“Look at the stars,” the genius of Trumbull’s movie finally seems to be saying, but also know the stars within.
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Often, it’s the throwaway scenes that click.
Early on in Brainstorm, the 1983 film about the invention of a device permitting the recording of one person’s sense impressions for playback by others, the scientist-hero Michael Brace retires to his room to toast a Wright Brothers model plane piloted by a photo of Albert Einstein.
On its own, outside of a bit of character development, it’s not much. But taken as a restatement of a scene from moments before, when Brace offered a similar salute to his co-worker and lover Dr. Lillian Reynolds on the event of their technological breakthrough, something profound occurs. The substitution of the elder woman by Brace’s birdlike symbol of visionary achievement creates a combined meaning especially compelling for those familiar with the avian association of another inventor, as detailed by Erich Neumann in his 1959 essay “Leonardo da Vinci and the Mother Archetype” (in Art and the Creative Unconscious – a response to Freud’s own essay “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood”). Regarding the plane/lover parallel in light of Neumann’s observations brings other elements of Mike and Lillian’s ambiguous relationship to light and illuminates much of the rest of the picture, too, just as the amplification of isolated moments in these characters’ lives prompts their reevaluation and, ultimately, transcendent understanding.
A troubled production from a perennially troubled studio, MGM, Brainstorm was the center of a dispute between its director, Douglas Trumbull, who passed away this February (2022), and the executives who wanted to shut down the mostly completed picture after the death of one of its lead players, Natalie Wood. Trumbull insisted that the few remaining scenes involving her could be completed using a stand-in, but the studio, possibly eyeing a write-off, disagreed. The film was brought in, finally, and released, but it was the last feature directorial job for Trumbull, who was previously known mainly for revolutionary special effects work on such science-fiction films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that made his reputation and in many ways may have defined it ever after as Trumbull dealt with the legacy of working with its legendary director, Stanley Kubrick. As Brainstorm itself turns on the death of a key female protagonist, the actress’s passing only took the drama one step closer to reality, when the circumstances of its production were already an integral part of the fabric.
To wit: Brainstorm’s close-knit research team mimics the film’s own crew, operating under the same rubric. Lillian, as apparent mastermind, suggests either story originator Bruce Joel Rubin or the small army of screenwriters brought in to bring the film to fruition, Mike the director who takes the project the rest of the way after her work is finished. They’re abetted by middle-aged company-man lab assistant Hal Abramson, who wields a clapboard at one point but otherwise functions as a producer; game thirtysomething guinea pig Gordy Forbes, as the lens through whom much of the film’s action is absorbed, suggests cinematographer Richard Yuricich. This is roughly the same setup as Trumbull’s only other feature as director, Silent Running, where a similar threesome is complemented by a detached loner who completes his visionary project after the others’ dismissal. Read Kubrick and 2001 for Lillian and the present film, and another level emerges. Mike’s barely acknowledged resentment of Lillian’s putdowns and hogging of the credit for their work, more clearly elucidated in the script signed by Robert Stitzel, echo Trumbull’s remarks about Kubrick, along with his gratitude. It’s this repressed hostility, in the film as well as its characters, that forms the emotional core of the drama.
More than any relation to the filmmaking process, though, the camaraderie of the Brainstorm team evokes the collaborative working of the separate regions of the title organ itself. As the motive force behind the project, Lillian suggests the higher cerebral functions Mike, somewhat lower on the ladder but lacking perhaps only experience, aspires to; Hal, the go-between connecting the team to upper management, performs the duties of corporate medulla oblongata, Gordy the hypothalamus delivering sensory signals right from the opening scene.
Here, he roves the facility in the team’s experimental headgear, testing the transmission of reflex, taste, and hearing. As Lillian talks to her “angel,” Mike, through a cloud of digital noise or visual static to focus on the image of a schematic grid, the sensation is of a mind being guided by an inner voice toward the realization of some sort of blueprint or plan – the director giving form to his screenwriters’ vision. The gradual coming into coherence of the sequence suggests the mind emerging from sleep into a dream – the static like the phosphenes igniting inside a pair of recently closed eyelids – or of a fetus into the world, guided by either the steady voice of the Self or of the loving mother within (as without).
