Tag Archives: neo-noir

Memories are Made of This

In the past, I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir-in-reverse Memento for its narrative and setting, as well as its place in Nolan’s filmography. However, I’ve never really addressed it visually, and that’s about to change—because Memento is this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series! Memento is a very attractive film, courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer (and Nolan’s partner-in-crime) Wally Pfister; it’s set in a generically urban, sun-drenched part of California, pierced with greenery, but you still get a sense of something sinister lurking down the frontage roads and inside the grungy hotels.

The film’s greatest visual coup is how it alternates between its bright-but-menacing color palette and a crisply nightmarish black and white, intuitively associating each one with different time frames. Yet I still found it hard to pick out a single best image. It’s universally pretty, but few shots really stood out to me. That said, I really love how Nolan and Pfister shoot actors. Stars Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss are sexy people, and the film exploits that fact for all it’s worth during their brief but torrid affair. (This is an edge Memento has over Nolan’s bigger, more ambitious projects: for all their virtues, you could never claim that The Dark Knight or Inception are especially sexy. Except when Heath Ledger’s in his nurse costume.)

Thus, this is my best shot for Memento:

It’s a rare moment of tenderness and vulnerability. Even though Leonard and Natalie are modeled on the film noir archetypes of the tough private eye and the heartless femme fatale, here they’re just two lost, lonely people. They’re in the midst of exchanging morning-after banter as the film reaches its end/beginning, with Natalie caressing one of his tattoos and saying, “It’s pretty weird,” to which Leonard responds, “It’s useful.” Nothing too special about the dialogue, but it’s the gesture that matters here. She brings her hand down across his chest, then touches it once again, hesitantly.

Then they physically separate, changing their clothes and getting ready for the big day ahead. Leonard may soon forget this moment, along with Natalie’s identity and her fractious relationship to him, but for the audience it lingers. It’s erotic, but not gratuitous. It’s sweet, but definitely not sentimental. It’s fleeting, just like all of Leonard’s experiences. It’s also beautifully lit against a backdrop of rumpled sheets, with the late-morning sunlight playing on Moss’s hand and Pearce’s torso. It’s absolutely my best shot.

I have a few others I’m fond of, especially ones that capture Carrie-Anne Moss’s casual bitchiness. Or better yet, since everyone loves a symmetrically shot death scene:

[Interestingly enough, my second-favorite shot is also the favorite of JA at My New Plaid Pants. It is an awesome shot!]

Nolan and Pfister accomplish something special with the visual interplay between Leonard’s hellish current life and his last few memories, set before and during the murder. It reminds me of the wistful editing patterns in Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is ironic, since Jonathan Rosenbaum once dissed Memento as “gimmicky and unpoetic” compared to Resnais and his experimental successors. Memento certainly has its flaws, but it’s more than just a pastiche-filled puzzle. It has traces of feeling, as well as dark wit, tucked inside its thorny narrative. And it’s an excellent showcase for the serpentine Moss and the sensuous Pearce.

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Link Dump: #19

As you may have noticed, Pussy Goes Grrr has been postless for almost a solid week. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) Ashley’s classes recently started and 2) I am still buried, à la Ted Danson in Creepshow, in my 25-page comps (i.e., giant senior project) on female sexuality in horror. But never fear! Starting probably next week, we’ll have some new, exciting blogging surprises in store for you. Potentially including something really, really awesome. Be sure to tune in and find out! (I love talking about the Internet like it’s a radio.)

In other news, Angela Bettis plays a great neurotic/psychotic in May (2002), which is what 1/4 of my comps is about, but Anna Faris as her lesbian coworker is just so goofy and lovable that she steals every scene she’s in. She’s the malapropism-wielding yang to May’s awkward, understated yin. “Do you like pussy… cats?” That should be this blog’s motto. That said, here are some links:

  • William Ahearn writes extensively about the origins of the term “film noir.”
  • Simon Hattenstone of The Guardian profiles influential (and awesome) feminist artist Cindy Sherman.
  • Not Coming to a Theater Near You has a piece on private eye movies of the 1970s, when Elliott Gould was the new Bogart.
  • EdenCafe gives us “Self-Love, Sex Toys, and Men,” which could also be titled “How NOT to Write About Sex Toys.” It’s comically atrocious, and inane enough to make an entertaining read.
  • Speaking of horrible things, Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins wants you to know that The Kids Are All Right sucks because it didn’t make enough money, and it’s about lesbians. Also the Golden Globes are evil. And MLK apparently agrees with him.
  • After making a jackass of himself at the NYFCC awards last week, professional martyr Armond White explains in voluminous, self-aggrandizing detail why he has been wronged. By the Internet, naturally. Then J. Hoberman responds. (If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of White’s personality or his obfuscation-happy criticism.)
  • Gasp! Breaking news: Archie Comics is dropping the Comics Code Authority seal of approval from its products! Tony Perkins was right; the liberals are destroying American culture!

