“I remember my father once said that if you ever wanted to look at someone’s soul you have to ask to look at their dreams, and that would allow you to have mercy for those that swim in bigger shit than your own.” – Axel Blackmar
Arizona Dream is a film with an opening that will make you wonder if you’ve slipped the wrong disc into your player by mistake. It begins with a sequence set in the frozen north with a cast of Inuits. The credits roll over shots of a red balloon flying south, over New York. This may not be Arizona, but it’s certainly a dream. It’s the dream of Axel Blackmar (Johnny Depp), a New Yorker who works for the Department of Fish and Game. (Pay attention to Axel’s opening monologue: it explains a lot of the film’s symbolism.) Axel is summoned back to his Arizona hometown by his car-dealer uncle Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis). He soon becomes involved with widow Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway), much to the resentment of her daughter Grace (Lili Taylor).
As you may have gathered, this is not a conventional film in the slightest. Made by French companies in the English language, shot in 1991, it was denied an American theatrical release until a brief run in 1995. A version cut to 119 minutes was released on video. Here in the UK, we’ve always had the full-length version, and that’s the one I’m reviewing on DVD. This remains Bosnian director Kusturica’s only film in English. Kusturica makes big, bustling films which reach a long way: and if his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp the results are fascinating and invigorating, with an omnivorous lust for life much more so than a smaller, more “perfect” film might be. Of course, the flipside of this is, when he fails he falls flat on his face. His first two films are relatively restrained. His debut, Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, was not released in the UK, though it had an TV showing circa 1983 on BBC2 which I caught. His second film, When Father Was Away on Business won him the first of his two Golden Palms at Cannes. His later films – Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream, Underground (his second Palme d’Or winner) and Black Cat White Cat – show an increase in scale and a move away from strict realism to a kind of magic realism or surrealism. (I haven’t seen 2001’s Super 8 Stories or his newest film, Life is a Miracle.) Arizona Dream is shot through with dream-like imagery, from the cars on stilts that Axel sees when he arrives in Arizona, to the recurring image of fish floating through the frame. Sometimes the smallest of touches have their effect. Look at the scene where Elaine tells Axel of a dream she had as a girl. As she talks, the table they’re sitting at begins to rotate. You think it may be Kusturica circling the actors with his camera, but no: the house and tree in the background aren’t moving. This will either be surprising, and quietly beautiful in its way, or an infuriating example of directorial self-indulgence. And one of those will be your reaction to the film as a whole.
Arizona Dream has the best cast Kusturica has ever worked with. Faye Dunaway in particular is a standout. Looking stunning, she delivers her best latterday performance (along with her comic turn in the underrated Dunston Checks In) as a older, almost childlike woman refinding her sexuality with a younger man. Casting Lili Taylor as her disturbed daughter was another good move: you notice how the two resemble each other facially, hair colour apart. Jerry Lewis shows how good a straight actor he can be, though. On the other hand Paulina Porizkova barely registers as Leo’s wife. Vincent Gallo, as Axel’s cousin Paul, doesn’t really work, though it’s more the script’s (by David Atkins from a story by him and Kusturica) fault than his. His entire character is made up of references to other movie characters. At first he seems to be riffing off Joe Pesci, especially in Goodfellas, references that become explicit in a scene where Paul lipsynchs to a scene from Raging Bull. Later, we see his stage act based on the crop-duster scene from North by Northwest, and finally he’s lipsynching to John Cazale’s Fredo Corleone in The Godfather Part II. (A reference to Johnny Depp is a clunky piece of self-referentiality.) And finally, although the film is more of an ensemble piece, Johnny Depp does a good job of holding it together, his boyish features quite appropriate for a character caught between childhood and adulthood. On the technical side, the camerawork of Kusturica’s regular DP Vilko Filac is a standout. So is the striking score, all choirs and synth riffs, from Goran Bregovic.
Arizona Dream is certainly not flawless, being too long and rambling in places. And certainly some viewers might find two hours plus in the company of these characters too much to take. But if you can stick out the ride, there’s some memorable setpieces and imagery along the way.
Momentum’s disc, encoded for Region 2 only, has an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. On the whole it’s an excellent transfer, coping well with the strong colours of the Arizona setting as well as the whites and greys of the Inuit dream sequence. There’s a little bit of artefacting in the night scenes, and some of the house’s wallpaper causes moiré effects, but nothing too distracting.
Arizona Dream was, according to the end credits, released in some venues with a digital soundtrack: the early and shortlived LC Concept process, which as far as I can tell was only used theatrically in France. It’s a pity that a 5.1 track wasn’t provided for this DVD release. As a replacement we get a very active Dolby Surround track, with the surrounds used for Bregovic’s score and quite a few directional sound effects.
There are subtitles for the main feature in various languages. The English stream has a few spelling errors: “Carey” Grant and “Freddo” Corleone, for example. There are no subtitles for the extras except as indicated below. There are eighteen chapter stops, not really enough for a film of this length. Menus are available in German and Spanish as well as English.
The extras begin with two trailers, a teaser (0:29) and the full theatrical trailer (2:14). These are obviously proper to the French market as the herald “Le nouveau film d’Emir Kusturica Arizona Dream”. However, the dialogue in the trailer is in English, with burned-in French subtitles in the longer trailer, without them in the teaser. A promo reel, which gives the title as Arizona Dreamers, is also available, running 4:37. It contains some footage that’s not in the final film. All the above extras are in good shape, transferred in non-anamorphic 1.85:1.
There is one deleted sequence, running 14:57, in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. The picture quality is noticeably poorer, looking as if it were transferred from video, with all the artefacting that implies. The first scene shows a meeting between Axel and a tramp in the street at night-time. Axel then goes into an abandoned shop (the red balloon from the prologue makes another appearance here) and falls asleep. The second half of this sequence is an extremely elaborate single-take Steadicam shot, printed in sepia, taking place at the wedding reception of Axel and… Well I won’t say who his wife is, as that would introduce a plot spoiler for the film as a whole. This seems however to be a plot thread entirely removed in the editing – understandable when you realise that Kusturica’s first cut was four hours long.
The final extra is an interview (recorded in 2002) with a somewhat dishevelled Johnny Depp (smoking throughout) conducted by the film’s producer, Claudie Ossard. This interview runs 38: 00 and is in anamorphic 16:9. The interview is partly in French, partly in English, with optional English and German subtitles. As an interview it’s something of a love-in, but some interesting stories do emerge.
Arizona Dream is certainly not for everyone. It’s probably not Kusturica’s best film – it’s noticeable how under-represented this two-time Cannes winner is on DVD – but it has plenty of rewards for those who can stay the course. Momentum’s DVD, part of their Take One series, has room for improvement in some areas but is generally very good.