Month: July 2010

Thoughts on Inception

You know you’ve enjoyed a movie when you walk outside of a theater, and your frame of mind, demeanor, attitude is completely altered compared to when you walked in.

This was best exemplified when I walked back into my apartment and was ready to fall onto the ceiling. Before walking through my hallway, I actually stopped and paused for a little bit. I wont lie — I was secretly hoping that the laws of physics would be violated, because the universe of Inception was one that I didn’t quite want to escape from just yet.

Yeah, Inception was damn good.

Neil already beat me to the punch with his thoughts regarding the movie, but bear with me. The film is fine enough that giving it slightly more coverage shouldn’t be too much of a crime. Redundancy should be forgiven here.

Any person who’s ever taken a cinema class should have had lightbulbs go off in their head all over the place throughout this film. You can marvel at the intricacy of Inception at so many levels, which is indicative of how carefully it is. From an acting/character standpoint, the cast turned in collectively impeccable performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was dastardly smooth and suave. While low on the mindfuckery scale, the kiss he stole from Ellen Page’s character has to rank among the best points in the film. Oh, on the topic of Ellen Page — alarmingly cute, as usual, yet with an undercurrent of tenacity and determination. And finally, Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a volatile roller-coaster performance worthy of the schizophrenic nature of dreams. From a plot-thematic view, you can dwell on Man’s inability to move from the past and his inability to differentiate fantasy from reality, among many other time-honored, resonant themes. From a cinematographic/special effects approach, you can gawk at the dream-imagery and wonder about how the fuck the effects artists did what they did.

But what ultimately stuck the most on me was the film, as a meta-commentary on the nature of film.

As Neil said (and brilliantly stole my thunder) below, Inception‘s situation of dream-layering and idea-planting mirrors the process of an audience watching a movie. In each metaphorical “layer,” the audience members naturally enter a deeper contract with the writers/directors as they become mesmerized by the work and deepen their suspense of disbelief. This, in turn, gives writers and directors greater access into the minds of the individual spectators to seed ideas, notions, concepts to fruition. And, paralleling the framework of rules presented in the movie-verse, the writing can’t expect an audience to willfully accept an idea with mere repetitive blatancy. You’re not going to win over an audience by hammering a line, such as “LOVE SAVES ALL,” down their throats over and over again. In that case, the audience will become annoyed.

And that annoyance makes the audience conscious of the fact that their collective dream is an artificial construct, encroaching upon the fragile suspense of disbelief that we call movie magic. Instead, subtlety has to take the place of preachy. Notions must become obfuscated under layers of interpretation to recruit the thinking of spectators. We don’t like doing what we’re told, ask any conservative. If a writer mentions, “The topic is dreams. I want you to think about it,” they’ll get a quick, mental middle-finger from the audience.

As I watched an idea being planted into one particular guy’s mind, Christopher Nolan devilishly planted many more into mine. I have to wonder how intentionally conscious Christopher Nolan was of this meta-commentary. Some moments, some lines were simply too…uncanny, for lack of a better word. But the bottom line, intentional, or not, Nolan got me thinking. And one other notion that Inception invoked was the fact that film stitches a series of images together to give them meaning. No where is this better demonstrated than at the climax of the film, when we see the conflicts on all simultaneous dream-planes converging before the ultimate “kick.” If somebody put together any old sequence featuring a beat-up van falling off a bridge into a river, a suavely-dressed guy suavely floating in an elevator shaft, an arctic base assault that wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond flick, and skyscrapers topping in a post-apocalyptic world — it’d still be pretty cool, but it’d seem more like the fantasy of some person with ADHD rather than a cohesive narrative. Yet, in the hands of someone capable, these disparate images can all be miraculously unified under the banner of a grand plot, so that we don’t question how random these images are when placed next to each other. I’m a cynical man; I don’t like using the word miracle. But in this case, I am simply too astounded to avoid that word. These shots that are so unrelated on their own are somehow sensibly resolved into one progression without leaving behind the audience. Damn. (If you question my bewilderment, you probably haven’t seen the movie.)

