Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination

Fight!

Regarding my impassioned critique of Inception, many have asked me: “What could Nolan have done differently?” Which is one way of asking: “What could he have done that you would have liked?”

At first my response was along the lines of, “Well, not doing the things he did”—but that’s flippant. And so I next tried answering that question more specifically here, by analyzing a scene from The Princess Bride—an entirely conventional scene, but one that displays a wit and a charm—an imagination—that’s wholly lacking in Inception. In that post, I quoted Viktor Shklovsky:

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.

…following which I wrote:

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.)

But what does this really mean? Below, I’ll try to answer that by way of another film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

First, let’s take a look at an actual clip from Inception. Not many are online yet, so our choices are regrettably limited:

[Note: The clip I originally used got taken down. The above clip contains the scene in question; my analysis begins about 30 seconds in.]

So what do we have here?

  1. The camera pans left, then right as Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) walks down the stairs and puts down the bag he’s carrying. Cobb: “Look, I, uh, brought these for you to bring to the kids when you have a chance.” Miles (Michael Caine): “It’ll take more than the occasional stuffed animal—”
  2. Cut to Miles, who continues speaking: “—to convince those children they still have a father.”
  3. Cut to Cobb: “I’m just doing what I know; I’m doing what you taught me.”
  4. Cut to Miles: “I never taught you to be a thief.”
  5. Cut to Cobb: “No, you taught me to navigate people’s minds. But after what happened, there weren’t a whole lot of legitimate ways for me to use that skill.” (Shakes his head.)
  6. Cut to Miles (leaning back): “What are you doing here, Dom?”
  7. Cut to Cobb: “I think I found a way home—”
  8. Cut to Miles, who listens as Cobb continues speaking: “—It’s a job for some very—”
  9. Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking (as some background music starts): “—very powerful people. People who I believe can fix my charges—”
  10. Cut to Miles, who’s still listening as Cobb continues speaking: “—permanently—”
  11. Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking: “—But I need your help.”
  12. Cut to Miles, who points at Cobb: “You’re here to corrupt one of my brightest and best.”
  13. Cut to Cobb: “You know what I’m offering. You have to let them decide—”
  14. Cut to Miles, listening as Cobb continues speaking: “—for themselves.” Miles: “Money.” Cobb: “Not just money—”
  15. Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking: “—You remember. It’s…the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed—things that couldn’t exist—”
  16. Cut to Miles, listening as Cobb continues speaking: “—in the real world—”
  17. Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking: “—I need an architect who is as good as I was.”
  18. Cut to Miles: “I’ve got somebody better.”

(If my memory serves, there’s at least one more shot in this scene, before all of the others: a wider shot of Miles working at his desk, presumably from Cobb’s POV, before/while Cobb starts walking down the stairs.)

What we have here is a very basic style of film narrative: a master shot followed by shot-reverse-shot. The filmmaker first establishes the characters in the scene (in a wider master—here, that missing first shot of Miles working at his desk), then cuts to closer shots of the individual actors (called “singles”) as they talk and listen to one another (shot-reverse-shot). To intensify continuity, while we’re looking at one character, we usually still see the shoulder or back of the head of the other character—and this is true in the shots of Cobb. (The shots of Miles are full on, which preserves the continuity of how we first saw him, working at his desk.)

(That of course isn’t Michael Caine’s shoulder we see in those shots of DiCaprio, but rather the shoulder of a stand-in. Since we never see DiCaprio and Caine in a shot together, they probably weren’t on-set together for this scene—you don’t make Expensive and Famous Actors work if you aren’t going to see them onscreen. Such is the Magic of Hollywood!)

This filmmaking pattern holds throughout much of Inception: Nolan uses shot-reverse-shot to present a lot of the dialogue, and a great deal of that film is dialogue like this (characters reciting back-story and motivations to one another, in order to drive the plot forward). This is all perfectly functional, but at the same time it’s very unimaginative—very formulaic. (This is the heart of my critique of Nolan and his film: that he lacks artistry.)

