Whenever I watch a Nolan film I always get the impression he has a huge fear of audience confusion, as if he would fail as a filmmaker if every single plot point wasn’t understood on the first viewing. And to an extent that is a legitimate fear because he sometimes deals with complex narratives (Memento and The Prestige). But this fear is so overwhelming that it often seems to lead to plot clarity taking precedence over all other matters. Obviously, this is done with audience understanding in mind. Thank you. But within the movie’s reality it doesn’t make any sense. These are your teammates, friends, lovers, etc., who have ostensibly shared many things with you. Talking like this in real life usually gets you, “Yeah, I know! Why are you talking to me like an idiot?” Of course, Inception isn’t real life but is meant as a version of it. But maybe in this reality, where we’ve gained the ability to share dreams, we’ve also lost the ability to remember really important information handed to us thirty minutes ago. I admit that I didn’t understand every single piece of information the first time through. Most people who claimed they did are lying. But guess what? It turns out that most viewers loved it anyway! So, Mr. Nolan, there are bigger issues than first viewing coherency when it comes to making movies. The biggest concern should be treating film as the visual medium that it is. The camera is a much more effective device for delivering information than Leo’s handsome mug. Directors who insist on this actor-as-exposition-machine method are doing little more than animating talky scripts.
Nolan rarely employs what I will refer to as gesture. These are the type of scenes where plot is primarily told by things other than exposition. This could be a scene told mostly with visuals or perhaps by an exchange between two characters where what they say and do isn’t as important as how. Gestures more closely resemble the real world, and I think his reluctance (or is it perhaps an inability?) to use them explain the blunt, uninvited, feeling I often have during his movies. By this I mean that I rarely feel totally immersed in his productions.
An example of where Nolan could have relied almost entirely on visuals is early in the film after Ariadne’s first dream sharing experience. After she leaves in frustration Cobb tells Arthur the real world won’t be enough for her and a little while later she comes back and relates the same notion. Nolan could have demonstrated the lure of the dream world with less explanation. For example:
1. Cobb: She’ll be back.
2. (Mumbasa sequence)
3. Long shot of a lively classroom with students working in groups on architectural models. Slowly pushes in on Ariadne’s sullen face, suggesting that this sort of thing doesn’t hold her interest anymore. Cut to Ariadne walking back into the warehouse and heading straight for the dream machine.
I think the ability to effectively suggest, rather than tell, is one of the marks of a talented filmmaker and that Nolan’s choices reflect someone who isn’t all that fluent in visual language. A defter writer/director such as Tomas Alfredson might have chosen to reveal character in private moments, letting the camera do most of the talking. For example, his film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has a scene (74 minute mark) where Smiley tells Toby that he must let go of anything that might compromise his job with the British Secret Intelligence Service. It then cuts to a scene of Toby at home talking to an older man. Is it his father? His brother? Cut to that man packing his clothes and saying, “If there’s someone else you can tell me. I am a grownup.” and he puts the keys on the table and walks out while Toby weeps. The scene is about a minute long and that line is most of the audible dialogue. In this simple way we learn Toby is into dudes and the revelation is surprising because it’s downplayed. If Nolan handled the same situation it might have been twice as long and with a minute of dialogue starting with, “I have something very important to tell you…”
Earlier I stated that his films often keep me at a distance. I believe this is because Nolan rarely affords us the opportunity to come to realizations on our own. This act can be one of the most enjoyable parts about watching a movie; the moments of discovery that make you feel like an active participant. The scene I mentioned above is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Nolan succumbs to this habit during the emotional crux of the film. Most of Inception hangs on Cobb’s belief that inception is possible and we find out how he knows near the end of the film. This realization should have been a big moment seeing as it has defined the character ever since it happened: “Guilt, I feel guilt, Mal. No matter what I do no matter how hopeless I am. No matter how confused, that guilt, is always there reminding me of the truth.” But instead it passes with little emotional weight because it is said rather than shown. There is no reason Nolan needed so many words to explain this revelation. Imagine if the audience had a chance to realize on their own that Leo performed inception on his own wife, inadvertently causing her suicide. Here is one example of how he could have allowed us this opportunity using only a fraction of the dialogue:
1. Flashback to Mal sitting on the hotel ledge.
2. Mal and Cobb having good times in limbo.
3. Mal putting the totem away in her safe. (Putting the totem away after good moments should establish the idea of, “she locked something away…a truth she had once known but decided to forget.”)
4. Shots of Mal and Cobb together but Mal is enjoying herself more.
5. Cobb opening the safe and spinning the top.
6. Mal opening the safe some point later to find the top spinning. Grows distraught because she thought they were living in the real world.
7. Mal sad. They lay their head on tracks. Cobb forgets to say that stupid riddle.
8. Back to real world. Mal goes on about how these aren’t their real children.
9. Mal falls from the ledge.
10. Mal in present day: “You planted the idea in my mind. Why?”
11. Cobb: “We were lost in here. I knew we needed to escape.”
Nolan decides to explain this almost exclusively with close-ups and dialogue. Thrilling. He also has Cobb state that he performed inception before we have a chance to see it on the screen, which really deflates the revelation.
The following sequence contains gesture but unfortunately it is one of the few instances of the film to do so. Leo is telling the aged Saito to comeback with him so they, “Can be young men together again.” (This line is so awkward. Leo delivers it as if they were childhood friends or something. I honestly don’t know what its purpose is.) Saito’s hand slowly creeps towards the gun and suddenly Leo wakes back up on the plane implying both of their brains have been blown out in the depths of limbo. This gesture, not a subtle one but a gesture none-the-less, gets the point across. I point it out because I am honestly surprised Saito didn’t deliver a speech while putting the gun to his head. I also point it out because it feels good every time I see it. The implications are apparent but making the connection is up to the viewer.
Despite the tone of this essay I do not hate Nolan’s work. I just often find myself disappointed because he tends to weaken his very good ideas with a heavy hand. I really believe that someone as clever as he is could be a remarkable director if he learned to place more emphasis on his visuals and allow us, the viewer, to connect the dots more often.