Christopher Nolan's piece of high art at a huge cost

Christopher Nolan has never been psychoanalyzed. “Only by film critics,” the director laughed. But his subconscious provided a kind of three-sided Rorschach test this year for audiences, critics and industry alike: “Inception,” which bewitched many, bewildered others and banked a global $820 million, was purported to be a pipeline into Nolan’s own cranial dream factory. Whatever it all meant — and there may be a million interpretations of Nolan’s multistoried crime tale — the film seemed to imply that, given enough money, an arthouse film could wrangle a multiplex audience.

Nolan — predictably, perhaps — resists the labels. “I think with every film, I’ve tried to go into it without limiting the film to any particular genre expectations or expectations of scale,” he says. “But I always knew ‘Inception’ was a mainstream film; I knew it was a film that would involve a wide audience in both the logic of it and also in the entertainment of it. So I was always very clear to the studio about that being my goal.”

He readily agreed that the film, which by most accounts cost at least $160 million, was personal. “I try to make every film I make personal, especially one I spent such a long time working on,” he said, referring to the decade it purportedly took to develop the script, a period during which he directed “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight.” “But I’ve been treated very well in my career by both the studio and the audience, and I trust the audience that they’re up for an experience that feels fresh.”

Freshness is one thing; rococo obscurity is another for a movie that even one of its biggest supporters, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, says “feels like it makes more sense than (quite possibly) it does.”

The narrative thread of “Inception” is a gnarly, knotty thing: Expat dream surfer Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is practicing a brand of corporate espionage that involves stealing information from the minds of his sleeping victims. Then, in the first of what will be a series of flips, flops and half twists in the story, Dom is enlisted by a Japanese industrialist (Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea in the mind of a competitor (Cillian Murphy), thus earning for himself a return to the U.S. — and his children, whom he hasn’t seen since committing some mysterious crime.

But the calling card of “Inception” wasn’t narrative — it was hallucinatory visuals: cities collapsing in on themselves; parallel universes colliding; the concept of space itself becoming both elastic and constrained. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of — and, as per Nolan, shared.

“I think the experience of a movie, with an audience, is the closest thing we get to a collective dream, which is what the film’s about,” says Nolan. “So for me, it’s all very natural, in conceiving of dream levels and dream worlds that have been created for someone else, that there would be a cinematic feel to these things. There is a relationship between the way the dreams are portrayed in ‘Inception’ and different genres of film.”

For all the hallucinatory, mind-expanding imagery of “Inception,” one of the more remarkable things about it is that it got made at all. Only a director with Nolan’s track record — “The Dark Knight” grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide — could have gotten Warner Bros. to sign on to a project so difficult to explain. “I’ve always had a very good relationship with Warner Bros.,” Nolan says, “and can honestly say that I was treated with as much respect when I made my first film for them, which was ‘Insomnia,’ as when I made ‘Inception.'”

For director Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, New Line seemed to think it had a hit on its hands from the beginning and was willing to spend accordingly, doling out close to $300 million total for the three installments. The studio was rewarded with some of the more profitable films of all time (and proved with “Return of the King” that for the Academy, the third time was the charm, as the fx-heavy behemoth took a record-tying 11 Oscars, including for picture and director).

“I think I’ve earned (Warner Bros.’) trust that way,” Nolan says. “I make sure that we’re all seeing the same movie, that we all understand what we’re getting into. And I’m extremely grateful for them getting onboard with ‘Inception,’ because it certainly is, on the page, challenging material.”

It certainly challenged audiences. “I think our experience with ‘Inception’ was very similar to our experience with ‘Memento,'” Nolan says of the film that first brought him to the attention of Hollywood and audiences alike. “I found that people who went into the film feeling that they had to understand it and who tried to analyze it as they watched it grew more confused than people who just tried to enjoy the experience and be entertained by it.”

He said that, for most people, it’s not possible to analyze a film while watching it, and that “Inception’s” biggest fans were people who were inclined to “let it wash over them or be immersed in it. You don’t really want an audience to be watching a film in that analytic mindset anyway. People should just let it take them somewhere.”

More articles from Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview:
Auds entertained by pics’ royal pains | The ‘Inception’ phenomenon | A live-action approach to animation
First Person: Six helmers behind some of the year’s most buzzed-about pics talk about their inspiration
Darren Aronofsky | Danny Boyle | Lisa Cholodenko | Debra Granik | Mike Leigh | John Cameron Mitchell

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