By Brian Russell Graham.
A great many of the most popular films of recent decades are characterized by a character’s struggle to separate illusory worlds from ordinary reality. Examples range from the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999) to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). I think we can speak of a “genre” when dealing with these films and others related to them. Typically, the protagonist breaks free of an illusory world to return to “unsimulated” reality: that is the basic pattern in countless films from The Truman Show (1998) to Shutter Island (2010). The category – “illusion and reality” movies – should be a fairly inclusive one, however. I think we might include in this category any movie in which for a time questions are raised about the reality of the world experienced by the characters. In Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995) both levels of reality turn out to be real, but we should, I would argue, discuss this film within the same context as Source Code (2011), The Truman Show and Shutter Island. More importantly, we should include films in which illusion and reality cannot be satisfactorily separated from one another – films such as American Psycho (2000) or Lost Highway (1997), in which neither protagonist nor the viewer finds it possible to understand where the illusion ends and reality begins.
Films belonging to this genre fall into two broad sub-categories, which we might describe simply as comedy and tragedy. In comedies in the genre, the protagonist is generally an innocent; in tragedies, he is guilty of some crime, the memory of which he is suppressing. In comedies, the illusion appears benign at first, but it is revealed to be something to be escaped. In tragic forms, in contrast to this, the illusion torments the protagonist, but ultimately it is in his interest. Often it is the result of the crime or something the protagonist – or at least his unconscious – thinks of as a wicked act, and the tormenting but ultimately benign illusion is bound up with his guilt over this aspect of his past. As in The Machinist (2004) and Shutter Island, the typical protagonist breaks out of the illusion and faces his past, regardless of what that moment of truth means for his life.
There is usually a contrast between the moral nature of the “creator” and “creature” in these films. In comedy “illusion and reality” films, we encounter an “illusion-creator,” and that creator, in contrast to the protagonist, is typically an unsympathetic or even malevolent figure: in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind we have Howard Mierzwiak, head of Lacuna, Inc., while in The Matrix, a comedy according to the Northrop Frye definition (see note 1), we have the Machines, for whom Agent Smith works. In tragedies, protagonist and “illusion-creator” are often the same character. The protagonist’s unconscious is producing the punishing illusion as a result of his conscious mind refusing to deal properly with the past. But in some cases, other figures, real (Dr John Cawley in Shutter Island) and psychological (Ivan in The Machinist), are bound up with the illusion world, and these figures – again, ultimately benevolent figures – function as parallels to the malevolent creators of illusions in comic examples of the genre. In theology, dystheism refers to the notion that the creator is a malevolent figure. Comic “illusion and reality” movies, then, typically suggest a dystheistic world. The Last Temptation of Christ, also a comedy according to the definition in use here, is dystheistic in the most unambiguous way: Satan is revealed as the creator of the illusion. Similarly, the term “eutheism” has been used to describe a situation in which the creator is benevolent, and tragic films in the genre usually have as their setting a eutheistic world. In as much as Dr. John Cawley in Shutter Island is in charge, the illusory world is eutheistic. Where the protagonist’s unconscious is punishing him, the world of the action is eutheistic: as suggested, his unconscious plunges him into a world of confusion and despair for his own good. In comedies, the protagonist’s success is also the defeat of the illusion-maker. In tragedy, the conclusion, in which the protagonist faces up to his crime, is the triumph of his unconscious, and/or the character bound up with the illusion – Dr. John Cawley and Ivan, again.
The protagonist struggles to break free of the illusory world and regain the ordinary world in both the comedies and tragedies in the genre, but we must be careful here, for the return to the ordinary world is not the same thing as the (re-)entry into society. In comedies, the protagonist regains the ordinary world and enters society; in tragedies, his reconnection with the ordinary world coincides with his exclusion from society. In both types of film, of course, the endings commonly provide a resolution of the romantic interest in the story, too. In many comic examples, the hero and the heroine join society together in the end – we think of Truman and Sylvia entering society (made up of Truman’s largely sympathetic audience). In tragic “illusion and reality” films, the hero loses his life or at least his freedom in the end; but, at the end, we learn that he had already lost the heroine, or done harm to her or someone dear to her, by the time the action of the film starts. In Shutter Island, the central revelation of the film is that Laeddis killed his own wife after she killed their children. Similarly, The Machinist (2004) provides us with something different but related: in his painful illusion world, Reznik gets to know Maria, but in reality he has never met her; he is in fact her son’s killer. The romantic dimension may be absent from the story, however. The hero may enter society or get excluded from it without an accompanying heroine. In Jacob’s Ladder (1990), the hero may meet his wife in the afterlife, but the emphasis is on his ascension to heaven and his being guided to that world by the spirit of his son. And at the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, the Son, having understood the illusory nature of his new life, is incorporated into his society – he is reunited with the Father. The crucial event in the comic “illusion and reality” film – what, from one viewpoint, makes it generically a comedy – is the hero’s (re-)entry into society subsequent to his escape from the malign illusory world in which he has been placed. Parallel to this, in tragic “illusion and reality” films, the crucial event – again, that which connects it generically to tragedy – is the social exclusion the hero experiences once he emerges from his (ultimately) benign illusory world.
Two main forms, then – the comic and the tragic, as defined by Northrop Frye – dominate the genre. Amongst comedies, we have popular favourites such as The Matrix, Source Code, The Truman Show, Atonement (2007), Jacob’s Ladder, and probably Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990). Examples of tragic “illusion and reality” films include darker films such as The Machinist, Shutter Island, and probably Inception (2010). One could easily think of ways of critiquing the framework presented here. Perhaps, for example, Eternal Sunshine is not as comic as I have suggested. After all, hero and heroine are locked into a cycle which goes from happy to desperate, and the circular nature of the story means that, strictly speaking, there is no satisfactory happy resolution. I’ll overlook for the time being one or two nuances which trouble the categories I’ve set up. There are plenty of examples of tragedies and comedies which suggest a genuine distinction within the genre, and it is what we can do with these sub-categories that is most interesting. What I want to focus on are the more ambiguous films in the genre, as well as a possible apotheosis of the genre, in which tragedy and comedy blend seamlessly with one another.
Certain examples of the genre try to escape definition: crucially, ambiguity is often employed at the end of the film. At the end of Total Recall, Quaid asks himself if he is having a dream and if the scene is really taking place in his head back on Earth at Rekall. Melina then invites him to kiss her – “Kiss me quick before you wake up” – and the screen fades to white. At the end of The Jacket (2005), Jackie asks Starks “How much time do we have?”; the screen, again, fades to white. And at the end of Inception, Cobb tests reality with his spinning top, turning away to greet his children before seeing the result of his tried and trusted method of separating illusion from reality.
Interestingly, however, my framework renders these films a little less enigmatic. A number of films would seem to be comedies rendered slightly enigmatic by the use of ambiguity. On what grounds may we consider a film such as The Jacket to be a comedy? We cannot be absolutely sure what happens after the end of the movie: we don’t really know if Starks and Jackie enjoy romantic love in their ordinary social environment. However, we have grounds for saying that the film is very probably a comedy. Quite simply, the protagonist is guilty of no wrongdoing, and that factor is, we know, characteristic of the comic version of the genre as I have defined it. The same is true of Quaid and Total Recall.
Parallel to this, Inception is probably best viewed as a tragedy, generically connected to Shutter Island and The Machinist, but rendered slightly enigmatic by an ambiguous ending. Again, we are unsure of what happens at the end of the film. We can’t be sure that Cobb remains a prisoner of Inception forever. However, we have grounds for saying that the film is very probably a tragedy. Cobb is something of a guilty party, and that factor is, of course, characteristic of the tragic version of the genre. He is an individual who makes an error of judgment, leading to the situation in which Mal takes her life. In the key scene, he confesses that he feels he was responsible for Mal’s obsession with illusion and reality:
Cobb: Guilt. I feel guilt, Mal. No matter what I do, no…no matter how hopeless I am, no matter how confused, that guilt is always there reminding of the truth.
Mal: What truth?
Cobb: That the idea that caused you to question your reality came from me.
Mal: You planted the idea in my mind.
Ariadne: What is she talking about?
Cobb: The reason I knew Inception was possible was because I…I did to her first. I did it to my own wife.
