“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.
One – Notes on Dream Theory in the West
Should there be a prophet among you,
in visions I will reveal myself to him
and in dreams I will speak to him.
Many passages from the Bible remind us the extent to which, throughout much of the history of Western Civilization, dreams were considered the domain of religion. Gradually, fitfully, they have been claimed by more secular scientific domains, while always retaining some religious or spiritual proponents, like in current New Age movements. This push and pull between ideas or theories about what dreams are, what they mean, where they come from, has been with us for thousands of years. This section will be a cursory overview, a reminder of some of the shifts and contradictions in ideas about dreams in Western thinking. While there are various periods with differing dominant beliefs, part of what we will see is the fundamental eclecticism of European and more recent North American approaches to dreams – various trends will coexist within a society at any given time. Our focus will be on the 20th century, with some very cursory historical exploration, just to recall briefly the various evolutions and predominant trends through changing moments in history and within different sectors of society.
As far back as Ancient Greece we can see conflicting ideas of what dreams are about, how they work, from whence they come, and what they have to tell us. Within the Greek pantheon there are a variety of characters relating to sleep and dreams, such as Hypnos who governs sleep, and his son, Morpheus, the deity of dreams. “It was said the Mopheus appeared to humans in their dreams in the shape of a man and that Morpheus shaped dreams, and gave shape to the beings who appear during dreams.” (Packer 20) So dreams do not emanate from the dreamer, but from an outside force. Looking at writing of the time, on the one hand, “…Greek literature reveals a belief in the divine and prophetic character of dreams…” (Lincoln 5) while later works assert that dreams are allegorical, and “the dramatists conception of dreams…can be seen to have moved to a view in which psychological factors predominated”. (Van de Castle 61)
Yet another theory of dreams was that they were nighttime soul travel, nocturnal wanderings of the spirit – a belief held by many, including Plato. (Coxhead and Hiller 6) In this context, dreams could be deceptive and duplicitous: “both gods and mortals could be deceived by dreams.” (Packer 11) Aristotle, by contrast, determined that dreams were in fact the “mental process” of the dreamer – they were not from sources divine or diabolical, but came from within the mind of each individual. (Coxhead and Hiller 6) This range of ideas shows us that, “from Greece…we can trace all the theories of dreaming – materialistic, mystical, analytical, occult and medical – that were available to the West at the beginning of this [20th] century”. (Coxhead and Hiller 5)
As we move into the world of the Old Testament we continue to see the preference for explaining dreams as coming from outside the dreamer, albeit from a slightly different set of sources: “The Jews also believed that good supernatural entities could be sources of dreams. Angels, who resided in a special department in heaven, were sent as messengers from God.” (Van de Castle 54) This idea of dreams as being prophetic and from the gods and of deep religious significance continued up to Medieval times. But changes within the church eventually led to an insistence that only dreams by those recognized as within church structure were to be trusted – all other dreams, including the dreams of lay people, were suspect, conceivably evil.
We must first appreciate the seriousness that early modern Europe accorded nighttime visions… Christianity recognized a long line of female seers and religious women who had achieved a state of spiritual grace and were able to receive divine messages, usually in the form of visions….but by mid-fifteenth century…female seers were suspected of diabolical delusion. (Kagan 3 – 4)
By the 16th century, “dreams, in effect, had been banished” and it was “a sin to believe in dreams”. (Van de Castle 83) The banishment of the dreams of ordinary people from church consideration left dreams in an area of ambiguous push and pull between the rising realm of science, and an ongoing mystical / spiritualist tendency in the society. This separation between domains is likely part of what facilitated the eventual relegation of dreams to the realm of science. As scientific ideas developed, and religious ideas were increasingly compartmentalized, much of educated elite European society in the 19th century began to dismiss dreams as simply random mental refuse. Ordinary people and small marginal groups such as the Romantic artists and the Spiritualist movement retained an interest in symbolism and mysticism generally, and these groups were perhaps even excessively attentive to the world of dreams, finding the world of dreams to be more interesting than ordinary life. This mixed bag of ideas was the context in which Freud emerged with the book, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899.
Among the many ideas emphasized by Freud – the identification of the unconscious; the categorizations of id, ego and superego; the development of the “talking method” of healing using free association – his work on dreams is one of the most significant and influential on contemporary society. Freud’s breakthrough seems a startling intervention, but these ideas emerged to some extent from the many ideas in the air at the time, and it was Freud’s circle that brought them together and forward to a wider public: “It can be seen that investigators of dreams from 1860 – 1899 had already discovered almost all the notions that were to be synthesized by Freud and by Jung.” (Ellenberger 311) However Freud’s fundamental re-usurping of the dream as worthy of examination has had an enormous influence on modern society and culture. “Freud’s contribution to the study of dreaming rescued the subject from the periphery, and restored it to the center of Western man’s concern.” (Coxhead and Hiller 15) Freud’s syncretic approach suggests on the one hand almost a throwback to a religious notion of the dream as significant to the human soul, yet with an attempt to present the ideas via a quasi-scientific argument, the mechanism of the subconscious. Freud did his best to align himself with scientific streams and distance himself from “superstitious” thinking, referring to erroneous notions such as, “the popular belief that dreams always foretell the future”, and continuing on to say that this superstition is not for the “educated” person. (On Dreams 59) These comments suggest the degree to which beliefs about dreams were shaped by education and class background. For the “serious minded”, complained Freud, “dreams are froth”. (On Dreams 7) Scientists remained as skeptical as ever about the value of dreams, saying Freud’s work on dreams and techniques such as free association could lead to “complete mysticism”. (Ellenberger 317)
Freud’s ideas about dreams became a point of disagreement and departure for psychologists that followed: “Freud affirmed that, with very few exceptions, dreams were disguised hallucinatory fulfillments of repressed wishes”. (Storr 44) This fundamental notion about the unconscious and the way dreams function as a fulfillment of repressed, generally unconscious wishes not acceptable to waking reality (in Freud’s world, usually having to do with infantile sexuality) was a major breakthrough, and the idea he was probably most interested in. His theory left little room for dreams that appear to address fear and anxiety, or dreams that were repetitive dreams of traumatic events. His interest was in the psychic conflicts around the social need to repress many impulses, and the ensuing neuroses from this repression. Freud’s critique of society included a rejection of religion, “because religions often demand repression of our basic selfishness, and psychological neuroses originate from repressed fundamental instincts, religious behaviour resembled mental illness by manifesting a universal obsessional neurosis of our frustrated instincts.” (Olson 343)
There are several other key ideas from Freud’s dream theories that are particularly significant for us in a cinematic consideration. One such idea is the concept of condensation – the compression of characters, places, themes into a symbolic and condensed dream language. Another major concept significant for its filmic implications, is the idea of latent content versus manifest content – manifest content being the strange symbolist surface language and imagery of dreams; the latent content being the repressed, hidden, true meaning, not immediately visible or even tolerable to the dreamer. This articulation of a distinction between what the images are and what they may symbolize, has contributed to the making and design of films, as well as some streams of film theory. The limitations of Freud’s theories have been mentioned often – in particular, the singularity of seeing dreams as wish-fulfillment and the obsession with understanding sexuality as fundamental to an interpretation of the content of any and all dreams – but his defense of dreams as significant to human subjectivity was of huge significance, as was the articulation of the poetic language functioning in dreams. Although for many, his over-emphasis on the notion of repressed childhood sexual impulses as the source of all dreams was unnecessarily reductive, the basic premise of wish fulfillment becomes quite interesting, especially as we will see certain parallels in Iroquois dream theory.
A contemporary and disciple of Freud, deeply influenced by many of Freud’s ideas about the human unconscious, Jung broke away from Freud’s circle and developed a number of his own ideas about human psychology and dreams. Jung was also influenced by other ideas of the time – ideas expressed by the Romantics, and by the Philosophy of Nature movement – and the influences of these more mystical and spiritualist tendencies separate him sharply from Freud’s preference for scientific rationale. Jung’s expansive ideas included a belief in universal symbols, in an individual unconscious as well as a collective unconscious, and in the notion of archetypes and myths as having emerged from these collective unconscious sources. Jung understood the psyche of each individual as essentially divisible into a persona, a shadow, and an anima / animus construction. Perhaps one of the key distinctions between Jung’s ideas and Freud’s, whose focus tended to be on pathology, was Jung’s focus on the fundamental health of an individual, and in their capacity for healing. Rather than focusing on disease and neurosis, he developed notions such as “psychic totality” and “wholeness potential”.
Within this framework Jung became one of the original important critics of the limitations of Freud’s theories, and particularly his interpretation of the function of dreams, saying, “I have therefore come to the conclusion that Freud’s view that dreams have an essentially wish-fulfilling and sleep preserving function is too narrow” (Dreams 38) His own thinking on dreams allowed for broader thematic possibilities, in particular for the very important area of anxiety:
Whereas Freud holds that every dreams is a vicarious fulfillment of a repressed wish, usually related to infantile sexuality, Jung maintains that the functions of dreams are manifold. They can express fears as well as wishes. (Ellenberger 716 – 717)
In fact Jung’s interpretations of what is happening in dreams reflect a much larger range of life experiences, including anxiety, but also fulfillment, mortality, or friendships, for instance. Jung wrote:
Dreams may give expression to ineluctable truths, to philosophical pronouncement, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions, and heaven knows what besides. (Modern Man 11)
Jung’s understanding of dreams was as a mechanism of the psyche serving not simply as an outlet for unpalatable impulses, but also as serving constructively towards a better way of living.
