Imagination, Rapture, and the Waking Dream

One seemingly petty, little, foolish choice is all it takes for an ideal life to turn into a nightmare.  This seems to be the message as we watch publishing magnate David Aames, played by Tom Cruise, loose his million dollar good looks in a shocking car crash staged by his kamikaze lover..

This act one turning point In Cameron Crowe’s 1997 “Vanilla Sky” is especially resonant to the culture that the character David Aames was created to comment on. He’s a billionaire playboy; handsome, smart, riding high in corporate splendor, and full of himself.  Just prior to the crash, Aames falls head over heels with, and blatantly steals his best friend’s girl, the enchanting Sophia played by Penelope Cruz.  Next morning he is confronted outside Sophia’s apartment by the psychotic former girlfriend Julie, played by Cameron Diaz.  He submits to a joy ride with her that ensnares him in a suicide pact.

As his new fate would have it, Julie dies, David does not.  He survives, but his face is destroyed.  It becomes a scary cross to bear.  Watch in dismay as the charismatic wunderkind reverts to awkward, juvenile social traits he once outgrew

The masterful make-up of Aames post-crash face makes Cruise look alternately tragic, comic, frightful and pathetic, but all in sympathetic measure.  Unable to abide this, Aames adopts a facial prosthetic that makes him look embarrassed, guilty, resentful and maudlin.  Its haunted, plastic pout seems to plead, “how could this be happening to me?”

Good friends try to help Aames with his pride as he slides into identity crisis. An effortlessly hip self-image was Aames’ brand.  The winning smile was his logo. Where did it all suddenly go?  He’s supposed to be the ace of a magazine empire, where cheated images pervade the pages.  How very, very thin are a few layers of skin.

To solve the dilemma of living life with either a deformed or a synthetic face, David Ames has his brain wired to some kind of pre-programmed dream that plays in his head while his body sleeps in cryogenic peace, presumably waiting for a technical breakthrough in reconstructive surgery.

To ensure his dream on ice is nice and hot, Aames contracts with a shady tech company for a digital lover. It is, of course, Sophia, the wise, whimsical dancer he fell in love with before the accident.  If the first crucial turning point was when Aames got in Julie’s car, the next one is his choice to go to sleep and dream of love with Sophia rather than face the problem that stopped him in his tracks.

What is the metaphor in that deep freeze we never get a look at in the center of this movie?  How often lately have we seen our real life corporate and government leaders behave like leading men; on-screen pushing some fantasy romance with the voter/consumer, off-screen praying secret deals and science will make-up their bets.

This expertly tailored film scenario proceeds with Aames attaining what he never could in real life, true love.  Achieving increasingly lucid states, he tries to take over the fantasy and make it real.  It only brings more pain as Aames mistakes Sophia for Julie and his embrace tightens like a chain around her in bed, not loving but smothering her to death instead.  It’s a dreadful scene to watch and lands the masked Aames into a shadowy prison cell where he pleads his case to a corduroy shrink with perfect pitch played by Kurt Russell.

This dose of therapy enables Aames to open a connection with the corporation that provides his dreams and confirm that the memory of Sophia’s murder is complete artifice. It’s just a technical glitch in the program caused by Aames efforts to gain control of the illusion.

The mask eventually becomes a burden greater than the flaw he is trying to conceal, and it does come off eventually, but not without a piece of his hide. The mask has no power of it’s own.  It is a simple law of nature that a hiding place becomes a prison, the consequences of putting off an appointment with destiny.  To attempt to live above, or be immune to, or cheat one’s way through always ends up working against you.

With the assistance of a tech support angel our hero eventually thaws out 130 years later. He can feel the weight of his real problems again and the consequences of going to sleep. Forsaking his privileged mindset he’s grateful to leave the fantasy behind for “real life.”

Why did I like this story? Most of us are just as prone to this same character defect.  I learned a lot from watching an ego, a mask and a shattered face all try to occupy the same space.

In what ways am I sleepwalking in some illusion?  We all seem to keep having to learn the same lesson about this. What else could explain how unbalanced our world feels? And how long will we let business and government leaders play make-believe with the future?  Eventually they have to come out from behind their masks of company and committee and face the consequences too.  Because, as this film makes so abundantly clear, we’re just putting off the inevitable.

Arab Spring

Last month I wrote about an Italian film that was a huge international success. This month I choose one by another Italian that I admire. This film was considered a total disaster critically and financially.  It’s about American youth in the 60’s in rebellion against the establishment.  At the time, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s ninth film was one of the worst money losers in history.   Since then, “Zebriski Point” has been almost universally put down.

The worst part of “Zabrisiki” is its performances, but I think I have seen acting like this one other time, when it was being praised.  It was in a performance of  “Iphigenia at Aulis” by Euripides; a play that portrays a father ritually sacrificing his daughter to the gods to boost his standing in the Trojan War.  Those in the audience who were gushing over the performances were aware the acting technique was antique, but it gave us a pleasure, similar to hearing music played on period instruments.

When I first watched it, I thought Antonioni was sacrificing the darling daughter of America, namely consumerism, to the gods of youth and beauty whom the Greeks called Aphrodite and Adonis. Likewise, I thought Antonioni’s decision to make the actor’s performance seem wooden was a classy homage to the Greek origins of western drama.

I have since read that Antonioni gambled on his lead actors, choosing pretty looking revolutionaries that were amateur actors and he found them very difficult to work with, especially the boy.

Before reading much about it though, I thought Antonioni was also poking fun at American porn films from that time period.

By the 1960’s adult films had evolved from crude roll playing in one reel stag movies, into feature scenarios with badly acted narratives quickly leading to expertly conducted sex scenes.  Those brightly lit, fuzzy-edged frames were later labeled “soft-core” after hard-core went mainstream.

The big orgy at “Zebriski Point” was a feast for Antonioni’s detractors.  Again, I found the choreography so campy, and put-on that it was a turn off instead of a turn on. Which is exactly what I would expect from Antonioni. He regularly plays against expectations in his films, so I didn’t question it. I presumed it had sprung from the filmmaker’s genius and I laughed with him and enjoyed myself.  My laughter turned to awe while the cinematography at the end of the scene made the episode seem, by turns, sublime and transcendental.

In my untutored state, I thought the decision to make the final “Point” of his movie with multi-camera documentary footage of the demolition of an opulent resort home reason enough to make his feature in the first place. It might help you to understand that the story begins in a crowded room where American university students are plotting a revolution.

Symbolically, this finale could be read as Antonioni strapping consumerist society to a bomb and detonating it.  He was in America for the first time, shooting in legendary California, the movie Mecca of the world. Here was a deep-thinking outsider making the authorities nervous with his portrayal of alienated American youth.  I read that the Feds grew so paranoid and suspicious they tried to run the production into the ground. Would the critics rescue him?  Nope.

As a consequence, many people will never see this superbly controlled and photographed event, invented in the late sixties before big explosions in movies had come into vogue. You used to have to watch a two-hour, playfully stylish, and mythical love tragedy to get to these closing fireworks. This scene can be watched as a stand-alone event now. It lasts about five minutes.  Watch it full-screen, if possible. Tell me what you think the director had in mind.