ambassador crackpot: room 237, the shining, and slacker

If you’re going to make a documentary whose whole purpose and method is to analyze another movie — in this case the documentary is Room 237 and the movie it digs into is The Shining — you’d better hope it’s worthy of the art it dissects. If not, it will only make people yearn for that other thing that you are commenting upon and wind up kinda awkward, like a crappy sonnet about Shakespeare’s genius or a mangled portrait of Picasso.

And man, I wanted to like Room 237. I went in hoping it would give me some new takes on Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic. It doesn’t, though, not really: Room 237 is either a bumbling ambassador for cinephilia or an unsatisfying examination of crackpottery in general. Either way, it’s not good.

In its ambassador role, it’s especially bad. The theories floated range from the merely possible (yes, indeed, I do see how you could think that the genocide of Native Americans was a subtle subtext) to the plainly nonsensical (no, I don’t buy that the movie is Kubrick’s response to guilt and/or marital problems arising from his participation in the staging of the moon landing).

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inception vs. the matrix: is reality overrated?

Blockbuster season approaches, and despite some moderately good intentions, I will probably go to many of them this summer. Tom Cruise’s Oblivion? Already seen it and already vaguely regret having seen it.

Not all blockbusters are as bad as people make them out to be, even if most of them are; it’s easy to make fun of the somewhat absurd conceits they use. Although it’s tempting to think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception as “that movie about dreams,” there’s enough going on to make the movie worth thinking about.

For starters, the “movies about dreams” characterization misses the point, since the dreams are not what make the film compelling. Inception in its plot and many of its methods is really a classic heist, the genre that inspired Nolan. Cobb, played by a very sleek Leonardo DiCaprio, is leading his team on that job that occurs with surprising frequency in heist films: the one that is supposed to be impossible. The twist is that Cobb’s group specializes in dream infiltration, but the obvious philosophical questions — like, is reality actually any more valid than a dream? — are not the best reason to watch the movie.

The dream device does have its purposes, of course. On the practical end, the dream states give Nolan license to do fun stuff like a fist fight in a hall where the gravity is ever-changing. But more importantly, Nolan uses the dream motif to ask a question about the “reality” of the film itself (and not, thankfully, about the “reality” of reality). I won’t ruin the details for you here, except to say that the very last shot practically serves as a wink from director to audience that makes us ask whether the preceding two-plus hours actually occurred (at least insofar as anything occurs in fiction). Has everything Nolan just shown us — even the parts we have taken as “real” — just been a construction of the mind?

This threatens to be the cheapest of cliches, “It had all been a dream!”, but that last shot is simply the cap on several subtler clues. The best might be the one that comes midway through the film, when we get to see Cobb’s worst memory replayed. It’s his wedding anniversary, and he’s supposed to meet his wife in a hotel room. But Cobb only finds a mess inside and the window open. We know his wife has been having psychological trouble, and now we wonder if she is on the ledge outside. Naturally, he looks out to see, but she isn’t on the ledge of the building he’s in.

Instead, somehow, she is perched on the building across the street, next to a window into what appears to be another version of the same room that Cobb is looking out of. His subsequent conversation with her reinforces this unlikely staging, as Cobb is clearly speaking to someone located directly in front of him rather than to the side of his window. Strangely, the window frame and the stones surrounding it are the same on her side as his, and there’s never any exposition to explain why she would be over there across the street.

What’s even weirder is that Cobb doesn’t seem to notice this odd set-up, and he tries to get her to come off the ledge by beckoning to her from across the street, back to him. It doesn’t make sense, since he’s basically asking her to come across the street, which at this height just means falling into the chasm between their facing high-rise windows.

In summary: Huh? I assert that it’s totally improbable that this arrangement was accidental on the part of the filmmakers. In anything other than a movie about dreams supplanting reality, I could have written this arrangement off as poor staging, but in this movie, it’s a piece of a puzzle. It’s this kind of detail that has made Inception a jackpot for people who like debating movies. The more reasonable forms of these debates tacitly acknowledge that there is no final answer, and we even admire Nolan for leaving the door wide open for us to reinterpret the evidence indefinitely. That last shot makes it clear that he’s going to enjoy watching us sort it out.

