The Other Side Of The Dream
Copyright © by Jackson Hawley, 10/27/13
I recall, a few years ago, catching a glimpse of my twin sister at a particular angle as we sat chatting with the group of friends we had precipitated into at college. The topic of conversation eludes me, though I seem to recall some allusions to Kubrick, whom I’d only recently gotten into. What pops out of my memory, rather, is my realization that she looked just like our mother did in pictures taken decades prior. She had shorter hair, and was thinner, yet the curve of her smile’s whiteness, the angles her gesticulations cut through the air, the timbre of her words… Her physical being projected her provenance into others’ sight, though perhaps only I was the only critic who could fully appreciate such artistry. I’d always felt connected to her in a way transcending what I could achieve with others. Plenty of twins diverge into incommensurability, but we’d stayed simpatico. I’ve never been a Platonist, but there’s something to be said for the ability to connect with someone of the other sex sans the divisors of romance and sexuality. I mutter something, she turns to me, reaches a hand to my shoulder.
Her touch tumbles me back to reality, and I find myself in bed, in my dorm room, my roommate still snoring (through the pillow I’d placed over his face to stop it hours earlier). All of it – the conversation, the sister, the bond, the history – had been mere dreaming. I’d met my friend’s twin sister recently, and she’d become a mere dendritic connection to be tossed into a collage. Yet to call it, or her, a “mere” anything is to let others’ perceptions of such things creep in, for if I’m being honest, that dream is probably the sharpest, most lasting memory I have from my first year of college. I’m not in touch with any of those friends, my chosen career path looks nothing like that of a music education major, and in a few years, even that body will have fallen away over the course of innumerably many forgotten dreams. 19 years of love, life, and connection had funneled into me in a few minutes of REM sleep, and the realization of that nameless sister’s unreality (or rather, non-corporeality) made me weep quietly for a few minutes. I miss her and think about her more often and more deeply than many fleshed friends that have gone from my life, both before and after.
I thought about her much as I watched the 1980 TV movie The Lathe of Heaven, based on a 1971 novel of the same name by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which a man’s dreams seem to change the reality around him. I read the novel a little over a year ago, and I was blown away by the sterling prose, the excellent characterization, and the philosophical probing it managed to bring to a genre that tends to glorify more superficially “entertaining” things, even as devotees claim to value those aforementioned virtues. It was a great book, one well-deserving of its reputation. I’d heard much about the TV movie version, but for a time, I could not find it. However, when I searched for it the other day and discovered it had been uploaded to Youtube, I could not resist, and my choice was well-rewarded. While I cannot say it is quite as good as the novel – some of the complexity of the characterization is lost with the removal of the characters’ thoughts, and the sense of progression is a bit muddled by the narrative condensing forced on it by the adapting process – it was, nevertheless, excellent, and shames nearly all of the films that have been nominated for, or won, Academy Awards in the three decades since its release (and especially in the last 1-2 decades).
I was aflood with thoughts as I watched the film. The first thing I noticed was the strange quality of the acting. It’s generally pretty good, but it is not necessarily “naturalistic”, for there’s a quality to it that makes it seem a bit untethered from real human feeling and experience. However, this ends up reinforcing the “true” diegetic reality of the film and actually ends up being a strange kind of strength. Bruce Davison plays George Orr, the main character, and there a few very effective scenes he has, such as his lashing out at the megalomaniacal Dr. William Haber (played by Kevin Conway) - the therapist who has discovered George’s power and is using it to his own selfish ends - after he realizes that he’s “solved” the overpopulation problem by altering the past to include a plague that killed 6 billion people. However, in general, Davison’s performance is distant, passively receiving what happens as though these fantastical occurrences are little different than a trip to the dentist. Conway’s performance is likely the best in the film, capturing well his character’s egotism, callousness, and ambition. However, there is also nothing very individuated about the performance. He looks and talks a bit like Orson Welles, and his performance seems almost an embodiment or pastiche of the pop cultural idea of the inhuman authority figure. Margaret Avery, despite being probably the most famous of the main trio today, gives a pretty middling performance as Heather LeLache, Orr’s love interest. She has a few good takes – particularly near the end of the movie, when she shares a few tender moments with Davison – but Heather is the character that suffers the most in the transition from novel to film. The only thing one can really say is that there’s a bit of daring in giving a lead character a black love interest in 1980, given interracial marriage was still illegal in some states.)
