Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

…Unless It’s Tuesday: My Reaction to Inception

Exhibiting once again my tendency to avoid the Fresh and Now, I’ve finally seen Christopher Nolan’s latest. Even though the Inception Writing Train has left the station, I might as well put my thoughts down on e-paper (especially since I’ve gone on about Nolan in a prior post).

I dodged the reviews/articles since the film opened and tried my best to have a clean slate going into this screening (which we all know is impossible). I gave Nolan my best shot. 1   Since straight-forward film criticism isn’t really my bag, I’ve decided to take on this film–and its hype–from three angles. (I’ll do my best to keep the snark out of my reactions since I don’t want that to mask my real displeasure with the film. I don’t “snark” terribly well, but gratefully I have the conviction of my feelings to support my writing.)

Inception versus Nolan’s prior films. I’m on-record as not liking Momento, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I easily see the connections to those films in this one: overwrought, clunky, with action scenes that leave me confused. I’ll grant Nolan consistency in his body of work, though it certainly works against me seeing any of his subsequent films.

Reliable sources tell me that The Presige is the Nolan Film to See When You Don’t Like the Batman Films, so, yes, I’ve added that to my Netflix queue. But he’s 4-and-0 with me. (Hmmm…would you go out on a 5th date after 4 shitty ones? I must be a glutton for punishment.)

Inception versus films by others. Since yesterday, I’ve caught up on the reviews of this film and am shocked by claims of Nolan’s homages to other films and filmmakers. I certainly don’t see the positive influence of any of the more respected filmmakers.

For example, has he ever seen a Hitchcock film? If so, he clearly missed the point of the McGuffin, Hitchcock’s name for a plot element that’s “ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot” (Wiki). Nolan invests so much importance (READ: dialog) in his plot devices that Cobb’s emotional throughline has to constantly share our mental space with silly claptrap, like talk of “sedative strength” and “limbo.” If Hitchcock were handed this script, the first thing he’d do is rip out two-thirds of the dialog. (The second thing he’d do is hand the script back.)

And then there’s critic Anne Thompson’s bold proclamation “Nolan Delivers Kubrickian Masterpiece with Heart.” Inception is as Kubrickian as my last shit. (OK, there has to be some snark.) As far as I know, Thompson is the only critic to make that claim in print, though I sense others second her vote. She only makes a parenthetical reference to what “Kubrickian” means within this film (“repeated homages to the late great auteur beyond the obvious use of moving sets on gimbles”), but I’m stumped as to what Kubrick films/motifs she could be referring to. There’s about 600 times more dialog in Inception than there is any Kubrick film. Likewise, Kubrick’s films have a tremendous visual clarity (even when plot points are purposely vague), and, generally speaking, a low ceiling on the number of characters. None of that’s going on in Nolan’s film. (Somewhere, in Film Heaven, Alfred “Hitchcockian” Hitchcock is snickering at Kubrick: “Now you know how it feels!”)

Inception on its own merits. As you’ve already gathered, I didn’t enjoy the film. Here’s the random thoughts I had while watching Inception, all of which were recorded into my phone:

        Ken Watanabe says, “Mr. Cobb,” like a Bond villain says, “Mr. Bond.”

        Why couldn’t the digitally fix that thread!? I’m referring of course to DiCaprio’s scene with Michael Caine where they used varying takes from Leo’s angle, which meant this one errant thread on the right shoulder of his blazer would disappear and then reappear based on what take they used. Distracting? Fuck yeah. For the money spent on that film and all of the (supposed) attention to detail, it’d be nice if they used some of that technology for the straight scenes. I mean, shit, an intern could have fixed that problem in Final Cut Pro in half a day. And, I kid you not: I thought it was a plot point (Is Cobb dreaming that he’s talking to his father? A few scenes ago, Saito was talking about the threads in a carpet, so it’s possible this damn thread is a clue of some kind…)

        If I’m not emotionally invested in the characters in their waking state, how in the Hell am I going to care what they do in their sleep?

