There are two kinds of weird in film: self-conscious and effortless. Some movies fall clearly on one side or the other, while others manage to be both. Director Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993) is distinguished for being not just both kinds of weird, but for veering from one mode to the other. The results are uneven, beautifully absurd in one moment, over reaching in the next.
Based on a story by Kusturica and David Atkins, who wrote the screenplay, Arizona Dream has things it wants to say about love and adulthood, but more than anything is held together by a set of visual markers – a howling sled dog, a fish with eyes on one side of its body, a red balloon.
The film begins in the arctic, with a northern native (Vincent Tocktoo) racing across the snow and ice on a dog sled with a big, flat fish strapped to the back. This scene is intercut with shots of a woman and boy looking out of the ice window of an igloo.
The man and his dogs hit a weak spot in the ice, but he manages to save both himself and the animals. Once to safety, he tries to find shelter near a tree as the wind howls around him. He pulls out a gun, seemingly intending to shoot his lead dog, who is big and white with dark markings on its flank, but collapses on his side instead (later it is said that the dog “hypnotized” him). The dogs load him onto the sled and take him home, which turns out to be the igloo shown in the intercutting.
He is cared for by his wife and son, and, after waking, he strings the fish up, cuts it open and pulls out a red balloon. He blows it up, and sends his son outside to play while he and his wife enjoy some adult time. The boy runs by a big ship, the “Nanuk II”, and releases the balloon, which proceeds to float across North America before popping on the head of Axel Blackmar (Johnny Depp), who is dozing on a boat in the East River. The opening scene is revealed to be Axel’s dream, or, as it’s referred to later, the “movie dream”.
As Axel wakes up, he goes to work counting fish for the New York Department of Fish and Wildlife. In voiceover he explains his love for fish, who he sees as being more true and beautiful than most people. After work, he is met by boyhood friend, Paul Leger (Vincent Gallo), who proceeds to get Axel drunk so he can drive him to Tucson, Arizona where his uncle and Cadillac salesman, Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis), is set to marry the much too young Millie (Paulina Porizkova). Leo, however, is more intent on getting Axel into the car business.
While waiting, and maybe working, in his uncle’s dealership, he meets mother and daughter pair Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and Grace (Lili Taylor) Stalker. Axel is immediately overcome with desire for Elaine, but Paul swoops in, clearly having already established a romantic or sexual relationship with the older woman. Both men end up having dinner at the Stalker house out in the desert. This dinner party is where the film most clearly starts to show signs of being unable to maintain its pitch. It’s a crazy, uncomfortable, busy mess of a scene.
Elaine and Grace have a dysfunctional relationship, wherein the child, Grace, is the mature, sad, and bitter person, and the parent, Elaine, is immature, playful, and full of passion. The jealousies between the two women are the spark that causes the dinner party to disintegrate into a bizarre psychodrama, with Grace attempting to commit suicide, Elaine seducing Axel, and Paul, a wannabe actor who dresses in black and affects a fast-talking New York accent, babbling lines from Shakespeare.
Axel decides to stay with Elaine and Grace where he spends his time trying to build Elaine a flying machine. Emotions at the house run high, with Grace not even trying to hide her jealousy toward Elaine, and Elaine’s lack of stability starting to show through with each failed attempt at flying in one of Axel’s nineteenth century-styled contraptions.
Once Axel digs in with the Stalkers things continue to happen but there isn’t much of a plot. It’s more a series of events. Most notably, key relationships change. Paul, who initially appears as a stronger personality than Axel, is shown to be a bundle of insecurities, hiding behind aspirations that he will most certainly never fulfill. Leo similarly is revealed to be much softer than his hard and polished exterior suggests. In the meantime, Axel, who seems so retiring at the start, content to while away the days in the company of fish, emerges as a passionate and driven person, pouring his heart into crazy machines built out of love for Elaine. Axel’s affections ultimately shift from Elaine to Grace, recognizing, perhaps, that the younger woman has more his sense of true, shared love than does the narcissistic Elaine. However, while Axel’s attentions change, the dynamic between Elaine and Grace remains the same.
The two women’s roles and their performances are good measures of the film’s unevenness. Taylor as Grace embodies the movie’s effortless weirdness. Quirky, but in a quiet, comfortable way, she wears her quirks naturally, every new tic seemingly organic to the character.
Dunaway’s Elaine, by contrast, is all hard work, all of the time. Indeed, in one sense, Dunaway’s performance is impressive in its dedication. She plays the “immature girl in a sagging body”, as Grace yells at her during the dinner party, perfectly. The problem here is that Elaine is not merely supposed to be acting the part, she is supposed to be that immature girl in a sagging body. As much as Dunaway throws herself into the role, she ends up embodying the film’s self-conscious weirdness in the same way that Taylor does its effortlessness.
Self-conscious weirdness is not, in and of itself, a problem, but it does carry the risk of becoming tedious instead of whimsical or productively alienating. The dinner scene is the clearest example of this risk, but even it is followed by one of the movie’s more inspired and beautiful moments. Following the craziness, Axel and Elaine go outdoors to talk. As Elaine begins recounting her childhood dream of flying, the wicker table and chairs at which they are seated float and slowly spin against the desert night. Here the visual tricks capture a mood perfectly and underscore the growing connection between the two characters, a connection born of dreaminess and a desire to hold onto the romance of life.
The Warner Archive Collection edition of Arizona Dream is essentially extra-less, lacking even a proper chapter menu. While this choice is understandable enough, the Warner Archive imprint seems mostly about burning off minor and obscure titles in the company’s catalog. The film is an interesting historical document, coming as it did before Johnny Depp’s super-stardom and at the beginnings of “Indiewood,” and a proper revisiting could have been useful, especially for the cinephiles and scholars who are likely the main market for the release.
Whenever the events in Arizona Dream get really strange, the fish from Axel’s dream appears, “swimming” in the sky. After Axel gets deep into making flying machines for Elaine, the lead sled dog from the opening scene also appears, and it joins the fish at heightened moments, throwing its head back to bark and howl. The red balloon reappears at the end, as do Axel’s arctic visions. These through-lines tie the film’s various elements together without resolving them into a coherent whole, which is, I suspect, Kusturica’s intention, as both storyteller and director.
Indeed, the film’s final scene, which has a now dead Uncle Leo imparting life lessons to Axel as they ice fish, dressed and speaking like the Eskimos from the first scene, seems false in the way that it tries to impart some kind of sense to what Axel has experienced in Arizona. While Arizona Dream would be better for ending on a less self-conscious bit of weird than it does, the film at least remains true to its nature in pairing the effectively absurd mise-en-scène of Leo’s abandoned car dealership with the clunky images of Axel’s dream. Still, weird is rarely perfect, no matter what form it takes.