Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Irresistible Lightness of Inception.

I approached Inception with spectacularly mixed feelings. To say that I was a never a big Chris Nolan fan would probably be putting it mildly. In fairness, I had no particularly strong emotions in either direction regarding his early pictures; it was the Batman movies, and particularly the fanatical and (in my ever humble opinion) wrong-headed canonisation of The Dark Knight, that really soured me against the work of this undeniably ambitious and successful director.

Then on the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the promotional material for Inception. Those great ominous bass blasts in the trailers really imparted a sense of excitement and occasion, and the lustrous sheen of the images suggested that the Nolan/Wally Pfister partnership had finally transcended the merely polished level of previous efforts. Thematically, Inception seemed more down my street: I've been a big fan of Philip K. Dick/Robert Anton Wilson rug-pullers for years.

So, despite my misgivings, I was getting excited, and tentatively hopeful, for Inception. A sense of occasion and excitement is something that has been distinctly lacking in 2010, in terms of mainstream Hollywood and American auteurist pictures. Nolan's latest, regardless of how it might pan out in the end, provided this year with the much needed frisson of a must-see ticket, a movie you had to see opening weekend on the biggest screen in town, that you might love or hate, that you knew you would be talking about one way or the other. So I was happy to be caught in the buzz of a must-see picture: buying your ticket in advance, slavishly reading the reviews as they accumulate online, even though you know from experience that a thousand slavering raves could still translate into a movie you hate like cancer. I was enjoying the sensation of not knowing what to expect: I might walk out shaking my fist in an irrelevant fit of curmudgeon rage, or eyeing the world with the glazed and giddy eyes of a new convert.

As it turned out, neither of these alternatives came to pass; but I was happily surprised that my reaction to Inception was much more in the latter category than the former. To begin this review, I'd like to note certain things about the film that struck me as being in stark contrast both to my own expectations of Inception, and to what a great majority of critics are saying about the film.

1.) It isn't particularly difficult to understand. The most virulent meme surrounding Inception is that it requires some kind of Mensa super-brain to begin to get a handle on the plot. I can't buy into this at all. This movie literally works overtime to be user-friendly - it patiently and explicitly lays out all the rules of the game, all the information you need, in the first half. Fair enough, a couple of little details require a greater degree of alertness than others, but there is no duplicity, no deliberate obscuration of any kind. Nolan knows he is working with some elaborate narrative conceits, and really couldn't have been more obliging in trying to make it a smooth ride for audiences. I think he has been entirely successful in this - I saw Inception first with a really non-cineaste/hipster crowd, and didn't get any impression of confusion after the screening. This meme seems to be entirely in the mind of critics who have either spent too long trying to second guess the intelligence of mass audiences, or have themselves succumbed to the depleted attention span they are constantly ascribing to the movie-going public.

2.) It isn't a twisty, tricksy film. When synopses of Inception first began to leak out, it was immediately apparent that this was a movie whose heart was firmly in the nineties - that strange decade of The Maxtrix, The Truman Show, Groundhog Day, and Vanilla Sky, when suddenly speculation about the illusionary nature of reality became as routine in the omniplex as car cases and rom-coms. It wasn't all good in the nineties, though. This was also a decade in which a peculiar mania developed for narrative tricks and gimmicks - what I like to call the Dark M. Night Shyamalan of the Soul. Considering its reality-bending premise, the big fear with Inception was that it would fall into this category - that it would hinge on some cheap, contrived, manipulative twist. Much to his credit, Nolan has completely eschewed that approach with Inception. Despite a premise with ample potential for trickery, and a degree of ambiguity which I will discuss later, this movie has a strikingly straight-up narrative. There are no big "Aha, it was really this all along" moments; the idea that Cobb may be in limbo from the get-go is an unresolved suggestion that is present from the very beginning, and is at no point hammered down as a hokey last act reveal. I'm not even sure if there is a twist per se in this movie. You're given all the clues and all the elements of Cobb's back story with Mal; whatever revelations follow are entirely logical and by no means streamlined for maximum surprise. Refreshingly, Inception's story-telling model is classical through and through; it has added a few extra floors to the bank, but the overall structure is still recognisably that of The Asphalt Jungle.

