August 1, 2010
In praise of ‘Inception’

That’s a dubious title for something I’d want to read, but bear with me.

Inception is a film that cost $160,000,000 to make, and a further hundred million to promote. Nonetheless it seems on track to make a profit.

These facts alone ought to make us intensely suspicious of anyone trying to defend the movie. Surely anything that represents such an investment must be bound by guy lines that tether its aspirations to the middling, to broad appeal. ‘Fuck you, pay me’ is a stern taskmaster: only very rarely can something of a personal nature slip by it, and out into the world.

My points here are very simple:

  1. Inception is a profound, personal, movie.
  2. The personality being revealed is Christopher Nolan’s (‘he’).
  3. Particularities about who is dreaming who, or when, or if they ever stop are superficial and irrelevant.
  4. Much of the movie is about Nolan’s anxieties when making a movie, especially one where so much other-peoples’-money is at stake.
  5. His anxiety arises from the fact that he knows that he is a consummate director of ass-in-seat flock, and the fact that he doesn’t really want to be. 
  6. The movie wants to portray the more general anxiety of any creative person in the throes of creation: the enormous strain he finds himself under when, at any moment, the juice could all drain away, leaving him with uninspired, expensive, dreck.
  7. He is aware of how slick and formal action films get asses in seats, and with Inception, he decided to explode that fact.
  8. He wants to portray that one backwards-facing barb in him that prevents smooth delivery of ass-in-seat flock. I would call the barb ‘integrity’ or ‘responsibility’ or ‘commitment’. 
  9. In the end, he wants to make a movie that covers his ass and makes a lot of money for everybody, but with the knowledge that if he didn’t simultaneously make a movie that completely expressed his feelings about what it is to make a movie, to be himself, he’ll have failed.

So, Nolan’s anxiety.

That a big-budget movie director is going through the eye of the needle every time he or she makes a movie doesn’t need to be belabored. Ridley Scott famously suspends the ordinary rules of human politeness and self-consciousness during the process. (That many directors take this mantle of ruthlessness as an excuse to be petulant and tantrum-prone need hardly be mentioned either.) These types of directors, especially, know what is expected of them. Lee ‘Roll-em’ Sholem is probably the studios’ paragon here. Get it in the can, fix it in post, Always Be Closing, etc.

Reconciling this required talent with some kind of artistic backbone has pretty much always been the schizophrenic affliction of good, famous directors. It’s hard to achieve, and it’s very easy to lose. Cf., Later Kurosawa, when Coppola and George Lucas had to swoop in from the eaves with the money for Ran, after Japanese studios had all but abandoned their prodigal son.

I think Nolan sees the taut demands of a heist movie as a metaphor for these studio demands. You’ve got to get in, get out without getting burned. You’ve got to take the big risks for the enormous reward. If the thief blows it, it’s not like the person behind it all ever goes to jail or has his career ruined. Nolan knows that if he fails in his heist of moviegoers’ wallets, he’s the one with the black mark on him; his backers are just out a bunch of money. That Ken Watanabe’s moneyman-character tags along begins to look a lot like the on-set junior executive whispering notes into the porches of Nolan’s ear. In Nolan’s world, this guy gets shot almost immediately (though by the end of the story, he’s rescued by the protagonist, and, significantly wiser, emerges from the experience with a newfound respect for the intricacies of the process. It’s a neat little bildungsroman just for studio executives. Maybe a little treacley, like the head, heart and hands moral of Metropolis, but there you go.)

The more pressing anxiety to Nolan is the nightmare of anyone engaged in sustained creative activity: that the ineffable juice will find a crack in you somewhere, and drain away. We’ve all seen these movies. Formally, they’re in tip top shape: taut script, polished photography, sympathetic editing, the whole nine yards. But you come away from them with a profound feeling of emptiness. They’re like a piece of coral you’d keep on your desk. Incredibly intricate. Everything has proceeded in lockstep to make something enormously complicated, but it’s vacant. It houses nothing. Wind whistles through its impressive construction. Huston’s Wise Blood, the third Matrix movie, two and three quarters of the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, One From the Heart, the Kill Bill movies, Watchmen, all the Spielberg except Empire of the Sun, Melville’s Un flic, etc. etc. etc.

