Tom Cruise and the Seven Dwarves: Cinematic Postmodernisms in Abre Los Ojos and Vanilla Sky

Article excerpt

Scholarly discussions of cinematic postmodernism frequently posit an implicit opposition between two categories of film-making: big-budget, profit-oriented motion pictures and the so-called "art house" cinema of European auteur productions and independent American films. While the films assigned to the first category (especially those made in Hollywood) are often scorned as "bland, formulaic entertainment, contrived by committee and aimed at the widest, least demanding audiences" (Andrew 38), those assigned to the second are at least equally as often privileged as sites of postmodern and other non-traditional cinema aesthetics; R. Barton Palmer foregrounds this aspect of many American independent films when he describes them as "'difficult', with narratives that are hard to follow or even bewildering, stylizations pushed to excess, and nearly impenetrable themes" (28). Such assumptions, however, ignore the persistent and very real presence of at least some of postmodernism's salient features in a significant number of widely-released European and American feature films of recent years, motion pictures made with every intention of attracting large audiences. Indeed, Palmer argues that Hollywood's output since the 1980s has consistently included the work of filmmakers who aim at a hybrid form that he terms "commercial/independent film, a particular form of postmodern cinema that complexly intersects and deconstructs the contrast between high culture and mass culture" (30). Such filmmakers draw freely on modernist and postmodern devices, but "only those that can be accommodated to the tastes of a broader, more commercial audience" (31); Palmer offers the examples of directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee (35), but we might also include the works of Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, The Fisher King) and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adap- tation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). In this study we will examine certain postmodern elements of two popular motion pictures of the last decade: Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) and its 2001 Hollywood remake, Vanilla Sky, directed by Cameron Crowe. In so doing, we will both demonstrate how postmodernism can manifest itself in commercially-oriented motion pictures and compare the aspects of postmodernism most prominent in these two film versions--one European and one made in Hollywood--of the same story. Tempting though it might be to assume that the American film will dilute its source's postmodernism, we will see that this is not necessarily the case.

One irony inherent in casual dismissals of film audiences' receptivity to postmodernism is that cinema, as perhaps the most mimetic of all representational arts, has an equally great potential to problematize and to interrogate its own representational techniques. This potential is the very essence of postmodernism, of course, for one of the primary tenets of postmodern thought is the relative and slippery nature of truth, which cannot help but radically complicate any process of representation, much less one as complex as film. Linda Hutcheon writes that postmodernism's "entire formal and thematic energy is founded in its philosophical problematizing of the nature of reference, of the relation of word to thing" (19). Similarly, in his postmodern analysis of mimesis, Jean Baudrillard outlines a continuum with four phases of increasingly uncertain connection between representation and reality: 1) "reflection of a profound reality, 2) mask{ing} and denatur{ing} a profound reality, 3) mask{ing} the absence of a profound reality," and 4) representation with "no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum" (Simulacra 6). Baudrillard also notes that where conventional pretense "leaves the principle of reality intact," simulation undermines the possibility for a clear distinction between real and imaginary. As we will see, Abre los ojos and Vanilla Sky both incorporate a postmodern stance toward filmic representation as they revision the genre of the psychological thriller in order to question the possibility of certain knowledge. …