We had so many wacky search terms this week that I had to prune the list. We can’t just let any ol’ search term into the hall of shame, like the unimpressive “frog vag,” “leg cast fucking,” or “best looking vagina in 2010.” No, they had to be extra weird this week. Some I picked because of the phrasings: “you might gonna get raped maybe” sounds so indecisive that it renders itself meaningless, while “nope can’t go to hell,” with its unpunctuated urgency, makes me imagine a sequel to Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman travels to the underworld – flying Qantas, I assume.

From the “Bizarre Free Association” Department comes “bus ride,clit,” and we have another oddity that combines bad grammar and redundancy, “she are fucking a female cow.” The last (and best?) brings together unbelievable vileness, forcefulness, and length, and wins our Yuckiest Search Terms of the Week award (I guess), because it’s “i am going to hold you and that dog is going to fuck your pussie video.”

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2010: The Year We Make Lists

It’s that time of year again. Just when everybody else is busy decorating and throwing away 2010 calendars, film critics everywhere are releasing their best-of lists. A.O. Scott picked his; so did Roger Ebert. David Denby talked about Boston and gave a cutting description of Inception: “like a giant clock that displays its gears and wheels but forgets to tell the time.” I still don’t think Inception deserves the critical thrashing it’s received. I may have been more than a tad overzealous in my initial review – “it lived up to all the expectations,” I claimed hours after seeing it – but in a brain-draining summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and lowbrow shit, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, original heist movie was a welcome reprieve – even if it is an overexplained, ultimately pointless white elephant.

The summer’s other, more lasting treat was Toy Story 3. It was the second sequel to a computer-animated kid’s movie about toys, yet it ended up being one of the most thoughtful, powerful, and humane movies of the year. Not since the song “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster (1987) has a film tapped so effectively into the transience of inanimate objects, and our relationships to them; although it’s not perfect (some of the jokes fell flat), it harnesses all of the franchise’s built-up good will of the past 15 years during its gracefully cathartic ending. My favorite part remains the subplot wherein the teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of a southern political boss. Animation’s not just for kids anymore. And you know what else? It never was!

Later in the summer, I was moved to tears by the realistic depiction of relationship being torn apart and pieced back together in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Topical in its nuanced representation of same-sex marriage, questionable in the way that the lesbian Jules (Julianne Moore) falls into bed with sexy sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the film abounds with strong performances, headed by Moore, Ruffalo, and most of all Annette Bening as Nic, the stern breadwinner of the family. On the wackier, more in-your-face side of the gay comedy spectrum is the recently released I Love You, Phillip Morris, which gives Jim Carrey both a juicy, dense role as a con man/pathological liar, and a cute boyfriend in the form of Ewan McGregor.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the Movie Of The Year, at least according to critical consensus and award reception: David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is cruising on its way to a likely Best Picture Oscar come February. It’s been seized on by critics as emblematic of 2010’s zeitgeist – which involves digitally connecting with other human beings, it seems – even though it’s not so much about Facebook as it is about betrayals and shady business deals, with the irony that founder Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t have three friends to rub together” acting as a nice analytical bonus. Part of The Social Network‘s genius is that it touches tangentially on so many themes, Big and little, that you can approach it from any direction – digital revolutions, friendship, ambition, Ivy League privilege – and come out the other side with a brand new set of questions.

Set at a Harvard that’s ominously drenched in muted green, the film makes the school out to be a hotbed of amoral genius, romantic in its intensity and dangerous to those around it, with Mark as its epicenter. Through Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed script, the characters speak either in high-speed banter (a game at which Mark invariably wins) or snappy, declarative soundbites. Fincher directs with Kubrickian iciness, and in Mark he finds his HAL. Eisenberg plays him as a borderline autistic “asshole,” a programming juggernaut who reveals the occasional human emotion as he systematically edges out any potential competition: the Winklevii (Armie Hammer as twin brothers) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella); his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield); and eventually his accidental mentor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), culminating in a sit-and-think scene right out of The Godfather Part II.

