Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle (or, The Princess Bride vs. Inception)

"Have fun watching Inception, Adam!" "You think he'll like it?" "It would take a miracle."

In my recent criticism of Inception, I took Mr. Nolan to task for his inelegant use of screenwriting devices, such as his endless reliance on (often irrelevant) exposition. Some took objection to this. (See the comment thread here, also.)

To clarify: the problem is not the device, but the clumsy, bare-boned way in which it’s executed. A friend of mine said—and I wholeheartedly agree—that Nolan is simply shameless. This is what I mean when I call him artless. As Viktor Shklovsky put it in his great essay “Art as Device”:

There is indeed such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the rhythm of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” They represent today’s task in the theory of rhythm. We have good reasons to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.

In other words: Yes, art proceeds by means of familiar conventions and devices (otherwise we wouldn’t understand it). However, each time, those conventions and devices must be made to feel new and fresh—otherwise, we won’t be having an artistic experience. The challenge confronting the artist is how to reinvigorate what so many others have already done. (And you can’t just make a list of ways to do that, because then those techniques would lose their power.)

Consider as a contrast to any scene in Inception the following bit from The Princess Bride, itself ultimately “just” a dramatized device. But—and this is the key difference—here the device plays itself out with some real charm.

The plot so far (in case you haven’t seen the film):

  1. Westley has been killed by Count Rugen and Prince Humperdinck.
  2. Prince Humperdinck is about to marry Princess Buttercup, Westley’s true love.
  3. Inigo Montoya needs Westley’s help to murder Count Rugen (who killed Inigo’s father).

Somehow, Inigo Montoya (and the plot) need to bring Westley back to life. Here’s how the solution goes:

This being a fairy tale, death proves no obstacle. In just under five minutes, Westley has been resurrected, and a major setback has been reversed. (The only continuing repercussion is that Westley, once alive again, doesn’t have much strength, and can’t really move his limbs.)

But the scene, I’d argue, avoids feeling rote and mechanical. I’ve shown The Princess Bride to students a number of times, and they always find this section particularly charming. I, too, thought it a highlight when I first saw the movie (sometime in the late 80s); I still do. And in college, several friends of mine were fond of quoting the scene’s final line.

Why is that? Some possible explanations:

  1. The exposition we need to follow this scene is kept minimal, and dispensed with quickly (in the exchange outside the hut, and then when Valerie first appears).
  2. There’s a clever intersection between Miracle Max’s motivation and that of our heroes. Inigo’s appeal to his vanity (“humiliations galore”) is pretty elegant.
  3. Billy Crystal plays his part very well. (“Ooh-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much!”) And his makeup is funny.
  4. Mandy Patinkin also plays his part very well. (This is the benefit in hiring theatrically-trained actors.) (Cary Elwes displays throughout the film a real talent for physical comedy.)
  5. Not all of the jokes are winners, but overall, the writing is good, and funny. (It helps that the characters are all very clear and distinctive. Well, William Goldman is—or at least once was—a good writer.)
  6. Rob Reiner (who was also once good) isn’t the flashiest of directors, but he also doesn’t trip over himself (although I do think that all of the cutting slows the scene down a tad, especially when screened on video). …However, some of the bad edits and cheesy production design contribute toward the overall charm of The Princess Bride, which obviously isn’t taking itself all that seriously.
  7. The pacing is good, and well-suited to the tone. We get a lot of plot and jokes and new characters in fewer than five minutes!
  8. This scene expands the world of the movie. There’s little indication before this part that miracle-makers exist (the only hint comes when Peter Falk’s Grandfather character promises very early on that the story will include miracles.) And so when Westley dies, even though we know the movie has a trick up its sleeve for reviving him, we don’t know what it is. Miracle Max, then, proves a novel solution.

For all of these reasons (and probably more), the film’s means for getting past Westley’s death doesn’t feel like a cheat.

Now imagine that The Princess Bride has been turned into a weekly television series (let’s make it an animated one). Surely Miracle Max is going to put in an appearance—the fans will want to visit him and Valerie again. So what happens? Does Westley die yet again, so that Max can make another pill and bring him back?

You know that someone, somewhere, is pitching this very idea right now.

Hopefully not, because that would be terrible. The challenge now, if we want to see Max again, is to find some novel means of integrating him (and Valerie; they’re an act) into the plot. What worked the first time will not work again. Some ideas, off the top of my head:

  1. Max really does retire, because he no longer has Humperdinck to obsess over. Now it really is impossible to get him to make miracles.
  2. Humperdinck becomes king, and rehires Max, and has him make miracles for evil. The heroes need to win over Max somehow.
  3. Max turns out really to be a lousy miracle maker: his later ones never work. (It was an accident that the one with Westley succeeded.)
  4. Miracle Max himself dies and can’t be resurrected.

