If we have enjoyment, suffering, and birth in dreams, what about death?….What if you dream you have killed somebody? You may become upset and say to yourself, “I have done all this practice but here in my dream I have killed somebody!” This could be a positive dream. If the individual you killed was a personality aspect that created a lot of obstacles in your life, it needed to be killed….You have to look at the person you are killing. Do you consider him arrogant? In that case killing him would really mean destroying your own arrogance….”
–Swami Sivananda Radha, Realities of the Dreaming Mind
What are you doing right now? Take a moment. Think it over. Seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? You’re reading this month’s Seldom Scene. If you weren’t, how would you know about the silly question?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Consider this: maybe this review doesn’t really exist. Maybe it’s two in the morning and you’re in deep REM sleep and you’re dreaming that you’re reading Seldom Scene. Admittedly, it might be a stretch to believe that anyone would dream about my reviews–but it is theoretically possible. Anything is possible in dreams. This article could suddenly end, unfinished. You could wake up seconds from now and say to your partner, “Gee, I just had the strangest dream…”
Or maybe this review doesn’t exist and you’re not going to wake up soon and instead Seldom Scene will just continue on as if it were real while your subconscious fabricates an entire plot, character outline, and critical analysis for a non-existent film. And you’ll forget the whole thing when you wake up.
Of course, if in this next paragraph, instead of reading about a film, you find that this review suddenly starts talking about intimate details of your personal life you thought no one knew about, or your mother or father or former lover make an appearance, you would probably panic and wake up in a cold sweat and hope this particular nightmare doesn’t come back again any time soon.
That’s if you’re lucky. The problem could be more serious: this month’s Seldom Scene still exists only in your mind, but it’s not because you’re dreaming.
You’ve gone mad.
You went mad three weeks ago while you were reading my review in the April Mainstreet.
The Mainstreet has become part of your psychosis.
Delusions of reading the Mainstreet are in themselves relatively harmless, of course; yet the fact that you don’t know you’ve gone mad and are suffering from delusions not only means that you’re still continuing to read this article as if it existed but you’re completely unaware of certain not-so-harmless things you might have said and done since becoming divorced from reality. If at this moment you’re not actually sitting down somewhere reading Seldom Scene, where the heck are you? And what are you doing?
Perhaps it’s ok. You’re still mad and delusional. That hasn’t changed. Fortunately, however, at this very moment you actually are sleeping and this really is a dream and it’s completely harmless and you’re not having any unfortunate interactions with the world you can’t recognize. You’ll be fine until you wake up.
And if you’re really lucky, you might even realize when you do wake up that this imaginary review is your subconscious mind’s clever way of alerting you to the fact that you’ve gone insane. This dream is actually the initial stage of a healing process. Later on, after a psychiatrist or spiritual advisor has helped you wend your way out of the labyrinth, your friends will marvel at the story of how a non-existent Mainstreet article rescued you from oblivion.
What if you simply dismiss this dream, however? What if you fail to read the signs? Even sadder, what if you don’t dismiss the dream but your delusional architecture incorporates the fantasy of recognition and healing into an even more complex structure of psychic dysfunction? The relief you think you feel when you think you are talking about the healing powers of this column which doesn’t exist will be nothing more a sinister mask for terminal dissociation. A ruse to ensure you never come to grips with your condition.
Don’t you think it’s odd that you’re already halfway through this article and no actual film has been mentioned? If this article existed anywhere but in your mind, wouldn’t it actually have been about something by this point? Oh sure, you can say to yourself that I’m just toying with you to make some point about a film that I’m going to introduce deus ex machina right near the end. Go ahead and rationalize. There’s still no evidence that you’re not making this all up.
Dreams. Madness. Can it get any worse? Of course it can. What if either the dream or the madness is being deliberately induced? What if you’re the victim of an incredibly sophisticated conspiracy? Powerful forces are making you believe you’re reading an imaginary Seldom Scene to distract while they’re, naturally,. not going to tell you what they’re doing.
These forces might be benign. Perhaps you were suffering from terrifying nightmares that this new directed dream therapy is successfully countering. Not likely, but you can hope. If the forces responsible for this month’s column are not benign, you might have a lot more to worry about than just being crazy. Remember The Matrix? Although the odds are pretty good that you haven’t been abducted by aliens and subjected to nefarious mind control, the dinosaurs probably never thought they’d go extinct either.