Cobb: We were lost in here. I knew we needed to escape but she wouldn’t accept it. She had locked something away, something…something deep inside. A truth that she had once known but chose to forget. She couldn’t break free. So I decided to search for it, I went deep into the recess of her mind and found that secret place. I broke in and I planted an idea, a simple little idea that would change everything. That her world wasn’t real.
Mal: That death was the only escape.
I’m interested in the notion that certain films in this genre may represent a higher level of achievement owing to their use of ambiguity. However, the films I have been speaking of may only suggest something of a false summit: they don’t necessarily transcend the basic categories of the genre (tragedy and comedy), or do so only to a limited degree.
Not all films in the genre are so easily dealt with, however. I’d like to turn now to three further films in this genre also characterized by ambiguity: Mary Harron’s American Psycho, David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and one further film. These films, especially the third one, take ambiguity, and with it the whole genre, onto a higher level.
American Psycho may be the story of a serial killer. It may be that Patrick Bateman has killed numerous individuals, including many women, and it may be that one of his next victims is going to be Jean, whom he has hovered around in the film. It may be that Harold is a conspirator involved in a cover-up. Perhaps the story deals with the fact that no one could allow a “master of the universe” to be found guilty of murder, thereby plunging Wall Street into scandal. At the same time, everything that has happened may be an illusion. The implications of this second reading are manifold: it means that Patrick is an innocent with, at least potentially, a normal future. Harold is not a conspirator at all; Patrick has simply been suffering from hallucinations. It may even be the case that Patrick and Jean are to enjoy a romance, parallel to other romances in the comedies of the genre. The film is thoroughly ambiguous: is Patrick Jack the Ripper or is he Jonah?
American Psycho is an example of a more ambitious movie in the genre, partly on account of its ambiguous nature. That said, it is not the combination of tragedy and comedy I am looking for. It is in fact a combination of two types of comedy. David Koepp’s psychological thriller Secret Window (2004) provides us with an example of a variation on the typical comic “illusion and reality” movie. It is a comedy owing to the protagonist’s continued participation in society at the end of the story, but it is radically different from the comedies I have discussed. Mort, the protagonist, is not exactly an innocent – he is a serial killer. Secret Window represents a serial-killer movie which is structurally a comedy, and this fact helps us to understand how American Psycho is related to the genre. In American Psycho, Bateman is either a maniac who gets away with his crimes and possibly continues, or he is an innocent who has been swallowed then regurgitated by a nightmarish illusion. The film, then, represents a fusion of the two types of comedy – the Secret Window-type comedy and the ordinary comedy, exemplified by a film such as The Jacket.
Similarly, Lynch’s Lost Highway stands out from the genre. The film may be the story of an innocent. It may be that Fred Madison did not kill his wife; he actually may avenge her death in the film – the sequence towards the end is strongly suggestive of a tale of private revenge. And it may be that the Mystery Man is helping him with a genuine cause, however scary he is. At the same time, the entire film may be at one remove from reality, the whole narrative a personal cyclical inferno resulting from his murder of his wife, in which the Mystery Man, in addition to terrorizing him, helps him punish someone else for his crime, an act which perpetuates his self-delusion. Perhaps the Daytons are people of good-will who want to help the protagonist to understand his crime, and who therefore play a role paralleling that of Crawley in Shutter Island.
Again, however, like American Psycho, Lost Highway does not point to the elusive combination of tragedy and comedy I have referred to. Rather it seems to be a combination of two types of tragedy. Just as Secret Window may be said to represent a variation on the typical comic “illusion and reality” film, so Twelve Monkeys and Identity provide us with examples of a twist on the tragic “illusion and reality” movie. These films are tragedies, owing to the protagonist’s death at the end of the either film. But in both cases the protagonist is not guilty of anything: indeed, he is an innocent. The examples of these movies help us to understand Lost Highway. In Lost Highway, Fred is either an innocent fighting against a genuinely monstrous figure (though hunted by the law), or a guilty man who is struggling to face up to his hidden crime. What this means is that the film represents a fusion of two types of tragedy – the Twelve Monkeys or Identity-type tragedy, on the one hand, and the ordinary tragedy, exemplified by a film such as Shutter Island, on the other.
