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7.17.2010

THE DREAM SYNDICATE

Inception
Directed and Written by Christopher Nolan







Memento had a glint, a loony glee, a grasp of the long con. A movie played backwards is bound to test anybody's threshold for gimmicky,sure, if not wear it down, but Christopher Nolan used to love playing us like this and I used to love him for it. That was before those lumbering, humorless, overpraised, frankly awful superhero farragoes swallowed him and his sense of mischief whole. His oneiric and spry new piece of high pulp, Inception, is his attempt to rescue his aesthetic ethos, his DNA signature as a filmmaker, from the shadow of the Bat, from the Ninth Circle of A-list anonymity. He revisits his old tropes - - - the persistence of memory,the illusory fabric of reality - - - and reheats others that aren't his - - - idea-as-virus memetics is nothing new to anyone who's ever answered an internet meme or read Grant Morrison - - -then reverse-engineers nearly everything that's taken on similar modes of dreamwalk and mindfuck, from Philip K. Dick to Jorge Luis Borges to Alain Resnais to Charlie Kaufman to, more tellingly, Shinya Tsukamoto's Nightmare Detective and Satoshi Kon's Paprika not to mention the exploding sequence in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and the encrypted character-naming the Wachowskis were so fond of (Mal, Eames, Robert Fischer and a girl named Ariadne who draws mazes (get it?)), then metastasizes his influences and makes it wear an oldish suit but sharpened and buffed to a newish sheen. Inception is where Nolan gets to show the world what he can do when more or less left to his own devices with a trustfund to dip into. It is also where he possibly regains a little bit of his soul.

Leonardo DiCaprio is like a high-end corporate spook slash cat burglar here but it's people's dreams he breaks into and it's their vital secrets he steals. His murky backstory - - - he's the only one with a backstory,murky or otherwise - - - involves a bounty on his head, estranged children whose faces he can't remember and a dead wife who keeps dropping in while he's at work and whose ghost he really needs to give up because it's starting to become hell on the career. And he's assembling a team - - -and recruiting a new member so he can have someone to bounce exposition off and possibly mediate his secret turmoil - - - to take on that old saw The One Last Job which,of course,comes with a catch: this time, he has to break into someone's dream and put something in. That something would be to stop world domination by market share - - -the mark is the heir of an energy empire. Inception is essentially, and quintessentially,a caper film with all the givens and a lot on its mind, a REM-sleep Rififi but on a cocktail of placebo smart drugs: more clever than intelligent, more mechanism than fugue, more prudish than diabolical.

And like all caper films, it's all about the team dynamics and the precision planning. The first half is almost pure crackle. And this is where Inception comes most to life, in the recruitment and the debriefing, in the architecture and the walk-through, in the build-up and the prep, and with an almost fetishistic ardor for geometry and clockwork and a visual energy you're not used to from Nolan at that - - - that hallucinogenic city folding into itself and that Escher by way of Tati office building are trumped only by that maddeningly disorienting zero gravity set piece that comes much later. Also, there's a tiny scene tucked into a shadowy corner of the plot inside an opium den for dreamers that's not only a tantalizing germ of an idea in and of itself but the pivot point to a possible alternate ending. Oh, you knew there would at least be one of these. Like Memento, Inception is a puzzle nerd's sex toy, playing into the seeing of things that aren't there and the poring for clues on its surface, and Nolan has custom-built his contraption to provoke that specific misdirection, layering in red-herring teases in the already hectic matrix of its surface, except that what all these will augur if pursued is merely that at some point the real world ends and the dream world begins and it's not where you think it does. All this is juicy enough over a few rounds of beer but isn't particularly complicated nor profound nor even necessary. Who's incepting who? Good question. But don't ask. Nolan's not telling anyway.

The ability to dream within a dream within a dream within a dream is a wondrous conceit and the editing is so fiendish and crisp in the multi-leveled second half it enables that it would do Nolan and his editor Lee Smith, not to mention your own brain, a disservice to be confused. It's RPG gameplay, no more ,no less. And with none of the team nor its mark nor the world in any real danger and with its de facto enemy being a figment of the imagination, it has the fundamental empathic and emotional disconnect of an RPG,too. See, nobody dies in a dream. You die in one you just wake up. Go deeper,though, and dying means you get trapped in your dream and lapse into a semi-vegetative state in the real world for what could be years, meaning your body may be in a coma but in your head you could be having the time of your life, and that's closer to bliss than doom. Perception is reality, after all. Choose your own adventure. Right there is everything Nolan wants to say here. And in the push-pull between art film and event movie, he gets to choose his own adventure,too. By blowing things up. But he gets feverish with the propulsion and viscera of fulfilling his vision on the scale with which he gets to do it that his enthusiasm bleeds all over the propulsion and viscera of the spectacle he straps it on. And much as it isn't as terribly mysterious nor as terribly cerebral as head trips go, as no-brainer theme park mission movie, Inception rides. Like a dream.