Dreams helped to promote a fuller adaptation to life by supporting and strengthening the ego and enhancing the development of one’s personality. Within our dream states, it was possible to experience archetypal events like birth, death, separation from parents, and marriage…Jung also conceived this process as what he called the individuation principle that represented an awakening of the self or becoming more fully conscious of itself and its possibilities for growth. (Olson 348)
One of the types of dreams moving the individual towards a process of individuation in Jung’s categorization was what he called “compensatory dreaming”, and he would thus say, “when we set out to interpret a dream, it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?” (as quoted in Shafton 93)
What sets Jung’s compensatory dreaming apart is that all dream compensations, great and small, show the Self’s “wholeness potential” at work in a “self-healing balancing process”….Dreams are the natural reaction of the self-regulating psychic system…particularly when the conscious attitude tends too exclusively in a direction that would threaten the vital needs of the individual.” (Shafton 100)
While Freudian theory has had an enormous influence within the discipline of Film Studies, observation reveals that Jungian concepts are likely a major influence on many contemporary filmmakers – dreams of anxiety in particular are perhaps one of the most common themes of dreams in film. But there is also a parallel between Jung’s ideas about individuation and individual wholeness and the screenwriting trajectory of a character’s development into a more complete or more functional human being. Character growth and transformation is the fundamental dramatic arc of many contemporary film stories.
If we consider our Wild Strawberries example, professor Borg goes through his day haunted by his dream, the theme of mortality is evident. His unpleasant personality issues are clearly articulated by his housekeeper and his daughter-in-law within the early minutes of the film. The pressure of the sense of his impending mortality with the sense that he has not arrived at being the person he would like to be, or living life as he would most enjoy living it, becomes the evident quest of the film, in other words, his own need for individuation. When at his mother’s house, he comes across a watch without hands, he is reminded of the clock without hands in his dream. There is a long moment where the character pauses, troubled – is it a memory? Was it a premonition? In the dream it seemed tied in with the proximity of death and the other troubling images of the dream, and this association gives pause once again in his mother’s house.
These kinds of issues and questions are allowed for within an essentially Jungian understanding of dreams, and are considered fundamental questions of the soul. For Jung the dream serves first and foremost as an important dialogue with the self, in fact Professor Borg says of his dream that it is “almost as if I want to tell myself something I won’t listen to when I’m awake”. Thematically, his two dreams and the way they are taken up in parallel with waking events, suggest preoccupations with the proximity of the end of his life, and the success or lack thereof of his major relationships. These issues are not really addressed within Freud’s interpretations, and offer no insight in considering the significance of Professor Borg’s fundamental anxieties about mortality and quality of life, or for understanding the prophetic echo in the hand-less clock and so on.
The evolution in the West from a tradition of dreams as prophetic to one in which they are a commentary on the state of the psyche to one in which they are synaptic spasms has been a long and circuitous process. Probably the single most significant event in scientific studies of dreams was the discovery in the 1950s of Rapid Eye Movement (REM). The dream made physiologically apparent was an enormous breakthrough, giving proof to their existence in a new observable way, and has led to many and various technological developments that have facilitated further research and theorization. However, within many scientific circles, this has led to a continuing diminishment of any interest in dreams as meaningful in and of themselves, a position that has followed scientific ideas about dreams for some time. For instance,
The 19th century medical concept of dreams as ‘somatic processes, which are in every case useless and in many cases positively pathological’, has its equivalent in the current concept of dreams as ‘parasitic modes of [mental] activity’, produced nightly as the memory-and-learning system evacuates itself of useless or mistaken memory traces. (Shafton 12)
The spirit of the scientific endeavours has at once become a validated venue for the exploration of somatic activity, while rendering all theories that prescribe meaning – be they psychological, prophetic, divine, allegorical – to be irrelevant.
While the validation of the dreaming experience, in the context of direct reports made by dreaming subjects in the laboratory and of measurable physiological correlates such as REM and non-REM sleep states, has led to the confirmation of the unquestionable existence of the dream experience, it has simultaneously posited the experience as an expression of random – and therefore meaningless – neurophysiological activity. The gap between the dream as biology and the dream as meaningful, ntentional experience has yet to be closed. (Irwin 13)
This emphasis on dreams as synaptical releases, on learning and memory function, leave little room for the meaning and psychic insight expounded by Freud and Jung, and have reintroduced the idea of dreams as meaningless random imagery. The push and pull between different theories of dreaming continues – while science forges on with its interest in bio-chemical and synaptic releases, popular culture remains split between various schools of psychology and occasionally even the belief in dreams as portents of the future.
Two – Notes on Dream Theory in Aboriginal North America
To Native Americans, dreams have an importance unimaginable to the non-Indian. Gods and supernaturals manifest themselves in dreams. Revelations from the spirits reach the supplicant through dreams and visions. Through dreams are conferred magical powers, the gift of prophecy, and the ability to cure illnesses and heal wounds. (Erdoes 24)
As in the early days of Western culture, we see that dreams in Native culturea and communities reside in the realm of the religious impulse, though there is less of an inclination to even see religion and society as two separate entities – the sacred is in all things, two-leggeds, four-leggeds, grandfather sky and mother earth – so dreams and visions come from within that understanding of the world. It is interesting to keep in mind that at the end of the 18th century when Europe would on occasion absorb lessons from the ways of peoples in the New World, so-called “primitive and ancient peoples” were often described as either healing with dreams or using them as a source for insight. This concept was considered the “root from which psychotherapy developed.” (Ellenberger 3)
While much of the literature on indigenous societies, especially at point of contact, was written by Europeans and carries their language and attitudes towards “primitive” peoples, all of the sources nonetheless give us a sense of the enormity and richness of the role of the dream in many Native cultures.
Whereas it is commonly believed that thought systems have evolved from simple to complex, according to some sort of progression toward increasing complexity, dream classification apparently is most elaborate in cultures other than those associated with the modern Western rationalist tradition. (Kilborne 171)
This addresses the question of whether looking at aboriginal dreaming is a bit like looking at dreaming in ancient Western cultures – it is pre-scientific, related to religion and spirituality – but we will be seeing a very strong and distinct place for the dream in this New World context. While this overview will be prone to cursory generalizations about Aboriginal societies, we will also look more closely at two specific examples to get a sense of the diversity in the details.
In an indigenous cultural context, we have to be sensitive to the idea that we are dealing with a completely different approach to the mind, the self and dreaming. Lee Irwin suggests the enormity of the shift in perception when he points out “the tendency for a contemporary reader to accept the general idea of the ‘unconscious’ as a valid” concept tends to minimize other roles that may be attributed to dreaming. (21) The discrepancy in worldviews cannot be downplayed, as “in contemporary, non-indigenous culture, the distinction between waking and dreaming is largely a consequence of rational theories of mind in a bifurcated world view for Euro-Americans. The popular notion is to regard dreaming and waking as two distinct and separate types of awareness, the former being largely ignored or having its import reduce to that of a primarily pathological index.” (Irwin 18) By contrast, as Jackson Steward Lincoln observes, there is an alternative conception of the role of visions and dreams in non-modern, non-European cultures.
In his great pioneer and classical work, Sir Edward Tylor first presented the evidence showing how the early religious beliefs of primitive man arose from images seen in dreams. He was the first to point out that dreams were often regarded by the primitive mind as having a reality equal to that of the external world, and from such a valuation they gave rise to a host of religious beliefs. (Lincoln 44)
There are some widespread, general points of commonality about indigenous dream theories that we see in the anthropological writings: the importance and prominence of dream theory in Native cultures; a frequent blurring of the lines between dream and vision, or more significantly the primacy of the dream / vision as a type of reality; the dream / vision as delivering bona fide information, sometimes articulated with symbolic language. In this context there is a recognition of insight gained from dreams, indeed power and knowledge can be delivered in dreams, leading to social status for the individual and / or change for the community as a whole. There is also a strong tendency to view dreams as progressive (about the future) rather than regressive (about the past). For example, “…both Zunis and Quiches say that nearly all dreams provide information about future events, thus sharing progressive rather than regressive dream theories.” (Tedlock 123) Many societies will categorize the types of dreams that occur – a classification that includes big vision dreams as well as minor quotidian dreams. We see some similarities (with distinctions) between Western ideas, to the extent that there is a notion of some dreams as wish-fulfilling, and a way of interpreting or reading dreams with latent versus manifest content, that has parallels with Freud’s ideas. The source for a number of Jungian ideas about universal symbols and the soul’s impulse towards growth also become apparent, with important distinctions.
The Kalapalo theory of dreaming […] is one that makes explicit reference to the future of the dreamer. Just as their myths do, dreaming provides them with useful models for the formation of new roles and relations, or more simply, new and different feelings towards some problem. Kalapalo interpret their dreaming as a way the self creates a goal rather than as a means of arriving at some satisfactory solution to a distressing problem or the conclusion of some goal, as Jung believed. (Basso 96)
Clearly, many of these points will be extremely significant once we bring story into the discussion – whether or not a dream is counted as a real event, gives a directive, or speaks to the future rather than the past, is sure to change the way plot unfolds.
The notion of “reality” is essential, as whether or not a dream is considered “real” or simply “a dream” will be a determining factor within the shape of a narrative. Native American conceptions or understandings of reality can be strikingly different from European ideas, and we come across statements such as “no distinction is drawn between the waking state and the visionary state: they are one and the same” (Irwin 33) or “there is no distinct separation between the world as dreamed and the world as lived.” (Irwin 18) These observations give us a sense of the degree to which a different perspective is necessary in order to understand the complexity of the culture.
