Americans love their hopeful mantra, while movies love to undermine it with somnolent reveals.
Independence Day (no, not Independence Day) always gets people revved up about the possibilities and promises of America. Fireworks, hot dogs, and patriotism remind us of our glorious historical mandate to achieve more than our predecessors and make a better life in a country whose freedoms allow unprecedented possibilities. That’s the American Dream, and it has a grand cinematic tradition. But what about when that America is actually a dream the whole time? What do these movies say about a public consciousness enamored with an increasingly empty promise, and are they inherently pessimistic?
To find out, I’ve compiled a list of six of our best films whose narratives undermine, subvert, or otherwise transfer the wholesome concept of the American Dream into the uncertain realm of the subconscious. Needless to say, this list is inherently full of spoilers, so caution to those forging ahead.
Christopher Nolan’s impossibly heady love story never quite feels like a love story, but rather the complex entanglement of dedicated romance and entrepreneurial aspiration that star Leonardo DiCaprio jettisons in another of his roles as the lead in The Wolf of Wall Street. Successful Americans aren’t satisfied with good enough. They want more and more perfect, bigger, and better pleasures befitting their ambitions.
The layers of dreams in Inception is just as indicting as the divorcing of a wife in The Wolf of Wall Street for a newer, younger, blonder one. Both are fantastic entitlements driven by a cultural promise of self-made satisfaction. Inception’s top may keep spinning or fall, but the impetus to create, then live inside, grand illusions is the film’s most cutting insight to the American Dream.
The Wizard of Oz
Perhaps the most famous film example, Dorothy’s waking realization of her fantasy’s allegorical heft is one of the most frequently parodied moments in media. “You were there, William Jennings Bryan! And you, the debate between the gold standard and free silver!” The film’s intensely populist message (the Wizard is just some dude from Omaha) is felt in every technicolor wonder, from the yellow brick road’s color-coded politicization to the third wave (1939-1940) Dust Bowl escapism.
That the film grounds its magic in the suffering world of the Great Depression grants it even greater power in the imaginations of its audience. Hope, intelligence, and bright, light colors let Americans dream during one of our nation’s most difficult eras, one hour and 52 minutes at a time.
So here’s the thing we know for sure about Mulholland Dr.: it was directed by David Lynch. Those watching the Twin Peaks resurrection understand that his projects combine earthiness and abstraction in a distinctly American way, and one that feels especially dreamlike. Mulholland Dr. is a nightmare, described by some as a waking dream that slowly becomes self-aware of its own dreaminess. The dream, thus alerted, awakened, and sentient, develops a life of its own and dismantles what we had previously understood as reality, leaving the would-be “dreamer” in the realms of fantasy.
That might leave you shaking your head like you just attended your first all-white poetry slam, but the thematic disillusionment with false promises and expectations, as well as a seedy through-line underneath the fiction, make Lynch’s film a consummate commentary on America — even if we’re not sure how much of it is really a dream.
Vanilla Sky believes that Americans are fearful narcissists. It’s based on the Spanish film Abre los Ojos, so this idea likely transcends nationality, but I’ve got a hard time thinking anyone sells this idea better than Tom Cruise. There are few actors that could sell a facial disfigurement as an allegory. A Matrix-like film, Vanilla Sky embeds a central twist that is, instead of a facile gotcha, the crux of the narrative. A changed life isn’t a life at all, but a delay from reality to avoid the pain and effort a true restart requires. I
t’s escapism so complete that the philosophy reaches a scope far beyond its release date, into the realms of VR and MMORPGs. Multiple realities are stacked upon each other, their importance constantly up for debate, their worth caught up in a truth that might end up being completely arbitrary. All that is certain is that loss without legacy is the worst loss of all, because being forgotten is the scariest thing we can conjure.
Ok, so maybe there’s a dance party at the end that undermines this idea, but Labyrinth invokes many of the same feelings and ideologies of The Wizard of Oz to create an even stranger, more sexual dynamic to the journey of the American ingenue. David Bowie, king of goblins, entices with his lascivious promises of maturity and adulthood and Jennifer Connelly, like us all, is here for it. His tights, his hair, his ball-handling! Visual sensuality drips from static and kinetic sources, promising a powerful reward at the end of the film’s hardships.
Sarah’s journey through this subconscious puberty grapples with truth, lies, and the permanency of our experiences. While Dorothy’s companions were mapped to her real-life acquaintances in Oz, Sarah’s friends followed her post-dream to reassure us that the lessons we learn along the way are just as important as the destination, effectively snubbing the goal-oriented fables it wittily riffs upon.
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West
The American Tail series contains some of the stranger pieces of film trivia in animation. Some Russian-Jewish mice were once the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film of all time, leading Steven Spielberg to create the short-lived company Amblimation. This company went on to create the sequel to An American Tail, which has its immigrant mouse travel to the Wild West. There, Fievel meets a dog sheriff named Wylie Burp, voiced by Jimmy Stewart in his final film performance.
It’s also all a dream. The third film retcons the entire second movie as a dream, damning the idealized cowboy tropes as the imaginations of a youth seduced by the rebellious freedoms of the American West. That this still isn’t the strangest thing about the series is a testament to just how weird Don Bluth’s creations, and their progeny, go to make their silliness about real American issues, like labor unions.
And then….you wake up.