Trumbull spoke of wanting to create “a kind of first-person experiential cinema,”1 which he partly achieved in Brainstorm through the shifting dynamics of the film frame. In segments where characters experience others’ thoughts, the traditional, boxier 1:1.85 screen dimensions expand to full, wide Cinemascope to create the sensation of a broadening of perception. This elastic effect is used from the very beginning, disorienting the viewer as the point of view switches from one perspective to the other and back again. Yet at at least one crucial point, the formula is broken and the main character’s subjective viewpoint is represented widescreen, suggesting, on the surface, the narcotic effect of the brainstorm process carrying over into regular consciousness. On a deeper level, it situates each perspective within a single consciousness, all in communion with the total personality: the device puts one in psychic contact not only with others but with oneself, as well. When Mike makes his breakthrough, it’s intended as a similar epiphany for the viewer, an evolution into a new form of awareness.
This breakthrough is achieved by the replaying of the death experience via the team’s recording device. It’s a virtual-reality take on Poe‘s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” while also looking to the more recent past of 1942’s The Devil Commands and 1963’s Outer Limits “Borderland” episode, as well as the future of 1995’s Strange Days and 2000’s Being John Malkovich; in concept, structure, and several plot points, it owes a huge debt, as well, to Ken Russell’s 1980 Altered States. In the Poe story, a mesmerist hypnotizes his dying subject in hopes of gaining insight into the supposed afterlife; here, Dr. Reynolds records her own demise as a gift of herself for her younger colleague, presumably to resolve the uncertainties underlying their relationship.
The suggestion of a romance between Lillian and Mike is drawn in such subtle strokes as to seem purposely vague. Such is the structure of the film itself, too, unraveling on the screen with no bow toward expository dialogue or traditional “movie” introductions, as though the viewer had been dropped into the picture’s consciousness through one of its own thought-transfer devices. Factor in the nine-year age difference between Lillian-actress Louise Fletcher and her co-star, a boyish-looking Christopher Walken – whose estranged screen-wife Wood, as Karen Brace, has four years on him, herself – and you have something other than the traditional movie love affair.
Mike’s “plane” toast occurs after passing through a small dinner-party recital given by Karen and attended by her boyfriend Barry and son Chris. The scene is a restatement of the party in Lillian’s honor, suggesting a connection about to be made, the later event taking place on a deeper psychological plane than the earlier one in order to reveal its inherent meaning. Mike’s retirement to his private, dormitory-like room complete with mini refrigerator heightens the effect of a mind withdrawing into itself at the start of a dream, while also recalling the similar loner-hero of Silent Running, alienated from even his fellow crew members aboard a space station. The substitution of Lillian by the Wright Brothers model equates the two in Mike’s subconscious, bringing to mind Leonardo’s so-called “vulture fantasy” as regarded by Freud and Neumann.
Expressed in Leonardo’s journals as an authentic reminiscence, this fantasy consisted of a single image, of the infant artist-scientist in his crib touched on the lips by the rustling feathers of a bird. (Vagaries of translation indicate that this bird could have been a “kite,” rather than Freud’s token vulture.) It was so unlikely as an actual occurrence, though, that both analysts could only read it as a piece of personal mythology. The association of infant orality and avian presence for them suggested the Great Mother archetype, embodied since at least ancient Egyptian culture in the form of the vulture and apostrophized in the movie by the Lillian/plane connection. To Neumann, she personifies “the all-generative aspect of nature and the creative source of the unconscious”2, synonymous in some circles with the anima, in others with the Dragon. We might call her the Muse.
