The Life Of The Mind

All of this INCEPTION talk has been enlightening and refreshing, and not just in a Facebook status update "that movie blew my mind" sort of way.  I'm still a bit on the fence about it, personally, and though I do have some small problems with it, I tend to fall much more squarely on the side of having liked it.  The story of a dream heist is too good for me to pass up, given my interests in crime dramas and my own concerns with the nature of memories and how they shape our lives and those of other people.  Despite whether or not I like the film or not, the discussion surrounding it justifies its existence on some level, even if you, like many others, find talking about the movie more fun and enlightening than actually watching the film itself.

Of course, as a natural outgrowth of all of this, I've gone back again and again to thinking about dreams and reality and the nature of cinema altogether.  As many blogger, commentators, and others have pointed out, a movie is not entirely unlike a dream, in that you enter a fantasy world, usually via a surrogate's experience, and exist within the imagination of the filmmaker for the time you're watching the movie.  It's a point the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg have made over and over again in their films.  Below is a brief discussion a few of my favorite films concerned with reality, dreams, perception and memory.  (Oddly enough, BARTON FINK doesn't make it in here.  I just liked using that reference as a title.)

TOTAL RECALL (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
Arnold Schwarzenneger plays Quaid, a regular guy who dreams of taking a trip to Mars - where he may or may not have been before.  In order to get there, he opts for an implant in his brain that will give him the memories of his amazing, romantic, spy-themed vacation.  During the course of the procedure, something goes wrong, and he awakens suddenly with very concrete memories of a huge conspiracy that has gone down, and has been covered up by having his brain wiped.  All of the pieces begin to fall into place, and before long, we're transported to Mars for real (maybe), and Quaid begins to lay waste to his enemies as he unravels their dirty deeds one by one and helps the "mutants" of the colony reclaim their humanity and rights.  Adapted fairly loosely from a Phillip K. Dick story, TOTAL RECALL has aged remarkably well, mostly thanks to pulp-auteur Paul Verhoeven, who infused the story with enough stunning visuals and ridiculous adventure (and that camp humor that anchors all of his films) to make the film stay fresh through repeat viewings.  The movie is fairly non-commital as to which parts of it are fantasy and which are reality - the potential is there for several different interpretations - and that's one of its many charms.  The dreams in TOTAL RECALL are also structured pretty literally, if they're dreams at all, and though they're fantastic images, there's nothing really hallucinatory about them as they're all based in some sort of physical reality that is easily interpreted as only being slightly outside the realm of possibility.  In other words, the dreams are normal science-fiction worlds.  Verhoeven is less interested in the perceptions of reality, though, than he is in examining the effects of memory on these perceptions (a common trait among all the best dream films.)

MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, 2001)
In one of the great fractured mind performances ever put on film, Naomi Watts plays Betty / Diane - a mash-up of two personalities, real and imagined - an aspiring actress freshly arrived to Hollywood to live out her dream of becoming a star.  Lynch is not a director to shy away from surreal imagery and unexplainable and disturbing themes.  His films are maybe best described as being the aesthetic kin to fever dreams, most definitely in the cases of ERASERHEAD and LOST HIGHWAY.  To this day I am still freaked out by the oddly creepy homeless man behind the dumpster of Winkies, a typical diner, and the build-up that leads to his reveal.  That sequence begins with a discussion of dreams, and a fear of a particular nightmare becoming reality, in which Dan (played by Patrick Fischler, who is well-known to television fans from his stints on LOST, MAD MEN and dozens of guest spots on other shows) finds a monster behind the dumpster that kills him.  I won't give away what does happen, but there is indeed a monster to be found, and its relevance in the reality of Watts' character later in the film is as puzzling and mystical as it is profound and, in some ways, moving.

