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.
I wanted to see Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy since I first heard mention of it (I wanna say in the AV Club’s 2008 Oscar-O-Meter).
Lots of things caught my attention about this one. Independent female director. Neo-realist aesthetics. Financially hard-luck woman and her dog en route with the promise of a job in Alaska while stranded in Oregon. Exchanges that heighten the subtextual sexism between a stranded woman with a broken-down car and a mechanic who thinks he can swindle her out of some money just because she’s poor, female, and out of options. And, by the time I saw it, a recession had eclipsed the ongoing struggles from survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, making movies like this one and the fantastic Frozen River all the more poignant.
And surely, by now, we all know how I feel about female interactions with the street and the road.
I was also sold by Michelle Williams in the starring role. I thought Williams was great in Brokeback Mountain and Synecdoche, New York. I even found her adorable and charming in The Baxter, an otherwise airless rip-off of The Apartment. I’ve been a fan since Dawson’s Creek and feel that her emergent success in the American indie/prestige/smart wave film scene is vindication for all the punishment she had to endure on the WB teen soap as the tragic bad girl Jen Lindley who withered away while the two boys who really loved each other fought over the self-righteous good girl who bit her lip and tucked her hair behind her ears while America briefly considered it acting. I know now that many think of her as Heath Ledger’s pseudo-widow or Spike Jonze’s perhaps-girlfriend or a TV actress who lucked into some hipster cache, but I think Williams is great in her own right. I think Wendy and Lucy is the first time we really get to see what she can do.
Williams tremendously underplays Wendy, making her at once vulnerable and unmoved; a real survivor who occasionally loses her patience with cruel, illogical systems of power (for example, the cost of throwing her in jail for shoplifting a can of dog food exceeds the retail value of said dog food), but never loses her grace, resourcefulness, willingness to connect with others, or sense of moral decency.
Also, as my friend Curran pointed out, there’s an ambiguity to Wendy that is interesting — we know very little about her, including her orientation, which is never made explicit. In the context of Reichardt’s body of work, a queer reading seems possible. For example, Old Joy is an achingly romantic story about two male friends, one of whom is assuredly in love with the other, the other ambivalent of his feelings. And, in the context of Wendy’s plight, her emotionally distant family members (who we never see) may speak to the larger problem of homeless and drifting LGBT youth cast out by their families.
But the thing that made me really want to see the movie, and that stayed in my ears long after the screening, was the music. And God no, not this.
I’m referring to the “score.” I put the word in quotes because it consists of a few bars of a melancholic, unresolved tune, hummed periodically by the protagonist. The piece was written by singer-songwriter Will Oldham. Unfortunately, I can’t find a clip for you dear readers, but I encourage you to see and hear it for yourself.
What made me want to see a movie based on its score was the response it got from some cinephile friends. They hated it, considered it pretentious. I think it caused them to dismiss the film outright.
However, I love the score. For one, I think it makes sense — the movie’s commitment to realism is reflected in its strict use of diegetic sound (fancy term for sounds organic to the narrative environment). Thus, if Wendy’s car breaks down (and with it, her car radio), it makes sense that she’d hum something to herself, if only to break up the tension of being stranded in an unfamiliar place.
More importantly, I think we have another site through which to interrogate the notion of sole authorship. The score was written by Will Oldham. However, it is performed by Williams as Wendy within the movie, thus blurring the boundaries of writer, performer, and instrumentalist and demonstrating the true collaborative nature of filmmaking. By making it less apparent who is actually responsible for providing its musical accompaniment, perhaps there is room to consider both Williams and Oldham (along with Reichardt) as authors of the movie’s sound.