Continuing the theme of Movies Which It Turned Out Had A Much Greater Impact Than I Anticipated, I thought I would rewatch a movie I hadn’t seen in a long time: What Dreams May Come. I’d seen it on our shelves, and was touched that someone else (who? when?) had liked it enough, as I had (back when I saw it in theaters in 1998), to want to keep it around. Also I figured it would be a safe choice, as I knew the kinds of loss discussed therein wouldn’t touch on my own.
“You can say everything you want to. Even goodbye. Even though she can’t understand it. And you’ll have the satisfaction that you didn’t give up. But that has to be enough.”
Setting that aside for a moment though, can we talk about how the art design for this movie is fucking amazing?
Yeah, that’s the paint part. You’re damn right I’m talking about the paint part.
Long story short, it’s easier for the main character to deal with the world as a painting rather than as a reality, so paint it is. I saw this on a big screen as a twelve year old with my painter friend, and we lost our shit. I worried, before we got to this part, that the advance of technology since then would have rendered it crap. But, like Jurassic Park’s animatronic dinosaurs, which still look better than lame CGI concocted a decade later, the paint part of What Dreams May Come is absolutely gorgeous. A quick google informs me that part of this may be due to its use of Fuji Velvia film, which “is known among landscape photographers for its vivid landscape reproduction.” Okay. But there is “good looking landscape” and then there is “my eyes are melting and I’m okay with that.”
Even setting aside the wonders of the painted world early on, the amount of care taken to frame and center things is painstaking, almost to Wes Anderson levels sometimes.
I wasn’t in a position to notice or articulate it, as a twelve year old, but damn. Damn. Yes, the slow-mo and constant tinkling laughter flashbacks can get a little maudlin, but you forget to roll your eyes when another fantastical vista takes your breath away.
Hell, even the hellscapes are impressive.
But, ah…I didn’t rewatch it because it was pretty. I was worried…I always worry when I reengage with things I used to love…that what struck me before, watching it, would come off as hackneyed now. And as that CinemaBlend article earlier makes clear, the path to resentment of emotional button-pushing was clear, if you were an adult watching this move as an adult in 1998. But I wasn’t then, and I still can’t dismiss the whole thing as more hackneyed than not now, for one reason:
I don’t know what Robin Williams meant to adults in 1998. He was their Mork, maybe. Their John Keating. But for the two of us sitting poleaxed in our seats in that theater — and on through to today, for people of that age — he was our Alan Parrish, our Peter Panning, our Genie, our Jack. His was the voice that taught you how to weave between a wisecrack one moment and abrupt earnestness the next, with a nakedness of heart that made my stomach turn over. He could build his characters up to bombastic levels of brashness, but then tear them down immediately, in front of you, where you had to see and hear it happen. Even if it wasn’t even his face you were looking at. That ducking and weaving of his voice, in and out of vulnerability and the transparent attempt to conceal it, was…exhausting? But also, because it was everywhere in 90s kids’ movies, it was a voice you knew. Even if you knew it might pull the rug out from under you at a moment’s notice, you knew it.
And there is a ton of voiceover in this movie. Half of it is narration. By him. I didn’t read many words about him when he died because it always seemed unseemly. To pounce on someone real, so recently breathing, whose real loved ones are actively mourning them, as a way to get pageviews or something, I don’t know. Maybe the profundity of memories regurgitated by so many people made it seem tawdry to me. Maybe I’m just bad at mourning — let’s not leave out that possibility. But the fact is that Robin Williams’ voice piloting us and the story through this movie was and remains emotionally arresting in a way, for people who grew up listening to that voice, that is possibly more impactful than anyone planned for. When your go-to extremes, the ones people associate you with, are grandiosity and tentative honesty, and when you slice clean down the middle and settle on desperate assertions made in a wobbly timbre, to someone who should know you and who no longer does, that they are okay and are going to be okay…well, shit. I had forgotten the memory loss component of this plotline, and so was completely unprepared for this scene:
That is his face as he watches his wife ramble mindlessly, not knowing him, not knowing herself, and just, crap. Crap. I did not sign up for this.
Except I did, because I knew that watching this again in my thirties, where I actually knew something of loving people and losing them, was going to be different than watching it two decades prior. I just thought it would be more instructive. Less destructive.
