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.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Blu Heaven

Screenshot unceremoniously ripped from the indispensable DVD Beaver.

So, about a week ago I decided it was high time for me to join 21st Century - or at least the late 00s - and get myself a Blu-ray player. Now that I finally bought the damn thing, I can't believe it took me so long to get one, but hey, times are hard, and the almighty dollar can sometimes prevent us from indulging in the things we would like to. But, while surfing a certain internet based wholesale retailer, I found one for a reasonable price and threw caution to the wind. The time has come!

It's not everyday that the complexion of your movie watching experience is so radically upgraded, so I, being a sad sap and all, had to make a big production out of what my first purchase would be. I eventually decided on Kiarostami's transcendent masterpiece Close Up, and my reasoning was, believe it or not, two-fold. First, I'd never even seen Criterion's standard edition of it, nor the print that was recently exhibited at Manhattan's Film Forum, in spite of Close Up being a favorite of mine. The only edition I'd seen of it before my most recent viewing of it on Blu-ray was the old Facets DVD of it which, if you've never seen it, consider yourself lucky; the colors are washed out and faded, the image is blurry, and the trial footage is a notch above unwatchable (if that). A film as great as Close Up deserves the immaculate treatment, and seeing this stunning BD of it amounted to essentially seeing it for the first time (seriously, what the folks at Criterion do is art unto itself).

What made my selection all the more fitting is that Close Up is a film that attempts to show us what it means to see and hear - it's perhaps Kiarostami's most fully realized investigation into the nature of form, a rumination on narrative that tears down the barrier separating fiction from nonficiton. Close Up tells the story of a man, Hossain Sabzian, who convinces a family that he is Iranian film maker Mohsen Mahkmalbaf and will make a movie with them. He gets in their good graces, stays in their home, and even takes them to see Mahkmalbaf's The Cyclist, which he tells Kiarostami early in the film (which takes place after he's been arrested) is a part of him - a simultaneously beautiful and disturbing confession. What is upsetting about Sabzian (who died of asthma not long after the events of Close Up, according to Kiarostami) is that he escapes into images, that he sees more beauty in cinema than he does in his own life, and that his love of cinema manifests itself in the most desperate of cries for help. And the auteurs he so revered responded, because Kiarostami understood that Sabzian is Mahkmalbaf. And he's Kiarostami, too.

Though all the individuals involved in the real life case play themselves, calling Close Up expressly a documentary oversimplifies the film a great deal. While Close Up contains footage from Sabzian's trial, it also features reenactments of Sabzian's alleged crime (which surely must have been awkward - how Kiarostami and Mahkmalbaf talked them into it is anyone's guess), which complicates the issue even further. This as well as Kiarostami's next feature Life, And Nothing More integrate fact and fiction in supremely inventive ways, and though both these films are extremely formal, they are also extraordinarily moving depictions of the plight of the poor in Iran. To view Kiarostami expressly as a formalist is to ignore his uniquely sensitive perspective towards class differences, and Hossain Sabzian may be the most fitting vehicle for this radically humanist sentiment, because Sabzian sees more beauty in art and cinema than he does in real life (he's a personification of Trufaut's famous quote, "I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself") - and Kiarotami realizes that, perhaps if things have gone a little differently in his life, he could have turned out just like Sabzian.

However, Kiarostami's portrait of Sabzian does not reinforce Sabzian's view but rather transcends it in the film's climax, which depicts Sabzian being released from prison and being met by Mahkmalbaf, who sobs when he makes eye contact with him (this meeting was allegedly staged by Kiarostami, though Sabzian's tears are apparently authentic). Kiarostami's camera rests in a van in the distance, observing this unique meeting from afar, though this directorial choice makes the scene feel more intimate, oddly enough. What makes this moment powerful and unforgettable, however, is because the camera crew's microphone that they wired on Sabzian isn't functioning properly (a dramatic contrivance cooked up by Kiarostami after the fact), and though this seems like a bit of a smartass tactic at first, it makes the scene nothing short of heartbreaking, as Kiarostami reminds us that, no matter how powerful something in a movie may be, it's still just image and sound. The sequence of these two men - the real Mahkmalbaf and the bogus Mahkmalbaf - riding through the streets of Tehran on Mahkmalbaf's motorcycle is the perfect expression of the bridge between the imagined and the real that has been a defining element of Kiarostami's career. Kiarostami understands that cinema can offer an escape, but movies are as powerful an art form as they are because they reflect the human experience, not because they distract from it.

Seeing the Criterion Blu-ray was a true revelation, among the most exhilarating cinematic experiences I've had in quite some time. The colors so vibrantly fleshed out - especially stunning are the fading leaves of the trees, the roses purchased in the film's profoundly moving climax, and the green aerosol can that figures into the film's opening (which is the punchline for a great jab at Kiarostami's famously minimalist style - in one moment he imbues the weight of the world in this rolling can, and in another, a character kicks it aside without a second thought) - that it really is like seeing the film for the first time. Though Kiarostami's style is minimalist, he also tells very complex stories visually and that makes every element of his compositions especially vital. None of Kiarostami's films so clearly illustrate this fact, and none of them needed this stunning facelift more (though please, please, please release his masterful Koker Trilogy).

So, yeah, I kinda like this whole Blu-ray thing.