*Spoiler alert: according to your level of intelligence, this blog post may or may not give away the ending. Then again, if you’ve ever seen a Christopher Nolan film and know a little bit of film history, you have nothing to fear. Fredric Jameson’s notion of pastiche is at work here and there is no way you won’t guess what’s coming. If you don’t have a film education, maybe you will get one from reading this blog. Perhaps you can also benefit from Nolan’s layers of dream… I choose to think of them as layers of homage or intelligent plagiarism; you choose which is the misnomer*
Where does one even start talking about a film titled Inception? The connections to beginnings are endless: from Ellen Page’s Juno and her troubled portrayal of the creation of a life to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, who fails to launch of an (in-plot) epic love story in (500 days of) Summer, Inception bursts with associations to foundation and origin. Oh, and it does so in its storyline too. Ok, since you insist in discussing the intra-plot intricacies, why not say what this film is really about: endings, or the difficulty of success when attempting to achieve them. Nolan is a crafty, young filmmaker. The end of his career is nowhere in sight. However, his opening sequence is dreadfully prophetic in showing a wrinkled Ken Watanabe remembering ‘better’ times. Time is at the crux of Nolan’s film: whether the one that has elapsed, or the one that will. Of particular interest is the present time, the 2 ½ hours that transpire as our eyes remain affixed to the screen watching a curious broken time/space continuum that unfolds in front of us linearly in life but not so on screen, and that may make the weak hearted question if it really does… or even what world we are living in. This “Matrix effect” is achieved in a not-so-similarly racially charged manner. Far from the progressive black savior who enlightens Neo (beginning again!) into the path of truth, Nolan’s film regresses to post WWII notions of the “yellow peril”.
In Inception, Saito (played by Ken Watanabe) is evil, manipulative and extortive, a real exponent of the ‘Nippon terror’ that flooded the US in the 1940’s. This villain makes our beautifully white-faced hero enter a dangerous ring of corruption, and for his own attempt to plant an idea in Cobb’s head or claim supremacy over a member of the land of the free, he must be punished with death. We have seen this story before… many many years ago.
Is Saito (Ken Watanabe’s character) a Japoteur?
And not just once, as his ailment translates to each and every single layer of the “dream”.
In addition to race, this film also scores points in the gender arena. Nolan may have learned the teachings of David Mamet, who in the film The Spanish Prisoner educates audiences of the devilish quality of the female gender.
The film’s tag line: “Can you really trust anyone?”
The answer is no, especially if she is a woman. Remember the “Femme Fatales” of film noir?
Like Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon’s character in The Spanish Prisoner), Marion Cotillard’s Mal is as evil as Brigitte Helm’s Hel/Robot in Metropolis. With a short name that in a different language can be associated with evil, the two latter women exemplify the evil that Ricci artfully conceals. Can you trust anyone?, Mamet asks. Dom Cobb and his subconscious representations of Mal prove that old noir adage that women are dangerous even in dreams. But luckily for us females, films and dreams are not real. The pervasive patriarchal structure of the allegedly “real world” unfortunately is. Will we ever wake up from it? Let’s spin a dreidel, shall we?
The totem dreidel in Inception
Centuries ago, philosophers wondered about the dreamlike quality of life. Calderon de la Barca and Descartes explored this notion in print, sparking endless pages of discussion. Many Earth rotations later, the so-called “Dream Factory” continues to do so, in updated ways. David Mamet circa 1987 in House of Games, and David Fincher after him in (the almost remake) 1997 The Game have posited that maybe life is some sort of entertaining ludic fantasy.
David Fincher and his notion of a game.
The structure of the unsettling final plot point has been explored ad nauseam by directors throughout the history of film. As a new chapter is being penned, Christopher Nolan’s name seems to appear written in indelible ink, and rightfully so. His intervention provides a crack at the age-old question but presents it in a novel way hence ensuring his page will not be ripped out of the Film 101 manual. In the long list of quotes on his IMBD page, he tells the world that “The term ‘genre’ eventually becomes pejorative because you’re referring to something that’s so codified and ritualized that it ceases to have the power and meaning it had when it first started. What I’m trying to do is to create modern equivalents that speak to me of those tropes that have more of the original power.” But indeed he is not the first who has tried to repackage film noir, though he may be one of the few that have succeeded. Looking at the bare bones of Nolan’s film and the predicament it poses, Inception is a long-treaded story with a shiny exterior, an absolutely brilliant execution of a clichéd desire to travel through time and beat death. Ending at the beginning, life is a circle. Sometimes, it can also be a dream.