Now, let’s look at a clip from another new movie, one that I think is tremendously better than Inception: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World:

[Again, my original clip disappeared, but this new one is roughly the same.]

  1. Tracking shot right (a master) as Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) enters the club. Onscreen title describing the location (“The Rockit”). Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) calls out from the background: “Hey!—”
  2. Cut to Pilgrim, who continues speaking: “—You totally came!”
  3. Cut to Ramona, who walks forward, toward Pilgrim. “Yes, I did totally come.”
  4. Cut to Pilgrim, who’s staring at Ramona.
  5. Cut to Ramona, who looks right, then back at Pilgrim. Stacey (from offscreen): “Ahem.”
  6. Cut to a second master shot: we see, from let to right, Pilgrim, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), Stacey (Anna Kendrick), Jimmy (Kerr Hewitt), and Ramona. Stacey continues speaking: “Please excuse my brother. He’s chronically enfeebeld. I’m–”
  7. Cut to Ramona as Stacey continues speaking: “—Stacey.” Ramona (nodding): “Hey.”
  8. Cut to Stacey, who gestures with her head and hand to her right (the camera pans left to bring Wallace more into the shot): “This is Wallace, his roommate.” Wallace (raising his hand): “Hey.” Stacey looks left, and the camera whip-pans right as she speaks: “This is my boyfriend, Jimmy.”
  9. Cut to Wallace, who’s staring at Jimmy: “Hey…”
  10. Cut to a reverse shot of Jimmy, who turns to look at Wallace.
  11. Cut to Stacey: “Oh! And this is Knives!” Whip-pan right to Knives (Ellen Wong), who raises both hands and shouts: “Hey!”
  12. Cut to Pilgrim (caught off-guard): “Hey!…” The camera zooms in on him to indicate Knives rushing forward…
  13. …which we see in the next shot (a closer repeat of the second master), as Knives continues rushing forward to embrace and kiss Pilgrim. The camera pans left to close in on the two of them, but not before we see that Jimmy is still looking at Wallace (who’s drinking). Onscreen effect: “POW,” plus little hearts.
  14. Cut to Ramona, who’s staring at Pilgrim and Knives. Knives giggles.
  15. Cut to Knives, who’s still giggling: “So—”
  16. Cut to a wider shot of Knives and Pilgrim, as Knives gestures toward her haircut and continues speaking: “So, do you like?”
  17. Cut to Pilgrim, who says: “Well, I, uh…–” He looks left, and the camera, following, pans right. There’s a whoosh matching sound on the soundtrack, and the background noise starts fading out.
  18. Cut to Knives, who is now looking crestfallen. She looks left, and the shot zooms out to include Ramona. The whoosh sound effect continues.
  19. Cut to Stacey, who’s also looking at Ramona. She looks right to her brother, and the shot zooms out (whoosh) to include Pilgrim. We see that Knives is now also looking at Pilgrim.
  20. Cut to Wallace, who looks left; the shot zooms out (whoosh) to include Jimmy, who’s still looking at Wallace. Jimmy turns left, staring straight ahead, guilty.
  21. Cut to Pilgrim, who looks slightly left.
  22. Cut to the second master again, which now reads Wallace, Knives, Stacey, Jimmy, Ramona. We hear Pilgrim’s heart beating.
  23. Cut to Pilgrim, who resumes speaking as the background noise fades back in, the sound of his heartbeat becoming a drum pounding during sound check: “–have to go.”
  24. Cut to the reverse shot of Pilgrim (we see the shoulders of Ramona and Knives), who runs into the background; the camera pushes slightly forward and begins to tilt-pan toward the stage.

