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.
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.
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.
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.
The Nines, written and directed by John August, finally hit UK shores this week and I’ve been waiting for it for ages ever since I read John’s blogabout how he’d recorded a commentary track for the cinema.
All you had to do was go see the film as normal, then download John’s audio file and put it on your iPod and go back to the cinema and watch it all over again whilst listening to John and actor Ryan Reynolds talk about the film.
It’s a DVD commentary… but in a cinema!
As I have one of those Cineworld Unlimited cards, and an iPod (and am a bit of a techgeek) I leapt at the chance to experiment with the latest in interactive cinema.
The Nines (like John’s debut screenplay, the superb Go) involves three separate stories that overlap, but here he’s examining the responsibilities of TV writers and the dark addictions of role-playing video games. It’s a sinister film where nothing is what it seems and each actor plays three different characters that may all be the same character.
August wrote it following his disastrous experience writing his own TV show and his serious addiction to the World of Warcraft game (“I had to give it up cold-turkey, cancelling my account and throwing out the install disks”).
It’s a cool little sci-fi film that doesn’t feel like a sci-fi film. I like its low budget, indie feel, I like how the three main actors effortlessly inhabit their multiple characters, I like how the phrase ‘look for the nines’ means something different in each story, I like how it gives a sense of resolution but still has you scratching your head as you walk out of the cinema.
And I like the fact that I can go back on a quiet morning and pretty much have the cinema to myself and sit up the back with my iPod on listening to the writer and lead actor talk about what I’m watching on that massive screen.
I like John August, I’ve decided. He writes cool movies and a great blog (I’ve already linked to his brilliant deconstruction of Spiderman 3), and he’s wise to new ways of storytelling and the need for writers to engage with interactive technology (he’s also put the screenplay online, along with all his other work).
Go experience something a bit different. Go look for The Nines.