Micrograffiti, Edited by Stacey Swann,
is a project in which Owls
have written very short stories about Ben’s images.
Ben Walters and J. M. Tyree chat about films. Together, they wrote the BFI Film Classics book about The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute, and they’ve co-written reviews of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. This month, they discussed Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street and Stone’s take on the financial sector meltdown in the United States in 2008.
JMT: Where did you see Wall Street 2? Did the audience seem to enjoy it?
2:26 PM BW: well, i saw it at a press screening so it’s hard to tell. critics don’t make for very expressive audiences
JMT: How does the film look from the UK, the austerity land of Conservative budgets?
2:27 PM BW: well, kind of out of time, i must say – i thought it felt like a period piece
as if it were set at the end of the previous era (greedisgoodia) rather than during the subsequent one (austerityland). bit of a shame, as the first film was so zeitgeisty
2:28 PM but i suppose Stone was going for a gotterdammerung kind of thing…?
2:30 PM JMT: One thing I noticed is that, while Michael Moore trashes the bank bailouts in Capitalism: A Love Story – essentially giving the Republicans their election year playbook in his supposedly progressive film – Stone goes to great lengths to “explain” the government’s actions as “responsible,” etc., in that very wooden scene set during the abyss of the financial crisis.
BW: well, when you’ve got eli wallach telling you the world’s gonna end, you better listen, right?
2:32 PM JMT: A lot of cameos, speaking of Wallach. That same real estate broker is back. The new music by Eno and Byrne makes a delicious bookend to Stone’s use of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in the first film, it all seems so promising at first! Stone himself appears – am I mistaken? – as a purveyor or buyer of “ridiculous art.” Hmm…
2:33 PM i wasn’t sure if he was purveying or looking to buy. bookend i think is exactly right – i was expecting more of a survey of the new landscape but WS2 is more elegiac – or at least trying to be?
JMT: The original Wall Street [WS1] has a lot of wit. And it’s so fast paced. It’s a cocaine film.
BW: right, and very streamlined and sleek
2:34 PM this was a lot more muddled… but could that be apt?
2:37 PM JMT: Very interesting –> WS1 has this delight in the evil. Bud Fox is totally seduced by Gordon Gekko and the interior design stylings of Daryl Hannah. It’s a film about pinkie rings, two-inch TV screens, ordering “Evian” at the restaurant, big hair, cocaine in limos…as Iain Sinclair once said about the 1980s, “cocaine in the executive washroom.” But here in WS2 the protagonist, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) isn’t really fully seduced into the realm of evil. He’s got his Third Way idealism about his laser fusion plant investment scheme intact all the way until the end. I thought it could have been funny if the fusion plant turned out to be a “green tech” scam…
2:38 PM Like an faux-environmental pyramid scheme. But that just shows I was hoping for more camp…
2:40 PM BW: yeah, that would have been more fun. but in a way Jake’s dilemma is more ambiguous – it’s not angel vs devil, good vs greed, in private as well as business
JMT: That’s clearly Stone’s intention…yes…
2:41 PM BW: do i detect a whiff of uncertainty?
2:43 PM JMT: Well, no, I think you’re exactly right – the film is a parable that still believes in The Third Way of Clinton and Blair. It reminds me of those Ameriprise investment commercials Dennis Hopper made, God bless him. The commercials were geared toward Boomers in this sad and obvious way. They said, you can have it all, a mutual fund that invests in wind farms (and cigarette companies), your VW van, a guitar, and a home equity loan. There’s a whole generational complex here related to the abandonment of 60s idealism, I think.
