Drifting Between: the Waking Dream of Effort and Fatigue Through Film

Holly Baumgartner

Vanilla Sky's tech support

[1] In Cameron Crowe's film Vanilla Sky (2001), an ad for cryogenics company Life Extension (LE) testifies to clients, "Upon resurrection, you will continue in an ageless state—but living in the present with a future of your own choosing—Your life will continue as a realistic work of art, painted by you minute to minute." Though rife with irony in the film, the belief in choice about the future and living minute by minute is so common as to seem cliché. However, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas dissects that choice into instant by instant, where each moment is a disjointed clash between the effort of taking up consciousness and the fatigue engendered by that effort. And it his fascination with the instant that permeates his first, often neglected, book Existence and Existents, written during his internment in a concentration camp and published in 1947. For Levinas, the difference between the grounded, conscious human subject and the anonymous gulf of existence itself is a liminal space where we take up a position, a stance, in regard to our own individual being.

[2] The quest to delineate this space, the stretch between the localized existence of the subject and the anonymity of existence in general, has been pursued for centuries, writers and artists attempting to give voice to the uncontainable which continually resists the closure of definition. The Romantic poets, for example, engaged in experiential description to explore mixtures of philosophical questioning, altered states, and issues of subjectivity. John Keats, for instance, in his famous "Ode to a Nightingale," wrote, "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music—Do I wake or sleep?" (VIII, 9-10). In "I Am" (c. 1844), poet John Clare speaks of a similar state where we are cast "Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, / Into the living sea of waking dreams" (7-12). The Romantics coined the term "waking dream" to suggest the ambiguity of the moment, a term I have appropriated here to encompass both the astonishment and menace, the tension of their relation, which is a part of every existence, every being.

[3] Filmmakers during the last century and up to the present have also exploited that waking dream space, with film overtaking both poetry and philosophy as the popular form best suited to examining the unsayable and enigmatic. As Roland Barthes articulated it, any text refuses to surrender a final meaning; however, film is a medium uniquely germane to this pursuit since the image is often more unstable than the written word with its slippage not only in dialogue, but also in every shot with layers of meaning filtered through screenwriters, directors, actors (and hence characters), cameras, editors, and finally audiences. The possibility of radical indeterminancy in film, signified here by the waking dream, offers a stance, an appropriate ethical stance, for more substantial investigation of Levinas's subjectivity and its accompanying fatigue and effort which exist only at the periphery of awareness, where the lines of demarcation blur.

[4] The enigma of consciousness is best captured in two rather challenging films, specifically David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) and the aforementioned Vanilla Sky. The films' seeming insistence on being philosophy—standing on their own ontological ground—or as Stephen Mulhall puts it, generating "philosophy in action," require us "to search for evidence" (par. 1 and 7) that the films supply but also call into question. These films purposely "call upon the spectator to ask questions about basic issues" (par. 7), ethical ones, in this case, what it means to be an "I," what defines the self, what motivates us, what effort is needed to be what we imagine ourselves to be.

[5] Director Cameron Crowe wrote in the Guardian, "Vanilla Sky is a feeling, a state of mind, a dream of a life that may or may not actually exist" (par. 6). The protagonists of these two films are both "dreaming" of or looking back on their own narratives which happened in the past. Their point of view is the consciousness most fully-realized, the individualized voice the filmmaker uses to invest the spectator in his narrative. This investment "localizes" point of view. According to Levinas, eternal existence may be localized into a single subject, moving from a vast impersonal landscape to the personal here and now. "Consciousness can, in spite of its sleepless eternity, begin or end in a head," Levinas explains (66), allowing a subject to be "sheltered from eternity and universality" (66). It is not consciousness per se that makes the subject; it is a consciousness, singular, one set of eyes that is the subject/Subject of the film. Sleep provides an escape from consciousness, the comfort offered by it makes it an appealing refuge in that it is "a participation in life through non-participation" where a subject can "escape itself" when "one sleeps" (66). In these films, each protagonist's subjectivity is limned by sleep, which serves as an escape from existence: evasion through dream-construction. The concept of the waking dream I have extracted from Vanilla Sky and Mulholland Drive begins with sleep and is a manifestation of precisely how this "non-participation" works, providing a roadmap to how it may be used to alleviate the burden of existence itself.

[6] Utilizing a dream or memory sequence or altered reality to sustain narrative, provide backstory, or encompass the story itself is certainly not new in cinema. From the Wizard of Oz (1939) to Maya Deren's "cinematic poems" (Ellis and Wexman 397) such as Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), to more current fare like Donnie Darko (2001) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), distortions and interpolations of time and place have long served as one of film's most effective techniques. My appropriation of the term "waking dream," however, to describe the primary narrative techniques linking these two films is a very precise construction. I use the term because, in addition to functioning as the primary story arc, these "dreams" are constructed by the protagonists to avoid a confrontation with existence itself. Both Vanilla Sky and Mulholland Drive brave one of the central questions of philosophy—what it means to lead a good human life. This question forms part of the protagonists' central quest and mystery propelling the plot. In their waking dreams, their "escape," or taking cover from this kind of unsettling question, is where the "waking" part comes in. "Waking" in these films refers specifically to the question of the characters' control and manipulation of the dreams they present to both themselves and the audience within the dream state, a degree of control generally not used in traditional dream or flashback sequences. In these films, the dreams become the characters' substitute for lives of overwhelming pain and guilt they find inescapable.