7.16.2010

I CAN SEE SO CLEARLY WHEN YOUR SMOKE GETS IN MY EYES














“Punk - or pop, or life - isn't always about keeping the promises you make, but daring to make them in the first place. Despite knowing what's at stake. Maybe even making them because you know what's at stake.” (People Who Died, Jonathan Lethem)

This is a love letter you hold in your hands, a meta valentine. A love letter about love letters disguised as one disguised as something else. Not a fan letter, no. I was never that hardcore into Shonen Knife anyway, so it couldn’t be. This is about them, sure, and about that one muggy night they came here to play, like some artifact emerged from a time capsule, head-banging to cartoon punk rock in matching Mondrian dresses and bearing day-glo shimmers of an aging and maudlin music nerd’s misplaced nostalgia. This is about a hole in my heart. And the revolutions we think we’re staging in our impetuous youths tanked up on the belief we were going to live forever and the debris we sift through when they crumble after realizing we won’t. But mostly this is about how I’ve always wanted to meet the Most Beautiful Girl In The World while reaching for the same CD in a record store. And how I’d all but given up I ever will.

The connections we make with music and the connections music will make between us.

Beatlemania was that hole in my heart. Beatlemania, not really the Beatles. I had the Beatles, even if it wasn’t the way I wanted to have them, which was as current event, as a drop in the zeitgeist. But I was born too late and grew up odd, in the spin cycle of a swiftly tilting planet made from other older people’s pop, swirling around me in manic overlap, the wonky chronology thwarting me from pinpointing when the exact moment was that I fell in love with pop music for life and from pinpointing, too, with what. I stumbled on the Beatles this way. I stumbled on a lot of the music that changed my life this way. As heirloom, as hand-me-down, as stray bullet, as osmosis. It was a task to miss the Beatles, anyway. I liked them. I was partial to the tearjerkers. Eleanor Rigby cut me open even before I had gone through enough life to understand why.

And I wanted to cup them in my hands, tuck them under my pillow, hang them on my bedroom wall. But they were too gigantic and too everywhere and too removed. They were on the car radio. They were embedded in the wallpaper. They were in the atmosphere like vitamins. And they were someone else’s. And my heart longed for a Beatlemania to call my own. Beatlemania may have been some other generation’s frenzy but it was the voluptuous template for a frenzy that could be mine to claim. I owe my Dad and my hippie uncles for encoding me with music,sure. But I was through with the blind dates. I wanted music for a girlfriend but I wanted to fall in love all on my own. I wanted a banner to fall under and colors to fly. I wanted to froth in anticipation over album release dates. I wanted to hoard B sides and I wanted to know all of them by heart. I wanted to be taken over by a fervid piety that could almost pass for church. All these, of course, are the shallower iterations of what it’s like to be a music nerd. But it was also our puberty, the hormonal propellant that would vault my adolescent postures of worship and emulation someplace more promising.

“Pop music will never be , for me, the way it is to most people- - -aromatherapy, furniture, entertainment. It's all that, sure, but it's also a lot more.

Food, meth, fetish, toy, code, love.

Pop , simply put, conjugates my emotional language. The death metal powerchords of my temper flares, the weepy country ballads when love breaks down, the ebullient powerpop of when it sweeps me off my feet, the grim and grotty swamp blues when my hissy fits blacken. That’s how it works, like biology almost.”
(excerpt from Wow And Flutter)

I smashed into the years I went avid as a music nerd with a curious lack of omen, with a cassette of Nevermind, really, bought blind before Nirvana detonated, bought because the cover made me laugh and because the title reminded me of the Replacements but not because a radar in me flared up that I was about to take home pop’s next big thing. It was covert to the point of nonchalant. The irony, of course, is that I kept grunge at a distance after that. Nirvana I swore by. And I always liked the thud that came out of Soundgarden. But I thought the rest of the Seattle brouhaha a little misbegotten, overly glum and in need of a party gene. But that cassette of Nevermind was like a bomb had gone off in me. Hell, the 90s was like a bomb had gone off everywhere musically. There were all these other noises to cling to all over and cling I did. Sugar and My Bloody Valentine were heroic, transcendent, all that. Primal Scream, too, at the cusp of the decade when they taught me not to fear the disco inside me and near the end when they cranked things up into a din of glory. Manic Street Preachers before and even after Richey James vanished into the ether of rock and roll myth. There were the first two Suede albums and that one mighty Posies album Don Fleming produced and the Lemonheads album with Rudderless in it and the self-titled Magnapop album I thought no one else in the republic owned or even knew about. Mazzy Star. The Stone Roses. Matthew Sweet. The Magnetic Fields. Beautiful South. Garbage. Beastie Boys. Sleater-Kinney. Beck. Pavement. Teenage Fanclub. Juliana Hatfield. That exquisite Costello-Bacharach hook-up. Everything and anything signed to Sarah Records. And later, moseying down the pike, this tiny uprising called Britpop. Pulp. Radiohead. Elastica. Gene. Paul Weller. And those two. Oasis. Blur. It was a heady time. Where were you while we were getting high?

