Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lost in the labyrinth with Christopher Nolan (Part II)

What, if anything, is at the center of Christopher Nolan's maze?
In my first post on Inception, I attempted to explain why Christopher Nolan's blockbuster had incited such passion on the Web (and such recalcitrance elsewhere), using the director's own hints as guide.  And in brief, I found in the pitched battle over the movie a war between two cultures: the culture of film - with its attenuated but still real roots in theatre, music, and art - and the culture of the virtual, in which only genre and paranoid onanism hold sway.  Critics looked at Inception and saw everything it lacked: characters, narrative, resonant symbolism; but geeks simply saw themselves, writ large, and with superb skill.  To them, it seemed obvious that a dream should look like The Matrix (or some other cool action flick); because what else would a dream look like?  What is a film for other than to provide thrills, to serve as "a wild ride"?

Which isn't to say that Inception isn't brilliantly made, or that Nolan isn't very, very clever.  It is, and he is - what's more, the director clearly has his finger on something new that's embedded in the culture; his immense commercial success, built on movies of undeniable intellectual challenge, make his legacy impossible to ignore.  But the question remains - is that "something new" he has tapped into capable of making art - or is it simply replacing art?

In short, what is Nolan's legacy made of?  I'd argue that in their complexity, his films mirror art, and maybe even great works of art; but their material is always derivative of art (the way "genre" is) without ever quite becoming, Pinocchio-like, the real thing.  Of course it's been a staple of film criticism for a long time that pop can achieve the status of art - and it arguably has, in movies like The Godfather and Citizen Kane - but these days it seems the greatness of those pop baubles may have really been due to the actual sources of art leaking into genre on the down low.  A sense of the tragic isn't actually indigenous to Mario Puzo's The Godfather, for instance; Francis Ford Coppola worked it into his movie sideways, from his knowledge of opera and theatre.  Ditto Roman Polanski, and Orson Welles, and even Alfred Hitchcok.  And critics did handsprings over their movies because they sensed in them an old magic in a new, populist form.

But when Christopher Nolan goes to work - with a brain just as sharp as Coppola's, if not more so - he doesn't try to tap into theatre, or opera, or even the great movies of the past; he simply tries to deepen genre with more genre.  Thus as we get lost in the maze of a movie like Inception, we only meet up with - other movies.

The imagery for "The Dawn of Man" in "2001."
To see why this is so, ponder, for a moment, what many consider the "ambiguities" of Inception, next to what we think of as real ambiguity in genuine works of art.  And no, with apologies to William Empson, we won't even reach as high as Shakespeare - let's look again, instead, at Stanley Kubrick (in whose artistic vineyard Inception fans imagine Nolan is toiling).

Kubrick has his flaws, of course, but his movies are genuinely ambiguous - indeed, as we watch them repeatedly, an almost frightening sense of thematic depth often opens out beneath us.  Take 2001, for instance (above and below) - it took viewers a long time to appreciate that the "computer-goes-crazy" story of HAL hooked seamlessly into the meditation on mind and machine that was threaded through the whole movie.  Indeed, after repeated viewings, fans realized that much in the film was ambiguous - even early reviewers chuckled, for instance, that HAL seemed like the most "human" character in the movie, but only gradually did viewers realize what that meant.

Other assumptions - such as the unseen presence of "aliens" behind the mysterious monolith (an assumption of "genre," btw) - likewise collapsed over time.  By now, we appreciate 2001 as a strange, slow poem on the question of what, exactly a machine is - and whether we ourselves are anything more than that (and whether the universe is, either; note the visual parallels between HAL's "eye," below, and the sunrise above).

And the imagery for the dawn of HAL.

There's a similar thematic apparatus working through most of Kubrick's oeuvre; Full Metal Jacket simultaneously illuminates the protective and destructive aspects of the war instinct; Eyes Wide Shut ponders the dance of sex and death.  But if these movies are sometimes recondite, or seem frustratingly paradoxical - if they simply pause sometimes in the hope that we'll "catch up" with their imagery - it's because their themes (not merely their techniques) are recondite and paradoxical.  Kubrick never dabbles in deception for its own sake; he doesn't indulge in sudden narrative boomerangs just to "blow our minds."  He's simply not interested in keeping us on our toes as a means of distraction.

