Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Vanilla Sky

Firstly I would like to take this moment to bitch about the flawed nature of DVDs as opposed to digital downloads or even video-cassette types.  There is little more annoying than when one rents a DVD in an age where one could download something to one’s hard drive (ignoring of course the illegality in the action as millions do – or to quote the cute older woman from Monk, “Be a pirate; it’s fun being a pirate.”) or stream a movie or series for cents-per-stream considering how often people breeze through series in the modern age.  Yes, I do realize that this is the definition of a First World Problem, but just because both things are far-more awful somewhere foreign and distant and there are far worse problems that are more deserving of our consideration doesn’t excuse irrationality or poor social factors in minute ways or degrees.  Just because things are and could be far-worse shouldn’t be used as rationalization for not making things better.  Otherwise we’ll never have the type of technology seen in films like Vanilla Sky.
Now, secondly I may need to make a confession.  I very-much like Vanilla Sky.  I think it is both witty and well-written asides from perhaps the ending which I’ll get to later.  Yes, I’m well-aware that Brian from Family Guy refer to it passingly as an abortion, but this is also the show that’s been going downhill steadily for the past several years and taunts the audience by having several minute scenes of a clip completely unrelated to the plot just to show you that you are completely under their and the televisions control as a mindless observer – and of course the fact that half of their jokes are unrelated to the plot as South Park mentions doesn’t help its artistic standing either; but the fact that Family Guy would ever or perhaps currently is deemed a source of authority and standards in television writing or public opinion shows the vacancy of intelligence and substance in American culture.  But this is a separate rant for another day.
What makes Vanilla Sky interesting is that it in a way is analogous to Kantian epistemology and also is a unique version of a false reality unlike the Matrix.  The Matrix takes Descartes’ malevolent demon and makes it a self-concerned mechanical sentience apathetic to human concerns (though actually this is contestable considering that The Architect’s first attempt at a Matrix was  a perfect world for humans but this was not conducive to their needs considering a large percentage of humans continually woke up.  I don’t think we humans considering our history and current treatment of each other have any right to criticize a synthetic intelligence’s methodology of survival) so it is essentially nothing more than a action-packed modernization of Descartes with Eastern, Existential and bits of certain philosophers shoehorned into the films.  It isn’t an Intro to Philosophy course as much as it is the cinematic adaptation of Philosophy for Dummies.  Vanilla Sky however is the first film I’m aware of that has a false reality where one’s state of mind and subconscious affects the dream world one is in.  I wish they did far-more with this to comment and explore the human psyche but the film spends more time on the relationships of its characters which I have no quarrel with. 
One reason why I think many Sci-fi buffs don’t like this film is because whether or not they actually have Asperger’s or high-functioning Autism the average “nerdy” person usually enjoys things with either incredibly basic or virtually no character development; Videogames, card games, manga, and so-on.  I know that I’m inserting myself on the shit-list of many readers but one thing that is a continual source of amusement to me is how lovers of Japanese animation believe that it is on-average very deep in itself or far-more so than American or European animation.  First-off, they’re cartoons.  Now that is not to say that cartoons are incapable of being intelligent or having complex characters or well-formed plotlines; but on average regardless of nationality animation is one of the lowest forms of televised entertainment just above sports and political and religious propaganda.  I’m the guy who wrote an essay on The Brave Little Toaster and The Lego Movie, so believe me when I say I understand animation has the potential to be a source of certain kinds of story and message that are rare in adult films.  It seems to me that “nerds” are people who seek out a type of stimulation (e.g. card games and board games that involve strategy and basic math, repetitious stories that idolize the characters they focus on much of the time rather than have characters of “human” quality, depth and frailty – and yes I realize that there are exceptions to this and this isn’t nearly as bad as it once was) that has very-little to do with intellectualism or stories of intellectual substance.  Though they may be deemed intelligent by the laymen, and very-well are of above-average intelligence (which in our society says almost nothing) very-few of them are interested in Philosophy, Psychology, or any field of science in a deep way in the sense of understanding something rather than knowing the data required for one’s career.  The very essence of most “geeky” things are never-ending series in which an episodic adventure takes place in a thirty-two page comic book or in a forty-five minute episode, where character development happens over the length of hundreds of issues or episodes if at-all and particularly for comic books the reset button can always be pressed resetting what little character development and growth to the storyline has been achieved; and yet pulp product is produced every week and consumed in the millions.