“In the life of the creative man …,” Neumann explains, “the archetypal factor is so predominant that in extreme cases he becomes almost incapable of personal relations…. And this is why many artists, even among the most gifted, have such intense anima relations with the ‘distant loved one’ … the unknown, the dead, etc”3. Mike’s attachment to Lillian, then – that is to say, to the spirit of creative enterprise – has caused his rift with Karen, who, in her role as the design specialist who helps make their invention practical, figures as the logistical real world he’s really alienated from. Like Leonardo, whose eros Neumann says “never forsook its bond with the infinite, the mother goddess,” Mike, as a similar “son of the bird mother,” is driven to such models of flight in an attempt to escape earthly physical reality, the bane of many a visionary thinker.
Neumann charts two courses for such gifted individuals. One is fraught with crisis and hardship, often depicted in terms of the dragon fight, which the hero emerges from with a closer identification with the so-called Spirit Father, the other a more characteristically inward struggle, never to “wholly depart from the shelter of her spirit wings.”4 Brainstorm proves a chronicle of both when Mike first does battle with the now-antagonistic Company in order to play Lillian’s tape, and later when climaxing under the shadow of the plane model writ large in the prototypes at the aviation museum at Kill Devil Hill.
Keeping with the psychological metaphor, Alex Terson, head of the research facility everybody works for, suggests the “corporate” superego each is a facet of. As often in film, the specific personality this superego belongs to is so far removed from the key action of the drama as to remain nameless, the Company’s identity given only as a logo featuring two joined X’s, suggestive of the female chromosome pair. It goes from a once-nurturing environment to stifling and inimical, suggesting the mother and her womb (as played out in some of the film’s imagery), Mike the child who’s overstayed his welcome there. Alex steers Mike and Karen back into a working relationship, as though aware of its greater meaning and purpose; it’s he, too, that the film’s version of the Dragon Fight will play out against.
This “fight” centers on Mike’s efforts to experience the death-tape Alex has put off-limits. As such, it suggests both an oedipal rivalry with the father over “possession of” and union with the mother, as well as a post-oedipal separation from the “Dragon” aspect she also represents. In the service of this, the faceless Company acts as a slate onto which Mike may project his repressed resentment toward the often belittling and disrespectful Lillian, so to unite with her ideal aspect only. Before he can experience this apotheosis, though, he has to do a certain amount of housekeeping – some of which he accomplishes himself, others through the agency of family and friends.
Mike’s transformation is set into motion by a chance recording of Karen’s impressions on entering the lab, prompted by his curtness in getting her to try the device and involving her flashback to an argument with him at home. A new area of application opens for the researchers when Mike’s playback of Karen’s thoughts rouses instant anger in him, signaling the unit’s ability to document and transfer not only sense impressions but actual emotions, too. (Lillian’s surprised response to these “Feelings!” plays like the concept of emotion itself were a revelation to the dedicated scientist.) In this respect, Karen acts as the part of the anima working to connect men with their feeling-selves. It’s the first step in wiring Mike into the Infinite.
Their revelation follows the second full-scale party in the film, taking place at Alex’s country home, which the team comes to realize is a front for the Military. Here Lillian’s barely disguised hostility toward authority surfaces and finds as its target the unctuous flunky Dr. Landon Marks (“Caltech, ’56”; the name, land on marks, may be a pun on the by-the-books precision she disdains and which characterizes the lab on his accession to its directorship on her passing). It’s this anger that the Military represents on a grand scale, with its pathological perversion of even the most innocuous of technological advances, like a child making a weapon out of whatever new object or toy it finds at hand. This calls to mind Trumbull’s involvement with 2001, whose ape-man finds he can use a bone to bludgeon his enemy. So it’s anger, once again, that the film, as its protagonist, is at odds with, and anger it must reconcile with and overcome before transcendence is possible.
