Tag Archives: Memento

Dark blight

Now that the fanboy frenzy has died down, I went to see The Dark Knight Rises and found it to be incoherent junk — steroid-pumped corporate filmmaking at its worst, with some good moments undone by a disgraceful script, bungled action scenes, and the feeling (confirmed by the end) that director Christopher Nolan went into this movie devoid of any ideas that hadn’t already been wrung dry for The Dark Knight in 2008. It even made Prometheus look better in retrospect, and if there’s a more damning thing to say about a movie this year, I don’t want to hear it.

I don’t know what was worse: the ADHD storytelling formula, which required Nolan (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother) to pull a rabbit out of his cowl every ten minutes (Fistfight! Explosion! Good girl becomes villain! Villain becomes good girl! Kung fu brawl! Flying thingamabob chased by guided missiles! Fistfight!), of the indifference with which characters and situations were thrown around.

Nolan was always a curious choice to revive this film franchise, and while the box office has endorsed him many times over, the oddity remains. Though he is a past master at brainy puzzle-pictures like Memento and Insomnia, Nolan is a terrible action director, unable to stage a fight or block out a set-piece so the viewer can make out what’s going on. The bravura opening sequence aside, everything in The Dark Knight Rises flashes by too quickly: fights are over before you can see what’s happening; chases destroy mile after mile of real estate without any sense of direction or purpose; crucial dialogue is delivered in such a rush that you can’t understand why everyone is exchanging Significant Looks.   

These were also problems in The Dark Knight, but they were rendered moot by the care Nolan took with the performances, and Heath Ledger’s definitive rendering of the Joker, arguably the greatest pop-culture villain of all time. Any villain (or actor) trying to follow in Heath Ledger’s footsteps was in for a hard time, but Bane was a legitimately interesting choice of bad guy. Even with his face half-covered by what looks like a modified radiator and his voice processed to sound like a talking Cuisinart, Tom Hardy conveys fearless intelligence and resolve using only his eyes and body language convey. But Nolan undermines him at every turn: in one scene Bane is a charismatic leader, calling his men brothers and persuading them to die for his plans; in the next, he’s a shirtless Darth Vader, casually murdering subordinates who displease him. His backstory is reduced to a few hasty lines of dialogue, barely audible beneath Hans Zimmer’s hammering score (with this film, Zimmer deposes John Williams as the Wagner of the multiplexes), and in the end he is literally flicked aside for a new, late-arriving villain not nearly as interesting. Unlike its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises has no time for revealing character moments: there’s nothing here as poignant as Rachel’s acceptance of her imminent death, or the scene in which a prisoner’s moral authority cancels out one of the Joker’s plots.       

Internet debates over the political meaning of summer blockbusters are now a feature of the dog days, and some right-wingers have proclaimed The Dark Knight Rises to be an endorsement of free market whatevers. Truth to tell, Nolan pours so many conflicting elements into his formula that all political meanings are negated, except for the Fascist Lite notion of an infallible masked vigilante taking down bad guys without hurting a single innocent bystander.

There are a lot of talented actors at work in The Dark Knight Rises, and the probability that they got to collect fat paychecks for their work is the film’s sole redeeming quality. I hope they put their money to good use, because after this fiasco, they have a lot to live down.

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With his new film Inception, Christopher Nolan proves once and for all that he is the only mainstream filmmaker qualified to adapt Philip K. Dick’s fiction, despite the fact that he has never actually tried to do so.

Nolan’s second feature, Memento, is Exhibit A in my argument that he and not Richard Linklater should have been the one to film A Scanner Darkly (more on that subject here). The bipartite structure of Memento, with one storyline running in reverse chronology to merge with the second in real time, would be an excellent way to make Bob Arctor’s schizoid breakdown visceral and frightening.

