The Dream Life

The Dream Life

In The Power of Movies, Colin McGinn asserts that films are the medium best suited to imitate the workings of the dreaming mind.


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.

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.”

Of Fred Astaire, McGinn observes:

Only a dematerialized body could treat space and gravity as he so effortlessly does. In a certain sense, then, dance is the essence of cinema–the most visible assertion of its ability to transform the human body. When Astaire starts to move, he releases the potential of the medium–he becomes what the image suggests that he might be, a shimmering incorporeality.

McGinn is right to note the affinity between film and dance. But dance is not about incorporeality. It is very much an art of the body, even, or especially, as airy and nimble a body as Astaire’s. Our response to dance depends on our sense of the body performing it, no less subject to gravity than our own bodies and yet capable of moving with transcendent grace. Astaire’s dance numbers eschew the kind of fanciful editing or camera work that would have interfered with our appreciation of the dancer’s body and its movement in actual space.

McGinn isn’t wrong about the ghostliness of the film image. His error is to disregard its materiality. (He would have been wise to consider the mixture of the mental and the bodily in Un Chien andalou.) Screen presence, that quality all movie stars possess, each in his or her distinctive way–Astaire as well as John Wayne, Isabelle Huppert or Naomi Watts in the latter-day surreal Mulholland Drive, as well as Greta Garbo–clearly has to do with the camera’s rendering of their bodies. The film image is made of light, true, but light directly received by the camera from the body of things, which confers on the impalpable image a material palpability, a documentary stamp. The French film critic and theorist André Bazin described the photographic image as a “tracing…[an] impression in light…a mold. As such it carries with it more than mere resemblance, namely a kind of identity.” McGinn treats Bazin as a naïve realist who thought that the photographic image was identical to the object depicted. But Bazin didn’t mean that the camera exactly reproduces the object (“mere resemblance”). What he meant was that, by virtue of its direct connection with the object, the photographic image captures something of the object itself (“a kind of identity”). It is McGinn who is being naïve, who misses the way film images peculiarly combine the ghostly and the material, and how a movie star is somehow both a shimmering incorporeality and a bodily presence.

The dualism posited by Descartes, the split between mind and body, with the mind as “what the person essentially is,” is in McGinn’s view not “just the fantasy of an eccentric philosopher” but “the way people naturally think…we are instinctive dualists.” It is in any case the way McGinn thinks, and he imputes it to the movies: “When we watch a movie, seeing those immaterial images dance before us, we are tacitly subscribing to the Cartesian conception of the person…as an immaterial entity.” Bazin and others have argued that, unlike theater, which sets up the stage as a realm apart from nature, cinema puts human beings on the same plane as the rest of nature. But McGinn insists that movies remove us from the physical world, and he’s glad of it:

The sheer inertness of matter–its essential mindlessness–can seem repulsive in itself. We want to overcome the alienation we naturally feel from our own bodies…. We don’t want to feel that we are made of the same stuff as the objects around us…. Movies offer us a transformed reality in which the body is stripped of its material bonds and becomes united with our essential nature as centers of consciousness.

McGinn’s dualism is apparent in his notion that an actor “pretends that someone else’s mind is in her body. She doesn’t pretend that her body is someone else’s…since it so obviously is her body.” But it is through the body–including of course the face and the voice–that we gain access to the mind. The actor acts with her body, and to pretend that her mind is someone else’s she must pretend that her body is someone else’s, too. The character an actor plays is a fiction, someone who has neither a real mind nor a real body, and the actor’s job is to lend that fiction both a body and a mind.

There is another form of dualism McGinn espouses. Besides dividing the mind from the body, he divides reason from emotion, the “higher” mental faculties from what he calls the “base self.” “Think Jekyll and Hyde,” he explains, forgetting that the moral of the story of Jekyll and Hyde is that the split is fatal. In movies as in dreams, he believes, “the higher mental faculties are not in play or are in abeyance,” and the base self takes over, “childlike, instinct-driven, and sensation-fixated.” Wittgenstein liked to go to the movies, McGinn tells us, and assumes that the lowly movies could only have served Wittgenstein as a relief from the rigors of the higher mind: “I experience movies in just this way myself. There is nothing better after a hard day of philosophical thinking and writing than a ‘mindless’ movie.” We don’t know what Wittgenstein got from the movies, but other philosophers–Stanley Cavell, Gilles Deleuze, George Wilson–have found them to be a vehicle for thought, an incitement to it, rather than an escape. And as for the supposed dormancy of reason in dreams, it’s worth recalling that a dream about a ring of serpents revealed to the chemist Kekule the structure of the benzene molecule.