Lee Irwin’s book on visions and dreams in Plains’ cultures addresses both the specific traditions of the Plains Indians, and the more general tendencies in the indigenous worldview. He writes:
The Native American dreaming episteme refers neither to the problem of dream origins nor to how dreams are “constructed” but to the macro-level of analysis: specifically, how visionary dreams motivate significant behaviour, shape belief, thought and other types of cognitive processing, and influence communally patterned experience and interpretations. (Irwin 18)
The key concepts here are motivate, shape, influence. Dreams are directive rather than reflective; they speak to the future, not the past. They are not “simply” dreams, they are significant events:
Most cases show that in spite of regarding the experiences of the dream as real, primitives do distinguish between dreams and the perceptions of waking experience, yet often the dream experience is regarded as having a greater reality value than an actual experience. (Lincoln 28)
Jackson Steward Lincoln’s 1935 study on “primitive cultures” is an interesting source in this area, as he was clearly deeply influenced by Freud, and while collecting a detailed catalogue of dreams from different groups, he used a kind of Freudian measuring stick when interpreting the cultures he wrote about. So, as thorough and insightful as he was, he tended to equate without distinction mechanisms such as a Freudian understanding of dreams as representing wish fulfillment and indigenous understandings of dreams as conveying the wishes of the soul (Lincoln 37 – 38). While there are fascinating similarities, a closer look at examples from the Iroquois and Plains Indians will help us recognize some significant distinctions.
Great visionaries such as Black Elk and Lame Deer and others have helped make the vision-questing tradition amongst the tribes of the Plains a resonating image of First Nations spiritual practice.
Among many tribes it was the common belief that visions had to be earned through fasting and suffering. Hence, for the Sioux…a vision quest, is a “crying” or “lamenting” for a dream. There is often the feeling that, compared to the reality of a dream, the White Man’s reality is a mere figment of the imagination, maybe a nightmare. (Erdoes 24)
Here we see the tendency for overlap and interchangeability in language and ideas about dreaming and visions, and indeed while the great vision pursued in the vision quest is clearly a distinct thing, nonetheless, these kinds of insights and power moments are also understood to happen in exceptional night dreams.
In the Native American context, dreaming is a form of knowledge. It reveals the activities of the mysterious powers – their engagement with or relationship to the dream. The dream is a medium of knowing, a way of experiencing the reality of the lived world, a faculty of perception. (Irwin 19)
Clearly, the dream can see deeper and further than waking life. As Irwin points out “among traditional Plains people, dreaming is given a strong ontological priority and is regarded as a primary source of knowledge and power.” (19) The source of this knowledge and power is not, in this case, the unconscious, or the dreams that express wishes of the soul. “The primary visionary experience is a direct encounter with the dream-spirits, who give the dreamer instructions meant to enhance his or her knowledge, ability and success.” (Irwin 139) Another remarkable distinction from Western society is that dreams are given not only to an individual, but to an entire community. Dreams teach or show an individual’s role in the community, but they can also predict events or future situations that the community will face collectively.
The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (meaning “people of the Longhouse”), are a people with a highly elaborate and complex dreaming culture. Being of the Eastern seaboard, they were among the first to have early contact with explorers and missionaries, and have had enormous amounts written about them, both at the time of contact and in the centuries since. Many of the original observations come from the Jesuits, specifically from their publication, the Jesuit Relations, with its observations recorded by missionaries working in what would become the Northeastern United States.
Over the course of nearly two centuries of missionary work, the Jesuits had dealings with almost every Indian nation of the Northeast, but in the 1600’s they directed most of their evangelizing efforts toward a handful of groups: …Montagnais and Algonquian speakers; and the Huron and Iroquois, both Iroquoian peoples. (Greer 7)
The literature refers to various groups within the larger category of Iroquois people including the Huron, as well as the original league of Five Nations including the Seneca, the Onondoga, the Oneida, the Cayuga, the Mohawk – an overlap in naming that can be confusing. In their encounters with these nations the Jesuits discovered a world where dreams had a remarkable importance and a central place in the culture. In the words of Jean de Brebeuf in 1636:
The dream is the oracle that all these poor peoples consult and listen to, the prophet which predicts future events, the Cassandra which warns of misfortunes threatening them, the physician who treats them in their sicknesses, the Aesculapieas and Galen of the whole country; it is their most absolute master. (as quoted in Greer 48)
The meaning of the dream as “master” is further conveyed by Brebeuf in the following observation:
They have a faith in dreams which surpasses all belief… They look upon their dreams as ordinances and irrevocable decrees; to delay the execution of them would be a crime. An Indian of our village dreamed this winter, shortly after he had fallen asleep, that he ought straightaway to make a feast. Though it was the middle of the night, he immediately arose and came and woke us to borrow one of our kettles. (as quoted in Greer 47)
Recorded in these observations is one kind of dream, where the dreamer recognizes immediately that what he has seen is what he must do – a wish of the soul, clearly, though one that is not a repressed childhood wish, but one that must be respected and carried out. But the Iroquois recognized several types of dreams.
Another kind of dream that the Jesuits made note of, was a dream of the future, but one in which it was necessary to guard against what had been seen in the night – danger, war, sickness, were often dreamt and then had to be guarded against through action. What action should be taken was often a community decision:
The ancient Seneca cultural practice of treating dreams as warnings of disaster that will certainly occur – unless the dreamer tells others of the dream and together they take action, doing whatever the dream has implied will avert the threatened evil. (Kroker 60)
This kind of dream, again requiring action, is one that needs to be actualized, but in a way that allows the dreamer safety – if the dreamer is attacked in the dream, a mock attack is performed in order to satisfy the dream while protecting the dreamer from actual danger.
However, while many dream images were interpreted literally and required some kind of acting out based on either the need to fulfill a wish or avert a disaster, there was also a sense of the symbolic language of dreams and the hidden or latent nature of the meaning of many dreams that might even require the insights of a clairvoyant to unravel and interpret.
Intuitively, the Iroquois had achieved a great degree of psychological sophistication, they recognized conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. They knew the great force of unconscious desires, and were aware that the frustration of these desires could cause mental and physical (‘psychosomatic’) illness. They understood that these desires were expressed in symbolic form by dreams, but that the individual could not always properly interpret these dreams himself. (Wallace 237)
As we have seen from Irwin and others, the indigenous notion of an “unconscious” may not be quite the same conception as the Freudian idea, however there are many interesting overlaps. Nonetheless,
The Iroquois theory differed from Freudian theory in regard to substantive interpretation: the Iroquois did not use the incest (Oedipus) formulation, did not give a central role to the concept of intrapsychic conflict, and did not reduce content regularly to sexual symbols. The Freudian theory of course did not use the concept of a detachable soul nor did it admit the presence of supernatural beings. (Wallace 248)
Dreams may come from the insights of the soul of the person, wandering while they sleep, or dreams may come directly from spirits, from “powerful supernatural beings who spoke personally to the dreamer, giving him a message of importance for himself and often also for the whole community”. (Wallace 245) Rather than revealing conflicted neurotic wishes from the past, the Haudenosaunee saw wishes for the near future. Where Freud understood wishes as something originating in the past and pushed into the unconscious, which was then gratified in the dream, the Haudenosaunee understand the dream as communicating a wish in the present that needs to be fulfilled. Where Freud may have emphasized symbolism, the Haudenosaunee have emphasized the need to answer the call of the wish and the need to fulfill it, the need for action.
While the Iroquois understood the repression of basic impulses was unhealthy and believed that dreams could reveal those wishes that might not be socially acceptable, they had many mechanisms for the relief and even fulfillment of these wishes of the soul. The Midwinter Festival included a wide range of rituals including a dream-guessing game where everyone would go from house to house and give cryptic clues to what they had dreamt.
The annual festival at Midwinter not merely permitted but required the guessing and fulfillment of the dreams of the whole community. There were probably several dozen special feasts, dances, or rites which might be called for at any time during the year by a sick dreamer. (Wallace 245)
Perhaps most striking in this elaborately developed dreaming culture, is the social aspect of the dream. As Wallace observes:
The community rallies around the dreamer with gifts and ritual. The dreamer is fed; he is danced over; he is rubbed with ashes; he is sung to; he is given valuable presents; he is accepted as a member of a medicine society. (Wallace 247)
Although we have been looking at anthropological observations from long ago, these cultural impulses, if always evolving, are still influential:
This faith in dreams is still alive, although somewhat diminished in strength, in the 20th century…over the course of nearly 300 years and probably longer, the Seneca – like the other Iroquois – have let dreams direct their lives. (Wallace 236)
How these beliefs continue to manifest and be reflected in their culture and films will be seen in Section 6.
Three– Narrative Thoughts
If, in contemporary North American culture, the telling of dreams is generally not a recommended practice, similarly, in screenwriting circles, dreams are considered a sudden death; the certain collapse of plot, energy, and narrative drive. Yet many films do have dream sequences, with different modes of functioning in relation to the central character, and different implications for the narrative structure. To understand why dream sequences are discouraged, and why they continue to proliferate, first we must look at some rudimentary concepts from different cultural and artistic perspectives about the fundamental ideas of what constitutes narrative. Outlining these apparently obvious notions will provide a framework with which to discuss specific films and their narrative treatment of dreams. The central influences in my overview comes from the formalist work on narrative, particularly that of David Bordwell, whose delineation of the functioning mechanism of Classical Hollywood Cinema versus Art Cinema is both thorough and clear. However, we will not be going too far into the elaborately detailed analyses or complex terminology of narratology proper. Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome will be used as a source of what is generally held to be the tried and true rules of screenplay structure. Also included are some storytelling and general narrative analysis texts for understanding different cultural tendencies in narrative construction – these are not film theory texts but more concerned with both literary and oral traditions.
Much of this chapter will be about causality and the degree to which it is generally understood to be the key underpinning to any narrative structure. This then takes us to questions of how the subjective experience of dreams is translated into the causal framework of a film. This leads us to consider the internal logic and narrative design, particularly in relation to how the philosophy around the dream and the beliefs about the dream, will affect the way the story is told.
The definition of narrative tends to be articulated precisely as a relationship with causality – the basic premise in Western classical narrative tradition is sharply focused on the linking of one event to another through a causal relationship. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, for instance, claims that “narrative is the representation of an event or a series of events.” (12) And Abbott suggests: “Narrative itself, simply by the way it distributes events in an orderly fashion, very often gives the impression of a sequence of cause and effect.” (Abbott 37) Film analyses are similarly inclined: “Presented with two narrative events, we look for causal or spatial or temporal links”, (Bordwell Narration 49) and “Classical story design…lays bare the network of chain-linked causalities that, when understood, give life meaning.” (McKee 53) These quotes are all variations on a similar notion – given a series of events, the mind seeks a connection, a relationship between one thing to another.