The NIGHTMARE films have always had a firm grasp on the wild and weird world of dream and nightmare imagery, even as they had varying degrees of success at making those worlds interesting, fresh and scary for the intended audience.  In NEW NIGHTMARE, original director and series creator Wes Craven returns for the first time in a decade to the characters and the world he forged in the seriously creepy and remarkably dark A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.  Heather Langenkamp returns as herself as Nancy in a story that sees the child-murderer and, at this point, demonic Freddy Krueger attempting to break through from the celluloid world of dreams into the real world by attacking his oldest nemesis Nancy, who is, of course, Heather.  If all of this seems too convoluted to worry about, don't worry, it's not, though describing it to someone could induce headaches in all parties involved.  This is one of the most fun meta-excursions into films about films about dreams and all that jazz.  Robert Englund has some of his best lines as the character, and the 'reality'-based make-up for Krueger is truly frightening.  I wish they had just followed this film up (with Craven behind the scenes) instead of rebooting it into a soul-less, humor-less excursion into boredom and wasting a solid performance by Jackie Earle Haley as the new face of the franchise.

SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
The portion of this film in which Keaton, playing a projectionist in a movie theater, falls asleep while showing a film and dream himself into the movies themselves is inarguably one of the most famous movie sequences ever, silent or sound era.  Never lacking in imagination, Keaton's dream world flashes from the film he is screening to a crowded city street, to the mountain ranges of the West, and then to the African plains as he is surrounded by Lions.  This may be one of the first such instances drawing the parallel between the nature of dreams and the nature of film itself, though it's certainly not the only silent-era film to do so.  There are more amazing evocations of dreams in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, and Carl Th. Dreyer's early sound film VAMPYR, which features proto-Lynchian imagery and disjointed editing techniques to specifically and subtly cause an uneasiness in the viewer.


THE KILLER INSIDE ME's Disquieting Charms

Casey Affleck's portrayal of Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford in Michael Winterbottom's THE KILLER INSIDE ME is probably the single most amazing performance I've seen this year.  It's a total embodiment of a horrible character that's as memorable, disturbing and thought-provoking as Daniel Day-Lewis was in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but more subtle and unassuming.  Lou Ford, much like Robert Ford, is the perfect role for the younger Affleck, and it continues a string of amazing performances in low-key, provocative dramas since his appearance in brother Ben's masterful GONE BABY GONE.  His performance is the center of this film, with all of its menace and traditional noir overtones radiating outward from the essence of the unnameable evil that surely exists in Lou.

The film is without a doubt one of the creepiest and most disturbing movies to come out this year, which is surprising considering the unusually high number of creep-fests unleashed on audiences in the past few months  (SPLICE, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE).  But creepiness aside, I find myself constantly returning to it as a purely unforgettable viewing experience.  I can't shake it - it's under my skin, and it's going to stay there.  Everything about it is pitch-perfect.

Adapted from what is probably the rowdiest novel I've ever read (the passage where Lou describes beating his girlfriend's face as being like hitting a pumpkin is the most graphic thing I may read in my lifetime), Jim Thompson's blacker-than-black noir THE KILLER INSIDE ME, this is a film that, quite literally, pulls no punches on its audience.  From the opening, which is full of gorgeous retro-styled freeze-frames and features the haunting use of Little Willie John's version of "Fever," it's obvious that Winterbottom has crafted an altogether different sort of film than what we're used to seeing for an American audience.

The film has been attacked for its ultraviolent murders (see my previous write-up: "Strange Bedfellows"), which are brutally realistic, but they work to great, sickening effect, but which mostly feature the women Lou Ford ostensibly has feelings for on some level.  Affleck brings a quite menace to these scenes, and his innocent, boyish features may contain the key behind some of the critiques lobbed at the film.  After all, how can someone so nice, even as purposefully nice (and in some moments of pitch-black humor, extremely biting) as Lou is.  In some ways, the "nice guy" persona is played off much like in the television show DEXTER, which also concerns a cold-blooded killer that is intent on keeping people off his tracks, but Lou isn't really likable, so this may not be an entirely apt analogy.

