At the beginning… Inception, Genesis and the End of Time: Film History at its Best.

Posted in film, Uncategorized by Jen on August 3, 2010

*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.


It Only Takes a Moment: An Ode to Stephanie Zacharek

Posted in Uncategorized by Meg on July 1, 2008

The format of writing a film review for a daily or weekly newspaper and magazine is a difficult format to tackle.  For such a short amount of space and time to write, the review is usually left to being a series of plot points and a set of opinions that must be simplified into “good” or “bad” piles, otherwise the rating of a man sleeping with his hat on his belly or a man flying off his chair clapping cannot be determined.  While the result is a slough of written articles that begin to feel like the same article, but with each new writer pressing shift+F7 on a few words within the text, there are a few writers out there that have been able to work within the film review format but add a little more depth in their understanding of the film.

Wall•E by Stephanie Zacharek

Though she has the reputation of purposely being a devil’s advocate to the dominant paradigm of opinions for any given film, Stephanie Zacharek of salon.com still manages to eloquently discuss the problems any given film may have.  Her review published for Wall•E is no exception.  Being one of the lonely splats on Rotten Tomatoes for the film (though I still do not know how the website decides which way to swing for mixed reviews), Zacharek is able to express the low points of the film with great precision and thought.  While some may judge her for being a Debbie Downer to King Disney/Pixar’s parade, her points are well spoken and honest.  That said, though my fellow Pixar kool aid drinkers focus on the negativity of the review and search for ways to discredit her opinion (i.e. “You can’t listen to her! She gave The Love Guru a glowing review!”), I focus on how her words of disappointment and critique reveals how the shortcomings she sees in the film can ultimately be interpreted as part of the narrative.

For Zacharek, it took only a few moments in the film for her to change her opinion from dazzling piece of art to disappointing Hollywood trash.  She writes:

Toward the end of “WALL-E,” Stanton tries to circle back and recapture some of the wistful magic of the movie’s early scenes, but the spell doesn’t take. “WALL-E” gives us a hero who, by culling through the masses of junk that we so casually throw away, becomes a repository for human memories, a living (though not breathing) creature who has more feeling than actual humans do. Then it shows us actual humans — lazy, fat, brainless ones who have squandered and abused their free will — and asks us to forgive their foibles. The gloss of preachiness that washes over “WALL-E” overwhelms the haunting, delicate spirit of its first 30 minutes. This clearly isn’t a movie made by a robot; the drag is that it ends up feeling so programmed.

What has become a staple in all of the reviews for Wall•E is the comparison of the first act in Trash Planet, with the second and third act in the Axiom and concluding back on Earth.  For viewers like Zacharek, Wall•E would have been a flawless film if the love story of Eve and Wall•E would have continued on the amazingly rendered sets of the abandoned Earth, never once having Flubber-y humans enter the scene.  The film would have been on par with Ratatouille’s critical success if it didn’t have gratuitous chase scenes inside a spaceship for the young boys or the “let us robots and humans pass this plant boot so we can go to Earth for the first time” scene of overt environmentalism.
While this is the sentiment Zacharek expresses in her concluding thoughts on the film, the play on words she decides to use within her critique opens itself for an interpretation that fits the film’s themes as well as reconstitutes the precise depth that she claims diminishes by the end.  Because of the glossy preachiness that is in line with Al Gore standard at the end of the film, Zacharek concludes that the film was clearly not made by a robot, and that the breaking point of the film was it’s feeling of being “programmed.” Using the future occurrences as told by Wall•E, civilization exists where robots are more human than the humans themselves.  If this film is to be a cautionary tale about the near future, then the clarity in the film’s second half not being “made by a robot” is evidence that the role reversal of robot and human has already begun.  The impending dependence of humans on machines to the point where they become programmed by the machine is shown in the narrative of the second half as well as the glossiness for which the film is being criticized.  While the story of humans on the Axiom may seem too polished/less like an art film at your local Landmark theatre than the Wall•E, Eve, and the cockroach as they traverse the dusty lands of Earth, the polarity that exists between the two halves of the film for which Wall•E has been criticized is precisely the contrast that points to the film’s call for a new order.

It Only Takes a Moment