Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inception: The Movies in Your Mind (Part 1 of 2)

Note: I try to avoid major spoilers in the following piece, but a movie like Inception relies on the little pieces to make up the big picture, so almost any information is a spoiler. 

Early in my viewing of Christopher Nolan's Inception, I wondered if it was a follow-up or high-tech remake of Nolan's debut film, Following. Beyond the confluence of two characters, both thieves, sharing a name (Cobb), there's also the idea of a voyeuristic practice (following random people / invading dreams) that has a number of rules that eventually get broken. Except it quickly became apparent that the voyeurism angle wasn't as much Nolan's concern anymore. Certainly, there's the sequence where Ariadne (Ellen Page) peeks in on Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he dreams of his past regrets, but it's an exception to the rule. For the most part, dreams in the film aren't the nest of uncontrolled memory and emotion, but conscious constructs formed by someone other than the dreamer, set to pull a specific response from the target. In Inception, dreams are movies.

In case you haven't seen the movie or aren't aware of the basic premise, Cobb works as an extractor. Supported by a team of fellow thieves, he performs corporate espionage by entering the dreams of his targets (CEOs and the like) to retrieve sensitive information. One failed mission turns up an unexpected benefit -- his intended mark offers him a job to plant an idea in the mind of a rival. Inception is nearly impossible, but Cobb accepts anyway, bringing Ariadne into the fold to design the multiple levels of dream needed to bring this job off.

Within the world of the film, dreams are created using the same system as movies (Cobb as director, Ariadne as writer, and various other members of the team working as actors, production managers, technicians, and moneymen). As in the movies, the most common dreams are the ones used to extract something from the audience/mark (emotion/information). More difficult are the dreams that inspire and create ideas.

Furthering the films-as-dream metaphor, each of the levels in the main dream resembles an action movie in its own right. First, there's a kidnapping caper, then a "who-can-you-trust" corporate thriller (that later turns rather Matrix-y), and finally a James Bond spy romp (complete with unusual modes of travel and guarded fortresses).

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) explore
the world of dreams in Christopher Nolan's Inception

However, there's one quote that really encompasses my whole argument:

"You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious." -- Cobb to Ariadne on being a dream architect.

This has so many different layers of meaning when considering it in the context of film.

First, of course, there's the purely physical reality of film, which is nothing more than a series of still images that, when played back at a certain speed, cause our brains to fill the gaps, creating the illusion of movement.

Second, there's the normal act of viewing anything. We naturally fill in what we cannot see. A close-up does not eradicate the rest of the actor. Similarly any other characters in the scene are still "there," even if they aren't visually apparent. Rooms have four walls even if we can only see three, and they definitely have ceilings.

Third, there's the artistic language of cinematography and editing that's been in development for the past 115 years. A low-angle shot of a character indicates power, a high-angle shot indicates worthlessness. A roving, bobbing camera probably puts us in a character's POV (an assumption that Friday the 13th exploited to create suspense). Cutting between two shots creates an association between them, chronologically or thematically or emotionally.

Fourth (and somewhat related to the second), the world of any given film, like the dreams in Inception, is naturally incomplete. Even if there was a movie that followed its protagonist every single second of the day in real-time from birth until death, we still wouldn't know details like what smells surround this person, what happens to the people in his or her life after they leave the frame, or what thoughts are running through his or her head. Filmmakers do their best to represent those details that are pertinent to the story or the characters, but they are limited by the format, especially the commercially-imposed average runtime of two hours. So, as an engaged audience, we fill in the details from our own experience, our own subconscious. Office buildings smell like this, a person in this situation would be thinking that, etc. Sometimes filmmakers invite us to engage on a more conscious level, like when Quentin Tarantino never shows us what's in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Nolan makes his own invitation with the very last shot of Inception.

Leaving that aside, though, we create our own stories. We debate character motivations and discuss sequel possibilities. We read relationships between characters that aren't explicitly stated. We write fanfiction to extend the story or to bring it more in line with our understanding of the world or to simply make it something we want it to be at the moment. Even if we never talk about it, though, on some level we all put part of ourselves into the movies we watch. It probably goes without saying that the more a film gives in terms of quality and craftsmanship, the more likely we are to become involved. That's just the nature of art.

Tune in later this week (after I see the movie again, probably) as I look at Inception's scarier areas of dreaming/cinema. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here--this is the war room!"