There are more shots (24) in these 51 seconds than in the longer clip from Inception, but director Edgar Wright is doing much more with them than Christopher Nolan does with his 18. Indeed, every shot in this short scene is significant; Wright isn’t just cutting back and forth as two characters exposit for the audience. In less than one minute Wright:

  1. Provides some exposition (about the location and the characters’ relationships with one another);
  2. Introduces a new character to us (we haven’t seen Jimmy yet);
  3. Introduces some of the characters to one another;
  4. Establishes the Pilgrim/Ramona/Knives triangle that will occupy much of the film’s first third;
  5. Begins a small subplot featuring Wallace and Jimmy (the sequence will end with Wallace stealing Jimmy away from Stacey—and this is also character development, as we learn that Wallace has a history of doing this);
  6. Includes a slight in-joke: Scott Pilgrim is wearing a shirt for a Canadian band, Plumtree, who wrote the song that inspired his character’s name;
  7. Includes all the visual and sound effects that help characterize the scene.

While accomplishing all of this, Wright repeatedly plays on our expectations of how the scene will develop. Note shot #9, where Wallace seductively says “Hey” to Jimmy—the shot’s funny, because we expect from the established pattern for Wallace to say “Hey” to Ramona. Later, Wright gets a bit more mileage out of violating this pattern, in shot #20, when Wallace is revealed to be staring not at Knives or Ramona or Pilgrim, but at Jimmy (who’s been staring for eleven shots at Wallace).

In the clip from Inception, after five shots, you know how the remaining thirteen are going to go: A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B… That isn’t true in the clip from Scott Pilgrim.

The Scott Pilgrim clips trumps the one from Inception in other aspects as well:

  1. There’s a tension between onscreen and offscreen space;
  2. Wright employs both foreground and background space (in contrast to Nolan’s slightly out-of-focus chalkboard/classroom that signifies that Miles is a professor—another movie cliché);
  3. It’s acted: the actors are asked to do more than just give line readings, spiced with the occasional gesture. They react to one another more openly than in Inception, and act more with their faces and their bodies. As a result, each character here has a different, distinct personality, as opposed to Mssrs. Cobb and Miles (who are both, uh, kinda nice but kinda troubled—kinda concerned—guys?);
  4. The actors’ performances are also tightly choreographed with the camera’s movements. This whole scene had to be carefully storyboarded, and the actors directed where and when to look and move. Neither DiCaprio nor Caine, by way of contrast, did much more than recite their lines to a stand-in. (Well, DiCaprio sure emoted his. I love his head-shaking in shot #5, and his clipped reading of “But I need your help” in #11.)

To put it another way, the essential difference between these clips is that, in the case of Scott Pilgrim, the script has been dramatized. Rather than just apply a standard pattern to the screenplay—the absolute minimum that a contemporary director can do—Wright has built an unpredictable (yet still easy to follow) episode that is rooted in basic filmmaking conventions—but that then proceeds to play with our expectations of those conventions. This is why the scene from Scott Pilgrim actually feels like something, and has its own individual energy—while the scene from Inception feels labored and generic. (With nothing else going on, and with the actors asked to do nothing but recite their lines, the Inception clip lives and dies by its dialogue—and, boy, what dialogue…).

Me, I know which film I’d rather watch.

…I’ll be writing more about Scott Pilgrim after this weekend, when I see it for a second time. In the meantime:

  1. No, it’s not my favorite film of the year.
  2. I think there’s plenty wrong with it, and that it can be criticized for. It’s a shame, for instance, that so many wonderfully imaginative scenes all lead toward such a lamely predictable ending. (It’s also an Amélie for the indie music set: none of its endearingly quirky characters have any real problems.)
  3. Despite these criticisms, I still think it’s a pretty magnificent film.
  4. Edgar Wright is a much more talented, and much more imaginative director than Christopher Nolan.
  5. Despite this, Scott Pilgrim will be out of Chicago theaters one week from now, since nobody’s going to see it. (Only three city theaters will be playing it come tomorrow.)
  6. Meanwhile, Inception will continue to barrel toward half-a-billion dollars.
  7. That’s a shame.