2:44 PM I’m being very unfair to my elders and betters, but…
BW: that makes sense. there’s an ad playing on tv over here at the moment for some kind of investment product (i forget the name) which is unabashedly targeting that generation – ‘you’ve worked hard, now you deserve to enjoy your yachting and vintage cars and manicured garden’ kind of thing – and it seems stunningly tasteless. and i think that’s what made WS2 seem slightly out of time – a boomer attempt to suggest things are still all right. that final happy-smiley-child’s-birthday-party sequence was perverse, like jamming your fingers in your ears and singing a happy tune
2:51 PM JMT: Well, okay, Stone did go around Latin American talking to all those left-wing leaders, right, so South of the Border is worth bearing in mind here. And his presentation of the crisis, in terms of the fall of Lehman Bros and the near collapse of Bear Stearns, is fairly historically faithful. Or at least it mirrors the brilliant PBS Frontline doc [click the link to watch for free] on the subject, Inside the Meltdown. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a die-hard Wall Street guy who believed in “moral hazard,” had to initiate the government salvation of the banking sector against his own free market philosophy.
2:52 PM BW: my point is that the new movie doesn’t come up with a convincing dramatic framework for channelling these things through character and story
2:53 PM it’s all fairytale stuff about magic fusion reactors and implausible reconciliations
it’s more like cymbeline or winter’s tale than faust
2:54 PM JMT: Yes – wonderful comparison – especially because the female lead, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) is so malleable that she’s almost Shakespearean. She’s like, “Oh, I don’t want 100 million dollars, just tell me what you want to do with it.” That money’s tainted! No good can come of it. Wait…unless…we can end our dependence on foreign oil and coal reactors…
2:55 PM BW: she spends two hours crying
2:56 PM JMT: And structurally, Martin Sheen’s role in the narrative of WS1 (and his position as the film’s moral center) has either been replaced by Winnie or else it’s been automated! – I mean, literally – He’s been taken over by that fusion machine. From unions to green tech…it’s a very weirdly apt portrayal of U.S. Democratic party politics.
BW: there’s certainly a sense that politics has disappeared from this world altogether, which seems fair enough
2:57 PM we see some hints of 9/11
JMT: That’s also a gesture to WS1. The WTC Towers get some prominent shots, and now in WS2 there’s the shot of the empty site.
BW: yes, quite a few in each and one shot in WS2, i think, of a newspaper with obama’s face on it and the word DESTINY
2:58 PM but where WS1 had a sense of a politics behind people’s actions – that ayn rand-ish principled greed, destroying things BECAUSE they’re vulnerable – WS2 has a kind of grubby private opportunism vs airy bleaty activism – which is perhaps not an unfair version of contemporary public life
3:00 PM the new one is quite good, i guess, at conveying a sense of collapse and entropy – that’s what makes the attempted reinstatement of order in the last 20 minutes so pathetic
JMT: There’s also this idea in WS1 of “real work” where you manufacture honest stuff, like airplanes, versus high finance, which is this mumbo-jumbo numbers game.
BW: yes, making versus owning
here it’s all much more conceptualised
3:03 PM JMT: I wanted more evil – it’s there in the depiction of Gekko in London sweeping up all these “distressed securities” in the wake of the crash. But then he goes soft for a real family, and they…accept him…after he steals 100 million from them…or something. They’ll all go into the fusion scheme together and lose their shirts!
3:05 PM I tell you, I’m convinced that scientist in California is scamming them. Cut to Terence Stamp smoking a cigar as the fusion factory is dismantled. Maybe it’s owned by the clean energy subsidiary of BP!
BW: haha, brilliant!
i kept thinking of marty mcfly and doc brown…
3:06 PM BW: the redemptive coda is really bad, dramatically and morally. it makes no sense in the story and i can’t see any bearing to how things are panning out in the real world
3:08 PM JMT: Agreed – If I were Winnie, I would have dumped the 100 million into the Frozen Truth web site for liberal bloggers she’s working on.
3:09 PM BW: what’s ‘frozen truth’ anyway?
what does it mean? what does she stand for?
3:12 PM JMT: I suppose “liquid truth” could be another sleazy metaphor for money. I see Winnie as a Generation Y New Yorker, raised under the umbrella of wealth drawn from high finance, probably a former dot.commer, determined to change the world, only not that much. As for Jake, it never seems to occur to him that if he wants to save the world maybe he should try another career path! I do like Susan Sarandon as “Jake’s Mother” (she has no name in the credits?!?), returning to being a nurse after her real estate business collapses. That brief glimpse of her back at work…
3:13 PM BW: yeah – along with the intimation that she hasn’t learned her lesson!
there’s lots of unclear, unsimple aspects to the film, i just don’t know if they’re meant to be that way
3:14 PM this jostling crowd of mentors for jake, for instance – the old-school banker, the ‘reformed’ gekko, the scientist, the upstart master of the universe…
3:15 PM and the visual clutter of the film – the ugly colour palette, those bizarre statistical graphics stone uses, those clashing pictures in josh brolin’s office (goya next to keith haring?!)
