Dream Theatre: The Cinema of Sleep

Chris Nolan isn't the first filmmaker to dissect dream theory in movies. Here's the OWF guide to the 'dream factory' of film!

With the release of Inception sweeping everyone off their feet, we thought it might be a good idea to offer up a feature on Dreams in Film to the blog Gods. But me being me, I wasn't going to just give you one of those lazy top ten films about dreams that have sprung up all over the place, I had to go a bit more in depth...

The relationship between dreams and films has been long established: why else would terms like "The dream factory" have become so easily attached to the industry? And it is extraordinarily difficult to resist the metaphor when you break it down - dreams are basically wish fulfillment, played through a myriad different filters (hence the different "genres") and alongside story-telling are the purest form of realised imagination.

The medium is the closest thing we have to tangibly experiencing the inexplicable essence of the dream while we are awake. Symbolically and metaphorically rich, furnished with movement and mystery, films, like dreams, enable us to participate in another reality, and, through that participation, to be transformed. Hence the number of theorists who attempt to align dreams and films in psychoanalytic theory - Freud famously made the connection, but he wasn't alone. Far from it.

There are some seriously complex ideas out there related to dreams and film theory. Bear with me and I'll give you the OWF Simpe Guide to Filmic Dream Theory.

Okay, here goes: brain-box theorists like Raymond Bellour and Guy Rosolato draw psychoanalytical analogies in their work between cinema and dreams, believing that every film has €˜latent€™ content which can be "read" with the techniques of psychoanalysis as if it were a dream. I've already mentioned Freud, and he plays an important role, what with being one of the acknowledged fathers of psychoanalysis: in fact, prior to the 30s, psychoanalysts took the model for interpretation from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and attempted to analyse films with it.

There is also the link between the cinema exhibition process and the passive spectator (from psychoanalysis). Both Roland Barthes and André Breton describe cinematic audiences as being in a dream-like state while watching, exhibiting signs of being €œ...sleepy and drowsy as if they had just woken up€ at the film's end and entering a state between awake and asleep throughout respectively. So it isn't just the film itself that can be linked to dreams, but the process of watching- think about it, you sit in the dark, in semi-comfort, and get lost in a world alien to reality as an escape.

Anyway, enough of the theory, and onto the practical application of dreams on film, and how they are used and depicted throughout cinematic history. I've chosen a select few examples- the list is certainly not exhaustive...

Films fundamentally channel the same imagery as dreams - though some more overtly than others. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Requiem For A Dream (2000) actively seek to muddy the distinction between fiction and truth by mirroring dream-like and often narratively chaotic techniques, and directors like Terry Gilliam and Tarsem Singh most vivdly seem to channel the stock of dream imagery in their films, creating rich dreamscape tapestries that often go hand in hand with more realistic sequences. So in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009), it is no surprise that the colourful world behind the mirror is evocative of many of Dali's most popular works, or that the rules of real life don't seem to apply.

In The Fall (2006) - Tarsem Singh goes one step further, offering an almost unbearably surreal visual spectacle that is intentionally very reminiscent of those haunting vivid dreams that seem to attempt sensory overload.

Truth is, I don't like The Fall, I find it impenetrable and deliriously self-indulgent (though I am excited by the prospect of The Immortals somewhat contradictingly), but I still value it as an example of the dreamscape film because it gets a lot of things right. And it seemingly attempts some kind of story, even if it's hard to follow, which is where dreams and films stray from the same path.

While some of my dreams do have an established narrative, others can simply be a random collection of images that immediately disappear from memory when I wake and should remain that way. Films simply do not work unless they have some semblance of narrative- including even the most non-linear bastardisations- otherwise they are a collection of photographs strung together with no prejudice. There is one film that verges dangerously close to this corruption.

Personally, I don't think there is much more vulgar or self-indulgent than someone telling you about their dreams (even the narratively linear ones), and the same is true of film-makers. So the epitome of vulgarity, and the problematic area where dreams and films converge, and that corruption I mentioned is Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) - which is the cinematic equivalent of looking at someone else' bowel movements. The imagery is occasionally quite useful if you're looking for a good example of dreamscapes, but for the most part it is an exercise in Kurosawa making a film for an audience of one- himself.

The chief thing to remember is that both films and dreams are bound by the same visual vocabulary- as director Pier Paolo Pasolinistates, dreams carry messages using a common store of signs - but not by anything tangibly realistic: the only boundaries are those imposed by the imagination of whoever creates them. So in dreams, as Leonardo DiCaprio says in Inception - dreams appear to be totally normal while you're in them, its only when you wake up, and your mind is forced to ground itself in reality (so that you can function and understand) that you notice something was different or wrong.

Accordingly, early film theorists such as Ricciotto Canudo and Jean Epstein recognised the link between the two, arguing that films indeed have a dream-like quality.

Dream sequences are fundamentally presented differently on film, in line with the idea that they are counter to reality: unless used as a technique of misdirection, they are mostly suffused with a filmic quality that expresses difference, in order that the audience recognises that they are dream sequences and is able to suspend their sense of logic in order to pick up the messages that are inherently part of those sequences. It may seem like the most simple of examples, bu when The Wizard of Oz (1939) morphs from black and white in the real world to colour in the Oz sequences, immediately giving the audience a visual clue that Dorothy really isn't in Kansas anymore, it works as the perfect technical allegory for how film often presents dreams on screen.

Arguably the most famous example of the different visual filmic vocabulary used to depict dream sequences can be found in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). Pretty much all that needs to be said is watch...

So dreaming is often used to explore ideas that cannot be explained using the vernacular of realism, but it isn't always that safe. There is an entire genre of films dedicated to affecting the audience's sleep even beyond the viewing experience - the horror genre. Think about it - horror aficionados use nightmares specifically inspired by movie experiences, or consequent lack of sleep as a barometer for judging the success of a horror flick.

