Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Oneiric Break: Dream structures in four major films

I've sensed a recurring structure in a range of highly-acclaimed films, a lot like the self-destructive female archetype I wrote about a while ago. In this case, I've noticed it repeated in four films, all with that sort of "high-concept mainstream" status.  There's an extremely high chance that you've seen at least one, and maybe two or three, of the ones where I've discovered it.

Instead of trying to weave all the criticism together, which I'm sure would result in a big discursive mishmash, I'm going to describe the template right out front, and then describe how each movie fits into it.  Like most of these common structures, it's surprisingly elaborate and surprisingly consistent, once you know what essential elements to look for.

This structure always seem to occur when there's a male protagonist.  This male's sexual desire, somehow unfulfilled, is a key narrative feature; this male is generally pursuing an agenda of desire, mixing sexual, sensual, and romantic desire.  As the story develops, this manifests as pursuit of a particular female.

In the course of the story, there's an initial sense that this protagonist is in the real world (just an assumption of cinema in general, really), but in short order, this reality always gives way to a dream-world.  Sometimes this happens just through implication, other times the transition is quite explicit.  Generally, this dream-world is trance-like and vaguely hallucinatory -- sometimes through subtle touches of surrealism, sometimes in dramatic and disturbing ways.  However, at first, it's a peaceful dream, a dream of comfort and routine.

However, in the climactic moments of the story arc, this dream world becomes a nightmare, manifested as bizarre and sinister disturbances in the surrounding order. This nightmare world is generally unlocked by that obsessive sexual desire -- sometimes right at the moment of its fulfillment.

From here on out, I'll call this moment the "oneiric break" -- when a good dream suddenly turns into a horrible nightmare.

The rest of the plot is the protagonist trying to restore order to this nightmarish world, often through death, either literal or symbolic.

Here are the four test cases. Please let me know if you can think of others!  The first two are films that make the "dream" themes explicit, and then fill into the formula from there.  Also, warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

1. Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe)

Crowe's unexpectedly cerebral Cruise-vehicle was loose and jumbled... much to the chagrin of his usual fan base, but to the delight of cinematic masochists like myself.  As with many of these, the line between real-world and dream-world is blurry right from the start, as David Aames' self-indulgent playboy lifestyle almost seems like a good dream from the first moment -- complete with references to paintings and echoes of pop songs.

This is the best initial test case, because at the end of the film, Tech Support basically lays out the formula.  The dream officially started when Sofia picked up David from the sidewalk after a humiliating bender.  The oneiric break occurs when David flashes back to his damaged face when looking into a mirror, and its nightmarishness is consummated when Sofia is suddenly replaced by Julianna.  According to Tech Support, this break occurs because of a malfunction in the machine, but according to Dr. McCabe, it might be the result of David's guilt over how he treated Julianna (was it the neglect, or the sexual desire? Or both?)  Finally, Vanilla Sky ends with a return to the real world, via a symbolic death: the fall from the top of the skyscraper.

Vanilla Sky is interesting in that there are TWO objects of desire: Sofia is the ideal, the Madonna, a paragon of love and support and intimacy; Julianna is the whore, a seething sexual cauldron of possessiveness and jealousy.  This variation on the basic pattern will be repeated in one of the other films.

Also, note the plastic surgery theme, which will be repeated later.

2. Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

Again, in Brazil, the "dream" theme is very explicit.  Also, as in Vanilla Sky, the initial "real world" and the parallel dream world hardly vary at all in terms of realism; Sam Lowry's dreams of a monolithic concrete city and an evil samurai, aided by a team of tormented monsters, isn't much more out-there than the clockwork bureaucracy he lives in, the whole of which operates as a sort of Benny Hill Rube Goldberg machine from hell.

If you interpret the whole film as a dream, the oneiric break seems to come when Sam and Jill are finally consummating their romantic interest.  This is when the fulfillment of forbidden love becomes the nightmare of incarceration and torture, and eventually, this implied nightmare of torture gives way to the explicit nightmare of Oedipal confusion and madness.