It is rare to find a director with as awe-inspiring a body of work as Stanley Kubrick. Certainly, part of his highly successful "batting average" is due to the relatively small number of films he made--but much more so, it's due to his sheer genius, and the rare manner in which he voraciously and uncompromisingly brought his visions to life on the screen. There are a few Kubrick pictures which will be popping up during this series of 52 Perfect Movies--the first of them is his sublime political and social satire, Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick would become known as a film-maker of gravity and intense seriousness, and yet here we have him delving into comedy, albeit comedy as black as coal, much like his previous effort of two years earlier, an adaptation of Nabakov's Lolita. And so we are left with a comedy as only the mind of Kubrick could've given us, wickedly funny, yet unrelentingly bleak; a "message film" concerned deeply with the fate of the world itself, yet also with the foibles of human nature, that manages to remain the complete opposite of preachy or self-righteous.

There really is no other film like Dr. Strangelove. Impossible to completely categorize, it is at times an all-out comedy--or more appropriately, a satire--which for much of the picture, doesn't "feel" like a comedy. With the exception of the appearance of the good doctor himself at the end--an example of Peter Sellers' brilliant physical comedy--much of the humor is slyly cloaked, and can even partly go over the head of some, shall we say, less astute filmgoers.

There's also the fact that it doesn't look like a comedy. Like most of Kubrick's work, it's heavy and ponderous looking, shot with stark shadows and sterile, almost dehumanizing production design. No one since Orson Welles knew how to use a camera as brilliantly to his advantage as Kubrick did, although in this particular case much of the credit goes to cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, the Englishman who would later work on such masterfully shot films as A Hard Day's Night, Repulsion, The Omen, and a little 1977 popcorn flick known as Star Wars.

In a lot of ways, Dr. Strangelove shows Kubrick really coming into what would be perceived as his "later" phase, in which his films are concerned with nothing so much as the alienation of the human soul, and the slow-burning anxiety of a seemingly perfectly balanced situation sent hopelessly and inevitably off-kilter. This was during the heart of the Cold War, when, despite how things turned out, many did earnestly believe that the world lay constantly on the brink of annihilation, and perhaps this was so. There's a real concern with this matter in Dr. Strangelove, underneath all that ludicrousness. As wry as the presentation is, and as bone dry the comedy is, the heart of this picture is quite serious.

Kubrick's flair for unforgettable imagery and jarring juxtaposition is here in full force. The sexualized mid-air refueling scene that opens the film, accompanied by romantic strings. The maniacal visage of Sterling Haydn's Gen. Jack Ripper, phallic cigar clenched in his teeth. Slim Pickens' iconic ride on the nuclear warhead. The closing moments of atomic Armageddon, set sardonically to the strains of the traditional wartime anthem "We'll Meet Again" by Vera Lynn. No one will ever meet again, because the world is coming to an end--that closing tune mocks the manner in which the Western world clung to outdated concepts of warfare in a time when those rules no longer applied.

And yet just as much as Dr. Strangelove is a triumph from a technical point of view, it is one of those films that is also just as much of a triumph thanks to the stellar performances of its lead actors. George C. Scott is a revelation as the war-mongering Gen. Buck Turgidson (one of the greatest character names in movie history), a role that put the gruff actor's abilities to exquisite use. Haydn takes us to the depths of madness while at the same time never undermining the ridiculousness of the proceedings, painting the portrait of a deranged, potentially genocidal lunatic who would wipe out civilization to quell the paranoia and doubt raised by his impotence as a man and as a leader.

Then of course, we have Peter Sellers. One of the greatest comic geniuses of the 20th century in what may be, when all is said and done, the most impressive cinematic turn of his career. He was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for playing three different roles, giving him the interesting distinction of being the only actor so nominated for a movie in which he played more than one character.

As Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, Sellers sends up British propriety and comments on the strained behind-the-scenes alliance of the U.S. and the U.K. in the face of a common enemy. As President Merkin Muffley, he is the epitome of the stifled, emotionally deadened American, a man whose ineptitude becomes both situation comedy and horrifying cultural commentary. And finally, as Strangelove himself, Sellers unabashedly displays his comedy chops as a crippled ex-Nazi desperately fighting to suppress his sheer ecstasy as the world collapses into chaos.

Any one of these parts would have made him the highlight of the picture. With all three, the movie is utterly and wholly his, and it's easy to see why he was a Kubrick favorite. It doesn't make sense somehow that Kubrick and Sellers would be such a perfect match, but it's undeniable that they were.

