a possibly too long explanation of why this isn’t a review of inside out

In the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reel released for Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, Mark Hamill narrates on the significance of this new Star Wars chapter:

You’ve been here, but you don’t know this story. Nothing’s changed, really. I means everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed.

It’s reminiscent — maybe on purpose — of the common notion that a good movie just reformulates an already-familiar truth, kind of like a song that feels like a classic even on first hearing. (I feel like I’ve heard this idea floated before, but I can’t find a web reference for it. Take me at my word? )

This is not at all unexpected, but it does remind me of an ongoing reservation I have about even the best of popular entertainment: I feel like movies shouldn’t be so comforting that they could double as a warm blanket. The best of film is too fresh, too hard to process to ever let you feel like “nothing’s changed.” I suppose what I’m saying is that even when perfectly executed, a movie whose purpose is to refeed you what you’ve already been fed before is a movie that needs a different reason for being. A movie whose goal is not to put on the screen a new vision of art, but to return us to somewhere we think we already know, well that’s art that is aiming too low.
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the depreciation of smaug: the anatomy and economy of dragons

I’ve been thinking the last couple of weeks about the second Hobbit installment, The Desolation of Smaug, which I saw in the theater with everyone else over Christmas break. I’m not so concerned with whether it was good or bad, but more about how it got me thinking on a certain paradox I can’t make sense of.

The paradox could be true of almost any fantasy or sci-fi fiction, but as it happens I’ve been mulling it over in relation to the eponymous dragon of the movie. It’s like this: Smaug, as your typical dragon in a work of fantasy, is clearly not bound to the laws of physics, biology, or even common sense. And yet I find — and I suspect many would agree — that I want to object that he is not, after all, “realistic.”
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the great gatsby as a test case for what we lose in adaptation; not a post in which i grumble about the superiority of any medium over another, i promise

Greg Olear, writing for The Weeklings, makes a good argument that Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is gay. I’m a sucker for unlikely theories about books and movies, but even more so when they rely on a close reading of the evidence. Also, since Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby is finally coming out this week, Olear’s argument has gotten me thinking about the fundamental differences between the art of film and the art of writing.

Before I get to that, I’ll have to convey to you the gist of Olear’s argument, especially the way he uses Nick’s point of view to make it. A big chunk of Olear’s evidence comes from the way Carraway describes each of the other five major characters in the novel. Part of the argument comes from how Nick casts a pretty detached eye on the women, even though they are all supposed to be desirable in their own way. As an example, there is a passage where Nick describes Jordan Baker (a golfer), the woman he gets involved with: “She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” Olear summarizes it this way: “Other than the word small-breasted — which de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes — this could be a description of a man.”

Meanwhile, when Nick talks about Tom Buchanan he is struck by “the enormous power of that body.” This does seem telling, since in my experience as a straight dude, we don’t normally characterize other guys this way unless we’re talking about football players.

But I’ve just now re-read the passage that Olear uses to make his case that Carraway is “in love” with Gatsby, and I find it unconvincing — it seems to just be a description of a man who has quite a bit of charisma, but straight men can recognize that in other men just about as well as gay men can. To me, the description seems to convey mostly a general sense that Gatsby makes everyone feel better in his presence and is able to use his charm to uplift everyone he meets; we all know people like this, and it’s not at all clear that Carraway is attracted romantically to him.


photo by Rakka under cc

Whether I agree with Olear or whether Nick Carraway really is gay doesn’t matter so much to me, though. Instead, what occurred to me while reading was about how any of this would be communicated on film. My conclusion is that it can’t. The paragraphs Olear cites are a great example of what a book can do that a movie can’t even under the best of circumstances.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how novels can go into a character’s head in a way that feels intimate; what I’m thinking of here is similar to that phenomenon but still distinct. I do this thought experiment: What would we get if a filmmaker set out to do the most faithful rendition of the book possible, sans running commentary in voice-over by Nick Carraway? (It would just be cheating if he were allowed to read the book over the images.) Well, we’d have a long movie, but even with all the extra hours of scenes, we probably still wouldn’t know that Nick thinks of Tom Buchanan’s body as having “enormous power” or that Jordan Baker’s bearing reminds him of a cadet’s. We can see through Nick’s eyes or from Nick’s perspective in the film, but seeing isn’t the same as describing.


photo by advertisingelyse under cc

Frankly, I feel as though film is inevitably more objective than the written word, since it is divided from the connotations of words. I’m worried there’s a grand theory of film that has already proven me wrong, but I’m okay with that possibility, because damn if it doesn’t seem intuitively true. An image by itself can’t convey the dense forest undergrowth of mental associations that Nick makes when he eyeballs other people. I hate to talk about the essential qualities of an art form, but I have to admit, at times like these, I want to talk about what a novel does best vs. what a film does best. I can only hope Baz Luhrmann’s film can make up for what can only ever be lost in the transition.

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.

nothing about nothing and the use of narrative explosives

This time around, I didn’t stumble onto a Vimeo staff pick I liked as immediately as last time. This go-round I churned through a number, several of which were intriguing — “The fun part is closing circuits through vegetables” a guy says before doing a Massive Attack thing with eggplant and strawberries (!) — but not really worth examining in detail.

But I liked the name of this one, and it turned out to be nice and chewy from a storytelling standpoint. (I’m going to write about specifics below, so you should probably just go ahead and watch all 11ish minutes if you’re going to read on.) (And of course you should.)

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maybe there’s a good reason to rip on django unchained, or maybe not, i can’t tell

You know, just because I love Quentin Tarantino doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear criticisms of him. I do; I genuinely enjoy hearing what people think about movies and why they don’t like them. That said, the sophist in me wants you to make the best argument possible, even if it’s against a piece of art I happen to like.

photo by Steve Rhodes under cc

To begin with, if you’re going to criticize Quentin Tarantino for using the n-word too much, you should probably wait until he’s doing a movie that isn’t about slavery, since QT has already nicely answered your concerns about Django Unchained:

Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.

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david foster wallace on the terminator movies

From a 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace in “The Review of Contemporary Fiction”:

It’s almost like postmodernism is fiction’s fall from biblical grace. Fiction became conscious of itself in a way it never had been. Here’s a really pretentious bit of pop analysis for you: I think you can see Cameron’s “Terminator” movies as a metaphor for all literary art after Roland Barthes, viz., the movies’ premise that the Cyberdyne NORAD computer becomes conscious of itself as “conscious,” as having interests and an agenda; the Cyberdyne becomes literally self-referential, and it’s no accident that the result of this is nuclear war, Armageddon.

I came across this quote yesterday and planned to write about it before I realized that Wallace wrote an entire essay about T2 (and how it is “F/X porn”), which will be reprinted shortly as part of a new non-fiction collection. So three cheers for coincidence.

Anyway, I like Wallace and I really liked this theory at first glance, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s wrong — and the more I think about why, the more I think it’s wrong for interesting reasons. Before I get to why, let’s first acknowledge that Wallace (as quoted at least) got the names mixed up: “Cyberdyne” is the name of the company that creates the artificial intelligence, which is known as “Skynet.”

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