Rightwing Film Geek

Now, where was he?

INCEPTION (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010) — 8, on first view; likely to go up or down

“A movie that you HAVE to see twice also has to be a movie that you WANT to see twice.” — Bilge Ebiri, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been

“Is [ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA] too long? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it takes real concentration to understand Leone’s story construction … [and] keep track of characters and relationships over fifty years. No, in the sense that the movie is compulsively and continuously watchable.” — Roger Ebert, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been

Yes, INCEPTION is not capable of being absorbed in a single viewing, though lordknows I tried. It hurt that I have a “unified field” theory of Nolan, or at least of his three great films, all of which center on characters who choose vocations that require lying and/or self-destruction — a pattern this movie definitely does not fit. But even apart from that, INCEPTION resists first-viewing comprehension, partly because of the already-well-known layered structure of dreams-within-dreams, but also partly because I think there’s … ahem … a prestige in very last shot, followed by the same sudden cut to black Nolan used upon the very last shots of THE PRESTIGE (“you want to be fooled”) and MEMENTO (“now, where was I”). In those earlier cases, the prestige was the line, but here it’s an image (there’s offscreen chatter that couldn’t be more meaningless). And if I’m right, it turns the entire movie inside out. Like with any interpretation of an incredibly complex movie, I’ll have to give the film another view both to see how it checks out and also whether the film gains in emotional richness (Nolan’s films have always had chilly surfaces concealing existentialist tragedy). Click here if you want to know what it is (I’ve put in a single-sentence post and backdated the post several years so it won’t appear anywhere on this page) and let me just drop some vague clues — the casting of Michael Caine and Marion Cotillard, their relationship, a song cue, the way the dreams are not dream-like, how resistance to inception is made manifest, the weakness in the action scenes, and that very last shot.

But, as Bilge said, you want to see INCEPTION twice as it is so mind-blowing and ambitious and demanding (and mostly getting) of your attention.¹ It’s like a workout for the brain, even if there’s no payoff, as in body exercises where the work doesn’t actually “achieve” anything beyond the effect on the body/brain. It’s clearly flawed in some ways — there enough exposition that I wanted Basil onscreen, and even though it would be justified by what I’m guessing, it’s still tedious; I’m still unclear why we got the plant of a golden bishop and no payoff (cf. Chekhov’s gun); and let’s just say I was groaning whenever I saw snow, a “level” that is neither choreographed well nor as sheer-made-of-awesome as either the rainy day or the hotel. And I also fear that if my take is wrong, what we will have left is sophomoric “what if the world isn’t real man”-drivel

That’s mere caviling, though. No movie with a zero-gravity fight, which provides a logical, rational, non-“suspend-your-disbelief-it’s-scifi” reason for why this is taking place in zero gravity, is not awesome. I left the film with a goofy grin on my face from having so much fun despite not knowing what had just happened — a reaction I can only compare to the first time I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2, a film I also had no idea how to put together, but had no doubt I enjoyed watching the jigsaw pieces fly around. INCEPTION grips you right away with a 15-minute sequence that’s as if Dali and Bunuel had made UN CHIEN ANDALOU as a $200 million action film, with all the bizarre, unmoored continuities. It eventually settles down into the form of a caper film, in which Leo is a dream burglar who gets into a person’s subconsciousness, now being hired by Ken Watanabe to plant an idea in Cillian Murphy for a reason that is so ridiculous and makes no real-world sense it can’t be taken seriously (hmmm).

If I’m right about “what it all means” … well, let’s just say I’ll update this post on subsequent viewings …
¹ And so does the public apparently: I went to see it at a 9pm Monday show (not exactly moviegoing primetime) and I had to sit in the front section of the stadium seating, below the walkway, since the upper section was nearly full. An intern at work saw it at a 10pm Monday show and he said his theater was even more packed than that. I would kill to know what percentage of the film’s business is repeat viewings.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | Christopher Nolan | 1 Comment

Nolan’s BATMAN

THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2008, 9)

Before going into THE DARK KNIGHT for the first time, I texted Michael Gerardi and referred to the film we were both going in to see, Thursday-Midnight show on opening-weekend, as “Christopher Nolan Makes a Lot of Money.” I wasn’t terribly impressed with BATMAN BEGINS and think Nolan’s MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE among the decade’s very best films. So I went into THE DARK KNIGHT knowing the buzz was high but seeing it as a money-spinning project that would allow one of the best writer-directors working in English the cred to make more of *his* films. And my high grade mystified Mike, prompting him to belatedly prompt me about it last night.