“What would a fusion of the comic and tragic types of this kind of film be like?” one might ask. A film of this type would represent the possibility of telling a remarkable tale. We wouldn’t know if the protagonist is a killer paying a price for a wicked act, or an ordinary and innocent man who actually has a chance of enjoying a good future. We wouldn’t know if women are safe with the protagonist – or if a past love has already died at his hands. We wouldn’t know if the creator-like figure who plays a part in his story is benevolent or malevolent, or whether the illusion is benign or malign, or the world eutheistic or dystheistic. Crucially, we wouldn’t know if the protagonist’s story ends well or badly for him. The protagonist would be an enigma, and that enigma might easily be symbolized by the notion of a mask. What lies behind the mask? Someone loathsome or a troubled innocent?
Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos, 1997) is, I would like to suggest, a film which may claim to represent the apotheosis of the genre. It is the perfectly ambiguous “illusion and reality” movie. In one reading, César is an innocent. He is in cryonic suspension and has been in that state since committing suicide. He did not kill Sofia. It is now 2145. Life Extension’s Duvernois, who is responsible for the malign illusory world César finds himself in, is something of a diabolic figure, even if in the end he is helping César. When César opens his eyes the instant after the end of the film, he will see a friendly female face. It will not be Sofia – she will be long dead – but it will be a lovable figure who is prefigured by Sofia. Last but not least, in 2145 such is the sophistication of reconstructive surgery that in that world César will be able to have his badly scarred face returned to its earlier condition. He will need no mask in that life.
Alternatively, the film is the damning tale of an individual who commits a crime of passion in his lifetime. César is indeed guilty of killing his beloved, and in the afterlife – the whole film deals with the afterlife – he is being punished cyclically and unendingly for his crime. Duvernois is not so much a devil as an angel of punishment who persuades César to complete the cycle each time, returning him to the starting point of his torments. At the end of the film, it is Nuria’s voice coaxing him out of sleep, and when César opens his eyes the instant after the end of the film, he will find himself, first, once more in the “last man” scenario he inhabits in the first scene of the movie, and, second, in bed with Nuria. His wheel of pain will begin again. What lies beneath the mask, in this reading, is indeed a character whose disfigurement matches his spiritual desolation.
I’d like to explore the meaning of the Open Your Eyes in another commentary. But by way of a provisional conclusion, we might say that the end result is a film in which a single story resists interpretation. We speak of love stories; we should probably speak of “hate stories” too. The film compels us to consider that what appears to be a love story may in fact be a hate story, and vice versa. Passing judgment on a story, it is suggested, is sometimes a decidedly hazardous endeavour. We need to know what happens after the end.
Brian Russell Graham teaches literature along with film and TV at Aalborg University in Denmark. His first monograph, The Necessary Unity of Opposites, published by University of Toronto Press in 2011, is a study of Northrop Frye, particularly Frye’s dialectical thinking. Graham continues to work with literary and cultural theory and has also begun original research on English poet William Blake. He also teaches and writes about popular culture.
Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 It is one of Northrop Frye’s discussions of comedy and tragedy which informs my view of “illusion and reality” movies. In the first essay in Anatomy of Criticism, Frye divides all fictional works into these two categories. He speaks of “fictions in which the hero becomes isolated from his society, and fictions in which he is incorporated into it”, adding “This distinction is expressed by the words ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’ when they refer to aspects of plot in general and not simply to forms of drama” (Frye 1957: 35).
 In the actual films in the genre which are tragic, the separation of the hero from the heroine invariably plays a part, but there is nothing stopping a film maker from making a tragic “illusion and reality” film with no significant romantic theme, and one recent British TV drama illustrates the point. The Channel 4 TV drama “White Bear” (written by Charlie Brooker) represents a tragic “illusion and reality” narrative. It is remarkable not only because the protagonist is a female character but also because it is an example of the tragic “illusion and reality” story in which the emphasis is moved away from (thwarted) romance. The main character is clearly excluded from her society – she is a convicted criminal condemned to an ever-to-be-repeated ritual of punishment and social exclusion. In as much as that exclusion is emblematized by her separation from another figure, it is the girl in the photo, whom she mistakenly takes to be her daughter. (Unbeknown to the protagonist, who is experiencing memory loss, the girl was actually murdered by the protagonist’s boyfriend with some level of complicity on the part of the protagonist herself.)