3:16 PM JMT: Right – the visual art theme also comes from WS1…The Gekko home has classy art. In the 1980s, the wealthy bought art as a hedge against inflation.
BW: if he left things messy and getting messier, that would make sense and be pretty apt to the situation, but he seems to want to resolve it all
3:22 PM JMT: Yes, this whole idea of muddle might be the key. Visually, morally, psychologically…
3:23 PM BW: …which i think could have been a fruitful way of dealing with the subject, but does stone know he’s doing it?
it’s, um, muddled…
|Coffee break.||6 minutes.|
3:29 PM JMT: I think you’re right, the film is muddled. Really, the film is Gekko-sploitation, they know this sequel will make money, done. Bring out the hair gel and the big cell phone. Then what? I was hoping for camp. To me this film is a late Boomer parable about some very muddled generational compromises relating to the financial sector, made by a member of the Ameriprise Generation. In WS1, the money that’s stolen by Gekko comes out of a pension fund for airline workers. Now that the real airlines like WS1′s Bluestar have steamrolled their unions in bankruptcy courts and pensions are a dead idea, they’ve been replaced by 401(k) investment schemes where individual workers choose their own adventure in the stock market, tying their individual fate to that of large corporations. Because of the end of the pension system and the bailouts, all Americans are working on Wall Street now, so it’s a patriotic duty to see this film. Can we all get rich together through the market and retire with wealth without committing horrendous crimes? I imagine there’s deep ambivalence in the Boomer heart about all this.
3:32 PM Not buying?
3:33 PM BW: i’m sure you’re on to something there
JMT: The ending of the film contains your magic bullet idea that solves all these anxieties in one go – we can all invest in the fusion plant, get rich together, and save the world.
3:34 PM BW: there must be an escape pod?
JMT: From the broken economy?
And the broken family?
BW: right. just hold your nerve and we’ll ride it out… as they said at lehman…
12:46 PM JMT: Just watching the end of Body Heat…
wanna finish it?
12:47 PM JMT: Not unless you want to wait 15 mins…no need…I know what happens…
BW: i don’t mind
JMT: Let’s start!
BW: all righty then
12:50 PM JMT: I’d been thinking about Blood Simple and Body Heat after watching the Australian noir The Square. Then we noticed that Zhang Yimou’s remake of Blood Simple, called A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop, was getting reviewed and released. A good excuse to revisit Blood Simple…
12:51 PM BW: tell me about the square, i don’t know that one
12:53 PM JMT: Brothers Nash & Joel Edgerton made this delightfully grim Aussie crime thriller in 2008 featuring infidelity, murder, and arson. The deadly fire is set off using Christmas tree lights!
12:54 PM BW: ho ho ho
that passed me by. is it notably similar to blood simple or more of a fellow pastiche?
12:57 PM JMT: It has that same sense of pressure and humor – a dog is eaten by an alligator and it’s played for laughs.
BW: well, that’s pretty funny
i think noir has always had a sense of humour
12:58 PM it’s easy to overlook now that it’s such a venerated genre but most of them had some kind of absurdity
JMT: Like the bowling in Double Indemnity!
12:59 PM and they’re usually full of puns and dramatic irony
JMT: Interesting you say that, because I keep circling back to Pauline Kael’s comments about Blood Simple.
BW: she wasn’t a fan, right?
