Inception – improving the rule
There is a room in my mind that I have been to many times. I can tell you the exact qualities of the light in different areas of the room, where the dust layers the air, the smell and feel of the walls, the shape of the room’s objects and furniture, the toys, the bedclothes, the quiet. The problem? The room has never existed as my mind shows it to me; it is a composite of the many rooms of my childhood, and so I cannot take you there, although I could describe it at length and indeed sometimes I will wake up with a vague feeling of resentment towards my parents for having altered elements of it, or for not having changed it in too long. It is the dream of homely familiarity, a miniature of repose teased together from the impossible architecture of memories spread out across decades and continents. I know it intimately, as it is an intimate part of myself, but I didn’t make it; it makes me.
Compulsion, composition and creation, it seems to me, are the principle themes of Inception, whilst the synthesis of releasing one into the other, cartharsis, is its principle dynamic. It affected me deeply, in a way very few, if any, films have – I felt dissatisfied with many things upon first viewing it, and yet it resonated in my mind for the better part of a week, and I slept restlessly. My initial attempt to exorcise its effect on me by bloggery ended when I realised I had spent almost two thousand words picking through its webs of symbolism and layered incidental detail without straying beyond, or even finishing, a list of character vignettes. The fact that you can link Mal to mâle, mal sueño and a grand mal seizure, that Eames is Bond, Eames Bond, or that Saito historically means “blossom of purity” and the flower that symbolises purity to the Japanese is the waterlily, possibly the only flower to subside solely off the waters (of the subconscious) and yet bloom in air- all of these things enrich the film upon reflection, but none of them make the whole “better” or account for my reaction.
Critical reaction to the film amongst my friends, professional reviewers and fellow authors/bloggers has been wildly varied, whilst analysis of the film’s content runs a dizzying gamut still fully capable of suggesting things that make me laugh with delight at their (lack of) sense and invention after three weeks of internet perusal. One of my friends was convinced the entire story was a revenge ploy by Mal, one succumbed to a quadruple lane nightmare where she had to enter the heads of her friends and family to save them, one of them of loved it unreservedly, one of them summed up the whole film with the word “predictable.” This fantastic discord, along with Roger Ebert’s suggestion that Inception could not be spoiled as the end was irrelevent without the experiential journey, lead me to suggest that it was designed as a form of celluloid Ariadne’s thread; it offers much, but no one set of correct (re)solutions, and so how much you took from it is more than usually dependent on how much you tried to, rather than how much the director fed you.
Inception and other films, or
Inception is better than The Shining but not The Matrix
Now there’s a line to make most gourmet cinephiles fed up. Why these two for comparison? Both of them deal thematically with loss of reality, but they are very different films by vastly different directors. I invoke Kubrick because people have accused Nolan of having no cinematic personality beyond what he stole from the king of OCD auteurism; whilst this is obviously silly, The Shining is almost exactly the same length as Inception and includes scenes of liquid erupting within a building, a maze from on high, and pursuits through the snow. Comparing my viewing experiences of the two is unfair inasmuch as I had already read Stephen King’s (far superior) book, but I enjoyed Inception more the second time I saw it, so familiarity isn’t really a factor. I appreciate Kubrick’s cinematographic artistry, the luxurious stillness of his sets that add such silent, foreboding contrast to the moments of intense discomfort, and the acting – that of the extraordinary-looking wife more so than Jack Nicholson’s tour de force. Yet as a story it felt overly long and flat, and completely shallow – an uneven build up of tension with an empty resolution does not a great horror film make, and whilst Kubrick’s eye shows us all this with an intensity Nolan cannot match, he also takes advantage of us as viewers several times in ways that detriment the impact of a film more reliant on atmosphere and emotional effect than on narrative drive. I was both impressed and disappointed by The Shining, but I still think it’s good and I can understand why it holds sway at #49 on imdb, if not why the opening credits were so appallingly ugly and cheap (especially in juxtaposition to the wonderful footage of the opening sequence.)
Many people have a hard time liking The Matrix, let alone justifying the fact that it rates higher on the imdb scale than a Kubrick film other than Eyes Wide Shut. I can still remember the jubilation of seeing it in the cinema with two highschool buddies; our spontaneous arms akimbo cheer at the line “Guns. Lots of guns.” Clearly this wasn’t a Mensa session, but the things The Matrix did -updating Hong Kong action movies with Hollywood budgets, stealing recklessly to fuse manga and cybergoth, building narrative tension in smart and implacably stylish fashion- it did and does supremely well. Its level of sheer kinetic spectacle and accompanying visual tropes has since been parodied and worn past the test, but not surpassed. It shares with Inception its conceptual thrill ride status, that “hit us with the next level” kick, but although both use their concepts more as starting points than as ends in themselves, in The Matrix these hum beneath the hood of what is foremost an action movie, a different emotional and intellectual layering of dynamic to Inception.