The razor sharp wit of Dr. Strangelove is rooted in a specific time and place in American history, and yet it's still paradoxically timeless as well. There are moments that resonate just as profoundly as they did 45 years ago, such as Turgidson's outrageous and often-mimicked tirade in the war room, Ripper's deluded rant to a terrified and helpless Mandrake about "precious bodily fluids", or Merkin's panicked, creepily childish yet at the same hilarious phone call to the Soviet premier.

Dr. Strangelove is a bold statement that cinema was changing and that the things film-makers could say--and the ways in which they could say them--was changing as well. To watch it is to watch a true visionary coming into his own, and proving that sometimes there actually can be something new under the sun. There are few experiences for a moviegoer as unique as this film, a complex, dark and endlessly amusing statement on the insanity of the world and its inhabitants that seems to tell us, "If you can't laugh at all of it, what else can you do?"

NEXT UP: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Great Unwatched: Bava, Argento, Cronenberg

There are two goals to my Great Unwatched project. The first is to see some films that I might not otherwise give the time of day to. The second is to finally experience movies I should've watched a long, long time ago. This weekend, I focused especially on the latter goal, filling in gaps in the filmographies of three of my favorite horror directors: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg. I even made a special effort to watch some of their non-horror offerings mixed in with the usual fright flicks.

Film 1: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961, Mario Bava)
Bava's second (credited) turn as director is a fascinating tale of swords 'n' sandals with a bit of Christopher Lee thrown into the mix. Hercules (Reg Park) journeys to Hades to retrieve a mystical stone that will save the life of his lady love, Princess Deianira. What our musclebound hero doesn't know is that his girlfriend's wicked uncle (Lee) is machinating to use Deianira's blood in a ritual to make him immortal. Hercules in the Haunted World was Bava's first opportunity to show what he could do with color and he really wows. The scenes of hell in particular show his visual mastery. Reportedly Bava used a few movable walls and a handful of columns to form every interior set in this film, resorting to visual trickery when he needed it to look like he had more. He creates an expressionistic peplum film, which works best when taken as a visual feast hung on a loose plot.

Film 2: Erik the Conqueror (1961, Mario Bava) 
An unofficial remake of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (1958), Erik the Conqueror (also known as The Invaders) tells the tale of two Viking brothers, separated as children when their village on the coast of England is pillaged by the vicious Sir Rutford (Andrea Checci). Eron (Cameron Mitchell) is raised by his Nordic brethren. Erik (George Ardisson) is adopted by the Queen Alice of Scotland (or Britain, depending on whether you're watching the movie dubbed or subtitled) and grows up to become the Duke of Helford.

What struck me about Erik the Conqueror was the care taken that neither Viking or English were portrayed as villainous or unsympathetic. Both sides are caught in the cycle of violence known as history, occasionally manipulated by Sir Rutford to achieve his own ends. Certainly the Vikings are portrayed as more brutish and violently-inclined, but they're also largely honorable, honest people. The English are more cultured, but they are given to subterfuge and, in the case of Sir Rutford, outright treachery. 

The best sequences, visually, take place in the Viking's headquarters, a large cave where Bava's colored gels run wild. The centerpiece of the set is the giant gnarled tree from Hercules in the Haunted World, which looks magnificent in this new context.

Overall, however, the film isn't that interesting, unless you're really into vikings.

Film 3: Fast Company (1979, David Cronenberg)
It's certainly possible to read a lot of Cronenberg's prevalent themes into Fast Company, most notably the intersection of man and technology and the betrayals of corporate America. However, I think it misses the point to a certain extent. This is Cronenberg working in established drive-in fodder territory for the first and only time in his career. He sticks pretty cleanly to the rules by providing a story with clear heroes and villains, plus the requisite amounts of sex and action. William Smith plays Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson, a race car driver in his twilight, doing the drag race circuit under the sponsorship of FastCo Oil. When FastCo betrays him (through their corporate liaison Phil Adamson, played by John Saxon), he strikes out on his own. Adamson uses every trick in his book to make sure Lonnie's cars never reach the finish line. Fast Company is slow-moving (ironically) and takes forever to get around to its central conflict. Cronenberg really only breaks out of the mold during a surprisingly brutal climax that kills off two characters and seriously injures a third.