So if Nolan has left the very foundations of his fictional universe in flux, has he handed over the reins to the audience? Is this some kind of great concession on his part, letting us decide? The dilemma is certainly posed in other films, but rarely in more popular ones. Immediate connections can be made to the Wachowskis’ very satisfying Matrix trilogy, also well-known for gravity-defying battles in imaginary worlds. In The Matrix and its sequels, the illusory setting of confrontation is an immersive simulated world that subjugates almost the entirety of the human race, which is plugged into it without even being aware, with only a few unplugged or born outside the system.

Superficially, at least, the Matrix films and Inception are similar. They all make some hay out of the argument that the false world is as valid as the actual one, but all of them ultimately seem to prefer the real over the un-.

Even so, it seems to me that the differences are significant. While Inception asks us to decide for our own account what to take as true, the Matrix movies present the boundary between real and fake as fairly rigid, and we the audience are never called to wonder which we’re watching, except to solve seemingly intractable plot problems.

So maybe it’s surprising that it’s The Matrix that explicitly raises issues of freedom and social control, including high-culture references that are presumably meant to make us think more about upending existing hierarchies … just not, apparently, those between filmmaker and film audience. Jean Baudrillard, the postmodern heavyweight whose book Simulacra and Simulation appears briefly in the first Matrix movie, put it this way: “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix [i.e., the nefarious virtual reality used to keep humanity in stasis] that the matrix would have been able to produce.”

Here, and in every blockbuster that purports to challenge hegemony, the question is just begged if we are truly empowered by the film, or if we’re just schmucks who’ve forked over $10 for two-plus hours of distraction from the terribleness of life. Saying that The Matrix is just a light entertainment vitiates the force of the film on its own terms, although we can still enjoy it if we just ignore those terms and watch it anyway.

Inception, in any event, just sidesteps this problem entirely. For one, the ambiguous ending at least lets us viewers decide for our damn selves whether whether the whole thing — both the parts where people are supposedly awake and the parts where we take them to be asleep — is actually Cobb’s extended dream (or somebody else’s dream, or whatever). That fact itself gives us audience members some kind of agency, if not the ultimate political freedom that The Matrix aspires to.

On top of that, there’s a nice aesthetic upside where the ambiguity of the answer forms a neat parallel with the as-yet-undecided question of whether the viewers themselves are being conned by the movie, which after all is pretty similar to the dreams it’s creating representations of.

Moreover, whatever you think of its political implications, Inception can be read as a compelling psychological journey, and not just because it plays out in fantasies. Cobb is wracked with guilt and needs to let go of his wife, an imperative heavily complicated by his ability to revisit her ghost endlessly in his sleep. His moving speech toward the end eloquently examines the price of holding on too firmly to recreations and memories, and DiCaprio’s delivery nails it. Maybe, after all, it’s not important whether Cobb’s “truth” was real, but that he chose what he thought was real.

dimensions of confusion in primer, upstream color, and mulholland drive

I caught Upstream Color a couple of weeks ago. It’s the latest movie by the writer/director/actor Shane Carruth, whose previous film was Primer, from 2004.

For the first hour or so, Primer is comprehensible: It’s about time travel, yes, and it often seems like Carruth is purposely confusing you, yes, but still, you can keep its logic straight, depending on how much mental RAM you have and, of course, depending on how much you actually care. I watched it for the second time over the weekend and found that it wasn’t until very near the end of the first hour that things got confusing.

But “confusing” doesn’t really do justice to the subsequent disorientation. Primer gets utterly mind-boggling, and quickly, to the point that within 10 minutes you’re not even sure the film is logical, but you can’t prove it because it’s so hard to figure out what’s happening.

Upstream Color is much milder by that measure. The first 20 minutes or so involve a woman being assaulted and forced to inhale a worm (really), which (for unclear reasons) puts her into a trance, during which she is manipulated into taking out a lot of loans and giving the money to the guy who wormed her. What follows builds up small mysteries but mostly resolves them enough for you to follow the story if you’re paying close attention. By the end of the movie, and pretty regularly through it, I felt like I had pieced together what I was seeing. That’s not to say I understood it completely at the time or that nothing was still a mystery at the end. But on whole, I “got” the movie, especially after a post-screening consultation with a friend. When I got home that night, I got whatever remainder of definitive answers there were to be had via a tidy FAQ on Slate.com that pretty much tied up the loose ends.

Yet understanding the movie was not as satisfying as I might have thought it would be. I mean, I liked the fact that I had to puzzle it out and really think about it. But finally solving it was not actually what I had been hoping for, at least in retrospect. I wanted it to stay unsolved, and be unsolvable.

