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?
- 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—”
- Cut to Miles, who continues speaking: “—to convince those children they still have a father.”
- Cut to Cobb: “I’m just doing what I know; I’m doing what you taught me.”
- Cut to Miles: “I never taught you to be a thief.”
- 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.)
- Cut to Miles (leaning back): “What are you doing here, Dom?”
- Cut to Cobb: “I think I found a way home—”
- Cut to Miles, who listens as Cobb continues speaking: “—It’s a job for some very—”
- Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking (as some background music starts): “—very powerful people. People who I believe can fix my charges—”
- Cut to Miles, who’s still listening as Cobb continues speaking: “—permanently—”
- Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking: “—But I need your help.”
- Cut to Miles, who points at Cobb: “You’re here to corrupt one of my brightest and best.”
- Cut to Cobb: “You know what I’m offering. You have to let them decide—”
- Cut to Miles, listening as Cobb continues speaking: “—for themselves.” Miles: “Money.” Cobb: “Not just money—”
- 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—”
- Cut to Miles, listening as Cobb continues speaking: “—in the real world—”
- Cut to Cobb, who continues speaking: “—I need an architect who is as good as I was.”
- 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.]
- 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!—”
- Cut to Pilgrim, who continues speaking: “—You totally came!”
- Cut to Ramona, who walks forward, toward Pilgrim. “Yes, I did totally come.”
- Cut to Pilgrim, who’s staring at Ramona.
- Cut to Ramona, who looks right, then back at Pilgrim. Stacey (from offscreen): “Ahem.”
- 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–”
- Cut to Ramona as Stacey continues speaking: “—Stacey.” Ramona (nodding): “Hey.”
- 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.”
- Cut to Wallace, who’s staring at Jimmy: “Hey…”
- Cut to a reverse shot of Jimmy, who turns to look at Wallace.
- Cut to Stacey: “Oh! And this is Knives!” Whip-pan right to Knives (Ellen Wong), who raises both hands and shouts: “Hey!”
- Cut to Pilgrim (caught off-guard): “Hey!…” The camera zooms in on him to indicate Knives rushing forward…
- …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.
- Cut to Ramona, who’s staring at Pilgrim and Knives. Knives giggles.
- Cut to Knives, who’s still giggling: “So—”
- Cut to a wider shot of Knives and Pilgrim, as Knives gestures toward her haircut and continues speaking: “So, do you like?”
- 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.
- Cut to Knives, who is now looking crestfallen. She looks left, and the shot zooms out to include Ramona. The whoosh sound effect continues.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cut to Pilgrim, who looks slightly left.
- Cut to the second master again, which now reads Wallace, Knives, Stacey, Jimmy, Ramona. We hear Pilgrim’s heart beating.
- 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.”
- 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:
- Provides some exposition (about the location and the characters’ relationships with one another);
- Introduces a new character to us (we haven’t seen Jimmy yet);
- Introduces some of the characters to one another;
- Establishes the Pilgrim/Ramona/Knives triangle that will occupy much of the film’s first third;
- 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);
- 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;
- 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:
- There’s a tension between onscreen and offscreen space;
- 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);
- 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?);
- 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:
- No, it’s not my favorite film of the year.
- 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.)
- Despite these criticisms, I still think it’s a pretty magnificent film.
- Edgar Wright is a much more talented, and much more imaginative director than Christopher Nolan.
- 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.)
- Meanwhile, Inception will continue to barrel toward half-a-billion dollars.
- That’s a shame.