Marion Cotillard. Enough said.
As a mere audience member (and perhaps a little bit of film academic mixed in to bring out flavor), I can only wish that while the credits of my life roll against the background of a black screen, Edith Piaf’s voice reminds me of Marion Cotillard’s overall fabulousness. And maybe of a mysteriously abandoned Dior handbag.
Seen above is one of the four episodes created for a Dior campaign (one of which was directed by Olivier Dahan in a noir style, also responsible for “La Vie En Rose”). Shanghai, intrigue, a rarified atmosphere and lots of blue seem to line up perfectly with David Lynch, director of the short embedded here.
While the verbal wildfires continue to ravage the intelligentsia quarters of the blogosphere, sparked by our beloved Stephanie Zacharek’s recent NYT rant of Richard Brody’s new book, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, we would like to extend the olive branch to both sides of the debate, and save Ms. Zacharek time from googling her own name (you brought us a year’s worth of hits, thanks). As you may have guessed, the man in the middle of it all isn’t Brody, but his subject matter, Godard—French filmmaker, born-again Maoist, bitter recluse—and even more decidedly, between his early versus late works. I haven’t read Brody’s extensive study myself, but from reading the reviews and meta-reviews, the exchange has now veered off into the realm of subjective preferences, a game of defending my likes and dislikes, with critics lambasting each other for taking too seriously or too lightly Godard’s post-1967 period, and this is the dividing year, sharing his detractors’ sentiment, that the music died (and how slowly!).
Reasonable enough, an artist tends to escape the lingering success of his meager beginnings, not surrendering to the whims of popular opinion but to grow and develop as a person, who sheds away prior interests in hopes of cultivating future passions. In this sense, Godard doesn’t want to be overshadowed by his own creations, to be remembered only in the annals of history as the critic-turned-auteur who lead a string of dazzling revolutions in cinematic architecture, or what he would now deemed to be frivolous, amateurish, and infantile, the fever dreams of Hollow Men. Yet, cultural consensus always dictate otherwise, and the fond memory of the Nouvelle Vague movement has made the term nostalgia obselete, bereft of pain and politics, Godard’s name only recalls the playfulness of that tumultuous era: the way how Anna Karina smiles with her eyes, the saccharine primary colors and murmuring musical cues fading in and out of scenes, and those pesky and exhilarating jump cuts. A few months ago, I attended a screening of La Chinoise (a precursor to the 1968 hoopla), alarmed by the number of hipsters in the audience, who even as they’re watching a parody of their lifestyle, knew that after this exhausting experience, they will finally earn their street creds and identify the shade of tangerine on a similar looking mod blouse from Haight Street as Godardian in nature.
The branding of a filmmaker’s fashion choices may seem like an informal practice, but American Express merely made it more explicit and accessible to the elitist consumer. If anything else, Godard will not be forgotten, only superficially invoked, and if we are supposed to extrapolate any residual sense of meaning from Haynes’s experimental biopic I’m Not There, the artist will forever be elusive, his imprints scattered among the shards of his career, a life worth knowing in halfs, quarters and eighths. And what a legacy of fanboys to commemorate that emblematic Godard of the 60s, which includes card-carrying members like Wong Kar Wai to the oh-so-obvious Tarantino (his production company A Band Part a direct reference to Bande a Part)!
I would also add Scott Sternberg to the inspirational wishlist, whose fashion line, Band of Outsiders, is more than a cheap nod piggybacking on the cool mystique. Like Godard, Sternberg was irritated by the constraints of tradition granted upon menswear, so in 2004, he returned to the hardboiled pulp fiction of the 40s and 50s, tweaked and restitched past sensibilities for a slimmer and awkward fit, accentuating the disportions and jutted angles, and eliminating the reigning dishoveled look of the grunge rockstar or free-spirited surfer. With his new Boy collection, a Preppy girl complement to the original mensline, Sternberg further brings back that masculin femininity to the women’s body, with alternating pinches of tightness and looseness, see Michelle William’s tweed version of the Timberland lumberjack. It also doesn’t hurt to know what all the kids are raging about these days and outfit their idols with your clothes.
Submitted for your approval: a pair of tribute videos.
Band of Outsiders Fashion Show
The Famous Dance Sequence from Bande A Part