August 2, 2010

Reception

Christopher Nolan's Inception is the first movie I've seen at the multiplex this summer for which I felt I got my money's worth. When it was over, I decided I would sit back for a week and enjoy the memory of the entertaining and intellectual film before reading what others had to say about it. I only like reading reviews of a movie after I've already seen it and formed my own opinions, and this post will fall in line with that approach, which is to say: don't read this unless you've already seen the film (spoiler alert!).

I've made a habit of writing about Nolan's films -- of which my favorite is actually The Prestige -- so I knew that I would end up posting something about Inception here. Speaking about Nolan's reinvention of the Batman franchise, I wrote:

A very, very intelligent director did the best he could with what he had to work with, and it was pretty damn good. But until “what he had to work” with gets better, film is not growing as an art form –- and what he had to work with was an existing franchise.

I wrote that five years ago, and we're only now seeing a new film from Nolan that isn't based on an existing property. Not that he's to blame, as Inception is an endangered species in Hollywood these days: an original intellectual property. In fact, it's only the third original IP in Nolan's ouevre, after Following and Memento (the latter was even based on his brother Jonathan's short story, though very loosely).

As Nolan sets out to "incept" an original IP into the minds of critics, then, what kind of reception did Inception receive?

First we have the rapturous reviews, where Nolan's achievement is crowned as "the movie of the year and the movie of our dreams," "easily the most original movie idea in ages," "a deeply felt work of art," and "a masterpiece masquerading as a summer blockbuster."

And then we have the negative reviews, wherein reviewers criticize the film for being "amusing but mechanical," "forced and overthought," and "barely even remotely lucid." One reviewer even finds a way to compare Inception to R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet series (which is also great, but in a completely different way). New York Magazine's David Edelstein calls it "clunky and confusing":

For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone. But I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and—hold on … Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype—a metaphor for itself.

Edelstein is one of the many reviewers who seem to have been effectively turned off to the film in advance by the hype machine. His review starts with, "With its dreams, dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams, Christopher Nolan’s Inception manages to be clunky and confusing on four separate levels of reality—while out here, in this even more perplexing dream we call “life,” it’s being hailed as a masterpiece on the order of 2001: A Space Odyssey." Anytime you open a review with a response to the reception of a film instead of talking about the film itself -- essentially, you're reviewing other reviews -- I'm skeptical. I wonder how Edelstein would've felt if he saw the movie in a vacuum: that is, without having seen trailers and posters and heard the hyperbole going in. I get where he's coming from -- in fact, the reason I think I liked Nolan's The Prestige so much is because I had not heard anything about the film before seeing it -- but if there's one thing I wouldn't call the film, it's "confusing." The dreams-within-dreams are structured very linearly -- you simply go down a level each time, there are no sideways movements or parallel dreams in the timeline. See the Inception infographic if anything is unclear (although to be frank, that graphic, while pretty, does little to clarify the structure).

One of the aspects I appreciated about Inception was its revamping of the usual fisticuffs and gunfights into a sort of metaphorical struggle -- one we're allowed to enjoy without our conscience telling us we shouldn't be entertained by dozens of human lives ending on screen (which, for me, is normally the case with action and war movies). In Inception, we're comforted to know that the lackluster cronies dispatched by bursts of submachine gun fire presumably wake up instead of losing their life working for an unappreciative employer. However, the always-contrarian Armond White passes over all enjoyable aspects of the film, stating:

Nolanoids have been faithfully awaiting a vision, and in these crystal-clear (fake) annihilation scenes, Nolan out-Finchers Fincher and seeks Kubrickian misanthropy—but there’s a simple-minded sappiness at the heart of this cynical vision. If anything, the time and consciousness tricks stolen from The Matrix make Nolan a bastard Wachowski brother, not a son of Kubrick.

I felt exactly the opposite, that Inception was the film The Matrix could've been, despite the former being somewhat indebted to the latter. Over at Film School Rejects, Landon Palmer takes issues with White's claim, name-dropping Andre Breton and Un Chien Andalou in the name of surrealism:

White’s rather passive and blanket assertion that cinema’s strength is in its preoccupation with the ‘real’ is not only a blatant, selective parenthetical misreading of Bazin’s theories of realism, but his claim (delivered with minimal further explanation) that “art’s genuine purpose” is “dealing with the real world” ignores cinema’s long and important history (much of it predating Bazin) of preoccupying itself with the fantastic and the impossible.

