Monday, July 19, 2010

To demonstrate The Saragossa Manuscript’s status as a cult classic, all one need do is to point out that this 1965 film by Wojciech Has was being restored at the Pacific Film Archive at the behest of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia when he died, and that Martin Scorsese stepped in at that point to ensure the project’s completion. The so-called “Polish National Epic,” written of course in French & set entirely in Spain, is the shaggiest of shaggy dog narratives, as one character after another sits down or leans forward to tell you a story, taking you further & further into a nested sequence of interlocking narratives that never quite works it way all the back to the original frame tale. It was exactly the sort of flick that film fans as diverse as Garcia & Scorsese would have gone to see again & again, partly because it was (& is still) such a delightful head trip, and because one inevitably saw new material on each repeated exposure.

While the network of little repertory cinemas that foreign & indie films depended on for distribution in the 1960s barely exists a half century later, The Saragossa Manuscript’s spiritual grandchild showed up in theaters late last week under the title Inception. Like Manuscript, it’s the wooliest of narrative constructions, a Rube Goldberg machine of film tropes, not to be confused with any attempt to use cinema as a medium for serious thought. Also like Manuscript, it’s a film that exudes its love for the possibilities of its own medium & feels at moments like a test: just how many layers of narrative can one keep separate but simultaneous in a film. Try this:

The characters are asleep on a small private jet heading to the United States

The characters, or at least most of them, are asleep in a van that is plunging backwards off of a drawbridge, having just run a gauntlet of assassins with automatic weapons

The characters are asleep in an elevator that is plunging in a hotel while one of their members fights off a few henchmen, both sides being hampered somewhat by the fact that the laws of gravity of have been suspended

The characters are involved in a shootout in a building atop a snow-capped mountain that is halfway between a private hospital and a Tibetan monastery turned into a fortress

The leading characters are quietly walking through the streets of a deserted, architecturally impossible city having a sober conversation until Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets up with his late wife who has something of a lethal streak about her

All of this is taking place at once to the same set of characters, with different temporal rhythms for each layer – by the time that Cobb meets up with Ken Watanabe’s Saito in the last of those 5 narratives, Saito has become an old man, all in the time it takes the car in the second story (the first layer of dream) to plunge into the water, an almost operatic slomo sequence that is mentioned or alluded to in each of the embedded dreams within. Director Christopher Nolan not only makes this look pretty clear, but even easy.

These levels of complexity are layered even further with homages – blatant ones – to a slew of other films. The fight sans gravity may remind you of The Matrix not because the antagonists are bouncing off the walls, but because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wearing the same clothes as Hugo Weaving in that earlier movie (lacking only the mirror shades). Marion Cotillard, who won her Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf, is a key figure in a film that constantly reprises the Piaf tune La vie en rose. There is a chase scene in Mombasa right out of the last Bourne flick, another chase in the snow with an avalanche (hello James Bond), the gathering together of a gang of accomplices right out of the Oceans caper franchise. Michael Caine, Christopher Nolan’s own private totem, as well as an embodied allusion to half of cinema over the past 50 years, just happens to play DiCaprio’s father (which at least isn’t as silly as making DiCaprio Irish as Scorsese did in The Gangs of New York).

I’m sure some ambitious critic is going to come along & make the claim that Christopher Nolan is making a film about films – that this rather obvious analogy is what all the dream-within-a-dream stuff is about – and that Nolan is showing how these summer thriller features are themselves compilations of genre-defined devices from earlier films (down close to the smallest detail, say the way the children won’t turn around & look at us echoes Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was released when Nolan was just three years old, or that Cobb is a name Nolan himself has used before, in his first feature, The Following). As the director of the last Batman mega-hits, as well as Insomnia, Memento & The Prestige, Nolan is well-positioned to make such a critique, done here with the sort of special effects that will repeatedly bring a spontaneous grin to your face, as when Ellen Page’s Ariadne – who says women architects never get interesting assignments? – bends all of Paris in various directions so that she & Cobb start walking down the street by going up the wall (shades of Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding)!

If you don’t believe or care about these characters all that much, it’s precisely because in a world in which everything is a device, even those who people it ultimately are chimeras. Needless to say, this too pops up as an important plot device toward film’s end. The relationships that drive everything – DiCaprio’s love for Mal (Cotillard), which is countered by his love for his children (he is forced to choose) & Robert Fischer, Jr’s love for his dad¹ – are all narratively thwarted for the greater part of the film, while other key figures, Saito, Ariadne, the rest of Cobb’s crew, are cinematic in that they exist entirely out of narrative whole cloth. The fact that Ariadne’s participation in this screwball & largely suicidal mission makes no narrative sense – she seems about six months older than her role in Juno, albeit the most level-headed member of the plot (both meanings of that word) – doesn’t raise hackles precisely because that’s not what this is about. Having somebody who looks like Hermione Granger’s kid sister play the role of heroine in a film whose lead himself looked like a teenager even when he was playing Howard Hughes is a cagey, even brave move.

More than one reviewer has called Inception spoiler-proof” & that’s right, because that isn’t what Inception is about, even if you could tell the story of the film straight, which I doubt anyone short of Christopher Nolan could. If it’s not “great art,” that seems here to be a choice, not a failure – it’s so much smarter than either of the Batman films or even Memento that it’s stunning. What it is turns out to be the kick-ass summer film to trump all summer films, the noir thriller filled with glee.


¹ Somebody would name their daughter Mal? This guy’s name is a slightly more formal version of Bobby Fischer?