Inspired by the trio’s discovery, Mike goes home that night and makes an emotional mix-tape of his recollections of happier scenes from his courtship with Karen, which he offers to her as a gift. (His comment after playing the tape, “We blew it,” is an echo of Wyatt’s remark to Billy in the last act of Easy Rider, suggesting a political dimension to their relationship – supported by the more subversive dynamics of Silent Running – on the country’s break from its humanitarian charter.) Here, the equation of flight with genius expands to include love as a similar elevating force, as Mike’s memories include a date at Kill Devil Hill where he tells Karen that what attracted the Wrights to that location was “the wind,” delivered with such awed intonation as to suggest the libidinous drive urging all creative endeavor, and contrasting the military motives of their nemeses. Mike and Karen resume playing and collaborating as a result of this sharing, and it feels as if the movie is prematurely over – until a phone call the next morning alerts them to a separate though related issue gaining precedence while they were reconciling.
More than a “call,” such communications represent a calling: a message from an unseen region within. The impression is amplified here by the fact that the actress playing the caller is Walken’s own wife Georgianne, as Hal’s wife, Wendy, assigning her the role of extrafilmic anima connecting all characters to their deeper meaning. When they arrive at the Abramsons, Mike and Karen find Hal has spent the last couple days in the basement plugged into a tape-loop he’s made of a sexual encounter Gordy recorded, which has put him in a perpetually orgasmic state it takes some time and a dedicated exercise regimen to snap him out of. The severity of Mike’s alarm over what would have played as a gag in most other science-fantasies of the time (think Weird Science, Zapped, or The Man Who Wasn’t There, for starters) raises a number of ideas about the impact the scene is supposed to carry for the audience as well as his character.
First, and most obviously, Hal’s “little death” serves as a dry run for Lillian and Mike’s big one. Occurring simultaneously with Karen and Mike’s reunion sex, it’s an indication of how deep and seismic their physical encounter, shown only in aftermath, must have been. (What Nicolas Roeg would’ve done with this material!) At the same time, it indicates the spiritual upheaval attendant with that experience: “It was more than just a sexual fantasy, it was a – a feeling that I had,” Hal explains. “I’m more than I was, Mike. More.” When Hal is retired by the Company, it’s a quirkier, lighter resolution of his character than the decommissioning of that other HAL, the supercomputer of 2001, suggesting this as a similar transcendence of a functional aspect of consciousness on the way to greater psychic elevation. The revelation of this activity in the Abramsons’ basement suggests a revolution in some lower region of the psyche, a reaction to the Braces’ re/union signaling something “more” – private, contrary, and relatively buried – calling for attention before their reconciliation can go further. Mike’s response to Hal’s orgasmic bond with life means that he’s still more erotically inclined toward death and the irrational, a tendency he has to play through to its equally enraptured resolution. This occurs courtesy of Lillian’s spirit of scientific inquiry.
After a day where Marks and his team have been pushing the limits of Gordy’s endurance as experiential guinea pig, Lillian has a fatal heart attack, as if in response, and records the episode on tape; as the attack is mainly triggered by her anger at fumbling with an instrument, we realize it’s her rage that has to be resolved before transcendence can take place. It’s the frustration of the Great Mother thwarted and dyspeptified by such small and ineffectual men as populate the scenes from her life flashing through Mike’s mind as he monitors her death experience later. Many of these involve conflicts with Alex regarding unfulfilled projects and with another, unidentified man who may be either a physician, analyst, priest, or ex-husband, concerning her health. Both indicate unmet maternal desires, the need to bring into the world something of herself before she expires.
Unfortunately, as a result of these frustrations, what’s inside her is mainly death, as epitomized by her chain-smoker’s cough and the toll this takes on her system. The cigarette provides a metaphor for a life inhaled to its fullest when Trumbull’s otherwise prosaic close-up on a burned-out butt indicates Lillian’s life gone out; we see it too in a more inspired moment at Alex’s, when Lillian lights a smoke off someone else’s cigarette. It’s a death Mike has to experience, though, by playing the tape, and for various reasons. It’s another version of the Dragon Fight, accomplished not by confrontation – the stereotypically masculine way – but by the “feminine” way of communion; relation.
