Sunday, August 8, 2010

Being Asleep

I was almost tired of Christopher Nolan’s Inception before I even saw it. I visit a fair number of film-related websites, and for a week or two they were clogged up with crap. First of all came a “this year’s masterpiece” batch of advance reviews. The next wave was more measured, sometimes outright unenthusiastic. Then the defenders of the first wave turned on the second wave. Then people started analyzing the whole thing. This is all before the movie even opened. Then it did open, and the world largely moved on. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott summed it up like this: “Film culture on the Internet does not only speed up the story of a movie’s absorption into the cultural bloodstream but also reverses the sequence. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, or maybe I’m dreaming, but I think it used to be that “masterpiece” was the last word, the end of the discussion, rather than the starting point.”


Scott was having fun with the whole thing, but to me, it was mostly pathetic. I’ve said it many times before, but it all serves Hollywood’s needs so much more than our own. The history of film overflows with opportunities to reflect and respond and learn. Obsessing about the big shiny new thing, just because it’s there, is only part of “film culture” in the way random violence and destruction have occasionally been part of “soccer culture.” It’s an appendage, a hanger for neurosis and connectivity and whatever it is that keeps people churning away on Facebook and Twitter rather than, you know, living a life with some shape and purpose and solidity. And it just makes tools of everyone, because of course, the studios love it.

Maybe I especially disliked the way this played out with Inception because Nolan’s previous film, The Dark Knight, was so grotesquely over-praised. When I wrote my review, I quoted Peter Howell’s response in The Star: “The movie is almost Shakespearean in its fascination with the good and evil that resides within all of us. It suggests that the greatest challenge of life is not to reject dark impulses outright, but to learn how to control them so they don't overwhelm our loftier goals.”

My reaction was as follows: “OK, and the upshot of this suggestion is…what? Be a good girl in the workplace and a whore in the bedroom? Try as I might, I just can’t see what would be magnificent about this insight, assuming the film was particularly eloquent about it in the first place, which I’m also not convinced by. Others have found commentaries in the film on virtually the entire latter-day political agenda, such as the morality of torture – indeed, the parallels may be there, but I’m not sure what one can do with them other than note the evocation and move on.” Beyond that, I commented on “contrivance, coincidence and shortcutting that seems extreme even for the genre.” And that was just about all the time I had for it.

Probing The Grey Matter

Here’s an extract of the less than iconoclastic Howell’s three and a half star review of Inception: “Where Nolan breaks fresh ground is how deeply he probes the grey matter of both his characters and the audience. He makes no concessions to mainstream notions of plot and character development, even as he constantly one-ups the thriller and heist genres with dazzling action scenes.” This is so dumb that even if you were reading it in your sleep, it’d jolt you awake. Does Howell, who presumably didn’t get this far without some general sense of the cinema that came before, truly feel his own “grey matter” was probed by Inception to a degree constituting “breaking fresh ground”? It’s hard to see how he rationally could. To name just the most obvious thing, wouldn’t “fresh ground” be marked by something more radical than one-upping the thriller/heist genres?

As you probably know by now, the core concept is that dreams can be manipulated and infiltrated, creating possibilities for raiding the subconscious of one’s enemies and competitors, or perhaps for planting ideas which they perceive as their own (the “inception” of the title). Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of such a dream team, engaged by a super-rich businessman to manipulate his main competitor. The film posits an extremely complicated set of rules for how all of this actually works, including the relationships between the inner and the outer worlds, and for descending levels of dreams within dreams.

To the extent it has some new concepts and angles on things, it indeed breaks fresh ground now and then. But then, so does an especially fiendish jigsaw. Inception is extremely cleverly structured and assembled. But the fact of it being about dreams, ultimately, is arbitrary. With a few tweaks to the set-up, it could have been about parallel worlds, or a computer-generated matrix, or a fantasy taking place in the mind of a madman. The biggest disappointment to me is how unlike a dream it all is – the inner worlds for the most part have the clean edges and fixed relationships of reality as we know it. I know Nolan anticipates that objection and addresses it in his dialogue, but still, you could watch Inception a thousand times and come to understand his fantasy conception of things in perfect detail, without learning a single useful thing about your own grey matter (actually, I Am Love, which I wrote about two weeks ago, comes much closer at times to evoking a dream state).

Waking Up

As I mentioned, once Inception opened, higher-level interest seemed to drop off pretty quickly, at least on the websites I monitor – for the most part, it just became another blockbuster. In that same week, the US went through the Shirley Sherrod incident, where a bunch of right-wing hate mongers defamed a black government employee by doctoring a video to make her seem racist. The media jumped on it; everyone panicked; she was fired; then people looked at the full video and realized they’d been had. You couldn’t have a better example of the degraded and stupid times we’re living in; the main perpetrators didn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about it. It’s more and more obvious how we’re losing any sense of collective perspective and purpose.

The inane clutter surrounding movies like Inception comes from that same hyper-charged, neurotic vein. Ironically, a movie exploring the undermining of will and consciousness could have been devastatingly relevant and biting to these times, but even The Dark Knight’s strained parallels aren’t much in evidence here. For all its formal skill and occasional highpoints, watching Inception is ultimately distressingly like being asleep, and not in the way its director intended.

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