Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bottle Shock - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on Dreams

Bottle Shock is a 2008 movie apparently very loosely based  on the events in 1976 that culminated in California wines being judged superior to French wines in a blind taste test by French Wine critics.  This is a bad movie and we were watching it for the second time.  Why?  Our recent trip to wine country led us to want to observe the scenery again – and to see if there was anything we recognized from our trip.  Also because we were curious about the story of the emergence of California wine and wanted to hear it again, even if badly told.
But more to the point, why would I blog about a movie that I wouldn’t recommend?  Because I think that bad movies help us understand what works about good movies in the same way that I think bad dreams (nightmares) help us appreciate the ways that dreams are intended to work.  This is in part because I believe that movies serve a function that is very similar to the function of dreams.  In fact, I believe that movies are the Director’s/screenwriter’s and, to a lesser degree, actor’s/editor’s dreams writ large.  We are encouraged to enter into and share their dream life.
But, you may say, movies are coherent and dreams are not.  Movies make sense, and when people have tried to make movies that are dreamlike, as the surrealists did, they ended up being incoherent, unsettling and strange – not cogent, calming, and familiar the way that movies are.  This is because, I believe, the best movies present the latent or hidden dream – not the manifest or apparent dream that we directly experience.  The movie is the decoded dream, the analyzed dream, the dream as it was constructed, not the dream as it has been disguised so that it could make it past what Freud termed the sensor  - turned into something that it wasn’t because it was presenting a version of reality that is intolerable to our more inhibited selves.
Dreams are disguised, at least according to Freud, because our uptight selves would be aghast at how our unfettered, free, more animal selves organize and prioritize things in the world as they would construct it, which they are free to do when we, the sensor, the sensible one who has to pay the bills and cares what the neighbors think, is asleep and not minding the store.
So, if movies are presenting the version of dreams that we can’t tolerate, why do we enjoy them?  If they are dreams turned upside down, with the hidden part of dreams showing as the top layer of movies, why aren’t we repulsed?  For many reasons, but here are two.  First, because they are not our dreams, they are the dreams of others, so we can disown those aspects that feel uncomfortable and blame the movie makers for the unacceptable stuff.  Second, and this is the reason I would like to explore more fully here, because movies still follow the rules of dreams.
Dreams are ruled, in Freud’s simplest formulation, by the dictum that the dreamer will not be awakened.  They are intended to protect sleep.  So, in this first formulation, dreams are frequently intended to fulfill a wish.  If the dreamer is hungry, a slice of pie will keep her or him asleep and the dream provides it.  But the pie mustn’t be too sweet, or too available.  If there is no effort in achieving a goal, it doesn’t feel real, it feels constructed, false, and therefore something that creates anxiety in us and wakens us.  Sometimes it is useful for the dreamer to have to search for a piece of pie.  Not only does that buy time, but it creates other distractions along the way, and it feels more real; the pie passes the real test, not of satiating hunger, but of keeping us asleep, searching for a way to sate that desire.
Bottle Shock is a bad movie then, in part because it provides answers that are too pat, too dramatic, too dreamlike, and thus, paradoxically, wake us from the movie sleep that a good movie, and this movie is very good in parts – puts us into.  By this I mean that it puts us into a state where we, like the screenwriter dreamer, are trying to decode, to figure out, to understand what the solution to the puzzle is.  We are curious and engaged and we care about the characters.  But in this, a bad movie, the characters and/or situations disappoint us on a regular basis.  Sometimes a bad movie misses the mark on the shy side and sometimes on the fat one.
For instance, on the fat side, the darkest moment in the movie occurs when the crotchety hero who has left a lucrative law practice to pursue his dream of being a vintner discovers, after firing both his best friend and his son, partially over terrible finances and partially over disloyalty, that his prize chardonnay, the wine that he has racked six times when everyone else only racks theirs three, is brown.  He sells it as scrap and he goes back to the law firm to beg for his old job back from the man who is now married to his ex-wife.  Ouch.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his son has discovered that the brown discoloration in the wine is a temporary flaw caused by a too perfect process and manages to protect the wine.  He calls his father to ask him not to ask for his job back at the exact last moment that this can be done.  The father checks the one bottle that he kept, discovers it is no longer brown, tries to open it, and the only implement he can find is the samurai sword of the partner he has just been begging, and he cuts the bottle open with the sword to serve to all before heading back to his dream.  Well, the mind reels.  Too much has happened in a single moment.  Too many things have been choreographed.  This can’t have really happened.  We are jolted from our movie induced dream sleep and reminded that this is a movie, not a dream, it is too perfect, and we, incredulous, are no longer happy, somnolent viewers.
On the thin side, there are plots that are not woven together.  Pieces that are left lying around or not integrated in a satisfactory manner.  As an old adage says, if a rifle is hanging over the fireplace in act one, it will be fired in act three.  Dreams (and movies) have a lot of work to do in very little time.  They don’t have time to waste.  They are incredibly lean vehicles in their best incarnations.  In this film, the crotchety winemakers son is a ne’er do well who beds every woman around, except the intern who is taken by his friend.  As part of the ne’er do well’s development, one that is not believable – another problem – the intern switches loyalty.  Her relationship with the friend is never resolved.  Further, this action is inconsistent with her character.  She chooses the heir to the castle over the hired hand – a Mexican with dirt under his fingers – while preaching that she values the integrity of the latter.  Again, we have a whiplash reaction, though this time in the opposite direction.  We find that the story is not fundamentally believable because it does not live up to our lowest expectation: that it have an inner sense of integrity.  That it seems more like the chaotic surface of a night dream, and not like the inner workings of the well understood dream.
There is much more in the movie to criticize, but that criticism is along the lines outlined above.  I do think there is a compelling story here: the dreams of many men and that of a woman.  These dreams are vivid and real and the film-makers err, I think, in making them too fantastic – too much like the dreams that awaken us because they break the bounds of reality and not like those that are successful, that stay within those bounds to protect the fantasy elements – to let us have our pie - and eat it, too.

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