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Canon Reformation (4): Vanilla Sky, Dig!

Tom Cruise in Vanila Sky

Low on the list of “unexpected things in the last two months that wouldn’t have occurred under pre-pandemic circumstances” but still notable: Rachel Handler publishing a long interview on Vulture with Cameron Crowe about Vanilla Sky. This is an infamously unloved movie, the beginning of Crowe’s decadent phase when he (unjustly) became something of a punchline, and regardless any retrospective defense/look back would logically happen next December, in time for the 20th anniversary. The current prompt, of course, is the eerie opening of Tom Cruise running through a totally empty Times Square, which, as they say, hits different now: “We were told so often when it happened, ‘Take a good look. This will never happen again,'” Crowe marvels in Vulture. “It’s extremely eerie. It looked very strangely, oddly familiar.” This footage was Vanilla Sky‘s big selling point when it came out, and I’m pretty sure everyone likes this uncanny scene, which is a pretty objectively strong start.

The rest of the movie is, of course, a different story. The CinemaScore audience average rating was D-, and there is one line of dialogue so punishingly bad I can’t even bring myself to type it out (here it is as a .gif); Crowe tells a story about going to see it opening weekend, when “there was a guy roaming the aisles, saying, ‘This is not the movie you think it is. If anybody needs a refund now, ask for a refund.'” (Which puts the movie in good company.) I had my own version of this experience: when I went to see Vanilla Sky, the lights came up, a man turned to his date and said, “Well, that‘ll keep you out of the theaters for a while.” I laughed but liked the movie anyway, and still did when I watched it again in 2005. This third pass was an intensely personal experience, in a lot of ways I am absolutely not going to detail publicly—suffice to say that while I was inevitably going to end up continuously crying at some point during this grim stretch, I did not expect Vanilla Sky‘s last half hour to be the inciting context. (Spoilers from hereon.) And while I’m happy to unpack some other aspects of the movie, the quality issue does have to be addressed up top. I’ve spent a shocking portion of the last 15 years vociferously defending Cameron Crowe (including on this very website) and have a lot of patience/enthusiasm for his excesses. Even by those standards, Vanilla Sky is gruelingly long and hilariously, calamitously unsubtle (the number of times Cruise is told to “wake up” for starters). Even though I spent that last half hour bawling, the simultaneously devastating and endless climax/explanation is still a prototypical example of “what if the end of Psycho was much longer,” right alongside the last half hour of Shutter Island and the near-entirety of Raising Cain.

On the other hand, those movies are certainly not the worst company to be in and indicate the eccentricity levels Vanilla Sky is operating at. Cruise is rich fuckboy David Aames, ostensibly a “publishing magnate” with three magazines under his direction, although we never see him doing any work. To be honest, this is pretty plausible. (I thought of the mid-aughts Condé Nast executives profiled recently in The New York Times — a group portrait of hardcore drug abuse coupled with a total lack of availability, let alone accountability, to employees. Indeed, Crowe shot the workplace scenes at Condé’s offices.) The general throughline of this movie is an extended journey to self-reckoning, a moment of no-longer-containable crisis where Aames has to deal with himself whether he likes it or not. The specifics of how this comes about—the big twist reaped from source material Open Your Eyes—are baroque, fairly ludicrous and require a lot of explaining (although it’s definitely neat that this came out the same year as another film about death and lucid dreaming, Waking Life) and not among the movie’s most compelling features .

Every Crowe movie from Jerry Maguire onwards worries over the exact same scenario: a man who’s important in his field experiences failure and must rebuild.* Crowe was obsessed by the possibility of failure long before he actually failed (at least in terms of commercial performance and critical perception—again, I’m a fan) and the movies became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This tremendous fear of overreach and being leveled by hubris has big “gifted and talented kid meets world” energy behind it, which checks out: when you hit what, objectively, is your first big peak at age 16 (when Crowe wrote his first cover story for Rolling Stone), it seems inevitable to obsess about how long it’ll be before the downward trajectory sets in.

Crowe injects this anxiety into a project that began with him being attached to a property (Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes) Tom Cruise had already optioned for development. Cruise’s interest in the plot seems, in some ways, pretty obvious: this is a midlife crisis nightmare of wondering what would happen to him as a screen performer when his looks faded. This is not particularly hard to pick up on, as in e.g. Michael Atkinson’s review from the time: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so hauntingly frank about being a manifestation of its star’s cosmic narcissism […] You don’t have to be Umberto Eco to read the […] crisis as Cruise’s own worst-case scenario: losing the world’s adoration […] by having suddenly become terrifically ugly.” Vanilla Sky came out during a period when Cruise’s popularity was starting to accrue a lot of public derision veering into outright hostility: him dangling from a cliff at the beginning of the previous summer’s Mission: Impsossible II was roundly mocked as a show of egotism primarily designed to showcase Cruise’s muscles in flattering sunlight, and the antagonism peaked with his manic Oprah appearance a few years later (and, to be fair, alongside growing awareness of Scientology’s role in Cruise’s life and exactly how vile that organization is). That Cruise is now generally regarded as a good thing has little to do with anything he’s said since and everything to do with the Mission: Impossible series, which no one is mocking now. Cruise has offered the global public something they’ve definitely never seen before: the chance to watch a globally famous megastar repeatedly endanger his life for their entertainment, with a grace we generally associate with Jackie Chan but with way more money involved. This is certainly one way to resolve a midlife crisis, of which Vanilla Sky is a particularly potent relic.

