In Dreams

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


In Dreams

directed by Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan knows what the screen is for. That’s unusual for an artist who began in literature, but right for one who used words to evoke feelings and images. His new movie In Dreams overflows with sights that suggest an artist has opened up his subconscious for public display. This is not a gift to be taken lightly. Here in the digital age, technology has rendered most movie imagery unmemorable and inexpressive (you’ve every right to dread What Dreams May Come). But Jordan’s artistic integrity constantly goes for the mythic.


As critic Gregory Solman wrote, this plot is “unworthy” of Jordan’s talents, and yet In Dreams is not an example of impersonal hack work. His intelligence is still evident in this lighter vein (as Orson Welles’ was in The Stranger) and a real movie lover is compelled to point this out. It stands in contradistinction to the fake cinematic extravagance of frivolous or bludgeoning movies. Jordan gives In Dreams an uncanny, dreamlike pace. He seems to be rifling through the plot, finding the exalted image, the indelible hue or evocative compositional
value to make it something more than formulaic.

 

In Saturday night terms In Dreams might be less efficient than I Know What You Did Last Summer or The Faculty; those movies attempt little, their essence being tied to manipulative plotting and easy scares. Jordan essays something subtler, more suggestive and lasting. From the opening scene of water rushing through a church vestibule toward the viewer, images come with startling immediacy. At the moment you register their exact symbolism, their lushness is overwhelming. More epiphanies unfurl: during the sequence of a worried mother searching for her daughter amid the costumed children of a school pageant; a woman escaping an asylum and finding herself in the middle of highway collisions at night; a boy swimming out of a flooded house to discover his entire town submerged; and the same child perched on a steeple–the highest point in town–while rescue boats motor by on the newly created lake.

 

Each of these moments (and many others) rates applause–and wonder. They enhance the screen, as did similar sequences in Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, Boorman’s Deliverance, Kubrick’s The Shining and Altman’s The Gingerbread Man. Jordan rises to that class of imaginative fantasy, turning the medium’s ability to capture human experience into extraordinary manifestations. It helps that Annette Bening as Clair, the distraught woman psychically alarmed for her husband and daughter’s safety, and Robert Downey Jr. as Vivian, the killer avenging his abused childhood, have charismatic faces. Both are emphatic without being conventionally attractive–a subliminal avidity that suggests they belong together as psychic twins. Through them, Jordan seems to have channeled some substantive and affecting mental efflorescence. Dreams mix with memories and premonitions in the thickest profusion of dread, sadness and regret since Don’t Look Now.

 

Such scenes as Clair, catapulted by grief, driving a car through a fence into a river or sensing Vivian’s prison break and then following his path, step-by-intuited-step, occur in calmly measured strokes. Jordan, editor Tony Lawson and superb cinematographer Darius Khondji match two characters’ pain through visual rhythm, achieving compassion (whereas in Don’t Look Now Nicolas Roeg went for the creeps). These sequences are genuinely, fully imagined–not like the facile quick-cutting of Michael Bay or David Fincher–yet they don’t seem fully dramatized. This problem points to the script (by Jordan and Bruce Robinson) being a too-commercial blueprint.

 

After the initial, superficial thought that this was another of the misbegotten Neil-Jordan-in-Hollywood movies like Interview with a Vampire (as opposed to his stronger British-made films), scenes from In Dreams left a sweet taste in my brain. Its school pageant scene, with gossamer-winged child fairies, an intense police hunt in the woods and the climactic predator-trickster scenes with Clair, Vivian and a kidnapped girl in an overflowing apple cider mill, all recalled Jordan’s first great movie A Company of Wolves. That successful combination of high art philology and accessible generic storyline (Little Red Riding Hood) was key to Jordan’s distinctive artistry. He uses pop myths to explore psychological complexity, which may be why Patrick McCabe’s surrealist novel The Butcher Boy was the basis for Jordan’s most critically acclaimed film (it provided the mythic link to Jordan’s other fascination–Irish family heritage).

 

What In Dreams lacks, besides the old sod, is a clearer explanation of Clair’s relation to Vivian. Jordan zips by the child Vivian’s desperate need for fantasy as the link to Clair’s profession as author and illustrator of children’s storybooks. (Their sexual dysfunction is obviously paired.) The movie seems preoccupied with hocus-pocus when Jordan, at his best, unleashes the subconscious phantoms wrought by culture and parentage (Vivian’s abused childhood and the flooding of his hometown by municipal edict are barely dramatized). Like Antonio Banderas
in Interview, the final scenes of Vivian’s self-torment achieve an unsettling pity–the emotion always underlying Jordan’s wonderment. As a companion piece to The Butcher Boy and A Company of Wolves, Clair’s fated pas de deux with Vivian shows Jordan combining literary and cinematic devices with contemporary horror in an attempt to expurgate society’s inner monsters. But being less socially/politically grounded than the tale of psychic twins in De Palma’s magnificent The Fury, In Dreams’ delirious high style wobbles on a sketchy premise. So while In Dreams joins the ranks of Jordan’s most ruinously flawed movies High SpiritsWe’re No Angels and Interview with a Vampire, it’s still an impressive eyeful of cinema.


