Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.


Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Huck Finn, or, What Makes for a Great Book?

July 20, 2010

I’m currently re-reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and am trying to understand what leads some people to call it “the great American novel.” It is a good book, certainly; entertaining, a witty satire, and not entirely devoid of morality. But I don’t see what would lead one to call it great.

My main argument against it, I suppose, that it’s not particularly complex. A book like Moby-Dick can provoke endless hours of discussion, but there doesn’t seem to be that much to discuss about Huck Finn. The central conflict (regarding whether Jim ought to be freed) is fairly simple, and it’s quite clear which side of it Twain’s on. And that’s about the only thing there is to talk about. The satire is funny, and he makes some valid points about antebellum Southern society and about how gullible people are in general, but once you say “so he’s satirizing antebellum Southern society and point out how gullible people are in general,” what more is there to say?

Does this mean that for a novel to be great it must be ambivalent, undecided, like Moby-Dick is so much of the time? I don’t think so. I think writers who are certain in their beliefs are often just as good, if not better, than writers who are eternally questioning. But confident writers still must acknowledge the other side of the argument, not just preach their own view as obviously right and anyone who disagrees with it as obviously wrong. I find that works that do this sort of glossing over usually do it because they don’t want to address the complications in their worldview. Mark Twain said the moral of Huck Finn was intended to be, “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and indeed, anyone coming away from the book probably has arrived at that conclusion. The problem is, insofar as its true, it’s obviously true (that statement is un-disagreeable-with), but it ignores the question, “what makes for a sound heart?” In doing so, it doesn’t make itself a bad book, but it makes itself not a great book.

This isn’t to detract from what is great about Huck Finn. It’s brilliantly executed; great characterization, great representation of dialects, funny when it ought to be funny, serious when it ought to be serious. Good for it. But that doesn’t make it a great work, in my mind. Certainly not “the great American novel.”

(Note: I argued a few weeks ago that this is what is wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t want to say the same thing about Huck Finn; I’m not saying it’s a bad book, or even not a good book. I think it deserves most of the acclaim it gets. I just don’t see why it’s considered among the greatest.)


Book Review: The Border Trilogy

July 14, 2010

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.


Andrew Bird and the Scientific Sublime

June 8, 2010

I haven’t said anything here about music for a while. With this post I intend to rectify that. My subject will be Andrew Bird, an indie-baroque-pop artist, whom I only started listening to in the last few months (probably since January), but who has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. I have three of his albums, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha,” and “Noble Beast”; all three have many good songs on them, some of which I’ll mention over the course of this post.

Andrew Bird has several things going for him. To start with, I find his intricate musical style quite appealing; he plays guitar, violin (pizzicato and arco), and whistles, as well as other instruments, and layers them all together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm –  in fact, his music has a quite minimalistic feel to it, until you pay attention and realize how complex it really is. The whistling in particular makes it unlike most other music I’ve listened to. Andrew Bird songs often give me the feeling of being in a white room looking at a complex yet not chaotic contraption, a clock or perhaps a circuit.

A related strength is his use of his voice and the sound of his lyrics. He doesn’t have an amazingly strong voice, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s melodic yet matter-of-fact, occasionally plaintive, which fits with the precise minimalism of the instrumentals. Then there are the lyrics. The words of his songs always sound as if they mean something, merely by their sound, even if they don’t. For example, he has a song called “Fake Palindromes,” the first few lines of which are, “my dewy-eyed disney bride, what has tried / swapping your blood with formaldehyde?” No one else would try to rhyme with a scientific word like “formaldehyde.”