When Lillian is in the throes of her seizure, she calls Mike for help, and it’s another call from within. His arrival casts a halo over her head by the light from his opened door, so we recognize him as her glory and her image Beyond, that being in the portal she gives birth to by means of her death. Likewise, Mike has to replay this death to realize his own rebirth – to experience firsthand her aches, disappointments, and to see it all in relation to the whole of humanity before he can see it to its rest and resolution: He must become the Great Mother, and the association will bring him vision. When he calls her name from off-screen, it’s like a person waking himself by calling out in sleep what he’s discovered at its center. In the funeral following, it’s easy to see he’s a changed man.
Here he asserts a new authority, as though possessed of the spirit of Lillian herself, when deflecting Alex’s inappropriate attempts at talking shop. Alex’s handing the project to him at this point suggests the greater Self bestowing the grace of her character on him, as we see in the next scene, where Michael appears haloed back in the lab; Lillian’s presence surrounds and illuminates him now. The appearance of Hal – three-fourths of that hal/o – to announce his “flying the coop” literalizes her spirit’s taking wing, which he enables by helping Michael rig up the machine. Marks’s surveillance problematizes Michael’s seeing his mission through, the way consciousness often throws roadblocks in the path of our immersion in dreams; it also provides a metaphor for both the studio’s meddling in the filmmakers’ efforts and these creatives’ constant disruption of their own transcendent 2001 mindtrip at the climax of the story.
As Hal cues the tape, Marks hooks Gordy up to a tap. Michael soon discovers that the physical sensations the device replicates include the symptoms of actual death and so has Hal disengage these functions, but Marks, whom Lillian had pegged as “a hack at Stanford and a hack at Bell,” isn’t that clever, and his mistake fries Gordy. Thus Michael sheds his surrogate body, permitting the transcendence of his real-life one soon after. Through this ek-stasis, or removal from the self, Michael experiences the subtextual nature of movies from Citizen Kane to Easy Rider and beyond: the breakdown of the ego into its constituent parts in order to realize the true, core self within, visualized here as a matrix of floating spheres serially bursting into prominence flashing-before-your-eyes style.
In these vignettes, Alex repeatedly declares a previous project of Lillian’s “dead.” It’s the voice of the superego trying to get the Lillian-emotional self, still in shock from the rupture, used to the idea that she, too, has expired. For Michael, middleman in the oedipal triangle implied here (reinforced, again, by the project’s name, Triad), the issue suggests a recognition of the end of the child’s association with the parents’ erotic unity. (“Triad is dead.”) The experience empowers him to assert himself as he never had before.
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The eighties were a decade of intense examination of gender roles, with a concomitant attempt to break out of the confines imposed by these stereotypes; witness such role-reversal comedies of the day as All of Me, Just One of the Guys, and Mr. Mom. There was a simultaneous movement in contemporary sci-fi features the likes of Shocker and Lifeforce, where psychic communion with a supernatural feminine figure yielded a form of transcendence. So Michael’s project here is to disrupt the macho-military structure that’s impeding his progress toward psychic evolution by melding the male and female aspects of his personality, so to reach the next stage in his development. When he instructs Karen, “You’re married to the first man in the history of the world who has a chance to take a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face. And you have to help me,” his subtle macho posturing, though, is a regression from the film’s valorization of the genius female while at the same time acknowledging Alex’s design to get the couple back together in fruitful, cooperative relation.
In exchange for her subordinate role in Michael’s quest, Karen stipulates, “And you have to promise me that you will never leave me again,” making explicit the more tacit intent of his venture, the repairing of the breach between the masculine and feminine properties that set all this in motion. Their exchange on the way in to bed, signifying this reunion, leaves it open as to whether Michael gets it yet: his response, “Look at these stars,” reflects his tendency still toward heroic idealism; “Let’s go to bed,” she counters, indicating the importance of the domestic and relational over the exploratory. This volley would continue up to the memorable last line of mentor Kubrick’s final outing, Eyes Wide Shut, with the similarly neglected Odysseyan wife’s solution to their own interpersonal crisis being to, simply, “Fuck.”
