I finally saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception at the Drafthouse last weekend. I intended to view it at the IMAX where I caught a midnight screening of The Dark Knight, which preceded an ill-timed traffic jam on the upper deck of I-35. Fresh from witnessing Heath Ledger’s terrifying performance as the Joker, I feared imminent doom. Luckily, the bottleneck was caused by a minor car accident that left both parties unharmed.
But as I filed in for Friday’s 10:30 showing, I wondered if the movie would live up to its colossal hype. Nolan’s reputation looms over each of his productions, and his mastery of filmic slight of hand promised that, if Inception wasn’t in Memento‘s league, it might still keep good company with The Prestige. A month following its auspicious box office debut, I had my suspicions. The movie is about extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leading a team who implant the idea that heir Robert Michael Fischer (Cillian Murphy) cede from the empire built by his mogul father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite). The squad is employed by businessman Saito (Ken Wantanabe), who represents its chief competitor. Dana Stevens’s tentative write-up was my first alarm, as was the Oscar buzz generated amongst fanboys that Snarky’s Machine noted in her review.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Caitlin at Dark Room raved about it, arguing that it bested The Matrix. Pioneer film theorists David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson cataloged many of the movie’s intriguing ideas. Capitalizing on the fervent anticipation of Mad Men‘s fourth season, Pop Watch noted that Inception is essentially telling the same story as AMC’s flagship melodrama (the post also linked to Michael Newman’s blog entry about how the series functions as an allegory for Matthew Weiner’s anxieties over the creative process).
But after all that chatter, what did I think about Inception? Eh. It was okay. The visuals were captivating and the storyline was relatively accessible. I think it’s more of an interesting movie to talk about than watch, though the 140 minutes flew by more briskly than I had anticipated.
I had reservations about Ellen Page playing an architect named Ariadne, but I bought her as a grad student whose speech never overshadows her fancy kerchiefs. Her scenes with mastermind Cobb lack air, but that’s just as much DiCaprio’s fault. Their characters display an intimate connection. Ariande feels comfortable enough with Cobb to utter the movie’s most overtly feminist line when asking of his inability to let go of his wife’s death “Do you think you can create a prison of memories to lock her in? Do you think that’s going to contain her?” But both overuse a knit brow to connote a wellspring of emotion while conveying very little. Though I concur with Stevens on preferring DiCaprio in lighter fare over attempts at Serious Acting, a Nolan picture tends to ensure labored acting.
Joseph Gordon Levitt has moments as point man Arthur, particularly in the breath-taking zero gravity sequence. Saito and chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao) are given little to do beyond step out of the spotlight for the all-white principal cast. The only person clearly having a good time is forger Eames, who extracts information by convincingly becoming other people, including a flirty blonde who chats up Fischer. Tom Hardy mines the role’s seductive and queer camp potential, purring like a naughty cat who licked up all the cream.
Caitlin believed the main plot of engineering familial and corporate breach to be predictable, but I found its B-story to be its most obvious flaw. Cobb cannot shake the spectre of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose name literally means “bad” in her native French. Mal isn’t so much a psychologically damaged woman whose destructive actions in Cobb’s unconscious contrast with her sweet nature in life. Rather, she plays as a manifestation of feminist film theory’s complaints against cinema’s conception of women and its applications of psychoanalytic thought via the scopophilic gaze. Cotillard does what she can with the role, but it feels like she’s representing, say, Tania Modeleski’s criticisms in The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. This may have been Nolan’s intention, but by rendering Mal as an archetypical femme fatale who Cobb must overcome, he only enforces the notion that female movie characters are not fully realized as complex people but instead mere ideations from the auteur’s mind.
That said, I do find the employment of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” to be particularly fascinating. It remains one of Piaf’s best-known tunes. Though she reportedly dedicated her 1960 recording to the French Foreign Legion during the Algerian War, the song is now thought of as a reflection on the singer’s dramatic biography, akin to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It is also Inception‘s unofficial theme. Nolan continually referred to it when writing the script and hoped to put it in the movie. It serves as the squad’s alarm clock, bringing them back to consciousness following a mission and implying the emotional objectivity required in the work of hampering with other people’s dreams. Composer Hans Zimmer also threaded the song’s cadence throughout his overbearing score.
For me, it is also evidence that Cobb is still haunted by his wife. The song hails Mal’s French heritage, as well as her fearless break with reality. The song’s literal meaning can be read against Cobb’s feelings of regret and culpability toward the death of his wife. It also telegraphs Cotillard. In 2008, Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She portrayed Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La vie en rose, beating out Ellen Page in her titular performance in Juno and putting her in America’s A-list. Apparently Cotillard’s involvement in Inception was a happy accident. Initially after the actress was cast, Nolan intended to pick another song but Zimmer convinced him that the connection wouldn’t distract viewers. In doing so, however, it provided this viewer an infinite loop of interpretation.