Comedy poses a problem for McGinn’s dream theory of film. Dreams are not funny. Even when they are happy, they have no sense of humor. Perhaps this is because we are always at their center, and comedy requires a certain distance. We may awaken from a dream and find it funny, as McGinn points out; but by then we have gained distance from the dream. And distance, whether comic or aesthetic, is not something his theory allows us when watching a film. His whole emphasis is on the affective power of movies, their capacity for manipulating our feelings, for emotion writ large on the screen: “Both film and dream serve, not just to represent and express emotion, but to open the emotional valves–to let emotion flow freely.” His theory fails with comedy and applies better to melodrama, which theater critic Eric Bentley has characterized as “the naturalism of the dream life.”

Even with melodrama, though, McGinn runs into trouble. What a film makes us feel, he says, is what the characters are feeling: “It is as if we are seeing the emotions of the characters, so entwined are the images and the feelings.” But drama enacts conflict, and to be effective it must be able to imagine the different sides of a conflict. Imbued with feeling though the images may be, a film portrays a number of characters who are not all feeling the same thing–unlike in a dream, which represents the emotions, the imagination, of just one person. That’s what Langer meant when she said that “the camera is not a dreamer”: It is not a character in the picture, nor is it usually identified with the feelings and perceptions of just one character in the picture. The self-centeredness of dreams, for Langer their most distinctive property, is puzzling to McGinn. He comes up with the interesting idea that it “helps in generating a certain attitude that defines our relationship to the screen…the attitude of identification.” Our identification with the camera as the mind’s eye is the basis of Langer’s dream mode, but for McGinn it is our identification with a character on the screen

that really bears the imprint of the dream: you may not be literally up on the screen yourself, but you identify with the people who are. This identification may be monogamous or promiscuous: you may pick a single character and stick with him throughout the film…or you may shift your allegiance back and forth, now choosing this person, now that. Whatever you do, there is always someone on the screen whose place you are imaginatively occupying.

McGinn seems to think that it’s entirely up to you which character in a film you identify with, that you stay with one character or switch from one to another according to your own monogamous or promiscuous disposition, that it’s not anything the film does but your own affinity with a character you happen to like that brings on your identification. “When I watch Brief Encounter (probably my favorite film),” he writes, “I feel a strong sense of identification with the female lead, Laura, played by Celia Johnson, and less with the male lead, Alec, played by Trevor Howard–probably because I feel a stronger resemblance of personality between Laura and myself.” But Brief Encounter (a 1945 melodrama of unconsummated adultery directed by David Lean and based on a play by Noël Coward) is told from Laura’s point of view with first-person voiceover narration by her, and even the Rachmaninoff piano concerto on the soundtrack is something she’s hearing on the radio as she recounts the story in her mind, which the viewer is taken into from start to finish. Regardless of your personality, you have no choice but to identify with this character. That’s where the movie puts you, and if you don’t want to be there you can only be turned off or walk out. No doubt McGinn likes this movie so much because he personally likes Laura, but the calculated, insistent way the movie sets up the viewer’s identification with her can’t be overlooked.

To me the most mysterious property of dreams is that we are their authors but feel that we are merely their audience. We experience our dreams as if they were not of our making, not products of our own imagination but something given to us, something we seem to be receiving from elsewhere. This property is above all what leads us to the interpretation of dreams: They don’t seem to be coming from us but to be telling us something we need to decipher. And it is key to the film-dream analogy: Watching a film, we are caught up in a succession of images not of our making, which is like what we feel during a dream (and unlike, it may be noted, a daydream).

McGinn construes the analogy in another way, however. He puts the emphasis on “the active role of the imagination in creating the movie we ‘watch’; for in a real sense the movie takes place inside our own head–the screen is merely the trigger for this inner activity.” Some have supposed that the viewer of a movie has the illusion of being its author, but McGinn goes further and alleges that, as with our dreams, we actually are the authors of the movies we view: “The images we literally see are splashes of light that act as stimuli to our constructive mental processes: we don’t see the characters and scenes at all–we imagine them.” It’s good to emphasize how our imagination comes into play when we watch a film. One often hears it said that movies, unlike novels, leave nothing to the imagination–though any shot on the screen shows us only a detail and leaves the rest of the world implied. But McGinn appears to believe that a film shows us nothing at all and leaves everything to the imagination. His fantasy of the future of movies–their “manifest destiny”–is that they will be

downloaded directly into the brain. You rent a cassette, plug it into your cortex, and enjoy the experience. There is no screen, no light projection–just mental images floating through your consciousness.

Although, he concedes, “no one yet has any idea how to stimulate brain cells so as to produce specific images,” he looks forward to the day when movies will take place wholly inside our heads. That might be a lot of fun, but it wouldn’t be the movies.

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