1:00 PM JMT: She said it was “Hollywood by-product.” She also disliked Body Heat – for one reason because she felt it was slavish vis-a-vis classic noir. But Blood Simple and Body Heat are very different – although they’re in the same mid-80s neo-noir wave. In classic noir, the sap kills the husband and then gets betrayed by the wife, right? Body Heat follows that pretty much all the way to the end of the line. But the fun of Blood Simple lies in inverting the classical scheme. Here, the sap mistakenly thinks the wife has killed the husband, setting this whole train of events in motion…
1:04 PM BW: right – so the coens made it new and their picture remains strong while kasdan’s was mere pastiche so hasn’t weathered well?
1:05 PM JMT: I don’t want to run down Body Heat but I do think Kael’s complaint is slightly more interesting in that case than in the the case of Blood Simple, where, as with Cassavetes and the Maysles brothers, she missed the boat on major filmmakers.
1:06 PM In fact, the Coens have never had much luck with The New Yorker…David Denby called A Serious Man “intolerable”…
BW: i suppose they’ve learned to live with it
1:08 PM JMT: Another clever inversion has to do with the female lead, don’t you think? Body Heat is actively prurient, whereas everybody in Blood Simple looks worse for wear. As Abby, McDormand is the opposite of a femme fatale.
1:09 PM BW: right, they push the absurdity at the expense of the glamour
1:10 PM …and refuse to punish the dame!
JMT: I’d say while Body Heat is knowing about noir, Blood Simple is more heavily invested in irony.
1:11 PM BW: yes, the coens are much more upfront about playing with genre. it’s almost a form of cinematic drag
1:12 PM JMT: Ha! The love is genuine. I believe they’ve said that they thought the names of Cain, Chandler, and Hammett ought to be chiseled into the stone above the Columbia University Library.
1:13 PM BW: oh, it’s out of love, absolutely
JMT: Blood Simple came out in 1984 when I was like 10 years old – it was the year of Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and The Karate Kid! So I saw it much later on VHS. But I had been reading a lot of pulp in high school. Jim Thompson, David Goodis, the Black Lizard Crime series from Vintage. Blood Simple is deeply engaged with pulp.
1:14 PM Pulp fiction…
1:15 PM BW: that’s one of the things that’s so striking about blood simple as a directorial debut. rather than trying to offer a new kind of cinematic language, they demonstrate their understand* and control of an existing form. it’s a very sophisticated piece of filmmaking – you might call it a kind of late style, formally speaking, which is not what you expect from first timers!
1:18 PM JMT: Or the creation of deliberately “minor” literature. Chandler once wrote a letter to Hamish Hamilton explaining that people always asked him when he’d write something “serious.” He talks about Pindar and Sappho and mocks “the Book of the Month Club, the Hearst press, and the Coca-Cola machine.” He prefers “a savage, dirty age.” Like the 1980s!
1:19 PM BW: like there’s an age that isn’t savage and dirty…
1:20 PM and zhang seems – on the basis of the trailer and the bits i’ve read about a woman, a gun and a noodle shop – to be applying it to another ‘low’ genre
1:22 PM although he’s an interesting case in that he’s become a specialist at classy pulp – the kind of pulp the book-of-the-month sensibility accepts as ‘high’
hence his being recruited for the olympics gig, perhaps?
1:23 PM JMT: Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry are following in his footsteps!
1:24 PM but adaptability is very much in the coens’ dna. zhang is remaking a remake
1:26 PM JMT: Yes, there’s that weird sense in many Coens films of a remake even when it’s not the case – like O Brother w/r/t Sullivan’s Travels, and The Man Who Wasn’t There w/r/t the notorious execution scene cut from Double Indemnity. Most markedly in Miller’s Crossing, which is almost like a missing Hammett novel adapted to film.
Which isn’t to discount the originality in the films, at all.
1:29 PM BW: well, originality is always only a form of variation. their consummate ability to go with the tide, formally, is what allows them to surf it so well
1:30 PM JMT: Right – Kael didn’t realize that they were more like Wilder or Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is quoted in the original trailer.
1:31 PM JMT: “It is very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill someone.”
1:32 PM That quotation is interspersed with various images, including the grave digging scene out in the Texas fields.
