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Head Trips: Movies Inside the Skull

What's real? Is "Fight Club" really a movie about guys hitting each other?

Warning: What you are about to read may thrill you, may shock you, it may even… horrify you.

Here it is: Movies are not “real.” They’re movies -- images on a screen orchestrated to express ideas and emotions. They are not “reality” (even documentaries are carefully constructed fictions); they are representations, myths, metaphors. Don’t even try to take them literally. They are not made to be viewed that way, and to do so may be hazardous to your mental health.

It’s silly how many moviegoers and critics insist upon making an artificial distinction between what is “real” and what is “unreal” in a movie – often at the expense of what the film itself is actually about. It’s as if, to them, the predominant idea behind any given picture boils down to nothing more than: Did It Really Happen Or Was It All In His/Her Head? Well, look at it this way: If it’s on the screen, it’s there for a reason – to convey something about character, story, theme. And that is all that matters.

A movie consists of nothing more or less than the images in front of you, and what you go through while you watch them. Consider: Does it honestly matter if Dorothy really goes to the Merry Old Land of Oz, or if it was “all a dream” – or, for that matter, if her “trip” was the result of a concussion, or magic Munchkin mushrooms? Of course not. As any child can (and will) tell you, the important thing about Dorothy’s journey to Oz and back is what she experiences along the way, and what she gets out of it, not whether she physically travels anywhere. The Yellow Brick Road may be somewhere over the rainbow or somewhere in her cerebral cortex, but by following it Dorothy encounters fantastic characters who help her to recognize and appreciate aspects of her own personality (intelligence, heart, courage), and comes to realize that there's "no place like home" (even if it’s in dreary ol’, tornado-prone Kansas) – without necessarily going anywhere but into her own subconscious and imagination.

Of course, in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), the distinction between “reality” and “fantasy” is made pretty explicit because, as we all know, Kansas is a monochromatic state (of mind) and Oz is a horse of a different Technicolor. (I’m not so sure I picked up on that, though, the first time I saw the movie as a small child – watching it on black-and-white broadcast TV.)

But in other movies, the line between fact and fantasy is not so clearly demarcated: "Citizen Kane" (1941), for example, is a patently phantasmagoric film, composed of multiple clashing styles and subjective viewpoints, and making no effort whatsoever to appear naturalistic. On the contrary, Kane flaunts and revels in its own flamboyant, dreamlike, expressionistic artificiality. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Critic David Thompson has suggested that “every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before his death.” And that’s one productive way of looking at the haunting, stylized visual texture of a movie that, as Thompson also observes, surveys “the gulf between concrete things and their mysterious, emotional meanings.” (Isn’t that the definition of movies?) But regardless of whether you choose to read "Citizen Kane" this way, to fret over discontinuity or presumed lapses of narrative or visual logic in such an audaciously fragmented mosaic of a film is to trivialize the very artistic vision that makes it a great movie.

Stanley Kubrick’s long-awaited and grossly misunderstood "Eyes Wide Shut" was criticized on just such irrelevant grounds when it was released in the summer of 1999. Thanks in large part to a deliberately misleading marketing campaign that sold the movie as a star-vehicle erotic thriller instead of the bizarre romantic-comedy-under-heavy-sedation that it proved to be, audiences and critics were puzzled and put off by its disorienting air of unreality – from its almost subliminal use of back projection, to the curiously clean and depopulated Greenwich Village set, to the mask that inexplicably appears on a pillow next to Nicole Kidman’s head. Given Kubrick’s previous work, and this movie’s hyper-real stylization, it’s a mystery why anyone would even try to view it as if it were intended to be naturalistic. Like Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, Dr. Bill’s (Tom Cruise) otherworldly peregrinations around Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side really constitute a trek through his own psyche. Let’s not forget that the 1926 German novel by Arthur Schnitzler, on which Kubrick based his film, is called Traumnovelle (or Dream Story), and was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s investigations into the subconscious.

"Eyes Wide Shut" plays like a romantic comedy/fantasy in the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch or Max Ophuls (think "Trouble in Paradise" or "La Ronde") – as co-directed by Fritz Lang and Luis Buñuel, infused with the former’s oppressively sinister sense of paranoia and claustrophobia and the latter’s air of close-to-the-subconscious surrealism. Dr. Bill’s journey through the looking glass (the movie is full of mirrors, doubles, pairs, doppelgangers) begins when he says to his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) that he trusts her around other men because “I know you would never be unfaithful to me.”

