Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Film Appreciation - This is a Revolution of the Mind

Cody Hamman confirms that the 2001 Cameron Crowe/Tom Cruise film Vanilla Sky is safe for Benny with this edition of Film Appreciation.

David Aames is living the dream. Raised a child of wealth and privilege, he has a fortune and has inherited 51% control of his father's business, running a worldwide publishing house and three magazines. The other 49% of the company is split among seven board members, who David calls "the seven dwarfs". David complains that the board members look at him as if he's still eleven years old, but he doesn't act much older. He chooses fun over work, ignores business calls, holds back decisions until the last minute, is not forthcoming with opinions at meetings. He takes everything lightly, doing his best to avoid serious thoughts of things like mortality. He intends to be the first person to never die, and most days he can fool himself into believing that the good times are going to last forever. He's got a nice place in New York, owns nice things, has fancy friends, and for his first thirty-two years he has just "snowboarded through life", as he puts it.

But we know that something is going to go horribly wrong, because he's telling his story in flashback as he sits in a mental institution, charged with a murder that he insists never even happened, wearing a latex mask as he talks to his court-ordered psychologist.

David is as personally careless as he is professionally irresponsible, as evident from his casual sexual relationship with aspiring actress/singer Julie Gianni. Julie is in love with David and wants to take their relationship to another level, but David brushes that off. He likes her enough to call her over to his place to have sex, but not enough to invite her to his thirty-third birthday party.

It's at that party when David's life begins to change. His attorney confides in him that the seven board members consider him a corporate hazard and are working to get him ousted from the company. This shakes him, at the same time that he spots hope among the many guests, who include Steven Spielberg - a new acquaintance who his best friend, novelist Brian Shelby, has brought along. A girl named Sofia Serrano.

Sofia is a free-spirited dancer/artist/dental assistant, "the last semi-guileless girl in New York City", and David is instantly smitten. One of the greatest parts of the film is the around twenty minutes that are dedicated to David and Sofia spending hours getting to know each other, talking until daylight. At first Sofia is resistant to David's playboy charms; she's a girl taking chances to pursue her dreams, he has everything but he hasn't earned it for himself. As Brian says, life (and love) is all about the balance of the sweet and the sour, the sweet is never as sweet until you've had the sour, and David never has. But soon Sofia sees through his entitled rich kid facade to something different, something deeper and more meaningful. They fall for each other over the course of a night where true love seems possible.

When David leaves Sofia's apartment in the morning, things are looking good. He has a willingness and capability to grow, he's getting serious about his business, preparing to go to work and oust the seven dwarfs before they can oust him, he's falling in love.

But he hasn't completely changed just yet, and right down the street from Sofia's door, he makes the biggest mistake of his life. Julie had shown up at his party uninivited, she has followed him to Sofia's, she's waiting for him. And when Julie asks him to get in her car, David puts aside the connection he just made with Sofia and does get in. It's because he truly doesn't want to hurt Julie, but he already has.

Julie is killed when she purposely drives the car off a bridge. David's face is mangled, his arm shattered, his jaw broken in four places, he has nerve damage and when he awakes from a coma three and a half weeks later, he has recurring blinding migraines. The latex mask is a facial prosthetic given to him by his plastic surgery team.

David becomes very familiar with the sour. The rest of the film is made up of swings between intense highs and lows. Will he and Sofia be together? Can his injuries be fixed? Can he keep control of his company? He hits rock bottom, but just as things are at their darkest, the clouds part and it looks like life may get better again. Then very strange events begin to occur. By a point, his once perfect life has become a total nightmare. David has trouble distinguishing whether things are happening in reality or in dreams, if he's having insane hallucinations, if the seven dwarfs are playing psychological games with him...

Vanilla Sky is one of my favorites, but it is a very hard movie to write about. I don't want to go too in-depth on the twists and turns it takes, but those are what make it a divisive film. Many viewers aren't expecting them, and their reaction to the twists and the ultimate explanation is the main determining factor in whether or not they like it. Some love it, others don't care for it, some are downright confused by it.

All of the answers are given during a scene in an elevator, and the answers aren't for everyone. Some don't even take the answers at face value, they dig even further and come up with their own theories. Me, I believe what is said, and this scene is the only time when film-altering exposition ever gives me goosebumps, makes me choke up, brings tears to my eyes. The line "Consequences, David" really strikes me. I love the film, the twist, and how it's explained.