I’ll bypass Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, partly because I’ve already dumped more than enough cinephile stock with this Kubrick debacle and partly because I feel the films’ formulation so different as to make a comparison unfruitful, but mainly because I didn’t like it (apart from the last 15 minutes.) Indeed I feel that much of the criticism levelled at Inception -that it is uninvolving, that it is much to do about nothing, that the characters are unlikable cutouts, that the movie is not what dreams are like, and so on- could be applied with equal justification here. My lack of enthusiasm might be put down to the fact that I went to the loo halfway through watching it on TV, and thereby missed the supposedly key scene for deciphering the film’s symbolic language – not to mention Naomi Watts masturbating herself. Should a drifting film place such emphasis on one scene to make it work conceptually? Perhaps, at any rate I’ll say it was more interesting than The Shining.
I think the best analogue for what Nolan is doing with Inception comes from anime maestro Satoshi Kon – not, as might be expected, his surreal journey into dreams made real, Paprika, but his masterpiece Millennium Actress; a film that creatively explores amorous obsession and the passionate pursuit of fulfilment in art whilst also being a wonderful ode to the Japanese film industry, anime and the joys of film watching. If you’re hoping I’ll name a work of celluloid I think is not only more artistically elaborate but better overall as a film than Inception, this is it – and it’s for all ages, too! That waterlily factoid also stems from it, by the way, and it also features a tearful goodbye sequence at a train station that is recalled and revised in much the same way as that of the much-praised El Secreto En Sus Ojos.
The Toll Of The Horn
or, why is nobody talking about the bloody score?
Inception was still more emotionally resonant for me than Millennium Actress, and I feel this must lie at least partly with the film’s musical undercurrent, mysteriously undiscussed by the world at large. When watching the film I found its lack of subtlety disappointing and a little annoying, when playing the soundtrack loudly in the dark it was fearsomely intense. On reflection, its constant ebb and flow, its separate but overlapping layers of light and darkness, its drifting repetition of motifs, its fusing of excitement with dread and romance: all of this not only threads and releases the structure of the film’s narrative, but imbues the whole with a momentum and a constant emotional overtone that translate wonderfully well into making the film unto a dream itself. That long deep brass note, that’s the train horn; we are, as Cobb, waiting for that train, though we know not where it will take us, the exhilaration and the fear fused by the undeniable power of its siren call, its promise of cartharsis. As Cobb, there is no one without the other, no desire without guilt, no love without anger, no hope without longing for self-destruction, for a destination, for an end.
Contrast with The Shining‘s equally intrusive but much more aggressively manipulative and detailed score – extremely effective until abused for a quick gag (TUESDAY!), incidental, exasperatingly annoying towards the end when longer scenes reach nails-on-chalkboard grating intensity of strings that is much, much worse than anything happening onscreen.
Hans Zimmer doesn’t get a whole lot of love from the general populace, despite having written the music for The Lion King and composed a score for Terrence Malick’s superb Thin Red Line that will be instantly and eerily familiar to anyone who has played Halo. On the whole I see him as a craftsman rather than a talented artist, but here, where thematics trump fine detailing, he came up with a winner – and without being allowed to watch the film whilst composing, an interesting tidbit.
On meeting Mr Christopher, or
Nolan, and closure
Nolan has made a career from exploring how men define and create themselves, whether by letting themselves be led (Following), by choosing to lie to themselves (Memento), by fighting against their own limitations (Insomnia, a pointless remake that spoke to his interests), through rivalry (The Prestige) and the total commitment and schizoid life of the Batman. This central obsession probed the fragility of memory, the (ab)use of violence and its empty, destructive results on the self, how the symbols and masks we adopt can come to mean more than we do, even to ourselves – and now, too, how one simple idea -a dream- can make or break a man for good (or indeed, evil.)
Inception is more about the dreams of conscious fantasy, of intuitive creation, of harmonic reality, than it is about recreating unconscious dreaming, even though it is fashioned to imitate the latter in many ways. I feel that here is where it wrongfooted many peoples’ expectations, as often as that much discussed closing shot, implied openly throughout the film and then delivered with a knowing flourish that revealed it for the satisfying red herring it was; cut a moment before resolution, just like a dream.