        Did Tom Berenger swallow a cop?

        When you have all the money and technology in the world at your fingertips to make the film and the “rules” for the reality within your film are always in flux, always changing, then what is there for a viewer to believe? What are the stakes?

        Y’know, I’d like to see this film with Bill Murray as Cobb. The character is an unconventional guy with a past he can’t come to grips with…yeah, I could see Bill Murray playing that role. That’s the film I’d want to see.

        All these special effects have a finite impact on me. They reminded me of my 3-year-old son endlessly and gleefuly repeating the alphabet: he might say it faster and faster—even sing it—but ultimately it’s just a string of letters and I won’t be impressed again until he makes real words out of them.

         Putting the Good Guys and the Bad Guys in all-white ski suits, head-to-toe, is a real deterrent to following the action. Duh!

        “Unless it’s Tuesday.” I kept thinking this line, over and over. It’s not said in the film, obviously; in fact, I don’t think it’s said in any film. But it’s my catchphrase for those awkward moments when a filmmaker dodges logic with a line of stupid dialog. 2  For example, after Saito gets shot, he should wake up (a “rule” that is clearly explained a few times earlier in the film), but not this time. Why? Well, the sedative is too strong. Or as I say to myself, “Yes, Saito should wake up…unless it’s Tuesday. That rule doesn’t apply on Tuesdays. Oh, you didn’t know that? Well, you do now. Whew, lucky for us he got shot on Tuesday.” This lame-ass easy-out happens repeatedly in Inception, some bullshit excuse to change the rules Nolan’s asked us to believe in the first place.

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And that’s all I have to say about Inception. I can’t wait to cleanse my palatte tonight when Debbie and I see Chaplin’s The Kid at Film Forum. And most likely I’ll be bawling my eyes out!

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BACK TO POST 1 A filmmaker couldn’t ask for a fairer shake. I arrived early and got the perfect seat. Armed myself with popcorn, baby carrots, and Hershey’s chocolate with almonds. Shoot, I even came equipped with Trailer Guard® (my own personal invention: ear plugs and sunglasses covered with duct tape, so I can avoid the pre-Feature Presentation headache I get from all the bullshit they throw at us; I just sit there deaf and blind until the film begins.)

BACK TO POST 2 Remember the lame one in Cameron’s The Abyss? Their underwater hospital or whatever it was was just raised to the sea level by aliens in a matter of minutes, when it should have taken days. “We should be dead. We didn’t decompress,” one crew member says. “They must have done something to us,” another replies. Oh, how convenient!

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Batman Begins…to Annoy Me (or Christopher Nolan Needs a Bullshit Detector)

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Christopher Nolan’s 2005 franchise re-boot Batman Begins.

Fuller disclosure: I really tried, having seen it one-and-a-half times. (I walked out mid-way through my first screening of it, and then, in the wake of the over-whelming praise of my peers and their cries of “What are you on crack?! That shit rocks!!” and “What an asshole you are for not loving it!” and “This friendship is over,” I revisted it, with eyes more open than the first time. But to no avail. I spent the whole time wishing I could Memento my ass back to a time before the film began. 1

It’s comforting to know that there’s a smart backlash to the structural messes known as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but looking at the box office receipts (the true indication of a “great” film), we’re still a minority, albeit an angry one. (And, yeah, I know, I’m a few years late on this post, but, hey, I’m still a rookie!)

I’d rather not give overviews of either film or a thorough breakdown of what bores me about them. Instead I’d like to do what I’ve been doing regularly on my blog: dissect one moment, a standout moment for me, which I think typifies the whole kit and kaboodle.

In fact, the moment in Batman Begins I’m going discuss is the one that prompted me to turn to my wife in the theater in 2005 and say, “OK, I’m done.”