Which is okay — again, I’m not satisfied with a drama unless I am crying, although this means I really should watch all dramas alone — but it’s worth a watch or a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. Even now, when the call to critique seems especially, justifiably, sharp. Look, the movie has problems, okay? I know. Here are some in bullet form:
1.) You should feel bad when your kids take other bodies because they think you’ll respect them more, or because you said something that made them think they’d be more attractive that way
2.) You should not love your spouse so much more than your kids that they demand you try to remember some memory you shared with _just_ them
3.) Women do more than laugh and look pretty
4.) They also do more than get depressed and kill themselves
5.) The flying people look dumb
6.) We are able to locate ourselves solely in the psyches of these people because they have literally no other problems than their loss: plenty of money, a huge house, love. This makes it easier to focus on their pain but it also makes the sheer lavishness of their lives somewhat distracting. While not entirely fair, this is still true. They met while piloting boats they rented for sailing around a lake in Switzerland, for godsake. And at least one of them was wearing a polo shirt and a sweater vest when doing so.
See, that last smarmy jab is where I feel present-day reflection is supposed to stop, right? There were these problems and that’s why the whole thing is shit, moving on. That’s kind of where CinemaBlend stopped, and heaven knows they’re not alone in finding the chink in a cultural artifact’s armor and jabbing it with a fondue fork until there’s nothing left inside but mush. But that does such a disservice to everyone — perhaps most importantly to you, the viewer.
If you turn this movie off fifteen minutes in because their ridiculously posh home says to you that the people in it are undeserving of empathy, then you’re going to miss a flurry of flashbacks whose physicality is frankly stunning. I’ve talked mostly about Robin Williams’ voice here but again — the tenderness in some of his gestures and body language is unnerving. Like you’re intruding by seeing it on film. At one point, fumbling with his wife’s hand, he kisses the side of it, where the index finger connects to the hand. Who even does that, right? No one kisses hands because hi, this isn’t a throne room, and anyway that is a rough part of your hand, that pushes carts and hauls thick backpack straps and gets blisters from shovels. It’s such a workaday part of the body. But he fumbles for it and presses it to his lips like he needs it. Such a sidenote of a body part and it’s his most treasured thing, for a moment. So much so that we almost shouldn’t be seeing it.
And the restraint, over and over again, when he realizes he should pull back and only just manages to do so. The space he gives his wife, who is unraveling beneath his hands, with which he knows better than to touch her. Especially this scene:
As a still, that looks creepy, right? It would be so easy for this to have come off terribly; for him to have seemed intrusive, abusive even in the ferocity of his conviction that she get better. But he doesn’t. Instead of smothering her with comforting hugs, or standing tall and keeping a stiff upper lip because Being Strong Is What You Do For Your Mourning Wife, he keeps his distance, and unravels too.
And that, of course, is was what I missed as a child too entranced by the visuals, and too leery of feelings, and too young by half, to see: she only comes back to herself because every much-lauded version of masculinity trotted out by this admittedly nice guy gets thrown aside, in favor of mutual dissolution. Obviously taken to extremes, this is a terrible example. But what seemed to me at twelve be mythologically simple — “resign yourself to hell to be with her, okay!” — takes on so many more shades now. He’s bidding her farewell but also himself. His knowledge of himself, his life, his children; his values and his friends.
Don’t think I am unaware of the wrongness of this in real-life situations. Remember my fury at Firewatch, which presumed to chastise the main character for “abandoning” his dementia-ridden wife? I was livid. Do not condemn, I seethed, the surviving loved one to a lifetime of seeking recognition and healing in those who will be host to neither. Do not condemn my father to that. Do not condemn my husband to that.
But even retaining that stance, even speaking as one who will quietly walk out of this world rather than put my husband through what my father went through, when the time comes, I still collapse a little, listening to him patiently explaining to this woman who no longer knows him how he will remain, until he no longer knows her, either.
It is I guess, again, the power of fantasy. That chance for winning. I don’t reject it when it is trotted out as a mere fantasy. I reject it when it is used, as it was in Firewatch, to condemn those who truly had no other choice. Dissolution, that choosing the worst, is a noble and beautiful choice in fiction, as in What Dreams May Come. But that’s because it’s fantasy, and “sometimes when you lose, you win.”
In life, it’s less picturesque. You just lose. Your partner, your children, yourself. Or you force them to lose you, bit by bit. And if your voice carried a generation from childhood to adolescence, you force them to lose you, too. To wonder if they have any right to a sense of loss, and to stumble onto your work years later, and be twisted up by it.
Which maybe makes you a little less lost, but it’s still no painted valley.