This leads me to my next thought. As he seeks to resolve all of the conflicts taking place across the various dream-planes, Nolan manages to generate some beautiful excuses in his film to simultaneously amp up the magnitude of the climax and account for time discrepancies. Seeing concurrent, intertwining conflicts in the climax isn’t rare in cinema. Happens rather frequently, in fact. But all too often, they’re brought together in all too clunky a manner with too many inconsistencies, many of which have to do with the uneven meshing of time. The Death Star is about to fire its superlaser in five minutes, yet the battle to shut down its shields takes about twenty. Nolan solves this issue of time resolution by placing the dream-planes on different time progressions. All of these edge-of-your-seat events can thereby occur in step and accumulate in dramatic effect. The conclusion is all the more cathartic for it.

One more thing I’d like to mention. If this is a movie about dreams, it’s appropriate that the supporting character outtros are the stuff of dreams. No cheesy sendoff dialog or hugs. There’s some brief smiles of relief after the job is finished, but then everyone gets off the plane, fetches their luggage, and gets on with their own individual lives. It’s how I wish more films, especially those with ensemble casts, would do things. There’s something about brusque, no-nonsense farewells that hint at a greater universe within the film, one that is more easy to accept perhaps because it’s more reminiscent of reality.

******

The last film to make me question my existence was The Matrix, released back in 1999. Then, there was Inception today.

After coming out the theater, I took out my keys and stroked their jagged metal edges. I pondered the legitimacy of my sense of touch.

I leered closely at the people around me. I played around with the possibility that they were projections.

Ideas are dangerous.

I wondered whether or not the world I perceived was a dream. The stifling Baltimore humidity and the sting of my sweat did a fairly quick job convincing me that all things around me were “real.”

But still, I fleetingly wondered. And that is the ultimate compliment I can give Inception.

Bravo, everybody behind the film, bravo.

[SPOILER ALERT] Christopher Nolan Performs Inception

The ending of Inception has to do more with the audience viewer than anything else. The basic premise of the movie revolves around the inception of an idea into someone’s mind. A movie is an alternate form of reality, a reverie of 2 hours. Using this definition, one can liken a dream to a movie. In this case, Christopher Nolan is performing inception on audience members. The very idea is crafted into multiple layers of the film in the same way the protagonist performs inception on the mark. In this case, the mark, the audience, leaves the movie dumbfounded and confused but with a lingering thought, an idea in the mind: this world is not real. The same dangerous questioning that led to Mal’s death is the same idea Christopher Nolan places into each viewer’s mind through his baffling ending scene, beautiful cinematography, and brilliant storytelling. One is mindfucked by the ambiguous ending scene in which the top seems to continue to spin to some while to others it is beginning to wobble. Nevertheless, the audience questions whether the protagonist is in reality, in a dream or still stuck in limbo. And the natural progression of this thought leads us to question whether our own world is a dream or real. It isn’t Mal or the Mark or even the protagonist that is undergoing inception. It is you and me.

Trippy shit.

Great movie.

07/17/10 — Artscape Day 1; Night at The Hexagon

After work, I headed to Artscape. I took a quick look around, and wasn’t quite interested in the art being displayed in the stands or the performances being held outside, so I shelled out $6 to see a random show at this place called The Hexagon.

This energetic, spunky black kid welcomed me at the door. I would later find out his name was Mo Kassama and that he was a South African with both Cambodian and African ancestry.

The show itself featured three bands, Red Sammy (which changed its name from Sweatpants), Blackberry Blonde, and Mr. Moccasin. Only Mr. Moccasin has a band page. Blech, it’s a Myspace. World, switch to Bandcamp and Soundcloud already.

Red Sammy played some Americana/alt-country in the vein of Calexico. The non-vocal instrumentation was consistently decent. At times, it was full of Man. There were certain stretches of instrumental goodness that painted images of forlorn, abandoned desert adobes, gruffy men in their 40s smoking cigars and drinking Jack Daniel’s while riding on beat-up gray looking horses underneath the brutal shine of the desert sun.

