The cries go out every week in the filmmaking community: everything is being dumbed down, there’s no space for complexity any more, films aren’t as demanding as they used to be, we’re all going to hell in a flatpack assembled handcart.
It would be a matter for grave concern if it wasn’t total bollocks.
Last night I went to see Inception at my local multiplex. As I bought my ticket, the ticket teller warned me that the film was three hours with trailers. I did do a double take. I was only popping in to see a film on my Unlimited card and was up for a couple of hours of distraction. But three? I wasn’t sure I could stretch to that.
And it’s never a good sign when the teller gives you a warning like this. It means there have been complaints. It means they want to be able to say ‘well, we warned you it might be shitty and no, you can’t have your money back’.
Now, I’m not a great fan of cinema.
That’s right. I said it. Somebody had to.
Yeah, I love the big screen and the sensurround and all that, but you can keep the cinema experience. And this is purely down to the fucknuts you have to share it with. ‘Hell is other people,’ said Sartre, and he no doubt coined the phrase after taking Simone out to the flicks.
The problem with cinema is that most cinemagoers are morons. And more and more these days they are morons with megaphones.
My relationship with with the multiplex cinema audience has always been uneasy. I’ve witnessed shouting at the screen in The Blair Witch Project, a near riot during Cronenberg’s Crash, and the breakout of an impromptu stand-up comedy fringe festival during Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me.
But more than that, what I’m depressingly familiar with is the indifference of the popular cinema crowd for film: the constant grazing on noisy food, the chatting, the checking phones, the ringtones, the routine disrespect for ‘the magic of cinema.’
I remember being appalled many years ago to hear mention of shootings in LA cinemas. Nowadays I can’t go to Cineworld without wanting to shoot someone.
Yes, I want the big screen and the sensurround. I just don’t want it with a group of fuckwits.
But last night I witnessed several hundred people out for a Friday night of entertainment sit through the most complex mindbender in popular cinema history and be gripped. Not only that but gripped right up to that tantalising final shot of a spinning toy, totally captivated by its fate, and gasping with frustration and delight at the final brutal cut to black. Wanting more from this three-hour experience.
Had anyone seriously complained?
Inception is a 146-minute sci-fi actioner about a team of dreamstealers tasked with the much more dangerous mission of planting an idea in someone’s head. It plays with various genres: the heist, the psychological thriller, the redemptive rites of passage, the war film. It is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind tonguing Ocean’s Eleven fucking The Matrix spaffing all over Where Eagles Dare being filmed by Vanilla Sky.
And in the final hour we’re witnessing a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.
Yes, it really is that complex. And that brilliant. For an entire hour of climactic action, the audience are asked to keep track of three simultaneous interdependent dream missions… and then they go and add a fourth.
It is dizzying, hypnotic, confusing and breathtakingly outrageous. Without doubt the cinematic magic trick of the year. While other films are content with making coins appear from behind your ears, this one is a full on Derren Brown spectacular.
I used to go along with the notion that our culture is being dumbed down. There are memes in the air that you sometimes just find yourself repeating parrot fashion, even though they belie your entire real life experience. It took Steven Johnson’s brilliant book Everything Bad is Good for You to make me realise what I’d actually been experiencing all these years: that TV, literature, games and yes, films, are much more complex than they used to be, and demanding more intelligence of us, not less.
He lists a new microgenre of films he calls mindbenders. These are ‘mid-list successes… built around fiendishly complex plots, demanding intense audience focus and analysis just to figure out what’s happening on screen.’ Films like Being John Malkovich, Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Run Lola Run, Twelve Monkeys, Adaptation, Magnolia, The Matrix and Big Fish.
But Johnson is cautious about subscribing too much complexity to popular film, because whereas it’s easy to point out that Mary Poppins has a far less demanding character matrix than Finding Nemo, and that Star Wars asks us to keep track of only ten major characters to The Fellowship of the Ring‘s thirty, there is still an inherent time constraint in movies. There simply isn’t enough time in a 2-3 hour movie for the kind of complexity a TV series can provide.
But I think Christopher Nolan has just disproved this. Inception is this summer’s blockbuster and it is the most intelligent and complex film of this or any other year.
It even kept the Cineworld audience quiet.