“Hollywood bureaucracy has been established precisely to prevent films like this from being made.”– Roger Ebert on Arizona Dream
DIRECTED BY: Emir Kusturica
PLOT: Axel, a fish-tagger in New York City, dreams of an Eskimo boy who finds a fish with both eyes on one side of its head. His old friend Paul, an aspiring actor, visits him and tricks him into returning to his childhood home in Arizona to attend the wedding of his uncle, a Cadillac dealer, who wants Axel to join the family business. Axel decides not to return to his old life when he becomes romantically entangled with an emotionally unstable older woman and her suicidal stepdaughter.
- This was Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s first (and so far, only) American film. For some reason, Warner Brothers threw gobs of money at a Yugoslavian director known for his surreal political art films, then was surprised when the result wasn’t a typical romantic comedy. The film was completed in 1991 but Warner sat on the property, not releasing it in the US until 1994, after a successful European run. Warner also cut 20 minutes from the film so that it would come in under 120 minutes. Kusturica and Hollywood did not make a good match, as both parties would surely agree.
- A 12-minute final sequence that featured Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) flying to Earth from the moon in a Cadillac was cut from the film.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Clearly, as every film poster and DVD cover for the film demonstrates, the halibut swimming through the desert air past a Saguaro cactus is the movie’s unforgettable bit. Kusturica himself agrees: “Isn’t this image of a fish swimming in a deserted architecture… the image of what we are? Dumb fishes, unable to do anything essential for their existence…”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eskimo dreams; floating fish; pantyhose suicide
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With intrusions of magical realism and cod-philosophizing by a cast of fish-counting dreamers, madwomen who dream of flying, and suicidal turtle-loving accordion players, Arizona Dream plays out like a European attempt to make a Coen brothers comedy. It’s quirkiness magnified to a metaphysical level.
French trailer for Arizona Dream
COMMENTS: Gently floating by, Arizona Dream winds up nowhere in particular, but the journey is still worth taking thanks to the magical scenery along the way. A top-flight ensemble keeps the film always on the edge of being mesmerizing, even through the mighty two and a half hour running time. For a change, Johnny Depp isn’t the center of attention, but—despite impersonating a rooster at one point for no clear reason—the center of sanity. He’s nearly a passive character, but the craziness of the others gives him plenty to react to, and he responds to the provocations of his female foils with proper fuming passion. At 52, Faye Dunaway displays significant sexiness, and even more craziness, as Elaine; she comically quivers on the verge of tears for about half the movie. Her mood swings suggest a woman who’s either going through menopause or forgetting to take her medication. She dreams of flying, and Depp wins her heart by building a sequence of homemade flying machines straight out of silent newsreel footage. Batty as Faye is, she’s got nothing on stepdaughter Grace (Lili Taylor), who longs to be reincarnated as a turtle, considers Russian Roulette a form of foreplay, and whose jealousy towards her step-mom drives her to wander around the house the two women share chain-smoking and playing an accordion. Vincent Gallo, as Depp’s buddy, a perpetually auditioning would-be actor and ladies’ man, plays a fourth wheel to the romantic triangle, but steals several scenes with his re-enactments of famous roles by Cary Grant, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and others. Throw in Jerry Lewis as a used car salesman with a bit of Nutty Professor popping into his performance like an uncontrollable spastic tic, and wackiness is inevitable.
With actors at the peak of their games and a script that’s tight in its details and loose in the big picture, it’s inevitable that several standout scenes emerge. Depp shares a couple of big, passionate comic/dramatic blowouts with both Dunaway and Taylor. If you’re not intrigued to see how a showdown between unlikely antagonists Faye Dunaway and Jerry Lewis plays out, then you’re probably not a movie lover. Vincent Gallo’s running North by Northwest gag provides a couple of the film’s most memorable moments. But the worth-the-price-of-admission scene comes at a mad dinner party that progresses from awkward flirtations and turtles on the table to a botched suicide attempt with freakishly elastic pantyhose while a dazed Gallo goes Bert Lahr, suddenly believing he’s the Cowardly Lion. It’s what they call in the business “inspired lunacy”: Kusturica winds up his lunatics and sets them all hopping about the asylum at the same time, each doing their own shtick. If only he’d found a story device to put Jerry Lewis in buck teeth and set him loose on the scene, running around and squinting his eyes and yelling “hey laady!,” he would have created the perfect modern slapstick sequence.