Film 4: Inferno (1980, Dario Argento)
I still don't know what I feel about this one. Certainly it's the most beautiful Argento film I've ever seen. However, the plot is a huge wad of happenstance, with very little rhyme or reason. In some places it seems to want to emulate the structure of its predecessor, Suspiria, but it lacks a character like Susie Banyon for us to relate to. I'll admit that I was already starting to get a little burned out at this point in my marathon, so I might not have given Inferno the due it deserves. Next time I watch, I'll do it properly -- well-rested, with all the lights out, and the soundtrack up loud. Until then, I can't really give a strong opinion one way or the other.

As a bonus to my general theme, however, Mario Bava did some uncredited effects work for the New York segments of the film.

Film 5: Rabid (1977, David Cronenberg)
Rabid is much more in line with Cronenberg's general oeuvre. Marilyn Chambers emerges from experimental surgery with a retractable phallus in her armpit and a craving for blood. Those who she feeds from become blood-crazed zombies. Cronenberg expands on the themes he first posited in Shivers, with disease as a catalyst for societal breakdown. Moving outside the confines of a single apartment building into the city of Montreal, Cronenberg is able to analyze government and public responses to an outbreak of irrationality. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, Chambers is just trying to survive, oblivious to the effect her feeding has on her victims (and her victims' victims). Unfortunately, Cronenberg never manages to blend the external outbreak narrative with the internal vampire one, so the film gets narratively and thematically confused at times. Cronenberg would do better in later films by keeping his focus on a single character navigating through the chaos, as in Videodrome.

Film 6: Phenomena (1985, Dario Argento)
Not a lot to say about this one, except that it was the last film of the night and it didn't do much to grab hold of my already shaky attention. As a sidenote, at some point I may write an article tracking Argento's treatment of Daria Nicolodi's characters throughout their collaborations, as it does seem he gets more brutal with her after they broke off their romantic relationship.

My original plan, incidentally, had been to watch Four Flies on Grey Velvet, but my bootleg (purchased before Mya Communication announced their official DVD) was nearly unwatchable. Very disappointing.

52 Perfect Movies: Psycho (1960)

"We all go a little mad sometimes..."

Where does one begin in talking about Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, one of those watershed motion pictures that can literally be said to have helped change the course of the development of movies as we know them? Here is a film that has been studied, analyzed and digested over the course of decades of scholarly attention and fan obsession, and anything I say to praise its greatness has doubtless already been said many a time. But truly, if there are any titles that a series called "52 Perfect Movies" immediately conjures up, Psycho has to be on the short list. The perfect blending of commerce and art, it represents the greatest heights to which popular entertainment can aspire.

At the time Psycho was made, the Hollywood film industry was at something of a crossroads. The "golden age" of the silver screen was coming to a close. Studios were rapidly losing their power, and the directors (and to a certain degree, the actors), were gaining more creative control. The often draconian hold of the censorious Hays Production Code limiting what film-makers could put on screen, was starting to lose its grip--a process that would continue over the course of the 1960s. It was the perfect time for a film like Psycho to come along.

Psycho wasn't the first of what we'd call "modern thrillers", having been preceded by pictures such as the French triumph Les Diaboliques, but what it did was popularize the concept amongst mainstream American audiences. It was something of a departure for Hitchcock, who, since coming to Hollywood, had become known for sumptuous, full-color "event movies". This time out, he went back to basics, stripping everything down to the bare bones, for a lean, mean, suspense machine of a movie that never stops being endlessly fascinating and never fails to work on every single level, a half century after the initial shock of its famous surprise ending has worn off.

This is the kind of film that the word "timeless" was meant to describe. Literally from the opening shot, we are drawn into this ominous, brooding, somewhat seamy world of adultery, larceny, intrigue and God knows what else. Janet Leigh is perfect as the sultry, flawed and yet charismatic Marion Crane, a main character we come to identify with only to witness brutally murdered not yet halfway into the picture--surely one of the boldest narrative maneuvers ever attempted in American cinema up to that point in time.

Her murderer, although we do not know it at that time, is the deranged Norman Bates, played with boyish charm and naivete by a young Anthony Perkins, whose performance was inexplicably denied the Oscar nomination with which Leigh's was recognized. Nevertheless, he is note-perfect as the stammering, seemingly harmless Bates, caught in the ultimate Oedipal struggle with his off-screen "mother"--it's easy to see how 1960 audiences would've been totally caught off guard upon discovering the true nature of that relationship.