[7] "Waking" is also important in that, at some point in each film, the character must "wake up." In Existence and Existents, the movement of hypostasis, that is, the awakening of consciousness and subjectivity encapsulating "being" as both a verb and a noun, occurs in the stance of an instant. Film, at least metaphorically, is able to display both the fatigue and the effort entangled in the space of an instant. The dream is also indicative of suspension, reflected in the seemingly neo-noir genre of the films. The central character is literally suspended between dream life and waking life, physical death and physical life, guilt and innocence, etc. Sleep allows for a "suspension" of the subject, or in this case the character, a chance to escape or retreat from existence for a while. As an audience watching the films, we, too, are "suspended," walking the high wire along with the characters. Nevertheless, the effort it takes for the protagonist to begin outside of the dream requires resolution, as in the "resolve" of effort, as well as a resolution, as in "resolving" or ending the dream. The films portray this resolution as a stepping from the moment of entering the dream to the moment of leaving it. The resolution involves a choice, already implied in subjectivity as potentially ethical, as to whether he / she will continue in the sleep state or emerge by awakening to face the self and others.

[8] Resembling the positionality and escape of sleep, the weariness and indolence of fatigue are "positions taken with regard to existence" (11). Weariness and indolence, Levinas says, are often interpreted solely as substantives leaving the action of them, (even as forms of inaction), lost. Instead, he views fatigue and indolence as "an impotent refusal" (11) to make the effort of taking up existence. Unsurprisingly, these two terms are easily conflated since they seem to produce similar effects, but Levinas carefully isolates their distinctions. The main difference between the two terms resides in the manner in which they come about. Weariness may occur without any intention to act whatsoever, whereas indolence, though similar in feeling, is nuanced by its relation to action, occurring after the decision to act has already been made. Though subtle, these differences, especially when played out in film—an action-driven medium—can be enormous.

[9] On first viewing, Vanilla Sky, widely panned by critics, feels like two different films: two-thirds murder mystery and one-third science fiction. Conversely, a second viewing reveals Crowe's seamless care, especially through an analysis of Levinasian weariness. After protagonist David Aames's (Tom Cruise) near-fatal car crash and the death of his jilted lover Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), his weariness is not with his apartment at the Dakota or his publishing empire. In fact, he begins to show more interest in running his publishing house than he ever had prior to the accident. David's is a simpler kind of weariness, arising as "a weariness of everything and everyone, and above all a weariness of oneself" (11).

[10] David has no lethean escape from his existence in the typical pursuits we rely on when our self-inflicted ennui consumes us. Even though he takes over company decision-making from his board of directors, "the seven dwarfs," (and he the sleeping prince), and seeks out medical help from his plastic surgeons, these are not real attempts to move beyond what for him seems the eternally fixed moment of the accident. It is as if he is forever trapped in its wreckage, for its wreckage now lives inside of him, its lacerations not just on his face, but on his soul as well. Levinas writes that "in weariness existence is like the reminder of a commitment to exist, with all the seriousness and harshness of an unrevokable contract" (12). In a sense, David's ravaged face becomes a constant reminder of this commitment, an obligation that cannot be shunned. After all, he is "lucky" to be alive, as the saying goes. When David eventually seeks out Life Extension's services, he is literally seeking out both a contract, in the sense of a pact, for his existence to continue, and a contract, in the sense of a Mafia "hit" to end his existence. Both are irrevocable. LE offers neither life nor death in spite of the implications of its name.

[11] The Lucid Dream LE offers is both pseudo life and death. The lure of the Lucid Dream seems to propose the possibility of existing without existence, suggesting Levinas's "evasion without an itinerary and without an end" (12). Indeed, David's dream is of unknown duration and completely devoid of destination. He is not, as in many other films featuring dream or altered states, trying to get to somewhere or back to somewhere. For Levinas, it is in the very refusal to exist that weariness supervenes (12). Weariness does not lead to the refusal, but this abdication of existence wearies David of himself. The reflexivity is a vicious circle, and the possibilities offered by LE defer resolution, supposedly for eternity. For David, fraught with pain and weariness, it seems the best of all possible worlds. He chooses his "splice," the start of his Lucid Dream, after the disastrous post-accident nightclub scene, but in real life he has to commit suicide. The bizarre way his waking dream is launched enhances the ability to imagine the co-existence of consciousness and unconsciousness. Communication between them is only thoroughly explained and recognizable at the end of the film.