However, all these aforementioned qualities end up contributing, as I said, to the actual underlying narrative – namely, that the whole story takes place in the final moments of a man dying in the fallout of a nuclear war. The film actually begins with a shot of such, only to cut to Orr startling awake in bed. This makes it seem as though the nuclear fallout is a dream, but as the film goes on, there are enough cracks in the diegetic logic of the film to come to the conclusion that what is happening is probably the product of a single mind. For example, throughout much of the film, Haber is quite protective of his sessions with George, only begrudgingly allowing Heather to sit in on one due to the seeming legal necessity. Near the end, though, in a scene where George “solves” racism by turning everybody’s skin gray, his (now high tech) laboratory is filled with scuttling assistants who listen to him brag about his alterations to reality’s fabric while they stare coldly at George, seeming almost an extension of Haber’s perception of him. It’s unlikely such a large group would be truly okay with having their lives tampered with, but this makes sense in the context of dream, where human bodies can take on the quality of weather. Later, after Haber has had George dream away his ability, he listens to a recording of “With a Little Help from My Friends” by The Beatles as he falls asleep and awakes to find that not only have the worlds’ pigments returned, but he is now married to Heather! This seems to show that George’s control over this world extends beyond any kind of diegetic logic, that said control is basically an extension of his own fantasies. That it is fueled by a nostalgic scrap of pop culture that would have been a part of George’s youth only adds credence to the claim. Indeed, the smoking gun that what is depicted is a dream comes upon the realization that George’s great epiphany occurs after visiting a junk shop, where he is surrounded by the comforting pop cultural detritus of his youth – a Dr. Pepper sign, records, posters, even kitchen utensils like a whisk.
Thus, the performances begin to make sense. George’s passive acceptance of horrors and manipulation makes much more sense in the context of dream logic, where oddity and normality commingle freely. Likewise, Haber’s almost archetypal embodiment of authority figures’ inhumanity matches perfectly to a mind that has seen the world torn apart by leaders’ decisions to “solve” its problems with the use of WMDs. Even Heather’s performance, while it doesn’t get less weak, makes a little more sense in this context. She is one of the only black people to be seen in this world, and the fact that she’s not really “real”, save as an object of George’s desire, makes much more sense when you consider the likelihood that even today – around the date the events depicted would have happened – a guy like George probably would not have known many black people to be able to humanize them in any kind of deep or abiding way.
This marks a fairly notable turn from the novel, which grounds its characters a good deal more and offers at least the possibility that what happens is “real”, at least to the extent that the internal logic of art can be called such. The novel gives you more time with the characters, depicts more of the moment-to-moment minutia, such that it’s unlikely everything seen could be the product of a single mind. We see more of Haber’s doubts and fears, for example, giving him a dimensionality that is simply not present in the movie. As well, Heather is a more substantive character in the book, and her relationship with George has more time to develop organically, such that the reality in which she and George are married seems more a natural blossoming of the way their bond has grown, whereas in the movie the audience sees them together a good deal less, making their coupling seem more like the fantasy of a desperate man.
The alterations from the novel were not all I thought about, however. I was struck, for example, by how effective some of the editing in the film really was. The production values certainly seem a bit cheap, at times, but this, again, makes sense in the context of a dream, wherein things can be “off” without destroying balance. For example, the film begins with shots of the ocean, followed by stock footage of a nuclear explosion, followed by the shot of George limping through a burned-out city. A Hollywood production today could do all of these things with much greater realism, but it would lose the sense of a world being filtered through the imagination, which does not run at as high of a resolution as sight, even if it illuminates more, in other ways. Then, when it cuts to George in bed, the credits kick in, and after each title card, we cut back to George, the camera position and his pose changing every time. This is an excellent way of showing his sense of dislocation and alienation, and it’s an example of a little artistic detail that doesn’t ever seem to creep into contemporary productions, where even the most “artful” things are pretty standard, in technical terms. The best edit happens later in the film, though. Haber walks through the overpopulated streets to his (now massive, and eponymous) research institute. The crowd seems almost like tall grass he has to push his way through. We then cut to a long shot of him going up an escalator, alone, his body occupying the center of the frame with plenty of empty space surrounding him on all sides. This cut from crowdedness to solitude perfectly encapsulates who Haber is and how he feels about the world that surrounds him, yet I’d be hard-pressed to think of any Oscar-winning film in the last decade that uses editing so effectively as a vehicle for character.
As I pondered the film’s excellence, I couldn’t help but wonder how it is that a TV movie funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could do so much better than studios dedicated solely to the creation of art. I understand, of course, that the bulk of what studios make pretty much has to be lowest common denominator piffle, but are creativity and intelligence so unmarketable that the American capitalist machine simply cannot countenance them? Are Paul Thomas Anderson – a once-promising director who fell into indulgence and has now begun reproducing the postmodern BS of folk like Thomas Pynchon – and David Fincher – someone who would have been called a “studio director” back in the day, and not even a particularly good one, at that – really the best we can do? How will we ever match the examples of men like Terrence Malick and Woody Allen – great American directors who have generally had the freedom to pursue their creativity through unlikely corridors – when their streams of finance simply do not exist for the younger generation?
