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Hullabaloo


Saturday, July 21, 2007

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

In Dreams

By Dennis Hartley

It’s no secret amongst fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like “Akira ” and “Ghost in the Shell” display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few “live action” productions (post “Blade Runner”) can touch.

One of the most adventurous anime directors is Satoshi Kon. In previous work like his incredibly dense and ambitious TV miniseries “Paranoia Agent”, and in several feature films, Kon has displayed a flair for coupling complex characterization with a neo-realistic visual style that tends to make me forget that I’m watching an “anime”. Most of Kon’s work up until this point has drawn on genres that one does not typically associate with anime: adult drama (“Tokyo Godfathers”), film noir (“Perfect Blue”), psychological thriller (“Paranoia Agent”) and character study (“Millennium Actress”).

Kon’s latest film, “Paprika” (currently in limited release) is actually the first of his animes that I would categorize as “sci-fi”… and it’s a doozy.

A team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This “dream machine” is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look “under the hood”, if you will. In the wrong hands, however, this could potentially become a very dangerous tool.

As you have likely already guessed, “someone” has hacked into a “DC mini” and started to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (much akin to someone slipping acid into the punch). Things get more complicated when these waking dreams begin taking sentient form and start spreading like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality” (whew!). A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious.

“Mind blowing” doesn’t even begin to describe this Disney-on-acid/murder mystery/psychological sci fi-horror story. It is Kon’s most visually ambitious work to date, with stunning use of color and imagery (mark my words-this one has “future cult midnight movie” written all over it).

Kon raises some engaging philosophical points (aside from the hoary “what is reality?” debate). At one point, Paprika ponders: “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious vents.” I think Kon is positing that the dream state is the last “sacred place” left for humans; if technology encroaches we will lose our last true refuge. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.

While watching “Paprika”, I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films, “The Lathe of Heaven”. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced for television by Thirteen/WNET in New York and originally aired nationally on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted and elusive cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in Portland Oregon, in a “near future” where the Earth has begun to suffer profound effects from global warming and worldwide pandemics run rampant (hmm, rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to “suggest” reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he begins to feverishly develop a technology that will allow him to make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two men that will determine the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling sci-fi fable with a lot of thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV” films ever produced, and highly recommended.

I probably should warn you that the picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s more demanding A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a relative shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that “The Lathe of Heaven” has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name!

The Best of R.E.M.: Waking Life,The Science of Sleep, Dreamscape (1984),Brainstorm, The Cell, Until the End of the World, 2001 - A Space Odyssey , Solaris (1972), Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, Altered States, eXistenZ, Circuitry Man, Strange Days, Strange Days, Dark Days, Dark City , Siesta, Jacob's Ladder, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Naked Lunch, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The City of Lost Children, A Christmas Carol (1951), The Wizard of Oz , Fantasia , The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.


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