[12] In contrast, David's waking dream-as-Lucid Dream permits him the opportunity to be the man he wishes to be—an ethically better, more loving and giving person. At the end of the film, LE's tech support liaison Edmund Ventura (Noah Taylor) tells David that he had "A better life because [he] had Sofia," the woman who represented the possibility for real love. Perhaps, more importantly, he is a better person because of the Other, his beloved Sofia (Penelope Cruz), encapsulating the essence of Levinasian "good" found in the face of the Other.

[13] In both films, the waking dreams are nearly a separate story. This "story" is orchestrated by the protagonist, who filters and arranges memories, embarking on a reconstructive task to compose a new and better self, a constantly fatiguing and ongoing process. This self-narrative is sculpted out of objects drawn from real life memory. David MacDougall, in his article "Films of Memory: The Mind's Eye," explains that "images of objects which have a physical link with the remembered past . . . serve half as symbols of experiences, half as physical proof that they occurred" (262). The dream self may have a powerful catalyst—avoidance of immersion in the experience of existence—but these signs point to the characters' desire to survive in spite of the fatigue they exhibit. Likewise, they provide a "remembered past" for the spectator in that they appear in some form elsewhere in the film outside of the dream state. In Vanilla Sky, the complexity of the film is demonstrated in that every single phrase or image in David Aames's waking dream has a referent somewhere else in the film.

[14] David constructs his dream identity almost entirely through a nostalgia for the safety of popular culture, parts of which the careful spectator notices during the film. When the characters, as beings, position themselves in the here (and now of the present), such as the way we do when we go to sleep, within that sleep state, their dreams are also a "nostalgia for escape" (90), not just a fatigue and a weariness with the burden of existence. Ventura confirms this nostalgia at the end of the film: "You sculpted your Lucid Dream out of the iconography of your youth," Ventura explains to David, "With the feeling of a great movie or a pop song you always loved." The sky on the morning that the splice begins is the same as the vanilla sky of the Monet painting David inherited from his mother. Sofia's facial expressions and clothes are reminiscent of the movie poster of Jules and Jim hanging in his bedroom. In nearly all of the (dreamed) lovemaking scenes between David and Sofia, the Jules and Jim poster is a dominant part of the background—a reference to idealized love triangles ending in death.

[15] Besides Cameron Crowe's signature rock music lyrics serving as an additional layer of dialogue with the audience, the covers of the albums themselves also become important signifiers. At one point David and Sofia are walking back to Sofia's apartment, and the shot is a deliberate freeze-frame of the LP cover of Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Sofia's and David's faces replacing those of Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, immortalized on the original. Even the 1964 cars lining the street and the dusting of snow are duplicated to perfection. David's relationship with prison psychologist McCabe (Kurt Russell) becomes the kind he had always wanted with his cold, dominating father. Drawn from the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird, McCabe's Gregory Peck-as-Atticus Finch character is recreated perfectly, the sympathetic, wise patriarch who listens endlessly. The video montage at the end of the film includes even more glimpses of popular culture icons, such as a cameo of Billy Crudup in Crowe's previous film Almost Famous, as well as home movies and family photographs. It is the material world, the world of consciousness, that evokes and permits David access to his emotional world in the impenetrable and suspended landscape of his waking dream. Neither truly asleep nor truly awake, his waking dream demands no decision between life or death. The result of his "weariness," via his refusal to make a decision, is his exigence. If he had made a decision, but not acted upon it, his story would be one of Levinasian indolence. Indeed, he would be in another film, another person. He would, in fact, be Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) in Mulholland Drive.

[16] Mulholland Drive proves a challenge even to summarize. Roger Ebert stumbled through his review of the film, "It tells the story of . . .well, there's no way to finish that sentence" (para. 2). Though the film leaves room for many interpretations and is not, like Vanilla Sky, clearly explained through a deus-ex-machina, such as the lecture given by Ventura from LE, it seems clear that Mulholland Drive is a variation on the same theme. This time, however, the spectator is shown the waking dream first and the tragedy of Diane's "real" life second, a move leaving the spectator even more off balance. Lynch also throws in myriad amusing and peripheral subplots, some of which seem to have arguably little to do with the major themes of the film. It is, nevertheless, like Vanilla Sky, at its core, a heartbreaking search through the rubble of the past, an exploration of the desire for connection, and a beautiful illustration of the monumental effort to take up and sustain being. The ambiguities of these films, and the anxiety they generate, are purposeful. Director David Lynch says that in Mulholland Drive, he hopes "intuition kicks in," describing his film as a "machine that we have for sensing something that we're not necessarily able to articulate. Abstractions can exist in cinema and that's one of the powers of cinema to me" (qtd. in Hartmann par. 2).

