Monday, July 19, 2010

In Nolan's Dreams

That Christopher Nolan chose dreams as the concept for his latest portentous and pretentious blockbuster Inception is all too fitting, because it perfectly highlights the severe limits of the director's imagination. These are surely the most workmanlike, banal dream sequences in the history of the medium, with Nolan managing to make even the most unreal (not surreal) of imagery come off as completely commonplace - what other film maker could do virtually nothing with imagery such as an entire city folding in on itself, a train riding down the middle of a street, or an entire cityscape crumbling? Nolan never uses his storytelling device as anything other than a device, rather, it's merely an attempt to convince the audience that there's something profound going on beneath a mechanical heist movie.

Inception tells the story of Dom Cobb (an ultra serious Leonardo DiCaprio), an 'extractor' who, via a concept the film continuously refers to as "shared consciousness" (something Nolan never fleshes out and just expects us to swallow), infiltrates people's dreams to steal their secrets. Alas, not the good kind of secrets - surely the subconscious isn't quite as timid as Nolan depicts - the heist movie kind of secrets, in this case, the code for a safe that houses a document that will help Saito (Ken Watanabe) bring down a business rival. While Nolan uses copious amounts of CGI to flesh out what he constantly tries to remind us is supposed to be a psychological landscape (the words "projection" and "subconscious" make frequent appearances in the film's script), it never looks like anything but the world we inhabit, even when he introduces things that are supposed to clash with our perception of reality. All I could wonder during sequences that I felt were intended to blow my mind is if Nolan's dreams are actually this boring, or if he doesn't have the directorial capacities to visualize dreamscapes in an effective manner - is it a failure of vision or a failure of execution?

Nolan makes it clear from the outset that he's in way over his head - he is a film maker fascinated with process and details, so perhaps dreams weren't the best thematic vehicle for his particular sensibilities. Rather than expressing himself via imagery (and, really, how else do you make a movie about dreams?), Nolan feels the need to explain via contrived dialogue the significance of every solitary event in the story, to the point where his characters feel less like flesh and blood human beings and more like mouthpieces with which to explain the film's themes, which makes his rather trite attempts at melodrama come off as disingenuous. It's like Nolan feels the constant need to prove - either to himself or to his audience - that what we're watching really is meaningful, yet he rigidly confines himself to genre and cliche to express ideas that are at once cosmic, intimately personal, and intensely psychological - Nolan even turns Cobb's visions of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) into a cheap plot device by having her play what amounts to the film's villain. The approach he takes in Inception doesn't do his chosen topic justice.

Even if you were to judge the picture on strictly action movie terms, it's still a mess. As my darling girlfriend remarked as we exited the movie theater, watching Inception is like going to a restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger, but being given a whole cow instead. Truthfully, I can't remember the last time I was so profoundly bored in a movie theater, as Nolan's film feels aimless and structureless, lacking even the shallow pleasures offered in the similarly problematic The Dark Knight. The action sequences display Nolan's propensity for chaos over continuity and, as with his previous feature, it's an impossible task to deduce where one object within his frame is in relation to another. While he uses quick cutting and disorientation in an attempt to create excitement, I've always found action movies that seek to disorient to be the dullest kind, and that's become a defining feature of Nolan's blockbusters, unfortunately.

Since his debut film Following, Nolan has essentially been a trickster at heart - the "Gotcha!" endings of Memento and The Prestige pretty much sum his artistic M.O. - yet it is this very desire to confuse, impress, and mystify that makes his films ultimately hollow. Christopher Nolan is literal minded to a fault, and the logical approach he takes to dreams is inherently contradictory, as dreams are by their very nature illogical - and it is this paradox that Nolan fails to reconcile in any meaningful way, instead inventing a lot of arbitrary rules for his imagined world that he can obey or not as he pleases. What Nolan fails to realize is that he's the only one who has stolen our dreams.


Carson said...

I definitely agree with you here Ryan. I just summed up my thoughts today, which were almost as overwhelmingly negative. "Mechanical" is a word I used too; it just does not seem like fitting territory for a filmmaker like Nolan. I don't think I was quite as "profoundly bored" as you, for it took me at least an hour to lose interest in the film, and, hell, it was on an Imax screen, but the very fact that it was on the most immersive 2D surface in the world and still became dull and insipid is a testament to its failure. Nice writeup.

Ryan Kelly said...

Thank you for the kind words, Carson. I must say I lost interest in the film pretty quickly, as I did with The Dark Knight, though I think both films have strong openings. I could just see exactly where it was going, and it struck me as exacerbating everything that I've perceived as flaws in his last few movies. I think Nolan has vision and ideas, but his execution leaves something to be desired, which makes his movies incredibly frustrating.

Adam Zanzie said...

It's making my head hurt just thinking about this movie. Even writing about it (i.e. commenting about it) is hard work. I saw Inception about three hours ago and when it was over, I was initially pretty fond of it... but man, is that feeling starting to wear off. It's a chore for me to even try remembering what it was about, and who was what character, etc. Yeah, this movie's probably not going to endure for me in the years to come.

We disagreed on Avatar and Toy Story 3, but now you and I are in the same boat, Ryan. Like Carson, I think I sympathize with everything you say here. As I was watching the movie, I kept asking myself, "Well, my dreams are definitely not this ordinary and routine." Who has dreams about business corruption and heist plots to steal the contents of a safe that only matters to maybe a few of the principal characters? Love how you complained of the film's lack of surrealism, too; that immediately occurred to me. Joseph Ruben's Dreamscape, by comparison, is a much more simpler film and yet it's infinitely more surreal. I'll take Dennis Quaid decapitating the Snake-Man (!) over the crumbling Asian palaces of Inception any day.

