On Film and the Experience of Dreams, part 1
Part 2 here.
1. Above, a copy of Bruce Conner’s Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1976). If you’ve never seen this short film before, and even if you have, I invite you to watch it right now before you read any further. Once in a while it pays to remember that one can never fully account for a film textually. Like hearing live music, attending a play, or exploring a work of architecture, film is an experience.
2. As soon as you’ve finished watching the film, take a moment to recall the images you saw. If you’re able to write them down, make a list. Or, describe the film as you might describe it to a friend who had never seen it. Be as specific as you can. Recall as fully as you are able.
3. Now, with your list of images in hand, rewatch Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and compare the images as you remembered them to the images on screen. No doubt, you forgot some of the images you saw. This is to be expected, since perception is subtractive. Adding a further complication to memory, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland is a non-narrative film; and without a narrative schema on which to hang the images, it was likely difficult to recall many of them. The theoretical traditions of Structuralism and semiotics suggest that just as it may be impossible to think about concepts without language, it may also be difficult to think about series of events or images apart from some sort of narrative coding or familiar causal structure. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland disorients us (albeit quite pleasantly) because it forces us to improvise a new system for remembering, suited only to this film, while we’re watching it. But there’s a further curious aspect to watching Conner’s film. If you’re like most people, your memory list probably includes an image or two which does not correspond to any image in Conner’s film. As your mind worked to create a model of the filmic reality of Take the 5:10 to Dreamland – which is to say, a method by which to connect and arrange the images in it – you probably invented some images to make that model more consistent. Memory’s “secondary revision” of the film’s images resembles the Freudian secondary revision by which the dreamer, upon waking, mis-remembers (or re-remembers) the images of the dream.
4. If we accept the implicit premise that all films are dreams (more on this in a moment), then Take the 5:10 to Dreamland is more dream than most films. Perhaps the point of it is to provide us a space in which to absorb images which have been purposely delinked so that we will productively misremember them. Perhaps the point, more succinctly stated, is to give us the waking experience of a dream. Studying the montage of Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, Fil Ieropoulos argues that Conner proves that it is “possible to combine images from very different sources and context into something that is not conceptually specific, but synaesthetically ‘feels’ connected and self-sufficient.” This is certainly true, but it’s not enough to simply argue that the images cohere because Conner has subjected them to a formal unifying procedure. For the most part, he hasn’t (though Patrick Gleeson’s music and a number of dissolves do help to iron out the fragmentation). One must recognize that the audience plays a crucial role in connecting the images as well. But more acutely than in most films, whatever wholeness the viewer takes away from Take the 5:10 to Dreamland is a truly personal kind of wholeness which could only be created through elision and secondary revision. Where many films create meaning intra-textually by narratively or symbolically linking image to image, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland creates meaning extra-textually in the quiet collision of film, audience, and memory. The movie gives itself to the audience as a dream, not fully meaningful in itself. Its meaning reveals itself only when the audience attempts to piece together what they saw and finds that everyone saw something different. As in film, so in dream, waking consciousness, and memory: the mind does not simply receive images; it creates them.
5. Thus, appreciating Conner’s film requires a deeper understanding of the similarities between the structures of cinema, of dream, of memory, and of waking consciousness. In a brief passage locked away at the very back of her 1953 book Feeling and Form, philosopher Susanne K. Langer became the first thinker to explore the metaphysical link between film and dreams. Langer begins her appendix on film with the following remark: “For a few decades [cinema] seemed like nothing more than a new technical device in the sphere of drama, a new way of preserving and retailing dramatic performances.” In addition to her wise linkage of film to capital, she also links it to memory – to the human desire to preserve the ephemeral – just as Bazin had done less than a decade before. From there, she goes on to make a number of observations on cinema which may now seem quaint (her surprise at the specificity of camera movement, her antiquated distinction between drama and narrative), but her trailblazing declarations on the spectator’s role in creating the experience of cinema still hold up.