Our experience of causality, then, depends upon our assessment of various probabilities. On a small scale, the connections among events may be quite weak and indirect even though on a large scale, an overall pattern may be evident. Recall that for Todorov, “causality” or the logic of mere succession was not enough to define a narrative: change must also emerge on a large scale in the form of transformation” among events.” (Brannigan 27)
The linking of one event to the next is the mind’s natural projection of meaning upon the events and the ensuing development of story.
If the story is built around the series of events and the links between events, where do we see dreams falling within a spectrum from lucid causality to randomness? What part do the dreams play within the narrative? If dreams are not a narrative event, are they simply a descriptive passage, an insight into character psychology? Various questions emerge about whether or not dreams are or can be understood as “events” themselves, beyond an expression of subjectivity. If they are events do they then have an identifiable causal relationship with the rest of the narrative? These questions about the role of dreams within a series of events will be our ongoing area of investigation. Some scholars argue that subjective experiences such as memories and dreams form a realm of special treatment within narrative logic. Maureen Turim states:
A linear, causal temporality is implicit in the proairetic code, or the code of actions as it can be called. This linear sequence of cause and effect forms a hypothetical logic, a kind of assumed background against which narrative events unfold. It is based on a sense of the “way things work in the real world”. (Turim 11)
Often we are able to recognize and distinguish how many of these more subjective moments should be understood within a story, though not always. Dreams have a set of problems associated with them in their placement within the narrative code. Part of why dreams are considered deadly in North American screenwriting circles is because they are seen as outside of the plot, therefore hindering the forward thrust of the narrative drive. The basic premise of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee would refer to as “classical story design,” and filmmaker Raul Ruiz would refer to as “central conflict theory” is logical causality.
Causality drives a story in which motivated actions cause effects that in turn become the causes of yet other effects, thereby interlinking the various levels of conflict in a chain reaction of episodes to the story climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality. (McKee 52)
Dramatic structure is also largely about character – the character’s trajectory is the basis of story; the needs and desires of the character the basis from which all actions emanate. The essential element in the world of cause and effect is the role of the characters, as agents of will, as exerters of action. In screenwriting terms, “…the protagonist has the will and the capacity to pursue the object of his conscious and / or unconscious desire to the end of the line.” (McKee 140) The role of desire in the shaping of the plot is summarized by Amnon Buchbinder:
A plot then, fits Woody Allen’s definition of a relationship: like a shark, if it doesn’t keep moving forward, it dies….the motive force in this forward movement – human desire. (Buchbinder 123)
However human desire must be rendered comprehensible through action, rather than the internal world of the character – this is the key to dramatic action in both theatre and film.
And this is expressed, or visualized as “…an active protagonist, in the pursuit of desire, takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him.” (McKee 50) As Bordwell makes clear:
The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. (Bordwell Narration 157)
Protagonists or characters in film are not generally revealed in terms of their internal life (this being more the domain of written narratives) – in cinema they are more commonly revealed only by dialogue and action. Says McKee, “we must realize that a screenplay is not a novel. Novelists can directly invade the thoughts and feelings of characters we cannot”. (343) However stories often require some revelation of the internal world of the character and finding ways to convey this can be a challenge for the writer.
We could say that drama is information that has been translated into the language of conflict. The reason voice-overs and flashbacks so often fail is because they are treated as expositional devices. (Buchbinder 121)
Within this world of actions and events built on a cause and effect relationship, dreams are a problem. Interior states, subjective experiences, the past life of the character will all inform his or her decisions and choices, but how to convey them is always a problematic question. They are frequently discouraged as a device, seen as either too arty and overly subjective or clumsy in an excess of exposition. McKee says that the “dream sequence is exposition in a ball gown…feeble efforts to disguise information in Freudian clichés”. (343) This set of ideas and reservations about the problems of dreams in film are not taken lightly by funding bodies and the teams of producers and story editors who are generally part of most North American production – how this ultimately plays out in the way stories are told is one of the more mysterious realities of the movie business.
The rules and limitations on cinematic endeavours that we have been looking at are not universally followed, and where we do see the dream, the memory, the flashback, the subjective experience explored extensively, is in the art cinema tradition. Art films (often European) allow for an entry into a range of subjective states, as well as actions with effect and / or events without prior cause. While classical film narratives have generally been governed by goals, timelines, strong driven plotlines, the looser causal framework of the art film, and the less definitive approach to character motivations allows for a different role for central characters. As Bordwell states:
Equivocating about character causality supports a construction based on a more or less episodic series of events. If the Hollywood protagonist speeds toward the target, the art-film protagonist is presented as sliding passively from one situation to another. (Bordwell Narration 207)
Where story structure in classical narrative was determined by character drive, there is a somewhat different formulation for the character’s will in art cinema.
Certainly the art film relies upon psychological causation no less than does the classical narrative. But the prototypical characters of the art cinema tend to lack clear-cut traits, motives and goals. Protagonists may act inconsistently…or they may question themselves about their purposes…This is evidently an effect of the narration, which can play down characters’ causal projects, keep silent about their motives, emphasize ‘insignificant’ actions and intervals, and never reveal effects of actions. (Bordwell Narration 207)
Filmmaker Raul Ruiz, whose work we will look at in the chapter on Surrealism, is a vocal dissenter to the classical Hollywood, or classically dramatic mode of storytelling. Within his writing on film, he offers his critique of what he calls “central conflict theory”, articulating some of his objections to the essential structure of the classical narrative:
What I particularly dislike is the underlying ideology: central conflict theory…I recall the first statement of the theory: a story begins when someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it….What I immediately found unacceptable was this direct relations between will…and the petty play of strategies and tactics around a goal which if not in itself banal, is certainly rendered so. (Ruiz 11)
The dominant role of the will of the central character is clearly identified as the locus of the mechanisms within classic screenwriting approaches:
Central conflict theory manufactures athletic fiction and offers to take us on a journey. Prison of the protagonist’s will, we are subjected to the various stages making up a conflict of which he, the protagonist, is at once guardian and captive. (Ruiz 13–14)
Ruiz’ resistance to the constrictions of classical narrative structure is palpable in his language and in his argument for different styles of storytelling or filmmaking:
Even more than scenes devoid of any action, central conflict theory banishes what we called mixed scenes: an ordinary meal interrupted by an incomprehensible incident with neither rhyme nor reason and no future either so it ends up as an ordinary meal once more. (Ruiz 11)
Ruiz gives us a sense of the narrative shackles which are resisted in many art film approaches, where we see a different weight between causal and protagonist links. Not bound by the same set of rules between character, plot and conflict, a different relationship to the imperatives of story becomes possible.
Specific sorts of realism motivate a loosening of cause and effect…and an enhancement of the film’s symbolic dimension through an emphasis on the fluctuations of character psychology. (Bordwell Narration 206)
This opens up a form ideal for exploring more subjective experiences – the blending and blurring of reality and dream become acceptable, even desirable, and may well have an entirely different narrative purpose.
One major consequence of the goal-bereft protagonist, the episodic format, the central boundary situation, and the spatiotemporal “expressive” effects is to focus on the limitations upon character …enhance identification (character knowledge matches ours)…the narrow focus is complemented by psychological depth; art film narration is more subjective more often than is classical narration. For this reason, the art film has been a principal source of experiments in representing psychological activity in the fiction film. (Bordwell Narration 209)
One of the psychological activities that becomes a territory for exploration and experiment is the dream, the vision, the reverie. If we return for a moment to our example of Wild Strawberries, and to Professor Borg’s reflection on his life, his nostalgia for his childhood and adolescence, his mounting regrets of the limitations of his human relationships. These are not items of dramatic action, and yet as a strong example of art cinema narrative, they have been woven in successfully to convey the character’s need for transformation – they are revelations of internal conflicts with the external pressure of his sense of the nearing end of his life.
According to screenplay structure, the “inciting incident” of Wild Strawberries would be Professor Borg’s first dream. “Inciting incident” is a popular term in screenwriting, referring to how “the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows, putting into motion the other four elements – Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, Resolution.” (McKee 181) And so it is Professor Borg’s dream which sets an existential quest into motion, and the basis on which his decisions start to be made, further observations begin to turn, leading to a spiritual transformation that happens in the course of the day rendered in the film. Borg’s dream is the first causal factor: he wakes up from the dream and chooses to drive (a change in plans), which in turn, gives him time alone with his daughter-in-law (who happens to speak frankly to him on this occasion), and they have a series of adventures along the way, all of which feeds into his self-reflective mood. Everything, ultimately, is leading to a deep change of attitude in the character.
As viewers, we are privy to his internal life, we see his dreams, the daydreams – we notice the missing hands of the clock in the dream and appreciate the emphasis on the missing watch hands at Borg’s mother’s house, we sense his distress at the echo of the image. The character’s existential crisis and ensuing personal transformation are intrinsically linked to connections between dream and life. As an “art film” we see that while the narrative shape of Wild Strawberries is constructed around the cause and effect of night dreams and daytime musings on mortality to a transformation in the character, however, this is not the driving, goal-specific, time-bound structure of an action film – the links between moments are much looser. But over the course of Wild Strawberries, Professor Borg changes, and this change is effected by the influence of various things, both the more nebulous subjective moments, and the human encounters on the trip. The external events such as the conversation with his daughter-in-law and his sympathetic encounter with a young woman and her friends, are facilitated and echoed by his dreams and memories. The small nature of these events nonetheless drastically alter his personality over the course of 24 hours.
