Susan Sontag once wrote an article about the death of cinephilia. But what if everyone stopped going to the cinema altogether, if even the Boulevard St Michel cin?math?ques with their Preston Sturges retrospectives sold (as they say in Scotland) hee-haw tickets? What might make people re-enter movies as if for the first time? This occurred to me last night as I contemplated my own re-entry into cinema. After six months of not seeing movies, I wondered if I had forgotten how to understand their language. Would I remember the difference between a good cut and a bad one, how to see the formal system of a film?
My friends might at least have warned me that Vanilla Sky was not perhaps an easy choice. I figured that since I’d been in Iran and India, a plunge into mainstream Americana might be more bracing than a paddle in something British, so I bought a ticket for the top grosser of the day. Almost uniquely for me, I knew neither who the director was or what it was about, only that Vanilla Sky is the event movie on which Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz became a couple (you hear this stuff even in Rajasthan) and that the critics slated it.
Here’s what I saw: a mental collage of Time magazine, Mount Rushmore and Sigmund Freud. This astonishingly ambitious and humiliating film takes a face-Tom Cruise’s-and writes the secrets of the American heart over it. It is as zeitgeisty as Time tries to be and as consciously symbolic as the Presidents’ heads on the cliff.
As Vanilla Sky is not the sort of movie that Prospect readers flock to, here’s the pitch: Tom Cruise is a publishing mogul whose jealous ex-girlfriend drives both of them into a brick wall. She dies, his face is ruined, he toys with plastic surgery; but when this doesn’t work he has his body frozen and enters a world of dreams and nightmares.
What makes this failure of a film compulsive is the anxiety it expresses about Tom Cruise’s face. That face has been with us for two decades, since Risky Business. Even then, the blank beauty of Cruise’s features contained the idea that they must not remain so. The risky business was sex and capitalism, and there was the hint that America, while it loved this fresh face, would eventually punish its owner for cornering the genetic market. Twenty years later, that hint has culminated in this film about the desire to see Cruise’s face ruined. It’s another example of cinematic “want see.”
A few issues ago, I made the simple point that America in its movies likes to see the things it has built up ruined-its cathedrals. The destruction of the Twin Towers had been pre-imagined by Hollywood because they were, in some Freudian way, death-defying. Now the cathedral of Cruise’s face has hit the imaginary mangler. In hindsight it’s obvious that this would happen. In films like Born on the Fourth of July, the actor began the process of despoiling his looks on camera but, like the taste of a forbidden drug, that only led audiences to want to see more, to go further.
In 1956, this game was played out for real. Montgomery Clift, the beauteous star of Red River, A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity blacked out at the wheel of his car whilst driving down to Sunset Boulevard and smashed up half his face. The film Raintree County was only a month into filming. When the production recommenced, Clift-the left side of whose face had been paralysed-tried to disguise the damage. The same thing happens in Vanilla Sky, but, of course, fictionally. The film’s director is cinephile Cameron Crowe, who peppers his films with movie and rock music references-this one quotes Sabrina, Jules et Jim (which is very much about Jeanne Moreau’s face) and A Bout de Souffle-and who did a book on Billy Wilder. It’s impossible to imagine that Crowe didn’t think of Clift when writing this film for Cruise, who, incidentally, used to be called a kind of anti-Clift, but whose career is now incorporating more and more of the earlier actor’s anguish.
The face of Tom Cruise floats in a different place to that of Russell Crowe. The latter’s success has re-masculinised Hollywood, reintroducing a McQueen-like force and realism. As Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut showed, Cruise is best at being pre-sexual. In that film he was always about to have encounters, but didn’t. His then wife Nicole Kidman stripped off with real erotic charge, but he was more symbolic. The best scenes were at the orgy, where he wore a literal mask. Cruise wears a mask for perhaps a fifth of Vanilla Sky.
In censored cinema, an actor’s face is forced to become a symbol of the sexual business that’s supposed to be taking place. This was as true of Garbo in silent American cinema, as it is of Hindi actresses in mainstream Indian movies today. Perhaps more surprising, the French new wave, which many misremember as sexually explicit, actually used the faces of Jeanne Moreau and Anne Wiazemsky to express their new, free, intellectualised sexuality.
One of the biggest box office names in American cinema is locked into a similar “over-determination” of his face. In films like Vanilla Sky it is called upon to express so much, yet because the actor himself has such a charmingly limited range, at least two directors-Kubrick and Crowe-have put a mask on it.