Some might say that it’s being too obvious and repetitive in a way typical of a novice writer through constantly instilling the Nietzschean message of the “sweet and sour” and bitterness in life is necessary for appreciation of what one truly has and to want more – it is what makes us human as The Matrix points out.  But this type of amateurish vaguely idealistic style of writing and dialogue I actually enjoy.  Not every piece of fiction needs to be polished where everything is full of subtlety and nuance.  That of course isn’t to say that there are far too much of the two in various mediums of storytelling today – quite the contrary – but occasionally the youthful, impassioned and inexperienced writer (by the way I have absolutely no idea how old the writer was when he wrote this and how many stories he did before, but it does have a “younger man’s” style – which like I’ve already said is one thing I find charming about the film) can convey something that many more mature writers would’ve long moved past and considered trite.  But of course if we look at the subject matter and lives of the majority of characters we find that the things being conveyed usually do contain a young man’s bias or perspective.  Relationships, ambitions, angst, conflict with authority, uncertainty about self, youthful naivety, these are all things in the life of the youthful demographic to varying extents far-more than their older counterparts.  Most stories ignore much of what it means to grow old because it typically entails largely accepting responsibilities and becoming more-and-more a member of society and less-and-less a individual; and this is certainly a reality that both Hollywood (both because they largely wish to provide “popcorn entertainment” and because they exist to present images of life that do not conflict with the authority figures – religion, Capitalism, Government – depiction and to be accurate about life would be to do so) and idealistic writers don’t wish to convey.
The main point of discussion outside the movie in-general is of course its ending.  The main criticism of it, one that I wholly agree with, at-least in a sense, being that there is no doubt provided as to whether he really is in a false reality or not.  It’s shown to him very clearly without almost any doubt in several different ways (the most obvious being Brian and Sophia appearing out of nowhere) but the reason why I said “in a sense” is because although I completely agree that the film is terrible in providing doubt as to whether or not he is dreaming and therefore removes the tension and impact (if I can use that pun) of choosing to jump off a building that has very-little to nothing to do with the significance of his choice.  His choice is not to awake in the real world or risk death, for this assumes that we all assume (and we assume David values) value in reality over pleasure or reality for its own sake.  This is the same premise of course in John Dewey’s reality machine, where one has the choice of being in a machine producing a perfect dream and one would not be aware they are dreaming or reality; Dewey believes that we all have a craving to experience reality for its own sake in a sense and very few would go in the reality machine.  I however disagree.  Firstly, as Freud and Nietzsche show, people have the fundamental need and habit of deluding themselves throughout their daily lives in one way or another and escaping from reality; the delusions of religion being the most obvious and extreme form of this.  Also, though I do agree that most if not all have some level of commitment or attachment to reality rather than one’s ability to experience happiness within it, this is largely beaten out of us both by indoctrination of hierarchy (religion, commerce, government), the rationalizations and alterations people need to make to themselves to cooperate in these systems and out of the savagery and poor living conditions that all three create that makes one escape from reality and delude one’s self even further. 
The issue then of course is not whether he will live or die, but whether he should live an ideal life (for however long we don’t know.  We are told that his finances won’t last long, which the operator of Tech Support says seemingly in conjunction with what his status in the outside world will be, but I think it’s safe to assume that his financial status concerns the duration he continues the Lucid Dream as well) for however long or live a life with some pain but know he is in reality.  Of course he must be cured of his severe scars and migraines and his stay in the dream cannot be eternal because then either the sacrifices he would have to endure to live in reality would be too severe for a rational human being to accept, or it then becomes a question of whether or not one would choose an eternally ideal but false live over a momentary and at-least somewhat tragically real existence.  Most would choose the eternal ideal life and I frankly could not blame them for it would be an actual paradise rather than the incredibly disturbing and unwell depictions of Utopia created by the Christian and Muslim psychology of self abnegation and obedience or the nothingness of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Some would say that I’m being “soft” or padding the choice of choosing reality by the unrealistic assurances of being relatively healthy and pain free, but degree does matter in choice rather than absolutes.  Before his life was not manageable because of the migraines so if they are not cured surely to return to reality would be to ensure one’s demise or pointless suffering.  One must be able to enjoy and achieve something in reality for reality to be a worthwhile choice.  For the main reason why we wish to be in reality rather than in a heavenly falsehood is the notion of being able to achieve something and flourish within it.  This of course should not and cannot be guaranteed.  For if it was there would be no distinguishing factor between the reality and the dream other than the designation of “real” on what we are told is reality but functions to serve our most immediate desires rather than us sublimating and working around our most base desires to achieve greatness – that which escapes basic utility and entertainment.  Philosophy, science and art being the three main fields of greatness but athletic ability, craft, or any type of talent, skill or form of flourishing one does not to become competent as to make a living or become content, but rather to master in and to do for the sake of greatness in itself, regardless of the fruits of science and art which certainly are many and potent in their sweetness and depth.  It is the perfect contrast between the Hedonist life of pleasure and the Nietzschean life of strife and constant shifting (at-times strenuously struggling) towards greater heights and greater expectations, something that is actually counter-productive to happiness in the most base sense but essential for flourishing.