Besides Eisenberg and Garfield, my other favorite part of The Social Network was Rooney Mara as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Erica; her lisping outrage at his presumptions introduced some humanity to a movie that sorely needed it. My least favorite part was the curt dismissal of Eduardo’s clingy Asian girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who was written to accommodate every conceivable stereotype and then dropped when it suited the screenplay. Now, on to a few other little accolades: I quite enjoyed The Town, especially Jeremy Renner’s performance  as the latter-day Irish equivalent of Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas; Edgar Wright’s totally one-of-a-kind direction of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World outshines any other part of that movie; Emma Stone in Easy A, a relatively disappointing, poorly written movie, quipped and sashayed her way into my heart; Katie Jarvis is unforgettable and trashily human in Fish Tank; and the Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom is engaging, suspenseful, and has a mustachioed Guy Pearce. With that, I move on to my top 5 of the year…

(For what it’s worth, I went with a top 5 instead of 10 because 1) these 5 were, to me, head-and-shoulders above the rest and 2) I haven’t seen enough of the year’s films to really put together a complete, meaningful list. By sheer coincidence, I watched #3 and #1 theatrically back-to-back in July.)

#5: The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski

For me, the defining moment of Polanski’s latest film is when the unnamed title character (Ewan McGregor) tries to smuggle the all-important memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) out of the office by attaching a flash drive to his laptop. As soon as he downloads the file, an alarm goes off and the ghost writer, terrified, runs from the room, assuming that it was triggered by his actions. But it turns out it was just a routine security drill, and the breach goes unnoticed. This scene is the perfect example of how Polanski’s precise direction – often assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s oddly playful score – establishes the darkly comic, paranoid atmosphere that makes The Ghost Writer one of the best films of the year.

A throwback to the classic Polanski of Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976), the film casts a sharp eye on political corruption and the media as its protagonist unravels an international conspiracy involving his employer, the War on Terror, plenty of red herrings, and the CIA – as well as his mysteriously drowned predecessor. Brosnan applies all his post-James Bond charisma and sex appeal to the affable Lang, a historical stand-in for Tony Blair, while Olivia Williams steals the movie as his sharp-tongued, world-weary wife. (Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also stand out in single-scene roles.) Although it may falter in its third act as its roman à clef storyline clashes with its secret agent theatrics, The Ghost Writer picks up just in time for a sucker punch ending, all told in Polanski’s inimitable, cosmopolitan style. Instead of being just another generic conspiracy thriller, it’s incisive, personal, and unexpectedly funny.

#4: Please Give, directed by Nicole Holofcener

Right from its opening credits montage of breasts being examined in a radiology clinic, Please Give distinguishes itself with its comic timing and courageous wit. A well-written, character-driven examination of body image, aging, privilege, and guilt, the film parallels the stories of two Manhattan families linked by the fact that Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) will own the apartment of the other family’s cranky matriarch, Andra (Ann Guilbert), once she dies. Out of the characters’ interactions and individual crises (whether it’s over needing $200 jeans or being disgusted by the large back of an ex-boyfriend’s new love), the story evolves organically, forcing each character to question their preconceptions and lifestyles.

Please Give doesn’t have much of a climax; people’s lives undergo minor changes, but there are no shocking revelations or character arcs. Yet in its own quiet, gradual way, it’s a very probing film filled with very complex characters, from the miserable, compulsively charitable Kate to Andra’s granddaughters, the bitchy, image-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet) and the awkward, selfless Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Bound by no conventions but her own, Holofcener laces the film with moments of uncomfortable but perceptive comedy, acknowledging one harsh truth after another in subtle, intelligent ways: disadvantaged people can be mean, mean people can be right, and good intentions are meaningless. Largely ignored by critics and audiences, Please Give is one of 2010’s hidden delights.

#3: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino

This long-gestating Italian import is both a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s considerable acting talents, and a movable feast for the eyes and ears. Its sweeping storyline is anything but original: Swinton is Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré married to a Milanese industrialist, who falls in love with her son’s best friend, a swarthy chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They discreetly indulge their carnal passions in their spare hours, but when Emma’s devoted son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) begins to suspect the truth, harrowing emotional ramifications lurk around the corner. Interspersed throughout the film are other melodramatic subplots, detailing Emma’s daughter’s sexual self-discovery and the future of the Recchi company.

