Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dreamlike Films 1 - Definitions and Exclusions

I don't know about ya'll, but I'm super-excited for Inception. I love Christopher Nolan's piercing intelligence and twisted imagination, and I'm a fan of the cast, an ensemble of new-millennium noir superstars. Also, I've been thinking about the oneiric experience and how it's been captured, and Nolan's film, which appears to be an art-deco dreamlike noir film, is a perfect focal point for these ruminations. So in homage and preparation, I'm going to dedicate a few blog entries to dreamlike films.

The experience of dreaming is a very elusive one to capture and describe. Superficially, you might say that in dreams, "weird stuff happens", and this is certainly true. However, as far back as prehistory remembers, we've known there's a deeper significance to those nighttime non-sequitors. Skipping past Freud and his psychosexual descriptions, we find Jung, telling us that dreams have a language comparable to poetry, able to be deciphered and interpreted. It's worth submitting: studies have shown that this language is often expressing suppressed mental content, disgorged by the mind in its rejuvinative semi-aware sleeping state.

More recently, there have been a bunch of studies of dream content. They've discovered that the dominant images in dreams, across ages and cultures, include being chased, falling, and "loss of close persons." As these images suggest, anxiety is the most common emotional content of dreams. Though it hasn't been covered in the studies I read, it seems to me that these reports are probably strongly affected by another factor, the relationship between dream and memory... dreams are infamously hard to remember, and any recollection of images or emotions from dreams are bound to be blunted by forgetfulness.

Synthesizing this research with my own personal experience of dreams, I think I've worked out some characteristics that skillful directors use to make their films feel dreamlike. None of these are necessary or sufficient conditions... they all just contribute to the effect I'm talking about.

1. HEIGHTENED REALITY - In dreams, perceptions drawn from daily life are being filtered and reorganized, so anything that appears tends to be imbued with enhanced significance. Unnecessary details, textures, and contexts are filtered out. Some filmmakers (Malick?) do this with framing and editing; others (Lynch?) do it with colors and production design.

2. EMOTIONAL CLOUDING - For those who have scary-ass nightmares, it may sound unlikely, but at least in my experience, the events in dreams tend to be shrouded in an emotional haze, allowing only simplified, blunted emotional reactions to the events being visualized. The emotion is almost always there, but is rarely complex -- positive emotions tend to be reduced to a feeling of well-being, negative ones tend to manifest as general discomfort. Even the terrifying climaxes of nightmares (the primary exception to this rule) tend to be the culminations of much more gradual build-ups of anxiety. Consequently, the best dreamlike films have a minimum of musical cues and jump-scares, allowing narratives to flow evenly, rather than twisting and rupturing as they move along.

3. DREAM LOGIC - This is the one that people tend to fixate on; I think it's actually the least important of the four characteristics here. Still, it's definitely worth noting: in dreams, conventional continuity and cause-and-effect logic tends to be severely undermined, logic being replaced by more subtle associations and intuitions. This results in locations blending into one another, people changing identities, and inexplicable turns of events. David Lynch is probably the true master of this technique; other, more rational writers and directors can ruin a good "dream" film by leaning too much on logic, or by rejecting it too adamantly, when they attempt to reproduce the voice of the subconscious.

4. IMMERSION - This is simply to say that within the dream world, reality is never questioned, even if it's absolutely distorted, illogical, or discontinuous. Obviously lucid dreamers are the exception to this. The phenomenon is closely related to #2 above, emotional blunting; the shock and confusion that would normally result in skepticism never triggers.

Feel free to revisit this entry if you keep reading this little series. When I discuss the next few films I'm planning to talk about, I'll return to these three aspects. In the meantime, I'm going to touch on a few films that have made an explicit attempt to evoke a dream-state, but that, in my humble opinion, didn't really hit the mark (although some of them were great films).

1. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006) - a fun, wild anime that's supposedly about a character who can flit in and out of dreams... but there's such an overflowing abundance of intentional strangeness, it overwhelms the fluid, intuitive feeling that we usually get in dreams. Dreams tend to feel familiar, even when things are surreal or amiss. Maybe this is what dreams look like in Japan?

For the record, Satoshi Kon's earlier film, Perfect Blue (1998), is a brilliant example of a dreamlike film. The general sense of interconnected events, the growing anxiety and uncertainty, the fluidness of identity, and the murder and chase themes that provide the film's undercurrent -- this was a fantastic nightmare film, among the best dreamlike films in history.

2. The Cell (Tarsem Singh, 2000) - The Cell, while a gorgeous and engrossing film, has the same problem as Paprika. There's too much detail, too many intentionally bizarre and ultimately irrelevant details, and a general sense of alienation from the inner world of the dream. If my dreams were that vivid, I would definitely stop eating pizza before bed. Incidentally, again, I think Tarsem's later film, The Fall, is more dreamlike, because the reality of the main character's narrative world is more focused, more archetypal, and less intrusively shocking.

3. Waking Life (Richard Linklatter, 2001) - Waking Life was intended to take place inside an extended lucid dream. The director's decision to make the whole film in rotoscoped animation may have been to divorce it from the messy realism of normal film photography; however, in my opinion, it backfired: the world isn't immersive (see #4, above) because the animation style looks two-dimensional, calling our attention to its materiality and artificiality.

Consider the above an explanation as to why I won't be discussing any of those films much in the next few posts. Here's a list of the work I will be discussing. Hopefully it's interesting reading.

1. Terrence Malick - a storyteller whose epic historical tales evoke the sense of drifting reconstructed memory common to dreaming.

2. David Lynch - a classic weaver of dreamlike tales, Lynch is considered cryptic because he operates in an oneiric space.

3. Warner Herzog - I discuss this guy a lot, but there's something about his earlier narrative films that feels both intensely human and totally disconnected from reality.

Over the next few days I'll discuss oneiric evocation in the works of these filmmakers, and sometime next week I'll include something on Inception, which I'm very excited about. For more credible information on the experience of dreaming, check out these sources:

Dream Rebound: The Return of Supressed Thoughts in Dreams

Like a Dream: A Critical History of the Oneiric Metaphor in Film Theory
The Wikipedia article on Dreaming
The Wikipedia article on dreaming in film theory

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