Note: The following post is about a scene in season three of Mad Men. I know that some readers have not gotten this far in the series, or have begun watching it. As a result, I’ve tried not to include spoilers in my analysis of a scene in last Sunday’s episode. However, the scene involves the film version of Bye Bye Birdie, which does indicate where the show is in terms of its historical time line.
As you may have been able to glean from a previous post about Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, I follow Mad Men, AMC’s original series about advertisers who work at Sterling Cooper, a Manhattan-based agency, and the people who try to love them in the 1960s.
I’m not a super-fan, but the show does make for chewy television. The 1960s is one of my favorite periods in American history and they plumb its depths and margins. Thus, I keep waiting for a phone call at work from some beleaguered production assistant to the LBJ Library. The acting is great, the visual style is sumptuous, the writing is sharp and often surprisingly funny, and the writing staff (despite creator-show runner Matthew Weiner’s authorial presence) has a considerable female personnel. And though sometimes Mad Men can be heavy-handed, it tends to balance these moments with subtle, at times shocking period details or character developments. Also, I really appreciate that I can empathize with almost any character.
One character who I whole-heartedly empathize with is Peggy Olson, a young steno turned copy writer who, unlike many of the women at Sterling Cooper so far, seems more interested in a corner office than an engagement ring. Actress Elisabeth Moss has said that Olson is a feminist and I concur. I love her refreshing lack of sentimentality, her toughness, and her persistence in sticking up for herself, which is hard to do when your male co-workers are looking for dollies when you think of women and girls as real people.
This brings us to last week’s episode, wherein Olson is trying to create a campaign for Patio, Pepsi’s prototypical diet soda. The folks at Pepsi want to latch on to the popularity of the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie, which stars the exuberant sex-bomb-in-the-making Ann-Margret. Basically, Pepsi envisions ripping off the movie’s opening sequence (which you can watch below, along with the reprise).
This campaign is something the boys are all too happy to help cast. Her boss, Don Draper, thinks it’s a no-brainer because men want her so women want to be her (I suspect Draper is phoning it in here because he doesn’t like the product, its ridiculous name, and doubts the future of a company he helped build, but I will refrain from commenting further).
Peggy objects to this direction, decrying the planned campaign (and Ann-Margret’s performance) as phony. Peggy wants to tap into why women and girls would like this product, while most of her male contemporaries seem to want to project how they feel about women onto female consumers.
And then things get interesting. At home, Peggy launches into her own impromptu performance in front of her mirror while getting ready for bed. It’s a TV moment so delicious, awkward, and fraught with ideological tension that it makes me impatient for the day I can play the clip in a lecture or a conference presentation. Slate’s TV Club has evaluated the scene with many other journalists and bloggers, along with some problematic character developments that I won’t comment on at this time (though, if you know what I’m talking about, I like Amy Benfer’s read on it). Here’s my take about why I love this particular scene.
1. Yes, there is an element of aspiration to Peggy’s performance. While others have commented on this, I don’t think Peggy necessarily wants to be Ann-Margret so much as figure out the mechanics of her performance and why men seem to want women and girls to be like Ann-Margret. She wants to work through it. And while she’s not a convincing Ann-Margret (in fact, she’s a terrible Ann-Margret), I don’t think she wants to be.
2. This disassociation with Ann-Margret seems further evident in the sarcasm in Peggy’s performance. While at times she tries to genuinely play Ann-Margret, much of her performance seems to mock the original. Once again, I think Peggy’s saying that she doesn’t want to be Ann-Margret and commenting on the performance’s artificiality. In others words, she seems to be taking the piss.
3. Yet, she’s also a little sad that she can’t be Ann-Margret. There have been other moments in the show where her colleagues have made fun of her for seeming harsh and mannish and, therefore, not sexy. Sometimes, she swallows their barbs. Other times, she spars. Sometimes, at other women’s urgings, she dresses or behaves in a more conventionally feminine manner. But I think her inability to channel Ann-Margret doesn’t suggest that she’s not sexy so much as comment on the limitations of this notion of female sexiness, as well as its lack of attainability (possibly even for the actresses who seem to possess it). Because, to me, Peggy is sexy, especially when she takes control, makes a transgression, declines a compromised offer, or bucks the established order of things. Thus, she suggests sexiness is elastic (something Ann-Margret herself would do at the end of the decade with a beguiling, damaged performance in Carnal Knowledge).
4. I love how arrhythmic and unnatural this scene is. I love that we see Olson stop mid-song, forget the words, re-remember dance moves, squint to study her performance, and then finish the song abruptly so she can finish brushing her hair.
5. Finally, Moss’s performance adds an additional layer of delightful inquiry. I’m always fascinated by scenes where great actors play characters who are bad actors (for an terrific example, see Julianne Moore’s performance as Amber Waves acting with Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights). It may look easy for actors to deliberately act badly, but assuredly it isn’t. It seems even more difficult to convince an audience that the character is doing the bad acting and not the actor. That it’s a woman playing a character she inhabits fully playing a character she can’t inhabit fully because she recognizes that it’s a deceitful, potentially damaging construct makes for very chewy television indeed.