Meanwhile, the dreams-within-dreams setup of Inception proves Nolan should take over the pending remake of the vapid Total Recall and wrench it back in the direction of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Though, given how thoroughly he works out his themes in this demanding film, Nolan might well look over Ubik or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and think, Been there, done that.

So, what has Nolan done with Inception? For one thing, he’s broken the curse of The Director’s Pet Project That Follows a Big Success. Inception is no Heaven’s Gate or 1941 or Last Temptation of Christ. If the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight made Inception possible, we can only be thankful that Nolan spent the better part of a decade working on his script before he cashed in his chips.

For another, Nolan has made an intellectually challenging movie that packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch. Nolan’s fondness for intricate plots and puzzle-box structures has led some critics to brand him as chilly and distant, but Leonard’s monologue in Memento about the impossibility of healing without being able to experience the passage of time is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in a film.

In fact, Inception plays as a companion piece to Memento in that its hero, who practices corporate espionage by literally infiltrating the dreams of his targets, is also a deeply wounded man frozen by grief over a lost wife. Like Leonard Shelby, he also finds a way to transcend his handicap and attain a kind of peace. After a single viewing, I’m still not sure about the steps that bring the hero to that resolution, but never once while watching Inception did I get the feeling that the director was simply jerking me around. In expect all will become clear after a few spins in the DVD player, just as Memento revealed its elegant setup and oddly satisfying conclusion after a little extra quality time.

Meanwhile, the nice thing about Blade Runner is that it departed so drastically from its source material that a new take on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might very well fly. If Christopher Nolan wanted to take it on, you wouldn’t hear any complaints from me. After all, the man’s qualified.

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The tyranny of memory

Jill Price can remember everything that she saw, said or had happen to her from Feb. 5, 1985 onward:

“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory,” she says. Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”

She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

And so it can happen that Price, as she sits in this restaurant, suddenly feels like a four-year-old girl again, who was supposed to visit the makers of “Sesame Street” at a studio with her kindergarten class. Her father, an agent who represented the creator of the Muppets, had organized the outing. But when the date approached, Jill contracted tonsillitis and was unable to go along.

“In retrospect, I know, of course, that it was not a big deal,” she says, nervously twisting her necklace. “It sounds ridiculous, but when I remember it I experience that same boundless disappointment and rage that I felt back then as a young child.”

Since the ability to forget or overlook things– or simply to let the passage of time dull old wounds — is a crucial part of maturity, it’s no surprise to learn that Jill Price’s affliction sent her into oceanic depths of depression. She finally connected with the head of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine, where she and others with similar conditions are under intensive study.

Reading about Price (and it’s a fascinating article), one inevitably thinks of “Funes the Memorious,” the celebrated 1942 short story by Jorge Luis Borges. In that story, an Uruguayan boy is paralyzed in an accident and develops a godlike memory that preserves every detal of every moment, from the feel of his blanket to the shape of the clouds at a particular moment. The effect is to obliterate his personality and, paradoxically, make true understanding of the world an impossibility. Funes cannot think in abstractions or generalities: his mind is a constant churn of particulars. Even a person talking to Funes is without a fixed identity: the perception of the person changes from instant to instant. The man who literally remembers everything is also a man who literally understands nothing.

I also end up remembering Memento, the devilishly constructed 2000 film about a man who cannot form new memories and must live in an eternal present. Since that present involves grief for a murdered wife, the man’s situation is grim indeed, and it underscores the scene posted above, in which the protagonist asks how he can be expected to heal if he cannot experience the passage of time.

Sometimes I think the only way to understand the world is to read Oliver Sacks.

I don’t want to lean too hard on these literary and filmic comparisons: Jill Price’s condition is a real-life burden, not an imaginary problem for a fictional character. But memory is the cornerstone of identity, and therefore our humanity, so it’s only natural that the more ambitious artists would want to play with those concepts. What’s especially interesting about the article is the realization that while the loss of memory can annihilate one’s identity, too much memory can have nearly the same effect.

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