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|Written by April Yorke|
|Monday, 31 March 2008 19:00|
Perhaps the greatest element of 2000’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, American Beauty, is the elaborate fantasy world that Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) creates involving his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari). This fantasy world is the film’s greatest element for one simple reason: the moment when it goes smashing up against the tangible. Lester’s dreams of seducing this Lolita dissolve in the face of reality: she’s just a young girl, a virgin. Suddenly, and strikingly, Lester is able to put his entire life into perspective.
It’s strange and wonderful how dreams can do that for us. In dreams we are free to explore without consequence. We may move with impunity in a reality of our own making. Of course, not all of us experience that same freedom to create. Dreams that extend into fantasy may bleed back out into reality with disastrous results. Many movies explore the cross over between dreams and that which we would make of them. Sometimes things turn out for the best. Sometimes, they don’t turn out at all.
In his write up for the first inductee to the New Cult Canon, Scott Tobias refers to the brief moment we see The Last Temptation of Christ on the marquee in Donnie Darko as “the skeleton key that puts the entire movie into perspective.” If you follow this interpretation (for there are many), then Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic takes place entirely as fantasy, the same way that the events in Last Temptation do. Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel investigates what would have happened had Jesus (Willem Dafoe) not taken on the sins of the world. Jesus is depicted as both fully human and fully divine, and Scorsese and Kazantzakis explore the results of the human side winning out: Jesus lives the long life of a good man. In the end, it is nothing but fantasy. Jesus rejects the temptation and takes on the mantle of Saviour.
In the same way, although on a much smaller, secular scale, Frank (James Duval) shows Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) what life would be like if he were to avoid his destiny. While there are bright moments (Donnie gets a girlfriend, and his sister gets into Harvard), they fail to outweigh the terrible consequences (death, death, and more death) that his living has wrought. In the end, Donnie returns to his world, accepting his fate, and awaiting death on his terms. In both cases, fantasy opened the door to self-sacrifice, but the results were not disastrous. Reality was life-affirming and hopeful.
The same hope can be found Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Upon discovering that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has had him erased from her memory, Joel (Jim Carrey) sets out to get the same procedure. But when the techs (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) show up to take his memories while he is asleep, Joel realizes the terrible decision he’s made. The rest of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s ingenious plot takes place between dream, fantasy, and memory, collapsing them together as Joel struggles to hold on to some part of Clementine. By the end, it’s hard to know which of Joel’s memories were real, or if any of them occurred the way he believes they did, but it doesn’t matter. Even his dreams of them were integral to their relationship, and, thus, they had to go. The movie’s conclusion, however, contains its most romantic moment: faced with the reality that they have voluntarily erased each other from their lives, Joel and Clementine opt to give their relationship another go. They want the chance to dream together again.Michel Gondry continued down the same path two years later with The Science of Sleep, in which a young man, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), has a wildly imaginative and fulfilling dream life and a tendency to invert said dream life with reality. His dreams are wonderful creations full of bricolage: toilet paper rolls, broken records, candy wrappers. He’s the star of his own TV show. Without his dream world, he would never have been able to create a one-second time machine or reach out to his pretty new neighbour (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Even so, his dream world is what keeps him and his neighbour apart. His dream world is a wonder to behold. It’s pure magic.
The ultimate dream movie, though, is Richard Linklater’s first foray into rotoscoping, Waking Life. In it, a man (Wiley Wiggins) who wishes to have a lucid dream falls into a coma and has an extended one. The harder he tries to wake up, the further he travels out of his own subconscious and into the collective subconscious. The movie is a marvel of different overlapping philosophies and reactions to 21st century living. There is a certain liberty of the mind and a full-emptiness to the movie that, combined with the rotoscoping, contributes to its dream-like quality. The people that the main character interacts with are much more open and willing to expose their honest selves to him than they would be if he met them in reality. Even though it’s possible that this movie has more talk than meaning, it remains a wonderful exercise in examining our lives and our world from the inside out: looking at dreams and then moving forward toward reality and truth.
Dreams, though they seem confusing and unreal, can help us. At least they're awfully helpful in the world of movies. They show us worlds we'll never experience and bring us closer to loved ones. Of course, if we were to find ourselves in a world as strange and wonderful as Stéphane's or the one in Waking Life, we might never want to wake up. Until then, we'll just have to keep going to movies to experience a reality apart from our own.
© 2008 April Yorke; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.