The Baftas are out of the way, meaning the Oscars are looming, and odds are that The King’s Speech will clean up – an eminently enjoyable piece of awards bait, but about as conventional as a piece of antique mahogany furniture. This piece from last July in The Irish Times looks at those movies that are slightly more innovative in their storytelling – published just as Inception began its blockbusting run in cinemas. Its mindbending narrative dazzled, for sure, but ultimately felt like an extravagant magic trick, and about as profound. For the moment at least, Hollywood is just saying hello, then.
HOLLYWOOD HAS earned its reputation for never failing to underestimate the intelligence of its customers with summer after summer of mindless popcorn schlock, but last Friday, something changed – Warner Bros released a $160 million blockbuster that explicitly promised to confuse its audience. Inception, from Christopher Nolan, the visionary British director of The Dark Knight, has what might be called in marketing parlance a Unique Selling Point, which may be summarised as, “you will not understand what is happening here”.
As marketing campaigns go, it was certainly brave, and marks the pinnacle of the under-appreciated genre of the mind-bender, those films that go out of their way to confound and baffle – not since The Matrix has a blockbuster promised such complexity, although that had a good deal of kung fu to attract the multiplex masses.
Inception’s plot has been shrouded in secrecy since production, all the better to confound audiences when launched upon us. In the trailer, Leonardo DiCaprio explains to a disbelieving Ellen Page that he specialises “in a very specific type of security. Subconscious security.” As we see DiCaprio and his co-stars in an MC Escher-like world of zero gravity, twisting corridors and collapsing cityscapes, we are left in no doubt that we are not in Kansas any more.
In the first review of Inception, in Rolling Stone magazine , Peter Travers pointed out the risk of challenging conventions: “Of course, trusting the intelligence of the audience can cost Nolan at the box office. We’re so used to being treated like idiots.”
What is so startling about seeing a film such as Inception become a blockbuster release, and what prompted Travers’s concern about its prospects, is Hollywood’s lamentable record with making and promoting narratively ambitious movies.
Although there was a trend for the twist-ending after M Night Shyamalan struck gold with The Sixth Sense, these were little more than clever Agatha Christie-style puzzles, with the answer fully revealed in the final reel. Genuine mind-benders, on the other hand, are prepared to mystify on a much deeper level. Mainstream examples include 12 Monkeys, Donnie Darko and Fight Club, three films that dared to tamper with narrative conventions and audience expectations to one degree or another. All three garnered substantial acclaim and a cult following, but none lit up the box office. A primary reason was the inability of the Hollywood machine to trust in the audience’s collective intelligence, so there was a tendency to market them disingenuously – Fight Club, after all, was made out to be about men fighting, which was like saying Lawrence of Arabia was about riding camels.
The reason for this misrepresentation is the innate conservatism of the studios, dictated by the lowest-common-denominator business model that underpins the biggest releases. The thinking goes that, with budgets north of €120 million, you really can’t afford to alienate any potential viewers by confusing them. As a result, many of the successful brain-teasers in recent years have been small-scale indie movies, which can rely on a discerning audience to be drawn into the teasing knots of an intricately constructed plot.
Nolan’s breakthrough film, Memento, is a primary example, with its fiendishly clever reverse narrative culminating in a satisfyingly ambiguous climax. Another low-budget head-scratcher is the compelling and utterly confusing Primer, the 2004 debut of the writer-director Shane Carruth. A time-travel drama that eschews the high-jinks of Back to the Future, Primer opts instead for a mounting sense of dread as the story unfolds like an infinite set of Russian dolls. Carruth, however, could afford to keep his plot as labyrinthine as he liked: the film apparently cost only £7,000 to make, going on to become a cult favourite.
On a slightly larger scale, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman pioneered a brand of self-aware postmodernity in films such as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, in particular, Adaptation. The narrative tricks and elaborate plots of his films were rapturously received by critics and audiences; evidence that there is an appetite for films that tease the brain rather than just pander to it. But the muted reception to Kaufman’s last film, the downbeat Synecdoche, New York, suggests there are limits to that enthusiasm. Cinema’s version of Jorge Luis Borges has learned that whimsy is a necessary ingredient in his recipes.
Unsurprisingly, it is the art-house scene that most consistently pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling conventions. Michael Haneke has specialised in playing on our expectations of narrative conformity in many of his films, with both Caché (or Hidden) and The White Ribbon at first appearing to be mystery stories, before revealing themselves to be exercises in metaphor rather than realistic plots. By exploiting the gulf between the two, and the audience’s reliance on conventional narrative tropes, the Austrian director forces us to deal with uncomfortable realities in a deeply visceral way. When it comes to mind-bending film-makers, nobody packs quite the unexpected punch that Haneke does.
Also operating on the fringes of the mainstream is David Lynch, whose entire career is as unlikely and odd as any of his movies. From the disturbing Eraserhead to the disturbed Inland Empire, Lynch has revelled in his distinctive vision, which often seems to be a distilled depiction of his subconscious. In that sense, perhaps Mulholland Drive is his most instructive work, splitting its narrative in two: a dream sequence and a waking sequence. In typical Lynchian fashion, it is not immediately obvious to the viewer which is which.
A similar device is deployed in Tropical Malady , the wonderfully baffling 2004 film by Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who picked up the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his latest slice of surreality, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Tropical Malady ’s split plot is ultimately impressionistic, the confusion caused by its dream half leading to a kind of lucidity.
Haneke, Lynch and, in particular, Weerasethakul operate to varying degrees outside the studio system, allowing them to express their bravely independent visions. The art-house film, after all, not only has licence to play with ambiguity but is fully expected to do so. Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, has to work within parameters set by Warner Bros, where one is expected to adhere to the formulas that have already proven successful.
Sure, after The Dark Knight he could get money for anything, he’s got DiCaprio to add serious star power, and Inception won’t quite veer as far into exploring the subconscious as Tropical Malady, but there is probably another reason for Nolan’s success at getting Inception made: a little TV show you might have heard of called Lost.
If anything has demonstrated the mainstream appreciation for intentionally convoluted storylines, it is the enduring success of that series. For all its flaws, Lost revelled in baffling its viewers, and showed immense creativity and ambition in playing with narrative conventions. That the show managed to maintain relatively large audiences throughout its six-season run is testimony to how amenable people are to being confused, given the right circumstances. In Lost’s case, that circumstance was the promise that a satisfying resolution awaited at the end of the journey – an unwritten part of Inception’s appeal, too.
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them,” says DiCaprio’s character in the movie. “It’s only when we wake up that we realise something was strange.” After the arrival of Inception, which seems more strange: that a Hollywood blockbuster would be designed to be intentionally baffling; or that anybody ever thought audiences didn’t enjoy being baffled?
TWIN PEAKS Here the deranged imagination of creator David Lynch presents us with backwards-talking dwarf dreams, a woman who talks to a log, creepy spirits called Bob, and observant owls in the woods. And then there was the bizarro big-screen follow-up, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me .
Pi Does this movie use as its central plot device a) the secret code that can predict the stock market, or b) the Kabbalistic name of God? You’ll get a headache trying to figure it out, but don’t go to the pain-relief extremes of the protagonist, who gives himself a partial lobotomy rather than discover the answer.
BLADE RUNNER Where would the mind-bending genre be without Philip K Dick? Ridley Scott’s stylish adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ends on quite the cliff-hanger: was our replicant-hunting hero himself a synthetic human?
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY The Big Daddy of head-scratching cinema, Kubrick’s masterpiece gave us the monolith, sinister computers, a big screen acid trip and the space baby. You could wonder what it was all about, but that would be missing the point – just soak in the profundity.