A third of the way into the film, Bruce is in Ra’s Al Ghul’s “boot camp,” about to be given his final test, with Henri Ducard by his side. Here’s an abbreviated version of the scene…

Look, I have no qualms about Bruce Wayne killing every non-Caucasian in the room—or even saving Ducard—but I hate that he says (twice!) that he won’t be an “executioner.” I’m not going to dilly-dally over the finer subtleties what he meant with that word (he will not kill anyone unjustly) versus what he does (kill with just cause) OR that it’s Nolan’s way of showing Bruce’s inner conflict and tortured soul. Screw that.

To me, it’s simply a case of bad dialog. Not bad like, “Your eyes are pools I’d love to swim in,” but bad like when I heard it, I thought, “OK, so Bruce Wayne’s not an exectutioner. I can dig it.” But when he started killing everyone in sight, I asked, “Wait. But didn’t he just say he wasn’t going to do that?!” And that’s the kind of questions that yank me right out of a film, and in the case of Batman Begins, I was yanked out for good.

Back in college, I had a writing teacher named Howard Enders, and he advocated nurturing what he called your Bullshit Detector. That was the alarm in your head that would go off whenever you wrote anything that was false in spirit or intent. It’s along the lines of “Maybe you can bullshit the reader, but do you really want to bullshit yourself?” In fact, if your Bullshit Detector worked well when you were writing your script, then you stand a great chance of maintaining a sense of truth for the rest of your filmmaking process.

And Howard’s impact was so profound that to this day, I have a Bullshit Detctor for watching films, and when something doesn’t feel right, off it goes. (Thanks, Howard. I mean it.)

So, does the blame fall on the script? Hard to say. There’s a draft of Batman Begins on the internet, one credited solely to David Goyer, and the word “executioner” doesn’t appear once in the script. (True, there’s a scene that strongly resembles the one above, but Ducard asks Bruce to blow out a candle, not kill someone.) So, I suppose that Bruce’s tortured soul line entered the picture when Nolan wrote his draft of the script. Muy intersante.

Would the scene be perfect–or even better–without the word “executioner”? Probably not. 2  But is it too much to ask the filmmaker and his cohorts to vet their script for sore thumbs that might cause confusion? I wonder if anyone in the process said, “Y’know, Chris, I get what you’re saying with the ‘executioner’ lines, but then why does Bruce kill that guy who’s tied up. Y’know, the one he said he wouldn’t ‘execute’?” Well, if anyone did bring up this point, he or she was outvoted.

I’m bugged that I’m writing a whole post that does nothing but bitch about a film I don’t like. The more I write these things, the more I realize my stronger posts tend to be about what I love, not what I don’t. (Maybe it’s my Bullshit Detector at work.) So, I’m going to end this post on an up note!

In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, writer-director Billy Wilder repeatedly says that if you have a strong script you’re likely to have a strong film—but it won’t happen the other way around. (Weak scripts will always make weak films.) And regarding The Apartment (perhaps his most “perfect” screenplay), he says its strong script made every subsequent step in the filmmaking process easier, a no-brainer:

“The idea behind shooting it is getting everything that is written on the screen. Everything, making it clear…I just tried to be careful that one thing led into the other thing…We did The Apartment in fifty days and edited it in less than a week. We had three feet of unused film. Why? Because the story was good.”

I can’t elaborate on that sage advice. It’s as succinct as, well, a screenplay by Billy Wilder. But, I’ll add this piece of naïve optimism: I saw Nolan’s Batman Begins even though I didn’t enjoy Momento (aka the World’s Longest Twilight Zone Episode). And even after those two missteps, I still saw The Dark Knight, which I thought was dreadful. And yet, I’m sure I’ll see Inception this summer. And if I think it blows, I’ll send Christopher Nolan a copy of Conversations with Wilder.

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BACK TO POST 1 My alternate joke: But to no avail. I spent the whole time wishing it were called Batman Ends.

BACK TO POST 2 I tried re-cutting the scene without the word “executioner,” but it was still a bore of a scene so I gave up.

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Filed under Film, Gripes