Update: I never did write more about Scott Pilgrim (which is too bad; I should), but I did write other movie reviews: Inception | The Dark Knight Rises | The HobbitDrive | Lifeforce | Cloud Atlas

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28 thoughts on “Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination

  1. I loved Scott Pilgrim until the ending which I found quite disappointing. I have no analysis to go with this. I just rarely find movies fun and absorbing, and I found Scott Pilgrim both. Until the ending when I was going, “wtf? You set up so many different potential interesting endings, and then did you say to yourselves, nevermind, we’ll just go bland?”

    I think the characters have potential problems, but the problems are glossed over… Ramona’s “just obsessed” around Gideon; she “can’t help herself.” And Gideon doesn’t even seem to know why he set up the evil ex cadre; “it was a dark time.” There’s a genericness there that could have been filled in with actual detail/conflict/character.

    I know those are side issues…. I enjoyed your close reading; I just don’t know how to add to it. :D

    • Yes, the ending is a real cop-out. What Scott Pilgrim needed is the courage of the ending of The Graduate. Sure, you’re finally together—congratulations. But what now?

      (That movie’s answer: Ben Braddock’s realization that he chose the wrong Ms. Robinson.)

  2. Nichols had the end come to him the day of shooting, or close to. Haven’t seen the other two films but what would be good is a list of films that were good until the end.

    Just looking at the setting in the clip made me think of ‘Wild Strawberries’ specifically the examination scene set in a very similar classroom (I wonder if Nolan ever saw this Bergman gem). Again, I haven’t see Nolan’s film but saw the preview of cities and things exploding (seems Zabriskie Point did it much better!!!) and I thought I put in a little dream sequence from Bergman’s film:

    Simple and stunning, haunting. It’s not juiced with the steroid special effects of today, but it strikes a deeper cord- because it is seemingly more like a real dream.

    Now, as for spicing up scenes of dialogue, go no further than Psycho – Norman and Marian having sandwiches in the back, watch the camera angles change, up and down, sideways, askew, – no movement, all cutting.

    Same in The Shining where Halloran the cook first talks to Danny over ice cream. The knives are in the background. Simple exchange of information, but the angles are different.

    Both these are not on youtube.

    This one is. The Bathroom scene.

    First 26 seconds is a long, establishing shot

    27-2:10 Medium shot from the exact opposite reverse angle – jarring, usually not done in movies- some might wonder why, what is going on here? Also, ends on Jack thinking he has caught the butler in a lie.

    2:11-2:27 Back to establishing shot.

    2:28- 3:00 Perhaps my most favorite cut in the film, again it goes back to the exact opposite reverse angle of the bathroom, but not as close as the first shot, four steps back or so, distancing- as the butler tells Jack how it really is.

    3:01 and on, close-ups of both characters dominate the rest of the clip.

    Kubrick ratchets up the tense with no camera movement, all placement. No, floating ER steadicam, this is so special shots (though steadicam dominated many other scenes in the Shining). Stillness in motion pictures (like Ozu, all the time), stillness has a place. Bombast can sometimes take a backseat.

    • Hitchcock and Kubrick aren’t “spicing” those dialogue scenes with “the occasional gesture” (which was my criticism of Nolan): they’re using the set (the mise-en-scene) to comment on the conversation. The composition of the shot + the dialogue adds up, synthetically, into a third thing, which an attentive audience member can read (consciously or subconsciously). This is a skill that I’ve never seen Nolan display; to him, backgrounds are just ambient backdrops—because something has to be there. (Might as well have a chalkboard, to show Miles knows stuff. You can’t see it here, but I simply love how there’s some conversation before this clip starts, wherein Cobb actually comments on Miles’s working in the classroom (as opposed to his office), in order to further establish that Miles is…a university professor. He really is! He might as well carry a sign.)

      (Honestly, if you asked random passersby to name a set to introduce a professorial character, I’m sure everyone’s first suggestion would be a classroom with a big chalkboard covered in writing. So why look any further? …Still, best to add a few lines of dialogue to make sure there’s absolutely no confusion in the back rows.)

