Now you're looking for the secret but you won't find it because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.
Inception was released in cinemas this past Friday and after work, I made my way with faithful direction to Loews Kips Bay Plaza. I was ejected from my 8 hours at 4PM and arrived in time to catch the 4:50 showing. After what seemed like the longest collection of stalling coming attractions, the Warner Bros. trademark finally appeared and the film began.
I'm not here to talk about the film--this isn't a review. If you expected one from me, as I myself am guilty of having expected one, then I'm apologizing to you when I say, "I don't know how to review Inception just this moment." I walked out the cinema speechless (after just sitting in the theatre watching the closing credits). I didn't know what to say or what to think. The film wasn't what I expected but I was a far cry from being disappointed. I just couldn't express it, neither with word nor thought. And if it wasn't for my running into a friend on the subway commute home, I might've spent most of the evening tucked inside the numbness of silent analysis.
Christopher Nolan has been, since Memento, one of my favorite active directors. His films invite you to return for a second viewing; they are sophisticated, entertaining films that have been since 1998, attempting to balance sensory stimulation with psychological substance. I have seen every last one of his seven films but the first was Memento back in either '02 or '03, a few years after the film was originally released. Since then, I have viewed all of his films various times and spending much a thought, employed to analyzing them. Certain elements can be noted as part of Christopher Nolan's film language--elements, such as well-dressed men in suits, dead wives or family members, and guns tend to reoccur. Other elements, like the repetition of key lines, plot twists, themes of obsession, deceit, and duality are among the signature stamp that identifies Nolan's work.
So instead of talking about Inception, I will talk about its creator--the man who planted the idea, Christopher Nolan. But before I do, let me just further add to the experience of watching Inception.
There is a scene in Nolan's 2006 film, The Prestige, where Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman) has just returned from witnessing his professional rival, Alfred Borden perform his latest magic trick, The Transported Man. The scene jumps back and forth from Angier's description to his assistant, Olivia--to Angier sitting and watching Borden (played by Christian Bale) performing the puzzling illusion. Angier is spellbound; his demeanor, deflated by what he's just experienced. This is what I felt after Inception. And the more I am asked what the film was like and the more I think about it on my own--I find it easier or necessary to return to The Prestige. That said, I will constantly refer to The Prestige here, as it helps me to understand what a film like Inception, must mean to Christopher Nolan.
Though revolving around magic, The Prestige can also be about the aesthetics of entertainment. And since Christopher Nolan is in the business of entertainment, it is quite interesting to note the parallels between illusionists and film directors. Parallels that involve primarily, deceiving the audience and concept vs. style. The fact that the story structure to the film is modeled after an illusion, with a pledge, a turn, and finally a prestige, should be some indication as to Nolan's conscious recognition that his film about magic can also hold up in context to the art of filmmaking. To fool the audience, to have them lost in the story--guided whichever way you choose as the director, this among other things is the director's job. Likewise, in delivering such a story, the director faces decisions that may at times place concept before style or style over concept. To be a good shows-man vs. a natural magician. To name a quick example with budget, one can think of movies that have a good story but not enough money to make it as grand of a visual experience, or vise versa--a film with a great budget but weak concept or story (this is the majority of mainstream big budget films).
There is one major difference between Memento and Inception but both also have one key thing in common. Memento was the last original script Christopher Nolan wrote until Inception. The major difference by the way, is budget. It could be true to say that Memento is an example of what Nolan can achieve on a small scale (with magnificent effectiveness, if I might add); Inception is what Nolan can achieve on the success of The Dark Knight's record breaking $155.34 million opening weekend. I can almost hear an executive meeting taking place in the Warner Brothers Studio office, a cypher of business men discussing projects and when Nolan's name is brought up--"Wait, what? He wants to work on a sci-fi film about what? He won't say?! You know what...Fuck it! Just be sure to bill it as coming from the director that brought us The Dark Knight...I'm sure its gonna be confusing as hell and people are going to watch it twice. I don't care if its a baby saying blood for two hours while his parents laugh at him, Nolan knows how to present it!"
I'm sure they weren't that confident about him as an artist but I at least am willing to bet they trusted the demand for Nolan's work after The Dark Knight.
Going back to Memento and Inception, what I start to wonder about is, how long has Inception been an idea of Nolan's? How has every film since Memento been evolutionarily instrumental to the production of Inception? How has Inception (if the story is in fact an idea that dates back far enough) been influential in determining what projects Nolan has involved himself in since Memento? Questions, and I have not the answers. But one significant clue in The Prestige calls to me. The Transported Man. Alfred Borden's precious illusion which requires risk and sacrifice, an illusion which Borden saves until he has enough resources to make it work. Inception is Christopher Nolan's Transported Man.
Yet, as Alfred Borden was a natural magician and Robert Angier, a supernatural performer--The Prestige is almost an allegory about the conflict between these two forces, with magic meant to represent Entertainment. So if Borden is a natural magician, then his trick cannot be as extravagant as Angier's--It would be more accurate, when returning from the analogy that, Memento is Christopher Nolan's Transported Man. Inception would then be, in fact, the end result of Borden becoming Angier. Or better still, both Borden and Angier meeting half-way to become one. This is what Christopher Nolan has brought to us with Inception. A film which balances action and idea, muscle and brain--It has its share of special effects but these elements do not invade or dominate the film--but rather, accompany the concept and narrative; altogether creating a style. For fear of jumping into a review I am not ready to deliver, I will begin to wrap things up.
As Nolan's career is really only beginning, I can only enthuse on the anticipation of things to come from this mentally engaging storyteller. Especially now that he is at a point where he can make a "financially generous" film; projects with budgets that allow his grasp to exceed his imagination. Brainy films are usually reserved for independent markets, or are cast aside from the shadow of summer blockbusters (which Inception, make no mistake definitely is). When we get into action films, "brainy" substance seems even less likely to appear in a major film. I hope this sets an example, rattles the cages, inspires risks to be taken; I hope escalation occurs and rival studios take chances on films of higher intellectual quality, to compete with one anothe--all for the indirect benefit to viewers like me.