Tuesday, July 03, 2007


OPEN YOUR EYES (“Abre los ojos” 1997, Spain/France/Italy, Alejandro Amenabar, screenplay w/ Mateo Gil)
VANILLA SKY (2001, USA, Cameron Crowe, from Amenabar/Gil original)

When did you stop caring? About the consequences of the promises you made?

Word was not good about VANILLA SKY, but I went, and as the movie unfolded I found myself baffled: why were my Soul Food movie cronies so cool toward it? This picture was all about the hollowness of wealth, privilege and beauty, about the consequences of thoughtless acts and the wages of narcissism. Mortality, resurrection, the yearning for eternity. Explicit questions like “Do you believe in God?” and implicit ones about what happens when we believe ourselves to be gods.

That was during the film. The morning after, my ardor had cooled. It wasn’t until I tracked down a copy of the Spanish original years later that my fascination revived, and I began to see what had undermined so strong a viewing experience.

The films are very alike. We meet a handsome ladies’ man – Cesar in the original, David in the remake – the child of wealth and privilege. Something of a Richard Corey character, his self-indulgent life takes a shocking turn and he finds himself haunted by terrible dreams. The dream that he’s all alone in the world. Or the dream that his face has been horribly disfigured. The terrible, familiar dream of being imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. Or the dream that he is, in fact, a killer. As he loses the ability to distinguish between illusion and reality, so does the audience. It’s a pleasurably disorienting, provocative ride.

Pop music-oriented Cameron Crowe speaks of his remake as a “cover” of the original, and it’s a respectful one, an almost scene-for-scene transposition of a Madrid story to New York City. Crowe punches up the story with clever dialogue and pricier visuals, tossing in an abundance of pop culture – for good thematic reasons, as it turns out. The structure remains the same, but he makes the telling more “vivid” (his own word), clarifying character choices at each critical decision point. Perhaps most significantly, he brings a characteristic empathy to his treatment of each of character – which may be a considerable part of what undermines the film’s ultimate impact.

Amenabar’s original grew out of a nightmare so terrifying he felt compelled to commit it to paper, and in his treatment the central character is a monster, a narcissistic manipulator whose inner ugliness is concealed by the mask of a beautiful face until circumstances conspire to match his visage with what lies beneath. The horrors he endures are so clearly an outgrowth of the darkness of his own soul, I am reminded of the scales being scraped from Eustace in Voyage Of The Dawn Treader at the same time as I think of the souls trapped in a hell of their own making in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times sees OPEN YOUR EYES as “at bottom a retelling of the story of Job for a vain, materialistic, selfish age.” While he’s right that there are comparisons between stories of men who have and lose it all, I think he completely misunderstands the essence of the Biblical story: Job is a righteous man whose sufferings are completely unwarranted, who questions God but refuses to curse Him, while Cesar is an appallingly self-consumed young man whose choices and attitudes bring about his own suffering – who we can only hope will wake up to a life worth living.

Amenabar’s impetus was horror, his cultural referents literary monster myths like The Phantom Of The Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and The Beast, perhaps Jekyl and Hyde, his narrative one of judgment and possible redemption. Crowe found his way into the story through an Elvis Presley interview where the icon spoke of the loneliness he felt “even in a crowded room:” identifying closely with that image, Crowe essentially tells “a story about the eternal belief in love and what love can really be.”

That’s not all to the bad. Where Crowe’s compassion for the protagonist lets the Tom Cruise character off too easily for the story to have the gravitas of the original – he probably sees it more as a difficult journey toward a more fulfilling life than he does a story of possible (and possibly deserved) damnation – the more empathetic treatment lends audience identification with the characters. Particularly in the case of the spurned lover (enhanced by an emotionally raw Cameron Diaz performance), the story gains a relational complexity by adding depth and emotional impact to a character who was basically a mentally unstable femme fatale in the original film. The protagonist may refer to her as a stalker, but in the Crowe version that sounds like a self-serving exaggeration: she may simply love the guy, walking that thin line between being crazy about him and being just plain crazy. In Amenabar, we see that she’s trouble right off the bat, and she probably goes well beyond stalker into predator territory.