If we shift our gaze away from both mainstream American and European art film to consider an even deeper cultural distinction, as Bordwell observes: “it seems likely that, in non-Western cultures, following a story does not take the exact forms it does in ours.” (“Classical” 34) While it is difficult to identify precisely how true this is, there are some strong indicators that we will see some different tendencies and approaches within a different cultural context. Some of the differences we can observe relate to a different attitude towards causality, some of it about protagonist’s will, and the context of the community. Individual will may mean something different if the individual’s role in the group, the community is different from what we understand about individuality and individuation in the West.
Here we will be looking at story theory, or oral storytelling theory, as there is no film theory directly addressing these questions, but this nonetheless gives a sense of cultural context and priorities. Alfred Kroker, an author from a family with a respected legacy in this anthropological area, says in his introduction to Native American Storytelling, “for Indians, storytelling was their most important cultural activity.” (6)
The Indian teller evokes his listeners’ freedom to imagine. The teller does not trace out explicit connection; he provokes listeners to conceive of these. He is not telling a story he privately invented but one that belongs to his people, one that has been told before and will be told again by others. (Kroker 5)
He locates the place of storytelling in the culture to give us a sense of how the tropes and narrative conventions have evolved in a particular context, and evolved quite differently from many Western / Aristotlian conventions.
Stories that had been told for years, decades, even generations were familiar to everyone but the youngest children. Since Native Americans cultures did not favor professional storytellers, and everyone told stories, listeners to a story might well have told that story themselves, perhaps many times. So suspense, passive curiosity as to what happens next, was of little interest to any Indian. (Kroker 2)
This is strikingly different from the Western tradition. Indeed, if we look to Aristotle, he places a clear negative value judgment on storytelling that is not built with strong causal links: “Among simple plots and actions, the episodic are the worst. By ‘episodic’ I mean one in which there is no probability or necessity for the order in which the episodes follow one another.” (34) But apparently this is not universally true.
In Indian stories, plot often serves mainly to bring into meaningful contrast parallel actions, scenes, characters, and speeches that have no direct causal connection. This large rhetorical structure is supported by a preference for paratactic sentences…Our style is to connect the two parts of the sentence with an unequivocal cause-effect relation, a relation often made equivocal in Indian stories. It is not that Indians necessarily believe that bears hibernating cause winter, but they are more modest then we in assuming they infallibly know what causes things to happen….the paratactic style leaves more to listeners imaginations – they are not told what the relation of two events is. (Kroker 4)
Four – Surrealism and Dreams
Surrealism seems a mandatory touchstone in any investigation about dreams in film, as the Surrealists were passionate initiators of artistic exploration into ideas about dreams in their painting, film, experiments in automatic writing, etc. They were avid readers and huge fans of Freud, taking from him the notion of the psyche’s need to release repressed desires, allowing a space for rebellion of the psyche from the constraints of society – they were a place of liberty and play in ideas and imagery. They also borrowed Freud’s practice of free association, were fascinated by psychoanalysis and dreams, the whole notion of the unconscious and the imagery born therein. Andre Breton, poet laureate of the Surrealists said of the breakthroughs of Freud, “under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind anything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition or fancy…a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer – and in my opinion the most important part – has been brought back to light”. (Coxhead and Hiller 15) The Surrealist movement was one of the significant early artistic movements openly taking on the church and other social institutions prone to repressive and hypocritical positions. They loved unusual and surprising things, were interested in spiritism, mysticism, Shamanism, anything that revealed something “merveilleux”. They delighted in shocking polite society – scandal was preferred to success.
As filmmakers, the original Surrealists, centered in Paris in the 20’s and 30’s, were known for their defiance of logic, cultivating instead a deliberate illogic, a methodical randomness, which served as a fundamental rejection of the tyranny of causality within narrative. One event need not be followed by another with a direct causal link – a series of events with no apparent relation to one another can be strung together. However, this wanton approach to narrative did not have a totally arbitrary aim – the critique of society was sought through this rebellion as play, through the mocking of conventional structure. Plots, if they exist, are absurd, characters have no discernable goals or motivations, ultimately critiquing the society they portrayed. This is beyond art cinema as a subjective exercise, representing the internal world of a character – what we see in Surrealism is an interest and engagement with dreamlike sensations. Surrealism shows a commitment to the imagery and sensations of the psyche in its most raw form, in all of its random and disturbing glory.
Un Chien Andalou
Un Chien Andalou, made in 1929, was a collaboration between Luis Buñuel, the quintessentially Surrealist filmmaker, and Salvador Dali, one of the most successful Surrealist painters. The film is perhaps the purest, most faithful example of a dream-like landscape with all the illogic of a dream.
Un Chien Andalou was born of the encounter between my dreams and Dali’s. Later, I brought dreams directly into my films, trying as hard as I could to avoid any analysis. (Buñuel 92)
They employed a technique of free association (that was also used in psychoanalysis) and maintained a rule of strict randomness allowing in only that which delighted or surpised:
We soon found ourselves hard at work, and in less than a week we had a script. Our only rule was simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why. (Buñuel 104)
They were interested only in images that surprise, and created a film that reproduces the sensation of dream symbolism and imagery, and staying completely off the spectrum of narrative logic. Un Chien Andalou is unusual as it does not actually use the trope of the dream, there is no dreamer who awakens, no startling from sleep, yet it is one of the most famously “dream-like” films ever. The entire film appears to be inside a dream, in its language, in its impossible leaps, its bizarre juxtapositions. Very few passing moments begin to seem to sustain a narrative or a coherence before descending into chaos. Although there are two main characters, it would be impossible to discern anything in the way of character traits or goals from the apparently random series of scenes that unfold.
Buñuel … underscores the importance of psychoanalytic constructs as models for the film. ‘Un Chien Andalou does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams’. (Kuenzli 144)
The film is not the story of a dream being told as a dream, but an assembling of images and moments that are like dreams. It is its own world – there is no attempt to relate the bizarre dream-state to a larger narrative framework. There is a powerful shock value in the erotic imagery, the twisted religious imagery, the disturbing imagery of insects and death, yet there is also a sense of delight and humour in the improbable and impossible. Discontinuity of time and space is both faithful to the experience of dreams and comic when rendered on film. A look out the window from an apartment on a city stree and the sudden impossible appearance of a beach (as up until now we have seen only the street), or arbitrary interruptions of timelines are surprising and funny.
In Buñuel’s Chien Andalou, an intertitle intervenes to announce 10 years earlier in the midst of a scene that is marked by the absence of any such temporal reference…the later forms of filmic surrealism are less absolute about this mockery of temporal reference. (Turim 226-227)
This small film has remained an important and still shocking classic of Surrealist vision – the rigorousness of the fidelity to a dreamlike world is unparalleled.
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Made much later in Buñuel’s career, in 1972, the mature yet still playful Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has the simple yet absurdist premise of a group of upper-class friends trying to dine together but being continually interrupted or thwarted in various strange and unlikely ways. The films is composed of a series of Raul Ruiz’ “mixed scenes”, but to an exaggerated degree in the randomness of bizarre events and juxtapositions. There is no “athletic” plot, no characters driving the story forward to clearly set goals. Indeed, the frivolity of the premise has a parallel to the rather empty lives – a kind of comment on the petty concerns of these characters as portrayed, the inability to get a decent meal, such are the trials and tribulations. There is almost a sense of character motivation in the attempts to dine together, but the continuing absurdist frustration appears to mock this, as a subversion of the narrative convention itself to thwart the main “goal” of the characters to dine together, as the goal is never achieved for a variety of strange and unlikely and increasingly comic reasons – someone forgot, the dates were confused, the inn-keeper is dead, the room is a stage, the army arrives, they are all arrested, they are all gunned down.
This is complemented with the generalized narrative chaos – strangers recount dreams and childhood events without any relevance to the central characters or the moment of recounting, or when they go to dine at an inn, the inn owner lies dead in a back room. As the scenes become increasingly strange – a shooting incident leads to eating underneath a table, a dinner with two rubbery chickens becomes an awkward moment on a stage in front of an audience. This is an immediately familiar sensation, a recognizably “universal dreams” as identified by Patricia Garfield – the private moment suddenly public and without preparation, the embarrassment, the social anxiety (“je ne connais pas le texte…mon dieu, qu’est ce que je fais ici?”).
Early in the film, the scenes seem absurdist, but perhaps still within the possible, but as the film moves on, the scenes become increasingly over the top, and the references to dreams, or dreamers waking, more and more frequent. Many of these later scenes are punctuated with one of the characters startling awake as if the preceding scene had simply been a dream. Dreams are also told publicly in the most unlikely moments – the sudden presence of the army at dinner who are just as suddenly called away urgently, yet pause to have a sergeant tell everyone present a dream which bears no relation to anything. (“no one’s really interested in other people’s dreams”) Contained within the open parentheses of a dream, the trope of the dreamer awakening is followed by a few moments that seem almost like normal real life that quickly turn into bizarre, absurd scenes, as one dream feeds into the next like a set of Russian dolls. This classic trope of the character waking up after a dream is repeated again and again with different characters with comic effect, creating a labyrinthine sensation of dreams strung together.
The point of identification with a character is fluid, moving between the different characters startling awake in their chair. There is no clear center of subjectivity, heightening the confusion and disorientation, and as all scenes have both a sense of realism and strange absurdity, a clear tonal separation is not possible, making a distinction between dream and reality very blurred.
The dream-relationships of film space combine with the nature of film time to encourage an ambiguity that may be fruitful or merely irritating. 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)
Discreet Charm exaggerates and takes to an extreme the disorientation which Sparshott has identified here, and by the end of the film it feels nearly impossible to identify which sequence might have been absurdist waking life, and which sequence a dream.
