The sun that never sets: the beige fin de siècle of Vanilla Sky


‘Vanilla sky’ might as well work as a label for the turn of the millennium adult oriented entertainment of which Vanilla Sky is very much a part, and on which Vanilla Sky also seemingly comments (its offensively inoffensive visual, its retrograde approach to form and thematics). The insipid homespun (Hollywood) take on approved European festival import is most plain in Silberling’s remake of Wenders’ Wings of Desire (City of Angels), but languor as affect defines much of the period’s broader cinematic landscape as it does its popular music. The aesthetic convergence of grunge and britpop through their shared prefix (post-) meant a blasé yearning without end, a brokenness without a source. The two in their early days were presented as the restaging of the past, but because they were popular with both youth and middle-age markets, their expiry date was left to the former group. As an act of preservation then, turn of the millennium popular guitar music removed any sense of the fashionable in order that the wave would never break. How could one be out of fashion if one was never in fashion? And how could one be out of time if one never belonged to a time? Vanilla Sky is about Almost Famousas a generational condition to yearn for and manufacture an authentic past that never was.

So, this is what’s become of rock and roll… a smashed guitar behind a glass case displayed on some rich guy’s wall

This desire for inertia and its achievability within the popular arts at the turn of the millennium is presented by Crowe as being a curse as much as a comfort. The film exists with its contemporaries under a timeless vanilla sky: a ubiquity of not just homogenous simulacra, but simulacra open about the fact that they exist as such, responding only to the whims of the dreamer: forever indulgent, and for that, forever unfulfilling. In Vanilla Sky this collective dream is a service for which the wealthy can sign up, to forfeit the future as well as an engagement with the present. It is for and about the boomer ‘lucid dream’ that allows its sleepers wish fulfilled access to the stories of rock and roll’s heyday as relayed by their older siblings, as well as the comforts of economic prosperity and extralegal power. In Vertigo Scottie forces Judy to change her appearance so that she can continue to impersonate his idea of Madeleine, and in Vanilla Sky David holds onto a simulated image of Sofia so that they together can impersonate Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. That is true love, because it is there that I can recognise it as such: I saw it in a movie, on a record sleeve, in a television show. It is surprising that the person behind Almost Famous here casts its audience as a disfigured, lonely people who willingly check into this fantasy so that it can be dreamt beyond death, and independent of the world’s increasingly turbulent realities.

This is mortality as home entertainment

Crowe deals out the details of Cruise’s object of fixation with such bland affectionate density that we can’t help but reel with him when Sofia says ‘we only met once’, like she doesn’t owe us the world, like she could die without us. Hasn’t it been months? Years? This moment of dislocation of an individual from their expectation, revealing that they spent too long with their idea of and not the actual person/thing is well-trodden where desire is concerned, but with Crowe’s bland stylisation it’s hard to see coming. Where De Palma and Hitchcock stand enough back from their obsessive protagonists that the viewer can observe their pathology, Crowe gives us only that which is filtered through David- the world is that which he believes and configures. Vanilla Sky is persuasive in places because it’s played more as anaemic melodrama than thriller: it’s not that we buy it (how could we?), but that we don’t realise that we’ve been given the chance not to. It’s either obsession as a statement on love or the opposite, an eternal statement about soulmates and second chances, or the saddest, creepiest thing to ever trap the viewer under the ineffectual beige sky of a Monet. It could go either way.

It is a comfort because it means feeling and expressing the unknown through well tested cultural artefacts, but it is a curse because Crowe is incapable of imagining a future or even present without this mediation. The director is critical of his generation’s worst impulses embodied in Cruise’s narcissistic David: the fact that he reads the film’s events as a call for the further pursuit of his self indicates that he will never leave the simulation of his desire/obsession. Even if there is a ‘glitch’ and he is faced with a manifestation of his guilt (as a ghost), he can just murder her away again, because no matter what his dream is ‘fixed’. There will be no responsibility, no externalisation of personal action and interpersonal consequence here, because he is powerful enough to bend the world to his will. Vanilla Sky like its musical and cinematic contemporaries plays out as melodrama without feeling, wielding signifiers of emotion that can and will never deliver on any closure or catharsis, because that would mean accepting the end of something and this lasts after death.

If the film is powerful (and it is), it is in large part for the insight it gives to those at a murky transitional period in history who have since been able to erase themselves from the picture altogether. Where often we see people as recipients or victims of the malaise at the end of history, Vanilla Sky reveals the psychologies of its beneficiaries: those who actively refuse to let the sun set. This ‘lucid dream’ and for everyone else its destructive fallout. It is difficult to recommend the film, because it is (perhaps necessarily) precisely the thing that it criticises. It is exhausting, and every bit as dreary as anything else from this grim cinematic age where even the greatest living masters could not help but produce rose-tinted works of the most crushing boredom- where they too found themselves gazing off into the soporific expanse of the great vanilla sky.

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