My main qualm, and this is more a contention of preference, rather than of quality, was the frontman’s voice. Not only does the the non-vocal instrumentation recall smokers and drinkers, the guy chose to adopt a chain-smoking drinker’s rasp for his primary singing voice. I’m sure you’ve heard something along the lines of that rasp before in some other artist’s song or another, but to give the technique a more tangible name, it’s called vocal fry. I’m fine with a couple of vocal fry songs in succession, but after a while, it really really grates bad, screeching chalk on blackboard bad. I’m not criticizing the artistic integrity of that technique. For some people, enjoying it is not a problem. At this point, I’m just not one of those folks.

I do admit there was one song in which I think that the rasping really worked. It’s a melancholic, downcast piece called “I Stay in Bed.” Best song from Red Sammy by far, out of their whole performance.

Blackberry Blonde was impressive. Their frontman (guy in red) was an entertaining oddball. At one point during the concert, he went on for a ten minute, instrumentally-assisted diatribe about his abusive father, which may or may not have been fictional. In terms of the myriad, muddled mess of musical genres, I’d classify these guys under the wide umbrella of alt-rock, perhaps more specifically as grunge. Not much to say; these guys got me headbanging. Also, I was surprised by what I thought were meter changes during some of their pieces, something I’d more expect to see in prog. I was rather surprised when they called on Mo Kassama as a guest vocalist to finish out their set. Go Mo go.

After they played, I talked to the drummer for a quick second. Turns out these guys have been playing together for years. It makes me wonder and lament about how talent can simply go undiscovered and be left to obscurity like that. Simply too much inundation of good music out there. Talent can easily pass through without leaving so much as a Wikipedia mark on the universe.

Headliners Mr. Moccasin provided an experience from left field. After seeing a woman with a violin, I was expecting a weirder, slightly smaller-sounding Ra Ra Riot. Completely wrong, as you may be able to discern from the presence of this instrument that looks like an unholy union of a digeridoo and a vuvuzela.

Mo Kassama loved their stuff. I myself was a bit confused. Their music mostly consisted of the front man strumming his acoustic guitar and occasionally wailing as loud as possible, as the violinist strung out discordant notes. Meanwhile, the keyboardist/vuvuzelaist weaved atmospheric growls that droned in the background.

Whoops, I’m making it sound like the music was a bit too steeped in the confines of the experimental for me to enjoy their set. It’s distinct nature made it hard to grasp the music, yes, but this set was massive fun, for one particular reason — near the end, the band members started kicking out percussion instruments to the handful of people comprising the audience to join in the improvisation. I was handed this funky thing of emptied-out nut shells. This improvisation proceeded to go on for about twenty minutes. Mo and the frontman even had a impromptu duet of impulsive lyrics and made-up words in there.

At a certain point, I have to wonder whether it’s the music that makes the concert, or the energy, demeanor, and interactivity of the band. Post-concert listening to Mr. Moccasin’s tracks on Myspace was less than aurally pleasing. But the performance was communal magic.

India: land of frustration and good food

This is more of a rant than anything, but going to a third-world developing nation can be a frustrating experience. The first thing that you smell when you come to India is the waft of pollution, piss, and uncollected garbage. After that you’re hit with the extremely hot humid weather with an airport lacking any air conditioning. Then there’s the roads. The roads are filled with people, cars, rickshaws, camels, cows, and stray dogs zigzagging across your path. Driving in India is an absolute thrill. Most cars are manual and the fact that every day you clutch your seat for dear life provides a visceral thrill that no roller coaster can provide. Maybe it’s the traffic that bugs me or maybe its the mindset of the people. On a four lane roadway people will try to cram their cars and make it an 8 lane road. It’s not even on the roadway that you see this attitude. There’s no such thing as a line in India. If you’re patiently waiting at a bank to deposit a check, you have to keep a watchful eye for the sneaky person trying to just nudge past you when you’re not looking. Another thing to note is personal space if almost nonexistent in India. People will peer over your head and cling to you when waiting at a queue at the airport with their nose almost touching the back of your head. It’s really annoying. Furthermore, there’s always a lack of trust among people. The mounds upon mounds of red tape that the country suffers from because of general distrust and a feeling that the person on the opposite side of any transaction is out to cheat you (which in India most likely might very well be the case). This make for a very inefficient and frustrating experience. If you think the California DMV is bad, wait until you have to deal with India’s similar RTO.

