Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lost in the labyrinth with Christopher Nolan (Part I)

Our fandom, like our politics, has become steadily more polarized - but few directors  have been quite as controversial as Christopher Nolan, the blockbuster auteur responsible for Memento, The Dark Knight, and now Inception, the sleeper (in more ways than one) of the summer.

Indeed, as A.O. Scott famously pointed out, Nolan by now is so polarizing that an online flame war broke out over Inception before the movie even opened - this after a tsunami of threats and rants had washed over the Internet when the critics (and the Academy Awards) didn't rate The Dark Knight as highly as the sages of Ain't It Cool News had. Within days a conventional wisdom had coalesced that Nolan could be counted on to pull in the big bucks, but simultaneously divide moviegoers into factions about as affectionate as the Shi'ites and the Sunnis.

Things didn't start out that way. Nobody even saw the director's first feature, Following (except me, it seems), but everybody loved Memento, the "backwards" thriller about a man suffering from a rare memory disorder. And everyone went batty over Batman Begins, Nolan's clever resuscitation of a comic franchise that had turned cartoonish.

But then came The Dark Knight and Inception - Nolan's biggest hits yet - and soon battle lines had been drawn between those who insisted these movies were masterpieces (but were hard pressed to explain exactly why), and those reviewers who found them brilliantly realized, but strangely empty - and dramatically pointless. The fanboys had an answer to these critics, however - they might not be able to "explain" Nolan's work, but someday it would be explained, just as the films of Stanley Kubrick survived initial critical drubbings to slowly reveal themselves as the great works they are.

In all this, however, little illuminating has been said about Inception - so I was surprised to discover, when I finally caught up with the movie a few weeks ago, that the most insightful critic of Inception may in fact be its director. For Christopher Nolan has embedded in his recondite magnum opus (which may be a masterpiece of its type, more on that later) a pretty accurate - and pretty obvious - guide to his own drives, methods, and meaning. This has happened before - Hitchcock, Lean, and Fellini all proffered exegeses of their own oeuvres in films as diverse as The Birds, Doctor Zhivago, and 8 1/2. It just took the critics years to catch up to these director's self-analyses.

But first things first - sorry, fanboys, Christopher Nolan is no Stanley Kubrick (at left, in HAL's memory bank), even if superficially both directors are drawn to themes that conceal their own contradiction. Or make that "even if Nolan is drawn over and over to a single theme, which, somewhat like Kubrick's many themes, contains within itself its own contradiction."

That theme, of course, is the reliability of subjectivity. Which leads me immediately to another misconception about Inception (one the movie promulgates itself): Nolan's film is in no serious way about dreams or dreaming. The director may import his lead character's dead wife into his "dreams," but she's essentially window-dressing on a plot that has nothing like the logic of a dream, with a symbology that's utterly unresonant, and never psychologically disturbing. Indeed, the movie's supposed nightmares are hopeless kitsch - they play as out-takes from action flicks as various as The Matrix and Where Eagles Dare (as the dreaming gets "deeper," the movies get more old-school). "Dreaming" merely serves the film as what Hitchcock would have called its "MacGuffin." Indeed, Nolan hardly bothers explaining how, in even the most general way, a dream could be shared by several people, much less "architected" (what, precisely, could Ellen Page's "dream architect" be "architecting" a dream from?). In speculative fiction, these kinds of logistical lacunae are generally covered by references to some leap in technology or theory - like Star Trek's "warp drive" - but Nolan doesn't even bother to nod in that direction, because he knows that we know his movie is really about something else entirely.

For the film's true "leap" is not into the dream world but rather the virtual one. Without ever saying so aloud, Nolan exploits with Inception a presumptive mind-set that has already taken hold in his audience - that the digital realm of video games and the Internet is a genuine subjective experience we can fruitfully compare to dreaming (just as we're now supposed to believe Sandman is on a continuum with War and Peace). This sleight-of-hand may be what many critics, with their memory of the "thick" psychological themes you used to be able to expect in "cinema" (such as that of, say, Stanley Kubrick), have responded to with such ire; you can feel Nolan in one fell swoop superficializing a huge swath of movie culture, and maybe the culture in general. Remember those episodes of Futurama in which people found companies were advertising in their dreams? Well, that would hardly matter if the dream itself were no more than an overblown heist movie.

So the thinness of Inception's conception of "dreaming" is of a piece with its actual subject, the online world of mediated experience.  And unsurprisingly, that world dovetails with Nolan's personal obsessions.  Remember how earlier I mentioned that the director was his own best critic? Well, what I had in mind was an early scene in Inception in which Leonardo DiCaprio asks Ellen Page's dream architect to come up with a maze - a really tough one; she responds with a sketch of a circular labyrinth - like the kind that Theseus faced (so it's no surprise her name is "Ariadne").  In a movie that's generally utterly flat in its affect, this one gesture struck me with sudden resonance. For of course Inception itself is structured as a kind of double circular maze - its heroes descend deeper and deeper into "dreams" with "dreams", while the movie itself is edited into a  circular labyrinth of possible narratives, some (or all) of which lead to dead ends.

And just by the way, the circular maze counts as a metaphor for much of Nolan's oeuvre as well; in a way, it's his signature. People were mistaken, for instance, to imagine that Memento, his breakout movie, was structured "backwards" - indeed, when fans watched the scenes in reverse on their DVD players, some were dismayed to discover that the narrative didn't quite "add up" as it should. This is because Memento was actually constructed as a kind of circular maze, with scenes nestled within each other like Russian dolls - every time the hero "woke up" into an earlier time frame, we got a bit more of his surrounding circumstances. There are echoes of the technique in The Dark Knight as well - although in that paranoid opus, we never got to "wake up" into an awareness that might have explained its relentlessly bleak events.

In "Inception," even Paris folds in on itself.
In the case of Inception, the maze of Theseus has added resonance in that it's also reminiscent of recursion, the looping process central to programming, in which a function takes itself as its subject, then takes the resulting "subject" as its next "subject," and so on and on to infinity - or until some bound is reached. (In Inception, that "bound," I suppose, is the strange state of "limbo" which - in my interpretation - begins, ends, and encapsulates the whole narrative.) And for the techno-savvy, that resonance derives from their nervous sense that even our shared "reality" is just a way-station on a spiraling loop heading down (or up) into "limbo," too. To them, we are all like Leo DiCaprio's Cobb (we just don't know it). In short, Nolan hooks the fanboys by aping, in cinematic form, a mindset they use constantly in work and play, and which, as a result, they tend to project as the organizing principle of the universe. Therefore pointing out the superficiality of Nolan's narrative looping isn't just a piece of criticism - it's an attack on a mode of being, an entire way of life.

But can that way of life actually yield anything that we might think of as genuine "art"? More on that paradox - and others - in the second part of this posting.

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