For me, the scene that most singularly makes the film is right as Lou delivers the final blow to Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who is probably the only person Lou actually cares about in the film (though the killer inside him definitely does not).  After punching her repeatedly in the face, at which point bone is visible through her gored and broken skin, he tells her not to worry, "it'll all be over soon," and then he delivers a few more crushing blows as she falls over onto the floor, being beaten to near-death before the arrival of Elmer Conway, his second (and main) target in the planned double-murder that sets the film in motion.  Still, after having her skull pounded like so much flattened steak, it's the fact that, in both book and film, Joyce still has that compassionate, loving look in her eyes.  Only moments beforehand she had been planning to run away with Lou after stealing a load of cash from Elmer's father, but even as her dream is slowly fading from her reality, along with her life, she just can't believe that Lou is doing this to her.  It's an absolutely chilling point to make: no one believes Lou capable of such things, even those he is doing them to.

But back to Affleck, who really makes this scene tick.  He's cold, calculating, and goes about the savage beating in a very methodical way.  Lou's detached from what he's doing at this point, and it's only when he sees Joyce's eyes that he offers solace in the only form he can: assurance that he's going to end the pain soon.  That brief exchange allows Lou to break through the killer, and I think it's probably the only time in the entire film (and the book) that he realizes that he actually does care about this woman on some level.  And then he kills her.  Brutal stuff.  That, in essence, is THE KILLER INSIDE ME:  Haunting, unflinching, and ultimately unforgettable.

It's difficult to say why this film got under my skin.  Maybe it's my deep love for the Noir genre, and for Jim Thompson's creation.  This is by far the best and truest adaptation of his work, even counting Stephen Frears' THE GRIFTERS.  I can't stop thinking about Affleck.  I can't stop thinking of his first, second and third murders (his gut-punch and head-kicking of his respectable girlfriend/fiancee Amy Stanton is just as brutal as that of Joyce).  I can't stop thinking of how he seems just like a nice guy, but with a seriously dark urge that he is helpless against.  I don't mean that the killer part of him is entirely separated from his conscious, just that it makes up the majority of a completely subdued personality that he doesn't let out in public.  Logically, he knows he probably shouldn't kill people - after all, why would you cover it up or care about how you're perceived - but that doesn't stop his own logic that people have to die.  "No one has it coming," he tells the teenage boy in his jail cell right before killing him, "That's why nobody can see it coming."  In the case of Lou Ford, that is 100% correct.


Strange Bedfellows: A Double Feature of the Grotesque

I love when films come along that are deemed immoral or have claims made against them that they glamorize violence and really serve no purpose.  This just reinforces the reasons for these films to exist: to push boundaries, make people uncomfortable with what they're seeing, and to provoke thoughts about what exactly are the roles that violence (in all its forms) play in our day to day lives.  While this may be evident in the discourse a film like THE KILLER INSIDE ME is having with the moral assumptions within every day society, being set in reality, and completely subjective in its point-of-view of a seemingly normal man who does unspeakably horrible things, it is also useful to understand that violence and its role in society has long been the territory of the horror film, and that Tom Six's THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, for all its over-the-top shock value, is a perfect example of what power the visual realization of horrific circumstance on film can have on an audience, and how important it is that such images exist to provoke and disgust.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME, director Michael Winterbottom's dark noir adaptation of the pitch-black novel by Jim Thompson is the stronger of the two films in question, but with the pedigree behind it, that's not terribly surprising.  We're given small-town Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (another absolutely spell-binding performance by Casey Affleck), who appears normal, and even knows and explains to the audience how he's appearing normal, to everyone around him, but who nonetheless has the impulses of a psychopath, and who isn't afraid to act on them when need be.  As Lou descends into an ever-growing spiral of sexual assault and murder, mostly in order to preserve his innocent status, the film forces the audience to experience his acts in the most visceral manner: explicitly, visually, and unflinchingly.