1:33 PM BW: they certainly share hitchcock’s sense of humour about violence and death…but yes, wilder and hitchcock are very useful reference points – wilder especially, the idea of genre-skipping almost as a project in itself
1:37 PM JMT: I was just reading David Thomson’s book The Moment of Psycho. He suggests that the whole first half of Psycho evokes American loneliness and banality. So does Blood Simple. Something’s not right in the landscape. Everyone’s pretty much alone – even the couple, Abby and Ray. When the husband Marty is shot he has a bleeping computer to keep him company. It’s like the low-rent assassin Loren Visser says, “Down here, you’re on your own.”
Whereas in Body Heat, William Hurt is like this smug jogger! Imagine anyone in Blood Simple jogging? (Maybe Meurice – he wears those great sneakers!)
1:38 PM BW: haha – visser at the gym
JMT: His “yellow lounge suit” is specified in the screenplay.
1:39 PM BW: amazing. he’s what’s wrong with the landscape
1:40 PM JMT: He’s so intriguing!
1:41 PM I love his interest in the Soviet Union…
1:42 PM BW: there’s a sort of compensation in the pastiche – the milieu is, as you say, alienation and ignorance and solitude, but the form, even though it’s subversive, relies on the audience’s recognition, its community of appreciation
JMT: You mean, we get the joke, like Visser?
1:43 PM JMT: Got it!
BW: we get it and appreciate it, and by getting it we assert fellow-feeling with the coens and other genre fans
and visser totally appreciates the irony too
the way he laughs at the absurdity of his own death – that’s ecstatic!
1:45 PM JMT: Visser’s wonderful. He does the killing for the money, reasoning that it’s free enterprise – “in Russia they make fifty cent a day” – but he does the math and recognizes that it’s more efficient to kill Marty than the couple. He’s like a shady parody of one of those management consultants that says you can eliminate 50% of your workforce and streamline everything…
What a performance by Walsh! Talk about the banality of evil.
1:46 PM BW: he’s amazing. they all are – utterly archetypal but also utterly, ridiculously unique
1:47 PM coming back to the remaking thing, it’s interesting that the coens are currently finishing off their second official remake
JMT: True Grit
1:48 PM BW: right. though i think technically their film is based on the charles portis novel rather than the john wayne film
but as the film is much better known, it’s kind of a remake in pop-culture terms
1:49 PM (or something)
amazing cover to the novel btw: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Grit_(novel)
1:51 PM JMT: I’ve got that version! Another very strong female lead. This is one thing I really like about the Coens’ work. McDormand’s lead in Blood Simple sets up her later role in Fargo as a source of “ordinary strength,” for lack of a better phrase.
BW: yes, they have bottomless faith in the ability of sensible women to get on with it
1:52 PM JMT: Whereas, again, not to flog Body Heat, but there Kathleen Turner is viewed as a toy who turns malicious.
Abby is more subtle.
1:53 PM There’s a great bit of noir-type laconic dialogue when they’re first leaving town.
Abby: …What was that back there?
Man: Back where?
Man: I don’t know. Motel…
==>Another cruddy Coen motel coming up!==>
1:55 PM BW: moving around never does anyone any good in coen films, yet it’s the american condition…
1:56 PM JMT: Like in Psycho!
BW: ha, totally
1:57 PM JMT: Thomson talks about how “in America the poetry is often in the official signage.” Like “interstate.” The desire to be elsewhere. And that terrible road loneliness. The Hopperesque.
1:58 PM That’s what James M. Cain was getting at, too!
BW: it’s another kind of subversion – taking these emblems of american furtherment like hitting the road and looking for the big payday – this applies to psycho and most of the coens’ work – and showing it as sheer folly
1:59 PM JMT: All those bags of money dangled in Coen films. Marge in Fargo speaks to Visser, in a way, when she says “All for a little bit of money.”
2:01 PM BW: and to ed crane and the big lebowski and llewelyn moss and linda litzke…
2:02 PM JMT: “Dry cleaning – was I crazy to be thinking about it?” (Ed Crane.) He needs that $10,000 to start his business.