And speaking of that, Psycho was particularly groundbreaking in its relatively frank approach to sexually charged subject matter. Remember, this was still a relatively culturally conservative time in American pop culture (to give you an idea, Psycho is the first American film to depict a flushing toilet bowl), and so Norman's cross-dressing, not to mention Marion's nudity during the shower scene, was pretty heady stuff.

It's that shower scene, naturally, that everyone still talks about to this day when discussing this unquestioned classic. A masterpiece of editing, sound design and photography, many have called it the finest scene ever put to celluloid, and it's tough to argue that. One of the most amazing things about it is that anyone who sees it, especially for the first time, will swear they saw way more skin and blood than they actually did--they may even claim to have seen the knife penetrate Marion's flesh, which we never do. That's powerful film-making.

That scene, and so many others in Psycho, would have lost so much of its impact were it not for what may be the most famous film score of all time, composed by Hitchcock veteran Bernard Herrmann. In an era of sweeping studio orchestral pieces, Herrmann chose to go with a small, all-strings ensemble, a relatively unheard of approach that would later become much more popular thanks to its success in Psycho. Not only the unforgettable staccato sounds of the shower scene cue, but every single cue in the film is burned into the consciousness of film lovers the world over. For my money, only the work of Sergio Leone rivals it in terms of combining such high levels of both originality and pure skill.

Films would be different after Psycho, particularly those films meant to scare, upset or disturb us. No longer would monsters and other supernatural things that go bump in the night be the primary tools of those purveyors of cinematic terror. Rather, Hitchcock proved in his brilliant adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel, that the most fearsome monster of all is the human mind itself, and it could be the one residing in the person living right next door to us. This became the message of modern horror: The monsters are us.

Hitchcock was known for his uncompromising perfectionism, and perhaps nowhere does it come across so powerfully as in Psycho. Making the most of a streamlined production crew assembled from the staff of his TV show, Hitch's fingerprints are on every single one of the great John L. Russell's breathtaking shots, in the almost palpable lighting that reminds us over and over again why this film had to be made in black and white, despite the industry's transitioning to color at the time. Nearly every line of Joseph Stefano's script has become an iconic quote, not just those given to Perkins and Leigh but also to outstanding supporting players like Martin Balsam as the hard-boiled Det. Arbogast, and Vera Miles as Marion's bereaved sister Lila.

Perhaps the finest intersection of art film and pop culture, Psycho has truly stood the test of time, and remains that one movie that film students most relish digging into. This is not some moldy "classic" forced upon younger generations by preachy academics--this is a living, breathing masterpiece, and a joy to experience over and over again.

For more, please check out The Vault of Horror's ongoing series, "Psycho Semi-Centennial"!

NEXT UP: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Non-Movie Things

After the antics that lead to this post, it's been maddeningly difficult to sit down and watch a movie properly, even moreso to write about one coherently. It's a long story, but the end result is that my apartment is in disarray and all of my DVDs and books are boxed up in a haphazard fashion. For a guy used to having his movies organized by year of release, it's a painful situation, but I have ways of dealing.

For one thing, my wife and I have been going through Babylon 5 at a breakneck pace. We started just three weeks ago and we're already a couple of episodes into Season 4. This is epic, epic storytelling. I am shocked at the breadth and depth of it. This is what Lost could have been if they'd really had a plan (so far, the Vorlon vs. Shadows philosophical debate is already more intriguing than Jacob vs. the Man in Black). Don't get me wrong. I love Lost. But I am head-over-heels gaga for Babylon 5. J. Michael Straczynski gives me the kind of characters I can follow mixed with the epic "sweep-of-history" mythos I can't resist. Sure there have been a few individual clunkers here and there (especially in the occasionally dodgy first season), but overall? Masterpiece. So far. I'll let you know if my tune changes once I've finished.

When not plopped in front of the television, I've been consuming Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, usually on my train rides to and from work. I picked it up because I'm a fan of the Hitchcock movie. The book is kind of a ghost story minus ghost, a haunted house story without a haunting. One young wife, uncertain of her place in her new husband's life, finds herself pitted against the memory of his first wife, Rebecca. du Maurier's descriptions of Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca's devoted maid, are particularly striking in their horror imagery and all the more evocative for it.

Anyway, I'll be at Madcap Theaters in Tempe, AZ this Saturday for their 12-hour movie marathon (assuming it goes off -- they still need a few more people to buy tickets in order to make the event cost-effective). I'll let you know how it goes.