Sunday, July 18, 2010
Cast: Leonardo Di Caprio, Joseph Gordon Lewitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Sir Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: As Stephanie Zacharek says, it is an awesome film. That doesn’t mean, it is a great film. Because it isn’t.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller, Action
Inception is the kind of clever Hollywood film that inspires (or maybe conspires?) us to be dumb. It like those fantastic Hollywood blockbusters, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, like Star Wars, like Goldfinger, which treats an audience not like a set of individuals but as a singular entity, say cattle, who have no purpose bringing their individuality to the film. There is nothing in the film to which we can attach our personality to, our memories to, our experiences to, or our dreams to. Even the people caught up within the lies of The Matrix would have had a more individual world created for them. Movies are grand, and movies are dreams, not because they are big, or because they are a spectacle, but because we experience something personal in them. Lord of the Rings sure as hell looks stunningly spectacular, like wow, but you wouldn’t want to have it on a deserted island. Great movies do that to us, to each of us, so that when we sit and talk about it, not sharing a common memory, but discussing an individual experience.
So, yes, I wonder if Inception, the most intricately designed movies to come in years, if not decades, a design so outrageously labyrinthine yet so remarkably clear, is a great film. It is a great vaudevillian act, and there are no questions to be asked there. Any doubts ought to be sealed and shut real tight somewhere by the very simple fact that the ending frame has every member of every audience in every part of the world unite, having the exact same thought, and wanting the exact same outcome, and wanting it most desperately. That, dear reader, is audience manipulation of the highest kind, the evidence that we are witnessing a craftsman, an illusionist the likes of which cinema has probably never witnessed. Alfred Hitchcock might have been proud, sure, but I wonder if I really give a damn. What bothers me is what have I felt and experienced that my neighbor didn’t. And if the answer to that is nothing, which it increasingly seems is the case, then does that make Inception a lesser film? Or a greater one? I ask you.
Hey wait a minute there, one of you might stand up saying, and argue that your interpretation of Inception is different from your friend’s, or mine, and that it doesn’t make us dumb because it makes us think. And I would reply, step back dear, and just wonder what exactly we mean by interpretation here, and what are we exactly interpreting. We are just making heads or tails of the story, after maybe one viewing, because the narrative is just so overwhelming with information. In most puzzles we’re connecting the dots. In Inception, we’ve not even assembled all the dots. It is narrated most lucidly alright, appealing and engaging even the lowest of denominators, a no mean feat, but it is still is very much like listening to an audio book. You see, I have never understood the purpose of an audio book. In a book, you often re-read a beautiful sentence. Re-reading is a part of the experience, part of the little imaginary world that creates around us. In an audio book, rewinding breaks that experience, and we feel silly.
And oh, I might’ve been guilty of using the word dumb in a rather casual manner. But believe me, I don’t use it in any derogatory sense. We are dumb in the sense that we’re dumb terminals. We are students in a class. I don’t have many fond memories of my college, or many that intellectually stimulated me, but I do regard Professor Shashank Joshi in the highest regard. He taught us Metallurgy, and that infamous Iron-Carbide diagram, and he taught it with such authority and interest, we just listened. I remember that day. I don’t make notes, and I don’t even have a notepad handy on me. Often not even a pen. And Prof. Joshi’s command on the subject discouraged any such distracting activity as taking down notes. I listened, we listened, awestruck. Often the topic of that graph is taught over several periods. He taught us in one go. One hour flat. In there, it all made absolute sense. I return in the evening, sit down and discuss, and to consolidate within our minds this most difficult and important (MImp) topic. And as it turns out, we’ve no clue whatsoever. The lecture was simple dense, or maybe, we were just too dumb. Whichever the case, I guess you get the point. And as for the iron-carbide diagram, it is merely a diagram you see, with temperatures and physical states, and nothing else to it. Absolutes might be the word we’re looking for. Given enough time to revise and revisit, I think most of us in that classroom would’ve been just about as clear in the details as Prof Joshi himself. The fact of the matter is, for all its fascination, it didn’t, even for a moment, feel like the day I first read Kabuliwaala in Bal Bharati and cried inconsolably. I still think Tagore might have been a bit cruel there.
As usual I digress. Are we really thinking during Inception? Are our analytical skills being tested, or is it a test of our attention span? Or retention prowess? Inception is about a new world, and its rules, but it speaks so fast you really are catching up all the time. Does it relax for you to assimilate? I don’t think so. It is all straightforward, actually, but the sheer volume of it is overwhelming. You know the broad strokes, and you know the direction of the flow, and you know that the journey feels fun, and you ride along. I don’t think many audience members asked each other questions, and if somebody indeed did, I am sure he must have been shushed in the most disdainful manner. Dude, I have a movie to understand here. Brb. Ttyl.
You might rebuke me saying the dude didn’t get the movie. Of course I didn’t. At least, I cannot answer plot resolutions. I have only watched it once. I am confused. I don’t recollect much. I know I had absolute fun. I know I was with the movie for most of the part. I know I had absolutely no idea how time flew by. And this is exactly how I wanted to analyze the film. In this state. Repeated viewings shall surely help, but then, tell me dear reader, would I find anything in the film that I wouldn’t find in an eventual Wikipedia plot summary. Everything, I suspect, is certain. Absolute. Every image seems to have one purpose, and one purpose only. A singular tone. I don’t think most of my dreams make any damn sense in a logical way. Ah, but as it says, they do make sense while I am there. I am not questioning the strangeness of any of it. Unlike most dream movies, like Mulholland Dr., like Inland Empire, like Last Year At Marienbad which are not dream movies but the recollections of a dream and hence do not make any sense while they are happening, Inception feels like a dream, where we have absolute comprehension, and in that moment we feel we’re with the game. So yes, Inception, make no mistake, is a fascinating film. In its own way, it is as interesting a film as the Resnais classic. I don’t think such a film has ever been made. Or maybe it has, and it was called The Big Sleep. It is fascinating in how Mr. Nolan, a real brilliant and smart guy, and I am sure someone who seems to have a real high IQ, uses the conventional editing in cinema, where cuts picks us from one place, and drops us to somewhere else, and gives a reason to it too. Every CUT TO: here is invaluable to the plot, because if it is a CUT TO: then it is a dream. Even a damn explosion has a reason. That is the level of plot-detailing done.
