Christopher Nolan's top-secret tentpole stirs scrutiny

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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 in July, 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.

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