Film: Vanilla Sky by Cameron Crowe

There Are Two Colours In My Head

A rich man's sorrows won't become less painful through love affairs, suicide or cryostasis. But the future is not made and every minute can emerge as a revolution of the mind in Cameron Crowe's 2001 blockbuster Vanilla Sky. Hollywood's visible thumbprints cover the work and still, the subconscious is strong in a nightmarish journey towards the very own person. With some luck this may end with someone asking to "open your eyes" and see that everything is still in its right place. Or just in another hallucination?

by Kilian

Manhattan tragedy

David Aames (the rakish bon vivant Tom Cruise) leads a regular life of casual profanity and first world boredom. Except he is the 51-%-owner of a large New York City publishing company and a millionaire's heir enjoying the pleasures of the Manhattan rich, there are no great expectations for him concerning his future. His playing games and ambitions are aimless and far from passionate struggle. The latter however takes him by surprise when a rejected lover (the success-in-media-business it-girl played by Cameron Diaz, blonde as always) tries to kill both of them in a car crash out of jealousy. She dies immediately and he suffers an awful disfiguration of the face and an arm injury. Thereafter his actual beloved, the endearing ballet dancer Sofia with the quaint Spanish accent (Penélope Cruz, representing the sincere kind-heartedness and naïve romanticism of the common girl), refuses the broken David who becomes more and more depressed and insane. Charged for murder and undergoing a wearing nightmare through the subconscious memories of his past he finds out that he has been dead and frozen for years. He faces the decision to either continue his lucid dream with improved and joyful content or to wake up in a future reality that is 150 years from his 33rd birthday back in the easy New York days.

A well-meant Hollywood spectacle

Cameron Crowe, who began his career at the age of 16 as an author for the American Rolling Stone magazine, adapted the Vanilla Sky screenplay from the 1997 film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) by Spanish writer and director Alejandro Amenábar. Even though the original received better critiques it remained far less noticed than Crowe's work. With a massive budget of $68 million that can only point in the direction of the Californian film industry, an international box office of more than $200 million was gained. An amount of Hollywood's upper standard and after the 1996 sports drama Jerry Maguire (also starring Tom Cruise) Crowe's second largest commercial success.

It is well known that a film's commercial success is a reliable indicator for mass-cultural tendencies and public moods yet meaningless for the state of the art of its genre. The latter seems to emerge from a web of (be it tiny) collectives' tastes which form the contemporary movements in film making as well as from the widely read reviews of broadly accepted critical authorities. In this perspective it becomes obvious that Vanilla Sky delivers classical Hollywood entertainment which employs mostly standardized elements to place them around a usual pattern of narration. After the protagonist's idyllic life is introduced and turned upside down by a sudden misfortune the linear plot finally allows him to make a choice between a damaged world and an uncertain future.

In accordance to that the film stages a repertoire of stock characters that mystifyingly manage to appeal to the mass audience. Primarily it is the young rich male, the successful and jealous media woman and the charming foreign girl that represent urban stereotypes on cliché paths through life. Whereas the last is the personally incarnated good-heartedness that enters the urban jungle with only the best attitudes and prospects, the honest girl to pursue the American dream in the rough business of art, it is on the contrary the spoilt high status woman whose suggested pamperedness and jealousy ruins the protagonist. The rich kid in his thirties then depicts the Hollywood phantasm of the upper class rake with the boy-next-door habitus. Of course he – and not his poor writer friend Brian – gets the girl. In fact David appears to be much more attracting and thus superior to the failed poet even twice: Brian was the one to bring Sofia along to meet David at a party who manages to capture her attention the whole night with Brian thereupon leaving the event drunk, melancholic and awfully cynic. The next time it is Julie, the adored it-girl, to be snatched by David under Brian's nose. These respectable triumphs and the euphemistic image, presented over and over again, subtly pacifies the common people's resentments towards the 1 % the nation. Especially those of the U.S. could otherwise simply be seen as immensely affluent and influential, culturally exclusive and locally segregated – which remains, thanks to the rakish good boy image, only latently realized.

The authenticity of the protagonists ultimately suffers from this blocky shape. It is the omnipresence and familiarity of these stock characters in modern cinema that colours them in a mass-conform tone. But their inability to sink to life's true depths solely leaves a blurred and impalpable outline of a fictional being that is hard to identify with and whose stirrings and ambitions are only to witness from a distant emotional level.

