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.


8…8 1/2…9…

Posted in Adaptation, film, Uncategorized by Joie on December 3, 2008
Mama, Claudia, Liliane, Carla, Random Blonde Socialite, Luisa, Saraghina, Guido

Clockwise (by character): Mama, Claudia, Liliane, Carla, Random Blonde Socialite, Luisa, Saraghina, Guido

Yesterday, on Good Morning America, during Britney’s performance of her new single, “Circus,” also the title of the latest effort to reboot her career, I notice the familiar tune of Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) as the opening and closing bookends for the song. Transporting us to some carnivalesque wonderland because you know…Fellini/Rota equals garish circus freaks and a barely sweating ringmaster attempting to sell the greatest show (I mean, preview) on earth, Britney is less of a performer than she was before, now a vampish marionette in the grand tradition of female has-beens, like Lola Montes and Mariah Carey, wearing her setbacks as pity points for fans’ financial support. By even comparing herself to the incredibly cluttered yet fluidly warm style of the late Italian master is more insulting if it was an intentional homage than simply browsing through Itunes for mood music.

Then and Now

Guido & Carlo: Then and Now


Fellini and his harem

To her credit, Britney revived my interest for Rob Marshall’s film adaptation (filming in the UK, due out 2009) of the Tony Award-winning musical, Nine (also thanks to Meg!), simply due to its stellar casting stunt alone: Daniel Day-Lewis, as the womanizing (ha, Britney) artist Guido with writer’s block, Nicole Kidman as his on-and-off again muse, Claudia, Judi Dench as the witty French reporter, Lilianne, Marion Cotillard as his faithful wife, Penelope Cruz as the voluptuous dim-witted mistress Carla, Sophia Loren as his Mamma only in memory, Kate Hudson as a composite character of American/European socialites parading around the set, and of course, the Duchess herself, Fergie as Guido’s first sexual conquest, a misunderstood monster of a whore Saraghina. Even though the film is adapted from a theater show and not directly a remake of the original Italian film, creating a compare/contrast profile chart of the character/actors gives us however, tiny of a clue, that Marshall is referring to both sources for his project rather than the musical itself (look at the exact hair styles!) and hopefully unlike its dour box office cousin, The Producers, another film-to-musical-to-film inbred, Nine should absorb or borrow the exuberant energy that made 8 1/2 a sensational box-office draw of its time, a classic in the kooky genre of films about films, transforming the behind-the-scenes of the production process into an exquisite confrontation between fantasy and memory, the tempting desire to let go and the stubborn will to create meaning.

Sophia Loren on the set of 8 1/2.  Fellini and Marcello by her side.

Sophia Loren on the set of 8 1/2. Fellini and Marcello by her side.

As the reigning discourse around the word, “adaptation” brings to mind, the embarrassing accusations that the “film” didn’t do this or that justice to the “book,” or what I think is inevitably an impossible endeavor, one could distill the situations or more crucially, the sensual essence of the source, while taking liberties with how an actor will improvise spontaneously with words and gestures, or how a whole scene could be shot from a perspective that goes beyond what the book can imagine. Upon digging through the photo archives of 8 1/2, who could have known that Sophia Loren, visiting the set of the original film, would star in its redo’s remake. If originality is inherent in the original, could originality be transferable to a copy, cutting its ties to the original, plain and simple? I find it better to move away from the iron curtain of fidelity and towards a more conducive discussion around intertextuality. Excuse my academic jargon, but the term means what it says, suggesting the play of allusions and references that one cultural object refers to another. Rather than speaking in ad finitum about a singular piece, the plenitude of experiences between texts bring us closer to dissecting changing attitudes about times present and past, and how subjective interpretations are being filtered as objective criticism. If professional and amateur critics like to spin personal anecdotes only for the sake of attention, followed by defending their preferences through external standards of good taste, than for better or worse, in the probing spirit of 8 1/2, to think about the trivial and profound relations from one book to another, from one film to another, would surrender the human ego to the witness stand as its own judge and prosecutor…the artist have already sold his soul to the devil, it’s a matter of how long he can keep it.

Britney’s “I’ll just wiggle around the playpen” routine, listen for the beginning:

Hold me close and hold me fast: Reset, Remembered, Retold

Posted in Uncategorized by Joie on July 3, 2008

Louis Armstrong – La Vie En Rose


Amnesia has always been a narrative shortcut for dramatic effect, particularly one of suspense, inserted in the beginning of a film (as the plot mobilizes into a detective investigation of identity) or towards its very end (as a requisite hurtle before the sappy reunion). While Wall•E is no stranger to this rule, the film and its titular character do however share an uneasy relationship to the processes of remembrance and memorization, the twin halves of what we normally assign to as “memory.”
Segwaying into Meg’s post about the hazy “new order” between programmes and personalities, on the most basic level, Wall•E and the Gels aboard the Axiom are “humanized” exactly because they learn to replicate what they see and hear from stored cultural knowledge embodied by the Hello Dolly VHS and the computer’s memory bank of our civilization before Earth was trashed. Humanity abides not to the laws of biology, but whether one possesses the mental capacity for acquiring and recalling information, followed by enacting it within a wholly contingent situation. Alanis was right: you live, you learn. If comedy is the result of miscommunication, then our laughs and sighs during Wall•E and Eve’s initial courtship stem from watching signs of affection being misread and ignored by someone who’s oblivious to their intentions. Eve has only one directive so far: to find the MacGuffin (seedling in a boot).
By the second act, everything slowly changes for both robots and humans alike, culminating in a sumptuous scene of emotional recognition by Eve of her own recorded memory, her POV video as surveillance footage. It’s like watching your home movies 10 years from now and noticing details that escape your attention the first time around.   Eve not only witnesses Wall•E’s persistent dedication during her downtime, but the same identical scenes she experienced before, now in a radically different light.   Walter Benjamin couldn’t be more prescient about this triumphant moment of self-awareness through the unconscious mechanism of film:  tapping into a realm where objects are more fleeting than concrete, visible only within the frame that hold its precious cargo of frozen moments, gone then, here forever.
Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man…The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions.
Coincidentally, Benjamin’s observation mirrors director Andrew Stanton‘s own attitude in hiring talented cinematographer, Roger Deakins, as a lighting consultant for recreating the photographic apparatus’s penchant for flaws and blemishes, an absent trait in the world of animation, where imagination soars without limit, often without direction either.
We actually had a lot of stuff that wasn’t correct in our software. The math wasn’t doing the right thing, so all the subtle imperfections that you’re used to, that you don’t pay attention to that happen with the camera lens — the way things go distorted in the background, when they do it, how the plane of focus works, what things do in the foreground — all that was either slightly or majorly incorrect with our software, and had always been. I wanted to use the camera much more directly as a tool for intimacy in the film. I mean, I got a metal box falling in love with a metal box and a dystopian background, where am I going to get the intimacy? I’m going to use it with the camera by how shallow of a lens we use and how shallow the focus is, how narrow the lens is. So fixing all that and having Roger there to sort of confirm that we were in the right ballpark with it visually was just key to getting a lot of what comes, I think, unconsciously when you’re watching the film.
Luckily enough we do not need a monitor screen to access our memory, but the film, being a work of science fiction, never treads away from articulating a future where scientific wonders afford the ability to prosthetize our mind from its body. Look up the Precogs from the grandmaster himself, PKD. Instead of being confined to a particular individual or even a localized site (the brain), memory as potential and kinetic energy is transferable and disperse, to be memorized, to be recalled, to be used again and again. 
Eve fidgets with her hands as she reacts tearfully to the  “It Only Takes a Moment” scene from Hello Dolly, echoing the same movement of yearning that Wall•E expressed, their behavior results from imitation, their hands gradually engraved with familiar reminiscence.    Through this uncanny refraction by media itself are the two able to meet eye to eye, heart to heart. This is the stuff of remembrance, in which knowledge is retrieved in a manner that speaks beyond the level of barebone plots to byzantine associations worthy of prophecies and elegies, where meaning seeks confusion as an equal adversary.
When we finally reached the final act, the threat of amnesia leaves Wall•E in a state far worse than death itself, bereft of soul and spirit.  Reading the weekend testimonies, men and women, young and old wept when Wall•E reverted back to his automated self; saving him from deletion inadvertently made the adorable spunky cube into a flat square, a shell of wires and silicon chips.  Of course, this also happens to be the moment when the film succumbs to the cheap miracles of resuscitation by the ‘Snow White’ kiss (in this case, a spark of electricity), one can only eye-roll the numerous times Matrix got through that ordeal unscathed from fanboys booing at the incredulous act of faith performed by Trinity to the dying Neo.   But I guess that film was an allegory of religion or something, I prefer its simpler elements:  leather, bullet time, and Keanu.  Most people subscribes to what Richard Corliss recently stated in his appraisal of Wanted that fantasy films work because of a built-in motor aptly called “movie sense” in contrast to the scriptures of our common sense.
This answer may be sufficient for most audience members leaving the theater, but I think Wall•E already has its own built-in logic for this unexplainable feat of life after coma.  Recall that the film returns incessantly to a pair of hands in dire search of its righty and lefty, and that the explicit origin of this romantic desire comes from a fragment of an 1960s Hollywood musical.   Despite of its revamped setup, the indirect reference that director Andrew Stanton, the know-it-all movie magpie, wants the smarter kids out there to think about is Chaplin’s City Lights.   Joe Morgenstern beat me to the chase, but I’ll have my revenge soon.  For a more nuanced study of physical comedy’s legacy of jesters and simpletons (Wall•E has a vast family tree), look for the related post from Keaton.   In the 1931 silent film comedy, the tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl, he finds money for her surgery but lands himself in the slammer.  With her sight restored along with a new flowershop, she gives the downtrodden tramp a flower, only realizing when their hands touched that he was her mysterious benefactor.  She utters, “I can see now,” and these final words of the film verbally substitutes for the inexpressible warmth of their third skin, a crossroads of caresses between forgotten soulmates.   Stanton gleefully simulates this classic scene by dividing it temporally and spatially (and gender reversal!), first with Eve’s metaphoric blindness, then at the end, with Wall•E’s amnesia as mechanical blindness, both overcome by the power of touch, of hands enmeshed into one, holding its own form of material memory.  In short, a love conquers all ending that isn’t a deux ex machina, it’s all there, like bread crumbs leading up to the satisfying payoff.  
What’s truly delightful and moving about Wall•E’s intricate layering and retracing of past relics with present crises is the sentimental grasp it has over the viewer, paralyzing us to believe fully in the utopian dimension of the film, and I’m not referring to the optimistic epilogue, but rather how memory is fluidly passed on from human to robot, robot to robot, and on a metalevel, old media to new media, almost to the point of near indistinguishable.  Yesterday’s mass culture is today’s national treasure.  So much of the film, of form and content, relies on the fetish of live action by animation, the meticulous rendering of digital bits into its analog reality, and with that, comes the possibility of actual affect through special effects.  What Wall•E hopes we remember after another 700 years is that it too was a special time capsule, a host of cultural history and emotional relevancy, waiting to be imitated by a new classic far far away.  
P.S.  I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I wasn’t re-viewing the tragic fates befalling on our star-crossed lovers, it would’ve be relentlessly cruel for Stanton to end on the lingering mood of The Notebook or A Very Long Engagement.  Rated G for happily ever after.  

Alzheimer ‘R’ Us in The Notebook