Hollywood filmmakers generally shy away from ideas—but not Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight and Inceptionby Mark Cousins / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Dream on: Inception captures the collective online experience
Ideas are to cinema what the ramps used to build the pyramids are to the pyramids themselves. They are crucial in the making of the movie but are seldom visible once it is completed. This is for two reasons. The first is that the makers of mainstream films don’t want the fingerprints of thought to be visible on their gleaming, reflective surface. They want us to fall under the movie’s spell without us knowing that it is appealing to our ideas about heroism or beauty or eros. The second reason is that the medium of film is better at inspiring thought than containing thought. It is so alive, so present tense, so much about what things look like—and less good at what things think like.
One exception is Christopher Nolan’s Batman film The Dark Knight (2008), which foregrounded ideas. The movie argues that cities are places where human beings fester. At one point, the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, says: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it… I just… do things. Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”
The Dark Knight was an extravagantly cinematic, somewhat conservative work of anti-urbanism—rather like those movies of the 1920s that wrung their hands over high-density living and the decline of rurality. As many critics have noted, Nolan’s new film, Inception, is just as thoughtful. Its plot, in which people enter the dreams of the owner of a vast business empire to convince him to break it up, is a metaphor for corporate espionage. And its depiction of dreams within dreams made movie buffs like me search their memories for other films that have done the same—The Wizard of Oz, the Spanish movie Open Your Eyes, and the work of Jean Cocteau and David Lynch spring to mind.