A minor point that may interfere with the flow of this essay, but one I feel the need the need to interject none-the-less.  When the man from Tech Support explains to him what actually happened after the night David went to the club with Sofia and Brian, he mentions that Sofia went to his wake and portrays her in a rather flattering light.  I consider this to be unnecessary and a tad towards the contrived.  I understand that she is in a somewhat uncomfortable situation (but not nearly as painful as David’s scenario regarding the pain of-course though which situation is more uncomfortable ignoring physical pain is something worth discussing) but if she really was so connected with David then you think – at-least if she were a decent person – she would make the effort to maneuver around and work past the momentary awkwardness and try to be his friend or companion.  Instead of that somewhat long and hyperbolic narration, they should have simply shown a forlorn Sophia at the wake.  But I did state and excuse the lack of subtlety in the film.
Another minor point is whether he experiencing headaches the entire time.  When he has the scarred face does he have the headaches to boot?  Shouldn’t this be an indicator of whether or not this is a dream or not for him?  They said that in his dream that they could reduce his headaches by about half, and he says nothing in-regards to his pain being completely gone, so apparently even in this quasi-ideal life of his he is in constant pain or irritation no matter how mild it is.  Overall the mechanics of how his subconscious interferes with his supposedly perfect life is sloppily explained and overall arbitrary in its functioning.  I don’t expect a full introduction to psychoanalysis or Freud, but to have the film’s alteration of the dream be explainable in the sense of saying something either about the nature of the subconscious or this particular type of person’s psychology would’ve made it far-more meaningful.  Is he afraid that Sophia will turn into another Julia?  Does he see the same types of traits in the two?  Of course it is simply a plot-device of having us question (or rather recognize) that what he’s experiencing isn’t truly real and to push the plot forward towards the inevitable confrontation and realization of the fact.  Also, he takes it pretty hard that he sees Julia in Sophia doesn’t he?  It becomes almost immediately clear that it’s Sophia, and were he thinking rationally all he needed to do is ask her a question that only Sophia would know the answer to.  I know I sound like the stereotypical “guy” when I say this, but I wouldn’t mind that the girl I’m fucking looks exactly like the girl who almost killed me – if she’s hot.  Hell, what could be a more ideal instance of revenge fucking as-to get unvented grudges and ailments out of the way – and as-to revenge fuck for revenge fucking sake.
Now to return to more substantive topics.  The film also in its relationships and idealizations of both a “dream world” and the real world reminds me of the nature of the imagination.  Essentially being the Platonic forms; or rather the strongest and purest forms of what we see in reality – making it of course in a sense unreal, but also in a sense a more useful depiction of reality than reality itself.  For the nature of the intellect needs abstractions, generalizations and simplifications to go off of in order to function.  We see this in caricatures of personality types, classes, social groups and relationships of family, courtship and friendship as well-as character development.  It depicts reality in a “purified” form that eliminates the ambiguity and complexity of it to highlight the particular strain of it one wishes to show.  A good example of this being the rather simple story arches of Logan’s Run and Zamyatin’s ‘We.’  Both films have a “true believer” character that works for and is fully convinced of the rightness of the totalitarian system – more-or-less – that they live in.  That is until a changing factor (in both cases a woman) make one question the legitimacy of the system they have before followed dutifully and a loss of faith occurs.  I’m sure this type of example can be found in real life, of people leaving a church, totalitarian regime or organization because they’ve become disillusioned with the rationalizations that one had previously, but not in the choreographed way of dialogue and a consistent unidirectional march towards mental liberation.  Most examples I would guess involve either a very gradual disillusionment with the likelihood of a kind of relapse or a kind of immediate and dramatic change that occurs when one’s perception of reality – that is not only a intellectual but a visceral relation to things – has been suddenly and drastically altered.  The same of course can be said of love affairs.  Though almost everyone of a certain age on the surface of the globe has had some type of love affair or at-least infatuation, very few are quite as idyllic and simplistic as portrayed in cinema. 
