Tuesday, June 28, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #23: VANILLA SKY
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Cameron Crowe. I’ve already written about three of his films this year (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, SAY ANYTHING and ALMOST FAMOUS) and I can’t resist doing one more. VANILLA SKY is not as highly regarded as some of the filmmaker’s other work. The film wasn’t a huge money-maker (at least, for a Tom Cruise vehicle budgeted at $68 million) and it got mixed reviews. I know a few people who really love this film, but I can name a few who hate it. Personally, I think VANILLA SKY illustrates exactly what’s so great about Crowe as a filmmaker. To quote the guitar hero of ALMOST FAMOUS, he's all about the “little things.”
VANILLA SKY was Crowe’s followup to ALMOST FAMOUS as well as his second film with Tom Cruise (after JERRY MAGUIRE). The director says that the project began with a private screening of Alejandro Amenabar’s ABRE LOS OJOS at Cruise’s house. The actor already loved the film and had bought the rights to remake it. When Crowe saw it for the first time, he was equally captivated. He decided it would make a perfect “contemporary” successor to his intensely personal period piece ALMOST FAMOUS, and he was eager to reassemble his company of players from that film. He knew he had a great band (so to speak), so he re-assembled them and set out to perform an elaborate “cover song.”
"Cover song" is an appropriate designation, considering the way that Crowe made ABRE LOS OJOS his own. Often, VANILLA SKY is a scene for scene remake… but there’s never any question that it is Crowe’s film. ABRE LOS OJOS is mostly cerebral. The remake is more emotional. In visual terms and in terms of story, VANILLA SKY has a warmer palette. Of course, that may be part of the problem for some viewers…
Amenabar’s source story – about the journey of a man’s sleeping brain inside his cryogenically frozen body – plays out like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. ABRE LOS OJOS is enigmatic, haunting and often forbidding. The colors are muted, the silences are tiring, and the characters never quite connect with each other. It’s an arthouse thriller. VANILLA SKY is more like a Ray Bradbury story… the sci-fi elements are still there, but the emphasis is on the human drama. (Think JERRY MAGUIRE in THE TWILIGHT ZONE.) That human touch comes from Crowe’s major contribution to the story: “the lucid dream.”
One of the characters in the film describes the lucid dream concept as “the cryonic union of science and entertainment.” Not only will your body be preserved after you die, but your mind will be sustained in an evolving dream, controlled by your subconscious. For Cruise’s character, that means that “reality” is comprised entirely of the things that he loves – his favorite movies (JULES AND JIM and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD feature prominently), his favorite songs (Bob Dylan, Radiohead, etc.), his favorite magazine covers (including a Rolling Stone issue with Katie Holmes on the cover…) and a healthy, long-term relationship with the woman he loves (Penelope Cruz). Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s what Cruise’s subconscious mind figures… and his dream-come-true slowly turns into a bad acid trip. His mind finally rejects the artificial reality… the same way that humans rejected the perfect world matrix in THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS. Cruise’s character, inundated by pop culture, yearns for something real.
On one hand, Crowe seems to be pointing out the dangers of getting too immersed in pop culture. At the same time, VANILLA SKY is a celebration of pop culture and its ability to meld with our memories. When Cruise's ideal world eventually turns sour, that doesn’t mean that Bob Dylan’s music isn’t still a vital part of his real identity. If a person “wakes up” from a lucid dream, they’ll still love the same things. That’s an idea that resonates with me. Hell, I could have called this blog LUCID DREAM instead of MOVIES MADE ME… Both phrases are getting at the same idea. Pop culture is part of who we are.
Cruise’s character is always part of an “electronic crowd scene.” One critic referred to VANILLA SKY as Cameron Crowe’s White Album, but I prefer to think of it as his Sgt. Pepper – with Tom Cruise standing in for the allegedly dead Paul. Tonally, this is something very different from ABRE LOS OJOS… because the familiar pop culture sights and sounds in VANILLA SKY draw us into a warm cocoon, instead of alienating us in the twilight zone.
Crowe’s biggest inspiration for this particular project was filmmaker Billy Wilder. He revered Wilder so much that he tried to cast him as Cruise’s “coach” in JERRY MAGUIRE. Wilder turned him down flat, so Crowe wrote a book about him instead. Reading Conversations with Wilder, one realizes that Crowe sees his cinematic hero not as a cynic (though many critics have labeled him as such) but a romantic. Wilder’s formula is simple: The sweet is never as sweet without the sour. That is also the essence of VANILLA SKY. Sometimes the film gets very dark and depressing and sometimes it also gets syrupy sweet… but these extreme highs and lows exist for a reason. The main character is living heightened experiences… We’re seeing his life (the greatest hits collection) flash before our eyes, and Crowe has to convey the emotional intensity of a lifetime of intense experiences in just under two hours of screen time. It makes sense for the viewer to feel overloaded. It took me several viewings to distinguish and appreciate the “little things” that make this movie so special.
The first time I saw VANILLA SKY, I thought Tom Cruise was simply playing a caricature of himself. On repeat viewings, I started to see his vulnerability. As in JERRY MAGUIRE, Cruise truly reveals himself only when he holds that camera-ready smile so long that the veins in his forehead start to protrude, and the smile begins to look like a plea for help. (I’ve often thought that Cruise and Julia Roberts suffer a similar affliction… and that their smiles will one day be the death of them.)
