Vanilla Sky: Reality as Illusion, Illusion as Reality

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001) is, in many ways, your typical American remake of an interesting and original foreign film. Abre Los Ojos was made in 1997 and tends to be thought of as a purer, less commercial product than Crowe’s interpretation. Written and directed by Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar, the original film is often credited as being a better example of one man’s cohesive vision; a vision which was arguably stolen and lightly cannibalised by Crowe.

Abre Los Ojos is a deeply original film about a spoiled young man who inherits his father’s company, is involved in a terrible car accident and, facially disfigured, struggles to put the pieces of his life back together. It has a grainy, rough-and-ready, dramatic quality a lot of lower budget foreign films often have. As the plot transforms and grows into something… else, as fantasy and science fiction merge, Abre Los Ojos becomes progressively more disturbing and is certainly more haunting than Vanilla Sky. It’s more believable because, visually, it’s more realistic. You accept the strange plot twists because you feel as if you are watching something real. Crowe, on the other hand, having decided to go ‘full Hollywood’ on Amenábar’s idea, has to employ some other tricks. Vanilla Sky is full of ‘stars’. Tom Cruise in fact came to the film before Crowe himself, buying the rights to Abre Los Ojos and introducing Cameron Crowe to the original, presumably seeing the remake as a star-vehicle for himself. Interestingly, Penelope Cruz reprises the same role she played in Amenábar’s version, giving this remake a strange continuity.

However shallow it seems, you have to admit that sometimes a glossy, polished product can be more satisfying to watch. I saw Vanilla Sky first. It’s probably for that reason, more than any other, that I prefer it. I don’t think I was even aware that it was an American remake when I first saw it. What I do remember, more than anything else, was that I had a terrible head cold during my first viewing (the type where you can barely even close your eyes properly). My pervading sensation of dislocation from myself and sleepy disorientation from the world around me certainly complimented Crowe’s ability to make me feel as if my brain was folding open and dribbling all over the floor, as the film’s conclusion totally messed with my head.

Vanilla Sky begins with an intercut series of silent shots of an empty New York City. Feminine whispers can be heard in a low, lulling timbre that brings the audience gently into the reality of the film. Fade in and outs echo notions of fading in and out of consciousness. The camera shows us an aerial view of the city to give the impression that the viewer is having an out of body experience. The main character, David (Cruise) wakes in his bed and the camera jump-cuts to a shot of him removing a grey hair in his bathroom mirror. David then drives out into the city in his car and there is a poor synchronisation of sound in relation to the movements of the car , adding to the sense of a distorted reality.  The streets are again empty, the protagonist looks at his watch and the camera sways, creating a feeling of unease. David walks out into the road. Panicked, he stops and screams, outspreads his arms as the camera circles him faster and music builds. David gasps awake. Crowe has executed his first dream-within-a-dream twist and sets the tone for the whole film.

In Vanilla Sky, one of the key visual symbols is “La Seine a Argenteuil” by Monet, referred to in the film as Monet’s “Vanilla Sky”. The fact that the skies start to become increasingly like Monet’s “Vanilla Sky” is an essential visual clue as to what is happening. It is explained that the painting was David’s mother’s and was therefore very important to him; this sets up the story for the revelation regarding inspiration David takes for his lucid dream. Monet was dedicated to painting the perfect moment, just as David’s life becomes a montage of perfect moments stolen from the media (by our protagonist, David and by our director, Crowe.)

The tones used in David’s ‘real’ world are often very washed out. Let’s face it; colour has been used to show a change in the state of the character’s reality for donkey’s years. Famously, this was used all the way back in 1939 for Dorothy’s sepia-coloured reality in The Wizard of Oz, in stark contrast to the Technicolor land of Oz. In A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the scenes which take place on Earth are in colour and the scenes in heaven (as imagined by the main character or otherwise) are in black and white. It is interesting that sometimes colour presents the imagined, ‘better’ reality, sometimes, it lets the audience know what is truly real….

In times much closer to Vanilla Sky, we could consider the use of green in The Matrix (1999). Dark City (1998) also uses green or blue tint, in the engineered, permanently-noir world which humans are forced to live in, like the proverbial lab rats. The colours used in The Cell (2000) become more varied and bright when Jennifer Lopez’s character, Catherine, enters into the subconscious of her patients.

The soundtrack of Vanilla Sky also serves to emphasise the merging and blurring of realities which takes place. Crowe’s background in musical journalism is clear, and he can’t help but give us cheeky little (or even large, heavy-handed) clues throughout as to what might be about to happen. David sings “What if God was one of us?” as he is wheeled into theatre to have his face reconstructed. Edmund Ventura (Tech Support!) later tells David, of the suddenly silent people around him in a crowded restaurant, “You are their God.”  There is also a wonderful use of juxtaposition featuring The Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations” as David’s created world falls apart. It’s true, in mainstream films, using a well-known track can be like taking a cheap short cut, and a director can wrongly rely on the lyrics of a song to express what he cannot, but in this film, I think the music has a clear influence on the overall tone and of the film, making it feel very different to Abre Los Ojos. It also helps to make an important point about how we use pop-culture references to construct our own memories and realities.

Language is also used to present double meanings; phrases such as “Wake up” and “Everything’s a nightmare” are hardly subtle (neither is Julie Gianni’s “Row, row, row your boat, life is but a dream ringtone!). This is a film of dreams within dreams, repeated actions, déjà vu, masks and masked realities and muddled chronology. Actresses are used interchangeably and the audience is manipulated until they doubt the reality of each scene. By the time David is close enough to the surface of his dream to realise what reality is, it in many ways seems much worse to us than his corrupted lucid dream.

The concept of L.E. (Life Extension) is pitched like a commercial product. The audience is forced to question just how much the media is manipulating our own version of reality and promoting frankly doubtful products in an over-glamorised way. In an arguably over-worked and style-over-substance remake, the moral criticism becomes a little ironic here. Parallels are also drawn with the inappropriate and often tasteless nature of TV, when McCabe (Kurt Russell) declares, on the audience’s behalf, “Mortality as home entertainment? This cannot be the future, can it? Can it?”

Our reality is saturated by so many forms of media; it can become easy to lose touch with what is truly ‘real’. Our protagonist, David, eventually decides that what he wants is a life free of the illusions which have been created for him. The final words is the film are whispered, “Relax, David. Open your eyes” and we can only guess what he will wake up to.

Vanilla Sky is a film full of good performances by notable character actors. Noah Taylor and Tilda Swinton are both nicely understated as Edmund Ventura and Rebecca Dearborn respectively and a special shout out should also be given to Jason Lee, who plays David’s best friend, Brian, with surprising subtlety. Kurt Russell portrays a suitably paternal psychiatrist figure and manages to lend the film a bit of class. Plus, it’s always good to see Timothy Spall in just about anything. The film has a memorable visual style, a catchy soundtrack and, like all good films, it raises some interesting ideas. Vanilla Sky is built on the admirably unique foundations of Abre Los Ojos (often very closely on it) but Crowe adds his own vision into Vanilla Sky and this is admirable too.

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