Some stories have far-more depth than others of course, but since the imagination a tool for understanding rather than depicting (a major misconception people have with the invaluable mental tool) it’s true utility is expressed in encapsulating something and ignoring a great degree of depth or shading in-regards to other attributes in order to have a better understanding of that one attribute.  Much like the more we know about a particle’s speed the less we know about its location.  Did I get that right?  I know it’s something along those lines but it might be quark instead of particle and two other variables, but the basic premise holds nonetheless.  This also is useful in explaining why modern novels are far-more imaginative than ancient religions, and why fables in those religions existed in the first place.  When one looks at the Greek fable explaining the existence of the spider and why she weaves her web, it is perfectly clear that they are attempting to explain the existence of things in the world, not to depict them accurately or to create imaginative and creative falsehoods.  Religions are the first and poorest attempt that Man had to explain the world, scientific fictionalizations are typically more creative because they are written by more intelligent people yes, but also because they have a more non-systematic urge to depict their findings and explorations of nature, when the religions inevitably becoming more concerned with depicting their fanciful notions rather than exploring the universe and furthering their understanding in it.  Religion first began as an attempt to understand the cosmos and Man’s place in it, but then it very-quickly became a cult-esque organization where herd values, adherence to the faith and continuation of said faith became more important than examining the natural order.
As imagination is attempting to remove the unnecessary complexity of life to understand the basics of a certain topic or trait, so writing is idealism in its purest sense.  There are of course those who write only to create pulp-fiction love novels and horror stories to be made a living on and quickly replaced on the shelf by an identical novel, but writing as an art (just as there is much difference between music as an art and music as it largely exists today especially when great deals of commerce are involved) involves the artist’s desire to portrayal a conversation or setting ideally – even if it be Hell.  Hell itself of course is not a real place but an intellectual abstraction created by a writer.  Taking “a bad place full of pain” and taking that reality to its utmost extreme not only in extent of suffering but the duration of it.  It is the job of the writer to ignore the infinite subtleties of humanity so he can depict some aspect of it with accuracy.  George Orwell’s 1984 is of course a grand, nay perhaps the best example of someone making a completely awful and hellish place of absolute un-freedom which we’ve seen only various (no matter how close to black they seem) shades of such a society but never the picture in its true light and fullest self.  The relationship of Winston and O’Brian is an “idealization” or abstraction of the eternal struggle of the freethinker and the Orthodox.  The relations of Winston and Julia depict the essence of newly budding love that is prevented by social forces much-like Romeo and Juliet – though I prefer Winston and Julia’s romance. 
Though fiction if it is to be truly significant and intellectual must accurately depict reality, it must not be in-depth in its portrayal of it.  For then there would be no respite for the hellish monotony of daily existence, and all that would exist would be reality television, home makeover shows, sports and even more bland and meaningless depictions of the same.  All those with two brain cells to rub together would hang themselves rather allow the indignity of living in such a nightmarish Hell.  And as to whether David should have remained in the dream world or return to the real one, the nature of the imagination would actually coerce him towards not the realm of fantasy, but that of reality.  For the imagination would urge him to return towards the world where he could achieve a better understanding and ability of apprehending the world, focusing on appreciating the world rather than enjoying it. 
The painful realities of existence as it is will also urge him to wish to change the world and create mental alternatives of what the world should ideally be and how to attain it.  This is another reason why the writer is “idealistic.”  He not only concerns himself with what it is, but how things would be ideally.  This is not always done obviously through the Utopian works of HG Wells for example, but also in counterexamples of depicting injustice and suffering and expressing the contempt for such circumstances and the hope that the reading audience will gain from reading the works of creative genius and apply it to their everyday doings as best they can in a systematic and fundamentally unjust society – that is a society that demands injustice, hardship and ignorance in some way.  Imagination would urge us to choose reality, not only for the sake of using imagination to apprehend it, as well-as a reason to be imaginative, but also to use our imaginations to make the world not such a incomprehensibly awful place for so many.  With imagination is the innate hope and urge that not only is the world changeable, but that the ideal is possible.

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