisfied smugness and vapidity really just demands comment.

And should anyone read this as fanboyish indigination please look at the cordial response I gave to Mariano. For those of you who think this is troll feeding. Well you've got me there.

But really Mellanumi? That's why DePalma is an intersting stylist? Because he keeps you from knowing what is going to happen? Well I guess the pig blood scene in Carrie is no good. Because if you've read the book you know the buckets are going to fall. I guess the bar ambush scene in Carlito's Way is no good because it only takes place forty minutes into the movie so you know he's not going to die. I guess Sean Connery's execution in The Untouchables doesn't work, since we know he's going to die.

I could guess that. Or I could guess that the thing you said was just kind of stupid.

Guess which I'm going to do?

And OK, so Nolan didn't say anything all that new about dreams. He didn't include a long loving shot of Simulcrum and Simulation to show that he too had been to graduate school? So what. If you're interested in what filmmakers have to say about Theory more power to you. I care more about what they say about people.

As for "validity" whatever that means. I think it rather obvious that I was using those two directors names as points of comparison because I hold them in such high regard. Art isn't a contest. I can enjoy the work of all three.

A creature of hype? I think not. I believe its your own passions which have been inflamed by the hype. Defensively of course. And still...

Mellanumi said...

I didn't say the ability to keep people guessing made DePalma an interesting stylist. His merits as a great stylist are self-evident when all the great film critics and writers -- Sarris, Kael, and Hoberman -- and great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg consider him such.

You made a thesis suggesting that DePalma and Gilliam had somehow been outrivaled by Nolan in specific ways. Specifically you said that DePalma had never sustained a moment "as that forever moment in time that that van falls." When you make such a statement, I only need one example to prove your logic wrong. I gave that example. "The Fury." And I even suggested why the sequence I referred to was better than the sequence in Inception. The difference lay in not knowing what was going to be the logical outcome of events in the Fury, versus the likelihood or probabilistic outcome of events in Inception, given the fact that the van was hovering over water, and that the film had already progressed so far into the story, and it involved principal protagonists whose deaths would destroy all the other rules laid out by the narrative.

But I must concede -- I suppose I can't really get upset at you for your Gilliam comment since you never really made a qualitative point about Gilliam. You simply said, "Terry Gilliam for all his seductive visions never painted a dream like this one." I guess since Nolan directed Inception and Gilliam didn't you are valid in making that comment.

And you're right, I can't remember a time when Gilliam made a "dream" that "dragged its audience right down to the bottom." Sounds pretty scary. If you want me to interpret that nonsense about dreams dragging people down figuratively, I guess I'd have to assume you were talking about movies. But then I also would have to assume you were trying to imply that Nolan was better than Gilliam in some fundamental way.

In the end, my thesis stands -- your comment was hyperbolic and naive. Quod erat demonstratum.

Bryce Wilson said...

When I said "DePalma has never sustained such a sequence" I meant just that. The sequence in Nolan's film goes on for over twenty minutes. That van falls and falls.

Even DePalma at his wildest never found was able to extend a moment past the scene it was in.

As for Gilliam, you've read rightly into my statement, but for the wrong reasons. You've assigned values to the statement which was never the point. The point is that, while Gilliam might have made Tideland with just as much feeling if not more, then Nolan did here; he wasn't able to convince anyone to come along with him.

Even his successes his Brazil's and Munchasens, are films which very few people outside of cinephiles choose to actually watch.

Nolan takes an idea of equal complexity, and makes people come and see and consider it. That is a seperate talent from Gilliam's. But a talent all its own.

Its no use being the pied piper if you can't get anyone to follow you.

Something, that glancing at your own blog you must have some sympathy with.

Mellanumi said...

I will have to disagree with you again on the comment... Nolan's own box-office numbers suggest that his name wasn't mainstream until The Dark Knight. Begins was lackluster at the box-office. Gilliam never made a Batman film (although he was in the running to do it). Chris Nolan's big breakout film was in fact The Dark Knight. The average person couldn't tell you who directed Begins till after The Dark Knight . If Nolan's name had any real mainstream value after Begins, then Prestige (which is a fine film) would have had more box office revenue (Opening weekend was 14 million from 48 million on Begins). It didn't. So even marketing the Prestige as "from the director that brought you Batman Begins" didn't help its revenue.

"Inception" won't be fairly evaluated till after the dust of The Dark Knight settles. Had Inception come after Begins, my suspicion is that it would have done just as well as Prestige, and wouldn't be receiving the same amount of hyperbole that people are bestowing on it.

I am not sure that we can have a reasonable discussion when you keep making unfounded statements. Of course, DePalma never directed a scene like the van in Inception, because his scripts never called for it. If he had developed "Inception" I think he just might have done it . And really, I haven't taken enough time, to analyze the total screen time of the van following and compare it to some of the scenes in Peckinpah's or Woo's films. I'm sure they lasted as long screen-wise, though emotional time may have been relative as well.

