Sunday, July 18, 2010

Memories, Dreams, Projections

I recently read the late great Donald E. Westlake’s posthumously published novel, “Memory.” It is a different sort of noir. Its moral is: “Don’t sleep with the wife of a guy in a town so small that guy has lots of power.” Its theme, however, is deeper and longer-lasting: Our memories identify us. Without long-term memories, who are we? As Westlake’s protagonist struggles to regain his memory, to regain his life, his long-term memories travel farther away, and then the short-term memories start to fail him as well. The book is more frightening than you might think. I woke up thinking about its protagonist’s noir nightmare over a week after I finished reading it. "Memory" stays with you.

Memory plays a major role in the new film “Inception,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who gave us “Memento,” a story about memory loss. For Inception, Nolan and his production designer Guy Dyas clearly spent a great deal of time staring at M.C. Escher’s lithographs and engravings. It appears they journeyed by Escher’s paradoxical stairways and looked beyond the contradictory, impossible, illogical images to find the impossible and illogical thought processes that might have inspired them.

This film has a slew of marvelous images and scenes, with reality bending back on itself, and people real and unreal having physical impact on the scenes and the characters. The film takes us to real places in Paris and Morocco, and many unreal places. And the unreality of Place in this film is important, creative, and fascinating.

As for the story, well this is Christopher Nolan. It’s convoluted, complicated, and finally ambiguous. Which I quite like.

Sometime in the presumably near future (since nothing else seems futuristic), there is an art/science of joining in someone else’s dreams and lifting secrets from the subject’s subconscious. There is, therefore, a countermeasure to protect corporate secrets and such like, in which potential subjects are taught how to fight back in the virtual reality of their multi-level dreams. Naturally fighting back includes security forces, guns, bombs, and Hummvees. Otherwise there would be no explosions. Either extracting the desired information or fighting said extraction is called “Extraction.” I think. The imaginary extras, guns, and bombs, are projections.

“Inception,” on the other hand, is implanting an idea, or its seed, into the deep subconscious of a subject such that he or she develops the idea on his/her own, believing it was always his own idea, not an external suggestion. The “Inception” planned in Inception is necessarily a simple one. Implementing the implant is not at all simple. The scenarios contrived to implant the mark in Inception require sensitivity and some psychology. And, apparently, some action scenes.

Naturally the team that plans the Inception is imperfect. They are:

Leonardo diCaprio as Cobb, in exile from his U.S. home, wanting only to get back there to be with his children. He has an unfortunate habit of creating an image of his very angry wife in whatever dreamscape he enters. She has a habit of destroying his well-laid plans.

Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s very angry wife, Mal. This is pronounced as “Molly” without the “ly,” but spelled as “bad,” which I think is excessive. Ms. Cotillard is never excessive, however. She is sleek and magnifique.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, rather uptight, the stable partner, the friend. He has a somewhat antagonistic relationship with another member of the team, Eames, which allows for a bit of brash banter.

Tom Hardy as the Forger, Eames. In dreamscape, this means not that he draws other people’s pictures, but rather that he becomes, impersonates real people in the subject’s life, but of course giving said people the dialogue and behavior required for the scenario to work.

Ellen Page as Ariadne, the student Architect of the dreamscapes. She replaces the first Architect we meet, the woefully underused (not just in this film, but in all of Hollywood) Lucas Haas. In trailers, Page appears too young for this film, but considering her function, her youth is not an issue. Still, it’s not the work we like to see her do.

Ken Watanabe is the Client, Mr. Saito. He is extremely rich and powerful, but all is not well in his world. He begins the film as the subject of another job, but outsmarts the team he wants to put to work toward his own ends. My favorite line of the film is his: “I bought the airline. I thought it was simpler.” Well, yes, it was.

Dileep Rao is the Chemist. There are a lot of drugs in this film, just not the ones you expect. All sorts of people stick things in their arms and fall into false sleeps. It’s creepy.

Not technically part of the team but an inspiration for some of its members, Michael Caine is the teacher as well as the father-in-law of Cobb, and therefore the grandfather of the two small children we see from the back and the side out of the corner of Cobb’s eye.

Willingly or unwillingly, subjects of the above team’s jobs are chemically induced into sleep and sharing dreams with the members of the team, the people we seem to be rooting for. Every avenue of such an enterprise is morally reprehensible. Practitioners of these arts/sciences are the protagonists of the film. They’d better be sympathetic. Alas, not awfully. But not to worry. The marks are even less sympathetic. The marks are:

Pete Postlethwaite as the dying corporate king with an empire spanning too many enterprises including energy.

Cillian Murphy as his heir apparent, otherwise known as Postlethwaite’s son. He’s the immediate mark, the object of Saito’s desire to implant an important idea in the mind of his primary competitor.

Tom Berenger is the right hand man/lawyer to father and son emperors. We’ll never know if Berenger’s or Postlethwaite’s characters are really terrible people – just their positions in the story make them the badder guys.

The primary goal of the leading character, diCaprio’s Cobb, is clear. He will do anything to find a way home to his kids, who are in the U.S., where Cobb may not return. Saito’s power level is such that he can “fix” the problem that keeps Cobb in exile.

The primary goal of the client Saito is also clear. He wants to destroy his business rival, not only because he’s got a global monopoly on everything, but because said monopoly threatens the safety of the world.

The primary goals of all the other characters are unclear. It’s a job. But if we consider this the heist story that it really is, that’s not a problem. In most heist stories, all the criminals are doing the job that is required to get by. And really, all these characters are criminals to some degree, some more blatantly than others.

In any case, it’s pretty damn cool to look at, particularly the Parisian scenes as Cobb explores the mental skills of Ariadne as his new ‘architect.’ Also fun are the scenes in a level of unconsciousness in which Arthur performs acrobatic feats, with and without partners, in hotel hallways, rooms, and elevator shafts, all without gravity. The scenes of the destruction of dreams are awe-inspiring.

Oddly enough this very visual film is not in 3D, for which I profusely thank Mr. Nolan, his fellow producers, and Warner Brothers. Story does matter here, and Inception’s multiple levels and dimensions have support both visually and in terms of the storytelling.

Please don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed Inception, laughed the very few times it was appropriate, and held my breath in the last shot focusing on a spinning top. Perhaps its heist-like nature made its lack of humor stand out to me. The performances were fine, but not outstanding. This is not a film about actors’ performances. It’s about visualizing adventurous unreal dreams and nightmares, testing the trustworthiness of memory, testing the moral fiber of society and science. And society and science fail. The premise sticks in my craw. But this unpleasant story is brought to life expertly. The “realities” created in the dream levels can crumble when the dream architecture isn’t working, and the disintegration of the architecture is portrayed with such imagination and skill that it’s magnificent and frightening. And sometimes it looks rather like Montauk.
Inception is one of those films that I’ll enjoy seeing more than once. I’m sure I missed a level or two. And it’s still mighty hot outside….

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Time to find the nearest A/C (shorthand for moviehouse).

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