Bad Dreams, Good Dreams
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t yet seen “Inception,” beware — this piece contains many spoilers.
While it seems churlish to deride the only summer blockbuster not based on a video game, comic book or teen novel, I have to confess that the more I reflect upon Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” the more I find it wanting. Aside from the various criticisms that many reviewers have pointed out (David Denby’s piece in The New Yorker sums it up most succinctly), the most frustrating thing about the film isn’t its mishandling of how dreams actually feel and operate (few movies get that right, as this immortal clip from “Living in Oblivion” demonstrates). Rather, it’s the surprising poverty of Nolan’s cinematic imagination when he dives into these onion layers of dreamscape.
For instance, if there’s a compelling reason why Ariadne (Ellen Page) would make Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) innermost sanctum of secrets resemble the opening sequence of “The Spy Who Loved Me,” I’d like to hear it. (Oh, wait, never mind — there’s Christopher Nolan in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, proclaiming how much he’d love to do a Bond film). A movie about entering other people’s dreams, and the best the director of “Memento” can come up with is shoot-‘em-ups inside the local Hyatt Regency? Is DiCaprio’s character kidding when he claims that the corporate landscape of vast steel and glass skyscrapers is his and his wife’s “favorite style of architecture?”
Worse yet, Nolan makes his imaginative timidity explicit early on. My heart sank soon after the film’s sole visual delight — Ariadne’s sudden rolling up of the streetscape until it becomes the sky — when DiCaprio admonishes her to precisely not do anything like that, because (deep breath) it will only draw the dreamer’s attention to the fact that it’s a dream (not that anyone has ever been aware that they’re in a dream while they’re dreaming and still been helpless, especially in the dream logic of cinema — somewhere, Freddy Krueger is rolling his bloodshot eyes). Nolan’s retreat from the visual possibilities offered by his concept is perplexing and ultimately disappointing, resulting in a sort of Matrix-lite thriller struggling under the weight of its gooey, metaphysical love tragedy.
Perhaps the most amusing facet of “Inception’s” success is the number of folks who have seen it again (or plan to) because they want to understand all those supposedly intricate and confusing layers of dreaming in the plot. (Here’s a hint: there’s four. Five, if you’re a little bit meta and count the movie itself.) Instead of continuing to ride the hobby-horse of my disappointment, however, I’d like to merely suggest you avoid that trip to the multiplex and hop on Netflix for a film with truly mind-boggling levels of reality: Polish filmmaker Wojciech Has’ 1965 masterpiece, “The Saragossa Manuscript.”
Based on the 1815 frame-tale novel by Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Has’ adaptation is a surrealistic delight that counts Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Luis Bunuel and Neil Gaiman among its ardent fans. (Jerry Garcia loved the film so much he actually put up the money for its restoration.) The film begins during the battle for the Spanish town of Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars; an officer takes refuge in an abandoned inn and discovers a huge, old book with strange drawings. An enemy officer discovers him, but instead of arresting him, he’s struck by the name of the author of this book, who turns out to be an ancestor of his: Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, the “Polish James Dean”). He begins to translate the opening pages, and the film shifts to van Worden as he makes his way through the Sierra Morena Mountains…
Thus begins the first tale within a tale within a tale, as van Worden’s narrative arc gives way to a tale told by a hermit, which gives way to one of the characters in that tale beginning another tale… soon, these tales within tales intertwine, and begin to shed light on some of the earlier tales, the whole structure a Chinese box of intricate puzzles and complex motivations populated by gypsies, cabbalists, succubi, ghosts, forbidden loves, clowns, soldiers, philosophers and princesses invariably played by a bevy of stunning Polish actresses (including the late, lovely Elżbieta Czyżewska, who later married famed journalist David Halberstam and endured decades of acting exile in the U.S. when she and her husband were kicked out of Poland).
Brilliant cinematography, fantastic art direction, pitch-perfect performances: in short, “The Saragossa Manuscript’s” complexity and artistry makes “Inception” look like a glass onion: easily seen-through and liable to shatter at the first jolt. It’s a dream within a dream that won’t leave you feeling empty when you wake.