Macchars don’t wear sweaters

Two Mind Twisters

Posted on: July 24, 2010

I saw two movies over the week (both twice), bound together by more than the fact that Leonardo, that ladies darling, starred in both – Shutter Island and Inception. The central premise of both movies was to question our sense of “real”, though approached from different directions – if your senses are your only guide to what is real, what if the senses are wrong.

What if everything is my delusion?

Shutter Island has a riveting, tense and almost electric atmosphere that grips you from the very first scene. An ominous music thunders in the background as the ship holding the lead men approaches the dock of Shutter island. I was reminded immediately of the foreboding aura of Hitchcock and Billy Wilder movies of the era this movie is set in – The Birds, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard etc. Everything in the setting adds to this crisp atmosphere – the sea and its sounds, the waves breaking against the rocks, the gloomy skies, the lighhouse, the gothic buildings, and the greenery that pervades the place. I was somehow reminded of Tintin, which i read a lot as a kid.

The tension of the movie is writ large on the face of Leonardo, which only grows as the movie proceeds. Leonardo is Teddy, a federal agent, who along with his partner Chuck is investigating the dissapearence of one of the inmates of the mental asylum housed on Shutter Island. Teddy is covertly investigating Naziesque secret mind experiments on inmates in the mental asylum. But as it turns out, the whole story is a fantastic delusion of Leonardo, who is himself an inmate of the asylum, and the proceedings an attempt to cure him. But this is revealed only gradually, as what starts as a crime thriller ends with a psychlogical twist. As the plot proceeds, we ourselves start wondering about Leonardo’s sanity, but are unsure till the very end when the revelation is made. I did not feel the movie was a very deep commentary on madness, for the movie has the somewhat naive depiction of insanity similar to the Beautiful Mind of insane people simply seeing a few extra people who do not exist. The surreal, volatile nature of madness is not captured very well. But I dont think that was ever the intent of the movie, which was more a riveting story adhering to its own internal logic. It however does leave you a little shaky, questioning your own sense of reality.

What if this is all my dream?

Inception was a more Matrixesque approach to reality-questioning, and i found slightly less memorable than Shutter Island. The subject dealt with is not insanity, but the subconscious. The protagonists use a new technique to enter dreams and steal, or even plant ideas (isnt the concept of planting ideas in the mind reminiscent of the subtle technique of suggstion in psychotheraphy, using which the knots of the subconscious are undone).  The idea is to plant an idea in the mind of the heir of a corporate empire that will result in the breaking of that empire. The plan is to enter into the dream within dream within dream of the person, and plant the idea deep into his subconscious. The plot is ingenious, and it takes a lot of concentration on the part of the audience to keep up. Even after seeing it twice with subtitles, I could understand only about 90%, and participated in extensive discussions on what was really going on. The movie touches upon a lot of concepts of psychology – projections, the subconscious, the Jungian collective unconscious perhaps, though it isnt particularly interested in delving too deeply into them. It also briefly touches upon the Solaris question of the limitation of how well we can know someone – people are always bundles of behaviors for us, rather than us ever intimately knowing the source of those behaviors – the self (i can never imagine you with all your perfections, imperfections). Another question the movie touches upon slightly more is the distinction between dreams and reality. If dreams are vivid enough, what is reality and what is a dream? Again you leave the hall with your sense of the real slightly shaken.

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6 Responses to "Two Mind Twisters"

What happened to Scorcese? This is not the guy who made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or The Last Temptation of Christ

I agree that Shutter Island it not much of a picture of insanity. Beautiful Mind was a little better even if simplistic. Through a Glass Darkly (Bergman) and The Piano Teacher (Haneke) do a better job and in any case are films of depth and beauty. So far as terrifying films about insanity of the criminal kind are concerned, perhaps Silence of the Lambs was most memorable, certainly an authentic film, with Exorcist not far behind. Our own 12 Park Avenue with Konkana Sen was leaps and bounds ahead of Shutter Island as an authentic portrayal of mental illness.

I don’t agree in the comparison with Hitchcock is fair to this great and subtle movie maker who can create terror out of water coming out of a shower (Psycho) or a man leaving his house in the night with a briefcase (Rear Window). I have never seen a drop of blood in a Hitchcock movie leave alone (god forbid) mangled bodies, and I have seen close to a dozen.

As far as the borderline between dreams and reality is concerned Dr Johnson tried to answer Berkeley’s solipsism by kicking a big stone and injuring himself. Great films intensify our sense of reality. Ultimately it seems it’s a personal choice whether we regard things as real or not. As you mentioned in your previous post, choice is more important than reality. We at least appear to have a capacity of choice.

Shutter Island is not in the class of Wilder and Hitchcock as entertainment. The Draculas did the Gothic and greenery better but there it was serious because that’s what you had paid for.

I agree with A O Scott’s as usual beautifully expressed assesment of Shutter Island. Perhaps you know that Ebert has an extra soft corner for Scorcese, for reasons everybody knows.

I pray thee peace, I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods,
And made a push at chance and sufferance.

Shakespeare
Much Ado About Nothing Act 5, scene 1, 31–38

I think Shutter Island is a real triumph of atmospherics..it really sucks you in with all that ominous music building this eerie mood..but I felt it was a little shallow in its depiction of psychiatric illness, it had these stereotypical loons that you really dont expect to see in “mature, modern” films anymore..but then again, people in the auditorium where I saw the film got really and truly spooked by that old lady tending the garden who puts a finger over her lips only to reveal dirty rotting teeth the next..they thought this was just you know, more atmosphere building..but the truth is, patients who take phenytoin end up getting these ugly rotting teeth even today..

But I thought with all its faults Shutter Island had more of a story that drew you in than did Inception..Inception just seemed like a story that blows your eyes but not your mind..which is a pity becoz Nolan has never allowed emotions to be completely dominated by visual effects before, not even in The Dark Knight where he cud have so easily gone overboard..

I just feel bad that Inception was awesome but I can imagine it cud have been so, so much better..

But that apart, I really liked how you talked about the idea of everyone questioning reality after watching both movies..so did my friends and I! But whereas after Shutter Island, where we had intense discussions about sanity, delusions and one’s sense of a cohesive self and such..after Inception, we merely ended up wondering the same things we did after watching the Matrix..

You know, since we’re on mind-twisting movies..there’s one more movie called ExistenZ which I’ve seen a couple of times on Zee Studio, and it really makes you wonder abt reality too..watch that if you can sometimes..I think its rather under-rated..

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