But there is the reverse side active in some Hollywood productions like the one dealt with: The approach to both fascinating and relevant topics and the attempt to deal with sophisticated issues. Whereas the loss-of-privilege story of David being deformed and going crazy is worn out by many films – ambitious (e.g. David Fincher's The Game) as well as boring ones – the pursue of eternal life enriches tragedies and comedies since the early days. In Crowe's version it is cryostasis, the freezing of the human body, to make this old promise. Although this technique is far from large-scale realization in recent years some wealthy adventurers decided to conserve their body after death, just like rich David, in order to wake up in a future where they hope to be reanimated. But attention should be paid to the fact that living forever makes it impossible to escape from the unknown future by simply dying one day in a more or less natural way. Thus the most interesting question of the film is whether natural life in present times with all its faults and vices or a vague confidence in a better – but in actual fact incalculable – future is to favour. Another demanding and highly gripping field is entered with the psychological issue of the conscious. The structures, limits and capabilities of the mind may be best explored in a lucid dream reality where David is apparently caught in. It only lacks the moment of reflection that neither David nor his dream internal cryo-company assistant are able to bring forth. The bright allusion stays out of sight and the film digresses in profanities.

All this doesn't make the movie special or outstanding. The shifts between reality and the cryo-dream are more than anything simply confusing. As the film generally sticks to a classical plot scheme of linear narration, the dream sequences interrupt it in a fruitless way. They only provided jejune bites of misleading dialogues in the pitiful absence of far reaching abstractions or subversive associations which in other respects perfectly fit into a lucid dream parallel world like the one presented. Therefore most of the confusion remains predictable since it lacks a truly unexpected twist, a meaningful meta level or at least a playfully composed mind fuck.

Western interior

His mahogany upper class loft with the picturesque view on Central Park is – not really hard to believe – decorated with pop cultural details. Like any suburban teenager there is a basket for throwing on the wall. A snow board. A Gibson SG guitar. The latter only differs from the common boy's interior by the fact that it is smashed, kept safe in a glass box and was thus certainly owned by some rock star in former years. The same about the movie posters of François Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Here it is the French New Wave cinema that replaces the comic hero film in the young American's room. A quick glance as well reveals paintings by impressionist Claude Monet, modernist Henri Matisse and expressionist Mark Rothko. To remind David of the costs and tastes of his life a larger than life portrait of his father is installed in a prominent place on the wall of the apartment's main hall. In this manner the rich protagonist's home environment amalgamates diverse artefacts of American pop culture, much-valued European art and an ordinary Western consumption biography.

Sounds from the CD player

The picture opens with short bird's eye shots of a flight above the New York skyline. The sound of the busy city rushes upwards to the cold morning wind and the camera focuses a gallant apartment house. After some breathy gibberish and the Spanish phrase “abre los ojos” a female voice softly asks to “open your eyes”. The Radiohead song Everything In It's Right Place, opener of the 2000 album Kid A, begins with its legendary synthi-piano line. David wakes up at an early workday's hour to the sound of this tune from his CD player. He leaves his apartment to find the whole of Manhattan depopulated. Everybody is gone. All streets along Central Park and Time Square are frightening silent and empty. The playboy starts to shout out and run through the abandoned district. The advertisement on Broadway flickers around him, his expression turns into overwhelming confusion. Then he wakes up from his dream. Again, in his apartment on a workday's morning.

Another Radiohead song is heard when David much later encounters a stranger in a restaurant bar who tells him that he is in a cryonic sleep, frozen in 200° below zero and that he controls everything happening in this lucid dream. The song is called I Might Be Wrong and contains the telling verses I might be wrong / I could have sworn I saw a light coming on / I used to think / there was no future left at all.

When David is in the midst of his subconscious never-never land Bob Dylan's 4th Time Around from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde is played while he sleeps with Sofia. The next scene they walk on Jones Street in Greenwich Village. He has his hands in his pockets while she's holding his arm. A 60s VW bus and an old car are parked on the roadside, it all appears to be the scenario of Bob Dylan's album cover of his 1963 record The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The photo indeed was shot while the folk musician was on a walk with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo in Greenwich – just like David and Sofia.

After a night in a club with Sofia the defaced David falls out with his best friend Brian alleging that he caused his accident with Julie. Brian leaves indignantly whereupon the drunken and shattered David weaves through the dark to the sound of Sweetness Follows by R.E.M.: readying to bury your father and your mother / what did you think when you lost another /… / but sweetness follows. In the morning light of the next day he wakes up lying on the asphalt. Sofia has come to help him.