Visser gets…how much? Is it $10,000? Due to inflation, the standard Coen payout has increased to around $1 mil over the years…
2:03 PM BW: it’s A Lot Of Money
2:04 PM you could almost do a breakdown of coen movies by deadly sin
blood simple – wrath and avarice
raising arizona – envy
2:05 PM miller’s crossing… um…
2:06 PM JMT: Hmmm…
2:07 PM –Yes, it’s $10,000 – “a right smart of money,” Visser says – “smart” and “stupid” being another big theme here.
BW: smart also being what you do when you’re hit. like a pummel of cash or a bruise of change
2:08 PM JMT: “When you smart me, it ruins it.” As Bernie says in Miller’s Crossing.
BW: in the chair
2:09 PM his big hollywood reveal! waiting in the dark to put the frighteners on regan in true noir style, but regan spoils it by laughing
that’s what classical hollywood could say to the coens, really
‘when you smart me, it ruins it’
JMT: Yeah! “Who looks stupid now?” What Visser says to Marty after he’s killed him.
2:10 PM BW: a quote from the ladykillers, which in due course the coens would recycle in full!
or at least riff off. it’s their own approach to sources that makes them so ripe for remaking (or remixing) themselves
it would be great to see them remake one of their own movies, like hitch with the man who knew too much
2:12 PM JMT: Whoa – which one? Huh…
BW: maybe raising arizona? updated with ref to fertility technology?
2:13 PM i guess it’s complicated by the fact that they do so many period pieces
JMT: They joked for awhile about remaking Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Since the story wouldn’t phase anybody, they could focus on production design exclusively…wallpaper, etc.
like van sant’s psycho but more so
2:14 PM but also it would be intriguing to see, say, wong kar-wai’s take on barton fink
the writer trapped in the hotel…
2:15 PM JMT: Wonderful!
BW: paul rudd as the big lebowski?
2:16 PM JMT: Which brings us back to this new remake. I don’t know enough about it. But it got me thinking about how memorable Blood Simple remains. What New Wave figures like Truffaut and Godard saw clearly was that America has a fundamental relationship with crime literature. This is the country that produced Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis…Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution discusses how both Truffaut and Godard had an abiding interest in Bonnie & Clyde – in directing it – a script which was itself influenced by the New Wave. This remake seems to set up Blood Simple as a weirdly quasi-canonical work, at least in the sense that it’s being reworked and adapted to another culture.
2:17 PM BW: certainly there’s a whole conversation to be had about the transmission of cinematic ideas across cultures – american genres drawing on and returning to japanese, italian, french and indeed chinese cinema… kurosawa, new wave, leone, now zhang.
it’s the same old song, but with a different meaning…
JMT: Here’s a mainstream picture we both looked forward to watching, Inception, Christopher Nolan’s summer hit. It’s a trap to worry overly about a Hollywood blockbuster being a Hollywood blockbuster, but I feel baffled by the critical reaction. The people next to me at the multiplex were loudly oohing and ahhing over the film as though it were a display of fireworks. And since then I’ve talked to several very smart people who enjoyed the film. What did I miss?
BW: I’ve got to admit I’m not quite sure. Maybe people like having their legs pulled? With sumptuous production design?
JMT: The new Film Quarterly (Summer, 2010) has a thoughtful book review by Martin Fradley about the state of the contemporary film industry. It talks about Hollywood’s “new auteurs” – deal-makers, producers, agents, and distributors. Maybe that’s Christopher Nolan at this point, a corporate auteur, the total bundle – which is intriguing given how weird his films are.
BW: In a way I think that’s the most interesting aspect of Inception – he has the clout and the industrial nous to mount a massive shaggy dog story like this. And it’s certainly another exploration of his pet themes – the ways memory, identity and narrative shape our lived reality.
JMT: He doesn’t really “do” joyful moments of intimacy. Or humor.
BW: No one comes to Nolan for hugs or chuckles. His films are meant to be conventionally satisfying riddle movies, by and large, within which frame he can explore more genuinely upsetting ideas of identity. When it works, it makes you question whether you actually have any right to your opinion about yourself. When it doesn’t, it comes off as dull, pretentious, over-designed guff.