But sometimes it seems that's all that Nolan is interested in.  Indeed, the essence of Inception is his relentless cutting between different "levels" of narrative (in case you haven't seen the movie, the dreams-within-dreams afford convenient dilations of time) without any sense of thematic development.  Sure, effects from one dream are interpolated into another, but this only creates possibilities for cool special effects, as when gravity goes all nonsense in one lengthy action sequence.  Meanwhile the psychology of lead character Cobb (as he burrows deeper and deeper into his own psyche) basically remains at the level of an average Oprah Winfrey show - only drenched in a paranoid expectation that everything that "seems" to be happening isn't really "real."  Much as a resident of Second Life knows deep down inside that he doesn't really have wings, so Cobb is half-sure that everything (and everyone) he encounters is a construct - of his employers, or his enemies, or even, perhaps of his own subconscious.

The trouble for Inception is that such an enveloping sense of suspicion basically flattens any hope of the film inspiring any rich emotion (aside, of course, from self-pity).  Even the one possibly resonant surprise at the center of the maze (how Cobb "killed" his wife with the idea that reality itself was an illusion) quickly devolves into a new game-board of dream-gambits that really only exist for their own sake.  Thus when a train - which we realize figures as the means of her death, both real and imaginary - pops up unexpectedly in another, seemingly unrelated, dream, the moment hardly registers as meaningful; in fact it's only about as resonant, as it clicks into the movie's paranoid pattern, as one of the numbers on a Rubik's cube.

So while software geeks, and other obsessive-compulsives, may squeal with delight at every chance to chase Nolan's unreliable narrative weasel around his virtual mulberry bush (the last shot provides a final opportunity to do the same thing with the whole film), grown-ups without access to a bong and a dorm room may find themselves checking out of the whole experience long before its official end.  Or will end up looking at it merely as a kind of memory exercise for over-grown children (the inevitable Lego tribute, at left).

But to be fair, Nolan almost seems aware of this artistic problem himself; he seems half-cognizant of his own inability to create actual art from his brilliance.  Indeed, for most of its running time, Inception largely exists as a defense against its own emptiness.  Over and over again, the director feeds us the same strange-loop catnip as a way of fooling us into thinking his movie is actually going somewhere thematically, instead of merely cycling through three or four ideas that only seem intriguingly ambiguous because it's impossible (due to his ongoing game of narrative monte) to differentiate between them.

Thus the deep, unspoken mood of Inception is something like impotent introspection.  And looking back, it seems that the defining motif of Nolan's career has been a similar form of brooding isolation - think of Batman alone on that urban spire in Batman Begins (at right), grimly surveying a vast landscape of genre, but always separate from it: that's Nolan (and his fans).  And in Inception, that loneliness has metastasized into his own brain: Nolan and his heroes are now even isolated from themselves.

Or is that very lack of connection, perhaps, Nolan's great meta-theme?  Is the true meaning of his oeuvre its self-aware meaninglessness?  Such a claim sounds ridiculous, I know, until you wonder - is Nolan so very far from, say, M.C. Escher?  True, Escher isn't as grandiose, or as self-aggrandizing, as Nolan; the spooky metaphysics of his strange loops burrow into the brain without the help of caped crusaders or leather-clad biceps, or even the cool corporate chic of Inception.  And just btw, the narrative strange loop figures in plenty of Western culture, from The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark down to Borges; my favorite example of it in movies, in fact, may be the kitten that wakes up at the close of Celine and Julie Go Boating.  What makes Nolan different, however, is that in his cinema, the strange loops are all that exist in artistic terms; the rest is a derivative flotsam of borrowed imagery and familiar tropes floating over a bottomless well of adolescent angst.

But what if that's all that exists for the audience, too?  In a way, it's possible to read Nolan (at left, in high recursion mode) as an avatar of the post-cultural artist, the professional who can conjure for the crowd the illusion of art's complexity without any of its actual content.  And in a world in which the "market" has replaced the "culture," and in which much of the mass audience already "lives" in a world that doesn't really exist, what other option does an ambitious artist have?  Perhaps film is destined to follow the other visual arts into that self-aware but barren realm in which art is denuded of its ancient richness, but still edges forward on the strength of this or that intellectual strategy, this or that awareness or critical stance.

And given that likelihood, maybe the brilliant Christopher Nolan is the best we can hope for; maybe, in fact, it's time we all bid Stanley Kubrick and his kind good-bye.

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