The Trope of the Dream and Other Irrational Moments

This is a paper I wrote for my Master’s Thesis in Film Theory at York University.

Here are the links for each chapter –

Chapter 1 – Dream Theory in the West
Chapter 2 – Dream Theory in Native North America
Chapter 3 – Some Thoughts on Narrative
Chapter 4 – Dreams & Surrealism
Chapter 5 – Contemporary California
Chapter 6 – Films in Native North America


“No one’s really interested in other people’s dreams….”, wrote dream-cineaste extraodinaire Luis Buñuel in his autobiography. (Buñuel 1983) To tell someone your dream while standing around the office water cooler is an exceptionally boring, clumsy, anti-social move – the intimacy of it too intense, the subjectivity of it not interesting for others. And yet, we see a keen interest in dreams from all corners of humanity, and “virtually every culture ever known has given high priority to the meaning of dreams”. (Owen 5) Dreams often captivate and haunt us personally, much as we may try to dismiss them and brush them away. This private fascination is suggested by their prevalence in movies – dreams would appear to be significant enough to warrant a prominent place in modern storytelling.

The crossover between dream and cinema has been explored from many angles since the birth of the motion picture. Parallels have been remarked on since film theory’s nascent days, as cinema and Freudian theory, both born at the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century, share the relative similarity of the viewing / dreaming experience. What is perhaps so striking is cinema’s capacity to replicate the dream experience so closely – the solitary experience in the dark room; the rapt subjectivity of each viewer; the time-based unfolding of a visual, often symbolic language. But here we will be looking at an area not often explored – that of the narrative function of dreams in films. What will be looked at in this paper is the dynamic between dreams and narrative shape and structure. Further, this investigation will be done with some cultural considerations, comparing trends in Aboriginal film to those in contemporary American film and Surrealist film.

The word “trope” comes from the Greek tropos, meaning way, manner, style, turn. The cinematic tropes that signify dreams have features we all recognize – the eyes closing, or the body reclining, perhaps a dissolve leading to improbable or distorted or sometimes hallucinatory mini-narratives. This convention shares some territory with the flashback – often a close up of a character signals an entry into their private mental space, and their interior world is unfurled. Or their musings play out without announcement, and their subjectivity is revealed at the end, allowing for more confusion until this point of view is established. For example, in the classic film by Ingmar Bergman, Wild Strawberries – a film to which we will turn a few times in these first pages as we lay down some parameters for closer examination of films – Professor Borg is seen reclining in his bed, eyes closed, tossing and twitching, and as his voice-over leads us neatly and explicitly into a dream, the image also dissolves to a high contrast grainy sequence, recalling a de Chirico painting rendered in black and white. In this instance, we are clearly cued to the transition into a dream sequence, there is no equivocation, as both text and images tell us we are moving into a dream.

This is the trope of the dream at its most clear and definitely stated. Such an explicit cue is not always the case, as the line is sometimes blurred and a sequence begins which is later revealed to have been a dream – the dreamer awakens, startled. Or, in some instances, the confusion between dream and reality is maintained and blurring becomes an essential part of the story, indeed it becomes what is at issue – this is a significant area of exploration in subjective experience.

One often does not know what one is seeing: part of what is supposed actually to take place in the film, or only what is passing through the mind of one of the characters. (Sparshott 86)

The possible disorientation may or not be assisted by the identifying cues of sleeper, either before or after a dream – but even with the trope intact, there is a degree of confusion is introduced. Even within dream sequences themselves, there is an extent to which they function both as subjective moments and sequences like any other since, “both as a ‘logical necessity’ and as an ‘artistic consideration’, a dream sequence in film requires a combination of subjective and objective shots”. (Brannigan 151) However it is within the dream sequences that we see an enormous amount of creativity and imagination – sequences which often reveal themselves as dreams only in their tone, as they are subtly, suspiciously dream-like, either because of absurdity, heightened visual or sound cues, and/or heavily symbolic imagery or events.

