Friday, July 23, 2010

C.S. Lewis on Old Books

"Now this seems to me topsy-turvy.  Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.  And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.  It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.  Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.  If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.  Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why--the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.  In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed 'at' some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance.  The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ('mere Christianity' as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.  Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.  It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones."

~C.S. Lewis, from the introduction to St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY:  St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977), 4.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Inception, reviewed.

Inception, like many action movies, layers one kinetic combat set piece on top of the last. Instead of coming one after the other, however, they come one within the other. A collapsing city within a snow fortress assault within a zero-gravity hotel hallway brawl within a gunfire-peppered street chase in the rain within an otherwise calm flight from Sydney to Los Angeles (thankfully not Oceanic Flight 815). Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team use an unspecified technology to infiltrate "shared dreams" within which they are able to infiltrate dreams within dreams. The bulk of the film spells their attempt to use this ability in order to plant an idea in a tycoon's brain (Cillian Murphy) as an act of corporate espionage on a competitor's (Ken Watanabe) dollar. That's the gist.

Technically, the first hour is pure exposition, setting the stage for the intricate brain heist to follow. Like The Matrix, the world and its rules are introduced along with the characters and their respective skill sets and motivations before the big bangs can go off. Cobb used to work for dream-walking academic Miles (Michael Caine) before he was forced to flee the country and use his dream powers for money to try and get back to the children from whom he is now estranged. He connects with young Ariadne (Ellen Page) an "architect" student of Caine's skilled at constructing dream worlds that can be used to entrap unsuspecting dreamers.

One of director Christopher Nolan's acknowledged influences is Michael Mann, whose concrete sense of place is evident here. The action scenes have a pragmatic, rather than stylized, feel, as well as the concussively tangible crunch of cement, steel and glass lacking from so many synthetic cinematic conflicts. Thrilling and tense, the Russian doll action structure showcases a fantastic editing feat where the events in each layer of consciousness (within each of which time moves exponentially faster) have a kind of doppler/ripple effect on all the successive layers. So when the van in the street chase goes into freefall, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must defend his sleeping comrades on the next layer down in zero gravity. The result is exciting and new, as if Dave and HAL9000 had a shootout and fistfight aboard the Discovery. Confused? Don't feel bad, the architect--ahem, director--Nolan has constructed an elaborate but self-consistent artifice meant to incept bewildering thrills in the audience's mind.

But Nolan is too interested in murky psychological rabbit holes to leave it at that (hah). Cobb's former wife keeps violently interrupting his subconscious and jeopardizing his missions, perhaps begging the question of whether dream worlds overlap with one another. Nolan thankfully avoids ending with a cliche it's-all-in-his-mind twist and instead wrings a tantalizingly ambiguous conclusion from his interlocking action scenes. It stays with you and is sure to prove fanboy fodder for many message board arguments to come. Never before has the question of how long a top can spin been of such consequence.

Cinephiles be warned, however, don't go to Inception expecting a masterpiece. It's an exercise in cleverness, and an exciting one at that. But it lacks the existential and emotional heft of its cinematic cousins, whether Heat's languid cynicism, The Matrix's trippy liminality or even Memento's sympathy for an afflicted man trying to keep himself together. Like any action movie, the actors are stock figures in a calculated entertainment. But with Nolan as the ringmaster, the sights and sounds crackle and pop spectacularly while the plot twists and twists and twists. It's a thinking man's shootout, one that sticks in your mind after the dream is over.