In Pop We Trust

He's much taller in person.

He's much taller in person.

Cameron Crowe wants to know if you believe in God. The trailer for his new movie Vanilla Sky poses the question front-and-center. If you’ve been privy to the constant Vanilla Sky commercials, you’ve heard Cameron Diaz ask it umpteen times: “Do you believe in God?” At the moment in the movie where the question comes in, Diaz’s character, Julie, is about to drive her car off a bridge. Tom Cruise’s character, David, is riding shotgun. He’s frightened. She’s distraught. David has captured her heart only to squish it, so now she’s going to squish the both of them. But first she wants to remind him of two things — that casual sex is not casual, and that he neglected to answer the God question when he had the chance.

Julie’s plan is spoiled when the only part of David that is squished is his face. (His arm is squished, too, but as he says soon after: “Fuck my arm.” The point of the matter is that beautiful face.) David is distraught, as any ladies’ man would be, and he enlists the help of New York City’s finest facial reconstructionists. They sew him up but, alas, can do little about the terrible scars. In the course of one car ride, David has gone from the city’s premier playboy to something of a hideous freak.

The unfortunate thing about all this is that, moments before Julie drove them off a bridge, David had decided to leave his playboying ways behind. At a party the previous evening, he fell head over heels in love for the first time with a quirky Spanish beauty named Sophia (Penelope Cruz). Had Julie not tried to kill him, he and Sophia would have lived happily ever after. But now David’s face is ruined, and his face was key to everything.

What does this have to do with believing in God? Very little, except that Vanilla Sky (and the 1997 Spanish movie of which it is a remake, Abre los Ojos [“Open Your Eyes”]) is principally about using a piece of consumer technology to fulfill one of the hopes that believing in God provides many people — the chance of eternal life. (The movie hinges on a big surprise ending I’m about to reveal. So, if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know, stop reading now.)

As we learn in flashback at the end, when David fails to come to grips with his new look, he decides to kill himself. But before he does, he discovers Life Extension, a company that offers to give you eternal life by creating a dream world of sorts after you die. With some newfangled lucid dreaming technology (it’s barely explained in the film), LE makes your life appear to go on forever. The catch — there’s always a catch — is that you have to control the dream-life yourself. If you want your eternity to be happy, you have to make it so. David, apparently, didn’t pay attention to the LE users manual, and in his dream he’s confused Sophia and Julie and has murdered one of them, been thrown in jail, and is being psychoanalyzed by Kurt Russell. Not quite what he had in mind.

In Abre los Ojos, Eduardo’s (the “David” of that picture) eternity is filled with memories from his real life: conversations with his best friend, photographs he saw, etc. The main difference between that movie and Vanilla Sky is that David’s eternity is filled with those memories and much more besides — mostly pop culture paraphernalia. This is a movie by Cameron Crowe, after all, director of Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous — movies that have proven, if nothing else, that Crowe has a great record collection. Popular culture is culture to Cameron Crowe, and he can’t imagine a subconscious that isn’t littered with memorable album covers and guitar solos.

Popular culture is the religion of cool, and Cameron Crowe is one of its most faithful believers. His films are tributes to the power of rock and roll. If Almost Famous, in which Crowe tells his own story of being a fifteen-year-old reporter for Rolling Stone, revealed how he learned that the rock demigods weren’t always very godly, it was still an apologetic for faith in those gods: rock legends deserve worship because they make us fall in love with music over and over again. If we smile at Crowe’s sentimentality, we still admire his style. And he really does have a great record collection.

But Vanilla Sky takes Crowe’s worship of pop culture to uncomfortable places. For most of the picture, there’s no reason to believe that, for David, rock music was anything more than a hobby — he mentions Radiohead to his best friend; he’s impressed that Sophia has a Jeff Buckley album. But when it’s revealed to David — and the audience — that much of what we’ve seen has been his dream afterlife, we learn that his dream has been dominantly informed by his hobby.

David’s afterlife is constructed with pop culture building blocks — he and Sophia walk down a street that looks like the cover of “Free-Wheelin’ Bob Dylan;” his city is built with images from a Bjork video; the bar that he frequents plays Radiohead. Whether David knew it or not, whether we knew it or not, the pleasures David took in popular music were shaping not only his life, but his afterlife.

Abre los Ojos wondered what happens when we use technology to fulfill our desires to live forever. With the right technology, what was once a matter of faith can be a matter of consumer choice. We don’t need God; we just need to know how to purchase a product and use it correctly. In Abre los Ojos, the question “Do you believe in God?” is obsolete — your current life is mere prologue, and you’ll be running the eternal show on your own.

In Vanilla Sky, “Do you believe in God?” is not a real question at all. It’s just the appropriate thing to ask someone before they die: it comes at that place in the movie because it has always come at that place in movies. It’s just another part of the powerful clutter of popular culture — as resonant as a Bob Dylan album cover, but less meaningful. For Cameron Crowe, “Do you believe in pop?” might have been the better question.

Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).