[17] In Mulholland Drive, Diane's dream starts the movie with the spectator unaware that the narrative is a dream world. The film does have its quirks, moments of highly staged play with stereotype and coincidence, and perfect, color-saturated sets, but these are, after all, Lynch's usual distorting and distorted style. Diane's waking dream will end in disintegration at Theatre Silencio, one of the most powerful sequences in cinema, but it begins when she arrives in Hollywood as wide-eyed silver-screen wannabe, Betty, to stay at her conveniently absent aunt's luxurious condo. She disembarks from the bus innocent and awestruck. Even the elderly couple she has befriended on her journey say their goodbyes as "See you on the screen!" Because we, too, have seen this idealized, "arriving in Hollywood" scenario so often, nothing about it strikes us as unusual. Betty's Hollywood is no different from what so many movies have taught us to believe.

[18] Arriving at her Aunt Ruth's retro condo, Betty encounters "Rita," who we later learn is Camilla (Laura Elena Harring), so disoriented from her car crash that she can't even remember her name. Betty flies into rescuer/savior mode for the beautiful stranger, seemingly a giving, concerned human being as she does so—the person we would all wish ourselves to be—unmarred by suspicion, self-interest, or protective layers of jaded, cynical intolerance. With Rita devoid of memory, Betty can fashion the story, her "dream," as she wishes. The girls have the mystery of Rita's identity and life story to discover. People are out to kill Rita, it seems (her car crash was a botched hit), and only Betty can save her.

[19] Since, in Diane's dream, she is the one with talent, opportunity, and male attention, Rita wants to become Betty. Like the uncannily similar, interchangeable characters of Alma and Elizabeth in Ingrid Bergman's Persona (1966), Rita even cuts her hair, donning a blonde wig to look like Betty while their faces stare out at the spectator from Aunt Ruth's dressing room. Like their Persona twins, one will help the other exit the dream into reality again. However, in her dream world, Betty is sanitized, a perfected living Barbie Doll as well as being a better self, a giving self, but also, literally, a self-less subject.

[20] Like David's, Diane's dream is drawn from the encounters of her waking, "real" life. For example, the mother of film director Adam Kesher takes the role of Aunt Ruth's fictitious landlord, Coco. The powerful and mysterious Cowboy who looms so large in the "Hollywood machinery" subplot is someone glimpsed at Camilla's party. The waitress at Winkie's diner unwittingly contributes her name for Diane's Waking Dream persona. Camilla's actress "friend" (they do engage in a zesty kiss, but then again, it is Hollywood and David Lynch) becomes the face of the "This is the girl," 8 x 10 glossy and the object of the man behind the wall's dark dealings. Diane's parents transform into protective but creepy seniors on the bus from Ontario. Identity becomes a fluid tool in Diane's waking dream. For both David and Diane, their doubles are a kind of suasive mechanism to flee the past and their present existences, but are also a position taken, a way of "getting the hell out from the inside" (Romains qtd. in Levinas 64), purging their internal quagmires of guilt and self-loathing by attempting to eliminate that internal self entirely. Most striking, both films feature a "blurring" of an other within the dream, an attempt to hold onto or recreate a perfected or idealized Other.

Mulholland Drive road signSunset Boulevard road sign

[21] Diane's dream construction is more evocative than David's even though using similar kinds of imagery to generate her doppelganger. Diane's world is less reliant on physical links to her real life, containing images which are more abstract and, using MacDougall's definition, "offer a looser, iconic link with their objects, filling in the missing pattern of the past by analogy" and permitting "a broad range of associative imagery to be brought into play" (262-63). Diane constructs Betty's dream world from classic Hollywood cinema, a large portion rooted in scenes from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), which Lynch, to his credit, deliberately references, telegraphing it from the first scene. Wilder's film even has a look-alike character, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Wilson), who tries to save protagonist Joe Gillis (William Holden). The opening sequence culminating in Rita's accident pays homage to Sunset Boulevard with the street sign and curb of Mulholland Drive leading us into the story. Rita must actually cross Sunset Boulevard itself before collapsing on the steps leading to Aunt Ruth's home, the same trope of the uninvited-guest-on-the-lamb that serves as the inciting incident in Sunset Boulevard. Both homes are gated, secluded, and vine-covered—old Hollywood in freeze-frame, forever rejecting and deflecting time—the perfect setting for the waking dream, a term as seemingly oxymoronic or "hypostatic" as the "moving picture" itself. Twins from their street moniker titles on down, both films begin, after some initial setup, with a desperate character on the run opening the gate to sanctuary and finding refuge in their hostesses' sympathy, a sympathy that quickly turns to lust and ruin. Both films are ultimately tragedies of failed career ambitions, love gone wrong, the capriciousness of fate, and the thin line between the real and the (often preferable) suspension generated by delusion. Hollywood, is, after all, the "dream factory." Like Gillis' dreams of becoming a scriptwriter, Diane's acting dreams are slowly torn apart in the Hollywood machine.

