September 19, 2010

A Single Man’s Inception

I rarely mention film here and I am going to do what Ron Silliman in his review of Inception said one shouldn’t and that is consider that film’s implications as a medium of serious thought. Like Ron, I thought Christopher Nolan’s movie of dreams within dreams was a ‘kick-ass summer film to trump all summer films.” And I probably would have left it at that until I caught up with last year’s Tom Ford film A Single Man while in Malta. There may not seem an immediately obvious connection between the two films.

Inception is a ‘colossal digital artefact, a virtual reality sci-fi thriller set inside the dreaming mind, with brilliant architectural effects and a weirdly inert narrative inspired by Philip K Dick and Lewis Carroll’ (Guardian). In the distant future, the technology of industrial espionage allows snoopers to invade the dreams of CEOs and steal commercially sensitive information. Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, a specialist who both carries out these hi-tech brain raids and trains executives to resist them.
Cobb’s team of specialists plan their inceptions like heists, drugging their targets, installing vast, detailed imaginary worlds inside their minds where they go into a lucid dreaming state, letting their subconscious guard down so the team trick them into doing or believing the thing Cobb’s employers require. Saito, an energy magnate, wants Cobb to do the reverse: not take information, but plant an idea in a rival's mind. In return, he'll fix problems with the US government so Cobb can return to his children. Cobb takes the near-impossible job, planning three layers of dreams within dreams for the target. It requires a larger team taking a powerful sedative: if something goes awry, the dreamers may not awake. Cobb doesn't tell his team that his past nurtures feelings powerful enough to bring on this comatose state for all of them. The embedding of the multiple layers of dreams is a directorial tour de force. In such sure hands the viewer is never lost in the complications but has the pleasure of feeling that it frequently stretches you.

Whereas ‘A Single Man’ is based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, which follows a desparate single day in the life of a deeply grieving single man – possibly the last day as the man, George Falconer, played by Colin Firth, prepares to commit suicide. Falconer is an expatriate Englishman in Los Angeles, a bespectacled college professor teaching English literature, a discreet gay man whose partner, Jim, has just died in a car accident. It is 1962, and there is fever and change in the air: the recently passed Cuban missile crisis has left America in a jittery mood, relieved but still profoundly anxious. The students increasingly affect the style of beatniks, bikers and bohemians, and youth culture is breaking through the suburban conformity. Falconer lectures against the state of fear for fear’s sake and compared to the authenticity of celebration implied by the meeting of Jim and George the students’ testing of youthful ideas are gropingly superficial. Colin Firth's performance is brilliant; as the Guardian reviewer commented, almost radioactive with grief, a grief which he may not express publicly, having been debarred from Jim's funeral by the deceased's family, and compounded (especially for us) by the loss of the couple’s two dogs in the same accident. So George lives this last day, punctuated with flashbacks to poignant memories of times with Jim as a kind of sensory farewell.

Both are great to watch (though the latter is head-and-shoulders better), though apparently no points of connection between the two films; but as they both revolve around the structure of consciousness, for the purposes of argument they were unified in my consciousness so that’s enough to consider the connection.

The reviews of A Single Man were strangely grudging. On the one hand, Colin Firth is universally appreciated for an outstanding portrayal, ably supported by Julianne Moore’s characterisation of his semi-alcoholic best-friend. But all the ones I have read are critical of Tom Ford’s directorial style; eg “sometimes looks like an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste, a 100-minute commercial for men's cologne: Bereavement by Dior” and “visually potent but after a while it degenerates into a preening perfume commercial.” While once or twice, a beautiful composition is lingered on a moment too long, overall these criticisms are irritatingly misconceived. The only aspect that seemed overly a device of advertising is the absence of text. Advertising is a textual monoculture where only the words and logos of the single product features – it is actually this which makes advertland so unnatural. Despite the criticism being leveled at A Single Man, Inception is similarly textually restrainted but doesn’t get that charge.

In terms of representations of consciousness there is a big hole at the centre of the conception of Inception which makes it much closer to a film of multiple dimensions (like Matrix) rather than recursive dreams: each level has the same degree of reality as the next one and all levels are versions of reality. There’s no surrealism; even though in the dream worlds geometry can be distorted, it only transforms to hyperbolic geometry ie still geometry. The only ‘random intervention’ is a train blasting unexpectedly through one of the team’s set pieces, but in the context of the chase scene it arrives in, it almost doesn’t seem that out of place. There is no strangeness, the dream worlds dont have fuzzy edges, things that arent explicable to the dreamer; there are no puppies! Whereas Colin Firth experiences his day much more realistically as a dream, his consciousness drifts or focuses with intensity that changes the colour of the world, a sensation can overwhelm him, or the scent - when missing his lost dogs, he pets another character’s dog, smelling its head as someone who had lost a loved pet would. One of the reviewers criticised a flashback scene where George and Jim are sun-bathing in an unlikely rocky landscape, criticised it because it looked like an advertising location, but it is more dream-like than any scene in Inception. In comparing the models of consciousness in the two films - Inception's is as digital as its form; A Single Man is a phenomenological study, beautifully balanced and deeply insightful with a poignant conclusion looping back to the opening scenes.

No comments: