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The Lure of Fantasy

Updated on March 2, 2013

It seems reasonably fair to group these three films together, if only on the basis of personal taste: Brazil (1985), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and Inception (2010). None of them are typical. And all take bold chances. Despite good casts and sound financial budgets, they bucked the odds. There are fans of almost every genre. But the surreal, the fantastic, the mind-bender, the brain-teaser, or the oddity are nearly always hit and miss, and far more the latter than the former.

In Twelve Monkeys, time travel is problematic. The underground never quite gets it right. Or so it would appear. Ultimately, everything that goes wrong eventually goes right. Kinda hard to explain. The underground goes back in time in order to stop a virus that will destroy life above ground. Yes, the underground is literally under ground, not just a venue churning out experimental music. There is much not to like about living under ground. It is pretty horrible, actually. The protagonist, Cole (Bruce Willis), is serving a sentence down there, too, but his superiors, or prison-keepers, do not seem so much better off, only more demented.

Brazil is another dystopia. It was made in 1985. Everyone is addicted to little screens. Somebody must have had a prophetic imagination to come up with something so ridiculous it would have to, in time, become true. The protagonist in Brazil, Sam (Jonathan Pryce), has a cushy job and connections. Unfortunately, he also has enough insight and understanding to make a sensible determination that life in this period of time, just so, inundated with pointless bureaucracy, signatures in triplicate, sudden raids, recorded phone messages, and worst of all, an insect, literally, that gums up the whole works, is not worth living. Unless, and here is the catch, he can actually make a certain, escapist, recurrent dream turn into a reality.

Inception is the most recent surrealistic film, every bit as high quality. And its focus on the subconscious makes it even more groundbreaking -- despite Lathe of Heaven (1980), a precursor after a fashion. There is probably more truth in Inception than fantasy, since it may actually be factual that human beings never quite emerge from dream states in varying degrees. The film goes much further, of course, and suggests that dreams are hiding stuff, for lack of a better term, that is worth incredible risks to extract. A theory comes about that rather than extract, valuable ideas can also be implanted. It works both ways, but not without strenuous effort and exceptional courage. To intrude upon these dream states, sometimes dreams within dreams, the lines between waking and dreaming are hopelessly blurred. At times, the protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), seems completely lost. He hires a helpmate, Ariadne (Ellen Page), and together they penetrate one dream level after another. But there is another woman, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who has a certain power over Cobb, and can stop him cold. Is she real or not? Maybe only a stubborn memory? And does is make any difference? The dreamworld hardly ever makes a distinction, either in real life or on screen, between reality and the imagination. Dreams plunge headlong into any territory whatsoever. Sometimes, one awakens, and that is accounted for, too. Cobb is topnotch, highly sought after by corporations deep into spying (another stretch, eh?), and also into this new, devious, invasive business. He cannot fall back on anybody, however, though he has colleagues, and must rely on his own mind to instantly, if at all possible, decipher what is happening.

Psychology is often called the final frontier among the medical-minded. If Inception does nothing else, it serves as a constant reminder throughout that the mind is still resistant to genuine analysis. Its true anatomy remains unknown. Psychology's revered ancients wrote in the early 1900s. Since then, it is hard to differentiate between real progress and changing fads. Maybe psychologists are more informed, maybe not. They developed a lot of terms, that much is beyond dispute. Also, open talk about the mind is sometimes considered sixty-ish and cannot compete against the litanies of self-designated professionals, who can actually make a living with their analytical skills. Psychiatry, of late, has made great strides, everybody says, especially in the field of chemistry, but its main achievement to date remains to make people feel awkward in the presence of its practitioners. Inception does not bother with them. It is a smart film, but not easy to figure. The viewer will probably develop his or her own idea as to what is real and what is not despite the characters, their dialogue, or the action -- which may or may not merely be subconscious projections. As it is, it would be almost impossible to summarize the narrative. But it takes off after a certain point very early on.

The thing about these films is that they cause one to think and not necessarily reach concrete conclusions. Few films fit this mold, moving not from answer to answer, but question to question. It has been well over a century since Andre Bazin, assisting the Nouvelle Vague, wrote What is Cinema? One need only peruse the first paragraph to appreciate the high standard he sets for films, likening them to Egyptian mummies, involved in the ongoing battle against death. Unfortunately, all this speculation on representations, what they mean, and what they are for, usually seems inapplicable. There has not been anything much like the French New Wave and the kind of excitement it generated since it came into existence in an ever more distant time. Nevertheless, these three films speak of the possibility of once again lifting the film medium upward into a new phase of creativity. It is surely interesting to find oneself actually thinking, however crazily, while watching a movie, instead of just letting one's mental apparatus go. Many film instructors can attest to the fact that after having watched an entire film, students often grow completely mute. Sometimes the politics of the classroom is responsible. But it is also as if brains can be short-circuited by imagery, whether imagined or screened.

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