Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clockwork, grey - 'Inception'

I hate being warned about spoilers. I'm over 18, I can vote and hold credit cards and I get irritated when my wrist is patted gently by an unseen author whispering 'You might not want to read this next part if you want to be surprised, dearie.' I don't even want to dignify the process by avoiding potential spoilers while discussing Christopher Nolan's Inception. But readers of a sensitive nature can take heart: I've racked my brain but I can't sum up the film with anything more complicated than well dressed operatives with unspecified skill-sets and dodgy financing sneak into your dreams to fiddle about. This process can fry any of the brains involved, but it usually doesn't.

Voila. It's nothing you haven't picked up from mind-reading genre flicks like Strange Days on the techie end or (shudder) What Dreams May Come on the dreamy, fanciful side (feel free to toss in Dreamscape or Brainstorm if you can go back that far). A few voices have suggested a Mulholland Drive influence, which I don't buy for a second: Lynch is millimetres away from absurdity at the best of times (brilliantly so, occasionally), while Nolan is very aware of what he's doing and imposes rules and regulations (in terms of physics and dream-logic) with every frame. His influential-but-not-quite-real states of consciousness make it easy to toss a Matrix label on it, but it won't stick. There's a sentience behind the false world in the Matrix, while Inception stems from the reflective reality in the subconscious ramblings of dreams. It isn't about simulacra as much as psychological response and self-awareness, and how thin that awareness can be in the face of stimulus or the desire to relive (or avoid) a memory.


Or, not. It's also about suits, trains and the colour grey. The Dark Knight looked cold and metallic: Inception might have been lathed and polished rather than photographed. Nolan's physician-like cool and spotlessly clean environments suggest he should think about healing himself before fretting about his character's fragile grip on reality. An outsider's advice: if you want your audience to spend time in a perfectly realized dreamworld, you've got to start somewhere that's pointedly dissimilar to that same world. Nolan avoids the obvious tactic of making reality grungy and the dream world especially fantastic, but the clean, minimalist lines of high speed trains and straight-outta-GQ suits appearing outside of the dreamworld are pretty much mirrored inside the land of nod (except for that On Her Majesty's Secret Service riff- but I've said too much). After the first hour, you almost feel that you've slipped out of Nolan's subconscious and ended up in an after-work doze of his production designer Guy Dyas in the backseat of his limo on the way home from the studio.


That said - Nolan should be commended for not making it all too dreamy. The rules are established early on through a minimum of exposition and some unobtrusively (but still exceedingly) weird visuals. The agents and their architects can tinker with dream logic and provide a forum for that dream to take place, but anything too unusual will activate the dreamer's subconscious and take them out of the dream. Perspective bends and landscapes impossibly fold themselves into new locales, but for the most part these aren't showy effects, they're just out of place for anywhere but a dream.

When the action really begins - a multi-layered dream penetration and the eponymous inception - every gear clicks into place on schedule, even when the dream rules get tweaked (rather than broken or ignored). It's essentially a beautifully made heist flick with some serious guilt issues hiding (and popping out from time to time) in the background. Nowlan takes it seriously and never cracks a smile, but he does prove that he has a heart if you wait long enough. There's a quiet 'live by the sword, die by the sword' message behind it all, finally boiling down to one's inability to get away from something in one's own head. Even if you vacation in another person's consciousness, you're still stuck in you. And when you least expect it, you might sneak up on yourself with the force of a freight train.

Inception is being lauded for being intimidatingly smart, but I don't know if I can agree with that definition. Complicated and intelligent aren't the same thing, and while I'm delighted that there's a sci-fi blockbuster that won't spearhead a Happy Meal campaign, I don't know if it's as clever as your average critic has hoped for after their collective horror at last year's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I'm not saying that Nolan didn't spend Warner's $160 million wisely, but I almost want to cut his budget (and some of his script) to produce an even smarter, leaner product. I think about how 2004's Primer played with just as many unknowable concepts (short-term time travel and the nature of paradox) on a budget that would have only covered a portion of Inception's first-week catering bill. And Aronofsky brought Pi in on small-time loans and credit cards while questioning the mathematical formulae of random patterns and the unmentionable numerical name of God. If Nolan's budget gets cut in half for his next film, he might be motivated to ram the same imagination and vision into something with more weight than a dream. I'll be the first in line to see it.

Both Primer and Pi riffed on unknowable premises without window-dressing; Inception is the best dressed window I've seen for a long time, all in almost stiflingly good taste. There's not a lot of colour or a lot of fun, but you can't help but respect the craft and consistency of the vision. When the dreams get too thick (or strangely motivated - think about the Bond comparison above) it strains the balance between Nolan assuring us that these things happen, or shrugging and saying 'it's a dream, after all.' Like the best dreams, I've held onto the way I felt watching it unspool while not being convinced that any of it really matters.