People accuse Nolan of making unemotional films, of empty formalism, of unlikable characters; having watched a fair amount of oriental cinema in counterpoint, I feel that his approach differs from the Hollywood norm in that it attempts to create resonant situations, concepts and crises for the viewer to consider, rather than making us feel them by inveigling sympathy for the (main) character(s) and their narrative arcs. Cobb is not the hero of Inception, he is the embodiment of the problem it dissects and discusses. Memento‘s emotional tone stayed with me for days after the first time I saw it, even though subsequent viewings revealed that I had missed or misunderstood critical parts of the film. I like that, as I like the Bauhaus structuring of several of his films; but I don’t think the latter is the point, it’s just layered craftsmanship. I’m not voicing a preference as to how a film should get its hooks into you; I’m just pointing out that difference of approach is not failure.
I don’t like the way Nolan films his action scenes, possibly because they function better as a sequence than moment for moment, and as my focus is fairly acute I lose more in visual decoherence than I gain from physical energy and roughness.
I do like the casting of the film, the beautiful clarity of the way it is shot (if Lynch is a master of shadowplay, this celluloid architecture is rooted in Le Corbusier’s light), the bar scene, the water shot transitions, Arthur’s glamorous glide and his sleeper hold, the several slides into space, off bridge or under mountain, the fantastic demolition of city and fortress (did they do that with CGI or with real explosives? I couldn’t tell, but would gladly have seen more), the symbolism and importance of things going on during the film’s supposedly overly extended exposition, the way Nolan hides so much in plain sight, the way his company is called Syncopy (an emulation of syncope, the act of falling unconscious) and its mazelike logo rises up from the dark before the first image, the relief of the childrens’ faces, the vibration of the rail tracks, the simple lullaby of romantic hope/total despair, the pinwheel, the first lines of conversation Mal and Cobb share (with himself, as always), the dreaming gap that divides them and lovers everywhere, the way the films shortcomings often seem to contribute to the overall themes, “It seemed neater”, the emergence of the film from invading musical and visual waves of the subconscious into out through the rooftop sprawls and mazes of Tokyo, Mombasa and Paris to the unwavering lines of arid Euclidean geometry that rise into the skies of the mind, repeated rectangles of engineering but no invention, height but no hope. The squat, brutish, impossible juggernaut of a train smashing through the drizzling tedium of the packed city street, the allure of demise, the accelerative attraction of demolition, the power of the simple symbol.
I did not love it, but I was uniquely a-mazed, and that I feel should count for something. It isn’t perfect, it is overhyped (though not a box office smash) and it is a strange amalgam that is sometimes ungainly – but it feels like an idea whose time has come, and it got me thinking about films and creativity in a new way.
Allow me to quote a short conversation from Bright Star, Jane Campion’s celluloid reimagining of Andrew Motion’s Keats biography. In it one of Keats’ lifelong friends defends Endymion against its hostile critical reception.
“‘I have clung to nothing, lov’d a nothing, nothing seen or felt but a great dream!
O I have been presumptuous against Love, against the sky, against all elements, against the tie of mortals each to each.’
The rhythm is beautiful and unique. There are rhymes, but not on the beat. They’re quiet, but binding. And the repetitions set you up to fly.
‘I have clung to nothing, lov’d a nothing, nothing seen’ and here you come out, ‘Or felt but a great dream!’”
“Well, there are immaturities, but there are also immensities, and that is what they didn’t say.”
“It was said. You said it, brother.”
Amen brother, amen.
If, as Inception may not overtly suggest but definitely explores, creativity and dreaming are one and the same, that what is needed to create art is not some innate talent but simply an openness to the pathways our greater, unconscious selves can take, then perhaps the only true measure of an artist lies in their ability to persevere until a work is finished, and then to recognise this fact, finish it and move on. Christopher Nolan spent almost a decade writing and rewriting this film to get it right, and now he has made it, and it finishes more or less perfectly. I feel this bodes very well for his films to come, may there be many; with luck he will have time to work on his artistry and explore something truly new for him – a film with a female main character might be wonderful.
I was disappointed that this film wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but what I got was, on reflection, better. Those of you who were underwhelmed might benefit from a second viewing as much as I did, or you might not; please don’t let our intial shared disappointment stop you from giving it a try, car de çela, je ne regrette rien.
The ever pithy Adam Roberts; like a sword sheathed in ones chest, indeed
Last Psychiatrist breaks down all the things you really should have seen
…and the guy who drank the Kool Aid entire (comment thread beware)