However, it must be clarified that the trope of the dream is used in this study primarily as an entry point into the subject of dreams in films in general – while the conventions themselves may be of a somewhat limited range, they lead us into the land of the subjective, and the relationship of dream or vision to story as a whole. The essential thrust of this investigation is ultimately about the place or function of the dream within the narrative, about the information contained within the “dream” and its influence on the rest of the narrative. How does the story told within the dream speak to the rest of the film? We know from experience that dreams themselves can be, “described as dramatic structures, made up of various acts, which are not always clearly linked” (Rascaroli) and we have all experienced the way that dreams often appear to be a story, however enigmatic, however episodically or loosely told. But beyond the interior of the dream narrative, what we will also be looking at is the role within the larger framework of film narratives, and how this changes depending on the cultural context, or the imperatives of genre.

As suggested by the title, “The Trope of the Dream and other Irrational Moments”, some fluidity of definition must be allowed in order to address a range of subjective mental states. While our focus is on the “dream”, we will see that this can sometimes become blurred with memory or with vision in particular. Dreams, visions and memories knock around inside a similar place: the unconscious, the subjective experience, the labyrinthine mysteries of the human mind. This overlap and occasional interchangeability of subjective experiences is seen in the literature we will be referencing and in the films themselves, requiring a slightly broader parameter beyond what might always be pure and simple “dreams”. Also, it is within these subjective states that the boundaries between dream and memory or between reality observed and hallucination can become blurred. However, this is not only in cinema, but finds its roots in lived experience.

If we experience the dream as real while we are dreaming, but believe it is unreal when we awake, this is partly because, as sleeping dreamers, we are not conscious in our dreams…the dream state, like the waking state, simply is. It happens as we happen. It seems to be as real as we are; and in this seeming reality lies a basic paradox for the sleeping dreamer…The objects and actions in our dreams are no less real to us, as we experience them, than the objects in our waking life seem when we are awake. (Coxhead and Hiller 4)

Although we may categorize these experiences as mere dreams, they can FEEL very real.

This expresses the essential mystery of dreams and the puzzling dichotomy of subjective experience – the real and not real, it turns out, are not distinguished by a hard fixed boundary line without interpretation, but are in fact somewhat mutable states, depending especially on the world view and the philosophical approach of the dreamer.

The threads we are bringing together here include the place of the dream within the film narrative, and questions about subjectivity vs reality. Another key element within this study is a cross-cultural comparison exercise, contrasting the meaning of dreams in Western traditions and Native North America cultures. This cross-cultural element will complicate our questions about narrative and the relative reality of subjective experiences, offering fresh insight into underlying attitudes or philosophies. The way dreams are understood and valued moves along a spectrum of meaning and interpretation that stretches from religion through to science, depending on cultural context. A comparative cultural analysis highlights different ways of thinking about sleep, about the mind, about the nature of reality and subjectivity, about what dreams are, what they mean, what they are for, what they show.

If we consider cultural context while addressing the philosophical question, “What is real?”, we find the implications are quite significant. It is worth quoting Vine Deloria Jr. at length to grasp a worldview distinct from the Western way of thinking:

Suppose the Indian had a dream or vision in which a creature resembling a man appeared… The Westerner would immediately reject the idea that any spirit can appear in a dream or vision and be as ‘real’ as ordinary wide-awake life experiences. During the Indian’s dream the man-figure can do things that physical humans cannot do. He can become a bird, animal or some other entity depending on the nature of the dream. Yet he falls within the definition of man that would be taken into consideration by the Indian when making a statement about human mortality. Obviously he is alive and a part of the Indian’s world…In the West such experience are written off and said to be mere delusions. But what is a delusion? What is being discarded here? The Westerner rejects the experience because it is not a material thing. He insists that the experience be ‘real’ – i.e. a physical presence that can be subjected to some form of mechanical testing. The Indian does not believe that the world is wholly material, and allows for the existence of real but nonphysical things. (Deloria Jr. 6 – 7)

The various points raised in this paragraph offer some perspective on the degree to which an understanding of reality is fundamentally different enough to have an influence on how visions and dreams are understood. One question that will interest us is whether differing philosophies / worldviews will have any effect on dream sequences themselves, as well as how such differences may change storytelling. The way the dream relates to or is integrated into the narrative is the heart of this study. We will be looking at the ideas vocalized about dreaming and reality, about culture and narrative, and finally, about the way narrative is shaped around dreams.

