“The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.” —credited to André Bazin in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt
Bazin may or may not have actually said or written those words, but the above quote certainly explains a great deal about the universal appeal of the movies. Most of us would probably agree that, at its best, cinema can function not just as mere escapism, but also as a way of satisfying a desire to see characters or an entire world depicted on a big screen that reflects one’s own yearnings. (Why, for instance, do some moviegoers sometimes find themselves half-admiring movie killers like Jef Costello, the lonely contract killer with the sharply honed senses in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967); or Jules and Vincent, the two talkative hit men in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994)? Often there’s just something damn cool about them that makes you want to be like them.)
Even within that particular definition of cinema at its height, however, there is a certain category of cinema that I would like to propose—what I would call (somewhat reductively) the “cinema of the personal daydream.”
What makes up a “personal daydream movie,” you might ask? It is the type of movie that inspires—whether during the movie, days afterward, or both—a mood in the viewer of wanting to linger in the film’s particular world for hours on end, in the same way one might desire to linger in a dream at night before having to wake up to eye-crust-ridden early-morning reality. It’s the kind of movie whose mood might suddenly materialize in your mind as you sit during your lunch break at work (or, in my case, in a college classroom waiting for a lecture to start). One filmmaker’s daydream, in other words, becomes your daydream. And perhaps your reaction to a filmmaker’s vision reflects deep pools of yearning that the movie touches upon, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Of course, human beings are so varied that what one might find enchanting, another might find grotesquely whimsical. Consider, for instance, these two widely diverging reactions to Michel Gondry’s recent film The Science of Sleep: Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez called it a “great punk record” to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s “good pop song,” while a considerably more hostile Fernando F. Croce dismissed it as “a nightmare.” (This writer loved it, by the way.) Dreaminess is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, it seems, and is thus subject to the whims and desires of the individual viewer, who is free to either reject a particular movie or to embrace it—to turn it into the stuff of one’s own daydreams.
Now, I’m not talking about movies that necessarily leave you thinking about the state of the world we’re living in, films that force you to reflect on a philosophical idea, or even films that get you to ponder the nature of cinema. Personal daydream movies, rather than being intellectually enriching, are much more visceral in their long-lasting effects, and as such perhaps cannot be described so much as felt.
I think everyone has their personal daydream canon. So, to start the ball rolling, here are five films that I would consider part of mine. These are works that I sometimes find myself thinking about at random moments during the day when I feel like mentally escaping from the drudgeries of my daily routine—works that inspire a particular mood, perhaps one that I wish I could recreate in real life. These films might not have the same effect on everyone, so I’ll honestly explain what effect it has on me and why. (Honesty is important because I suspect these lists may end up suggesting more about the list maker than about the films themselves).
In no particular order:
1. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003). A strange mix of deadpan comedy, tragedy, surrealism and visual and aural poetry, this sublime, wildly original Thai film pairs two contrasting characters—a willfully withdrawn neat-freak male Japanese librarian (Tadanobu Asano), and an impulsive, messy Thai female free spirit (Sinitta Boonyasak)—as they tentatively strike up a complex companionship after both experiencing personal tragedies. That brief little plot description makes it sound like a classic screwball-comedy plot, but director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang masterfully shapes the familiar elements into a time- and space-bending meditation on the ways people deal with real-world pain. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s breathtaking, expressionistic/impressionistic visual tropes and the hypnotically spare, ambient drone of the film’s electronic underscore (by Hualampong Riddim and Small Room) help to create a haunting world in which these two characters, trying to find comfort in each other as the world around them continues to turn, seem to be the only inhabitants. I haven’t forgotten this film’s beautifully moody aura of loneliness ever since I caught a glimpse of it late one solitary night on television sometime last year; sometimes I feel exactly the feeling Last Life in the Universe evokes, during those late nights when I am sitting in my room, alone and with only my thoughts of movies like this to accompany me.
2. Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995). I have written at length about Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious, underrated twisted sister to Chungking Express in this House Next Door piece, but even my intellectualized ramblings on this film’s significance in the director’s body of work can’t hope to convey its sensuality. Especially for someone like me who holds a perverse curiosity toward what goes on in big-city nightlife, Fallen Angels abounds with glamorous, savory neon-lit imagery of Hong Kong at night. Combine that with a doomed, unspoken love affair between a killer and his assistant; desperate attempts at human connection in such an impersonal landscape; and a jukebox that plays both Laurie Anderson and Shirley Kwan, and you have a movie that, along with Last Life in the Universe, very nearly defines my own personal cinema of daydreams. (And is it a coincidence that Christopher Doyle lensed both films? Maybe not…) Also recommended: Wong’s 1988 debut feature As Tears Go By, a powerful Mean Streets-inspiredgangster drama that can be seen as a first draft for some of the nocturnal antics in Fallen Angels.
3. Luchino Visconti’s White Nights (1957). As perhaps one can tell from my previous two choices, I am often a sucker for tales of romantic longing among loners, and Luchino Visconti’s White Nights, based on a Dostoyevsky short story, is one of the most enchanting romantic-longing-among-loners stories I have yet seen. It is also, as other critics have noted, an important work in Visconti’s oeuvre, representing a tipping point between his early neorealist films and his vastly more stylized later works. One can immediately sense that stylization in its deliberately artificial sets and in cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s expressive lighting in black-and-white (a snowfall towards the end of the film is its indubitable visual highpoint). The film’s world may seem on the verge of the fantastic, but the emotions being expressed are oh-so-real: the solitary clerk Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) stops an emotionally impulsive, distraught woman, Natalia (Maria Schell), from killing herself, and as he hears her story about how she is waiting for a lover who promised to return to her a year ago, he finds himself slowly falling in love with her, maybe as much out of his own need for companionship as out of genuine affection. Well, this romantically deprived loner can certainly relate! The ending of White Nights may be a downer, but, just as Mario is left to mere memories of his four days with Natalia, we lucky viewers are left with memories of this film’s intimate moods and opulent images.
4. Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006). I think I probably underrated this unexpectedly gritty big-screen revamp of Michael Mann’s old 1980s TV show when it came out, letting myself get too bogged down in the sometimes-incomprehensible plot details (but then, it’s all standard cops-and-robbers stuff anyway) and not giving myself over to Dion Beebe’s sumptuously smudgy high-definition video images of luxurious night. I’m still skeptical about the claim that this above-average cops-and-robbers film is “one for the ages,” as House managing editor Keith Uhlich wrote in his take on the film here—but, especially after seeing it again on DVD recently, I’ll gladly admit that some of its moods and images are still potent enough to haunt me at random moments of any given day—especially the passage from the film I referred to in this article, a nearly perfect summation of this film’s sense of doomed romanticism. And for me, doomed romanticism + night = the stuff of glorious daydreams. What gives those moods and images its underlying power, however, is the gut-punch realization of how much Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) have had to sacrifice in their personal lives in order to soldier on in their work.
5. William Friedkin’s “Self Control” (1984). A few weeks ago, in his New York Press feature story about his music-video “introspective” at Lincoln Center’s Scanners video festival, Armond White wrote, “When a music video strikes a nerve, it gives pop listeners a rare chance to interpret a song visually. And these ready-made mental pictures that came across on the TV screen could powerfully influence our own imaginings.” I rather doubt that White included the music video (linked above) for the Laura Branigan hit “Self Control” in his program. For me, however, this video does exactly what White suggests good music videos should. After seeing it for the first time a few months ago—and believe it or not, I watched it about a dozen times afterward, sometimes even while I was sitting in a Rutgers University computer lab ostensibly working on my senior thesis—I couldn’t imagine not going out and trying to be a “creature of the night” whenever I was around the New Brunswick area on a Friday night.
I know, I know: some of it is cheesy in a distinctly ’80s manner, and those masked figures encounters as she wades perilously deeper into the night’s forbidding waters now seem a bit like an unfortunate forerunner to the more grandiose cheesiness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera musical. Still, I can’t resist it any more than Laura can resist that masked man: director William Friedkin—yes, the same guy who directed The French Connection (1971)and The Exorcist (1973)—pretty much put my geeky fantasies about the simultaneous allure and danger of the wild, swanky nightlife into one five-minute package. I think the song is fantastic as well—surprisingly evocative for an overproduced ’80s synth-laden pop tune—and Friedkin’s video encapsulates the meaning of the lyrics pretty well through his images.
Though these are the ones that immediately come to mind, I’m sure that as I continue along my path to become more cinematically enlightened, my personal daydream canon will expand and grow. In the meantime, I open up the floor to more pathways for future daydreaming.
Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.