Dialogue and characterization are relatively insignificant in I Am Love, a film that foregrounds textures and sensory experiences. It’s all about the all-important taste of gourmet food, the thrill of an orgasm, and the visual juxtaposition of Swinton and Gabbriellini’s sweaty bodies with the gorgeous, fertile Italian countryside. Accompanying this sensual mélange, and complemented by the stirring strains of John Adams’ score, are explosions of emotional grandeur, culminating in a frantic, overwhelming crescendo. I Am Love may be all surface, but it’s a lavish, wonderful surface, and the sensitive, daring Swinton gives one of the best performances of the year.

#2: Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A brazen cinematic experiment executed with disturbing effectiveness, Dogtooth is both one-of-a-kind and insidiously compelling. Set at a sunny, idyllic estate in rural Greece, its premise sounds potentially gimmicky: a psychotic father and complicit mother have raised their three teenage children with false knowledge of the outside world, teaching them that “cunt” refers to a large lamp and that children can only leave the house when one of their dogteeth falls out, among other absurd lies. Lanthimos plays the story as both dryly funny and casually violent, brimming with open-ended satirical metaphors and provocative suggestions about family, free will, and private languages.

Deliberately paced but never pretentious, Dogtooth virtually dares viewers to keep up and follow it to its shocking conclusion. The characters regard their horrifying lifestyle with calm sobriety, treating their daily rituals – which range from merely useless to dangerous and even incestuous – with the same attitude we give toward brushing our teeth or washing our hands. With their sick games and perverse logic, the children prove that innocence and good behavior do not always go hand in hand. Dogtooth has its share of graphic, painful, and even unbearable moments (viewer be warned), but it’s also a film of rare insight and audacity, pulling off its transgressive stunts with understated flair. I feel like we’ll be discussing the cryptic, brilliant Dogtooth a long time from now.

#1: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

This year contained so many powerful cinematic experiences: the lunatic bravado of Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Greta Gerwig’s lonely compliance in Greenberg; and Michael Fassbender’s seething sleaziness in Fish Tank, just to name three more. But above and beyond everything, I was enthralled by the bitter duo of Jennifer Lawrence as self-reliant teenager Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as her hair-trigger uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. It’s a tense, sometimes terrifying film that still has room to breathe; it’s a drama of shared blood and backwoods codes of honor. Ree, who cares for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother, has to track down her absentee father, an inveterate meth dealer, or lose her house – but in order to do so, she has to ask questions of people who just don’t want to be asked.

Even though Winter’s Bone takes place in Missouri mountain country as brutal and unforgiving as its title, even though its protagonist dwells amidst destitution and drug addiction, the film has an underlying humanity and a sense of Ozark heritage. It’s strange to say that I love a movie this superficially cold and forbidding, but I’m so drawn to Ree, the unbreakable survivor, to the disturbing, lived-in realism of her junk-filled surroundings, and to the inscrutable, intimidating secrets of her kinfolk. Winter’s Bone has scenes that are now blazed into my brain: the teeth-clenching “Is this gonna be our time?” showdown, and the grotesque, late-night climax that puts Ree’s mettle to the test. But it also has moments of laconic warmth, as when the injured Ree cuddles with her little sister. All year long, no movie touched me quite like Winter’s Bone. For that, I thank Debra Granik.

[By way of disclaimer, here’s some important 2010 movies I have yet to see: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Carlos, Another Year, Black Swan, 127 Hours, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole.]

So, dear reader, what were your favorites this year? What gave you the kind of revelatory thrills that Winter’s Bone gave me? Comment below!

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Great new movies: Ozark poverty and Italian opulence

Two Saturdays ago, I went with Rebekah of Happy Postmodernists to our local arthouse theater. We saw two movies, both fantastic, and you should go see both of them as soon as you can. The first was Winter’s Bone, the second film from director Debra Granik. It’s a disturbingly realist mystery set amidst the backwoods of Missouri, where 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must find her meth-dealing father or risk losing the house where she cares for her two younger siblings and catatonic mom. This material could have made for a sappy melodrama, or maybe a pedestrian thriller set in Deliverance country. Instead, it’s a starkly observational masterpiece, ably meshing the perilous investigation and moral uncertainties of a film noir like The Third Man with the everyday drama of raising children and surviving without a reliable income.

The style of Winter’s Bone is just extraordinary: it’s moody without being overwrought and suspenseful without being manipulative. Through Granik’s lens, rural Missouri is a dreary, desolate place, but always totally believable. And while many of the characters may be addicts or pathetic rednecks, they’re always discernibly human; especially memorable are Ree’s loose-cannon uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and Merab (Dale Dickey), the grimy matriarch who obstructs her search. Although they may live in barely habitable shacks, snort coke, and speak with molasses-thick drawls, the country dwellers of Winter’s Bone retain a past and a sense of belonging. In one particularly poignant scene, Ree and her siblings page through an old photo album and see Teardrop and their father as children. It’s details like this that root the film deep within the Dolly family, whose blood is shared by many of Ree’s potential enemies.