Which brings me to what I find really interesting about Bird; the subjects of his songs. Given his complex, layered, precise, even scientific, aural aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he often takes as his subject science and mathematics. What he is most interested in are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the scientific way of looking at things. He wants to believe in beauty, to have free will, but the fact that we can quantify the universe threatens to make these things impossible. In the song “Masterfade,” he says to his lover that “when you look up at the sky / all you see are zeros / all you see are zeros and ones.” That way of looking at the world, he fears, make a true appreciation of the wonders of the world impossible. In “Imitosis,” he reports (a lot of Andrew Bird songs have the feeling of being reports, perhaps even scientific abstracts) that “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case of mitosis.” If we’re just organisms like any other, than whatever meaningful relationships we may have, whatever rights and duties to others we may think we have, are actually just our genetic code controlling us.

But Bird doesn’t go from here to a rejection of science; he loves science and math and logic. You can tell from listening to his songs, to his use of complex latinate words and bizarre conceits and language games. He rejects any attempt, religious or otherwise, to feel better by ignoring what science seems to be saying. In “The Privateers,” he asks of us, “Don’t sell me anything / Your one time offer, so uncalled for / You call it piece of mind.” In “Measuring Cups,” perhaps my favorite Andrew Bird song, he asks, “when you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gory / is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed.”

So Bird doesn’t want us to look for meaning by rejecting science. What, then, does he turn to? In the end, I think, he never answers that question in full. If he could, he wouldn’t have to make songs about it. But I think he finds a partial answer in the very scientific aesthetic that resulted from his worrisome interest in science. His songs, after all, though often sounding plaintive and questioning, rarely sound despairing. Instead they revel in their own precision. Rather than seeking beauty outside of science, he finds it in the patterning, of numbers and of sound. This is what the best Andrew Bird songs show us; the precise use of language and sound can conjure images of what they describe that make us feel almost like we’re watching a nature documentary, like with with sea aenenome of “Anonanimal.”

But beauty, I think, might be the wrong word here. He finds aesthetic pleasure in patterns, and beauty is defined as proportion; but more precisely, beauty is found in things being proportionate relative to the viewer. Beauty requires something to be on a human scale. Bird doesn’t find the science beautiful for it’s relationship to humans (in fact, that’s what scares him about it); he finds pleasure in it for its own sake. That sounds to me more like the sublime. And indeed, I think there’s an aspect of reveling in the infinite going on here. Bird is probably one of the few songwriters who would completely understand what it means to say that the world itself is not infinite – it is very large, but bounded. When we draw general laws from it – which is what science does – we are inductively drawing the infinite out of the finite. Bird already intuits this, I think; in “Tenuousness,” he talks about the world, which is “tenuous at best,” coming “just shy of infinity.” The world itself is beyond our grasps and finite; strangely, what is infinite, what is in our minds, is less tenuous.


Yeat’s The Tower, Auden’s Another Time

May 27, 2010

The next two books we’ve read for my 20th century poetry-by-the-book class are W.B. Yeats’ The Tower and W.H. Auden’s Another Time. These are, to say the least, very different works, but I like both of them.

Yeats’ main strength is his prosody and use of imagery. He’s one of the few poets for whom metrical variation actually means something most of the time. Just read “Leda and the Swan” out loud to see what I’m talking about. Then there’s his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which, though bizarre and confusing, are occasionally fascinating. His idea of “gyres” is, as far as I can tell, your standard cyclicism, but cyclicism is a powerful concept; that’s what gives the annunciatory poems in the center of the book (“Two Songs from a Play” through “Among School Children,” roughly) their strength. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Greek or Christian history, but he makes an interesting argument. What I like most about Yeats, though, is just the feel of certain lines; he has a certain enchanting quality. He’s a very mythical poet.

Auden, on the other hand, is extremely analytical, cerebral, even sarcastic at times. He reminds me in a lot of ways of T.H. White (what’s with all these initials?), who wrote The Once and Future King. Both gay liberal but ethically minded Englishmen who worried about the dangers of tyranny and democracy and thought love was the way to unite… yep, it fits. Unfortunately, a lot of the good qualities of Auden’s poetry make him uninteresting to talk about literarily; conversations about his poetry tend to turn into conversations about the nature of ethics. Which is, of course, kind of the point, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here. Anyway, the most well-known and probably best poem from the book is “Musee de Beaux Arts,” but other good ones are “Law like Love” and “As I walked out one evening.” I personally was interested by “Herman Melville” (for obvious reasons – for the record, I’m not sure I buy Auden’s reading of “Billy Budd,” though I’d like to) and “Roman Wall Blues,” which isn’t a complex poem, but a quite fun one.

