Film Recommendations Teaching


My first week of teaching is over! Or sort of over — my students just turned in their first assignments, so I’ll be reading those this weekend. We spent most of this week reading and discussing published short fiction and we begin workshopping their own work on Monday.

I am very sleepy this morning, not least because T. talked me into attending the midnight showing of Inception with him on Thursday night. Vaguely spoilery reaction below — skip if you’re not into that kind of thing. Non-spoilery reaction: it’s fun and you should see it.

Beyond that, I think A. O. Scott’s review is right on:

… though there is a lot to see in “Inception,” there is nothing that counts as genuine vision. Mr. Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness — the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity — that this subject requires. The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can’t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill.

I had the same reaction to the movie that Scott did — I really enjoyed it and admired the caper-plot machinery, but I felt slightly unsatisfied at the end. I think the problem is that the plot is designed, like just about all of Nolan’s plots, to turn on a series of reveals. Except that these reveals aren’t really surprising. You can see them coming from at least a few minutes away, if not more. T. and I were both perplexed at the critical habit of describing the movie as confusing or hard to follow — it’s complex but incredibly regular, and I don’t think I ever got confused about what was happening or where/when the action was occurring. (Roger Ebert’s review, which is very positive and definitely worth reading, does this a bit; he also points out, interestingly, that Nolan was working on this script while he filmed Memento. [Obligatory mention here of how much I enjoy Ebert’s Twitter feed, if you aren’t familiar with it!])  I found The Prestige‘s reveals more satisfying, and its moral sense more resonant, too. You would think that a movie that is explicitly about the very foundations of reality would have higher stakes than a movie about magicians, but it seems to me that Nolan might be better at approaching ethical questions sideways rather than head-on. (Do not get me started about the question of ethics in relation to the dreadful The Dark Knight.)

The other weakness of the movie, for me, was the lack of development of the relationships among the characters, especially in comparison to the character-driven drama of The Prestige. This is maybe a flaw inherent in the caper plot, though I think even Ocean’s 11 did a better job of creating real people to fill out its team (and there were, as you’ll note, eleven of them). I liked all the team members just fine — I think I will always adore Joseph Gordon-Levitt, even though I couldn’t get through (500) Days of Summer — but their interactions are shallow. The movie also wastes a chance to do something really interesting, which I won’t discuss much here because it would be super-spoilery, by eliding one large chunk of time that would have allowed it to investigate the relationship between DiCaprio’s character and Watanabe’s character, and to be weirder. I liked Marion Cotillard a lot, which was a nice change from Public Enemies in which she just seemed like a pretty but bizarre casting choice and reminded me that I really do want to see her Piaf movie. (Okay, one spoilery side note regarding her character: Nolan is really obsessed with giving his main male characters idealized wives who died in ways they may be culpable for.) And the movie also made me want to look up a few of the other actors, especially Tom Hardy, who is delightfully smirky.

In sum: not perfect, but it is a gorgeous movie. It will make you clutch the arm of the person sitting next to you, and it may make you think about it after it’s over. And if you have a partner who likes Crystal Castles, you will definitely be unable to get this song out of your head after the movie, as it’s very like the movie score in some ways:


  1. Katharine,
    How is it teaching short fiction being as how your professional goals are oriented towards long-form stuff?

    I saw it last week too. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but have some problems too. The dialogue was pretty heavy handed. Salon does this “everything about” pages for some movies. The writer advances an interesting interpretation, in which the ‘dreams’ are meant to be an analogue for movies.

    One interesting thread in Scott’s piece and others is that the dreams aren’t surreal or irrational. There are some interesting counterpoints, namely that it’s not about dreams as people experience them because it’s not quite “mad” enough.

    I found this video commentary with Nolan himself revealing, because it suggests he clearly wanted a very neo-realistic perspective in which the “dreams” feel like the world in which we live.

    I agree on the lack of development in secondary characters, and a lot of their actions are a bit contrived.

  2. I’m really enjoying teaching short fiction again (I led workshops in an intro fiction class in 2005, too). The class is so short — only five weeks — that the students have to absorb what they learn in workshop and apply it to their writing very quickly, and I’m looking forward to seeing that happen as they turn in their first full-length stories. I don’t really find that being more interested in writing long-form fiction myself has much impact on my interest in teaching short fiction, if that makes sense. Though I still really want to teach a novel workshop someday.

    Thanks for those links, too. The Salon thing is amazingly detailed; T. keeps talking about going back to see the movie again in IMAX this weekend, so I’m going to hold off on reading the whole recap for now since I’m likely to see it again soon. But the movie/dream parallel is an interesting one, especially given that DiCaprio as Cobb really does look remarkably like Bizarro Christopher Nolan, as I’ve seen a lot of critics point out. I’m not really sure what it would mean to consider Cobb as a stand-in for Nolan, though: a failed architect with lots of emotional baggage? Hmm.

    I think the unfortunate thing about the lack of secondary character development is that I felt so well-disposed toward Arthur and Eames, in particular — they both seemed like they would be really interesting if we did learn more about them, but we just never do.

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