[22] The character of Rita is also an allusion to another product of classic Hollywood, Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946). Camilla, the as yet-unnamed dark-haired intruder at Aunt Ruth's, sees a movie poster of Rita Hayworth starring in the film and quickly absconds with her name. Similar to Vidor's film, Diane's dream is like a prison to her. In fact, the waking dreams of both films feature the qualities of claustrophobia and suffering keeping the character locked away from conscious existence. In Vanilla Sky, David is actually in a prison recounting his story to a supposed prison psychologist, McCabe.

[23] Indeed, both David and Betty must generate effort by becoming detectives, searching for the clues to their existences in order to escape their self-made prisons. In Mulholland Drive, Diane is sought by the police, but in her dream, she and Rita play Nancy Drew and her best friend George Payne in an attempt to solve the mystery of Rita's identity. From the childlike excitement of uncovering clues to breaking and entering into what they think may be Rita's apartment (it is actually Diane's), the two act like teenage gumshoes in a juvenile novel presumably titled something like The Secret of the Missing Identity.

[24] Mulholland Drive enacts an example of Levinasian indolence in Diane's move from her unwanted, desperate cleaving to existence to the escape proffered by her waking dream. Indolence is most apparent when she meets her hired hit man at Winkie's Diner. He asks her if she's sure she wants to kill Camilla since when the money changes hands, it is an irrevocable decision. Diane is absolutely determined to act. The implication of her decision is presumably she assumes that with Camilla's death she will be set free through the release of her vengeful feelings and of her ties to her lover. However, indolence, according to Levinas, happens after one has made the choice to act. It is not due to physical limitations or a knowledge that the goal of that action is unattainable; it is rather "an aversion to effort" itself (13). After Diane's decision is made, a waitress arrives to take the order wearing a nametag labeled "Betty." The sight of Betty prompts Diane's waking dream, words determining the identity she will assume in her dream. The knowledge of her murderous decision paralyzes her, so she attempts to break away, to escape her being through her waking dream.

[25] Levinas describes indolence as "not a simple indecisiveness, a being overwhelmed by the choices to be made," adding that it "does not arise from deliberation" (12). In Diane's case, she has already made a choice to have Camilla killed. She is not overwhelmed by the problems being a murderer might pose. She has one clear resolve in sight, but beyond that there appear to be no other decisions to deliberate; she cannot move forward, cannot take action. Levinas provides this insight about indolence:

It is not a thought about the future, followed by a holding back from action. It is, in its concrete fullness, a holding back from the future. The tragedy of being that it reveals is then the more profound. It is a being fatigued by the future. Beginning does not solicit it as an occasion for rebirth, a fresh and joyful instant, a new moment; indolence has already brought it about beforehand as a weary present. (17)

Diane's present—her knowledge of Camilla's apparent engagement and her concurrent plan to annihilate Camilla before her romantic rival can have her, on top of the complete destruction of all of her promising Hollywood dreams—is a very bleak, weary present, indeed.

[26] The weariness and indolence of fatigue, Levinas explains, first "presents itself" as "a way of curling up into oneself" (18), which the explication of the waking dream aptly portrays on both a physical and interior plane. In these films, the "nostalgia" and seeming safety of the waking dream is as much a byproduct of fatigue as it is of effort. Levinas purposely couples the term "fatigue" with the term "effort" in order to highlight the tension between them. The protagonists are constantly vacillating between these modes. The fatigue of their existences leads to the dream, even while the dream itself is fatiguing; moreover, being attempts to surface by way of effort, to thrust through the dream, which continues to generate fatigue. Or, it might be expressed in Levinasian terms as "the sleep to which the action in its fatigue clings" (19). These characters, for all that they are searching for clues, do not want to wake up, to end the dream. However, the lag "between a being and itself," brought about by fatigue, "constitutes the advent of consciousness, that is, a power to 'suspend' being by sleep and unconsciousness" (19). Consequently, it is only the work of these characters that initiates fatigue with its accompanying desire to escape consciousness, but, at the same time, establishes the opening/interval for the initiation of consciousness, of a subject.

[27] Ironically, that "instant of effort" exposes how the freedom or free will of the subject is actually subjected to an a priori enchainment. Levinas explains, " Despite all its freedom, effort reveals a condemnation; it is fatigue and suffering. Fatigue does not arise in it as an accompanying phenomenon, but effort as it were lunges forward out of fatigue and falls back upon it" (19). In these descriptions, Levinas links suffering to fatigue, renders them almost substitutable, and links despair to effort. In the face of such wretchedness, is it any wonder these characters would prefer to flee such a double bind? In fact, it is only in consciousness that they can seek sleep or unconsciousness, and hence their waking dreams. Nor can they escape the falling back into fatigue effort entails. Each dream is marked by increasingly darker "instances" of fatigue out of increasingly sinister moments of effort. Their pellucidity is clouded by suffering.