What I find strange about all this is that though Yeats is the imagistic one and Auden the cerebral one, Auden is the one to focus on love and community and Yeats is the more egotistical one focused on his own poetic genius. I guess it isn’t that incongruous, but it seems somehow backwards.

Next up for the class (actually, started today): T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Of course, I’ve already read them (it? I’m always unsure about how to refer to plural titles like this), and it’s too long to do justice to in a reasonably-sized post, so I’ll just say now: it’s excellent, read it.


Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium

May 22, 2010

After Frost’s North of Boston, my Mayterm poetry class moved on to Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. If the former was a book for which it was easy to identify the underlying structure and its implications (though the significance of those implications are by no means simplistic; one can have organization without giving up nuance), then for the latter it is almost impossible. For a book called Harmonium, there is little in it that appears harmonious, on the general or specific level. The collection is at first glance a cacophonous jumble of metaphysical ramblings and random sensory impressions, but this is primarily because the individual poems are difficult to understand.

Many of the poems, like the first one of the book, “Earthy Anecdote,” provoke interesting imagery and aural sensations, but have no deeper meaning. Some longer ones, like “The Comedian as the Letter C,” elaborate Stevens’ poetics and philosophy, and others, like “Six Significant Landscapes” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” offer sketches of his poetics in action, showing us Harmonium in microcosm. Yet, since Stevens’ poems are not typically long narratives, “The Comedian as the Letter C” is not a good exemplar of his poetry, and since it is an outline of a book of poetry, not the book itself, “Thirteen Ways” is better at showing how to fit his poems together than at being a good example of one of them.

I think “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” a poem of moderate length, comes fairly close to such an exemplar. Like the ephemeral “Earthy Anecdote,” it uses the sound of language and metaphor to convey a simple image, yet here the image fits with Stevens’ metaphysics and poetics and offers a vision of the general, not only the specific. The poem focuses on white as real yet defined by negation. The empty whiteness, akin to the winter of “The Snow Man,” is what man sees when he rationally examines the world and realizes it is unsympathetic to humanity. At the same time as this negative image is built, however, an idea of color is created that takes on a life of its own; the green and purple and yellow and blue merge with the beads and baboons into an idea of something like a rainbow. And “an old sailor,” reminiscent of the comedian Crispin, “Catches tigers / In red weather.” Through the power of the imagination he does not dream of catching them, he does catch them; imagination creates the variegated world anew.

This understanding partially explains the apparently haphazard ordering of Harmonium; it is intentionally disordered (indeed, originally grouped poems were dispersed throughout the book) because Stevens, who as a poet paints with sound, is interested in color/sound for its own sake, and to order the poems would have been to subordinate those colors/sounds to some other idea. Instead, he gives them no continuity at all in order to emphasize their uniqueness. Stevens searches for as many ways as he can to emphasize the importance of the imagination’s rainbow, and as no color in rainbow has precedent over any other, he can give no individual approach pride of place.

That’s my understanding of Stevens’ poetic project. And I can respect it, and the fact that he does a good job achieving it. But I still find it difficult to actually like his poetry. It’s not so much that I find his philosophy mildly disturbing (though I do); my reasons are mostly pre-rational. I can only describe them by saying that he writes with a faded pastel palette, full of watermelon green and mango and off-white. I like  some of his darker work, his winter aesthetic, e.g. “The Snow Man” and “Thirteen Ways,” but I find no beauty in his usual tropical aesthetic.


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