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Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer's nightmare is that he isn't dreaming.
Director: Adrian Lyne

After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. His girlfriend, Jezzie, and ex-wife, Sarah, try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer's chiropractor friend, Louis, fails to reach him as he descends into madness.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Basement Steps

When a film plays with the narrator’s credulity, and if it is essentially cinematic then I am predisposed to like it. This film has the additional benefit of some competent actors. Plus, we all like to dump on government lying during the Nixon era.

I think this is a waste of time in spite of those benefits, and it took a while to put my finger on why. You have two choices for the usual model for these things.

One is what I will call the David Lynch/Peter Greenaway model. In that model, the world we are presented with is usually attached to an onscreen viewer who we subliminally identify as the narrator/interpreter. Behind that is the world we see. The sense or nonsense of that world is inherent in the world. For us to experience the film at all, we have to invest in, enter that world and live by its rules. It is a risky thing for those of us who give our all when experiencing a film. In the cases of Greenaway and Lynch, we are rewarded by insights we can carry back.

A more common model, the “Scooby-doo” model is that there are three worlds. You have the safe world you live in as a viewer. It is not involved or compromised in any way except the reinforcement of the thin notion that someone CAN and might manipulate that world the way you are seeing on screen. Then you have the normal world of your on-screen protagonist, presumably much like yours. And finally you have the world as scrambled by some agency.

In this model, the world you see may not make much sense. You are not expected to understand it or be rewarded for doing so. You might find this out too late. There is a “solution,” to why that world is the way it is, and the reward of the film such as it is comes from the detective’s satisfaction of being told that solution. Usually the scrambled world is animated by myths associated with demons and such and that is the case here, though we have no actual referenced cosmology.

The story does have some technical appeal. The film is framed by a battlefield injury at the beginning and the death of the narrator the next day at the end of the film from that injury. In between we have his visions, mostly mixed segments of his family, an imagined life with a sexy coworker and of course his pursuit by demons. Embedded in this vision is his imagined study of demonology. He gets a doctorate in the subject and occasionally understands what is happening.

This idea is remarkably clever, that an imagined world would include an activity that allows growth in introspection sufficient to understand that it is imagined. There is a parallel concept, quite similar, where events in that world explain why the world is artificial. I liked this, a lot, but as a clever concept only. It doesn’t help the film.

Posted in 2010

Ted’s Evaluation — 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.


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