If the star and director are (kind of) worrying about the same middle-age falloff, Crowe’s specific fears are more compelling to me and responsible for what, intellectually, is the movie’s most fascinating idea. The big reveal is that Cruise has been living, literally, in a dream of his own making, but what Crowe grafted on top was his signature pop culture obsession. Vanilla Sky annotates itself as it goes along, and subtlety, again, is not a strong point (a big poster for Jules and Jim is particularly egregious). But all of this adds up quite potently when it’s revealed that Cruise isn’t just living in a dream, but that every aspect of it—settings, people, romantic relationships—are modeled on his pop culture totems. None of his memories are actually his own but are entirely extrapolated from/modeled on his favorite movies and album covers, which is the nightmare of anybody who’s spent too much time going full High Fidelity: with all that listening/reading/watching, there’s literally no time to make memories of your own. (And maybe the advice you’ve gotten from these personally important texts is actually terrible for reference points on how to live your life.)

“Aames’ life, meanwhile, is defined like so many of us, by pop culture,” Crowe wrote at the time. “But where does a real life begin, and where does pop culture end?” The conclusion he reaches in Vanilla Sky is even darker than, I think, consciously intended: Aames essentially does not exist, whether in a dream or real world, because the bulk of his memories are either the project of an insulated rich upbringing which he’ll no longer have access to 150 years into the future (while he was cryogenically sleeping, inflation has depleted his savings), or implausible fantasies of the good life entirely constructed from cultural reference points. Layered on top of this plot, Crowe’s recurring fear of failure has gained resonance from the paradox of his successively stranger, productively non-naturalistic movies: he’s temperamentally a populist whose work increasingly alienates normal audiences with no patience for, or experience with, Fellini-proximate reveries. And on top of all that, there’s The Loneliness of the Film Director: Penélope Cruz tells Cruise that she actually does feel sorry for him, in the sense of thinking about how many people depend on him for employment and what that must feel like. This is a very specialized problem to have and definitely in the 1% pocket, but the point is still taken.

All that aside: I did not remember that a good chunk of Vanilla Sky takes place in DUMBO, a neighborhood whose existence I was unaware of in 2001. I’ve heard it said that DUMBO has one of the highest income disparities of any NY neighborhood, which I absolutely believe: there’s no middle between public housing and co-working spaces for aspirational libertarian entrepreneurs. This is where Cruz’s character lives, and it’s also where the IFP’s offices are housed, so it’s a neighborhood I’ve been regularly commuting to for the last six years. I cannot say that absence has made the heart grow fonder, and I absolutely lost it (laughing this time) at the film’s midpoint spectacle of Cruise having a meltdown and passing out mere blocks from the workspace. For all its numerous flaws and attendant fascinations, Vanilla Sky has been percolating in my subconscious these last 15 years far more than I realized: I’ve stolen Cruise’s line that he’s a “pleasure delayer” and applied it in the stupidest possible ways (this is why e.g. it’s taken me five years to work through the Steely Dan discography, which I actively enjoy, and still haven’t gotten to Gaucho), which is a small example. But predicting where I would end up working and having more than one spazz-out moment? This movie has dimensions.

Someone who should definitely have spent more time meditating on the possibility of failure: Anton Newcombe, whose repetitive cycles of self-destruction are the main subject of Ondi Timoner’s Dig! Ostensibly, it’s a dual profile of Newcombe’s ensemble, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and their more commercially successful contemporaries/friends-turned-enemies, the Dandy Warhols. In practice, the majority of Dig! is Newcombe-focused, with snippets of the Warhols occasionally trotted out as the Gallant to Newcombe’s heroin-/booze-addled Goofus. Both groups objected to the final result as unfair (in part, I suspect, because neither comes out looking great but for very different reasons), and overall I’m inclined to believe Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor’s evaluation from a 2005 interview: “It’s a movie, not a documentary. [Timoner] worked her ass off and forged a plot when there was no plot. She crafted the thing to swell and ebb by taking eight years of us and a year and a half of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.” (I can’t help observing that what Taylor identifies as a lack of honesty could also be a description of many “good documentary storytelling practices,” which is a whole other discussion.) Newcombe, for his part, accused Timoner of “bold faced lies and misrepresentation of fact. A perfect example is footage shown of me getting arrested in Georgia. The narration and editing suggest that I am being arrested for drug possession. It was actually Ondi who was arrested for possession, and rightly so, as the drugs were hers. I happened to have an expired license.”