Films like A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) go one step further than normal horrors: by doing everything possible to attempt to recreate the sensation of being trapped within a recurrent nightmare. Sequences based upon fear, helplessness, impotence, and vulnerability run throughout the film; characters are repeatedly startled and disoriented by abrupt shifts from waking to dreaming and back again, and we are relentlessly assaulted by sudden, shocking bursts of violence and bloody physical mutilation.

The film's success depends upon the uncomfortable empathy that Wes Craven creates in his audience, and their ability to recognise the same feelings as they would suffer during a nightmare.

A Nightmare On Elm Street also leads the intriguing sub-genre devoted to the penetration of the dream state- films largely from sci-fi or horror like The Deadly Dream (1971), Dreamscape (1984), The Cell (2000), the entire Freddy Krueger franchise and now Inception (2010). Each forefronts the particularly uncomfortable idea that we can somehow be manipulated, even physically hurt and killed from within their dreams, and play on the supposedly incorruptible safe haven of sleep. That is their greatest asset for success.

My favourite use of a form of dreaming on screen is the idea of the waking dream as an escape of some sort- whereby a character either knowingly or otherwise, creates a false reality as a means to escape their own reality. Again there are two subsections- one is a psychosis-lead mechanism, where a usually deranged character creates a daydream that fulfills their psychotic urges (think American Psycho) or creates the circumstances for them to do so (Fight Club). While they don't immediately appear to be dream sequences, both films crucially feature a "waking up" sequence in which they realise that what has been really happening was shrouded in some way from them.

The end of American Psycho in particular plays this card perfectly, so you're never quite sure what has happened, making it one of the most affecting, and brilliant endings in modern cinema.

The other side of the coin is the idea of characters creating a waking dreamscape into which they escape from reality as a form of self-preservation rather than empowerment. The two chief examples I'm using are Where the Wild Things Are (2009), which is one of the best expressions of child-like daydreaming I think I've ever seen, and Shutter Island (2010) where DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels fabricates an intricate dream world to escape the horrors of his own life to truly great effect.

The last examples aren't alone in their presentation of waking dreams as an alternative to reality, but their tropic sibling is a different beast entirely. Drug use on film is often furnished with a "trip" sequence - the user's altered reality made visible to the passive audience- which is another form of dreaming. Films like Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), Taking Woodstock (2009), Gregg Araki's Kaboom! (2010) and even innocent little Dumbo (1941) feature drug-fuelled dream-sequences that are almost entirely alien to the otherwise pretty straight-up context.

There are two filmic conventions- cliches even- that employ dreams as tools that I simply cannot abide. Both are extreme cases of story-telling laziness, and both are rooted in the same place. The first is the horrifically poor "It Was All Just A Dream" reveal- made infamous by Dallas, thanks to that show's makers being unhappy with pretty much a year's worth of episodes and seeking some way to reset it to the good old days.

But they weren't the first, and they certainly weren't the last: every A Christmas Carol adaptation basically uses the device, the TV medical drama St Elsewhere did it to the most annoying effect, and The Wizard of Oz is one of the first and most famous cases. In fact, the technique dates back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) ninety years ago.

Sadly, the device is largely heralded by critics to be a giant fuck you to the audience: they have been invited to invest in a film for two or so hours only to be told nothing really mattered anyway. It is the infuriating extrapolation of the Unreliable Narrator, and has cursed every semi-surreal TV show and film to a lifetime of speculation as to whether it will all turn out to be a dream.

There are the occasional exceptions of course, when the convention works - The Wizard of Oz may well be the root of too many subsequent copy-cat evils, but it still works, especially thanks to the revelation that all of Dorothy's fellow characters in Oz are "played by" real members of her community. The success is also down to the explanation of the dream - Oz is presented as the altered reality which manifests itself as a result of physical trauma; it is not only one of the first Dream Reveals, it is also one of the first to use a dream sequence as an escape mechanism.

And then there's Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) in which a university criminology professor denies that murder can be accidental and then falls foul of circumstances that force him to actually commit one. The film's grand reveal is that the murder happened in a dream, and yet the movie remains deeply involving, and Lang's misdirection is so complete that the viewer's experience mimics that of the protagonist, as if waking from a dream.

The second convention is the "Or Was It A Dream?" trope.

This can happen after the first major reveal in the plot- think The Matrix's (1999) rabbit hole conundrum- or it can happen right at the end of a film, like in Flight of The Navigator (1986) and The Polar Express (2004). Basically we are lead to believe the main character has just dreamed the entire events of the film, only to be awe-struck by the revelation that it was all in fact real. It's a cinematic double bluff usually hinged on some inanimate object that crosses the line from dream to reality, "proving" to the character, and us, that although they have just woken up back in bed (or similar) they didn't just dream it up. This is equally annoying, though it does at least retain an element of magic which I suppose is mildly endearing. The one positive thing about the end of Lost was that it wasn't done either of these ways.

So, there you have it, the first stage of our guide to Dreams on Film. Please do let us know what you think, as always comments are actively encouraged.

Want to write about A Nightmare On Elm Street, Wes Craven, The-Cabinet-of-Dr.-Caligari, Alfred Hitchcock, The Matrix, Lost, Leonardo-DiCaprio, A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, Fight Club, Terry-Gilliam, shutter-island, Where the Wild Things Are, Inception, Spellbound, Last Year at Marienbad, Requiem for a Dream, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, Tarsem Singh, The Fall, Akira Kurosawa, Dreams, Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Wizard Of Oz, Deadly Dream, Dreamscape, The Cell, American Psycho, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Taking Woodstock, Dumbo, Flight of the Navigator and Kaboom? Get started below...

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