On first viewing, his character’s downfall seemed to be to be result of callousness. On repeat viewing, I realized that his downfall comes out of his intense fear of being an irredeemable jerk. That’s why he chooses to get in the car with Cameron Diaz – not because he sees an opportunity to sleep with her, but because he doesn’t want to be a bad friend. With the subtle addition of a single line of dialogue (“You never have time for your friends until after they’ve given up on you”), Crowe makes his version of the main character more human than the main character in ABRE LOS OJOS.
Penelope Cruz reprises her role from ABRE LOS OJOS, but in VANILLA SKY she’s much more endearing. I can rattle off a litany of minor details that distinguish the rebooted character from the original, and make her so lovable: the oversized coat, “the saddest girl to ever hold a martini,” her reaction to Cruise’s nickname, the way she flips her laundry into the laundry basket with her foot, her celebratory outburst when Cruise leaves her apartment, her optimism (“every passing second is a chance to turn it all around), her whimsy (“I’ll tell you in another life, when we are both cats”), her sensitivity (“Well… your ears are in the right place”), and of course her mole. All of these things are part and parcel of the chemistry between the two leads, who light up onscreen like a couple of teenagers falling in love for the first time.
That’s one movie. Then comes the twilight zone stuff – which, when it finally rolls around, probably pissed some viewers off. I can hear it now: It was a sweet little movie until the writer dropped acid and decided to turn Tom Cruise into Quasimodo. In some ways, the second half of the movie reminds me of Luis Bunuel’s THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (another personal favorite). Bunuel’s film casts two actresses in the same role, to convey the enigmatic quality of the woman at the center of the piece. One is the sophisticated, almost regal French actress Carole Bouquet. The other is the comparatively wild and earthy Spanish actress Angela Molina. The leading man (Fernando Rey) is never able to get close to the object of his desire, because she literally keeps changing. The same thing happens to Tom Cruise in VANILLA SKY, when Penelope Cruz keeps turning into Cameron Diaz. (If you ask me, he should just go with it… There are worse problems to have in life… but let’s not get off track…)
All of this culminates on the rooftop of a New York City skyscraper, under a dreamy Monet-like vanilla sky. (You might get this kind of sky on a particularly smoggy evening in Los Angeles, but in New York it’s a surefire sign that you’re hallucinating.) The final scene is greatly extended from ABRE LOS OJOS. The most obvious change is the addition of the pre-9/11 skyline of New York – a perfect backdrop for the mixed feelings of the main character. VANILLA SKY was released in the fall of 2001, and there was some debate about painting out the World Trade Center in the background. The filmmakers decided not to (why, they rationalized, would anyone with the option of erasing September 11th from their memory not choose to do so in their lucid dream?). Cruise’s leap of faith also carries a lot of additional dramatic weight for anyone who remembers the day… As viewers, our subconscious plays its own role in the lucid dream.
This is where the movie wins me over every time I watch it – for several reasons. First of all, the scene showcases all of Crowe’s strengths as a storyteller. Unlike the characters in Amenabar’s film, the characters in VANILLA SKY are fully fleshed out and self-aware at this point. Cruise’s character moves beyond disillusionment to peace and acceptance. Cruz’s character remains a distinct personality, rather than just an obscure object of desire. (This reflects the main character’s evolution as well, since he has partially invented her.) Kurt Russell also has a chance to shine as Cruise’s father-figure... Even though he's not "real," we can't help but feel his loss.
As in all of Crowe’s films, the right music enhances everything. This final sequence features two memorable songs by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, and the track that plays over Cruise and Cruz’s farewell, “The Nothing Song,” could not be more perfect. The song is a benediction and a valediction that literally goes beyond words. According to Wikipedia, "The Nothing Song" is sung in "Vonlenska, also known as Hopelandic, a constructed language of nonsense syllables - technically glossolalia – which resembles the phonology of the Icelandic language... It has been said that the listener is supposed to interpret their own meanings of the lyrics.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that viewers are supposed to do something similar with the final scene in VANILLA SKY… We’re meant to transfer our own memories and feelings, our own loves and lives lost, onto the final scene. If successful, this is when all of the “little things” coalesce.
For me, this rooftop scene played out like a kind of epiphany when I saw it for the second or third time on home video. (When I saw the movie for the first time in the theater, I was simply overwhelmed… I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not. I was left with too many things to sort out in my mind, and I felt like maybe the filmmaker hadn’t made enough decisions.) I couldn’t help remembering where I’d been and who I’d been with on 9/11, and thinking of a very intense relationship that ended a few weeks later for reasons I couldn’t quite sort out in my mind. All at once, watching the end of VANILLA SKY, the reasons didn’t matter. It occurred to me that, in the final moment when your life flashes before your eyes, maybe love can outweigh all the other stuff. The information overload - the thousand points of light - become one giant wave of emotion.
A lot of viewers remain baffled by VANILLA SKY, but the filmmaker defines it as a story about “a guy who learns that humanity lives in every little thing, and not to take that for granted.” Simple enough, and powerful.
Labels: Cameron Crowe