The 1968 psychedelic hymn Porpoise Song by The Monkees undermines David's confused mind when Sofia turns into Julie while having sex with him. Julie returns from the dead with a smile and asks “What is happiness to you, David?”. In the meantime The Monkees sing: my, my the clock in the sky is pounding away / there's so much to say / … / wanting to feel, to know what is real / living is a lie. David is furious. His echoing shout is only drowned by Julie's bizarre orgasm. It comes with a series of images of David breaking down and with a sequence shortly before and after Julie's car crash. He suffocates her just to notice that he has killed Sofia instead.

The story culminates in a company employee (Tilda Swinton) explaining the cryostasis procedure to David that he is already in. For him this sounds unbelievable but the employee soothes him: “They laughed at Jules Verne, too.” The Beach Boys begin with Good Vibrations. When David franticly shouts “This is a nightmare” they sing I'm pickin' up good vibrations / she's giving me excitations.

To accompany the climax the soundtrack also includes several songs by Icelandic post rock band Sigur Rós.

The film fades out with Paul McCartney's title track Vanilla Sky during the end credits. The song was composed for Crowe's production and there is an allusion to McCartney and John Lennon by the police psychologist who treats David after his murder. In one of the last conversations David and the technician talk about Claude Monet's vanilla skies into which David finally jumps: tonight you fly so high up in the vanilla sky / your life is fine, it's sweet and sour / unbearable or great / you gotta love every hour, you must appreciate.

The Chemical Brothers' catchy 1997 psychedelic electro track Where Do I Begin then provides the film's exit music: Sunday morning I'm waking up / can't even focus on a coffee cup / don't even know whose bed I'm in / where do I start, where do I begin? 

A revolution of the mind

Now, what does the film show? What is the story about? We see New York City, the metropolis of the 20th century. Skyscrapers and roadsters, Wall Street and Central Park, cocktail parties and board meetings. Much of the cultural offspring of the American decades – even beyond the Manhattan South – was raised in this capital of the Western world. Its stony and glassy heart animated the pulse of the modern North Atlantic ropes that interconnected the world's two most dominant continents. But the turning point lies at the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the new millennium that protagonist David inhabits. The city looses its grip and attraction bit by bit as the United States falter and the Asian super powers arise. New York is the weary giant at the end of the West or at least at the turn towards a poly-centred and multi-powered new age. The many small animals left in the former empire run in circles and somehow thrive in furious turmoil until collapse or stagnation. And maybe the next David Aames will be a banker in Shanghai, a Delhian digital technology manager or a Moscowian oil oligarch. His subconscious nightmare world then could involve unmanned military drones, large-scale computer hacks, human genome changes or climate catastrophes. But come hell or high water – the 21st century's Vanilla Sky doesn't need to arise above East Coast playboy mansions, jealous pop-singing it-girls or traditional stories of individual achievement. There is a new league established to cover the whole world's desires and concerns – with a cosmopolitan David Aames required or – even better – any unknown underdog to pursue his happiness. 

It is this pursuit of happiness of the single individual – which has even found its place in the 1789 U.S. constitution – that justifies the egocentric age. A revolution is only imaginable as a revolution of the mind, the most personal and isolated entity to possess. Changes in the ego may be possible or necessary. But isn't it not just a mind to be changed but an entire world?

Of course the much-praised single individual appears to be lonely and desolate and needs to have his problems solved. To that end there is the dream. A lucid dream driven by the subconscious where all wishes and demands that must make way for reality's actual facts are stored. And as we know the subconscious is strong. Thus it seems that some things can only happen while dreaming. But why is it so hard to believe that the individual's problems can be solved in real life instead of procrastinating them into an expensive minus degree cocoon on a way to a vague future? 

And then: Do we dream to live forever or is it the future that we await hopefully? And what future is it worth waiting for? David's choice between present and future can only be made with help of a deus ex machina, a final saviour who was already and famously employed in the traditional Greek tragedy. He is the one to save the protagonist from his nightmarishly defective dreams. The deus this time is the cryo-company's technician, the specialist, an expert of highly developed technology who in the cryonic age becomes the god of life and death – a “god from the machine” in the literal sense.

Right before the film's fade out David is again asked to open his eyes by a not less godlike female voice. He slowly wakes up and his black pupil senses the surrounding. The Radiohead intro song is remembered with that he wakes up in his first lucid dream of an empty New York. There are two colours in my head, it is sung. The one that I know and the one that I diffusely await. What I am and what I always wanted to be. The two poles of the magnet that I can never bring together in tensionless harmony. But why is that so? For the most part dialectics are out of fashion since we have unlearned to imagine any real dreams coming true. Be it through the mind, god, technology or the individual.

sources of pictures

opening the eye (taken from the DVD)
Bob Dylan album cover imitation