Peeping Tom

directed by Michael Powell

Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese must have felt a collective dream was answered when, as young men in the early 60s, they both saw Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. This dirty, compassionate thriller expressed something then new in the culture to which they have kept faith, in De Palma’s own movies and Scorsese’s sponsoring of Powell’s last years (including Peeping Tom’s reissue this week at Film Forum). They recognized that in this one picture British veteran Powell, coincidental with the French New Wave, gave full, serious vent to the preoccupation with cinema as a way of seeing and pursuing life.


Despite the grim premise of a young filmmaker, Mark (Carl Boehm), whose avocation warps into Jack-the-Ripper pathology, the movie actually details an outcast’s passion–as movie mania was once regarded (by some) as improper or obsessional. Even with the film’s growing acceptance these past four decades, it still carries a stigma. Peeping Tom isn’t really about voyeurism as some literal-minded critics like to say, but about private obsession. Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks closely parallel film with pornography and crime, exploring their own
subcult fascination. The movie verifies an unsettling promise: that the practice of cinema will always be disturbing. Scorsese and De Palma understand–as Michael Powell knew and Neil Jordan also shows–that movies can, with dreamlike precision, express personal and social disorder.

 

It was up to a younger generation of filmmakers, such as De Palma and Scorsese, to underscore Peeping Tom’s implicit suggestion that such private pursuits had a primal, sexual nature.
They did it through a more egotistical implementation of film grammar and sensual, kinetic style. Powell, whose work had been quite flamboyant in the 40s, is at his most subdued, almost literal, in Peeping Tom. Except for the opening gambit depicting the action through a camera’s viewfinder, Powell’s style is unexceptional. Otto Heller’s lustrous color photography conveys
a sinister, drab air that, at the time, might have been mistaken for realism. De Palma and Scorsese saw through it to a particular truth–the Atomic Age frankness about hidden impulses coming to light. The first daytime scene, in a smoke shop festooned with girlie magazines, features a vendor who secretly sells “studies” of models surreptitiously made by Mark, his timid
clerk.


Identifying with Mark, Scorsese and De Palma recognized his hobby as a specialized passion, connected to the socially accepted attraction to disrobed models as well as the thrill of cinematic apparatus (film stock, developing wheels, projectors, screens, lights, the process of studio filmmaking) being openly fetishized at last. With all this, Peeping Tom is a poetic distillation of the creative urge behind cinema’s new era. Released the same year as Hitchcock’s superior Psycho, it’s an art film of particular (scholarly) erudition: It is to Psycho what
Malick’s Thin Red Line is to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Hitchcock’s more dynamic approach to the changing cultural mood clarified the sexual neuroses on view while defining a new shock esthetic; Powell, in his usual, effete dream-state, effected a grisly rumination. “What’s this war in the heart of cinema? Is there an avenging power in cinema? Not one power but two?”


Mark (cinema’s most sympathetic miscreant since Peter Lorre in M) is torn between expressing his sexuality and his artistry, admiring the sweet, adoring Helen (Anna Massey) while killing other women with the blade hidden in his camera tripod. And Powell commiserated with this decrepit young artist out of a genius’ typical ambivalence. Examining the thin line between death and desire, Powell works out a modern philosophical quandary. This came to be a central concern among psychoanalytic film critics but really it’s just the male equivalent to the female dilemma in Powell’s 1948 film The Red Shoes–art in a mortal struggle with life. It’s a phenomenal thesis; it even questions a filmmaker’s social responsibility and personal arrogance. Powell pushes Mark’s (his own) audacity to the life-taking limit–a fictional confession as candid as Mohsen Makmahlbaf’s declaration in Salaam Cinema of the “sadism” inherent in filmmaking.


For all this, Peeping Tom, a significant movie, is not a great one but it holds great fascination–and is to be honored–for revealing the locus classicus of Brian De Palma’s cinema. Powell paved the way for De Palma to take themes of sexual guilt, social change, scopophilia–the puzzle of modernist film esthetics–and transcend genre as Peeping Tom simply does not. Most film critics, unsurprisingly, have misconstrued De Palma. Hitchcock is no more important to De Palma’s filmmaking than Orson Welles; it’s Peeping Tom that De Palma has been “remaking” throughout his career, from Wotan’s Wake to Snake Eyes. It’s his prime text the way some artists extrapolate from the Bible, Shakespeare or Sartre. In the 1970 Hi, Mom!, where Robert
De Niro played a Greenwich Village dissident trying to get laid and make “peep art” porn movies, De Palma advanced the relation between 16-mm photography and voyeurism that now shows striking resemblance to the videocam era. Powell’s film title was also used as a multileveled tv joke at the start of Sisters. Mark’s suffering as the subject of a mad-scientist father’s cruel experiments were the basis for De Palma’s best 90s film, the bad childhood nightmare Raising Cain. And in Mark’s killing of an aged, mature Moira Shearer (the still-exquisite star of The Red Shoes) is a template for the heartrending sympathy and cosmic cruelty shown to Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill and all De Palma’s screen ladies.


It’s no surprise that De Palma’s movies are constantly as misinterpreted as Peeping Tom was in its time. Sex, violence, guilt and art are rarely well understood, but that’s the challenge some pop artists boldly undertake by fearlessly putting those issues together–out of dreams onto the screen.


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A dream to some, a nightmare to others. Robert Bresson’s Les Dames de Bois du Boulogne (at MOMA Fri., Jan. 29, at 2:30) is the most oneiric of masterpieces. This peep into several Parisians’ souls is rarely screened; its lasting influence is worth discussing next week.

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