The Cinema of Dreams

In my World Cinema class we’ve been studying Russian film from the 1920s, specifically Russian montage. Reading the essays of Eisenstein and Vertov started me thinking (as I am apt to do) and I began to wonder about my own theory of film. Obviously I’m not a very experienced filmmaker, but I dabble, and any amount of filmmaking demands thought and therefore theory.

I’m not sure if I can effectively lay out my manifesto, if you can call it that. It might be more aptly described as a rough draft, or even just a hodgepodge of ideas. In the future I may be so pretentious as to write a paper on these thoughts, but for now I will sum them up here.

Many filmmakers and critics have noted that, through its unique use of editing, lighting, closeup, and frame, that film offers a greater element of fantasy than other mediums like theater and painting, or even writing. To paraphrase Bálazs: the film, as a collection of images, is composed of the real. Only the components of making a scene before filming, coupled with the act of editing make film an art. When images are watched on a scree, moving in quick succession, we accept them as they are. The painting is seen as a still, unchanging, its reality contained within a frame, examined fro the outside. The written form is taken one word at a time, analyzed, compartmentalized from word, to sentence, paragraph, chapter and volume. Theater is seen in acts, conforming to the stage. Where the process of editing manipulates time and space, melding individual shots and frames into one scene, the theater must remain separated from the viewer by the space of the stage.

This is not to detract from other mediums, but rather to point out that film has a unique form – and this form must be utilized. Film’s ability to manipulate space and time while maintaining continuity within the mind of the viewer presents it a unique opportunity in the realm of the fantastic. That is, when the viewer sees the unreal in a film – whether it be a monster, an impossible action sequence, or a remarkable location – it is accepted as reality. But when the film ends, the mind must reject the fantastic that was witnessed only moments before. This gives rise to what I call the tragedy of the dream, and, conversely, the tragedy of the nightmare.

In a dream (a good one at least), we feel we are part of the fantastic. The unreal usurps the real through the use of familiar images that are mixed and matched in unusual and taboo ways. When we awake the true reality comes into conflict with the dream reality. We feel a sense of tragedy upon realizing that the fantasy we experienced is at odds with our reality. This is the tragedy of the dream.

In a nightmare a similar process is at work, but the tragedy is reversed. When we awake from a nightmare we feel relief that the reality of the dream is at odds with our own reality, but we then experience tragedy when we see that our reality contains vestiges of the nightmare. If I awake from a nightmare where I am chased down an endless, dark hallway, I shall reasonably  experience fear when I encounter a dark hallway in real life.

A similar process occurs when we are in the movies. When we see a movie that we enjoy we are drawn into its reality. If we envy that reality we feel the tragedy of the dream when the movie ends. We attempt to rebuild and reenact the fantasy within our own world. If we fear the world of the film we experience the tragedy of the nightmare, and we seek to remove the elements of the fantasy that exist in our reality.

This is film’s greatest power, and its greatest danger. To utilize the tragedy of the dream and the tragedy of the nightmare allows us to rewrite our reality and work towards common goals. But it also has the chance to be abused, to create propaganda and turn us against our own world. Worse yet, there is a growing trend in film to make special effects as “real” as possible – moving closer and closer towards virtual reality. If this trend continues we risk erasing the tragedy, and embracing fantasy wholeheartedly as reality itself. We must embrace fantasy for what it is. We must embrace the tragedy it provides us. Films cannot move towards reality in good conscience.

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