Between Reviews: Dreams of Prose

Posted on July 24, 2010



Corporate espionage in the world of dreams makes for a great action stretch buried in a lot of talky tedium. Plus, love in the world of the British makes for a reasonably diverting romance.

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JUL 25, 2010 – THE IDEAL DREAM-MOVIE MAKER, to my mind, would be Federico Fellini. Things happen on an apparent whim, in his films, and the only way to keep up is to surrender to his rhythms, just like you have to surrender to sleep in order to begin to dream. Take the nightclub scene in La Dolce Vita, for instance, where a clown with a trumpet steps out of the spotlight and begins to outline a mournful tune. By the time he gets around to kicking balloons into the air, we are in a trance, half-aware that a movie is unfolding before us, and yet unaware exactly how to respond logically. The only possible response is emotional, as if from inside a dream. By the time the clown retreats from the spotlight, his balloons tailing him like the Pied Piper’s rats, we feel we’ve experienced something profound and also primal. It’s impossible to reconstruct these subconscious feelings with mere words.

In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the subconscious comes with an instruction manual – filled with words, charts, diagrams, and more words. Apart from the stray visual of a cat strolling around a chemist’s counter or the spider-web straps of a blonde’s costume, there is no place in Nolan’s world (even his dream world) for the offhand shot and the glancing image – the kind of visuals that appear at the corner of the eye and vanish before we can train our focus on them, leaving us unsure if we did indeed see them, like in a dream. Nolan’s visuals are all in the centre of the screen, in the centre of our eyes, daring us to misread them (and in case we do begin to mistake them to mean something else, the accompanying words, the endless explanations in the form of cheat-sheet questions and answers, steer us back to the one-and-only meaning).

Nolan is only interested in the “not being awake” part of dreaming, not in the “manifestation of innermost feelings” part. His dreams, therefore, are less fantastical than functional, woven around the plot of corporate spies who invade businessmen’s dreams in order to extract and implant ideas. These dreams are cold and clinical, extremely businesslike, extremely lifelike. It isn’t that we expect characters to reach their dream destinations by hanging on to the sleepers’ neurons and swinging across, like Tarzan on his vines, but couldn’t their travel have incorporated a tiny bit of logistical magic? Then again, even when Nolan made a movie about duelling magicians, it was less about magic than mechanics, and Inception is more of the same, filled with elevators and cars, just like the real world. These dreams are hardly the hothouse mental states that are likely to rouse you in cold sweat (or arouse you with a boner, for that matter). You don’t need Freud to interpret these dreams – just a logical thinker.

It’s easier, therefore, to view Nolan’s dream world as you would view, say, the moon or Mars. It’s essentially a fancy sci-fi backdrop with a unique set of characteristics and rules – or put differently, it’s just the setting for a super-intricate video game. (Hence the need for that instruction manual, filled with such directives as, “Arthur has about a couple of minutes. We have about 20.”) We don’t experience dreams in Inception, the way we would in a Fellini film – we merely leap in and out of them as the “game” keeps ratcheting up to the next level (or the level beneath, as Nolan toys with dreams within dreams within dreams). And once we get past the gassy setup – a truly testing tract of tedium – we get the thrilling payoff, the real reason for the film’s being, a mind-bending third-act stretch that instantly slots itself among the great action-adventure sequences of all time.

This is when we realise that, despite the portentous stabs at profundity, Inception is essentially a glorified B-movie, an assembled-team heist movie, and that it could have been a great heist movie had Nolan not allowed himself to be bogged down by self-aggrandising minutiae (or allowed himself a bit of amusement). Despite the recurrence of what could be an auteurist signature or thematic obsession (his protagonists, whether superheroes or sorcerers, are work-bound men haunted by women they’ve lost), his is not so much a cinema of ideas as illusions. His stock in trade is the sleight of hand, and he may well be the cleverest packager of clichés (or cinematic references) in Hollywood today. Not a single action segment in Inception is truly visionary in the never-seen-before sense, and yet, we feel we’ve never seen it before because of the conceit of dream layers – or video-game levels, if you will.

The exasperating thing, though, is that the rules of Nolan’s video game are hardly complex enough to warrant all that buildup, all that fuss. Anyone who worships at the shrine of The Matrix (or any space-time-continuum adventure, for that matter) — and that would certainly cover the core audience for this film — would be able to cotton on such concepts as “the kick” and “limbo,” without having to endure Nolan’s elaborate physics-meets-transcendental-meditation lectures, and a lot of this dead time could have been more usefully spent in detailing the tortured, loose-cannon protagonist. (That would have invested the terrific twist, at the end, with more emotional heft.) But Nolan is the kind of filmmaker who likes to tell, then show, then tell us about what he’s just shown. For someone with such a surfeit of smart ideas, it’s baffling he’s so convinced about the dumbness of his audience.

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VIJAY’S MADRASAPATNAM IS A REASONABLY diverting entry in the honourable cinematic tradition known as the Epic for Dummies, and it takes its cues from Titanic, the most famous Epic for Dummies of all time. As with the waterlogged blockbuster, the period setting – the last days of the British in India, filled with trams and Vande Mataram-spewing revolutionaries – is merely scenery for a rich-girl-poor-boy love story, and it’s this richly recreated backdrop that distracts us from the obviousness of the proceedings. (There’s also a strong Lagaan hangover, especially with the first song being in anticipation of rains.) The aspect that may linger with Chennai-ites, though, is that the Cooum, at one time, actually flowed. People took boats rides on it. Today, the only thing people take on it is a dump. Inadvertent or not, it’s a splash of cold water, this realisation that our city was better off in the hands of the Brits.

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