And for that matter, why is it that you don’t see things like this on PBS anymore? In a past piece, I bemoaned the failure of Academia to be able to create great art unhooked from the teat of America’s art factories (Hollywood, Broadway, big publishing houses), but PBS, NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other public financing options have barely done any better. You’ll occasionally get, perhaps, a great documentary, like Into the Deep: America, Whaling, and the World, which came out a few years ago, but it seems the days of daring fictive work on public airwaves were as short-lived and illusory as the twin in my dream, leaving us only with a lingering taste of what might have been, in a society with more vision (or at least appreciation) for such things. From what I’ve uncovered via research, part of the problem is that filmmaking costs have gone up pretty substantially in the intervening decades. Even adjusting for inflation, a relatively low-budget production like The Lathe of Heaven could not be made with comparable (for its time) production values in the modern day. In the past, there were ways to get films with lesser production values to a wider audience, but such lo-fi productions seem to have been booted to the internet, where “breaking out” is less a matter of quality than it is of having mass appeal, or attracting the attention of entertainment industry “names” who are willing to go to bat for you by, say, Tweeting a link to the film in question. But of course, to get such assistance, you generally need to stay in pretty safe, circumscribed limits, lest you upset the system that such people typically flourish in in the first place.
See these recursive patterns one can fall into, the impediments that stand in the way of great art and the masses? This isn’t even touching on the dumbing-down of discourse in the internet age, the total erosion of the critical establishment, the collapse of capital’s faith in artistry after the Heaven’s Gate debacle, etc. Yet even without these complications, three simple “ex”es stand in the way: 1) the opportunity to get experience making original work, for rising college costs mean attending film school and getting a window into networking with professionals is more expensive and out of reach than ever; 2) the expense of making anything of decent production values, even just on the internet; and 3) a platform by which quality work can gain exposure without having to rely on the vagaries and fickleness of the internet’s tastes.
What’s sad about all this is that, in the absence of even these three obstacles, there’s a world of great cinema waiting to happen, in spite of the more complicated factors (dumbing-down, etc.) previously mentioned. Access to the great works of the past is greater than ever, meaning that studying the successes and failures of great artists of the past is more feasible for burgeoning artists than it ever has been. Can you imagine a combination of Ozu’s sense for subtleties of characterization with Kurosawa’s bombast and versatility? Or Kubrick’s cinematographic daring mixed with Bergman’s plumbing of man’s internal and existential depths? Most such attempts will be failures, of course, for such is the nature of artistry, but it’s a crime against culture and the future that the ability to even attempt such things is blocked by a coin-operated lock. It’s not hard to see the appeal of a George Orr, the appeal of being able pare away reality’s problems with little more than a thought.
In the end, though, such things are beyond my control, for now. And even if I did fix the superficial problems of access, a thousand lifetimes would not be enough to fix the fundamental problems of man’s ignorance, callowness, superficiality, and outright stupidity. Perhaps the average person a thousand generations from now will be much more externally intelligent than the smartest person presently living, but they will still be much dumber than the most intelligent people of their time. Apes we are, and apes we shall remain, for a long time. So I reflect on my own life, with my own mind – the only lathe I have, and the only place where I can guarantee it’ll work. I can imagine the women I’ve seen in a distance in my own life, the ones that would become my Heathers, in such a fantasy. The short brunette with the cute walk. The tall brunette whose every movement seemed a flirt designed just for me. The redhead I had a crush on in high school. I think of how the “solutions” to most problems, not just racism and sexism, have, in four decades since the original novel’s publication, become little more sophisticated than simply rendering everyone and everything a dull shade of grey. I think of poor neighborhoods gentrifying and losing their atmosphere and charm. I think of corporate greed turning the American landscape into a series of spaces separating Wal-Marts and McDonalds. I think of social justice Don Quixotes who seek to “solve” sexism by denying any difference at all between men and women, or by bemoaning how utterly devastating it was to be told to “be a man”, as though there can be nothing of value gained from such a model.
Yet I return, again and again, to that nameless twin. Never again have I dreamt about her, and I suspect I may never do so again, unless I can teach myself to lucid dream. I think back to the film, which begins and ends with images of water, which is used to symbolize the fluidity of reality made possible by the mind. However, the novel opens with an image of a jellyfish’s underwater expansions and contractions, and this is a stronger image, as it implies an amorphous yet bounded quality to things, which has more relevance to the way of the world than the idea of total fluidity and formlessness. I can imagine a reality where that twin, and the life I’d imagined with her, was real, but for every tendril reality reaches out, another must withdraw. So what would my life look like? Would I have made the same friends? Would I have developed the same interests? Would I be as close to my mother? Would I actually have liked her? And would I even be the same person at all? It’s impossible to say, really. Perhaps it’s better I absorbed her 19 years removed from the womb. She’s a great ideal, but she may have been a bitch to live with.
Then again, if there’s one thing both the film and the novel have taught me, it’s that you must make best of whatever reality is given you to inhabit. You need not be as passive and nebbishy as George Orr, but then, there’s something to be said for a guy who can live through a nuclear war and emerge with a love life that is likely better than the one he knew. I’ve often been told that I’m a pretty emotionally tempered, distant person, even to a fault, but such evenness of temperament is a response to how much of reality seems precariously balanced, to me. I’ve always tried to be with the understanding that whether things go well or poorly, I will still be alive and have to make a life, just the same. Living as a jellyfish, it matters less how the water churns about you, for you have expansions and contractions of your own to attend to.
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