Using a small selection of examples, we will be looking at films from different cultural contexts, but also different genres, with the hope that the comparative approach will open up fertile ground for investigation. Films and writings from a different world view may ultimately reveal as many overlaps as they do differences, but the consideration of another culture offers some parameters of relativity on concepts that are often taken as givens within a single cultural context. The many variables within the different genres and types of production make it a less than scientific investigation, but one that seeks to at least pose some questions, and explore ideas about dreams, narrative and human meaning making.
There are three groupings of films from which we will be considering some examples to ponder these questions of dream and narrative: Surrealist film, contemporary Hollywood film, and North American Aboriginal film. The first two categories are often studied, thus offering a point of familiarity from which to then consider some of the Native productions. The films chosen are grouped together according to cultural delineation, but there are many points of overlap; the overlap suggesting a richness of approach to storytelling styles within each group.

This study will not attempt to be thorough with regards to covering all possible films or cultural and historical research, but it will use a small group of films from several different genres and cultural backgrounds referencing some of the significant background material on dreaming. To lay the ground for the close look at the films, the first three sections deal with dream theory and narrative theory. These are all very cursory assemblies of ideas, much of which will be familiar to readers but which should be briefly reviewed before the film examples are considered. Given the propensity and likelihood for generalizations in a project of this kind I’ve tried to place limits and parameters as much as possible – for example, looking only at North American and European films and ideas, and not looking at Australia or New Zealand in terms of Aborigine concepts of dreamtime. By attempting to contain the scale of this study, it is hoped that the focus can be on the central ideas and concepts, and in suggesting unexplored areas of study.

The essential criteria in the choice of film examples has been the prominence of dream sequences and their relation to a larger narrative, as this is the focus of this investigation. There are exceptions (for example Un Chien Andalou, in which there are no tropes of dreamers dreaming) that can help identify and delineate the nature of the dream tropes in part by their absence. But a film such as Kurosawa’s Dreams for example, which does not include the dream sequences within an overarching narrative framework, is ultimately not essential to the questions posed in this study. Some of the selection parameters I have used may be more about what is typical within genres and not necessarily about excellence or originality, so that many famous and well-loved films will not be included here. So, while we will be looking at Wild Strawberries (as a rich example of a classically subjectivity-oriented piece), we will not be looking at several other classic European art-house films known for their dream elements, such as 81/2 or The Mirror. The recent films Science of Sleep, and Waking Life are visually quite distinct, and have been left of this study out as this visual originality suggests a whole other level of consideration. The cinema of David Lynch is its own planet in some ways – on the one hand his work is technically a product of contemporary California, yet on the other hand is perhaps more appropriately considered a form of Surrealism. The Twin Peaks series is a particularly tempting anomaly, an atypical example that plays with all of the categories at once – it presents a weird tone reminiscent of the Surrealists imposed on a story of heavy detective causality, that is solved to some degree by shamanic dreaming. But we are using the Contemporary California grouping as a modern day version of the “classical Hollywood mode” of narrative cinema, rather than considering examples of independent American art films.

Finally, a note on terminology: throughout this study terms such as “Native”, “First Nations”, “Aboriginal”, “Indigenous” and “Indian” are all used interchangeably and without comment, reflecting a desire for readability, particularly given the wide range of terminology within the sources both written and filmic, and the American tendency to continue to use the term “Indian” which is more out of favour in the Canadian context.

Chapter 1 – Dream Theory in the West