Three additional interesting notes about Brazil: first, it's named after a song, which will occur in one other movie in this group; this song is used to signal the final, empty disconnect as Sam regresses into a permanent dream-state.  Second, as with Vanilla Sky, the film includes a fascination with deformation and plastic surgery.  Third, there's a "mask" theme in Brazil, though it's not as developed as the mask motifs in Vanilla Sky and a later film.

The next two cases aren't explicitly "dream" films, but when you watch them, it's pretty clear that this is shit that would only happen in a confused person's head while they're asleep.  Plus, the "dream" interpretation of each of these films is widespread in criticism and reviews.

3. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)

In terms of this structure, Blue Velvet is the loosest of the four films.  There's clearly a mixture of hazy dream and lucid nightmare, but the boundaries between them are porous.  Even so, the themes are the same: Jeffrey occupies a sort of idyllic suburban world, ruled by convention and idealism and hope for his future. As the story progresses, this lazy fantasy is fractured by Jeffrey's insatiable curiousity, which attaches to the Ear, and by his unfulfilled desire, which draws him to Dorothy.  This leads him into the strange, nightmarish world of Frank Booth.

The Frank/Dorothy lounge music seems to be an essential signal that an oneiric break is taking place -- that we've been lured by voyeurism and curiousity into a nightmare world dominated by Frank's psyche.  The first lounge-music scene occurs just before Jeffrey first enters Dorothy's apartment; the second one occurs before Jeffrey decides to follow Frank to the saw mill; another occurs in Ben's house, and yet another occurs as Jeffrey is being beaten.

Two of the other key themes are repeated.  First, the object of desire is split into an idyllic Madonna figure (Sandy) and a fallen female figure (Dorothy). Second, the film is named after a song -- and music takes on a pivotal thematic significance.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick's last film is both brilliant and divisive, elliptical, enigmatic, and among his less goal-oriented endeavors. Whether it's really a dream film is up for debate, but I know which side I come down on: I think the film is mostly taking place in Bill's head while he's asleep, right after he and Alice smoke up and have a fight. The fact that a highly sexual post-mortem encounter immediately follows is a good indication: he is entering the underworld of his psyche, and he's going to be working through his subconscious desires and anxieties for the rest of the film.

And indeed, for a little while, it's all fantasy-fulfillment: an intimate moment with a prostitute, a jazz club, a mysterious party, the intrigue of an orgiastic cult out in the wilderness.  The intensity escalates until Bill reaches the inner chamber of the party.

The oneiric break is pretty obvious in this film: it comes when Bill is exposed to the scrutiny and judgment of the cult leaders. From this point on, he continually finds himself brushing up against death, guilt, and retribution.  The dream of fulfillment and pleasure has given way to a nightmare of anxiety and paranoia.

Bill eventually arrives home to find his mask from the party lying on his pillow. According to my reading, this discovery represents Bill waking up from his extended dream/nightmare.  The mask is actually Bill's sleeping face on the pillow beside his wife, and at this moment in the narrative arc, he is finally called to return to the real world.

Note that, though Eyes Wide Shut isn't named after a song, music takes on a vast, important symbolic role. Not least of all, the pianist Nick Nightingale acts as Bill's access point to the dream-world's inner sanctum.

Note, also, the theme of unmasking as a dream transition.  This blatantly echoes the dream transitions in Vanilla Sky.

So yes, there are a TON of shared themes, motifs, echoes, and structural parallels between these four films. It's hard to pinpoint any particular statement or position held by all of them; however, the structure itself might indicate some cultural anxities and obsessions that are being worked out.  The patterns are just too clear and intense to be dismissed as coincidence.

As a supplement, I've mapped out all these common themes and motifs.  Check out the chart below.  Fascinating stuff.


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