At heart, Winter’s Bone is a movie about a place, a people, and most of all a girl burdened by her diseased lineage and bravely facing a painful future. With its teenage detective, Winter’s Bone will probably earn comparisons to Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir Brick. But as Rebekah and I concluded, Brick‘s delicious novelty and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan performance are totally blown away by the laconic but unrelenting power that Jennifer Lawrence brings to Ree. Winter’s Bone is as sharp and harrowing as its title, and in its best moments, its story acquires a semi-mythical quality, as if Ree and Teardrop were characters from forgotten folklore buried deep in America’s heartland. I hope to write more about Winter’s Bone later (and see it again!), but in the meantime, take my advice: it was very, very worth the $9.

The second half of our double feature was, in terms of style and content, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Winter’s Bone. While Ree & co. were so destitute that the idea of a sex life was out of the question, the Recchis in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love take sensuality and eroticism as givens. The film is a luscious, sweeping melodrama about a dynasty of Milanese industrialists led by the sturdy Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his wife Emma (Tilda Swinton, who also co-produced), a Russian émigré. But as corporate dynamics start to shift – Tancredi’s father retires and the son Edoardo steps up to help manage the company – so do the family’s emotional balances, and soon Emma flings herself into an explosive liaison with Edoardo’s best friend, a skilled chef named Antonio.

However, any given plot development in I Am Love is less important than the fleeting emotions and sensory experiences that set it in motion. No pleasure is too small for I Am Love to express cinematically, and taste and touch are given just as much emphasis as sight. Emma’s first real awakening comes when she bites into Antonio’s exquisitely prepared prawn, and the world literally darkens around her as she feels it against her tongue. Later, her orgasm receives just as much attention, as it’s accompanied by shots of the surrounding countryside, a swell of John Adams’ minimalist score, and a cut to the London skyline. The ecstasies of food and sex are manifested through the most lavish visual and musical analogues possible, and it’s to the movie’s credit. Fuck the misguided 3D that’s plagued theaters (and ticket prices) this summer; I Am Love‘s resiliently traditional photography really does pop off the screen.

The broad, magnificent brush strokes that fill I Am Love‘s canvas leave little room for interpersonal intricacies, which is a shame; Rebekah and I were both disappointed that the movie didn’t delve further into the relationship between Emma and Edoardo (and the significance of the ukha, an emotionally fraught, translucent Russian soup). But the film, unsurprisingly, does an enormous amount with body language, conveying enough for a whole conversation with a single motion of Tilda Swinton’s hand. Turning individual sensations into panoramic landscapes, I Am Love is a triumph of expansive artistry that’s even more enthralling on the big screen.

So if you’re in the mood for a great movie experience, don’t settle for whatever bullshit’s just been released (and besides, I Am Love has more to say about eating, praying, and loving than a million Julia Roberts movies). Instead, run to your nearest theater that’s willing to show subtitled films, and watch either Winter’s Bone or I Am Love! One’s a chilling, brutal document of poor midwestern life; the other’s overflowing with fine Italian food and Tilda Swinton’s nipples. Both unquestionably have my seal of approval, and are movies by and about fascinating, well-written women. Take your pick.

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Inception: Dreamscapes and Mind Games

Earlier this week, whilst participating in Things That Don’t Suck‘s Christopher Nolan blogothon, I described Inception as my most-anticipated wide-release movie of the summer. Well, last night I caught a midnight screening, and was enthralled: it lived up to all the expectations, the hype, and the mystifying trailers. This is only a tentative review, because the film hasn’t had any time to settle in my brain yet, but I think I can guarantee that we’ll be talking about Inception for a long time. It follows all of Christopher Nolan’s pre-established authorial tendencies, but adds in a few new tricks and twists to delight the senses and boggle the mind. It’s sort of a Borgesian action movie, with a dash of neo-noir and M.C. Escher. If that doesn’t convince you to buy a ticket, nothing will. Now, on to the movie itself…

The plot of Inception is relatively simple, as it follows the formula of every heist film from The Asphalt Jungle to Bob le Flambeur to the present day. A crook with a checkered past (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) finds out about a risky plan with a huge pay-off, he assembles a team of specialists, they concoct strategies for every outcome, and they do the job, which here constitutes the majority of the film. But, as always, complications arise, and soon our team is in for the fight of their lives (or, rather, their minds). While the plot may be simple enough, it’s grounded in the complex techniques of shared dreaming, which is thankfully explained to us with the neophyte Ariadne (Ellen Page) as our stand-in. You can enter someone’s dream and alter it, you see, but not too much or else their subconscious projections will attack you. If you die in a dream, you wake up, except not always. If you think this is confusing, just wait till you enter a dream within a dream (within a dream, ad infinitum).

