Monday, August 30, 2010

Nolan Returns to his Roots

Inception is the blockbuster of the summer, which is basically the season of blockbusters in the North American film industry, having made $622 551 540 in box office receipts worldwide so far. It is also the latest film by Christopher Nolan, who is rapidly becoming James Cameron's biggest competition for Hollywood's most popular director. Fresh off his record-smashing and billion dollar success The Dark Knight, Nolan seems to be returning to the narrative techniques and themes of his first film Memento. He also seems to have shed the more "cutesy," if totally extraneous, aspects of blockbusterism, largely borrowed from the repertoire of Stephen Spielberg, such as the scene in The Dark Knight when the two boys are pretending to shoot a car that subsequently explodes during the chase sequence where the Joker is trying to abduct two-face Harvey Dent from his police escort. His return to his roots is a good thing.

For one thing, his challenging narrative technique, which has baffled even some critics, pays due respect to the intelligence of the audience. It panders to intelligence rather than the lack thereof. Secondly, the theme of memory repressed from the outside-in, a clever reversal of the by-now familiar psychoanalytic account of memory repressed from the inside out as a result of trauma, makes a powerful return. Whereas the protagonist of Memento has his memory stolen as a result of a head trauma caused by a vicious assault, in Inception there is a developing tension between the protagonist's increasingly dangerous and uncontrollable memories of his wife, and his vocation. As an extractor, his job is to steal people's memories by sharing their dreams, and with his team, to provide the space within which the dream occurs. As such, Inception shares with Memento a non-linear narrative structure and the themes of memory, grief, and loss.

That said, Inception, I would argue, is not quite as well-rounded achievement as Memento. I think it is a very good film, and not in the sense of it's good . . .
for a blockbuster, but on its own terms. It is complex, novel, has interesting characters, especially the aptly-named Ariadne, who functions in the film as a kind of conscience for Leonardo Di Caprio's character, much like Harper Lee figured as Truman Capote's conscience in Capote. Ariadne, in Greek mythology, was mistress of the labyrinth, weaver, and wife of Dionysis. Her job in the film is to design the spaces within which the shared dream of the inception job occurs. The protagonist recruits her from the best of his father's students, and his test of her is figured in terms of her ability to spontaneously generate labyrinths.

One of the exciting elements of this movie is the aspects of visual culture it draws upon. Without realizing it, I've been waiting for a film to take on the paradoxical and perspectivally warped work of M.C. Escher. Indeed, the scenes where Ariadne learns to share dreams, especially the one where Ariadne takes the streets of Paris and folds them into a three-dimensional box, are obviously directly inspired by the work of Escher. The scene where she takes two mirrors and faces them together, creating the illusion of infinity is also suggestive of the visual art of Escher, and the fictional world of Jorge Luis Borges. However, this trick has of course been done already in a film – Habla Con Ella, by Pedro Almadovar – and to a greater effect in the scene where that film's protagonist meets his friend in the confines of a prison to explain his rape of a comatose patient. But the folding Paris scene is great in that it subordinates the potential of new digital techniques in a film to a strong concept and challenging narrative, rather than fetishizing the technique as a value-in-itself, as happens in films such as The Transformers.

The fantasy world of the protagonist and his wife is also the urban dreamscape of modernist architect Le Courbusier. That this world is crumbling by the end of the film is fitting seeing as some cultural critics, such as Charles Jenks, locate the beginning of postmodernism in the destruction of a Le Courbusier-inspired Pruitt-Igoe neighbourhood in St. Louis.

While Nolan uses the nested narrative technique effectively to create the disorientating experience of being in a dream within a dream, and, later, a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream, the writing isn't as strong or memorable as it is in The Dark Knight. It also doesn't have the awe-inspiring performance of a Heath Ledger to guide it through its weaker spots. Don't get me wrong, the performances are good; it's just that none of them scream "Oscar" to me. Di Caprio does a solid job of playing a man damaged by a guilt that is preventing him from achieving his goal: a reunion with his children. Although I've always been a fan of Joseph-Gordon Levitt's film work, and his zero-gravity combat scene in the hotel is cool (not the parkour-inflected Casino Royale chase scene cool, but cool nonetheless) I still don't think any of the performances is worthy of an Oscar.

However, Inception's concept and narrative complexity are its strengths, and in the long run, they are both more important than the level of the actors' performances. Also, the score is strong, thankfully not overwrought as blockbuster scores tend to be, and it is considerably more interesting than The Dark Knight's score.

Overall, this is a film worth seeing at least once, although the caveat that you need to see it more than once to "get" it is a little exaggerated.









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