“You’re very, very sure of yourself, aren’t you?” Alice replies.

“No,” he says, “I’m sure of you.”

Alice bursts into hysterical laughter, and proceeds to implant (or impregnate) her husband’s mind with the indelible image of an infidelity she once imagined having with a naval officer. This triggers a nightmarishly funny series of events that force Dr. Bill to reappraise everything in his life that he thought he knew, and that he took for granted. The life he has been so sure about isn’t what he thought it was. (The film recalls Woody Allen’s illusive "Another Woman" in that way.) "Eyes Wide Shut" is about the essential unknowability of other human beings, and even of oneself – Dr. Bill spends the whole movie not quite understanding what’s going on, and every time he thinks he does, his expectations are dashed or overturned. One may “know” another person in the biblical sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever possible to know that other’s innermost self.

The much-criticized, Simon-Oakland-in-"Psycho"-like “explanation” that Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) offers near the end (the only scene not from the book) actually explains nothing. It’s loaded with ellipses and double meanings, ripe for misinterpretation. No wonder Dr. Bill keeps saying, throughout the film, “Maybe I’m missing something here…” As a “happily married” man for nine years, he fantasizes that he’s missing out on wild sex going on all around him (virtually every shot in the Village features a neon sign for an X-rated “adult” business), and that everyone he meets, from streetwalkers to costume shop Lolitas to male hotel clerks, wants to sleep with him.

But like the socialites who keep trying in vain to sit down for a meal in Buñuel’s "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972), poor Dr. Bill finds his erotic appetite stymied at every turn. The joke – and it’s a good one – is that his wife’s infidelity-of-the-mind has made him impotent to the point where he can’t even find sexual gratification in his own fantasies.

Mary Harron’s film of "American Psycho" is a movie about a guy who acts out his own most outrageous fantasies of sex and violence. Or does he? The not-terribly-observant think it’s a film about a serial killer, and get bogged down in questions about whether young Wall Street shark Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) “really” kills anybody or if… it’s all in his head. There are plenty of indications – like a trail of blood that mysteriously disappears, or the way nobody seems to recognize Bateman for who he is. And that’s because "American Psycho" isn’t actually about a guy who murders people, it’s about murder as a metaphor for the raging, ravenous, cannibalistic capitalism of the Reagan era (and, of course, the world we still live in today).

Bateman is the quintessential Reagan-era Young Republican – a slick, superficial, utterly amoral socio-economic Darwinist who exists only to make money, claw after status and power, and consume, consume, consume. To him, everything and everyone around him is simply another product for consumption, to be used and discarded at his will. Everything is OK as long as he’s making money, wears the right suit, and has a classier business card than his colleagues. Like Reagan himself, Patrick Bateman is unknowable because he is so utterly empty, soulless. (Unlike Reagan, he’s aware of it.) In the end, the film’s point is not so much that Patrick Batement is a psycho (that’s obvious), but that his psychopathology is symptomatic of the society at large. Everyone is an accessory to his literal or figurative crimes. As Pauline Kael wrote of the disturbing conclusion to Martin Scorsese’s "Taxi Driver" (1976), “the city is crazier than he is.”

So, is "Taxi Driver" itself a movie about “a guy who kills people”? Well, yes and no. It’s as hypnotic and compelling portrait of urban alienation, loneliness, and erotic frustration the movies have ever given us, and as Travis Bickle’s (Robert DeNiro) voiceover narration reminds us again and again, it all takes place inside Travis’s head. We see everything as he does. As Kael noted, “The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes "Taxi Driver" one of the few truly modern horror films…. [The bloody climax is] the only real orgasm he can have.” It’s not far from here to "Fight Club" (1999), where the characters are so numbed by hollow consumerism that they have to pummel one another in order to feel that they’re alive. (It’s a metaphor – don’t take it literally!)

In 1976, the ironic ending of "Taxi Driver" – in which Travis is hailed as a hero by the tabloid press and the grateful parents of Iris (Jodie Foster), the runaway teen prostitute – was hotly debated. Was this Travis’s wish-fulfillment fantasy? And what about that disconcerting final moment, where he glances in the rear-view mirror and then disappears again into the hellish neon blur of The City? Is this all some kind of fever dream?

“Is this a fantasy scene?,” wondered Roger Ebert, re-reviewing the film on its 20th annniversary. “Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true? I am not sure there can be an answer to these questions. The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level.”

Amen. That is what movies do best. They exist in a dream-state where nothing is “real” but the experience of watching the movie itself.

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