      My point about DiCaprio’s head-shaking in shot #5, or Caine’s pointing in shot #12—Nolan or the actors “spicing” the dialogue—is that these gestures are ultimately irrelevant, and do nothing to distract from precisely how little is on display—how precious little is happening. Move DiCaprio’s shaking to a different shot, Caine’s pointing to a different shot—have DiCaprio be the one who points, Caine the one who shakes his great learnéd head—none of it makes any real difference.

      Now compare those two trivial gestures with Knives’s hand motion in shot #11 in the Scott Pilgrim clip. Why did Wright direct Ellen Wong to do that there?

      1. It adds surprise to her sudden appearance (continuing the suddenness of the appearance of Stacey, Wallace, and Jimmy in the second master shot, #6);
      2. Therefore, it adds to Pilgrim’s embarrassment at being seen with Knives in front of Ramona;
      3. It foreshadows her similar gesture in shot #16, where she’ll gesture toward her new haircut (which she got to mimic Ramona);
      4. Therefore, it helps foreshadow the later scene where she’ll dye her hair blue to further mimic Ramona;
      5. It subtly echoes Wallace’s raised hand gesture (in shot #8);
      6. It prepares for the sudden action in the next two shots (#12, #13), in which Knives rushes forward to embrace Pilgrim.

      Lots going on there! Every detail of the scene in Scott Pilgrim is very well thought out, just like the details in those scenes from The Birds and The Shining. It would be a disservice to those films and their directors to call that “spice”—it’s rather careful, strategic planning.

      Much less so in Inception, where thoughtlessness rules the day. (Actually, I suspect Nolan’s actual goal in much of Inception is to distract the audience as little as possible from the incessant focus he places on the words the characters recite—because, again, most of the information in that film is conveyed, repeatedly, through expository dialogue. All eyes on the moving mouth, please…)

      • Yes spicing is the wrong word. Much, much thought went into the planning and preparation of those scenes. But I would assume much thought went into blue screens and such.

        Who said ‘occasional gesture?’ Not me.

        The paradox of $200 million films and their often artless nature is maybe not a paradox. Least common denominator.

        Nolan is seemingly not ‘smearing himself on the’ screen. Diane Williams would say ‘page.’ His demons have more to do with popularity than death or relationships or our place in the world.

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  4. I’m glad somebody had nice things to say about Scott Pilgrim. Certainly the movie had problems (for example, casting Michael Cera), but it was a lot of fun, and didn’t disgrace the comics nearly as much as it might’ve…

    • Hey, Tadd,

      It seems as though casting Cera backfired, keeping a lot of people away? (At least, that’s what I’ve been hearing.) I hadn’t seen him in anything before this, so I didn’t bring any biases to his performance.

      I thought he was rather good, in fact. His performance exhibited a lot of range: smug, weak, pathetic, strong, endearing, and more, and yet he and Wright managed to make it all seem like one coherent character. I thought that impressive.

      Cheers,
      Adam

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  9. I like Edgar Wright, but he failed miserably in Scott Pilgrim.

    Nolan’s films may be emotionless, but there’s a complete emptiness in Scott Pilgrim. The film is all style and no substance. Everything it sets up means nothing because there is nothing in its characters. It’s not just that they are unlikable people; it’s that they lack any realism AND are unlikable. There is nothing in a unrealistic, unlikeable character.

    Sure, the film has style but nothing that great. All it does is assault you with a bunch of sterotypes (Hey this kid is indie cause he wears these shirts! Hey this guy likes video games cause I’m playing video game music!) to make you think that these people fit these sterotypes. If you think that’s good for cinema, that’s fine. But I don’t find anything intersting about it cause it says nothing interesting.

    Nolan’s films on the other hand have ambition to be absorbing. Nolan’s films point towards a cinema where we are no longer just voyeurs but are participants. His films are meant to be expereinced in movie theaters, an idea that has died. Whether you like his films or not, his films deserve to be seen in movie-houses because they demand not just the bigger screen but the state-of-art sound.

