Match Frame

Thoughts from an American editor and filmmaker in New Zealand about film and video production and post-production. Plus whatever else I feel like talking about.

Location: Balmoral, Auckland, New Zealand

A work in progress.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thoughts on INCEPTION that are pretty much spoilers.

I walked out of INCEPTION today and spent five minutes walking around a food court, more or less in a daze. I'm not sure that's an endorsement. On a second viewing, I think I'll either find it an absolute masterpiece or completely ponderous and frustrating. Regardless of which happens, it's an undoubted testament to Nolan's talent that I *want* to view it a second time, and of course that so many people have already become obsessed with this movie.

My immediate, gut reaction was one of minor disappointment. There's no question that INCEPTION is masterful on all levels, on levels most films don't even dare consider exist. But I found at least two completely missed opportunities for a film that I wanted to see. The first is expanding on the reality-bending powers displayed by Ellen Page's character (Ariadne, and that name is a powerful indication that It's All A Dream, despite my preference that it's not that way - more on that later) in the dream. The sequences of folding the city and then generating a new passageway from a set of mirrors are remarkable, glorious magic - a magic that Nolan then largely discards for the remainder of the film, as her talents are never used in particularly obvious ways, certainly not spontaneously, and her actual contribution to the whole narrative is unintelligible to me.

And so, as the final act plays out with a cross-cutting action narrative, I kept thinking that I could do with a lot fewer explosions and machine guns and a lot more folding cities and crazy shit.

That's one side of my tastes, and on the other side, there's the thematic. Ultimately, INCEPTION is about planting an idea in somebody's brain (and before you say for sure whose brain that is, read Bilge Ebiri's analysis. And it's the tragedy of doing so that supposedly caused Mal, Cobb's partner, to kill herself.

Now, there's a powerful metaphor here about relationships. Ideas take root in relationships, maybe planted by a partner by accident, that wind up growing out of control. And it's here where I have to diverge, briefly, into an unrelated movie.

I've been watching films at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and earlier this week I saw the one true 21st century masterpiece of the festival, CERTIFIED COPY, directed by Abbas Kiarostami. Without spoiling too much of that film, let's just say that it asks questions about reality vs fake in the context of a relationship, and does it with a powerful emotional resonance while leaving the viewer completely unsure at the level of reality at any time.

So I may be putting unfair burdens on INCEPTION. But when we get to INCEPTION's revelation along this front, I was hoping that somewhere down the road we would take a break from the mechanics and get further into the thematic resonances. Because, while none of us can use crazy dream mechanics to get into each other's mind, we can all potentially cause an idea to take root in someone else's mind. And the notion of a relationship falling apart due to self-inflicted damage is something that could have easily been opened in such a way as to resonate with the viewer as something real to their lives, rather than an abstract plot point or vehicle to drive Nolan's preferred emotional thrust, which is to explore grief and not letting go.

There's no way this couldn't have occurred to Nolan in the decade-long development of this, so the question is: why not explore it more? It's a question I kept asking as more and more snowmobiles went by the screen, and it frustrated the hell out of me.

So I walked out processing that, and also the question of how to interpret the last shot, and then suddenly, I went into a daze as I realized I should stop processing this movie on the level of what I want it to be and start processing it on the level of what it is.

Now, the Internet is already full of "definitive" articles on INCEPTION. And I'm neither interested in or capable of writing something more along these lines.

But what there is, apart from the majestic filmmaking, is this: a man coming to terms with the fact that the image of a loved one that he's clinged on to is distorted, false. So he is unburdening himself from the past and trying to move on.

That's Cobb and his dead wife. But it's also Fischer and his dead father.

That can't be coincidence. Can it?

Many have noted that this film has many parallels to SHUTTER ISLAND, and it's the difference in how it grapples with these themes that I find SHUTTER ISLAND more powerful after a first viewing; I'm also dwelling on two films that partake in layers of reality, eXistenz and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.

But there's another film that I've been thinking of. INCEPTION has rocketed to the top of the IMDB best movies of all time list, above CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, STAR WARS ... but, notably, NOT above THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.

Why does SHAWSHANK resonate so much? Maybe it's the famous quote: "Get busy living, or get busy dying." It's a self-improvement mantra embedded in the delivery device of a film.

And it could just as easily appear in INCEPTION as it does in SHAWSHANK. Coincidence? Well, yeah. But I wonder if it's that resonant thread that people are responding to in both movies, or not.

Something to think about, amongst other things, on a second viewing.

A quick technical note or two: for a film that's about transitions between dream states, it's awesome that the transition device used is a simple cut, rather than some wacky tasteless morphing or other nonsense. And the photography is beautiful, but I wish Chris Nolan actually liked colors. He does pretty much cover every shade of brown and grey out there, though.


Blogger Carl said...

Good points, Doug. I found the film pretty solid overall, with some amazing stuff, but I understand your frustrations with the "pointless action" in the snow fortress. As someone else pointed out, it was a bit like watching someone else playing a shoot-em-up video game without ever letting you have a turn.

But like you, I need to see it again to really figure out what to make of it. I suspect on second viewing to be able to "see behind the curtain" a little more, and have more insight into Nolan's actual intentions. And yeah, as a result of that, it'll either seem extra-brilliant, or an unstable house of cards.

23/7/10 11:40 AM  
Blogger dd said...

that video game analogy has really stuck with me, and i think points to a lot of problems shared in contemporary cinema, not unique to this film. I felt it acutely when watching the SUCKER PUNCH trailer, which looks for all the world like it could be a video game trailer.

Back on topic: I keep thinking about INCEPTION, which is a good sign, I suppose, given that I've had a whole film fest worth of movies to distract me.

28/7/10 5:23 PM  

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