Winterbottom has never been a director to shy away from utilizing the medium's advantage of being able to give physical life to something that otherwise could only be imagined.  From the literal visions of Tony Wilson in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, to the explicit sexual relationship catalogued in 9 SONGS, and the very visual representation of adapting an unadaptable work (more successful than even ADAPTATION) in TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, he is consistently one of the most confrontational directors for an audience to enter into a discourse with, specifically designing his films to provoke and push the viewer into places they may not be comfortable in, but which nonetheless serve to make them think about what they're watching.

The scenes in THE KILLER INSIDE ME that leave everyone so disgusted and puzzled as to just what the film is supposed to be telling us are the scenes in which Lou Cobb brutally murders his lovers, who he may or may not actually have any feelings for, but whom he nonetheless must kill in order to satisfy his need for personal survival.  The first murder in particular, of the prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba), who Lou seems to regret his actions toward the most after they are complete (though he analytically decides there was really no other option), is exceptionally disturbing.  As part of a plot to get personal vengeance while also making a little money, he repeatedly beats Joyce in the face, her skin eventually giving way and exposing some of the bone underneath.  While this is definitely brutal enough, what I think most people find most repulsive is the desire for Joyce to kiss her lover and attacker one final time, and the fact that he does it.  The fact that all of this happens just after they've had sex so he could say goodbye to her only compounds this disgust.

But what does it all mean?  I think that, aside from attempting to tell us about society at large, these scenes are meant to get us thinking about how we process violence on a personal level.  What is more disturbing: to see this woman brutally murdered by the man she loves, and who apparently loves her on some level alien to those of us without a psychological disorder, and that she continues to love him despite his faults and the fact that she is very well on her way to death, or that we can watch countless action films where hundreds of people die and not feel anything at all about whatever brutal ways they meet their end?  I think both are equally disturbing, and neither is more condemnable than the other.  In fact, I think that both serve very visceral purposes for the viewer: thrills that are meant to provide some sort of release, whether it's one of disgust, or one of some sort of vindication.  Maybe both at the same time, and in varying levels.

Before getting into THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, I'd like to address something that has been said of both films: that they are in some way misogynistic fantasies.  I don't know that this is necessarily an incorrect assessment of the films in some way, though I feel it oversimplifies and disregards a whole lot of other things the films are interested in or seek to provide some sort of insight into.  To simply say that a film is demeaning to women completely disregards the fact that sometimes the demeaning portrayals of certain acts toward female characters may come with the intent (and I think very easily noticeable) to deliberately make the audience feel disgust at the ways in which these characters are treated.  Why are women treated this way on film?  What advantage would a filmmaker have to simply make a film that absolutely does not care in any way about its female characters?  Is it the responsibility of the filmmaker to curb the possible or supposed interpretations of how "cool" some behavior may or may not be to the audience?  To the latter, I think absolutely not.  To the rest, I think these are things that must be considered at all times.

People lobbing accusations of completely pointless existence at THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE seem to be missing a bit of the point: the film is much more interesting if read as a companion piece to a film implicitly interested in showing violence to its audience like THE KILLER INSIDE ME (or HOSTEL, or A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, or anything else).  Rather than dwelling on the fact that the victims are women, which is important, and which I want to discuss a bit more shortly, assume for a moment that you are shown the actual "violent" scenes of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE.  Well, for one, they're completely antiseptic medical scenes, and in most cases you can find more graphic representations of surgical procedures on any number of television hospital dramas.  Aside from a few incisions, the most violent scenes involve gunplay and a couple of instances of physical altercations during escape attempts. This is actually pretty standard fare for any number of films.  Second, four of the six victims in the film are male: two abductees, same as the women, and two police officers in the climax.  That the women get the worst treatment, in that they form the second and third portions of the centipede, is kind of a hollow argument, in that it's all pretty horrible, no matter where you are in the warped creation.