When Michael returns to the lab infused with Lillian’s spirit, it’s a form of lucid dreaming, where the subject enters the dream aware that it’s a dream and so able to affect its outcome. Only, here he finds the lab has been taken over, cleaned up, and turned into more of a production facility than a research center – the fate of many a creative concern in the MBA eighties – where hydraulic arms stamp out headsets on a conveyor belt of mannequin heads. It’s the traditional mechanized-totalitarian science-fiction vision of the future (see Fahrenheit 451, THX 1138, Soylent Green, A Boy and His Dog, et al.), representative of the adolescent’s fear of sterile, businesslike adulthood.
Michael’s discomfort with his own role as adult and father is demonstrated both realistically and suggestively: realistically, when sidestepping son Chris’s snide behavior in front of guests, and in his nonconfrontational attitude toward Alex, clear underling status with Lillian, and acquiescence to Barry’s presence in his house during Karen’s recital; suggestively, in a hallucination he experiences while hacking into the system post-shutout. As Michael discovers, their work has been exploited into a brainwashing tool playing on the viewer’s subconscious fears, as revealed in a tape introduced by Marks. Since this intro appears widescreen (the subjective perspective), we expand our reading of it to infer Michael’s repressed insecurities as a similar hack elevated to a position of power and responsibility in the wake of Lillian’s departure. (Picture special effects whiz Trumbull on the eve of his directorial debut with Silent Running.) The “covert operation” Marks refers to suggests Michael’s feelings of inferiority threatening to undermine him at a crucial juncture; his vision features a man in a Clockwork Orange-style shock-torture chair, with Michael the presumed interrogator. When he accosts Karen immediately after with accusations of Alex’s having sold them out, Chris is at that moment checking out the device his father has, in his upset, left running. He sees much the same as Michael, only from the victim’s perspective, his black-dressed father’s declarations of “It’s mine” underscoring the oedipal undercurrent of the action. Like his dad with his first session, the experience leads to a psychotic break, landing Chris in the hospital and jettisoning him from the duration of the film, as though his borderline character had been resolved. The father-son relationship also suggests Trumbull’s working out of his own feelings toward Kubrick, with whom he shared a similar possessory dispute over their film’s technical credits.
As noted in Cinefex #14,5 the stages of Lillian’s death tape were modeled after the regression theories of psychologists Stanislav and Christina Grof, which culminate in a re-experiencing of the birth trauma. So the “out of body” experience Michael longs for has to do not only with his own, but with the mother’s body, too – the fetus’s desire for birth. Following a series of images of figures wrapped and suffocating in their own entrails, Trumbull takes us further beyond into an ethereal next-world of lights and balletic butterfly-souls making their way toward a radiant light – a scene so resonant as to be cited in such divergent films as Lifeforce and Field of Dreams. It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the Stargate sequence of 2001, which Trumbull had largely engineered and for which he felt Kubrick had absconded with the credit. When compared with Silent Running’s similar journey through Saturn’s rings, one gets the impression of a stalled visionary compulsively returning to that same scene of troubled birth in an effort to overcome the trauma of rejection from that idyllic and nurturing environment and the mythic figure who betrayed him.
The couple’s rendezvous at Kill Devil Hill reinforces that location as a symbol of romantic as well as aviationary flight, accomplished by the coming together not only of the male and female of the species but of masculine and feminine qualities, besides. The feds facilitate this reunion when they figure out what’s going on and cut Michael off from the tape, necessitating relocation to a public phone at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The umbilical wires tethering him there suggest an infant reborn but not yet ready to sever its ties to the mother, as further demonstrated when Alex orders the cables under the lab flooring cut, only to be thwarted by the Abramsons’ shutting down the control room – the body’s cessation of mental and physical functions at the point of demise. Alex’s resigned command to “Let go” of the lines suggest the superego giving the dying personality permission to do same, and Michael, safely moored, is free to transcend.
