The State of the Art

Way back when I was just a kid (1962 to be precise) my folks and I went to a movie called “Experiment in Terror.”  It made a big impression on me, and though I hadn’t seen it in nearly 50 years, I remembered quite a bit about it.  So when TCM showed it the other night, I made it a point to watch, at least in part because it starred the late, great Ross Martin as the antagonist.

I have to say it surprised me.  I still found it tense and kind of disturbing, but after almost half a century of movie-viewing, there were things about it that left me thinking “That’s it?”  After giving it some thought, I realized that thrillers in particular have upped the ante for movie audiences over the years.  Each one has to be bigger, more tense, have more violent action.   I think there’s still room for films like “Experiment in Terror” in part because it was tight, well-written and well-acted by a damn fine cast that included Lee Remick, Glenn Ford, a very young Stephanie Powers, and a gaggle of familiar character actors who formed the backbone of so many films in the fifties and sixties.

Ross Martin’s portrayal is central to the film.  Without him or someone equally convincing in the role of Red Lynch, this film wouldn’t have been half as good.  He’s just threatening enough, just creepy enough to terrify without getting into Hannibal Lecter territory.  And Remick’s Kelly Sherwood was a surprisingly tough, resilient woman who was going to go down fighting.  She needed help from the FBI but she didn’t need rescuing.  There was not even a hint of a romance between her and Glenn Ford’s Agent Ripley which was very refreshing.

Where the film seemed dated to me was in the action segments.  When the agents were trying to find Toby Sherwood, she was in the first place they looked.  There wasn’t a lot of double and triple-think going on.  They did their detective work and found her.  And in the climax of the film, Lynch attempts to take the money and run, and is almost immediately gunned down by the feds.  There wasn’t any enormous shoot out, no killer with explosives strapped to his body, no hostage situation, no killer who keeps on coming at you after he’s been shot fifty times, just a guy who tried to take money that wasn’t his and paid the price.  Frankly, while the emotional me thought it felt a little flat, the thinking me said “Well done; an honest thriller without a lot of the hyperbolic BS that movie studios seem to crank out these days.”

But in the end, I don’t know that there’s any sort of solution to this dichotomy because we are both thinking and feeling creatures who watch movies not just to be stimulated in one way or the other.  We want to think (Many of us do anyway) but we also want to be emotionally engaged, and that doesn’t always happen via a smart script and solid performances.  Sometimes the thrill is what we crave, even if it’s a stupid one.

All of which sort of brings me around to talking about “Inception” which I went to see on Saturday with Glinda and Jim.  Let me say right upfront that I liked it a lot, and I’d enjoy seeing it again, in part because there were things about it that keep gnawing at me, things that felt either inexplicable or just plain wrong. (About which, more in a bit.) But it seemed to me that “Inception” is one of those high-stakes films which have upped the ante to almost unbearable levels.  Where do you go from a film with multiple timelines any or all of which might be false?  I confess I don’t know.

I’m not complaining.  It was intriguing to try to sort out the facts of each timeline in order to figure out exactly what was happening.  But as I said, there are things about it which bother me, and the most bothersome of them all are the scenes in the hotel with Mal.  (I’m trying not to spoil anyone, and I doubt that you’d understand a thing I’m about to write if you haven’t seen the film, but just be warned here. I have no patience for people who start whining about being spoiled after being warned.)  In the first of those scenes when Cobb and Ariadne meet Mal in the hotel room, the first thing I noticed was that it seemed that the room had a mirror image.  If you look out the window and through the window on the other side, the room you see looks like the room you’re in.  Okay strange, but it’s a dream, right?

Then when Cobb tells Ariadne what happened to Mal, how she died, we return to that room, and see Mal sitting on the window ledge of the mirror-image room.  Several times Cobb asks her to come back in, and gestures to her to come to him in the original hotel room; he actually gestures to her to come across the gap between the buildings.  The only way that can work is if that scene is a dream, too.  And if that scene is a dream, then it throws into question the reality of the entire film.

Fair enough, maybe everything we see is a dream, but in effect that damps down the emotional content quite a lot, for me at least.  So I’m a little curious about what other people think about it.  Is it all a dream (which throws the whole film into an excercise for the thinking self.)  Or does that scene mean something else?  Is it not what I think it is, and is the emotional content then left intact?  I really don’t know what to think.

IO9 has an post about the screenplay which is worth looking at.  I’m not big on this sort of fannishness anymore, but I really am thinking seriously about getting the book of the screenplay just to suss out a little more about the film.  In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter what the truth is or how far this film takes us into strange new territory.  If it grabbed hold of you, then it’s done its job.

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