In any case, I think that the key to what THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is about is in the pivotal performance of Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter, a stock mad-scientist with a diseased mind character.  Laser's interpretation is chilling, in that Heiter enjoys what he's doing more than anyone logically could, and is obsessed not with killing people, but in furthering the field of biomedical surgery.  It's a concept that is interesting in its implications, given not only that Heiter is of course German (and the ties to actual biological questions infamous Nazi doctor Mengele posed and attempted to answer), but that we are, as a society, constantly attempting to find ways to prolong and save lives by forcing our bodies to accept foreign biological elements (i.e. - another person's body parts) into our own ailing frames.  Arguably Tom Six's twisted little horror film is more interested in bio-ethics than in creating any sense of horror at all, though it definitely succeeds on that level as well.

The key to understanding these films (and any others like them), I feel, lay in attempting to understand ourselves within the context of what we're watching.  And while you can certainly find them to be murky, problematic, or in some cases completely non-existent, it's at least a more worthwhile exercise to think about why we are shown what we are shown than to simply dismiss it as something that shouldn't be shown to begin with, for any reason whatsoever.  There may very well be no moral compass at work within a film like THE KILLER INSIDE ME, and certainly there is less of one to be found in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, but that doesn't discount what they may tell us about our own sense of morality, or the world we inhabit, and who we inhabit it with.

In Dreams: Thoughts On and Discussions of INCEPTION

I saw INCEPTION, Christopher Nolan's mostly brilliant new film, on opening night this past week, and was thoroughly entertained.  I think he may be popular cinema's most consistently interesting auteur of what I like to call the "Thinking Man's Blockbuster."  And while I may not be a fan of every single choice Nolan makes, I find all of them interesting, especially his missteps and what they may tell us about his films more than what actually works in them do, and the discussions they lead to in the online world.  (Though you shouldn't really be surprised if you frequently read my blog, I feel it's actually necessary to point out that there are really big spoilers below, and on most of the links I'll provide, so if you have some fear of such things, please make note of this now).

For instance, there's some hullabaloo currently happening in the film blogging network that has sparked some serious and refreshing debate.  The argument centers mainly on two things:  first, that INCEPTION's "dreams" don't actually operate in the strange, illogical way that real dreams do, and second, that there's no emotional connection to any of the characters (or emotional logic to the supposed revelations they have) during the course of the "mechanical" plot (see Jim Emerson's thought-provoking discussion for an overview and to join the fray, especially comments by long-time contributors to the discussion Matt Zoller-Seitz and Christopher Long for the most interesting threads of debate).

What strikes me most about the discussion are the comparisons being lobbed about to other dream movies, amid the denial of total fans that the movie isn't "about" dreams at all.  This is a point I agree with, and mostly feel that if anything, the entire movie and all of its mechanics are a McGuffin for working through Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) hang-ups about his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard).  Arguably, everything we see in the film is a construct of Cobb's imagination, a perpetual dream state that he either got lost in during his own experimenting, or by choice over the guilt of what he may or may not have done to his wife.  The flip side is that there's actually a layer of reality in all of this, which I don't ascribe to, and which I'll get into in more detail later on.  What is fascinating to me is that a lot of the criticisms of Nolan is that he is too literal in his dream-world.

As many have pointed out, the dreams within INCEPTION aren't really dreams at all, but literal constructs of an architect, who is out to deliberately fool the subject's subconscious into not realizing it's under attack and having a normal dream state.  Well, given this, why would dreams appear to the audience of the film appear to be anything other than that?  There's absolutely nothing in the film to suggest that the dreamer is privy at any time to the knowledge that they're dreaming, and who knows what his dreams are like while he's wandering around inside of them?  Aside from the "Mr. Charles" episode, which actually does play out a bit like a surrealist dream state of lucid and conscious dreaming (I'm thinking of the sudden appearance of rain outside the hotel as water starts hitting the faces of the dreamers in the above level as the van is under attack), appropriating incidents from the previous reality into the current dream state.  Think of this like every time you awake with a jolt from your leg falling off the couch, or have to go to the restroom after waking up from a dream in which you were about to, etc.  I think this sort of interplay between "real" dreams and constructed dreams works fairly well within the rules set up by Cobb and Ariadne (Ellen Page) at the beginning of the film.  Why some of these rules are disregarded by the end of the film is exactly why I think the entire film is a dream state of Cobb's making.

