Saturday, September 4, 2010

But where's the heart, Mr Nolan?

Inception is a house of cards. A dazzling house of cards, to be sure. But still, at any given moment, only a breath away from collapsing under its own terrible weight. I admired the craft in this film, I am in awe of its technical achievements and I genuflect in reverence to the originality and sheer ambition of this movie. But I have been moved more by a twenty second life-insurance commercial on television. And more intellectually engaged by the crystalline clarity of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. 

Inception arrived in theaters this summer already canonized as the most important thing to happen to cinema this year.

At a time when every film steps within our perimeter of awareness with disclosure of every detail of its plot, Inception arrived on the scene with resolute opaqueness. They were not going to tell you what the film was about, and if that was going to ruin its marketing prospects, then so be it. The secrecy around the film became its marketing. I for one, was thrilled to bits. We are told by folks who create film trailers these days that people like to know exactly what they are going to see in a movie. It is the reason behind the longevity of McDonald's we are informed: people like the comfort of going to eat something whose taste is precisely known to them. This has always seemed to me like a barrel of steaming horse manure. How many times at the theater have I watched a trailer in which the entire premise of the movie, seemingly through the last act, is laid out in front of me, and I have remarked "Why don't they just screen the entire damn film while they are at it". So I was silly giddy to hear that Christopher Nolan was not putting up with any of that, and that the smallest detail of his latest film was being guarded with Fort Knox-like security. On this basis alone, I was already in awe of this film, because it seemed to have pulled off the unthinkable: creating excitement about a film, by not telling anything about it! Inception had me at hello. 

I remember that only a few days before its official release, the studio allowed their marketing campaign to let it be known to the general public that the main character of the film is able to enter into the dreams of others. And even hearing about that little piece sounded to me like a violation, like being allowed to watch somebody's personal home video. Why did they have to do that, I wondered. 

And then I saw the film, and the unbearable irony of it depressed me: they should have never bothered. Even if Nolan had released the full script of the film on his Facebook page a year ahead of the release, he needn't have worried: nobody would have understood it. And I say that only half-jokingly. In fact, more than a month after the film's release, there is still rampant discourse on what the various parts of the film exactly mean, and what the end signifies. 

During my viewing, as I tried to keep up with the film, it appeared at many points as if I was myself grasping hands around the film to keep it from crashing down into a thousand little pieces. What lofty ambitions this script has. The sort that you know someone has spent a lifetime fine-tuning, going back to it again and again, at different points, and layering on more. The sort of master-script that has been somebody's obsession their whole life. And as my brain was trying to process it all together, the unwieldiness of it all finally got exhausting. Where the movie should have soared, taking off from what it had built so far, it instead got sticky and tangled, unable to take flight from the excessive details of the very world it had created. 

M.C. Escher, Relativity, 1953
Is that world, sticky and all, impressive? Yes, of course. Would I recommend this film? In a heart-beat. Because this film has, purely from a visual and aesthetic perspective, scenes that are plainly unlike anything we have seen before on celluloid. Scenes that will make your jaw drop in amazement. The extended version of the scene shown in every preview of the film - of the street in Paris that begins to seemingly fold upon itself and then perfectly clasp (like ouroborus, the serpent swallowing its own tail) is a thing of wonderment. There is a portion in the last third of the film where things escape the laws of gravity altogether, and the choreography of the actors and objects in those scenes approaches the operatic in its grandeur. The film creates its own universe and its own language, and its own strange detached rhythm. No stranger to playing with the scale of time (since his debut film, Memento), Nolan again experiments with the spooling of time, not just linearly backward and forward, but this time also in multiple separate dimensions. There is a scene (clearly inspired by Escher's paintings that contradict rules of visual perception) of a staircase going around itself endlessly that must have been a pain to create. How can a person watch this and not be impressed? 

But all this, to what avail? I am unashamed of my love of cerebral cinema. But even so, the excesses of Inception wore my mind into a state of apathy. Amidst all the mind-blowing extraordariness of the film, I found a coldness underneath, something that prevented me from caring about these characters and their brain-melting predicaments. Unable to engage my mind, or connect with my heart, the film became toward the end, grating. 

And it seems a bit of a lost opportunity. Based on what I had observed in the early part of the film, I was hoping that the second half would be about endlessly clever puzzles that would need to be solved. The promise of the earlier Escherian scene of the infinitely looping staircase, had me poised to experience the sort of labyrinthine puzzles, both visual and mental, that would elevate the cleverness of the film to another level. Instead what does the last half-hour of the film entail? A standard issue chase in a snow-bound landscape in which the bad guys with guns are running after the good guys. This is the natural evolution of a film that starts with almost incomprehensible cleverness? 

The cast of the film is beyond blame. After the success of The Dark Knight, when Christopher Nolan calls, most actors will drop whatever they are doing and line up to be in his film. How else to explain the three scenes in which Michael Caine shows up. Leonardo di Caprio works hard and is expectedly reliable in a role that is unsettlingly similar to his character in Shutter Island his other movie release this year. Marion Cotillard does her best to blunt the shrillness built into the part she portrays; this is after all a character given the terribly literal name of  'Mal' (as one reviewer inquired, was 'Crazy Woman' taken?). Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Cillian Murphy do not have much to chew on, but are more than capable. And Tom Hardy steps out with a career-making role. These are all actors of strong marrow. 

The best analogy I can provide to my experience with Inception is a family trip I took a few years ago to visit, for the first time, the State Parks in Utah and Arizona. Upon arrival, with much anticipation, at the Grand Canyon, I was distressed to find it strangely underwhelming. Yes, it was impressive and almost unimaginably huge, but at the end of the day, only a very large pit. Certainly I could appreciate it, but as much as I tried, it failed to speak to me. Compare that to Zion National Park, our next stop, where the rock formations were so majestic, I could have heard angels singing. I am not one to routinely seek spirituality in the outdoors, but Zion, to my utter surprise became close to a religious experience. I had a similar experience with Bryce Canyon that is only a fraction of the size of the Grand Canyon. Who knows what moves us in life, what trips up hidden circuits within us to light up. But when it happens, it is one of the best things about being human. I love the movies because more than any other art form, they have a higher rate of enabling this connection within one's self that triggers a lighting up. 

I realize this is lofty, but this is what I was reminded of while watching Inception. I was impressed, but left cold. Christopher Nolan, obviously one of the more talented film-makers working today, has been successful in the past with making films that have a strong emotional undertow. His last film, The Dark Knight, based on a static comic-book source (Batman) had audiences deeply invested in the outcome of as artificial a character as the Joker. That film, has scenes of crushing emotional weight; the one where the protagonist is forced to choose between saving the life of Gordon (his friend) or Rachel (his girlfriend) stings even now. It is not easy to take comic book characters and invest in them the sort of emotional ballast that devastates audiences. So this time around, why did Nolan fail to invest any emotional heft to the characters in Inception? If he had spent a portion of the energy he did on the script, to granting some sense of dimension to the characters, this would have been a stellar film. As it is, it is more than a little odd that the characters in Inception are surprisingly sporting in accepting the stunningly bizarre things happening to - and - around them. They seem to move on with the next strange twist in the plot with barely a casual shrug of the shoulders. 

As Pixar has been teaching us for the past several years in a row, it is not what we see, but rather what we feel, that ultimately matters most in a film.  Inception could use a pointer.