Also, it's hard to believe I projected ideas into your comments when you misquote yourself. Read your original post to see what you said about DePalma, which I quoted in my comment. It's too easy to speak figuratively and then say, but I meant it literally. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.

Again, there are many different producers in Hollywood -- there are producers in it for money and recognition, and there are those who snub the studios and do it for art. Terry Gilliam is not a pied piper -- he is more like Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," and consequently doesn't give a damn who follows him or not, and has had great success in financing his movies anyway (actually he's more like Rabelais or Chaucer). It's called "Being a voice in the wilderness." "A fly on a horses ass." As a film lover, you should think of "High Noon."

If you had said that Nolan's movies are more accessible to the mainstream, I would only partially agree with you. If you had said that Nolan's movies, so far, have proven to be more accessible to the mainstream, I'd agree with you on certain movies and disagree on others (with box office tally being the determinant value). I do believe this is what you are really trying to say, and if this is so, I believe there is some merit to your position.

Bryce Wilson said...

"Chris Nolan's big breakout film was in fact The Dark Knight. The average person couldn't tell you who directed Begins till after The Dark Knight . If Nolan's name had any real mainstream value after Begins, then Prestige (which is a fine film) would have had more box office revenue (Opening weekend was 14 million from 48 million on Begins). It didn't. So even marketing the Prestige as "from the director that brought you Batman Begins" didn't help its revenue. "

And this is right where we start to disagree. Memento made twenty five million on a five million dollar budget. That's a good investment, no matter how you slice it. Insomnia made something like 70 Million on a thirty or forty million dollar budget. Batman Begins, though it perhaps "underperformed, still made its money and more back.

""Inception" won't be fairly evaluated till after the dust of The Dark Knight settles. Had Inception come after Begins, my suspicion is that it would have done just as well as Prestige, and wouldn't be receiving the same amount of hyperbole that people are bestowing on it. "

Huh? This is a contridiction of terms. If you're speaking critically, I'm inclined to agree with you. If you're speaking commercially, you're getting into how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

"I am not sure that we can have a reasonable discussion when you keep making unfounded statements."

Oh please don't start to play the martyr now at such late a date. It doesn't suit you. If you were interested in a "reasonable conversation" you wouldn't have been insulting me from your very first post.


"Of course, DePalma never directed a scene like the van in Inception, because his scripts never called for it. "

Once again. Huh? Of course De Palma never found a way. That's the point of the post. But don't you think he would have liked to? A man whose metier, is extending the moment. Don't you think he would have been impressed by an extension that defies all "logical" senses of narrative payoff? No matter what argument you make that van still fell and fell and fell....

"And really, I haven't taken enough time, to analyze the total screen time of the van following and compare it to some of the scenes in Peckinpah's or Woo's films. I'm sure they lasted as long screen-wise, though emotional time may have been relative as well."

Now this I am somewhat willing to concede. The actual time that the van spends falling might be very comparable to those two. However, the subjective time in which it falls, intercut between the two other sequences is much larger.

Bryce Wilson said...

Again, there are many different producers in Hollywood -- there are producers in it for money and recognition, and there are those who snub the studios and do it for art. Terry Gilliam is not a pied piper -- he is more like Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," and consequently doesn't give a damn who follows him or not, and has had great success in financing his movies anyway (actually he's more like Rabelais or Chaucer). It's called "Being a voice in the wilderness." "A fly on a horses ass." As a film lover, you should think of "High Noon."

If you had said that Nolan's movies are more accessible to the mainstream, I would only partially agree with you. If you had said that Nolan's movies, so far, have proven to be more accessible to the mainstream, I'd agree with you on certain movies and disagree on others (with box office tally being the determinant value). I do believe this is what you are really trying to say, and if this is so, I believe there is some merit to your position."

Now underneath this all. Believe it or not, I actually agree with you somewhat. Or rather I wish I could.

I WISH Gilliam where that good at getting himself bankrolled. Then I could lay back and schedule for myself a triple feature of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Good Omens, and The Defective Detective, in movie heaven.

But the fact is, that Gilliam CAN'T get a studio to bankroll his elusive visions. And when he can he CAN'T get an audience to sit in the theater and watch them.

I saw Inception in a grand old movie palace build in the thirties. One Screen A thousand seats. Filled to near capacity. It was beautiful.

I saw the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassaus in the adjoining theater. A terrible multiplex where you can hear the sound drifting in from the other theater. There where a dozen people on the first showing.

I desperately hope Ewan McGregor loosens up the money Gilliam Needs. I desperately hope that I sit in the theater one day in anticipation of The Man who killed Don Quixote.

But until then it is more or less the definition of "Believing it when I see it."

In the meantime, I have no doubt in two years or three, I will see the next Christopher Nolan film.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Good to see you enjoyed it, I mean, you being such a big Nolan fan, if you loved it, then its gotta be good. I will be checking this one out next thursday when it premieres in Puerto Rico, so expect my review then!

sean said...

I am definitely going to be seeing this movie ASAP! Dark Night and Memento were such intriguing thrillers; they gave me high expectations for this movie. From what I've been reading, it looks like it is going to live up to my expectations. Can't wait to see what Christopher Nolan has done in this film!