If director empathy adds complexity to the jilted lover character, it risks diminishing Sofia, the film’s main love interest. Both films riff on the many faces of the Cesar/David character: the handsomeness that covers a nature far less appealing, the deformed face that may actually reveal of the soul, and the prosthetic mask created to cover the disfigurement – complicated by the therapist, who questions the extent and even reality of that disfigurement. It is not only beauty that may lie in the eye of the beholder. Both films contain extraordinary images of two-facedness, the mask on the back of the head, or carried in hand. But the later film doesn’t extend this idea of duplicity to Sofia, the love interest played in both films by Penelope Cruz. At the risk of over-stating, Crowe tends toward reducing a more complex story of human interaction to the confines of a genre picture. Amenabar’s Sofia is an actress, and Cesar questions whether she can be trusted to present her true “face”, or whether she is performing: she collects figurines of white-masked mimes, and when Cesar re-connects with her after a separation, she practices her mime on a park bench, not fully recognizable until the white-face is washed away by the rain and her tears. Crowe jettisons that layer of complexity: his Sofia is a dancer, mostly because, well, Penelope Cruz looks fetching in tights. And we don’t want anyone thinking she might also have things to hide.

Not to be dismissive of the latter film. The typically American clarification of narrative creates a film that is more ethically centred, perhaps even something of a cautionary tale: the careful tracing of the chain of events, the way values and character beget choices which are carried out in actions that have consequences yields what Roger Ebert called “a scrupulously moral picture.” But the more ambiguous and decidedly darker European treatment creates what might be called a more spiritual film, with a real sense of personal sin and accountability, foregrounded by references to religious culture: while Amenabar doesn’t claim an active faith, his Catholic background and context are evident. So too is a fascination with death that informs subsequent films like THE OTHERS and THE SEA INSIDE – compare the suicide motifs in VANILLA SKY to the latter film for some real conversation fodder. (“All I can do is eat, shit, sleep and dream of my memories.”)

Crowe’s tendency to soften (or even sentimentalize) things is certainly seen in the final moments of the film: where Amenabar’s protagonist faces a truly painful decision, an apparently irrevocable choice involving real and permanent sacrifice, the American director offers the possibility that he’s not really giving anything up permanently. Indeed, in the Spanish film we are unsure up until the final words of dialogue whether the protagonist is making the right choice: is Serge Duvernois tempting him to destruction, or leading him into real life? There are resonances with THE MATRIX.

It would be misleading to exaggerate the differences between the two versions, or to insist that one is necessarily superior to the other – indeed, the greatest value probably lies in viewing both films, and considering both their common themes and their different emphases. There’s no denying the power of the love story in Amenabar’s original, and if Crowe makes that his central focus, plenty of nightmare and metaphysics remain. He may have tightened and heightened the narrative, but that tidiness and focus certainly don’t remove the story’s puzzling, even baffling features.

Indeed, it’s the fact that both treatments end up as “puzzle films” that may best explain the deflation many feel by the time the credits roll. Both stories start out somewhere on the continuum between character study and love story. Both films increasingly take on the elements of something like a supernatural thriller, with shifting realities signaling madness or mania or something more spiritual, or perhaps even some sort of deadly conspiracy (the latter brought to the fore in Cameron Crowe’s adaptation – again, a choice to move the film more in the direction of a recognizable American genre). The problem comes in the final scenes of both films, when there is a sudden and radical shift not only of genre, but of something more fundamental: while the audience is eager to gain some sort of understanding of what’s been going on, we feel jarred or even betrayed by the abrupt change in the basic ground rules of the entire film. It’s not that they haven’t been diligently set out for us, or that the whole thing doesn’t hang together on analysis: it’s only that we have no appetite for any of that once we disconnect from the human, emotional centre of what engaged us all along.

If you can get over that, either of these films provide plenty to digest – not just a puzzle to solve, but substantial human, even spiritual questions. Billy Wilder once told Cameron Crowe that his greatest dream was that he could make a movie that people would want to talk about for fifteen minutes afterwards. That was the goal that Crowe had in my mind when making Vanilla Sky – that this could be a movie that people could talk about. Don’t let possible disappointment with the ending discourage you from that. However gimmicky you may find the film’s final act, it doesn’t really undermine the substance of all that’s gone before, nor its potential to feed the soul – particularly if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a close reading of either version of this multi-layered story of a chance at spiritual awakening, the possibility of real life that’s offered to one half-dead young man.


OPEN YOUR EYES and VANILLA SKY both available at Videomatica

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