Life is perhaps at its cruelest and clearest when aspiration and reality collides (and reality wins). If that’s true, then California Dreams is both. Having watched the film, however, I cannot differentiate it from reality TV, pure screenplay, or a bastard child of the two. Interestingly, director Mike Ott was being intentionally ambiguous. From a naive perspective, California Dreams plays on the quintessential Hollywood rag-to-riches trope. Many people in the Inland Empire look to LA and dream of becoming successful actors or actresses, even if their lives circle in the gutters from meal to deal to meal. Ott begins with Cory Zacharia, a 28 year old layabout with no skills. And I do mean ZERO. Comically illiterate, innumerate, and struggles even to form a sentence for a Taco Bell resume, he nonetheless believes that he can make it big. If only a decent audition tape (oh and also $900) could just “occur to him”, he could join a German friend in Berlin. This friend had worked tirelessly to arrange for Cory a role in a big budget film. Everything is falling into place, ready for his arrival. We are also informed that Cory share this dream with a 6-flags attendant from the Philippines, a wannabe alpha-male bounty hunter, a screenwriter in the Church of the latter day Taco Bell, and a down-and-out old lady.
Blurring the lines between fiction and reality seems to be Ott’s modus operandi. Dreams’ structure is eerily similar to Pearblossom Hwy, his 2012 film starring the same hapless Cory. Zacharia was supposedly discovered by Ott in a Home Depot parking lot. The set piece elements here have been lifted from an universe so blatantly child-like and outlandish, that I nearly mistook it for a tribute to Wes Anderson. For example, the whole motley crew in Dreams all live in the same tidy roadside motel. They all seems to get on with their lives despite hardships. And everything works out in the end: Cory eventually found the cash he badly needs when it literally fell from the sky, blown into a straight-line like offerings from the dried branches along the path of his favorite highway trot. All this skepticism aside, it is worth noting that the cinematography is quite breathtaking. If you have ever been to the Californian desert, you might agree that it’s nowhere near as mystical and forgiving as Dreams depicts. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis made it LOOK like like a well-spring of dreams. Ott made an effort to convince us that these are not actors. By speaking on camera to Cory, he is in reality trying to break the 4th wall. We are supposed to believe that these are real people whose dreams are exactly as told through their audition for this film: they are simply acting out their own lives. Actors, playing themselves.
I am still not sure how to feel about the power structure behind this film. Is this exploitation? Or perhaps any talk of exploitation is irrelevant because Ott is fulfilling these dreams? I am indifferent to whether this is staged, transcribed from real-life then reenacted, or reality TV with impeccable-fortuitous camera placements. Even though many of the nesting references and breadcrumbs are too trite and tiresome to follow, it still contains honest and interesting messages. What I’m actually annoyed with, is the same way you would notice that I stopped mentioning any of the other characters. That’s because none received any development or mention at all after they were introduced. Completely superfluous and expendable, they were living and dreaming furniture, no more important to Cory’s dream than the chair he sat in while enjoying a lap dance. It certainly took a step back from the plural title – I was fully expecting an expose on 2+ dreams. With ambiguity comes ambivalence, I guess. I am about as likely to recommend this as I would a box of cereal at afternoon tea: you won’t feel deprived without (just biscuits and scones thank you very much), and you won’t read too much into it if you do. It’s just, there, being it’s own meta-self.