On the flipside, that's the price of being a well-made clock; the mechanism (all those tiny gears) doesn't matter as much as the overall impact (keeping time in line). I'm sure Inception is exactly what Nolan wanted to make, I'm just not sure if it's something that should have been encouraged outside of an academic exercise in dream-scheduling and invisible CGI. With Inception, He has built something with the clockwork, self-contained logic of a dream, right down to how your own perception (and lack thereof) populates that sphere. If it all fades rather quickly, then it's done its job. Some things can't be explained, just experienced. Like a good dream. Or a well-made representation of same.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Difference engines

Without going into detail, I have time on my hands. This isn't exactly a bad thing, it's just a state of being that my rational brain believes should be graphed and charted and given a finite time span with loads of contingency tucked in around the edges. It's supposedly a time for reflection, but that's not working so well: I'm either staring at walls while assuming there's a mirror that I can't quite see (and believing that if I stand long enough, something will throw a little light) or I've become a low-level variation on a vampire that casts no image through any easily obtained, bog-standard looking glass.

The mechanics of this spare time are easily navigated (I've been taking my son to parks and reading lots of pull-up-your-socks publications) but some tabula rasa aspect hasn't slipped into place just yet, causing this not-unpleasant limbo to reveal signs of potential unpleasantness.
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I'm on Yonge St. at 6:30pm on a weekday night, walking downtown to meet Gene. I knew him a very long time ago as part of a church group; he writes and worked in computers and works in film and was the last person I thought I'd find myself having a beer with, although I'm delighted to see him. He got back in touch around a year ago through Facebook and we've chatted from time to time. The aforementioned time off feels like a good reason to have another beer and I'm en route to the bistro when time falls out of itself for a few seconds (if that explains the duration of a non-event). I start looking into head shoppe windows and spotting the kind of stuff that would have been sold 25-odd years back: what t-shirts attract your standard stoner since time immemoriam?

There's a handful of classics: today's AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin or Doors t-shirts would slip harmlessly past temporal sensors in the early 80s and they're still popular today. Three storefronts proudly offered Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon anniversary shirts, perhaps losing the fact that the 30th anniversary was in 2003. The shirts still sell. In those places at least, 2/3rds of the t-shirts rotate through Van Halen Inxs Stone Temple Pilots Pearl Jam Nirvana Beck NIN Weezer Eminem Marilyn Manson while the rest extol the virtues of Jim Morrison and that freaky Iron Maiden mascot and that guitarist in boy's school shorts. The structure of cheap crap re-forms itself from time to time but it's thin. In this context at least, nothing changes, nothing goes away.

Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16, 2010

An early-30's guy in cutoff army surplus shorts and a yellow t-shirt that says Capitalism Overcomes All in red gothic script. A homeless Asian man lying in a torn heavily branded Raptors sleeping bag outside Union Station with a cardboard sign saying Needing money to get home to Winnipeg - God bless those blessing the poor - Going home. Oversized bottles of Kirkland Signature 99.9% germ-killing wipes everywhere around the lobby of a downtown office tower- even well-heeled corporations buy in bulk to save money. A tex-mex restaurant with a line of guys in their late 20's waiting to get in for beer steins of daquiris and 15-minutes-or-they're-free fajitas. The Toronto Star pointing out that 2010 is the hottest year in recorded history and a group of former system administrators behind me taking apart this supposition by asking if they'd taken Hiroshima or Nagasaki or that meteor that hit Siberia into the equation. One of them brings up Sodom and Gomorrah and the others laugh and say that biblical plagues don't count. Disasters past and present and ongoing notwithstanding it's clear and beautiful outside and if I wasn't otherwise engaged at being me at the moment, I'd probably enjoy it free and easy.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Things I've learned trying to clean up my life and associated mindset upon being granted some rather unexpected free time



1. Wicker chairs that were forgotten in the back yard (for three months) can be cleaned of mildew, dirt and that weird creeping mold with a scrub-brush, bleachy hot water and dish soap, and the free-floating energy of somebody who has found themselves in a situation that includes some free time.

2. The foam rubber cushions of said chairs (with the accompanying mildew, dirt and creeping mold) can also be rinsed, squeezed out, and left in the sun to be made clean as new.

3. Bleaching the hell out of the seat cushions...well, you get the idea.

4. Wicker can be painted with Zinsser primer and restored to something you'd like to sit in. So. Project #1 complete.

5. The upstairs linen closet in my rather elderly house provided three layers of wallpaper to remove. Including the ceiling. Deep blue paint in a linen closet is supposed to keep your whites very white, so now it's blue.

6. The old bought-at-Lansing-Lumber-back-in-the-70's shelves that have been littering your dead father's workshop are just fine for a linen closet in 2010. The psychological impact of spending an afternoon reviewing the contents of that workshop, not so good. But c'mon. Free shelves. And a project to wile away the hours.

7. A twenty-five year old reciprocating saw works just fine. A brand new one costs all of 40 bucks which the imperial coffers can spare, but let's be stubborn and use the old one.

8. Damn, my garage needs a cleaning. I really should get somebody to do it.

9. The 'somebody' in question appears to be me.

10. My son has re-discovered the joys of blowing soap bubbles, my chairs are once again suitable for sitting upon without fear of becoming a science experiment, my linen closet will soon be organized in such a way that it accommodates linen, a vacuum cleaner and my wife's sanity since she will no longer say that the linen closet is a seething miasma of chaos existing only to drive her insane. It's a lovely summer day and, rather unexpected spare time notwithstanding, life is good. The overwhelming advice I'm receiving is "Shut up and relax, for a change." Amen.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Great.

Well, yarbles.



July 3, 2010

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