Vanilla Sky was the second collaboration between writer/director Cameron Crowe and star Tom Cruise, following 1996's Jerry Maguire. I talked a little about their previous movie together in my Mission: Impossible II article, how Jerry Maguire was a big part of summer 1997 for me and was the film that made me a full-fledged Tom Cruise fan. It also made me a Cameron Crowe fan, leading me to revisit his earlier work - Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything..., etc. - and anticipate whatever he would make next. That was Almost Famous in 2000, which totally blew me away and instantly became one of my favorite movies. Crowe won Best Screenplay for it, but that Almost Famous didn't win Best Picture that year, in fact wasn't even nominated, is one of my biggest Oscar disappointments.

Crowe went almost immediately from Almost Famous to working on Vanilla Sky, which took him into new territory as a filmmaker. His other movies had been straightforward slice-of-life dramedies, here he got to play in some other genres and focus more on the visual style. "Not a shot would go unplanned, not an image wasted." Working with cinematographer John Toll, Crowe made this his most visually impressive film, building a world on a foundation of pop culture iconography. As things get stranger, there's great use of sound design and subliminal cutting.

And of course, Crowe put together an amazing soundtrack. The use of music in this movie is superb, with moments fuelled and backed by songs from Radiohead, R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, Looper, The Chemical Brothers, Joan Osborne, Bob Dylan, "Doot Doot" by Freur, "Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel, "Can We Still Be Friends" by Todd Rundgren, "The Nothing Song" by Sigur Rós, "Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space" by Spiritualized. There's an end credits title song by Paul McCartney, a use of "Good Vibrations" that gave me a whole new appreciation for The Beach Boys, The Monkees' "Porpoise Song", which I'm thinking might be the perfect funeral song.

The cast is fantastic. Cruise, Kurt Russell as his psychologist, Jason Lee as Brian Shelby, Noah Taylor as the man with the answers, Cameron Diaz as Julie, small roles for Timothy Spall and Tilda Swinton. In my opinion, Penelope Cruz is the best she's ever been in this, playing Sofia. She's lovely, her Spanish accent is adorable, her character someone who's easy to fall in love with, it's understandable why David does. A girl who fully believes that "good things will happen if you're a good person with a good attitude" and doesn't seem naive when she says so.

Cruz had some practice, she had the same role in the 1997 Spanish film Abre los ojos, which this is based on. In music speak, Crowe calls his film "a cover" of that one. Vanilla Sky is faithful to the original movie, while being the rare remake that enhances the story and deepens the characters, making them much more likeable and relatable, making the story a lot more emotional.

With my fandom of Cruise and Crowe firmly in place, I was looking forward to Vanilla Sky and saw it theatrically during its opening weekend in December of 2001. I loved it from the first viewing. The DVD was released on May 21, 2002 and I bought it right away. It joined the Mission: Impossible movies and Richard Linklater's Tape and Waking Life as the DVDs that I watched repeatedly as I finished up my school work in preparation for the end of my high school days in mid-June. Vanilla Sky was the one of the bunch that I watched the most and I clearly remember its scenes playing out repeatedly on a DVD player beside me as I wrapped up my school projects.

The film has permeated my psyche ever since. Even during stretches of time when I haven't recently watched it, I'm still listening to songs that are in it, or have lines from it running through my mind.

The wonderful visuals, sounds, and performances combine to tell what I view primarily as a love story, of the pursuit of the dream "of hearing someone say these words, when they really, truly mean them: 'I love you'", of finding "a kind woman, an individual, more than your equal", a love that can save you from yourself. And the obstacles caused by your own flaws. It's devastating. It's beautiful.


  1. Great write-up! I absolutely love this film and the original, and it's one of the first reviews I did when starting up my blog.

    There's just something surrealistically wild about the movie and it always hits me at a personal level every time I watch it.

    Thanks for the reminder on how great the movie truly is. I only wish more people appreciated it like you do.

  2. I am working on a project that involves the dynamics of the Tree of Life / Knowledge, and the ancient classification of the seven planets, and how they might change through time as the mind and soul evolve. We tend just to think of a spiritual meaning to things like revolutions of the mind. But I am interested in understanding if there is a literal component as well, at least in terms of how it might relate to the Tree. Thank you for your article. Very helpful.