[28] Effort is expressed in extremely similar ways in each film as "breakthroughs," disruptions of the dream in the effort to awaken to consciousness rather than existing in the states of weariness and indolence that mark the dreams. These breakthroughs strip the dreamer of control of the dream. Within their careful dream constructions, these characters insert clues that increase their doppelgängers' uneasiness and instill a sense of suspicion or doubt in an attempt to disturb the dream enough to "wake up."

[29] In Mulholland Drive, Diane's "clues," or marks of effort, begin right from the start. After Rita's car accident, one of the two Dragnet-like cops at the crash site suggests, "Could be someone is missing." A few scenes later, in the conspiracy storyline, we hear a voice on the phone drone, "The girl is still missing." In both cases, the reference is to Rita while the real police search for Camilla, but it is also a reference to Diane, missing from consciousness.

[30] Diane also has several odd characters in her dream who all warn her of danger and only appear peripherally. The first is a patron in Winkie's diner, a scene which apparently comes out of nowhere since neither Rita nor Betty is in the diner at all. The customer repeats several times that he "is scared." He goes on to describe a dream he had. In his dream, (keeping in mind that he, and hence his dream, are also crafted by Diane), "There's a man in back of this place. He's the one doing it. I can see him through the wall, I can see his face. I hope I never see his face outside of a dream," he explains fervently. He might be talking about Diane. He might be Diane talking about herself or about her hired hit man. More likely he might be a combination of these voices meant to evoke a feeling of warning and dread for both Diane and the audience, for there is, it appears, "something in back," behind a wall. This mysterious figure, creation of Diane's dream, indicates the horror that threatens, at any point, to "lunge" forward through the thin membrane of the dream, a horror of existence from which we cannot divest ourselves.

[31] A second warning is given to Betty by Irene, her companion on the bus trip to LA. Upon their arrival at the terminal, Betty says in awe of the city, "I can't believe it," while Irene warns her to "Be careful." The same type of double entendre is expressed again when Betty first talks to Rita, who is finishing up a shower. Betty rattles on about herself, contrasting Hollywood to her home in "Deep River," Ontario, musing, "Now I'm in this dream place."

[32] Another, darker, warning comes from a fellow tenant. Answering the door, Betty is confronted by Louise Bonner, who, like a Shakespearean oracle, is the local crazy lady. She tells Betty, "Someone is in trouble. Who are you? What are you doing in Ruth's apartment?" Betty explains her relationship to Ruth and says her name is "Betty," to which Louise replies, "No it's not. . . Someone is in trouble. Something bad is happening." When Coco arrives to pull her away, Louise whines inscrutably, "That one is in my room, and she won't leave. I want you to get her out." It is Rita, however, who appears unnerved by the altercation. The warning is reinforced when, later, Coco warns Betty, "If there is trouble, get it out." In both this and the previously mentioned scenes, it is clear that, right from the start, Diane is leaving "keys," both warnings and clues for herself as the dreamer and for herself in her incarnation as Betty.

[33] Real keys also abound throughout the film. When Aunt Ruth is leaving, for example, there is a take where she is about to get in a taxi, but instead goes back into her condo and grabs a set of keys with a small smile on her face. What does this take add to the movie? Maybe Aunt Ruth, who we find out later has died (the limo that is picking her up as Rita watches from the bushes could be read as an "eternal coachman" kind of motif) and left Diane the money that makes her LA trip possible, has no desire to leave her "keys" behind. Betty must, therefore, find all of her "keys" on her own, as we all must, since no one can make the "effort" for us. One key will be proffered by Coco, the landlord, giving Betty access to her "aunt's place," a second blue key marks the completion of Diane's hired hit on Camilla, and when Camilla opens her purse at Theatre Silencio, she discovers a third key and a wad of cash, (the hitman's fee). Betty asks her if the combination "makes you remember anything," to which Rita hesitatingly answers, "There's something, there's something there." Her uneasiness infects both girls and fuels Betty's escalating need to trace the clues and find the keys to unlock the mystery of Rita's identity.

[34] Lynch's "serious play" with Hollywood, acting, and identity continues with another clue, words that Diane herself might have wanted to tell Camilla, but instead are delivered as part of the script Betty and Rita rehearse for Betty's acting audition. The scene she is performing contains lines that become especially important and poignant when repeated in part during her later, real life scenes with Camilla: "You're still here. You came back. I thought that was what you wanted. You're playing a dangerous game here...it's not going to work. This will be the end of everything. I hate you. I hate us both." These words also express a hatred of her self as in her existence—the ironclad contract we can't revoke.

[35] The most important breakthrough for Diane, however, occurs before the Theatre Silencio sequence. It is presaged by an earlier clip where the two girls are searching the phone book for a "Diane Selwyn." Rita thinks it might be her real name, and Betty encourages her, "Maybe she can tell you who you are." In an earlier scene, Betty had encouraged Rita to come with her and buy a newspaper to check if there had been an accident on Mullholland Drive, saying, "It'll be just like in the movies. We'll pretend to be someone else." Rita hesitates in both scenes, almost as if she doesn't want to know. Eventually they do go to Diane's real life home, the Sierra Bonita apartments. When they discover "no one's home" at Diane's apartment, Betty climbs in through a window and then lets Rita in the front door. They both cover their noses in disgust, creep to the bedroom, open the door, and discover the decaying body of a girl on the bed. It is Rita who screams in terror, and Betty who symbolically "silences" her.