So you must be thinking, ranting and raving about one’s country of origin isn’t a very admirable thing, right?

Nope I don’t think so because India has a load of potential. It will definitely be a superpower in the near future and it has been one of the countries least affected by the recent recession because of its growth and the financially conservative attitude of Indians. However, I personally believe there has to be a fundamental change in the way people think in India. It cannot be about trying to get ahead at the expense of one’s neighbor. The prisoner’s dilemma is a very real problem for Indians in every aspect of life: from dealing with daily traffic, to the local bank, to even the minuscule task of standing in line to board a plane.

India is doing a lot to improve and has probably grown drastically in the last few years and developed a lot. However, stuff still needs to be done to make this country on the level of basic infrastructure that the US has.

What did I love about India? Absolutely everything else: stuff is relatively cheap here; the food is amazing; the culture is superb; the palaces are awesome; and India brings me back to earth and makes me grateful for everything I have. I know the last one sounds cheesy but when you go to Bihar and see how poor people are you really feel shitty for whining about anything.

Adding the Karate Chop to Your Repertoire of Pickup Basketball Moves

I left something out in my previous pick-up basketball post. My aching right side reminded me.

As you may recall, Cannonball was my primary defensive assignment. I was laterally quick enough to stay in front of him, at least denying him the wide open layup, but in the case of Cannonball, who was much bulkier than me, merely staying in front of him often proved to not be enough. Man, I need to hit some weights. More than lateral quickness is needed against the big and/or tall.

Anyhow, on this one particular sequence, Cannonball was driving (perhaps the better word would be “bludgeoning”) me back into the paint. No surprises here; I knew where he was going to go. I slid my feet to stay in front of him and held my arms up, doing what I could to check his progress. Upon coming within range, he gave the cue that he was going to shoot by raising his head and his shoulders. This wasn’t going to be a pump fake. I jumped, pretty hopeful that even if a highlight block wasn’t likely to happen, I would at least probably be able to contest the shot well enough to make him miss.

BAM!

I was blasted to the side. Pain shot through my right waist.

I wondered what the fuck had happened. I immediately understood when I saw Cannonball’s extended left arm.

Now unimpeded, Cannonball flicked the ball up into the backboard. I haplessly stuck up my arms to “contest” the shot.

The ball clanked a couple of times around the rim. To add insult to injury, the shot looked like a miss. But the bullshit “shooter’s bounce,” was friendly to Cannonball. The ball ultimately tumbled through the net.

“That was a major push-off,” one of my teammates complained.

Cannonball smirked and wiped his forehead. “What are you talkin’ about? Nah, it ain’t.”

Nah, Cannonball was right. That wasn’t a pushoff.

That was a fucking karate chop.

It was dirty, illegal, painful, and I have to admit, ultimately, pretty useful. In fact, I think I might try that in another game.

Based on my deductions, here’s the technique to performing a push-off-karate-chop:

1) Bludgeon your defender as far as you can with the hardest part of your shoulder.

2) When you come within comfortable shooting range, secretly maneuver your non-shooting arm to a 90 degree angle.

3) Now, give the cue that you are going to shoot with exaggerated physical motions and facial expressions.

4) Make sure your defender jumps. If he doesn’t, do #3 again.

5) Now after he or she jumps, swing your arm into the softish part of their waist right underneath their ribcage as hard as possible.

6) Score.

7) Stare down your opponent with the most fearsome face you can make. If you want, add in an animalistic grunt for good measure.

Well folks, there you have it, the push-off-karate-chop. If you do actually apply it in a game, let me know how it worked for you.