April 11, 2010

Variety's Peter Bart gives some words of warning to Christopher Nolan and 'Inception'

Here's the "memo":

Memo to: Christopher Nolan

From: Peter Bart

I hope you like the heat, Chris, because you've managed to put yourself in the pressure cooker.

When your new film "Inception" opens a month from now, attention will be riveted on it because of the secrecy surrounding its plot, plus its cost ($160 million), plus its cast (Leonardo DiCaprio is up to weird stuff yet again) plus, finally, because its entire presentation seems like a throwback to the '70s.

I suppose, Chris, you wanted it that way from the start. In your mind the screenplay was so unique that you instructed executives at Warner Bros. to trek to your office to read it. No copies could be circulated and cast members could read only their scenes, not those of other actors.

All this reminds me of the quirky ways of Stanley Kubrick or Richard Brooks a generation ago, and so does the mysterioso plot. Depending on who you talk to, "Inception" is either an "existential heist" film or a "surreal thriller." Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times writes that "there's a temptation to frame the film as a comment on the 'otherness' of modern life." OK, that clears it up.

But bear in mind, Chris, that your exercise in surrealism will open on a movie landscape cluttered with superheroes, homoerotic vampires, homicidal aliens and, of course, talking dogs and chipmunks. And, all the while, cinephiles will be measuring it against "The Dark Knight," which has become the "Avatar" of Batman movies.

To be sure, after "The Dark Knight," you've earned the right to some quirkitude. But bear in mind, Chris, that the era of the auteur director is a thing of the past. Today the franchise itself is the star. Filmmakers have become hired hands who are skilled at pitching a 3D tent atop a swaying tentpole.

It's difficult to remember the atmosphere of the '70s, when young filmmakers suddenly demanded final cut and even ownership of the copyright. It was 40 years ago when Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Billy Friedkin set up the Directors Company, proudly flying the flag of creative autonomy. (Within two years the flag came down.)

Studios these days are radically cutting back on their "final cut" deals. Agents no longer fall on their swords to negotiate "a film by" credits. A couple of years ago Sharon Waxman wrote a book called "Rebels on the Back Lot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System." The trouble was that, for most of the directors (David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, etc) things didn't turn out that way.

Which brings us back to "Inception." It's apparently a serious movie with serious ambitions. But today's filmgoers will be measuring it against the work of Jim Cameron or Michael Bay, not that of Kubrick. More relevant, they'll likely be hoping it's more like "Dark Knight" than your earlier surreal film, "Memento."

You may have hidden the screenplay, Chris, but you've got to lay it all out on the line come July, because that's when Warner Bros. lifts the lid off the pressure cooker. The studio insists it's proud of the picture -- but you and I know they would have loved the inclusion of at least one homoerotic vampire or homicidal alien.



  1. By the by...the book mentioned in the post, Rebels on the Back Lot, is pretty good. I read it a number of years ago and I highly recommend it...

  2. interesting-he does have a lot to live up to now

  3. I know what Bart is trying to say here, and I agree that trying to sell a film like Inception to the general public can be difficult. However, I do take issue with his gross generalization that audiences are numb to thought provoking cinema and most filmmakers are hired hacks to turn a studio profit. Movies are made to accomplish different things, and I think audiences have equal need for big action and more "well crafted" films, and my initial response from the advertising is that it will be the best of both worlds, kinda like The Dark Knight. And maybe I'm biased, but I still believe that even a hack like Roland Emmerich is still pouring some passion into the projects he works on and isn't a mindless studio drone.

    But what do I know. Just bring on Inception already so I can start praising it.

  4. What I find extremelly flawed with his proposal/advice to Nolan is how he goes on the complain about the death of art film making and the constant raise of Avatarish movies. Though I do think that to be sort of true, movies are movies, if you dont like it, go to a different business like real state of something. This to me just read "I hate you Nolan everyday" all over it. He never shares the accomplishments such as films like "Precios, an Education, The Hurt Locker, Mystic River, A Million Dollar Baby, and the list goes on and on. Though their box office wasnt Avatarish their cultural impact was enourmous. I am tired of hearing ppl say that movies are all about the money they make. The important aspect of movies is, will I find this 40 years from now and still enjoy it? If the answer is yes, that is a good movie.

  5. Well, the thing is...to people like us, the quality is what's important. The money they make, however...is what's important to the people who let the filmmakers make the films in question, so it's a fine line.

  6. hey, I know I'm a bit late, but did "Million Dollar Baby" or "Mystic River" really have a huge cultural impact? On metacritic's compilation of the best of the decade lists, neither of those two films were mentioned frequently enough. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" came up frequently in contrast.

    And yeah, Joey, as much as many hate to admit it, how much money can studios lose off of great films that don't bring in profits? That said, they should still have a place in the world.

    To the essence of the Bart thing, "The Matrix" was a huge hit in 1999. There's a lot of amazing eye candy and effects in the trailers, and to folks who feel like they can only go to the movies when they're loud, big, and exciting, "Inception" should fit the bill.

    I would disagree on the not-thinking at all thing. Pure art house is challenged, but entertaining and accessible stuff with big ideas can fare well. District 9 made 200 million worldwide last year, and WALL-E made half a billion in 2008. The reason why it might work is Nolan knows how to make it entertaining, so there's the enjoyment of watching AND the big ideas.

    "Inception" should be a solid hit and be able to make a profit, even if it won't be the success some other superhero franchises are.