This series of comic and bizarre scenes allow for societal critique, for a continual poking of fun at the bourgeoisie, who for crying out loud, can never seem to sit down and have a meal in peace. The string of meetings, the unspecific or non-urgent “goal” of the characters is in fact never realized, any motivation is left vague, and the continual frustration of the simple completion of a meal means it is not a classically gratifying narrative plot. Thus we can contemplate the minutiae of lunch and tea and dinner, the mean and petty class condescension, the hypocrisies and corruption around drugs and politics. Several times this group of friends is shown walking along a long empty road, tired and quietly making their way. This scene serves as a kind of metaphoric baseline connecting the path of the friends as a group in an interminable journey, highlighting again the group as group rather than individual characters perspectives, goals and point of view. In a way this motif is as dreamlike as the rest, as it has no connection to any other element in the chaotic narrative, and feels metaphoric in its conception – an endless walk that leads nowhere.
This 1998 film is from the highly prolific Raul Ruiz, a Chilean in France, is not from the Surrealist movement in its original historical sense, but is made by a filmmaker who is generally seen to be keeping the surrealist sensibility and themes alive. Many of Ruiz’ films are even more obscure and elliptical than Shattered Image, which is ultimately a relatively grounded narrative, but it is also a highly unusual narrative / dreaming construction. Ruiz’s theoretical writing about central conflict theory has also been enormously helpful in understanding the imperatives of many scripts.
In Shattered Image, Ruiz exhibits a strong interest in psychology, though it is a very specific psychological phenomenon that he conveys with not the content but the form of the film. Very early in the film it is established that there are two characters named Jessie, played by the same actress (Ann Parillaud), each dreaming the other – for expedience I will call them Honeymoon Jessie and Hitman Jessie. They are easily distinguishable, as Hitman Jessie wears a wig and heavy make-up and is in the business of assassinating people, lending her character an artificiality and unlikeliness, while Honeymoon Jessie is a more ordinary, timid, if troubled young woman.
Although the first footing of the story begins with Honeymoon Jessie, it becomes difficult to distinguish whose narrative is the “real” one, as they appear to dream each other in equal measure, their stories going off in their own directions for extended periods of screen time. Each Jessie has a full, elaborate narrative, appearing to weight them almost equally. This of course causes some ambiguity and confusion, creating a desire for the viewer to determine what is real, replicating the central character’s need to determine what is actually happening to her. The viewer does not know any more than the character does, a classical art film device that pushes the focus of the film into the psychological experience itself, as art films often do. As Bordwell says, many art films will:
[…]focus on the limitations of character knowledge. Unlike most classical films the art film is apt to be quite restricted in its range of knowledge. Such restriction may enhance identification (character knowledge matches ours)…the narrow focus is complemented by psychological depth; art film narration is more subjective more often than is classical narration. For this reason, the art film has been a principal source of experiments in representing psychological activity in the fiction film. (Bordwell Narration 209)
Here there is a kind of metaphoric use of the dream for what is happening in the psyche –
Jessie suffers a kind of psychic splitting where one part of the self cannot face or incorporate another part, but will dream it. The dream serves as a means by which the psyche knows its other side, both mind and story making the psychiatric phenomenon appear real. The film structure itself is shaped by the psychic problem – the dreaming women dreaming each other is clearly an impossibility, yet an effective expression of a psychological reality. However, as a thriller, in this story it is crucial that the information each Jessie has access to be shared, as Jessie appears to be in some danger, threatened perhaps by a stranger, or perhaps by her husband (William Baldwin).
Hitman Jessie appears to know Honeymoon Jessie’s husband in a completely different context and light, or perhaps it is that she is able to see / face the evil nature of the husband. It is in Hitman Jessie’s scenes that she / we are able to discover the troubling secrets about the husband that Honeymoon Jessie remains unaware of, or only becomes aware of via her dreams of Hitman Jessie’s world. Eventually it becomes clear that Honeymoon Jessie is the original dreamer, the true main character who has dreamt of this other self, Hitman Jessie, who is another, apparently bad, but perhaps stronger, element in Jessie’s self. This other Jessie has allowed her access to the essential information that will save her life. Within the hybrid psychological / thriller narrative there is a need to know the truth, both for the survival of the character in the face of danger, and the need to heal the psychic split and incorporate the two selves.
Five – Contemporary California
Years ago, Hollywood was known as The Dream Factory, the place where dreams were made. In retrospect we recognize that the dreams they had in mind were in fact aspirations, fantasies, the American dream, the day dream – these are not the kind of dreams Freud was writing about. However this version of the trope of the dream could be seen at times in genres such as the musical – a fantastical genre, with dreams playing a fantastical role within that genre. The deeper exploration of the dream as a truly subjective experience was more the domain of the European art film, gradually infiltrating American productions in the cultural and cinematic revolution in the 60’s and 70’s. As mentioned previously, dreams have often discouraged as a facile psychological device by many screenwriting gurus, yet we do see plenty of dream tropes appearing in more contemporary American film and television has tended to be a “weird” entity, more common in off-beat, artsy, or “highbrow” productions, referencing a European sensibility and / or language integrated into more classically American genres. This blend would seem to be our current heritage in media literacy, the absorption of European or even experimental passages into otherwise mainstream fare.
Here we will look at a small selection of work out of the larger studios in the last 20 years – works chosen, on the one hand, as examples of the trope of the dream par excellence in the classical narrative construction a la Hollywood, and on the other, as interesting examples of attitudes towards dreaming and the mind in the current dominant society. Part of what is interesting in this sub-division is that the subjective – the dream, fantasy, memory, hallucination, all that was once the domain of the art film – are now being explored within some very mainstream, blockbuster productions that are working on some level with the subjective state as an important point of departure. Throughout these examples we see various strains of contemporary cultural influence, scientific and mystical, the video-game / the cyber-punk generation, and the New Age grab-bag of psychic and spiritual notions. The few examples here show a range of preoccupations and philosophical questions spread through several genres. Given the quantity of productions coming out of the American studio system, there are dozens of films that could be considered here – I have tried to choose just a few that are representative of trends of in some way and also interesting unto themselves.
The 1999 blockbuster film by Andy and Larry Wachowski, is a prime example of the sci-fi / action genre, a cyber-punk-thriller, “where dream, reality and cyberspace become completely confused”. (Packer 20) As the text on the back of the DVD package puts it: “Perception: Our day-in, day-out world is real. Reality: That world is a hoax, and elaborate deception spun by all-powerful machines of Artificial Intelligence that control us. Whoa.”
As a genre, sci-fi doesn’t necessarily to correspond much with reality – events in an imaginary world can be explained with an imaginary sci-fi logic. Yet sci-fi will often speak to anxieties or thoughts prevalent in the culture with regards to the nature of the human experience – a kind of inflated reality, rich in the possibilities of imagination, but also closely shaped by themes in the world as it is. The generated illusion of the Matrix is a version of virtual reality.
Virtual reality itself is, of course, a long-standing science-fiction device… “commonplace in [science fiction],” the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction states, “is the use of a direct electronic interface between the human brain and the AI which gives the plugged-in person the illusion of occupying and interacting with a reality whose apparent locus may extend beyond the AI to those of the data networks of which it is a part. (Gunn 66)
This is slightly different from another sci-fi film, The Cell, in which the imagined technologies facilitate two human minds interacting with each other, as one character enters the dreamspace of the other. In other recent sci-fi films such as Total Recall, or The Manchurian Candidate or Vanilla Sky, for example, we see the repetition of the idea of mind control, where in the future the mind is able to be rewritten or programmed by outside forces. The philosophy underlying the interests at work or the motivations for mind control can vary between machines to corrupt government forces to one’s own self, attempting to rewrite reality when it is too unbearable. But The Matrix is closer in semi-subversive tone to Total Recall, as suggested by Sharon Packer’s observation:
Total Recall’s message is very twentieth century: listen to your dreams and to your dreams only, for they alone tell the truth. Dreams can set you free, free of inhibitions that govern waking life and free of equally corrosive government control. Dreams, for postpsychoanalytic man, are the voice of autonomy, rather than authority. Whereas ancient man’s dreams were populated by deities, who sent messages through dreams, modern man’s dreams are portrayed as being impervious to the most invasive assault and are bulwarks against even the ‘memory bolus’. (Packer 77)
During the first 15 or 20 minutes of The Matrix, there is a sensation that the character awakens and awakens and awakens – a hint of labyrinthine layers of reality, an echo of Discreet Charm in this, evoking a confused and ambiguously surreal experience, from which each waking is not a real escape. The Matrix plays on this sensation during the first few scenes as one element of the suspense / action genre, toying with what is dream, what is not – the unlikely dreamy feeling of the computer that addresses Neo; the white rabbit that appears on a woman’s shoulder; the interrogation scene where Neo’s mouth fuses into a piece of skin, and the metallic scorpion/bug crawls into his bellybutton appear to be too horrifying and unreal to be anything other than a nightmare – they must be impossible, it must be a dream. So when Neo awakens, scrambling and sweating in his bed as if from a nightmare – the impression to both him and the viewer is that this was a particularly nasty dream. Yet just a little later when Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the others have him in the car, and suck the scorpion creature out of his belly, Neo exclaims, “That thing is real?”, clarifying for us that it is not, was not a dream after all.
This apparent labyrinth of dream and reality ultimately becomes decipherable and understandable, the reference point for reality becoming clearly established once Neo is awoken from the final layer: the Matrix itself. This is done once he has met Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and taken the red pill. In Ancient Greece, Morpheus was the Keeper of Dreams – here in the Matrix his role is essentially that of the Awakener.