3.) It doesn't take itself very seriously. At all. This was the biggest surprise for me, and is actually the quality that I think most endeared me to the movie. Inception is a blockbuster through and through - a razzle dazzle, experience it in the theatre, race against the clock thriller that has no qualms whatever about what it's primary function is - to entertain. Yes, it certainly aspires to be a much sleeker, hipper, smarter variety of tent-pole that we are routinely saddled with, but it has no overarching ambitions to bludgeon you with philosophical insight or emotional catharsis. It undoubtedly has plenty of smart ideas underpinning the action, but remains at it's core a heist caper, a fun heart-stopper of intricate planning, unexpected complication, and inventively extended, multiple simultaneous cliffhangers. Movies like Avatar and Inception reflect a positive trend toward credible populist directors working on original properties, and both have revived a long dead art-form - the ability to show every penny on the screen, without being crass, vulgar, or dumb.

This is a point that is worth dwelling on a little, because I think that some of Inception's more ardent and vocal champions have essentially done the movie a disservice, by placing it within a context that falls way outside it's own scope and and set of goals. During the first wave of critical euphoria that greeted Inception, which was derived largely from from the web-based, geeky film community, Nolan was compared to Stanley Kubrick and David Lean, and the film itself likened to Last Year in Marienbad, 8 1/2, and Mulholland Drive.

This had the effect of saddling the picture with responsibilities and ambitions it had never claimed for itself. Detractors argued that Inception has virtually nothing valuable to say about the nature of dreams, or the dichotomy between dreams and reality. All of which would have been valid criticism, if this was actually what the movie was setting out to do. While it is certainly true that Inception deals to a certain limited extent with creativity and the film-making process, I think that Nolan's primary intention with this film was to have fun with ideas - not to lay out any kind of philosophical treatise or world-view. Inception utilizes dreams mainly to give two film narrative standards - the heist caper, and the noir motif of the protagonist staking out for a happy-ever-after ending on one last job - a new lick of paint, a 21st century freshness in the telling. (Again, I have to give kudos to Nolan this time around for maintaining a degree of classicism in his story-telling. Whereas Memento leaned very heavily on a chronological gimmick to make its story compelling, Inception simply adds extra layers and twists, and leaves the classic structure to stand on its own merits.)

Inception utilizes dreams to invent an extravagantly entertaining game to be enjoyed by both director and audience. It asks "How far can you take a premise?", and proceeds to build its multi-storey narrative as a Byzantine house of cards, or a particularly perilous game of Jenga, from the top down. It asks "How much second-guessing, how much narrative gamesmanship, can you generate by establishing a couple of ground rules or premises (dreams within dreams, implanted ideas)?" It does this largely, I suspect, for the old-fashioned hell of it. Inception's great virtue lies in its lightness of tone, its lack of pretension, and its unabashed desire to entertain. In stark contrast to the overwrought melodramatics of The Dark Knight, this movie has an exuberance, a playfulness, that is irresistible. David Thompson is a very fine writer of prose whose opinions on the moving image are as often infuriating as they are edifying. However, I think he has nailed the appeal of Inception bang to rights:

"So don’t be put off by the way millions are flocking to Inception—just study the ease with which these audiences are floating over the bits of plot they can’t follow, carried along by the witty good nature of the film. And that’s the crucial novelty".

"Christopher Nolan has tended to be a little gloomy in the past and that sometimes left him looking solemn. What really works in Inception—and means so much to the future of movies—is its grace, its ease, its happiness in being an entertainment and a game".

"As I go back to it, and we all will, I think this truth will emerge, that amid its stunning visions of Paris folding up like a clever box and cliffs crumbling like abandoned tenements, it has the panache of a comedy. Leonardo and his gang do a great job with their inane task, but it could have been Laurel and Hardy getting a piano up those steps."

The closing sequence of Inception is easily my favourite thing Nolan has ever shot. Its one of those seamless, graceful fusions of performance, movement, and music. The astonishment on DiCaprio's face echoes our own shocked realisation that this has been a simple old story all along. After all the labyrinthine twists, the layers and the abrupt transitions, you find yourself in one of the simplest, oldest stories of them all: somebody trying to get home. And my favourite thing, in the whole movie, is the moment where Saito, having been lost for a lifetime in a limbo of illusionary being, takes about a second to orient himself to the complete reversal of his reality and age, and immediately makes the call. Its just pure storytelling; an apotheosis of hokum; the beautiful friendship of Casablanca re-dusted for a very brave new world indeed.