And my answer is that I was wrong in my expectations. THE DARK KNIGHT *is* a Christopher Nolan film down to the very bottom and thus probably my favorite comic-book movie ever. Nolan is a moralist, but one pitilessly without illusion. His three great movies are all, in different ways, critiques of truth and the relationship of truth and vocation. To speak somewhat vaguely about the earlier two films: MEMENTO is about a man who chooses a lie that gives his life meaning over a truth that doesn’t set him free; and THE PRESTIGE is about two men who take their relationship to truth to the graves — one man accepts a recurring nightly death in pursuit of scientific truth, another man accepts death rather than publicly admit the lie he has built his life around;

In THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan makes it explicit, indeed impossible to miss via the last scene, both (1) that Batman accedes to a Socratic noble lie a la MEMENTO about Harvey Dent (and it’s not the only one in the movie — consider the burning of a letter, a public assassination, Batman turning himself in — and contrast it with an explicitly demanded lie: the “it’ll be all right, son” scene) and (2) that Batman’s vocation — like Leonard’s crime investigation, like Borden’s magic act, like Angier’s scientific investigation — will ultimately destroy him, or at a minimum cast him as the eternal despised outsider. He even has to give up his position as Bruce Wayne and destroy stately Wayne Manor.

Indeed, the best analogy I can think to the Batman character is from “The St. Petersburg Diaries,” a work by Count Joseph De Maistre — an anti-Revolution French philosopher hardly known (unjustly so) outside the circle of right-Catholic reaction. In that work, among the lather of ironies and paradoxes De Maistre has endless fun with, he describes the executioner as the man on whom society’s order relies but whom society despises. In this day and age, we’re so squeamish about the death penalty that we try to make as euphemize it as much as possible in our method and go to elaborate measures to remove the responsibility away from any given man — multiple switches on the drug machine, blanks in some firing squad guns, etc. As the man who gets his hands dirty, Batman has to be an outsider for the sake of the rest of our self-images.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Christopher Nolan, Michael Gerardi | Leave a comment

On not being a comic-book geek

BATMAN BEGINS, Christopher Nolan, USA, 2005, 4
THE FANTASTIC FOUR, Tim Story, USA, 2005, did not see

I don’t know why I had such high expectations for BATMAN BEGINS. Actually, I do … the director Christopher Nolan made one of the decade’s two or three best films in MEMENTO which both pulled the greatest last-scene mindfuck in movie history and illustrated in a coldly intellectual way Chesterton’s aphorism about men believing anything rather than nothing. His remake of INSOMNIA was a creditable achievement, an improvement on the original Norwegian policier. He managed to tone Al Pacino down, to get a good performance from Robin Williams, and to prevent Hilary Swank from wrecking the movie. So on the “let’s see what a favorite director can do with a hundred zillion dollars” theory, I was interested in the Batman prequel.

I shoulda knew better. BATMAN BEGINS is less a Nolan movie than a comic-book movie, a genre that among my 30-something cinephile friends I am pretty much alone in having little interest and even apart from that no reference point whatsoever. (I’m guessing … does the little boy in the balcony grow up to be Robin?) I had a lot of cartoon comics as a boy in Britain — the truly surreal Beano and Beezer (Ernie Kovacs is the closest US comparison I can think of), the more-sedate Dandy and Topper, the smart-aleck Cracker, the Scottish staples Oor Wullie and the Broons, and to a lesser extent such “boy’s comics” as Hotspur and Hornet. While they were all left behin upon emigration, to this day, my parents often bring me back from their trips to Scotland the Christmas annuals, especially for the Beano and the Broons/Wullie, and even an old Angus Og cel. But I can truthfully say that I have never bought a comic in my entire US-resident life. Not from principle exactly, just from their being so different from what I was used to you, both in terms of format (the British ones I mention were mostly weekly anthologies of 8 to 10 recurring strips, all in 1- or 2-page mostly-unserialized stories) and in terms of subject/tone (I never cottoned to the dominant US genre of superheroes, instead of daffy humor). And those first years living in this country were a boy’s prime comic-geek years.
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August 1, 2005 Posted by | Christopher Nolan, Comics | Leave a comment