I've already complained about other problems with the movie, like the overbearing Hans Zimmer music and, as you've mentioned here, the droning, incomprehensible dialogue. But I have another axe to grind towards the film's human elements--not just in its cardboard characterization, but in its strange miscasting. Why would you cast Cillian Murphy (who's something of a Jack Nicholson/Christopher Walken type) as the whiny, cowardly young billionaire? In that scene where he's sobbing at Pete Psthlewaite's deathbed, all I could think was: man, Nolan blew a true emotional opportunity here. This scene could have been affecting, and instead it just makes my eyes roll. "I was disappointed because... you tried!" Blah blah blah.

The only area in which I differ with you and Carson is in regarding which parts of the movie's structure were most effective. You and Carson enjoyed the beginning, which bored me to tears. I got a "kick" (hehe) out of the 007-type action climax at the ice fortress, which you guys despised. So I guess it's the bravado action sequences that kept me from actually hating the movie. It'll be amusing to see what I think after Inception has aged a bit. Whatever the case, I know one thing's for sure: it's not even in my top five of year.

Tony Dayoub said...

He certainly isn't the next Kubrick as his cheerleaders contend. But I found INCEPTION to be decent summer action flick. I didn't get up on his stylization of dreams, because believe it or not, not everyone dreams of driving giant-size strawberries to work. Besides, I'm not sure he was really going for the type of surreal dream consciousness you'd see in a Lynch movie, for instance. The movie does work fairly well as an allegory for mounting a film production as Devin Faraci interprets in his great post over at CHUD.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, I agree that it's hard work to write about this movie. I hit dead ends several times while watching this. Like I said in the review, I can't remember the last time I was so bored in a movie theater, and the film's constant desire to impress is probably part of what took me out of it. Nolan seems incapable of making even remotely enjoyable films, even when he's using genre tropes and every action movie cliche in the book. Just because you treat something like it's profound and meaningful doesn't mean it's actually profound and meaningful.

I actually disagree on Cillian Murphy, who I thought gave the best performance in the movie, but I've been fond of him for a few years now. He really is extremely talented, and he's capable of playing more than 'the creepy guy'. But, like everyone else in the movie, he's not given much to work with (I felt the worst for poor Marion Cotillard).

And another point I'm sad to agree with you on is Zimmer's scores for Nolan's movies - why are they so atonal, so loud and thunderous, deliberately un-melodic? Zimmer's score for Sherlock Holmes was all kinds of genius, unconventional but not as overbearing as his scores for Nolan's films.

It's not in my top five of the year, either. It's the worst movie I've seen in a theater in a long time.

Ryan Kelly said...

Tony, I saw Faraci's piece linked in your own excellent piece, but I must say that interpretation doesn't endear the movie to me any more - in fact, it seems to highlight the lack of an imaginative approach to dreamscapes even further. There's just no passion in his portrait of the subconscious, which admittedly wouldn't bother me so much if I was entertained by the movie.

I'm not saying that it needed more blatantly surreal things like driving strawberries, but for all the prattling on Nolan does about "projections of the subconscious", these just look like normal people walking around a normal city, and even the things he includes to make the sequences 'dreamy' feel bizarrely normal and commonplace. I wasn't necessarily expecting Lynch or Bunuel, but I was expecting a world that feels different from the one we inhabit. I just felt like the use of dreams was just a way for Nolan to continue his practice of making up the rules for his cinematic world as he goes along.

And, yeah, the comparisons to Kubrick are sheer lunacy. As our pal Craig Simpson said on twitter a while back, comparing Nolan to Kubrick is like comparing Dan Brown to Faulkner. Being clearly influenced by him and being the heir to his cinematic legacy are not one and the same.

Pat said...

Ryan -

You get an resoudning "Amen, brother!" from this corner. I can't for the life of me figure out what all the fuss is about. (Love your girlfriend's comment about the cheesburger vs. the whole cow!)

A film like "Incerption" would be better left to Terry Gilliam, a director with real imagination and an inate understanding of how to present a dreamscape,

Ryan Kelly said...

Pat, the film does have the critical community divided, in a way The Dark Knight did not (there were dissenters, but not a whole lot, at least it didn't feel that way) oddly enough, it seems to be audiences who are embracing it and, like you, I'm not exactly sure why. It's long, it doesn't make much sense, it's not particularly fun and, despite the fact that it tries to convince you otherwise, it's not particularly meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I just realized the title now after reading the piece: GENIOUS! And fuckin hysterical!

BANGIN ending sentence! "Nolan stealing our dreams." Sums up his entire pitfall. Beautiful.

Ryan Kelly said...

Why thank ya!

rob humanick said...

Ryan, I actually feel that Inception makes perfect sense, and it tries way too hard to ensure that every step of the way. Why bother tossing your audience into an ocean of purportedly incredible ideas if you're going to strangle them with arm floaties the whole friggin' time? Murphy is very good in the film, and I'm also partial to Gordon-Levitt (even though he has very little to do this time around).

Ryan Kelly said...

I don't think it makes sense in the logical way Nolan means for it to, and that's because there are gigantic leaps in logic, as there were in The Dark Knight. It wouldn't be such a glaring flaw if Nolan didn't want it to be so 'realistic'.

I too thought Murphy was quite good, in fact thought he gave the best performance in the film, and Leo continues to show depth as an actor, though some of the intensity in his performance seems forced. It's just that no one, Gordon-Levitt and Cotillard especially, has much to do, because Nolan's writing is all lifeless exposition.

Thomas said...

Didn't go see this movie, but I did watch the South Park episode.

"Give a hoot, don't pollute."