JMT: My frustration watching Inception was that it barely explores the fascinating pathways opened by its own premise.
BW: Yes, I had a similar feeling…
JMT: The idea that someone could extract information from your dreams is delightfully terrifying. Tie this to corporate espionage and you have a potential minefield of cultural comment. Those levels of meaning certainly can be extracted. A critic could become an extractor, like Cobb, sent into the film on a mission to retrieve its moments of subversiveness. But on the whole the film doesn’t really go very far in this direction.
BW: Not remotely. Which is a bit surprising after Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which did have some political engagement. Nolan’s always interested in the ways in which unguardedness can undo a mind, and how terrifying it can be to be confronted with a reality from which your mind has assiduously quarantined itself. And he has explored them in gripping ways elsewhere; here, not so much. But he is predominantly interested in individual identity, I think; it’s rewarding when there is a political dimension but I think that’s incidental rather than essential to him.
JMT: Surely Inception sets itself up in comparison with Blade Runner, with the film’s “totems” like the spinning top invoking the origami unicorns (and so forth) of Ridley Scott’s film, as well as the ultimate puzzle about one’s one interior sense of self being manufactured. But in Blade Runner it really matters whether Deckard is an android. In Inception, the only thing at stake in the ending is whether everything we’ve seen is just one guy helping some mogul with a business problem, or else, well, you know…
BW: But I think you might be short-selling the potential cultural heft. The idea of deepening corporate invasion of identity is a resonant one, I think. Identity theft, targeted advertising, online surrender of privacy, all these things do affect the construction and definition of identity in ways that Inception could bounce off. By which I mean that it is timely – I’m not staking great claims for the way in which it engages these subjects.
JMT: It’s all there, but Inception oddly avoids sustained engagement with these “political” matters, or whatever you might call them, in favor of a personal story. Cobb has got to get back to his kids.
BW: The potential is there but not really tapped. But I think it’s worth noting that by tying these things so explicitly to profiteering and careerism, Inception is a slightly different beast from other reality-benders like, say, Blade Runner or The Matrix.
JMT: Maybe if we saw profiteering and careerism as real motives – as it is, we’re supposed to care more about whether Cobb makes it home than whether it’s okay for minds to be invaded and ravaged.
BW: Sure, the corporatisation is more of a background. It’s really a one-last-job heist movie. And the ethical implications are barely engaged with – Ellen Page having one line about it maybe being a bit questionable.
JMT: But, like, trippy fun!
BW: Right! But the fun wears thin. The story isn’t much more emotionally engaging than it is politically thoughtful. This points to a somewhat paradoxical problem for Nolan: he’s fascinated by identity but not much good with character.
JMT: Speaking of Ellen Page as tech wiz Ariadne (she makes and unwinds mazes). It’s an untypical move not to make her role into a romantic interest. Page looks desexualized, while Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) is smoldering but absent/fatal. There are love interests in Nolan’s films, but is there much – or any? – genuine intimacy that unfolds in the “now”? I’m hard pressed to think of examples. Again, this is a point of interest, this weird lack of something human…
BW: Well, his protagonists tend to (mis)remember and investigate rather than, um, live. We root for them because they’re the narrative engine, not because we’re actually invested in their welfare to any great degree. And I think this brings us to another problem with Inception – this lack of facility for the quirks and charms of actual present people result in a film basically comprised of really boring, thuddingly rational dream sequences.
JMT: They’re not that dreamy. A friend pointed out that the snow level of the narrative/dream is a Bond film. And really it’s also an Inception video game. Blam! I’m using the bigger gun now. Someone else I talked to reminded me, though, that since the dreams are constructed they would tend to be less weird than “real” dreams. So that can be unwound as possibly more interesting…
BW: Cop-out! Dreams should be weird and woozy and hot and fickle. Inception plays like a two-and-a-half-hour American Express ad.
JMT: It’s not truly surreal or even very disjointed, apart from a few moments. In Memento the structure relentlessly compels the eye. Here, as in The Prestige, it’s overly elaborate, a three-layer cake, in which each detail is perfect but…
BW: The Prestige is the definite companion piece here – another essay on a soufflé of a subject executed with high-spec machine tooling. With The Prestige I wanted to shout “Go and watch F for Fake! That’s how to make a movie about magic tricks!”