Surrealism and dreamscapes aside, I found Inception's premise -- that an "idea is a resilient virus, it can grow to define or destroy you" -- to be rooted in a very real world, a world in which simple disagreements over who is the descendent of the prophet Muhammad can define (and destroy) a populace for decades. More to the point, when I can't sleep at night, it's generally because of an idea. Not something external that happened to me in the course of the day, but something I've thought of that I can't stop thinking about. That's akin to a "resilient virus," and not being able to sleep at night is very real. Unless you're Armond White, and the moment your head hits the pillow, all of the haters that hate your hating reviews instantly vanish, and you sleep an apparently dreamless sleep knowing your contrarian ways keep you comfortably employed, because any response is a good response, and your reviews get a lot of responses. Of course, by that logic, Armond's negative reviews are in fact good reviews -- but don't tell him that.

Whenever I delve into the world of film criticism, I can't avoid thinking about how much easier it is to write about movies than it is to make movies. I say this as someone who writes a lot about movies as a way of dealing with the innumerable obstacles to actually making movies. I'm also aware that the easiest way to criticize a critic is to say, "if you know so much about movies, why don't you make a movie!" -- but that's too easy (plus, the people saying that have generally not made movies, either). When it comes down to it, though, what I tire of most is critics arguing among themselves over whether something was objectively "good" or not. Most reviews focus on the quality of someone's performance, the caliber of cinematography on display, or even the film's marketing campaign. And while that's part of their job, I also feel most reviews shy away from talking about what the film meant to them. To this end, A.O. Scott notes:

What did the last shot mean? Is Cobb still in a dream at the end? Whose dream is it? What’s going on? What is odd about these questions, which shrewdly invite a second viewing, is that they seem to come at the end of the argument about “Inception” rather than at the beginning. Film culture on the Internet does not only speed up the story of a movie’s absorption of a movie 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.

Indeed. Let's talk about what the film meant to us, rather than pretend we have the answers as to whether it should be canonized or not. The only one who can determine that is Father Time, although in the case of Inception, there's more than one of him. Just how many timelines we're dealing with, however, is up for debate, as the film's final shot invites several interpretations. Rich Knight at Cinemablend analyzes the film using Jungian archetypes and arrives at the following conclusion:

The entire film might actually just be Dom Cobb's dream and that all of the main characters in it were just different segments of himself that had to concoct an elaborate mission just so he could reach some level of catharsis within himself.

But whereas Knight uses "might" to merely suggest this reading, Devin Faraci at CHUD goes further, stating:

Every single moment of Inception is a dream. I think that in a couple of years this will become the accepted reading of the film, and differing interpretations will have to be skillfully argued to be even remotely considered. The film makes this clear, and it never holds back the truth from audiences.

But whereas Knight thinks Inception might be a dream and Faraci is 100% convinced, Bilge Ebiri of New York Magazine says it doesn't matter:

The final shot seems to indicate that [Cobb] may be still dreaming (because his totem keeps spinning). If so, then he has either lost himself in Limbo entirely, or Mal was right all along, and his world was always a dream... But whether he's still dreaming may ultimately be irrelevant: The important thing is that Cobb has been freed of his demons, and can now be reunited with what to him appear to be his real children — be they a projection or reality.

However, there's another interpretation of the film, which has little to do with a whether the characters are dreaming or not. From the same CHUD piece above, Faraci explores how Inception is a movie about movies, not in a literal Living in Oblivion or The Player kind of way, but in a more metaphorical sense:

Inception is a not very thinly-veiled autobiographical look at how Nolan works. In a recent red carpet interview, Leonardo DiCaprio - who was important in helping Nolan get the script to the final stages - compares the movie not to The Matrix or some other mindfuck movie but Fellini's . This is probably the second most telling thing DiCaprio said during the publicity tour for the film, with the first being that he based Cobb on Nolan. 8½ is totally autobiographical for Fellini, and it's all about an Italian director trying to overcome his block and make a movie (a science fiction movie, even). It's a film about filmmaking, and so is Inception.