    • Hi Magnus,

      I’ve heard this criticism from others, so I know there’s some group of people Scott Pilgrim doesn’t work for, character-wise, but I myself am not among them. I just saw the film again (for about the 6th time or so), and within minutes I felt happy to be “spending time” with all of those characters. They’re characters of type, to be sure, but that doesn’t stop them from being memorable or affecting. (I have a pet theory, actually, that audiences in general prefer stock characters to any other kind.) I find them much more memorable and interesting than anyone in Inception.

      So I think Wright, too, has “ambition to be absorbing.” He wouldn’t have put so much work into Scott Pilgrim if he didn’t want people to like the film, to rewatch it, to try catching all the details and little flourishes… Style is substance, even if it’s not for all tastes. I think it’s also a film for the big screen, most definitely! If anything, I’d argue that Nolan’s the one directing for the video release; half his shots are close-ups of people and things, a directorial strategy that directors use because they know it will work well on TV. (See David Bordwell for more on this; he’s written extensively about it.)

      I don’t doubt that Nolan has ambition. What he lacks, in my opinion, is the ability to create anything distinctive. His characters are not only stereotypes, they’re featureless stereotypes. Describe Michael Caine’s character to me, for instance. He’s a professor. What else? There’s nothing. What about the guy who makes the dream drugs? He’s Indian. What else? … There’s not much going on. Whereas in Pilgrim, even the minor characters are pretty tricked out with idiosyncrasies and mannerisms (“style”).

      The soundtrack was definitely the best thing about Inception.

      Cheers, Adam

      • Wright’s other films (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) were absorbing, so I agree he has that ambition as well. Those films also managed to contain several pop-cultural references and use character-types but they worked whereas Scott Pilgrim didn’t. Part of the reason is that those films in my opinion had better actors and part I feel is that Simon Pegg co-write them. But I think main difference is that those films actually make a commentary on their pop-culture references whereas Scott Pilgrim is just trying to dump a bunch of references on us. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz both make statements about the zombie and action genre respectivley. In the case of Scott Pilgrim, it’s attempting to make a statement about video-games (other things as well, but video-games is its main target). But what statement does it make?

        Also, I highly disagree with the idea that use of close-ups is more tailored towards video than big-screen. Close-ups have completely different meaning when on a big-screen. It puts you face-to-face with the character and gives you a sense of claustrophobia that a home theater could not provide.

        Now, I will agree that in Inception (though not in his other films, but that’s a different discussion), all of the characters are just character-types that go undeveloped. But Nolan uses these types to progress the story and its main conflict of perception v. reality. The film is not about characters but about the idea of perception v. reality. What is real, what is not real. What makes something real? Does it matter if something isn’t real if it feels real? Is it better to live unhappy in reality than in happy in a fantasy? The film does answer these questions, but the way it answers them depends on the viewer. It gives enough so that one is able to decide what they think the answer. But it does not give too much so that one is completely sure that their answer is correct. And on top of all of these existentialist questions is just a plain entertaining thrill ride, which is why I enjoyed the film greatly.

        Oh, and I noticed in another article you compared the explosions in Inception to the explosions in Zabrike Point and mentioned that the ones in the latter were better because they were real. In case you didn’t know, the majority of the explosions in Inception were real. They added in some CGI to it to give it another layer, but most of what you see on screen is real. Nolan uses the least amount of CGI of any blockbuster director, which is another reason why I like his films because they have an extra sense of realism to them. They are fantasy pictures, but he tries to still make them feel real (which goes back to the idea of Inception of “if it feels real, does it matter if it isn’t?”)