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - congratulations on retaining such dignity in the face of Mellanumi's self-serving comments. I saw through his cod intellectualism the moment he ended his second comment "quod erat demonstratum". Which sounded the alarm bells for two reasons:

1) It's actually "quod erat demonstrandum";

2) The phrase translates as "that which was to be demonstrated" and therefore can only be used in the context of the qualification of an argument being exactly restated following inarguable proof of same. Mellanumi places his Q.E.D. not at the end of a statement which began with that selfsame hypothesis, but one that commences with a corrective to an earlier statement. Therefore invalidating the use of Q.E.D.

As with the misspelling, a small point but crucial.

Keep up the good work, Bryce, and congratulations again on fending off the pseuds.

Neil Fulwood said...

Regarding Mike Mariano's comment, while infinitely more valid than Mellanumi's, he seems to quantify Nolan's portrayal of the dream state in context of his own dreams, suggesting that if what is in the film in representative of Nolan's own dreams "this man has no imagination. He's got creativity, but he's thoroughly whipped it into submission."

Uncalled for. No artist who works in a narrative based medium (ie. filmmaker, novelist) can ever hope to transfer the dream state into said medium. Nolan does a good job of explaining the curious logic of dreams by stating that it's only after you've woken from a dream that you realise something was off-kilter.

Very true. The most memorable dream I ever had involved file boxes in an archives department suddenly becoming vampires - it had all the "orderly, explainable and as mundane as real life" aspects of the admin job I was doing at the time, except with one startling, illogical and borderline funny yet (during dreamtime) fucking scary exception of these boxes wanting blood. Corollary: a freight train suddenly barrelling down a city street.

(Parenthetically, I read an academic article a few years ago whose author - a man with half an alphabet after his name - stated with absolute conviction that the dream state is subject to a condition similar to colour-blindness. Sorry, prof, but my dreams are technicolour. Always have been.)

Also, Mike kind of acknowledges the invalidity of this statement: "Nolan explains away all my concerns—DiCaprio and his team create orderly, non-memory-based dreams in order to best do their work." Which is absolutely the point: Cobb and co. strive to create something orderly enough that it won't alert the mark to the very fact that they're dreaming. In the same way that a con artist will establish a context to the sting that's so banal you don't question it rather than something so outlandish and elaborate that suspicions will immediately be aroused.

To criticize 'Inception' for not having the dreamlike quality of, say, a Gilliam film is to miss the point on the most basic level. 'Inception' isn't a movie about dreams. It's a movie about a con job that obfuscates a heist. That the heist takes place in the dream state is crucial, but not the be all and end all. To succeed, 'Inception' has to work primarily as a genre movie. To define it purely in terms of something as subjective as the scope of one person's dreams compared with another person's is facile.

Finally, 'Inception' is a Christopher Nolan film and the man specialises in ambiguity. Why try to foist and rigidly secure in place one specific take on his films when half the fun is from endlessly debating the possibilities? 'Inception' plays scrupulously fair by its own rules, never deviates from what's been established, ties up all the loose ends of the four (maybe five?) levels of what you only ever expected to be a three-level dream within a dream sequence ... and still manages to throw in enough ambiguity to read that last scene on several levels. This should be celebrated.

Bryce Wilson said...

@FC: Can't wait to hear what you think buddy.

@ Sean: Glad to hear it hope you stick around.

@ Neil many thanks for the assist. And all the great help on the blogothon.

Love the detail about your nightmare. I very very rarely remember my dreams past a few moments of waking. Based on the ones that do stick around I think this is a blessing.

That said, if I had a nickel for every time I've been pissed at someone in Real Life because I argued with them in a dream, I'd be a very rich man.

Its so funny having to talk yourself down. "No they didn't ACTUALLY say that. That was just your fucked up sub-conscience.

Emily said...

I actually disagree with Mike up there, more because I'm just bored now with directors capturing a dream just by offsetting the narrative and sprinkling in random images (I get it David Lynch; Laura Dern is dreaming, I don't need three full hours to get it). I like that Nolan uses the idea of dreams as a sort of vulnerable place, but then goes into it rather straightforward. It's interesting in its own way of being so by the rules.

J.D. said...

I loved this film and will actually post a full-on review on my blog tomorrow but I just wanted to chime in and say that regards to the dream world that Nolan creates in INCEPTION, I think it works for the very simple reason that he sets up early on the rules and the way it works in the scenes where DiCaprio's character shows Ellen Page's character the ropes. I really need to see it again, but I don't think that Nolan breaks any of the rules that he establishes which is all you really need to worry about in a film like this - as long as it remains true and consistent to its own rules than that's just fine in my book.

I thought that this film was something else. Yeah, Nolan isn't the Second Coming of Kubrick but he certainly deserves to be mentioned up there with the likes of Michael Mann.

Bryce Wilson said...

@Emily: Interesting point Em. There's alot to that.

@JD: And Coming coming from you that's about as high as praise gets.