Nolan has tons of fun with these dreams and the nonlinear narrative techniques they allow. This isn’t just the same old chronological rearrangement as we saw in Memento, though; much of the film actually unfolds in parallel stories with different timescales. Between the hazy laws of dreaming and this layered storyline, it’s easy to get lost in Nolan’s maze, as I did once or twice. But it’s just as easy to retrace your steps and get back on track because he’s left a path for you to follow: the emotional arcs of Cobb and his team’s would-be victim, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The former is dealing with the loss of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); the other with the loss of his ornery father. In dreams, however, checkered past can become physical reality, and both characters must do some quick soul-searching – Fischer especially, since the team’s success depends on his emotional state.

Many films have taken place partially or entirely inside dreams. (See this recent Inventory for more.) Nolan one-ups just about all of them by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story. I have only a few gripes with the film, like the way the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script, preventing Page or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays Cobb’s right-hand man) from shining as brightly as they have in other films. At some moments, the characters feel reduced to accessories of the plot, a failing Nolan is prone to. The resolution is also abrupt, slightly suspect, and predictable, but it’s a minor complaint given all the giddily warped physics and three-tiered climaxes that preceded it. Finally, you will be confused; for my part, I enjoyed it. That sense of disorientation is just part of experiencing a Christopher Nolan movie, and this one is easily among his best.

[END OF NORMAL REVIEW. SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Now that I’ve given a broad overview of Inception and why I recommend it, I want to get a little more analytical, which means giving away crucial plot details. As in Memento, Nolan embedded the end of the film in the beginning, though time this around, it wasn’t required by the overall structure. Yet Cobb washing up on the shore of Saito’s decades-long limbo doesn’t feel forced or tacked on. It blends easily into the real beginning, the two-layer dream interrupted by Mal. Nolan is playing on a very deep level with how we react to plot structure. Rather than thrilling us with just what’s on the screen, he engages us with the order he puts it in. So part of Inception‘s fun, as with Memento or any similarly puzzling story, is the cognitive experience of being demystified. And this synchs up with the film’s reality/illusion dichotomy, as we must use all the onscreen evidence to establish causality, chronology, and objective truth (if there is any).

With Inception, then, Nolan is really coming into his own. He’s refining his techniques and obsessions while taking them in more extreme directions. Mal, for example, is both of Nolan’s female character types (femme fatale and lost love) rolled into one, with both those functions tied together.1 Relevantly, the flashbacks of Mal’s story reminded me of a comparable film from earlier this year, Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Both films are strongly concerned with the noir theme of destabilized masculine subjectivity, and in both films, DiCaprio has a crazy wife seen only in flashback. Teddy’s wife in Shutter Island, however, never gets a crisis as compelling as Mal’s existential doubts, and the terms of the conflict are far more consistent in Inception. Cobb’s final confession to Mal – “I can’t imagine you with all your complexity…” – also rebukes any notion of the masculine gaze capably encompassing femininity.

Setting aside Cobb’s internal struggles, I’d like to touch on the film’s broader atmosphere. Nolan has a knack for making open spaces feel hermetically sealed. In Memento, Leonard could drive and drive, but he never escaped that city. In Inception, Cobb can fly and fly, but he’s trapped unless he can get back to America and his children. The characters’ jet-setting, like their costumes, is really a throwback to both film noir2 and to the glamorous, intercontinental heist movies of the 1960s, as well as the James Bond franchise. In its monochrome, streamlined décor and its genre trappings, Inception is something of a self-conscious pastiche infused with a totally fresh premise and nested structure. This is compounded by the fact that Cobb’s métier is corporate espionage: the conflicts between Saito, Cobol Engineering, and the Fischers act as a grandiose but hollow frame for the real, substantive story of concealed traumas.