        One last thing: I feel something that has gone completely missing is the comparison of the end of Inception to the end of Memento. In Memento, Leonard is struggling to stay within reality and not just live in his mind. He wants his actions to have meaning in reality. This is a very materialist empirical point of view. In Inception, Cobb doesn’t care whether or not he is in reality because in his mind, he has his kids. This is a very immateralist (or subjective idealism) statement. Both films are are existentalist but are on the opposite side of the empirical scale. Memento ends with a sense of meaning to Leonard’s life while Inception ends with a sense of happiness to Cobb’s life. The progression of these endings to me show a personal journey Nolan has gone through over the 10 years in-between the films. When you’re younger, you’re struggling to find meaning in who you are, what you’re doing. As you get older, you struggle just to stay happy. Nolan appears has gone through this journey and it is quite evident with the ending of these two films.

        • Hi Magnus,

          Thanks for responding. I suppose I don’t really mind if directors don’t make commentary; that is to say, I don’t think that films need messages for audiences to unpack. Rather, the director need only make an interesting work of art. Scott Pilgrim is such a work, I’d warrant; it says, “Look at me; you can make a work of art like me!” I’ve never seen anything like it, myself. (I don’t want to oversell it, but I think it’s pretty novel.) That’s enough in my book. (Although I’d also argue it makes statements about video games, superhero movies, and comic books, as well as the movies made from those things. There are all sorts of wry observations. E.g.: when Ramona pulls a weapon out of “hammer space,” it’s an actual hammer. That’s witty. One of the Exes that Scott Pilgrim fights has been in Marvel superhero films (he played Johnny Storm, I think); SP fights him at the castle used for the exterior shots of the X-Mansion—there’s even some banter about this, between SP and Wallace—”They shoot movies in Toronto?” After that fight, SP rips off his X-Men patch, realizing that it’s an X. And so on.)

          re: the close-ups argument, there have been volumes of criticism spilled about this. I’ll try to find some back-up later on. The basic point is that, sometime in the late 80s/early 90s, producers began requesting that their directors “direct for TV/video,” because they realized that video was a major source of income. They made lists of all kinds of things they thought “played better” on the small screen; more rapid cutting and more close-ups were on that list. Again, I’ll try to find some support for this; Bordwell has written about it endlessly at his site and elsewhere.

          Whether one agrees with that assessment—that close-ups and rapid cutting play better on TVs (there’s debate)—the simple truth is that there has been a definite sea change in Hollywood filmmaking since the late 80s. It’s obvious if you compare nearly any contemporary Hollywood film with any older one. Whether that’s good or bad—it’s probably both. Some directors can work well with that style, others can’t. Everything’s a mixture of good and bad. I don’t think Nolan uses the style very well; indeed, I think he represents a real nadir in it. Wright is far more varied and imaginative. That’s my central argument.

          To take a harder line: Movies are not about ideas. They are about the ways in which those ideas are shot and edited and presented—their style. That is why style is substance; it is the only substance of the film. Inception‘s style is boring and banal. Hence the movie’s ideas are boring and banal. “The medium is the message.”

          I don’t remember the ending of Memento; your comments are interesting. (Plenty of interesting things can be said about unimaginative movies. This is why criticism is independent from art-making).

          I don’t really care how much CGI there is in a film. CGI is just a tool. Most director use it poorly, but of course it can be used well, even artistically; anything can be. I didn’t see Nolan doing anything interesting with any of his FX, really, in Inception—minus the folding city, which occupies less than 5 minutes of the film’s run-time. I’ll maintain that the explosions (and the scene containing them) in Zabriskie Point is more spectacular than anything in Inception. I suppose at some point it becomes a matter of personal preference, though. Still, Inception didn’t show me explosions in a way I hadn’t seen them before. (Again, my central argument against Inception is that the vast majority of its content is mundane.) ZP—that’s a movie I’m still marveling over, that feels fresh and exciting every time I see it. (It’s also a film that makes many important statements about 60s and 70s culture, for those who care about those things. I doubt folks will be watching Inception in forty years—but if so, I’ll…eat my hat, or something.) ^_^

          Thanks again for the comments! It’s a pleasure to talk with someone who wants to argue the actual substance of the films in question.

          Many cheers, Adam

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