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The Dream Life | The Nation

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The Dream Life

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Films have often been compared to dreams. Indeed, there is something dreamlike about those images moving before us as we sit still in the dark of a movie theater. Hollywood is called the "dream factory," and dreams have inspired avant-garde filmmakers, too. The great Surrealist Luis Buñuel, for example, made his first film, Un Chien andalou (1929), from a screenplay that he and another young Spaniard in Paris, Salvador Dalí, derived from their dreams. No one who has seen this startling dream-film can forget its opening. A man sharpens a razor, goes out onto a balcony and looks up at the full moon as a thin cloud slices across it, at which point the eye of a woman who has appeared out of nowhere is sliced with the razor. Even if this is occurring in the man's imagination, it is there on the screen with so vivid a quality of physical reality that we recoil in shock, as if our own eyes were under attack. To this combination of the associatively mental (the slit moon leading to the slit eye) and the arrestingly physical (the slit eye with the jelly bleeding out), Un Chien andalou owes its singular ability to evoke the experience of a dream.

About the Author

Gilberto Perez
Gilberto Perez, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (...

Colin McGinn's new book on the movies doesn't just say that they draw inspiration from dreams, or that they have a dreamlike effect on the audience, or even that, as Buñuel thought, they are the medium best suited to imitate the workings of the dreaming mind. McGinn, who dealt with dreams and other mental images in his recent Mindsight, asserts in The Power of Movies that necessarily, not through the talent or inclination of their makers but by the intrinsic character of their medium, films are like dreams. A philosopher of the analytic school, which aspires to the scientific, he puts forward the analogy between watching a film and having a dream as a sweeping proposition, tantamount to a law of nature, and he aims to render "the points of analogy...precise and illuminating, not mere vague metaphors." He pushes the analogy to the limit, where the images on the screen lose all bodily mooring and become sheer figments of our imagination, indistinguishable from the images we dream. No one else has held so single-mindedly to the notion that film is a medium of mind.

Some may argue that, unlike dreams, films seem real, to which McGinn has a clever reply: Dreams seem real too, while we are dreaming them, even if not when we recollect them afterward. But surely neither dreams nor films affect us in exactly the same way as reality. Saying that they both seem "real" to us just means that in both cases we're caught up in illusion, and there are different degrees and different kinds of illusion, which must be sorted out in order to understand more accurately the points of similarity between films and dreams--and also the points of divergence. McGinn dismisses Surrealism as too unreal in its representation of dreams, but the phony dream scenes designed by Dalí for Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) are the sole example he gives. He doesn't mention, perhaps hasn't seen--mass-audience movies define the medium for him--Un Chien andalou, whose blend of striking reality and disconcerting unreality rings true to what having a dream feels like.

Throughout his book McGinn stays at the level of speculation and seldom gets down to concrete examples. He admits he has a poor memory for movies, but he doesn't consider this a deficiency on his part. Rather, he takes his own forgetfulness to be a general condition and offers it as evidence that films are like dreams, which we also tend to forget. But is our memory for films actually worse than our memory for novels, plays or paintings? In my own case it is not, and in my acquaintance some people have (if you'll pardon the expression) a photographic memory for movies. The not uncommon belief that we forget films arose in the days before videotapes and DVDs, when we could pull any book down from the shelf but had to rely on the memory of the last time we saw a movie.

In Feeling and Form (1953) the aesthetician Susanne Langer sketched a theory of film in analogy to dreams. According to Langer, literature recounts the past, in the mode of memory; drama is oriented toward the future, what happens next, what is to come, in the mode of destiny; and film inhabits an everlasting now, "a virtual present, an order of direct apparition," in the dream mode:

The most noteworthy formal characteristic of dream is that the dreamer is always at the center of it. Places shift, persons act and speak, or change or fade.... But the dreamer is always "there".... This aesthetic peculiarity, this relation to things perceived, characterizes the dream mode: it is this that the moving picture takes over, and whereby it creates a virtual present. In its relation to the images, actions, events, that constitute the story, the camera is in the place of the dreamer.
 But the camera is not a dreamer. We are usually agents in a dream. The camera...is not itself in the picture. It is the mind's eye and nothing more. Neither is the picture...likely to be dreamlike in its structure.

For Langer the film-dream analogy holds only with respect to the camera, which takes the place of the mind's eye, and not when it comes to the actors in the picture or the story they enact. McGinn, on the other hand, wants the analogy to hold both for the camera and for everything in the picture, the actors in particular.

He maintains that the film image, being made of light, is disburdened of matter and invested with mind. He quotes the psychologist, philosopher and pioneering film theorist Hugo Munsterberg, who saw film as expressing "the action of the mind as against the mere action of the body" and the camera as an agency "by which space and time are overcome and attention, memory, imagination, and emotion are impressed on the bodily world." But if for Munsterberg film is a medium of mind, it is nevertheless mind engaged with matter, with a bodily world represented on the screen; like Langer, he understands the camera as the mind's eye encountering that world. For McGinn, though, the human body that appears on the screen is "the dematerialized body...the kind of body we associate with the idea of ghosts and angels, phantoms of one kind or another, spectral presences in human form. This is the idea of the human body with the material stuffing taken out of it, transformed into something impalpable."

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