Maybe Inception‘s greatest victory is how well everything hangs together, how it lays out its ideas and plausibly keeps them straight, even if the audience can’t. The team’s subtle strategy for manipulating Fischer determines the progress of the dream layers, convincingly translating the psychoanalytical into the physical. And I’d take the slow-motion sequences of Dileep Rao’s crash into the water, and the consequent shifting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s balance in the hotel, against anything The Matrix had to offer. Although comparisons are inescapable and it was probably a significant influence, The Matrix was so burdened by its pretentious, Joseph Campbell-inspired sci-fi mythos that it pales next to Inception, which is cleaner and straighter to the point. It’ll no doubt be the best American movie of the summer, since Nolan has replicated the masterstroke he pulled off with The Dark Knight: making an action movie that’s at once engrossing on a superficial level, but also genuinely cerebral. Now let’s see what he cooks up for the summer of 2012.

1Mercifully, Page’s Ariadne represents a departure from that schematic, as she’s a caring, perceptive woman who’s also good at what she does. Have I mentioned that I love Ellen Page?

2When Cobb mentions Buenos Aires early on, all I could think of was Gilda.

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Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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Memento remembered

A couple nights ago, I watched the movie Memento (2000) for the second time, as part of my “Personal Identity” class, and it dawned on me that I didn’t fully appreciate its merits the first time around. So even though the film’s been talked about to death, I’m going to add my own two cents. I first saw Memento my freshman year and mentally lumped it in with The Usual Suspects as structurally clever but superficial, and therefore overrated. My opinion of The Usual Suspects hasn’t changed (really, aside from some Spacey and Gabriel Byrne, where’s the appeal?), but I want to reconsider Memento. At the time, I felt that the narrative acrobatics may have occupied the mind while viewing and trying to put together the pieces, but once you had them together, the final product was hardly profound. I sided with Roger Ebert’s ambivalent review:

Nolan’s device of telling his story backward, or sort of backward, is simply that–a device. It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. He still operates in chronological time, and does not know he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time is for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition.

I still haven’t decided for myself quite what I think of the reverse chronology; it’s clear that it puts us in a state of awareness similar to that of clueless anti-hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). But does the movie necessarily have to be backward? For now, I’ll just say that I can’t think of a more effective way to cinematically convey the tabula rasa state in which Leonard enters each new scene. (Damn: it occurs to me that if I were really clever, I’d be writing this post backward.) But setting aside the question of whether the film’s structure is necessary, I’ll move on to what I really wanted to talk about…

Now, where was I?

I really love several elements of Memento. I believe a great film should be more than a puzzle – and it is more than that – but at the same time, it must be one of the great “puzzle movies” of all time. Having devoured countless Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, I appreciate the appeal of a good whodunit, or a whodunwhat, or whatever word you’d use to describe the investigation at the heart of Memento. (Maybe a whatidun?) A basic reason for its consistent popularity has to be the pure giddiness of trying to solve the mystery along with Leonard, trying to use your own short-term memory to make up for his shortcomings. And writer-director Christopher Nolan is so careful about which clues he dispenses, and when – a note here, a tattoo or polaroid there, visible in the margins of the screen.

But it’s really not just a puzzle; it’s a revenge saga, akin to Oldboy (2003) – compare Oh Dae-su’s plight with Leonard’s cry of “I want my fucking life back!” It’s also a brilliant example of neo-noir, quietly invoking numerous recognizable noir tropes. “I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco,” insists Leonard every time Teddy (smarmy bastard Joe Pantoliano) casts doubts about his identity. The line almost feels plucked from the screenplay of, say, DOA (1950). And Leonard’s a former insurance investigator, too, like the protagonists of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Killers (1946). Like any good noir, it’s got a convoluted narrative and a murder to solve. Only this time, it’s uncertain when the murder was committed, whether it’s been avenged, or who’s trying to obstruct the investigation.

This is one of the beauties of Memento: you never know who or what to trust. While the pervasive dishonesty of The Usual Suspects led me to wonder, “OK, then, what’s the point?”, Memento goes places with its confusion. The whole film, after all, is about the fallibility of a basic human resource – memory. “Memories can be distorted,” says Leonard to femme fatale Natalie (the beautiful Carrie-Anne Moss, in the best role she’ll ever have). “They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Everyone’s been forced to face the imperfection of memory sometime or other (consider the deliberations of 12 Angry Men); Leonard just deals with it to a greater degree.

But this uncertainty doesn’t just operate on the level of Leonard’s memory, or the viewer’s perception of the plot. It informs the very world the characters are living in. Memento‘s world is one without absolute authorities and without objective truth. Never in the film is the viewer exposed to a media outlet – no TV or radio, let alone Internet. No news, nobody who can clear up the hydra-headed mysteries. The city in which the film takes place is as insular and claustrophobic as Leonard’s motel room during the black and white sequences. And what’s the city called, anyway? Teddy repeatedly suggests that Leonard leave town, but where would he go?