To support this argument, Faraci goes on to map each character in the movie to a job in a film production:

The heist team quite neatly maps to major players in a film production. Cobb is the director while Arthur, the guy who does the research and who sets up the places to sleep, is the producer. Ariadne, the dream architect, is the screenwriter - she creates the world that will be entered... Eames is the actor (this is so obvious that the character sits at an old fashioned mirrored vanity, the type which stage actors would use)... Saito is the money guy, the big corporate suit who fancies himself a part of the game... Nolan himself more or less explains this in the latest issue of Film Comment, saying 'There are a lot of striking similarities [between what the team does and the putting on of a major Hollywood movie]. When for instance the team is out on the street they've created, surveying it, that's really identical with what we do on tech scouts before we shoot.'

If DiCaprio's Cobb is the manifestation of the director (Nolan), and the rest of the team are writers, producers, actors, etc., then who are all the bad guys in Inception? I hate to say it, because I have no issue with their real-world counterparts, but... the anonymous henchman constantly attacking with machine guns? They're film critics. That, or they're the audience.

Your Comment

3 Comments

Hah! Excellent interpretation.

I'm sure it can be read on lots and lots of levels - as a heist movie, as a movie about dreams, about psychoanalysis, about levels of the subconscious, about perception, about filmmaking, etc. All of which allow you to take new things out of it, and find keys to unlock puzzles.

All of this is fine - and I really enjoyed being excited by the chases and thinking about all these things while I was watching it. But five minutes after walking out of the cinema, I realised with a crashing jolt that I had not been emotionally moved by it at all, nor had there really been any kind of twist, nor had there been *any* memorable lines, or pretty much any real laughs. Whatever the complexity and intelligence of the structure, that's pretty unforgiveable. And will make the movie ultimately forgettable, I think.

The end was exactly as I predicted - the "it's all a dream, or is it" twist was signposted right at the start - and then delivered on cue. I couldn't believe it when I read on Twitter about people gasping at the final shot. But much more importantly, the human relationships were all flat. The relationship with him and his wife was about as two dimensional as they come - all about guilt. Again, the only slight twist was that his Inception had killed her - but we can see that coming from the moment he told the guy in the helicopter that he knew Inception was possible?

No other relationships developed. There was a hint of flirting between Ariadne and Arthur for a moment, but that was it. The father/son thing was cliche, as were most of the scenarios - which I realise is the point, but it still doesn't leave you with a sense of emotional engagement or satisfaction.

That's where the comparison with 8 1/2 and even with The Matrix falls down. 8 1/2 is an incredibly emotional film - a properly mature reflection on life and art. The Matrix is a comic book story, but it revolves in the end around Trinity and Neo's love, which saves him. You feel *something* about them, because you've watched them grow together. And Nolan's vision doesn't even bear comparison with Kubrick's emotional disconnection either - Kubrick hardwires that into his characters, so that his films revolve around the dysfunction and draw their emotional power from that. But in Inception, there's no emotional power drawn from anywhere. I wonder if there might have been some, if Leonardo Di Caprio hadn't been so oddly uncharismatic. Even Keanu Reeves in The Matrix was a more charismatic and sympathetic figure - and that's really saying something. I was much more affected by the end of Toy Story 3. I cared more about what happened to Mr & Mrs Potato Head than whether Leo would get through passport control (i knew he would) and see his kids turn round (shock!) and not notice that Mal was right (cue unicorn shot, gasp, yawn). What's left for a second viewing, apart from puzzles and metaphors?

It's almost like Nolan was trying so hard to make a clever film that he forgot to make one with any heart. It's a common mistake - a lot of independent, arthouse and science fiction movies think that they can get away with being clever. But it's the movies that move us that become classics and get remembered for years afterwards. And the movies that have great lines. And make us laugh. And surprise us. This movie has a clever structure and some metaphors. What's to remember?

August 2, 2010

-1
Reply

I was just about to rattle off my diatribe about Inception then I saw Rupert's comment... I could not agree more. If it wasn't for Leo DiCap's wild eyed delivery, I would have lost all interest in this cold and flat story. >

August 2, 2010

1
Reply
nybe

I said this in person, but I'll relay it to the internets: there's no way the last scene was a dream; when Cobb's kids finally turn around, the son was waaay too ugly. Ugly kid = reality. Nuff said.

Anyway... excellent critical recount, Koo. The very least I can say about the film was that it immediately made me want to see it again... which happens basically never.

August 6, 2010

-1
Reply