Doing some research for this post, I googled “most puzzling movies” (looking for a way to substantiate a claim that Primer was the most puzzling of them all), and one of the lists I saw included Mulholland Drive. I wanted to object; the comparison is misleading. David Lynch’s movie is irredeemably confusing, but confusing in a distinct way from Primer and Upstream Color.

When I first watched Primer five or six years ago, I immediately thought I had found a flaw, but I wasn’t sure, and it’s taunted me ever since, daring me to re-watch it until I could either perceive the logical cohesion or find any mistakes. Its promise is that, when the dust is settled, all of its mysteries are ultimately knowable and comprehensible; just searching for clips for Primer brought three or four YouTube videos which were expressly about explaining the movie. For the moment I’ll just believe them when they say that to understand all the time travel, you need nine separate timelines.

Still, it doesn’t matter if Primer is actually thoroughly logical. Even if it isn’t spot-on in that aspect (and frankly, I’m still not convinced), the ethos is there: Either Primer‘s plot really is internally consistent, or the movie has blinded us with science and is hoping we won’t notice any errors. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter which it is. It just matters that the movie aspires to that cohesiveness.

To see how this is qualitatively different than Mulholland Drive, you have to see that Carruth’s movies never make you ask whether what you’re watching even happened in the story. (Whether that’s what you want in a movie is another question.) It wouldn’t normally occur to you to question this because movies rarely do. That is, every scene shows a piece of the universe that the film purports to be about, even if that universe has multiple, parallel timelines. In each movie, there are things that would be impossible here on Planet Real Life — time travel in Primer and the one odd but crucial unreal element of Upstream Color. But besides for this one bent rule in each movie, the structure of the universe is coherent and every image presented is implicitly a documentary of that world, or, if not that story universe itself, it is the dream or memory of a single character in that universe.

In a second I’ll get to how Mulholland Drive is a good counterpoint to Primer, but before that I feel I ought to make an admission: After I first saw Mulholland at a special screening of some sort at the University of Minnesota, probably in 2001, I told my friend that this kind of artsy stuff didn’t do that much for me. What was I dying to see? Why, Episode I, of course. (#facepalm, but you should at least give me credit for owning up to this.)

I’m still a bit cool on Mulholland, but for reasons unrelated to its lack of logic — I just don’t like how it looks and I think some of it drags. My appreciation of its confounding structure, however, has only ripened over time, and I have come to prefer its brand of ambiguity and confusion to that of Primer.

The difference is not actually too hard to define. Watching Mulholland, you can’t perfectly map what you’ve seen into a hypothetical world, and it’s clearly designed to thwart your attempts to do that. Lynch’s film doesn’t even use science fiction so much as it exudes an unwillingness to give the normal clues about what the ontological status of what we’re watching is; we see things that might be dreams and memories, but it’s never clear. Some aspects and scenes are just untethered from the story; we don’t know how they fit into the universe that is being built.

Mulholland may not even be the best example of this phenomenon in David Lynch’s movies, but it will do, especially if you pair it with Lost Highway. Here’s how David Roche puts it: “Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are mysteries, not because of their genre, but as films, and are held together by the spectator-detective’s desire to make sense of them.”

In more jargony terms, Roche explains it this way:

…when Pascal Couté attempts to establish a diegesis for Mulholland Drive in which the first part of the film would represent “Diane Selwyn’s dream” and the second what really happened, he is forced to admit that there are “three impossibilities,” notably the fact that the dead girl in the dream is in the exact same position and filmed in the exact same manner as Diane at the end of the film.

(Check the link above for details on Roche’s citations of Couté, if you are a dogged pursuer of such things.)

For “diegesis,” you could probably just read “explanation of the story.” Anyway, Roche puts it more plainly when he says that in these movies, “answering the questions ‘what happened and in what order?’, turns out to be impossible.”

As it happens, I prefer the impossible to the possible. Maybe some day I’ll figure out why.

weird by design vs. weird by accident: stoker and shadow of a doubt

Last weekend at the theater I saw Stoker, which was inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt .

Shadow of a Doubt‘s big contribution to Stoker is the general set-up and dynamic: Both movies kick off with a character named “Uncle Charlie” moving in with a young woman and her family, and in both movies the guy turns out to be a supercreep.

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