I’m reminded of two 1998 films, both of which involve confused men investigating the constructed worlds they live in: The Truman Show and Dark City. (Though the storyline is older than both films, having been used occasionally in The Twilight Zone.) The generic, probably Californian city of Memento is never shown to be artificial, and I don’t think it is, but I think Leonard’s condition is exacerbated by lack of contact with the outside world, and this leaves him especially susceptible to Teddy and Natalie’s games.

Even within all the film’s structures and modes, it’s essentially a three-person drama. Each of them wants something from the other two. Leonard is the most transparent, or so it seems, as he’s just using them to get to the truth. (Or is he – ? Look at the poster again: an infinite amount of past Leonards, with all their lies and ulterior motives, are hidden around corners in the film’s temporal reality.) Natalie “has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity,” according to Leonard’s polaroid. “I think I’m gonna use you,” says Natalie to his face. This is what’s great about the film. Leonard’s facts aren’t worth the plastic they’re printed on, and his notes are about as ephemeral and useless as his memories. Nihilistic? Probably, yes. But so well-stated, as if the film were a giant thematic Möbius strip.

And Teddy. What motivates him? I think he’s probably manipulating Leonard to get money out of local drug dealers. “Don’t trust his lies,” says the polaroid. Teddy is a hell of a liar, and even as he sounds off at the end/beginning, telling Leonard all the unpleasant “truths” he’d rather not here, you can’t possibly be sure. I don’t think his words are completely true – I mean, really, he had Leonard kill Jimmy just so he could see a look of happiness on Leonard’s face? Yet there’s probably a grain of truth concealed in them somewhere. In this way, Memento is like a less beautiful but more elaborate variation on Rashomon. You can never really establish the entire truth, but you try, you can get close enough to realize how futile it is.

Memento‘s certainly not without its flaws. After all, when most of a film’s reputation stems from its zigzag structure, it’s especially prone to plot holes. I’m still confused as to why Natalie, after seeing Leonard in Jimmy’s car and wearing his clothes, only did a brief double-take. Did she realize that Jimmy was dead, and decide to sink her claws into Leonard then and there? Apparently she’d already heard about his memory condition, as the dialogue in the bar reveals. This is just a minor quibble, but similar logical gaps are easy to find if you look for them. I don’t they ruin the experience, but they can distract you from the film’s real accomplishments.

I also think it’s not worth dwelling too much on the reverse chronology. I still think Ebert makes a good point, as when he compares Memento to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play about the unraveling of a relationship told backward, where the structure has a profound emotional impact. In Memento, the tragedy isn’t built up so much by experiencing the events backward, but by Leonard’s inability to put everything together, and the reverse chronology works, at least, to keep us similarly off-balance. The irony is that while Leonard forgets his own lies, we’re forced to remember it all, even as the satisfaction he receives from one act of vengeance invalidates another.

At present, the only other film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan has been his massive 2008 hit, and perhaps masterpiece, The Dark Knight. The same renovations to neo-noir imagery and character types that made Memento so fresh and different were applied to the most noirish, anti-heroic member of the superhero pantheon, and with terrific results. As both films show, Nolan knows how to make entertaining pop cinema, but he’s not afraid to work in darker, more complex ideas. (For extra auteur fun, compare Teddy and the Joker as chaotic, eternally smiling trickster gods.) His next film, Inception, is due out this summer, and it looks like he’s up to more of his old (which is to say, new) tricks. You can bet I’ll be seeing it as soon as I can. (Besides, it’s got supporting parts for Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy – i.e., an attractiveness overload.)

So ultimately, I grant that Memento does deserve repeated viewings. Not, as so many Internet commenters have said, because it’s impossible to understand after just one. I understood the plot just fine the first time. (With Primer, though, it’s a different story…) Instead, the second viewing paid off because in seeing the finer details of the performances and mise-en-scène, I was engaged by the doubts and dilemmas that underlie the entire film, and connect them with the moral ambiguities of film noir, whose codes Nolan uses as touchstones. Memento isn’t the deepest or most thoughtful cinematic inquiry into memory (for that, see the work of Alain Resnais, please), but it’s an unusual, fun film with unusually dark undercurrents.

[The following discussion of Memento contains many spoilers. Be warned. Yes, that’s my stab at a reverse chronology joke.]

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