And, of course, any of these ideas would still depend on how well they were executed: the performers would still need to be good, the writing would still need to be funny, the direction would still need to not be terrible.

Now let’s return to Inception, and to Ellen Page’s character there, Ariadne. What do we know about her? What does she do not in just one five-minute scene, but throughout the entire 148-minute-long film?

  1. Her name is entirely unimaginative. (I groaned the first time I heard it.)
  2. Michael Caine calls her a talented student who will make a better architect than Dom Cobb. We never see any real evidence of this, however. (The two places where we do see evidence—when she solves Cobb’s maze-drawing test, and when she folds Paris over on itself—are both good moments. Then the film stops giving her character anything clever.)
  3. Instead, she becomes a Walking Question, her sole function in the film to ask Cobb questions so he can provide answers, i.e. exposition. (Technically, sure, she designs the dream worlds that the characters enter—but we never see much of those worlds, and what we do see is entirely mundane. So…)
  4. Page might be a talented actress (this is the first time I’ve seen her in anything), but she isn’t given much chance to perform. (Mostly she looks consternated, and in close-up.)

I don’t blame Ellen Page for any of this; I blame Christopher Nolan. This is his failure as an artist: given a character who will play a key role in his film, he fails to do anything distinctive or innovative with that character. She remains a bare-boned device, rather than serving as an opportunity for innovation.

(Indeed, make a list of what you know about any of the characters in the film, and you won’t fill up even a sock. Joshua Gordon-Levitt deserves a very special prize for portraying his traitless character Arthur with so much charm…)

The snazzy vests help.

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19 thoughts on “Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle (or, The Princess Bride vs. Inception)

  1. But surely the point of the film is that its all about Cobb- if you don’t enjoy the central story about Cobb’s guilt and inability to let go then you’re not going to like the film, because the other characters are deliberately there for decoration. Thats also true of Momento to some extent I suppose.

    I do think most of the exposition is well worked in, excepting the scene where she asks about the killing (that feels utterly like a studio insertion, and the film would lose nothing by getting rid of it)

    • In that case, I wish Cobb were more interesting. For instance, the things he wants–his fantasy of returning to his children–could be more interesting, and less some off-the-rack Hollywood character trait. And Mal could be more than some cliche written by someone who seems to have never even talked with a woman. (Yes, I know Nolan is married, but his writing doesn’t indicate that.)

      But I’m afraid I don’t agree with your reading. The Princess Bride is ultimately all about Westley and Buttercup, right? And yet the entire film is colorful: all of the characters, all of the settings, have real texture. There’s lots of time in the 98 minute running time for subplots, digressions, etc.–and that doesn’t distract from the central love story. (If anything, it helps clarify it.) Why can’t Inception find time in the extra 49 minutes it funs for some interesting details about Ariadne or Arthur? Maybe take out, say, 10 minutes of generic gun battle to give them some personality?

      (I’d argue that the movie is less about Cobb than it is about gunfights. That’s what Nolan’s really interested in–he dedicates more screen time to bullets and explosions than anything else. I think that’s sad.)

      …Incidentally, your reading reminds me of an argument William H. Gass makes in “The Concept of Character in Fiction”: that everything in a work ultimately goes back to modify, to be about, the text’s central character. Thus, everything in Madame Bovary is ultimately about Madame Bovary. I agree, but don’t think that excuses those things from being interesting. (I don’t think Gass does, either.)

      Cheers, Adam

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  3. You’re definitely right about the exposition. It’s not just a shortcut to audience understanding of the rules of the world in the movie, it also undermines our ability to engage with the film in a natural manner (to forget, in a way, we’re watching something in a cinema with people like coughing and crunching through popcorn). Having such obvious and unnatural exposition appear so regularly not only takes time away from more artful opportunities, but keeps us from enjoying the film even on a passive level.

      • Sure. I thought there were some good parts, too. Cillian Murphy’s big scene in the fortress-hospital at the end, when he opens the safe, is rather touching. (Like Gordon-Levitt, Murphy did a great job bringing some distinction to an otherwise featureless character.)

        Lord knows, I always want to like things.

      • I think you’re right, Tim, about the way Inception frustrates–that’s the most dominant feeling I had watching it. Many of the decisions Nolan made felt like they bowed to anxiety and fear about what the audience may or may not comprehend. I know people who loved this movie, and I can understand their enthusiasm for the ‘engaging while resolved and consumable’ plot–as in it doesn’t deal with dream-reality management the way other movies, say Paprika, did. It didn’t confuse anyone. Nolan seems to have sacrificed artistic development for mass consumption. Maybe he thought impressive and engaging visuals would have balanced out the exposition, but they didn’t for me and many others. Though, some of the acting, as mentioned (Murphy, Levitt) was decent.

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