Aw, who am I kidding? Of course you’re not dreaming. Of course you’re not mad. This actually is Seldom Scene. The movie I’m reviewing is Abre los ojos (“Open your eyes”). There, you have a title. Relax. Abre los ojos (1997) was directed by a talented young Chilean-Spanish filmmaker named Alejandro Amenábar. It was his second film, and the first I know of in a recent series of films that deliberately deconstruct narrative to put both the films’ characters and the viewer in a dream-like (or nightmare-like) state of mind. They’re cinematic Rubik’s cubes. The most recent films in the genre are Cube, Pi, Run Lola Run, and Memento. Abre los ojos is closest to Memento. Crimes of violence are central to both, and both have strong central characters who give dramatic flesh to what might otherwise be clever but soulless gamesmanship.
The protagonist of Amenabar’s film is César (Eduardo Noriega), an inveterate playboy who discards women as quickly as he seduces them. His luck seems to run out when he beds an unstable femme fatale named Nuria (Najwa Nimri). I say “seems to run out” because for the rest of the movie’s two-hour running time events and identities are passed through a kind of fiendish kaleidoscope. No aliens are involved, but that’s about all I can guarantee. César meets a new girl, Sofía (Penelope Cruz, utterly seductive), who may not actually exist. Every time César’s talking alarm clock wakes him up something has shifted. The existential doubts apply to his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martínez), an avuncular industrialist (Gérard Barray), and a prison psychiatrist (Chete Lara). Amenábar’s no-holds-barred manipulation of reality is the kind I’ve always loved in both mainstream and avant-garde science fiction. It’s the kind of story you’d expect from Philip K. Dick or Philip Jose Farmer, or would find in one of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies. Abre los ojos might even be a science fiction film. You tell me. Too often movies that try to tell stories like this seem labored and their conclusions forced. Abre los ojos is like a surrealist ballet, graceful and sensual, vulgar and jarring, hypnotic. By naming his main character César, Amenabar is also paying deliberate homage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), the great German expressionist film that laid the groundwork for every movie nightmare which was has followed.
The possibility of descent into madness gives Abre los ojos considerable weight. Is there a greater fear than that of losing control over our destiny to a freakish accident, a quirk of genetics, some misaligned neuroreceptors, or an eruption of the subconscious?
The real nightmare is the one from which you never awake.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Absolutely one of cinema’s best takes on dream/nightmare vs. reality. Twenty years down the road, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened. Abre los ojos is Mask (1985) in a funhouse mirror. It’s like being caught inside a Rubik’s Cube while someone’s trying to unscramble it. And it has the radiant, make-you-weak-at-the-knees beauty of a 23-year-old Penélope Cruz. Director Alejandro Amenábar is quoted as saying, “My movies are not movies of answers but of questions.” He wasn’t kidding.
I have to say that about 95% of the time I love my dreams. What little I remember of them when I wake up usually leaves awestruck at what my brain is up to when it’s outside my conscious control. Perfect surreality. I don’t know how many times I’ve wished I could play back those movies or relive them. On the other hand, I’ve known elderly residents in care homes who suffered from dementia and were locked into permanent nightmares of guilt, fear, and paranoia. I could see putting one’s body into cryostasis, if the brain continued to be active, as psychic Russian roulette. Probably paradise, possibly hell.
Alejandro Almenábar was born in Chile, but raised in Spain. As of the time I’m writing this update, in September of 2021, he has directed only 5 feature films after Abre los ojos. After releasing Agora, the most expensive film in Spanish history, in 2008, Almenábar took a seven-year break from filmmaking. I’ve seen no explanation of why this talented director, who made his first feature film at the age of 21, hasn’t been more prolific. A half a dozen of Amenábar’s films are currently available on iTunes, including his first, Tesis [Thesis] (1996).
Penélope Cruz has had a stellar career, with 1 Oscar, over 60 other awards, and 83 acting credits on Imdb. Her co-star in Abre los ojos, Eduardo Noriega, has also had a very successful career, alternating between feature films and television. Fele Martínez has 76 acting credits, also mixing film and TV work. Najwa Nimri has continued her acting career, but is making her mark in pop music as a singer and composer. Cinematographer Hans Burmann’s last film was in 2012; he was 84 as of 2021. Burmann has 129 cinematography credits on Imdb.
Having read through a lot of the User Reviews on Imdb, I’ve compiled a short “reading list” of films and stories referenced in connection with Abre los ojos:
- Vanilla Sky (2001)
- The Game (1997)
- The Matrix (1999)
- Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
- The Face of Another (1966)
- Philip K. Dick’s “I Hope We Will Arrive Soon” and Ubik
- Les yeux sans visage [Eyes Without a Face] (1960)
- Twilight Zone episode, “Shadowplay”
- The Outer Limits TV series
- Dark City (1998)
- Inception (2010)
- Shutter Island (2010)
Available on YouTube? No, but available for streaming on Prime Video