Although I like the movie, I spent a good deal of my initial review of the film complaining that it “doesn’t have anything to say, but is intent on saying it anyway.” That view was inspired by Depp’s oft-insipid narration, and it’s still a fair criticism, although I wouldn’t want to stress it as much as I did before. The problem I saw wasn’t that the movie lacks meaning, but rather that “it’s not content to settle for being simply and proudly absurd, but feels the compulsion to add a layer of profundity.” Johnny Depp’s monologues are dressed up as possible morals. An early aphorisms suggests “people think that fish are stupid, but I was always sure that they weren’t because they know when to be quiet and its people that are stupid, and fish that know everything and don’t need to think” and progresses to an apparent final conclusion of “even though I no longer felt like a fish, and realized I knew nothing, I was happy to be alive.” This sort of nonsense led me to conclude that “it would have been more tolerable if the scriptwriter David Atkins had left the slacker poetry and indie-film philosophizing to the side, and simply embraced the randomness and irrationality of the mad, meandering story.”
I still think the odd fish metaphor scales badly. But I now see that the movie shows more respect for its own absurdity then I originally gave it credit for. The fish seems important because it appears in Axel’s dream, and because it magically floats through the same landscapes as he does, and because at significant points in the movie (the opening and closing monologues) he makes a point of speaking of the fish as if it were a metaphor. It is not the fish that is important as a symbol, however, but rather the dream. The fish is itself a symbol of dreams, which are the movie’s main metaphor; it is a displaced symbol, as symbols in dreams are always displaced. The fish is a metonymic figure for dreams. Axel might have dreamt of Cadillacs or turtles or flying instead, and it would not have made any difference. It’s an easy mistake to make, even though Axel warns us from the first, “Most people think I count fish, but I don’t… I read their dreams, and then I let them into my dreams.”
The key monologue happens not at the beginning or end of the film, but in the middle: “Whenever I try to remember my dreams, I always turn ’em into stories. But dreams are like life. You can’t catch them with your hands because you can’t catch something you don’t really see.” Arizona Dream‘s meandering, inconclusive, random structure isn’t an accident, nor is it something the filmmakers try to hide from or force into a didactic mode. The distinction between dreams, real life and stories in Arizona Dream is deliberately muddled. For the most part, the movie isn’t particularly “dreamlike”; most of the stretches play out like a conventional comedy or even drama, but with occasional mad moments where unreality intrudes, ranging from the improbable (the Russian roulette scene) to the impossible (Grace suddenly begins levitating during the birthday party). In a revealing scene dreams, life and stories all merge when Paul finds himself being buzzed by Elaine in her birthday biplane, just like in the cornfield scene from North by Northwest that he had acted out in the town talent show. “Can’t you see I’m having a nightmare?” he hollers when Axel tells him to “quit screwing around!” His real life has become a dream, a dream itself based on a story. Stories impose a structure and a meaning on life, which, the movie argues, is an essentially random series of adventures. One day we have a job in New York, the next day we find ourselves in a romance in Arizona. People get married and die, our lovers change. If we’re to take home any sort of vision of life from this story, it’s not to be found in monologues but in an image: the floating figure, sometimes a balloon and sometimes a fish, that wanders from dreams to reality, from Alaska to New York to Arizona, pulled along by an unthinking current, going wherever it leads.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What works best for ‘Arizona Dream’ is that its lunacy is so liberating. Mr. Kusturica often favors a broad, rowdy mess over anything more structured, but he can galvanize his actors in captivatingly weird ways.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (US debut)
IMDB LINK: Arizona Dream (1992)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Arizona Dream – The Arizona Dream page at the kustu.com Kusturica fan site has lots of good information, in bad English; extensive photo galleries and a detailed description of a deleted dream sequence are highlights
(De)constructing “America”: the Case of Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993) – One of a very few academic articles considering Arizona Dream, by David Roche in a 2010 edition of the “European Journal of American Studies”
Arizona Dream – The Johnny Depp fansite “Depp Impact” brings us quotes from and about the actor’s performance in the film
List Candidate: Arizona Dream (1993) – This site’s original review for Arizona Dream
DVD INFO: In keeping with their lack of faith in the finished project, Warner Brothers only released Arizona Dream on VHS, in a version shorn of 20 minutes, and never bothered to update it to DVD. Fortunately there is a good Chinese (!) Region 1 disc put out by Studio Canal and Panorama (buy). It has no extra features, but it is uncut.
Arizona Dream is also on Blu-ray, but only in a French Region B edition (buy)—so be sure your player can handle it before ordering.
Warner Brothers has also made the film available for download on-demand (rent or buy on-demand), but beware; the runtime is listed at 2 hours, which is the length of the edited version they originally released to theaters and on VHS. The uncut film runs 140 minutes.
(This movie was originally nominated for review by “Me” who called it “[t]he weirdest movie ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)