Saturday, July 31

Intelligent movies

While Inception has exceeded box office expectations, it has not quite managed to live up to all the hype and hopes. That would be nigh impossible considering the excitement generated by the first trailer, and the critical reception has certainly not been poor. Aggregate scores of 87% and 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are more than respectable for a summer blockbuster. Though they may not be running over one another to provide the strongest superlatives, the professional reviewers have been well unified in their description of Inception as an intelligent movie, a thinking man's movie that cleverly draws in a larger audience with the promise of action. Alternatively, some have bemoaned this thinking movie that panders and loses itself in its action sequences.

For myself, I enjoyed Inception. It was not the greatest thing in this summer of otherwise disappointing films, but it was fun. The visuals, most notably the fight in the hotel halls, were spectacular. A matatu got messed up. Moreover, it was three hours in a dark, air-conditioned theater out of the Las Vegas heat. I thought the motive, breaking up a global monopoly, behind the titular inception was a little silly when it could be as easily carried out through proper legal channels, but Inception was not derivative of an existing property or part of an established franchise. For that, as much as anything else, it deserves respect and to be supported. With the reviewers, however, I vehemently disagree that it was a particularly intelligent movie.

Before this discussion can take place properly, the question of what makes a movie intelligent is begged. There are three answers to this. First, a film may be called intelligent in that it presents the erudition of its writers and directors. Such a film may accurately portray events of a historical and political weight, thus informing on a contemporary situation, or present new facts in these situations. Films like Milk, and most all biopics really, and Good Night and Good Luck. They try to present the truth, cutting away the myths and legends that have accrued in the intervening years. They seek to teach. These are the types of movies that high school teachers and college professors like to present when they can't be bothered to prepare their own lessons.

The second intelligent film is that which poses questions with ramifications outside the film and within our lives. To a lesser extent, these are in line with the questions of The Matrix. How would we know the difference between reality and its digital doppelgänger if we were born within it? Is Descartes' malevolent spirit real? Are we just a brain in a box? To a greater extent, a film may also pose questions and answers to current political issues, like the war in Iraq or the state of race in America. Prime examples of these include The Hurt Locker and Crash. These films ask us, and often propose, answers.

For me, these are the lowest forms of intelligent films. While it is all fine and good for a director to present a new perspective or pose questions of political and philosophical heft, film is a medium ill suited for it. Lest the film become a didactic lesson, these questions must be subservient to plot and character which lessons the ability to capture them in their complexity and entirety. Cypher can wax long on ignorance being bliss, but the totality of his thought can be fairly accurately captured on a freeway billboard. A book, a magazine article even, can present a more complete argument in a shorter amount of time and a much smaller budget.

The third type is not appropriately called “intelligent.” Complex would be more precise. While the above two types of intelligent films posed facts and questions and answers that have a bearing on contemporary personal and social realities, this third type demands attention to the logic of the narrative and its characters. This form of intelligence is described at length in Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, a book I responded to years ago.

This is the true type of intelligence demonstrated by Inception. All the intelligence present in the film is in keeping track of the characters, their motives and where they exist, not in its fairly ridiculous explications of dream reality and questioning of how certain we can be that we are not in a dream at this moment.

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