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On Douglas Trumbull's "Brainstorm"
We're through the looking glass, people.
Having sat on my digital purchase of Brainstorm for many months, I can now state how regretful I am for having not watched it as soon as possible. Later than never, I suppose, but why wait? Tomorrow is not guaranteed, after all. In fact, that could be the hidden tagline for the film, as it deals in both death and life, specifically the experiences of each, as far as we know anyway. Midway through, there’s a character who suffers a heart attack and dies. I’ve always felt manifested sensation to scenes like that, but here, in its prolonged take of pain, that feeling was a bit more pronounced.
As designed by director Douglas Trumbull, Brainstorm achieves such experiences beyond the confines of Cinerama-like roller-coaster riding, through large-scale photography, through intimate captures, and through a story that, in one sense, is a carnival trip. In another sense, it’s a pretty straightforward romantic drama and techno-morality play. When combined with such vision and such application of large-format filmmaking, elevation occurs past popcorn thrills to memorable chills. It’s some kind of masterpiece, rivaled only by the works of James Cameron (yes) and Terrence Malick (for sure). Phil Trippett, and Ang Lee - who has been working very hard at furthering what Trumbull did with Brainstorm - can be added to the list too, but this is no competition mind you. The hare is running for show, but the tortoise is going for pride. Just imagine how much further film as a medium can reach.
Never schmaltzy, Brainstorm connects the dots through its most aware cast, specifically Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher, and Natalie Wood. Fletcher is the master Jedi, guiding the other actors together through her haze of stoic cigarette smoke and driven purpose of her character. She’s the peanut butter, with Walken and Wood being the raisins on the celery stalk, if you will. Expressions of ecstasy and empathy come through as clear as the view from one’s window, and this is where the scope of the film is really at its most effective and evocative. Without the punch from the cast, the pack from the effects and the photography would mean only so much. Brainstorm isn’t interested in “so much.” It wants as much as possible, and more even.
The plot involves the creation of a sensory reality headset, through which users can experience various environments and palettes, from the breeze of the wind to the taste of a steak. But this isn’t enough of a breakthrough in the possibility of communication, as they discover memories, emotions, and interpretations can be processed through the device. Military use? Sure, but that’s so simple and awful. Let’s expand minds.
Trumbull’s message to Hollywood? Probably. The man, in real life, just kept working on visual effects and photography tech, pushing the form as far as he could, as independent as he was. Faster frame rates and new 3D capabilities could bring things to a new level for filmmaking and exhibition, but will there be gatekeepers? A military to tightly control it all?
That heart attack scene will haunt me for a good long time, and rightfully so. Just calling back to it gives me chest pains. Such recall was explored in Brainstorm, and to a pretty sharp effect. Film is still in its infancy, with many more worlds to cover. To traverse such territory with such movies is an absolute pleasure, one of which I am thankful to be part of, for as much limited time as I have on this plane. We should all have such gratitude.
Keep on rocking, Trumbull - wherever you may be.
Sincerely Yours in Moviegoing,