The biggest thing that stems from the ending and its implications:  not only does the top continue spinning, but there's absolutely no reason it should fall.  Upon going back over the film in my mind, I've discovered this really is the only outcome, and the biggest clue is the top, Mal's totem, itself.  In an early scene, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is explaining the concept of a totem to Ariadne, and says that it should be a personal object that grounds its holder to reality, and which only the holder should know the specifics of, in order to avoid being unable to distinguish the dream from reality, and potentially becoming stranded in their subconscious.  So where is Cobb's totem?  We only ever see him with Mal's top, which at the point it becomes handled by him, has been compromised.  This can only mean one thing, really:  Cobb is trapped in a dream state just like he fears Mal was (and really, does this mean that maybe Mal actually left the dream world for real and the idea that spread in his mind was that dreaming was reality?)  Or, was Mal even real at all?  Is Cobb simply dreaming a better existence than what he may have had outside in "the real world"?  I don't know that I can answer any of those questions, but they're certainly interesting things to ponder.

Going back to my original thoughts about the dream mechanics and how literal they are, the utter disregard shown by Cobb at all times for these rules, from constructing dreams of his wife from his memories to the risks he takes by delving into Limbo on, apparently, at least two levels in order to save Saito (Ken Watanabe), also shows that the film's reality is also a construction of Cobb's: if he's dreaming, then the rules can change from moment to moment whenever its necessary to progress the lie he's telling himself, no matter what the lie may or may not be or mean to him personally or the audience watching the movie.  While this may be sloppy storytelling mechanics, I think it definitely makes a case for the dreamworlds within INCEPTION to be a bit more dream-like and transient than they may appear at first glance, even with the presence of an architect that builds them into labyrinthine constructs meant to trap the dreamer and keep them from discovering the truth that they are, in fact, dreaming.

I don't want to seem like I'm lavishing too much praise on the film, though.  I do think that there are some extremely imaginative sequences, including all of the shifting- and zero-gravity stuff with Arthur toward the end of the films and the concept of actually creating stable dream states (which is what most of the critics seem to have problems with, acceptably so, I'll point out - not everyone has the same interests).  But, as with all of Nolan's films (including both Bat-flicks, despite my assumed "fanboy" status), I have some problems of pacing and the existence of far too much exposition in dialogue form rather than simply utilizing film to do what it does best: show us what we need to know.  I also think that its similar psychological territory to that certain earlier-this-very-year DiCaprio thriller, SHUTTER ISLAND, is too much to ignore.  They would certainly make very interesting viewing partners, even if one were only interested in dissecting strengths and weaknesses between the two.

What all of this means to the current discourse, I can't say just yet.  I know that I'm genuinely interested in the back-and-forth this particular film is providing for us all, and I'm looking forward to being able to discuss the similar (and dissimilar) parts of INCEPTION and any number of "dream"-related films that have already been brought up in context: TOTAL RECALL, eXistenZ and any number of Cronenberg films, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, etc, etc, etc.  In parting, I'll leave you with this thought: is a film that sparks so much debate and academic/professional interest really that bad of a film to begin with?

For further discussion and context, check out my friend Julia Rhodes' very positive review of the film over at California Literary Review, where she shares some similar but slightly different thoughts and responses to mine, as well as Jim Emerson's previous essay on Nolan's film THE PRESTIGE, again on his ::scanners:: blog.