JMT: “I know the tricks,” Cobb says in Inception. The Prestige handles magic tricks and Inception handles dream tricks. Both have a notion of the world being a false appearance, a deception. This links Inception with the concerns of cinema, and also with film history. But unlike in Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, or F for Fake, no paranoia is induced by Inception. Why?
BW: Perhaps because Nolan’s such a rationalist. There’s never a feeling in his films that things are really coming off the rails – not in a fundamental way. An individual’s situation, even his identity, might be under threat, but the world itself is securely moored. Dreams and magic are always at the service of The Real. Even that dream idyll Cobb and Mal indulge for 50 years – how dull is that! They could do or be anything they could conceive, and they ROUND UP ALL THE HOUSES THEY’VE LIVED IN?! Stay UNDER, do us all a favour.
JMT: Inception skirts a number of very pressing contemporary concerns, but drowns or submerges them in its bath of dreamings. To my mind the film is a parable of avoidance of some kind, not engagement, subversion, or disruption. On a tangent, the ad campaign for Inception was sponsored by Verizon, which like all the other big telecoms colluded in domestic surveillance. Funny, that! It’s simultaneously “obvious” and strangely “unspoken,” rather like the film’s own unexamined themes.
BW: I think you could probably say that “bath of dreamings” line of most Hollywood pictures. It’s just a disappointment that the one that takes dreams as its explicit subject does so little with them. But yes, it’s timeliness again – you can mine the project for all sorts of resonances, intended, incidental, frustrated; it obviously comes out of a cultural space loaded with concerns about unacknowledged surveillance of the interior self. But in some ways it could have been made at any time: it’s basically concerned with anxiety about the unaccountable unconscious, which is hardly new ground for cinema, or art. On a less serious note, given all these frames in which time passes at different rates, Nolan missed a chance for a great gag – he could have had a Hollywood ticking-clock countdown with a justification for taking ten times as long as it should!
JMT: On that note, why is this film so humorless? So many of the scenes in Inception take the following form: “Please sit down at this cafe/desk/airplane seat so that you and I can have an important one-on-one conversation about a previously undisclosed aspect of the science fiction in this film.” When I saw Dileep Rao (Yusuf) enter the picture, I remembered how funny he was in Drag Me to Hell. That Wellesian sense of the con-man prestidigitator in Raimi’s film is lacking here.
BW: Nolan’s con artists never have any fun.
JMT: A dark comedy using the premise of Inception could be enjoyable. This has been done, but what if the protagonist was tasked with arranging the sponsorship deals on those implanted dreams? Since the whole experience is manufactured anyway, why not have the person driving a Volkswagen, listening to a JBL stereo system, drinking Diet Coke and chewing Doublemint? But that’s a tangent…What’s the picture’s most intriguing aspect for you? For me it’s probably seeing action sequences in which the characters are asleep.
BW: I was intrigued – or rather confused – by the film’s starting notion that it’s hard to plant ideas in people’s heads. Isn’t that how publicity works? Isn’t that why everyone is talking about this not-very-interesting movie…?
JMT: So, what else are you watching these days? Any recommendations?
BW: I’ve been watching a bunch of Seinfeld and have been surprised how much of it revolves around the vagaries of landline use – competing for payphones, missing calls to your home phone – and how much of a period piece it feels because of this.
JMT: Excellent, I love seeing payphones! This reminds me of the Beeper King boyfriend in 30 Rock, who has to rely on payphones when he’s out of the house. Also for online viewing, I’ve been compelled by clips of Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho,” a slowed-down version of Hitchcock’s film that takes a day to unfold. I came to Gordon’s work belatedly, after reading Don DeLillo’s new novel Point Omega.
BW: That’s a beautiful piece. Hypnotic and, I guess, kind of dreamlike. Certainly brings us back to the unaccountable unconscious…
*Read Ad Hamilton’s rejoinder to the exchange here.