While the primary footing within the labyrinthine reality / dream blend for The Matrix is in a dream world, a subjective state, it plays essentially like an action film – it does not often feel very much like dreams the way Un Chien Andalou or Wild Strawberries do. The characters have strong motivations and goals to defeat the enslaving system that Morpheus has revealed to them. And ultimately the dreams are not actually dreams as we have been considering them, it is the mind as Playstation, as a splice or a plug-in, the human brain literally plugged in as if into a video game console, or a computer. We watch the characters moving through fight sequences, action sequences, yet it is a generated virtual “dream” world we are watching, they are actually lying with their eyes closed on Morpheus’ ship. They have sockets on their bodies, actual physical plugs, and can be plugged into alternate scenarios – programs can be downloaded into the brain, or the crew can hack their way into the Matrix. Neo wakes up again and again in the chair on Morpheus’ ship – he has been unconscious, his body immobile while the action continues in his mind. This is the trope of the dream, yet they are not really dreams. As Morpheus says to Neo, trying to explain the Matrix, it is “a neural interactive simulation”, or “a computer generated dream-world”.
Similar to dreams, these virtual worlds look and feel like reality – in fact, while living in the Matrix, the characters were not aware that they were not in fact conscious and awake. What Morpheus teaches Neo is a concept fundamentally like that of lucid dreaming – a kind of dreaming where one is aware and sentient whilst in the dream, where one is unconscious, yet strangely conscious. This awareness allows one to choose action, movement and events, rather than watching things unfold without volition. Morpheus reveals the key for mastery of the situation: the mind’s capacity for thinking and believing in a reality of its own choosing. “Your mind makes it real”, says Morpheus. Neo’s challenge is in part, his ability to decipher what is real and to work within the generated illusions – it is thus that he will find success.
If the mind is essentially a PlayStation shell into which different realities can be inserted, if the mind is a malleable entity, this reveals an approach to the nature of the human brain itself as a kind of operating system that can be overridden. This is the more reductive version of reality – the scientific culture, in a sense, questioning itself. “The message of The Matrix is that we are already pawns in a modern technological society where life happens around us but is scarcely influenced by us.” (Schuchardt 21) The quest, or the motivation for the characters, for all of them, is freedom, individuation, the control of their own lives. Even though they may not have been fully aware of their enslavement, there is a sense that even though asleep, they still knew that they were not really the masters of their own fate. The film reveals a fundamental distrust of technology and hints at an underlying desire for freedom and autonomy from overly mechanized systems generally. Part of the popularity of the Matrix was surely this counter-culture sensibility, the resistance to “the system” as there is a sense of the tedium and enslavement of ordinary life.
This 2001 production from Allan and Albert Hughes is based on the graphic novel version of Jack the Ripper’s story – it is one of many thrillers made about the first known serial killer. The film is set vividly at the end of the 19th century, in a world where laudanum and opium are popular drugs, and our main character, Detective Abberline (Johnny Depp), is both a drug addict and a clairvoyant. Detective Abberline, is a man who has dreams or more precisely, opium-induced visions. In these visions it is as if he is being given clues to help solve a case, but they are fragmentary. Vague as they may be, they are leads like any other, which he most follow to solve the crime, to find, in this case, the serial killer of prostitutes.
The compelling whodunit narrative drive is stoked and fed by the glimpses offered in these visions – the strength of the suspense of the detective story creates a tension, a suspense into and out of the potential clues revealed in his dreams. They are part of the, “…clues in a detective story…the audience concentrates on constructing the story …” (Bordwell “Classical” 25) The audience concentrates on separating the many red herrings from the bona fide leads, vicariously participating in the uncovering and revealing of that which is hidden. Abberline’s visions, show flickers of small clues – he sees facts, he sees what exists or as it is about to exist, and tries to follow the information. There is no question or doubt within the basic narrative, between Abberline and his partner, that what he sees is what has happened and may provide some small light onto the case. However, if we look closely it can be observed that what Detective Abberline sees in these visions is ultimately a little hyper-edited version of the murders with a cloaked silhouetted figure committing them – he has no real further information on the murders, he only knows that they are happening and what they look like. It is in fact a slightly misleading device to use these visions as if they were a source of special information for this detective – the kinetic, breathless energy of the sequences appears to deliver discovery, but actually they do not seem to give him much at all in the way of new information or insight or knowledge. They mostly just announce a new murder.
Narratively, it is an interesting double-bind for Abberline, as he is assigned to the case, but he also is essentially bound to the case, as the visions invade his personal space – he sees this story, so is deeply engaged on an inescapable personal level. In a sense the dream sequences bring us deeper into the detective’s subjectivity, we are brought closer to his ability to see some partial information and to feel the need to respond to it – the sequences stay within his subjective experience of it, the visions a kind of movie within a movie with their own grainy texture and flickering fragmented old-movie feel. The attempt to work with this device is what most interests us – it plays almost as a kind of stray element of the Spiritualist movement current in Europe at the time, mainly worthy of contempt and derision from the upper classes and their growing focus on science and medicine. This division of society into the respectable science-bound camps and the hokey spiritualist camps, is something we still see as a fundamental dynamic in modern life. There are several of these layers and themes of culture at work in From Hell, largely about the period and setting of late Victorian England, or as the quote from Jack the Ripper that opens the film suggests: “One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the 20th century”. Thematically, there are the class dynamics and hypocrisies around sexuality of Victorian England – the need to cover up sins. But there is also the emergence of science as the new religion in this time period – the scenes of doctors and elites agape at the unveiling of John Merrick and reverently observing a lobotomy are not particularly functional to the plot, but comment on the society of the time and the rise of science. This played alongside the derision of Detective Abberline’s visions, nicely contrasts the growing division of the serious and scholarly from the silly and superstitious. Clairvoyance is still a current, if marginal idea in contemporary society – in some circles respected and consulted for crime work, yet in others relegated to the freak zone of UFO’s and werewolves. From Hell is a kind of high-end version of a genre of paranormal suspense represented also in the plethora of television programs such as Rescue Mediums, The Listener, Ghost Whisperer, etc etc.
Six Feet Under – Season Two
The popular HBO drama Six Feet Under, was a critically acclaimed, highbrow television series that ran for five seasons from 2001 through 2005. Season Two, 2002, is perhaps where the series truly finds its stride in its use of dreams, reveries, and talking to dead people within an otherwise realist drama about the Fisher family who run a funeral home. Throughout the five seasons, the series frequently used dream sequences, lapses into fantasy and / or conversations with dead people. Often these conversations are with those who have been brought into the family’s funeral home, and often they are conversations the main character Nate (Peter Krauze), or sometimes siblings David (Michael C. Hall) and even Claire (Lauren Ambrose) have with their dead father (Richard Jenkins). These conversations with dead people are a kind of signature of the series, and many episodes also have dream sequences. Since there are many characters, the classic dream tropes help distinguish which character is dreaming – a character startling awake in their bed, or falling asleep on the couch, the heightened reality of the dream world, the symbolic language.
In the first episode of this season, “In the Game”, Nate finds out more about the brain condition he was diagnosed with in Season One. Mortality is on his mind even more than usual for a funeral home director as his own is what is worrying him. Driving back from the doctor, he argues vehemently with his father in the car – a cue to regular viewers of the un-real element to the scene, as the death of the father, the patriarch of the family, opened Season One. Nate is angry as he drives, but there is actually no one else in the car, a fact clarified at the end of the scene when Nate is seen alone in the car, honking and cursing. However the argument with the father helps vocalize Nate’s internal world (an expository function) but in a way that creates a tense dialogue, an active struggle over the injustice and fickle ways of life and death, laying the ground for Nate’s fierce internal conflict which comes up over and over again in the series. The final shots revealing the father’s absence at the end of the scene create a poignancy to Nate’s solitude. Later Nate accidentally takes an ecstasy tablet and shows up at the family dinner, comically, high. As the evening turns to late night, he sits out his high alone on the couch in front of the television. He is vaguely reclining when laughter comes from down the hallway and he walks towards the sound. A loud music cue, and a slow dramatic approach to the room down the hall signal the beginning of an unusual scene, and indeed when Nate opens the door, the room is somehow flooded with light and draped with oriental carpets, and there is Dad sitting with two strangers. Dad’s presence again makes it clear we are not quite in reality here, but the unreality goes far beyond Dad, given the lighting, the music, the strange characters who turn out to be Death (Stanley Kamel) and Life (Cleo King), all playing a game of Chinese Checkers. They ask Nate if he is going to play, saying pointedly, “you’re IN the game, or OUT”. Nate is belligerent with Death, his Dad cautions him, and Death laughs and growls like a lion. Slowly, strangely, Life and Death begin to copulate in a chair, layers of dozens of animal sounds coming out of them. Dad pulls Nate aside and says to him, “All that lives, lives forever. Only the shell, the perishable passes away. The spirit is without end, eternal, deathless.” Suddenly Nate is startling from his sleep, still on the couch in front of the television – the dream is over, the hallucinatory scene finished. He scribbles down the words his father has just spoken to him, and reads them to Brenda later as they sit together on the beach. She tells him he has read that quote from the Bhagavita at her house, and he is disappointed that it appears then just to be “recycled crap from my brain”.
There are several layers at work here – on the one hand, this is the exposition writers are warned about, the theme is clearly Nate’s anxiety about his own mortality. Yet, in terms of advancing the story, it takes us deep into Nate’s interior world, effectively dramatizing the internal struggle that Nate is having around his newly discovered illness. The question as to whether Nate will continue to live, will continue to be “in the game”, is posited almost as one of will – does he want to play or not? Is he getting on the bus or not? The use of the archetypal figures of Life and Death strongly evokes Jungian symbolism, as does the fundamental problem of the Self’s questioning its direction at this juncture. The conversation later between Nate and Brenda to some extent diminishes, almost dismissing the dream as “janitorial function” of the brain, nothing more than regurgitation. However, by its presence, by its rendering within the body of the show, the sequence has considerable narrative weight and function – we feel the exploration of the character’s preoccupation with death, and the pressure of the question as to whether he is “in the game” or not.
It is one of the more memorable dream sequences of the series, and is answered / followed up in the last episode of the season, Episode 13, “The Last Time”, when Nate finally undergoes surgery. Drugs are administered, he is unconscious, and we see him jogging at the side of the highway, though we continue to hear the sounds of the hospital and his breathing in the background. A bus pulls up alongside him to a stop. The doors open. Nate stands at the entrance to the bus – it is empty; it waits for him. Will he get on the bus, or not? The larger theme of the series, mortality, is brought to a poignant open end.
