From Leonardo DiCaprio, speaking in the respectable blockbuster of summer 2010, we learn that no virus multiplies more explosively than an idea; in which case, I’d like to know why the Centers for Disease Control allowed all those people to watch Inception. Lax government supervision of Christopher Nolan, whose credit will hereafter be changed in my book from "writer-director" to "primary vector," has allowed a fresh strain of twisted ideational RNA to burrow into the nervous systems of tens of millions of Americans, when they’d already been infected with that characteristic disorder of our time, Wachowski Syndrome.
It was, of course, through the authors of The Matrix that the virus became pandemic: the notion that you, hero, should feel free to use the snazziest conceivable arsenal to kill as many people as you like, because they’re not real. Those human-shaped objects are just shades of an illusory world to which you owe not the slightest responsibility. In The Matrix, this dreamland was controlled by monsters from outer space, from whom Earth had to be liberated. In Inception, it is not quite controlled by corporate spies, and the liberation (for DiCaprio) requires the snapping of tentacles that are emotional rather than ickily extraterrestrial. And yet, in either case, the activity within the fantasy realm is exclusively a matter of bang! bang! kaboom!
What is the point of having an imagination, I ask you, if the only thing that can be imagined is mayhem, perpetrated without regard for even the appearance of human life? All that cleverness in Inception, with its four parallel lines of narrative that proceed at different but interlocking speeds—like a counterpoint in The Art of Fugue! Like the Carter Double Concerto! No, actually. Like Hans Zimmer’s deeply mediocre score, whose leaden motoric thunks betray the sameness of all the Nolan dreamlands. On every level of Inception, they infect us with the identical idea: "Shoot, and never mind what happens to the target."
Our brains seethe with poison worms. Who will cure us?
I nominate Todd Solondz. He does not intend to be therapeutic, God knows (to mention a pervasively absent character in his new film), nor does he deserve to be elevated only at another writer-director’s expense. (If I were to get invidious, the proper foil wouldn’t be named Nolan, anyway, but Coen.) Yet I was so moved by Solondz’s Life During Wartime—knocked back into my seat by his characters’ pain and foolishness, then carried halfway into the screen by their innocence, their striving, their desire not just to feel better but to be better—that I, too, have tumbled into a hapless fantasy. Wouldn’t the world be wonderful if Inception were the film left to straggle through a two-week run in the art houses, and Life During Wartime got to be the blockbuster?
Moviegoers who are familiar with Solondz’s 1998 Happiness will immediately recognize the characters and situations in this new film—though I rush to say that prior knowledge is not necessary, and will serve (for those who have it) mostly to confirm that Solondz, grown middle-aged, is no longer tempted to disfigure his work with a too gleeful cruelty. His three incompatible sisters from Happiness—one housewifely, one timidly artistic, one consumed by her worldly success—have now left New Jersey for sites of forgetting, in Florida’s Jewish belt and the hills above Los Angeles: places where you don’t see much that looks like it has a past, and the light and color (in Ed Lachman’s cinematography) have the suspect sweetness of a gumdrop. The past lurks anyway, returning in the form of schoolyard rumors, wheedling phantoms and a man who was said to be dead and acts like it.