Having shirked the figure of Lillian herself (the “XX” he’s been cut off from) and even the colossal corpus of Earth as a whole, Michael experiences another world of shapes made out of the same light as formed the opening images of the film (as of film itself). Their angelic appearance suggests the last of Lillian making her way home – integrated into the Self – and Michael again being guided by the Good Mother toward resolution. In turn, his laying to rest of a troubled soul whose unfinished works suggest the many projects Trumbull was unable to get off the ground in the years between Silent Running and this film indicates a reconciliation with that revered mentor who denied him credit in life but bestowed her genius on him in death. Afterward, Michael is able to stumble to his feet and begin his movement back to the spirit of life calling him through the voice of his wife – a return to the real woman versus the feminine principle (the brushing wing of the vulture) he’d become enthralled to.
“We made it,” he boasts while turning with her to see the planes inside the Memorial, a reversal of the “We blew it” that constituted his first steps back into her affections. Turning back, he urges her again to “Look at the stars,” those legendary dead souls of our ancestors lighting the night and inspiring lovers to their romantic best, then sweeps her up in his arms to, presumably, carry her across the new threshold he’s lately pioneered. Just as swiftly they, too, are swept into their own memory bubble like those Michael witnessed on his first excursions into the mind of the Great Mother, as the proscenium goes widescreen – the film commending itself to the viewer, a similar vision to be shared through the magic of technology in the hands of one who has seen the next world that is everywhere around us in this one, and come back to tell us about it.
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Problematizing the ecstasy of Trumbull’s conclusion is the interference of outside forces thwarting the flow of Michael’s revelation. Each time the audience is drawn into the imagery taking shape before its eyes, Trumbull shifts to some real-world intrigue playing against it. According to the Cinefex interview,6 this intercutting wasn’t a consequence of revisions in the wake of Wood’s death but part of the director’s intentions all along.
Why he would choose to do such a thing is puzzling. It suggests nothing so much as a director who can envision the visionary but not the vision itself, or a man with insufficient faith in that insight to throw himself wholeheartedly across the threshold. When Michael returns to his starting point – the stars like the static of those opening images – trying to make his way toward the larger grid with neither Lillian’s guidance nor Gordy’s instinct to back him, the viewer senses another point being made than the one the filmmakers are consciously striving toward, and it’s a bit of a letdown. It’s an indication that Trumbull himself is out there without a net, and all he can come up with for a vision of the Beyond – much like Roger Corman‘s conundrum at the end of X – the Man with X-Ray Eyes – is a glorified light show. Not surprisingly, Trumbull forsook feature filmmaking after Brainstorm to sit on the board of IMAX.
Six years after this last narrative, though, he directed a short for the Leonardo Da Vinci festival in Milan called Leonardo’s Dream. Adam Groves, in <Shock Cinema #26, describes the film as positing the inventor as “depressed that none of his inventions have come to pass … except one that transports him into the year 1989,” suggesting the director still licking his wounds over his Hollywood disappointments. Still, we can see in Karen’s cries for Michael to come back from the brink at that phone booth the third feminine call after Wendy’s and Lillian’s, and here we grasp the meaning neither he nor his director might have. For if Trumbull wasn’t completely successful in delivering on Alex’s invitation to “knock my socks off,” he was at least able to offer a blueprint – a grid – for the rest of us to take to the next level, and here it lies, in this feminine voice.
There’a similar creative call sounding from both inside and outside men today, and it’s a genius sound, an exhortation to return to our rightful station in the domestic sphere and never leave it again, to reconcile with our estranged animas and father figures and become the stars we are – one point in a constellation, like a throwaway moment in film that may mean little on its own yet which can unlock the greater meaning of the whole.
“Look at the stars,” the genius of Trumbull’s movie finally seems to be saying, but also know the stars within.
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All images are screenshots from the film.