Only a director can say what the feeling of a movie getting away from you is like. The on-set realization that everything you’re doing is suddenly airless must be doubly terrible because of the neon Beckett line that flashes in your mind: ‘I CAN’T GO ON, I’LL GO ON’. If you don’t want the bondsman to come for your baby, you’d better find a way of becoming a mortician, so your corpse of a movie at least has the pallor of life. Cf. how not being able to do this utterly broke Richard Williams as he struggled to complete his masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler.

Maybe it feels like the ground dropping away from you. Suddenly weightless, not knowing which way is up, you have to make do and keep clawing away at your movie, hoping to find that buried thread again.

Thread. The way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus. Ariadne.

Such a blunt segue does a good job of showing how crude Ariadne’s character feels. Most movies at least make an attempt at subtlety. Mr. Warren in Brazilworks in a rabbit warren. Mr. Kurtzman is very short. To me, unsubtlety from someone I kind of trust, like Nolan, is a sign saying ‘Hey look, there’s a door here that opens up another layer of this thing I’m trying to do.’

Ariadne as a character is purely an expositional mirror. She is as ignorant as the audience about the technical details of Inception, and her on-screen education is therefore an acceptable way of wising up the audience to what is going on. The utility of these characters is why so many movies follow novices and initiates (Men in Black, Transformers N+1, LA Confidential, etc.) and why nearly every plot-driven movie has ignorant supporting characters, usually women (every Indiana Jones movie, The Three Days of the Condor, the Dan Brown movies, the John Grisham movies, etc.)

To me, the red flag raised by the unsublety of her character’s name is confirmed by Ariadne’s totem: a chess pawn. In the deliberately stripped-down, unembellished and bland world Nolan’s chosen, characters are what they do for the movie. Why? Because them’s the rules of the breezy, action-movie matrix.

I think Nolan is fascinated by the physicality of action movies, and in just the same way he’s into the physicality of making movies. Recall his famous distaste for computer-generated gewgaws in the Batman movies, or the mechanical devices made for The Prestige. But Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, JJ Abrams and Bruckheimer himself for that matter probably share his fascination. What sets Nolan apart is the ability to admire a form, but at the same time have the desire and ability to transcend it (Hitchcock, Cronenberg, the Coens, Kubrick and possibly Rian Johnson.) The lock-step precision with which an action movie is supposed to unfold really is a pretty brilliant setting for, and foil to, a personal parable. To go even further, the fact that the audience is watching several layers on the screen, while hopefully several layers of meaning are being elaborated inside their own heads is just delicious. It probably belabors the point to say Nolan is doing to the genre what his characters are tasked with doing to Cillian Murphy’s Fischer, inserting an alien idea that blooms into a self-defeating course of action. A homily to self-expression and individuality, curled up inside the sulcus of a big-money action film about snookering a man into believing he is acting as himself.

Finally, for me, Marion Cotillard’s Mal is one of the most bite-your-own-teeth things in the movie. On the one hand, I see her as the representation of the backward-facing barb in Nolan that refuses to let him churn out ass-in-seat flock, in exactly the same way Mal at every turn  attempts to foil the movie’s heist. In this way, Mal represents Nolan’s responsibility to himself to be resolutely an individual in the face of the homogenizing requirements of making action movies.

On the other hand, Mal seems to represent the bottomless dread that creeps around the basement of every creative person. In the film, Mal inhabits the bilgiest level of creation. She is everything totemic, powerful and terrifying about the female capacity to create. Unrestrained, termite-queen production. Taken this way, she (or is that ‘She’?) comes to represent the place from which creativity springs, but also the holy terror creative people reserve for that level of themselves: the irrational, directionless energy they have to harness to their own individuality. The top that spins and spins and spins.


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