[36] The effort to create doorways out of the waking dream also floods Vanilla Sky. David Aames, like Betty, vocalizes his emotions about dreaming. After the crash with Julie, he "dreams" of walking in Central Park with Sofia before sliding into a coma. He tells her he "had a horrible dream," and then describes the crash and its aftermath. With underlying apprehension, he adds in all sincerity, "But I can't wake up." He even confesses to McCabe that his "dreams were a cruel joke." Later, David stubbornly insists, "There is no murder," when McCabe informs him he has been charged with one. And the real David does know there is no actual murder. There is no death for him or by him, or for the others who also live through him.

[37] The McCabe sequences problematize David's waking dream in that essentially even what we understand as David's real life events before the "splice" are a narrative provided to McCabe. Therefore, it is David, like Diane, who selects and filters what we are given of his "real" life. Even in the first scene with McCabe, McCabe tells David, "Your whole story is full of holes." Like the reference to Deep River, Ontario in Mulholland Drive, McCabe encourages him to "dig deep" to find answers. In one real life scene, David, doped up on anesthetics and painkillers, sings Joan Osborne's "What if God Were One of Us," a song that is later sung musingly by McCabe. It is one of David's first chilling moments in his cell when he realizes something is deeply wrong with his prison confinement. It is also an ironic counterpoint to his prison stay in that David is god of this world and yet dreams himself in jail.

[38] Even the real life portion of the film contains clues since it is just another story inside his waking dream. For example, David's best friend Brian Shelby (Jason Lee) complains, "I have ceased to exist," when David and Sofia meet. Certainly by this time, he has ceased to exist. Likewise, Sofia also gives him a coded message. After the dance club fiasco, she tells him, "This is where I leave you." It will be the last time he sees her in real life, but she continues, "We'll meet up soon." These are not the words of someone who will, a few hours later, rescue him for a passionate love affair. David is not contented with the glossy happiness of the waking dream and seeds his dream with progressively more disturbing breakthroughs. From the first moments of the "splice," he is suspicious of the sudden warmth showered on him by Sofia. He states, "This is a joke" then reminds her, "We created a whole world together."

[39] Like Diane, who encounters recurring literal and figurate "keys," David also has a refrain running through his waking dream, the story of Benny the Dog. Drawn from a TV ad David had seen his first and only night with Sofia, Benny has been frozen cryogenically and then been thawed successfully. The company that orchestrated this engineering marvel is none other than a company called Life Extension. On the TV, infomercials about Benny, commercials about LE featuring Benny, or talk show appearances by Benny, play repeatedly in the background as David talks to McCabe. David himself sees Benny on TV just after his first post-accident meeting with Sofia, awkwardly calling her about seeing their "old friend." On first screening it is easy for an audience to ignore these presumably trivial blips since we are so trained to disregard commercials anyway. Benny only takes on meaning in the final scenes of the film. In jail, David, intent on memories of Sofia, ignores them, even though (or perhaps because) they could provide him with all the information he needs to understand what is happening to him and how to awaken from it. It is only in prison, after he has driven McCabe away, that he stares numbly at the guard's TV screen and the significance of Benny the dog washes over him. Benny's story is his own.

[40] At a café, Brian videotapes David and Sofia. David, admiring Brian's camera, mentions he had no idea Brian was interested in such things. "I'm into things of which you have no idea," Brian replies, echoing word for word a line David used at the earlier, "real life" birthday party. Referring to his one-time crush on Sofia as a "proximity infatuation," Brian immediately looks over his shoulder, somehow sensing a writer is there, and says, "That's mine. You can't use it," essentially, as a character, drawing attention to his / our knowledge of his constructedness, the script drawing attention to the script. Shortly after, as a joke, he makes a terrified face and tells David, "Oh my God! Your face is splitting open!" Not knowing that Brian is joking, David widens his eyes in horror, as if suddenly the seams and cracks he embedded in his dream, like the cracks once visible in his face, are breaking wide open, the split between the two worlds now visible. It is at this moment that he first sees LE's tech support man, Edmund Ventura, staring at him from the bar.

[41] David's belief that he is going crazy increases as he becomes more desperate toward the end of the film. In his waking dream, Sofia repeatedly turns into Julie Gianni and vice versa. These changes, like those in Mulholland Drive, involve complete identity switching, even down to the Polaroid images on the fridge changing. These are the points where consciousness breaks through, the dream interrupted, even though David collapses from fatigue each time, re-establishing the dream by allowing Julie to morph back into Sofia.

