Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Inception" and the "Generation Gap"--Wednesday Journal

Tonight I'm catching up with a story I read last week, written by Patrick Goldstein, "INCEPTION Reveals Generation Gap" (August 4, Tribune Newspapers).

Goldstein maintains that the film "Inception" divides audiences young and old, and he unwittingly maintains that young people may have a special ability to understand the film while older viewers are too quick to dismiss it because their age makes them less able to penetrate its density. 

While I enjoyed the article for trying to make sense of this sudden "Inception" phenomenon, I found it to be a surprisingly simple-minded argument, one that ignores the fact that practically all popular arts, especially music and film,
have appealed to specific generations.  But what is new is not always groundbreaking or visionary, or what's "hip" will not always endure for decades, or mark significant strides in the art form.  The work that initially divides the public, but endures for generations, often has resonance beyond the work itself.

It's no surprise that "Inception" is hugely popular with young people, especially gamers.

More and more, contemporary motion pictures blur the line between the conventional drama and the video game.  Plots have given way to a dense interactive visual experience.  There is less reliance on location shooting,  outdoors or on sets, so that these films have an artificial surface sheen, an  industrial color scheme, with the visual sense of comic books or music videos.  There's an overabundance of sweeping "camera" movement that is becoming a cliche.

The writing in these films serves primarily as exposition, necessary only to establish the ground rules of the action; otherwise there is little need for dialogue.  Images are edited for pure sensation rather than dramatic movement, giving viewers the adrenaline rush of an amusement park ride (and often the residual nausea).  All is enhanced by music that functions more as a sound effect, and sound that is designed for maximum distraction.  Actors, when not used as "templates" for the technology of motion capture (introduced in "Avatar"), are secondary to the computer-generated special effects, explosions and cacophony.

"Inception",  like Christpher Nolan's previous "Dark Knight", "The Matrix", and countless knock-offs in between, looks  as though it could have been created completely within a computer.  Instead of offering a wider view of the world, with attitudes to challenge our own, with characters that can put us in touch with our own human condition and with ideas that could enhance, even change, our way of seeing reality, contemporary movies are imploding, reducing the world to the mundane experience of staring at a computer screen or smart phone, with no attention paid to human interaction, love and sexuality, violence in society, or a broader world-view.

It is natural that the audience that feels most comfortable with "Inception", a film that replicates the use of a computer, would be the demographic that spends a lot of time looking at a digital screen;  mostly younger people.  The film was also heavily marketed on-line, creating a strong desire among the computer-age demographic to see it, and (so as not to feel left out) to champion it.

While "Inception" certainly was elaborate, and held a certain fascination if only in concept, the film itself would not seem to inspire long-term loyalty except among the most rabid fans and techno-geeks.

I was most interested in Golstein's remarks on films that connected with young people and created heated debates between critics and filmgoers across the generational divide.  Movies like "The Wild Bunch", "Clockwork Orange", "Taxi Driver", "Bonnie Clyde", were both products of a cultural revolution as well as change agents in the culture.  They were threatening to older viewers, and connected with young people because they used the new freedoms from censorship to attempt a more honest portayal of life than was ever possible before in the cinema.  Movies were no longer "safe" entertainment.

I did take exception to Goldstein's comparison of "Inception" to breakthrough films like "2001" or "Bonnie and Clyde" that divided critics--and generations--in the past.  Here's why I think there's a huge difference between the enthusiasm for those classics and the flash-in-the-pan that is "Inception":

Then, as now, the country was divided.  But unlike today, society was newly, dangerously divided along generational as well as ideological lines, moreso even than today.  Films like "Bonnie and Clyde" were brave in their attempt to portray in fictional terms the conflicts that erupted around us, to comment on and  make sense of  difficult contemporary issues, and to become part of the cultural conversation. 

Pictures like the ones Goldstien cites, like  "Bonnie and Clyde" "The Wild Bunch", films by Bergman and Godard, were inspired by or  outraged over issues that were changing the world: Our attitudes toward sexuality and morality; the effects of violence in our culture and the tensions that saw its rise; the morality of war in Southeast Asia and the alienation of young people against the hawkishness of their elders; the rumblings in the streets as civil rights issues exploded; the political corruption that resulted in riots at our conventions ;  the role of art in society and the flouting of traditions to shake up our perceptions, to remind us of the difficulties outside the theater rather than placate us; the meaning of "being human" and the lacerating self-reflection that stirred debate and conversation from the dorm room to the coffee house.

Young people were more passionate about these issues and changing them, so they embraced these films in a special way, not just because the visuals were "cool", or the plots doubled back on themselves.

Inception", on the other hand, exists so much within its own self-contained, sexless, colorless closed system, that any attempt to penetrate it to bring some light into our own world's struggle is futile.  "Inception" has no interest in politics, gender, world events, nothing whatsoever beyond the video-game boundaries it has constructed.  (Maybe that would have been enough if the film were singularly beautiful...and I don't believe it is.)

Thus, to viewers who love film and regard movies as an original frame on the world, the film industry's pandering to a demographic whose world goes little beyond its text or Facebook or gaming screens, is a little disconcerting.  For supposedly thoughtful critics to attempt to add undeserved importance to a faddish puzzle like "Inception" is short-sighted.

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