Extremes of dreams (so it seems): The psychology of ‘Vanilla Sky’

Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).

One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:

“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.

Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers.  There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.

Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).

I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:

“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)

It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).

Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).

Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:

  • “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
  • The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
  • The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
  • The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
  • The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.

(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:

  • In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
  • At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
  • At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
  • In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
  • In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
  • On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
  • His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
  • As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
  • Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
  • When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
  • At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before.  Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.

I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:

“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:

“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.

Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/v/vanillasky.htm

Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.

Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at: http://rkummer.hubpages.com/hub/What-is-happiness-to-you-Vanilla-Sky-2001-Film-Analysis

Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/freudvan.htm

Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at: http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/vanilla-sky-review.html

The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at: http://www.theuncool.com/films/vanilla-sky/vanilla-sky-secrets

Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Vanilla_Sky

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on June 20, 2015, in Case Studies, Cyberpsychology, Pain, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychology, Sex, Strange therapies, Technology, Unusual deaths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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