At the end of the day, as guiltily as I’m admittedly drawn to 15-year-old indie rock gossip, it’s all fairly irrelevant: Timoner printed the legend, and it was extremely compelling. In a mid-film display of unimaginable hubris, Newcombe strolls through the offices of TVT Records, who have just signed him. The BJM are seemingly ready to stop fighting onstage, get it together and try to make some actual money. Specifically: “I will make you a shitload of money,” Newcombe tells the record staff one by one. “You’re gonna need a backpack or a duffel bag to carry it.” This, of course, is not what happened, though all things considered Newcombe is doing pretty well these days: sober for years by his account, now Berlin-based, with a record label and, among recent other musical projects, a collaboration with French garage rockers the Limiñanas and Emmanuelle Seignier. However, despite the protests of missing context, his onscreen persona is inevitably fairly deranged and admittedly hilarious as long as you aren’t the one personally dealing with it. My memory is that Newcombe stoked the asshole legend at SXSW, which screened Dig! during its post-Sundance lap and where the BJM played—and played and played, past the hard cut-off their venue legally had to abide by, forcing the managers to disconnect the power to make him stop. The extent to which Newcombe’s mad genius schtick is plausible depends on how you feel about his music. I’m not really much of a post-Velvet Underground drone guy, and Newcombe’s particular brand of rock revivalism has never been that interesting to me (despite the surprisingly impassioned endorsement they get in the film from Genesis P’orridge). The Dandy Warhols were also never especially my speed, though they seemed a good deal less pretentious about their project (if you don’t worry about covering your tracks, then sure, release a track called “Lou Weed”) and I do think “Bohemian Like You” is genuinely funny.

One way to reframe their rivalry is as a dichotomy between a group that cheerfully described themselves as “the most well-adjusted band in America” and an ensemble where Newcombe’s bandmates were as drunk as he was all the time, just nicer about it: hard work and discipline paid off in one case, while mania and excess did not. This Horatio Alger-esque conclusion is unsatisfying, not least because plenty of drunk, angry and disorganized messes have succeeded throughout the years. Another possibility is the classic binary of sellout vs. not selling out, which reframes this as a disagreement about integrity: Taylor took Capitol’s rejection of his first record for them relatively well and tried to write some hits, and the Dandys ultimately succeeded because of one of their songs being used in a commercial, while Newcombe would never, ever play ball with anyone. In practice, the differences don’t seem too compelling: everyone involved was on a lot of drugs, some got luckier than others and everyone was swimming in relatively the same financial pool of potential payouts. Given how little I had invested, now and then, in either group, Dig!‘s primary fascination is as an inadvertent epitaph for the final peak phase of indie rock, coinciding with the tail end of the record label post-Nirvana spending spree, before digital disruption made that a financial impossibility.

Beneath all the fighting and outrageous quotability is a core truth for people who’ve spend time hanging out with indie rock types: it’s absolutely fun to go over to someone else’s house (preferably someone who doesn’t care if you trash their space), run around, play records/instruments too loud and then not have to live there. The Warhols’ Zia McCabe describes, with appalled fascination, walking into the BJM’s house and seeing no furniture, just a “40 Ozer and some guitar amps,” which is exactly the vibe. (Portland residents take note: McCabe’s available if you need a real estate agent.) Regardless of when you think “indie rock” as a culturally prominent genre producing significant new bands fell off, it absolutely did, at some point relatively soon after Dig! came out. At the end of the day, my general indifference to both the Dandys and BJM is far outweighed by my fondness for that era of music, which remains unhealthily strong, and a probably unhealthy fondness for a lot of time spent with people who either were in bands or (more commonly) just wanted to be.

Most of Dig! unfolds in a vacuum in which there are seemingly only two bands, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. This is funny, not least because I recently read the NYC “rock revival” oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom, in which, similarly, years of music are essentially telescoped down to The Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio and whatever James Murphy was working on—there is not a single person in that book who would think to mention either BJM or the Dandys, because every regional scene has to refuse to acknowledge the existence of others. A few other groups do get passing shout-outs, though, and one of them is The Warlocks, who are also name-checked in Dig! by Adam Shore, then the A&R rep at TVT, as part of other bands adjacent to Newcombe who became more successful. That shortlist also includes Beachwood Sparks, The Tyde and Lilys—names that you don’t hear that much anymore, even if you’re the type of person who once cared. A lot more people never cared to begin with; Dig!, whatever its problems, is a nice time capsule for those who did.

* There are some obvious asterisks: this doesn’t account for Crowe’s music documentaries, which I haven’t seen, nor his 10-episode series Roadies, which I still need to watch but whose synopsis sounds differently. It also doesn’t accurately describe the main plot of Almost Famous, his most frictionless film by some measure (though it includes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs as a burnt-out case at the sidelines), but does cover all the other films from 1996 onwards—even We Bought a Zoo, an adaptation that shovels a surprising amount of adult burnout angst into what’s ostensibly a PG-rated family movie.

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