Moving Pictures
Dec 04, 2023, 06:29AM

You're a Dream to Me

Dream Scenario clarifies Nicolas Cage's peculiar relationship with his audience.

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Ahead of the release of his new film Dream Scenario, Nicolas Cage told CNN that, “I think I might have been the first actor that experienced [becoming a meme] […] It just started growing exponentially and compounding on itself and there was nothing I could do to stop it […] It wasn’t why I got into making movies.” On a Friday in September 2006, my mom, brother, and I saw Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. She loved the 1973 original, and we quickly fell in love with its notoriously bizarre remake. Nicolas Cage walking into a room, staring one of the island’s battle-axes down, slowly walking up to her, and then cold-clocking her is one of the most unique moments I’ve had in a movie theater: an insane, braying laughter whose quality was matched only by Steve Oedekerk’s Kung Pao!: Enter the Fist in 2002. But that was supposed to be a comedy.

The Wicker Man came out right before memes like “I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER,” “Shoes,” and “What What in the Butt” were seared into the collective Millennial unconscious, and Cage’s unhinged performance slotted perfectly in with mid-2000s American internet humor—“Not the bees” will show up in more than one obituary of the actor when he dies. Not soon, I hope; the CNN piece above, like many others, mentions the “reappraisal” that Cage has been going through for the last five years, ever since Mandy rocked so many socks. This isn’t something like the “McConaugheyssaince”—Cage has an Oscar and has been a movie star my entire life and then some. He’s not a joke, nor typecast; none of his recent films “revived” him in the same way that John Travolta or even Bruce Willis were revived by Pulp Fiction.

He’s right: he probably is the first actor to be meme’d on a wide level, and because of that, he’s the perfect actor for our hopelessly self-aware and alienated era. His high-wire, often absurdist performances and characterizations are as earnest as they are winking, or at least off the wall enough to qualify as an ironic comment. For Cage could never be as popular or fascinating as he still is to so many people unless they’d been raised on him as a joke—I was 13 when I saw The Wicker Man, and while we had a blast and recognized it immediately as a perverse treasure, we all knew Cage from other films where the pyrotechnics weren’t spot-lit.

Kristoffer Borgli’s second feature, following 2022’s excellent Sick of Myself, wasn’t written with Cage in mind, but the premise fits the latest 20 years of his life like a glove: millions of people all over the world start dreaming about an academic named Paul Matthews—the dreams are reassuring to most, and he becomes famous—an impossibly lame startup called “Thoughts?” represents him and negotiates deals with Sprite and Barack Obama (“We can get Obama to dream about you”)—he goes back to his hotel with one of the employees, cums during an over-the-pants handjob, and then the dreams get bad—fame turns to infamy, he’s put on leave and ostracized by his community, and eventually, his wife. In the end, he ends up in France, promoting a distorted edition of his book Dream Scenario, retitled I Am Your Nightmare and given a trashy Goosebumps-style horror cover—he goes back to his hotel, and with the aid of a fresh “Norio dream bracelet,” he attempts to enter the dream of his now ex-wife, ending the film with the words, “I wish this were real.”

As in Sick of Myself, Borgli is concerned with and amused by the everyday interpersonal emotional violence endemic to our decade, one where people are on the whole more rude, quicker to judge, and less intelligent. Both films also address the disingenuous and perverse values of bland “social justice” and “cancel culture;” Sick of Myself was meaner and more successful in this respect, a drill of a film into the glass houses people have built for themselves since 2014. What happened then? A different internet, a different kind of meme: people, not television shows, “getting cancelled.” The Scarlet Letter in the 2020s is the end of your network run—there will be no syndication deal.

Borgli’s film is very funny—the packed crowd I saw it with at the Charles on Friday loved it, and many were clearly “Nicolas Cage” fans, the kinds of people who saw The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent on opening night last year. So did I, but this is something else, not laughing at an actor or a film, like Tommy Wiseau and The Room—this is about watching an actor act more than watching an actor play a role, whether it’s in Mandy, Pig, Joe, The Color Out of Space, or Dream Scenario. It reminds me of the most recent Matrix movie, which wasn’t really a new Matrix movie but a movie that asked the question, “What if there were a new Matrix movie?” As people grow increasingly self-aware and insecure, more and more gestures and emotions will be wrapped and framed and loaded far from where they should be, and in Nicolas Cage, perhaps they recognize some of that internal chaos and incoherence.

Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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