Ogres are like onions...

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Technology & Memory as a Prison

Watching Inception (Nolan, 2010) and Dr Who - The Girl Who Waited (Hurran, 2011) this week made me think about memory and its connection with modern technology. Both texts utilise the idea of modern technology (the virtual dreamworld created in Inception and the space-hospice in Dr Who) to examine the ways in which people cling onto the past in different ways; often with destructive consequences. The message of the former seems to be: 'cling onto your past at the cost of your future.' The recurring motifs of the 'projection' of Cobb's late wife and the image of the back (never the front) of his children playing in the garden serves as a potent reminder of the danger of living in the past (Cobb's wife) to the detriment of one's future (Cobb's children). Only when the memory of his wife is dispatched is he able to engage again with 'real life'.

I think it is here that the film is really interesting. On the whole there are lots of silly things about Inception (it is the kind of film I loved as a teenager and thought terribly profound), but the idea that a) you can become consumed by your past and b) you CHOOSE to do this IS quite a profound one. The final shot of the film [spoiler here] is of the spinning top Cobb uses to test the 'reality' of his world - if it continues spinning then it is a dream. Nolan cuts the slow zoom onto the spinning top before it can fall; we actually watched this shot several times, arguing whether there was a slight tremor that indicated it was about to fall, thereby confirming Cobb had indeed returned to reality and his children. The ambiguity belies this neat ending, and therefore leaves it to the audience to decide. But does it really matter? If Cobb has chosen to live in a dream in which his wife is dead but he still has his children, what he has done is merely swap one dream for another. So the narrative seems to suggest that free will (in this sense just the freedom to choose) is the defining nature of existence.

The use of technology is linked to this self-determination. From the early days of Friends Reunited (remember them?) to the ubiquity of Facebook, a very modern preoccupation is to check out what other people (often from your past, often those you don't really see any more) are doing/what they have achieved/how fat they've got or not as the case maybe. This can become addictive, and seems quite ironic that for a society that can communicate instantly with anyone in the entire world at any time, we spend SO much time looking back. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is where Ariadne (Ellen Page) imagines the dream world folding in on itself, with the ground forming the sky. Is the Chinese-box style narrative a comment on this? Or the confines of a depressive mind-set, whose thought patterns run around and around on the same track?

Dr Who is less ambiguous in its judgement of the past (and future). Of course Rory chooses the young Amy. He had no choice; she was his future. The old Amy was stuck in the past (or future), isolated, hating, suddenly a genius capable of constructing a sonic screwdriver out of a bit of piping and a hairpin. Yet she was still Amy. Of course Amy is in a literal prison, but this has been shored up by her making a prison out of her memories ('I knew a boy who pretended to be in a band...'). The inability to move on from the past, this episode suggests, will age you, make you embittered. Existing only to survive. The technology here is designed to at once keep people alive (or at least comfortable in the passage to death), yet for the all-too-human Amy it is a living death. One touch from the (frankly slightly silly) handbots and she's a gonner. Lack of human contact, present, warm, messy, is the stuff of life in Dr Who. Interestingly Amy builds herself a Rory, with a smiley face but no hands. Now she has control. The final scene of 'The Girl Who Waited' sees old Amy and Rory touching hands through the glass door of the Tardis. They touch, but do not touch. Because old Amy cannot forgive, she cannot break through the wall she has built around herself. Technology distances, yet gives the illusion of closeness. And yes, I cried at the end of both of these. But then I'm soft.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

It's a Mad Mad Men World

I'll admit that I've come to Mad Men a little late; we are currently half way through Season Two. And I have to say it is one of the best TV dramas that I've seen. Truly; beyond the slick production, attention to period detail and beautiful costumes (not to mention the actors who wear them), there is something at the heart of the drama that is Shakespearean. This sounds hyperbolic, and it is.

The Mad Man is Don Draper (or not as we discover in Season One) and his alcohol-fuelled, sex-obsessed office of Sterling Cooper Advertising. The opening credits see an animated Draper-esque shadow falling from a NY sky scraper (9/11 imagery) and his sophisticated life of cocktails, shows, dinner parties and fancy cars are very evidently a thin facade. So the audience is immediately informed that He Will Fall. The question is: is he Othello or Macbeth? (Draper is not introverted enough for Hamlet); there was a suggestion that the narrative would take the former path when the slimy Campbell discovers Don’s secret. When this doesn’t pan out and with the increasing focus on the narrative on the breakdown of the Draper’s marriage, perhaps Macbeth would be a more suitable comparison.

I am rambling a bit here, I realise - possibly I should keep quiet until I’ve seen all of the series. However, I do like the emptiness of the lives of the characters; that they are all ‘profoundly sad’ (as one of Betty Draper’s would-be suitors so melodramatically terms it), reflecting the emptiness of the advertising business. I like the conspiratorial references made between the writers and the audience with how terrible things were in the 60s (the smoking, the sexism, the racism, the littering – somehow the most shocking) and how much better things are now. A more critical perspective would point out how heavy handed all this is. But I think that this is one of the show’s strengths. This is a drama about emptiness, lack of meaning. The audience gets very little in the way of intimate knowledge of the characters’ inner lives – it is all exterior. Even Betty’s foray into psychoanalysis is superficial (partly because of her reticence and partly as it is Draper’s way of monitoring and controlling her).

For a thoroughly modern C21st audience we are allowed the space to read the characters as we please. And this is Mad Men’s genius.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

This Blog is called 'So Many Nickels and Dimes' because ...

It was watching The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) as a child that I suddenly realised that a film was more than just a story in visual form. The quotation is from the scene where 'The Turk' asks Don Corleone for money as he wishes to expand his drug-dealing and needs the power and influence that Don Corleone has over the police and local politcians that he carries around in his pockets 'like so many nickels and dimes.'

There are two main reasons why this particular quotation has stuck in my mind: firstly it's such a powerful simile. I love the image of lots of tiny policemen and senators being knocked around carelessly in the deep pockets of an Italian wool overcoat, like Borrowers or Minpins that the Don might take out and trade for a coke.

Secondly, in the narrative of the film this is the turning point. It is because of the refusal of Don Corleone to engage with drug-dealing that The Turk makes a play for his position, resulting in Sonny's death and the shooting of DC himself. Coppola directs the scene with the same steady pace as the opening scene of film (inside the house during Connie's wedding), yet the camera angles belie the high-key lighting to give the scene its sense of unease, so that even a kid with no understanding of politics could pick up that the Meeting Did Not Go Well.

Although as an adult I see the melodrama of this text, I still love its attempt to do Greek tragedy, where Michael is destined to become his father and push away the moral centre that is Kay. And, responding to the film as a child, I think there is an appeal of a culture that has clearly defined rules (albeit abhorrently violent ones) and loyalties; there is something quite logcial about that in a Lord of the Flies-kind-of-way.

I'm intending for this blog to become an outlet for my ideas/reactions to film (and some TV), and will eventually include teaching resources for Film and Media GCSE and A Level. I hope that you find something interesting/useful here.