[42] It is through the dialectic of fatigue and effort that Levinas introduces the present in his elucidation of the instant. This dialectic highlights the enormity of the task facing us in every instant of existence. We can begin to understand the burden of the present and why we so often refer to "for the future" or "in the past" as a way of refusing the bleakness of the present. The saturation of labor in fatigue is there even in the imagining of effort stripped down to its bones.

[43] It is in these bare bones, this outline of effort, that the instant becomes visible. Due to the trauma of effort, we can imagine ourselves staggering along under its weight, a route of fits and starts not unlike the image of Sisyphus, eternally pushing the boulder up the hill. For Levinas, existence is never a given; it is an "accomplishment" (74), effort succeeding only in short bursts against the constant chains of fatigue. Indeed, Levinas states, "the duration of effort is made up entirely of stops" (22), moments when the boulder, the burden, seems more than we can bear. Effort still "struggles behind the present," as if gearing up for the confrontation, but is "already involved in the present" (22-23) by creating the instant; its stance in existence is the positing of the Subject. Here is the link between noun and verb in hypostasis. Effort in its action "is to take on a present," what Levinas calls a "primordial event" (23), since the present is a beginning manifesting "a someone that is", but is also "subjection and servitude" because of taking up the burden of existence, the work of being.

[44] In effort's effectuation of the instant, it also "runs up against the seriousness of eternity" (23): Existence itself. In its servitude through effort and action, a being's fatigue or pain becomes a condemnation, that is, "being condemned to the present" (24), an "inevitable present" (23), with the deliberate slippage in the word "being" and the menacing overtones of "condemned." Yet Levinas points out effort "can be victorious and hence equal to the realities it tackles" (20). This victory, its creativity "realized in spite of fatigue, in risk," is an "advance over oneself and over the present" (20). The final revelatory moments of effort's success are the moments of resolution for these characters, and yet it is not effort that forges the "relationship between the I and the world" (27). Even as early as 1947, Levinas made it clear that something outside of the self is involved.

[45] The ethical is already implied within Levinasian subjectivity even though Levinas never uses the word "ethical" in Existence and Existents. Levinas claims the book contains "the kernel of all I would say later" ("Interview" 45-46). Overcoming the burden of existence is the necessary beginning of the ethical. In other words, Existence and Existents had to be written, had to be achieved, before Levinas's philosophy of the face could be posited.

[46] Diane and David negotiate multiple spheres of influence, but they are unaware they are doing it. In spite of their odd and sympathetic naïveté, they are able to reveal "just how contingent this world and its sense of order are" revealing "a kind of destructive power inherent in a world that insists change and difference are impossible, and thereby indicts the world's values" (Telotte 379). Mulholland Drive, and Vanilla Sky do not present us with a comfortable pay-off in plot or character but allow the "potential for a new subversive development," in that these characters "might challenge our usual values" (380).

[47] The events leading to the Diane and David's dreams are so horrific, they are unable to be verbalized; visuals speak an unsecured language to spectators as meaning evaporates. David's crash and its consequences are only represented by the upended, silent car and the coma-like flashes of black screen. We never see Camilla's murder, just Diane's own self-decay. Inez Hedges, in Breaking the Frame: Film Language and the Experience of Limits, describes the moment in some films "when words fail and when meaning dissolves with the disappearance of the differences between words and things that enable meaning to exist" (21). It is that breakdown, the waking dream of film, which blurs our conception of subjectivity and existence, underscoring our questioning of existence in such moments. Hedges suggests that the breakdown in language could "presage new possibilities of representation, of subjectivity, without actually finding a solution" (21). The new possibilities of representation are suggested in Levinas's later works where he attempts even more vividly to push against the very limits of language. The films do not offer a "solution," instead inspiring a kind of unknowability that interpretation can't resolve. Hedges suggests that "the unknown also offers the possibility of hope, a chance to solve the dilemma of life" (27). It is this chance and possibility that is also announced in Existence and Existents. For Levinas, the possibility lies in the instant, the instant of the subject.

[48] The beckoning and the challenge of Levinas's ethical project, so insistent on the necessity of the "face of the other," expanded from the instant of subjectivity explored here. These films, when read through Levinas's imagining of effort and fatigue coupled with my version of the waking dream, make visible the intricacy involved in the processes of real life being, highlighting the possibilities built into each, singular, human existence, its accomplishment of subjectivity, as well as the effort required to endure in its every instant.

[49] Both films take a stance as a reality even though their "self-positing is always open to question," leading the spectator to speculate about "the precariousness of human identity" (Anderson par. 12), and both raise this question in particularly unsettling ways. The question is not whether we believe in the filmic reality presented, but if we are troubled by it. The troubling aspect comes out of the alterity of the film's own posited reality in relation to an individual's lived reality. Neither is necessarily disturbing on its own; it's the collision of the two that is. This collision reveals difference, which becomes an opening, an entryway into the realm of philosophy, perhaps even beckoning us to alternate pathways of thinking about the ethical itself.

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