6. Langer writes, “Cinema is ‘like’ dream in the mode of its presentation: It creates a virtual present, an order of direct apparition. That is the mode of the dream” (p. 412). The key notion here is that of directness: whereas many other arts engage faculties of interpretation to generate the world of the story (in a painting, we must imagine sound and time; in a novel, we must imagine all senses), cinema presents the world nearly-entire, with sights and sounds to be seen and heard from any angle or distance which the story requires, as well as an undulating flow of time to scoop us up and sweep us along. The only thing that remains for the spectator to do is to combine these percepts into an experience. Langer continues, “Eisenstein believed that the beholder of a film was somewhat specially called on to use his own imagination, to create his own experience of the story. Here we have, I think, an indication of the powerful illusion the film makes not of things going on, but of the dimension in which they go on—a virtual creative imagination; for [cinema] seems one’s own creation, direct visionary experience, a ‘dreamt reality’” (p. 414). Langer also writes that, “Like dream, [cinema] enthralls and commingles all senses” (p. 414). This, too, is a prescient observation, for it recognizes the way in which the apparatus of cinema (and here I mean the system by which the machine represents and the mind creatively re-represents) creates a whole pattern of reality rather than merely a series of disjointed images.
7. Consider a classic koan from Zen Buddhism, recorded as Case 29 in the Mumonkan (aka, The Gateless Gate) . It reads, “The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks were having an argument about it. One said, ‘The flag is moving.’ The other said, ‘The wind is moving.’ They argued back and forth but could not reach the truth. The sixth patriarch said, ‘It is not the wind that moves. It is not the flag that moves. It is your mind that moves.’ The two monks were struck with awe.”
8. It’s worth debating whether the statement “the mind moves” applies to a literal flag or not (and indeed, we’ll indirectly take up this question again in part two when we get to Deleuze), but regardless, the statement “the mind moves” certainly does apply to cinema: From stillness (twenty-four immobile frames every second), cinema tricks our eye and our mind into perceiving movement; from two dimensions cinema confers an impression of three; from fragments of location and motion it represents a whole world: an impression of a diegesis; and from a fabula it prompts the viewer to construct an unseen syuzhet. The human mind builds all this up from the film; none of it is really there (though, of course, it may have really been encoded there by the filmmakers). And so meaning in cinema (and, to be sure, literature and many other arts) is produced creatively by the viewer for the viewer. Put another way, the majority of the cinematic event does not occur on screen. It happens in our minds.
9. One of the only rightly-celebrated moments in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception was the scene in which Cobb took Ariadne to a Paris café then asked her to remember how she got there. When she can’t remember, Cobb asks her to consider why she didn’t consider the gap in her memory strange until Cobb mentioned it. The reason Ariadne doesn’t remember is because she’s asleep and the dream began at the café in medias res. But hopefully most viewers realized that their experience in the movie theater mirrors Ariadne’s: mainstream editing elides time just as dreams elide time. We ignored the missing time just as Ariadne did, and for the same reason. Inception uses cinema’s language to quietly reveal its similarities to dream language, all the while confirming Ariadne as the audience’s in-film surrogate (our guide to the labyrinth) by tricking us the same way she was tricked.
10. Thirty years later in his Film and the Dream Screen, Robert Eberwein took such claims one step further. “Even though we can continue to recall the sense of unity, and the feeling that what we saw seemed very real to us during the experience of viewing,” he argues, “we have trouble remembering various events and details in the narrative.” Here he repeats Langer’s claim about the film world and dream world seeming equally to be an extension of the perceiving self before he proceeds to argue something more important for our present purpose about cinema, dream, and memory: “When we attempt to recall, we find ourselves positioning events and characters in a space that no longer exists. To revive that space requires more than a mere act of memory; it demands an act of the imagination, an endeavor that involves us inevitably as creators of the scene we wish to recapture” (Eberwein: Film and the Dream Screen, p. 5, emphasis added). Thus, to remember both cinema and dream is to re-create it mentally. Our brains do not store images neutrally. Rather, they sort and construct models of the images we see, crucially altering those images beginning the moment they enter our eyes.
More to come in part 2.