I remember standing outside an HMV in Hong Kong one morning, waiting for it to open on the day a new Supergrass album was coming out. That morning was to be the height of my Britpop fervor. And I overromanticize it not just out of how I overromanticize everything but also out of how it was the height of my Beatlemania, too. I had come full circle. I had done what I came here for. I had engaged with music with fire and venom and gristle and blood and hurt and lust and love and I had engaged in it as it was happening. The chronology was bang-on. Music is my girlfriend and I had fallen in love with her on my own. That morning was as good as it would ever get. It’s a small thing to make something out of, sure. And few will get it. You’d have to be severely retarded to want for that these days. But, back then, it meant so much to me, much more than merely having a finger on the pulse. Haters tend to piss on Britpop these days for being little more than reductive nostalgia. I’d probably agree in principle. But, if there was anything the 90s, and more particularly the Britpop years, drilled in me, it was a grasp for living in the moment. And even if it didn’t leave me with that, it would be a bitch, and not a little bit dishonest, to be cynical about a time when I was, musically at least, irrevocably happy.

“This is the first day of the future and all I want is you . . .” (Love me Like The World Is Ending, Ben Lee)










I listen to Ben Lee as I walk to the Shonen Knife gig. Weirdly, it’s not 90s Ben Lee I’m listening to. It’s Ben Lee in the new millennium, a little older and a lot less precocious. It’s Ben Lee closer to who I am, really. Love Me Like The World Is Ending is the sort of mildly optimistic bit of mush I’d write if I knew how. Ben Lee,of course, like Shonen Knife, was a marginal presence in the 90s but I don’t think there’s any serendipity here. The song just happens to be how I feel at the moment.

Shonen Knife came into my life by way of the tribute album, Every Band Has A Shonen Knife That Loves It. I sort of dug their songs and I sort of dug around. I came to Let’s Knife soon enough and, really, stopped with that. Oh, I liked them. But Shonen Knife are a cartoon band. Not in a Josie and the Pussycats way, more like in an escapist J-pop way. They played punk rock without the sneer, without the vitriol, without the ideology, without the danger, without the rebel yell. Punk as pure form and filtered through primary-colored rockabilly and girl group pop. And they sang about sushi bars and banana chips and parallel women and flying jellies that attack people. I liked them back then for being like the Ramones, only perkier and poppier and prettier. But I liked them more, I guess, for how they were like taking little zero gravity holidays from meaning anything.

But I’m not sure if I was there that night because I wanted to hear Twist Barbie and Burning Farm live so bad. I’m not sure if I was there just to prove they were actually there and close enough to touch. Maybe I was there for some other reason altogether, one that had nothing to do with Shonen Knife but also one that had,in a way, everything to do with them.

The 90s were a time keening with possibility and fulfillment, not just popwise. I remember walking tightropes day in day out, clinging to schemes with the guts of a commando and the conviction of a penitent and the brio of a revolutionary. And there was no rebuke too damaging, no heartbreak too crippling, that I couldn’t just dust myself off every time I hit a snag. The 90s are gone, of course. And with it, maybe a little of the guts and conviction and brio to go for the things with your name on it. And maybe a little of the belief in my own immortality. Cobain’s dead. Oasis is a bore. The Most Beautiful Girl In The World I was supposed to meet and go off on adventures with is more than likely married with children. The world has moved on to other things. And so have I. I’m also a little older and a little more defeated and a little out of revolutions.

“ . . .maybe you’re the same as me, we see things they’ll never see, you and I are gonna live forever. . .” (Live Forever, Oasis)

But that night, as I stood close enough to Shonen Knife I could touch them if I wanted,I felt a familiar surge. And it’s not at all peculiar nor discouraging that it’s not Liam Gallagher or Damon Albarn singing when this happens. That would have amounted to little more than a pang of nostalgia. But Shonen Knife were never really a part of my past in the same way and their singing songs I never liked enough to call love and hitting a nerve and bringing me back smacked of something palpably now. Time melts and somehow it makes sense that Ben Lee sang to me coming here.

I remembered standing outside that HMV in HK and nursing this feeble hope that maybe, as I reach for a copy of that Supergrass album, the Most Beautiful Girl In The World would reach for the exact same copy, too. She didn’t. And I gave up on what seemed back then a trite, infantile folly. But maybe that morning and all the wild hope it held was this night, too. And the gig was like the last record store at the end of the world. The last stone left unturned in my catalogue of beautiful failures. And it wasn’t trite and infantile to wish for these. Not when I had enough courage and conviction and brio. And maybe I shouldn’t have given up on many things. And maybe it’s not too late.

The connections we make with music and the connections music will make between us, right.

I tell myself this is not 1995 anymore and that maybe I’m too old for this shit. But I’m not very convincing. Not when the stalwart Naoko and statuesque Ritsuko and smoldering Etsuko are singing song after song after song until they melt into each other and into a single joyous racket of possibility and fulfillment. It was like taking a little zero gravity holiday but this time from meaninglessness. By the time they sing " . . .I'm on the top of the world . . .", it’s as if I was. Over the moon and under the influence. What did I tell you back there? It was magic. Man, it was love.


*pictures by Meg Cabanes
*first published in Philippine Free Press