I think it might become an instant audience-classic, a movie of the people, an ambitious film the once in a decade sort of thing, like The Matrix, which I believe, doesn’t even come close in audience manipulation. There is a heist scene which is bound to become as iconic a sequence as any ever filmed. Wise studio executives should be strategizing how to make spin-offs, comic books and, if you come to think of it, a sequel to two too. Inception is like those Bourne movies, or the Ocean movies, or those Rambo movies, or even the Indiana Jones movies, where you can manufacture a stake – like those kids are kidnapped by the score in part 1, or the dad, or someone rats out in a bar – and bang, you have a reason for a sequel. I think it is time that I tell you that the plot involves a bunch of dream-cons who specialize in stealing secrets from your dreams, and who’re hired to go plant a idea in a mark. I would love that too. It is like Rififi had Tony and Jo not met tragic fates. I think Jules Dassin in Hollywood would have been making a sequel.
But then, I am not awed. My imagination sure has a great idea, thank you very much Mr. Nolan, and the movie he planted in my head and one that is infesting my brain seems to be becoming a way cooler movie. And I have already changed a lot of it. For instance, I do not get why is there a need to spend $200 million behind all that redundant architecture in Inception’s Marienbad (wink wink, clue clue). You mean to say our imaginations build something like that? Oh I do appreciate Paris restructuring itself into a reflection of itself, but long lines of buildings and bridges and water and houses in them is all we’re capable of? Or maybe, I suspect, giving Mr. Nolan the benefit of the doubt, that the infinite wall I saw in one of my dreams might seem an odd image now, but if strenuously explained would become trivial and ordinary. So yeah, there you go, Inception conjures up some beautiful odd dream images, and then strenuously explains them.
And so much of it is redundant, and flabby. There are antagonists within the dreams, who are nothing but the bad guys, and they are sitting ducks waiting to be shot, much like those millions of guys Arnold Schwarzenegger shot in Commando. There are no stakes, there is no thrill, and it made absolutely no sense. Guys are shot, wham bam, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was incomprehensible too. You see, in our dreams, we sure do not have visual access to all the action, but we do automatically know what’s happening. It’s mysterious in there, fantastical. I might be running and talking and I might suddenly realize I am a dog all along. That is not the case with Inception. It is exact. It is precise. It is to the point, a logical and mathematical equation. It is a real sweat and blood film, so skillfully designed, yet there is little beauty to it. Mr. Nolan, unlike most filmmakers, is someone with completely masculine aesthetics and tastes who appreciates melodrama but has absolutely no idea how to achieve it. He has so much of it already figured out. He is logical, he is calculative, and most importantly he is a guy. He is honorable, and the way he deals with his characters is such a pleasure. There are no villains in a Nolan film. You empathize with all of them, and you wouldn’t believe who made me well up in Inception. I hear the plot benefited from Mr. Caprio’s contribution. I can see it where, and I can see how it is the most bloated aspect of it. Mr. Nolan is a smart guy, probably more smart then you and me put together, and I think his brains can conjure up something amazing every time. He is a real smart filmmaker, and his native and instinctive understanding of cinema is much smarter and subtler than most of us. He has to have logic for everything, and here with the big studios, there seems to be an obligatory tone to his films’ more blockbuster like quality. The best parts of Inception come from within him, and had it been his first film, made independently, I can stick my neck on a railway track and say it would have been one of the greatest achievements ever. The real Rififi Part Deux. But not here. He strains to be a Michael Bay or a Steven Spielberg or a James Cameron and he just doesn’t have it in him. His filmmaking is not about images. He is unique, because he is about a feel. You walk out of his films, and you remember only fleeting images, but you have a strange eerie feeling inside of you. In many ways, he is the subtlest most un-flamboyant director ever, someone who doesn’t have it in him to show-off (like Kubrick did with most of 2001), and I respect that. He scarcely believes in a wide shot. Most of his images are personal, medium shots. His films seldom observe, they happen. The big buildings are not what I would remember a decade from now. It is that spinning top, or the tilted water in that glass. I can’t get them out of my head. They are eerie, unsettling. That is his aesthetic, and that is the kind of incredible genius Christopher Nolan stands for. He never used slow-mo in his life, and here he is using it extensively, because there’s just pure logic flowing through his veins. He can think real big, but I wonder if he can truly imagine. Imagine like a fool. Dream like a fool. Like me and you. Okay, just me.
Addendum: I’ve watched the film a second time, and I seem to make sense of it all a whole lot more. I find my early opinion quite solid, yet there are vast areas of the film we need to explore. Analyze it on its own terms, and not for what we want it to be. A little essay comes for you. As for the big question, I think I have already given the answer in my review. I find that the second viewing only confirms. And if you want a clue, I only give one – those old men dream somewhere, somewhere below. I suspect, I really do suspect now, that Christopher Nolan has created what several filmmakers before him, and several after, have only tried to. It is a labyrinth, and remember, within a labyrinth, you always feel that you have a way out. Always.