Six – Native North America
In this section we will be looking at dreams in First Nations productions, but the category has quite a bit of slip in it between primarily First Nations productions and those made with largely non-Native writers, directors and producers that convey or portray elements of Native American stories and beliefs. Again the films are chosen because of their dream sequences or the address of dreams and their presence and role in characters’ lives, and we will be looking mainly at the relation of dream sequence to narrative whole. The smaller (if ever-growing) rate of production of Native films, and the limitations of distribution, make the choices in this chapter to some degree about availability, so there is some fluctuation between more experimental films and made-for-TV afternoon specials, in many ways is a more immediately visible level of variation. In the following examples, we see many recognizable traits of genre and other cinematic conventions: detective stories, surrealist elements, and the satisfying personal trajectories of central characters. But in these films, in this world, dreams have a different role, a different substance, and we begin to see a very different kind of attention accorded to dreams and visions. Although there is much variation in the following examples, generally it can be said of the dream sequences that there is not the focus on the incoherence or illogic in dreams; there is not the gleeful revelry in the bizarre that we see from the Surrealists; there is not the deeply personalized internal state and nostalgic reverie of Professor Borg in Wild Strawberries; there is no notable interest in science, and dreams do not need to be explained as a phenomenon in the material world. In this world, dreams seem to have a kind of solidity – dreams are something that are taken as messages or even as real events, and are brought into waking life as something requiring corresponding action. Within these examples we see a broad range of storytelling styles, using sometimes loose but other times very strong causal links. We will be looking again at the relationship between dream and waking life – the extent to which they feed one into the other, influence each other, is our main point of interest. The operative question is: how does the world view, the philosophical understanding of dreams and what they are / how they function then relate to the narrative?
Little Big Man
One of the goofy, early cinematic versions of Native American stories is Little Big Man , completed in 1970. The film is epic in scope, but has a tonal levity to it, thanks largely to the slightly cornball performance and narration by main character Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). The dreams in the film emanate from his adoptive aboriginal “Grandfather” (played by Chief Dan George). We do not see Grandfather’s dreams – they are not visualized and his subjective experience is not explored, they are simply told to and by Hoffman’s character, Jack Crabb. This second-hand telling, or filtration via narrator Jack Crabb creates an ambivalent, semi-investment in the dreams as narrative events – it allows for the events to be spelled out as they have been dreamt, yet the voice-over keeps the relationship between dream and unfolding events in an ambivalent position, on the one hand showing the possible causal connections between dream and reality, and yet told with a question mark, almost a whimsical feel to the telling, as to nostalgic events that seemed magical at the time, but maybe you had to be there.
Grandfather’s dreams are given plenty of articulation via Crabb’s narration, and their visionary, prophetic quality plays out as the film progresses. But the connection between dream and event is made with an ambiguous, questioning tone, leaving the interpretation or direct causal connection quite vague. Although what Grandfather dreams generally comes to pass, the links are left somewhat loose, as second-hand musings. It is a whimsical approach, charming, yet rife with the narrator’s doubt, as he says repeatedly, “now I don’t know why,” remaining non-committal to reading to much cause and effect into anything.
In one interesting example Grandfather dreams of the distress of the tribe’s ponies, but as the moment of the ponies’ distress comes to pass, it is in the middle of a raid by white soldiers. Confused at the presence of the soldiers who were not part of the dream, and trapped in the camp and looking for a means of escape, Hoffman’s character suggests that since there were no soldiers in the dream, they are insignificant. Using a kind of reverse logic on the prophetic nature of Grandfather’s dreams, he figures that since the dream about the ponies did not include the invading soldiers, they themselves must not be visible to the soldiers, and the two of them stumble through the murderous mayhem unharmed. It is a kind of goofy cause and effect reversed – if it was not dreamt, it cannot be.
Shelley Niro’s 2005 piece, Suite Indian, is an episodic mid-length film composed of various short segments. Niro is a Mohawk artist and filmmaker who works in and speaks to a highly developed dreaming culture so there is a prominence given to dream and vision type sequences in many of her film projects. Most of her films to date have been experimental, or experimental narratives, sometimes performative with either dance or performance art elements, often dipping into a campy aesthetic. Some of the references in her work are very specific to Haudenosaunee culture – in particular there is much retelling of the major cultural narratives of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, two figures of enormous prominence in Haudenosaunee history and storytelling.
One segment from Suite Indian, entitled Mars Thunderchild Gets a Calling, tells the story of a young woman who dreams an elaborate dream of talking to Sitting Bull on the phone about identity and the suffering of different generations. Using a tonal levity, via both absurdism and an animation sequence, she is able to evoke a dream quality and address serious issues. In the dream, Sitting Bull gives Mars Thunderchild “the world”, in the form of a glowing blue disco ball, that she places under her pillow. When she awakens, hidden under her pillow, is the shining blue disco ball – she still has “the world in her hands”. It is a filmic representation of the notion of wishes of the soul being fulfilled immediately. “The force of the unconscious desires of the individual, which are so compelling that ‘it would be cruelty, nay, murder, not to give a man the subject of his dream’.” (Wallace 242) Although the “how” of the dream and waking reality is not a concern, and does not feel necessary given the levity and kitsch symbolic nature of the piece, the need for manifestation of dream wishes and their gratification is conveyed.
Kissed by Lightning
Kissed by Lightning is a soon-to-be-released feature film by Shelley Niro, which I viewed several times in the rough cut and fine cut stages. It is an exceptionally dream-filled film, highly subjective, and with many strong elements of Haudenausonee culture in content and structure. The film features a complex weave between present and past within the waking narrative as well as the dreams which dominate the film – the waking narrative appearing to be almost secondary to the dreaming narrative. In fact, it is not unlike the approach of Ruiz’ Shattered Image, in that the film is structured and split according to the main character’s psychic struggle. The story involves a woman’s need to let go of her husband who has passed away, and engage fully with a man who loves her in the present. She dreams frequently and vividly, and fragments of the Iroquois Condolence Ceremony are told or explained as a historical story, mixed in with her grief for her husband. The Condolence Ceremony refers back to a story of grief and healing that any Haudenosaunee person would have heard many times – the fragments recalling the whole, the storyteller recalling the tradition in its entirety. It is the story of a ceremony that was brought to the Haudenosaunee people by the Peacemaker, is a running subtly embedded theme, as is the Peacemaker’s journey through the ancestral Iroquois homeland of upstate New York, evoked by the driving trip Mavis (Kateri Walker) and Bug (Eric Schweig) make, stopping at notable landmarks like the Kateri Shrine.
There are several things happening with the dreams on their more personal level – they function as both back story of the main character, Mavis, in the most expository sense, but also as a force with which she must contend in the present. They are her grief alive and in her life in an ongoing vivid way, and yet they also give the keys for healing. Dreams are a substantial element of the film, giving the sensation of the character’s large preoccupation with their content, her longing for her dead husband, Jessie (Michael Greyeyes). Yet this husband character also shares reminds her of the condolence ceremony and this mechanism and capacity for the release of grief.
This 2003 ABC mini-series, directed by Steve Baron and written by John Fusco, is a kind of gorgeous CGI production of the Greatest Hits of Native American Myths strung together into a longer story of a boy and his Grandpa on the road to the pow-wow. Shane (Eddie Spears) is a troubled teen from the Pine Ridge reservation, and Grandpa (August Schellenberg) needs to pass on his stories to his grandson, to help him grow up, and help him make the connection with his culture. Grandpa’s teaching and storytelling begins with the words, “I will tell you as it was told to me. When a young person was seeking his way, looking for answers to guide him on the Good Red Road of life”, he would seek a vision, he would go up on the mountain looking for a dream to show him the way. Eagle Boy (Chaske Spencer) is the main character from Grandpa’s story that runs throughout much of the film, parallel to many of Shane’s misadventures, and he begins the film up on the mountain seeking his vision. Eagle Boy’s story of seeking his path and his power, runs analogous to Shane’s coming of age, weaving structurally through the entire piece.
Eagle Boy’s story and the other stories Grandpa tells are like fables or parables – the fable as guide to behaviour in real life. Eagle Boy’s vision uses striking special effects to give a magicalist sense of the real world erupting, the mountain transforming, revealing itself as an enormous living animal, like a dream in transformative and surprising, impossible ways. This dream / vision is not greeted with ridicule or skepticism, as a crazed delusional hallucination by Eagle Boy or his society, but is a sought after, powerful gift, and a lifelong directive of how life is to be lived, granting strong personal power. Eagle Boy’s vision story is a complex one – his power does not mean a weightless freedom, but in fact brings many burdens with it, on one who can see too far and too deep. “Do you know what power is?”, Grandpa asks Shane. Shane is dismissive of the old ways, as Grandpa tries to instruct him. While the Eagle Boy version of the story contains the vision as the event, the inciting incident which motivates and explains that which follows, it also becomes a parallel for Shane’s story in his contemporary narrative. The stories of the two young men play out in parallel, rendering them both equally vivid and suggesting an interpretation that reads the two stories as one. Shane’s situation finds him in trouble and under pressure to drive his Grandpa to the pow-wow. Both Shane’s path and Eagle Boy’s story are learning stories, calls to maturity, to facing one’s problems and accepting one’s role in life. Eagle Boy’s classic coming-of-age via the vision quest, and his ensuing colourful adventures become a kind of proxy / parallel narrative to Shane’s apparently ordinary modern problems – problems with money and gangs, a remote and absent father. So Shane’s education and maturation piggy-backs on the adventures of Eagle Boy and others as told by Grandpa while they drive many many miles of dry dusty roads.
One of the short stories within the larger narrative about Quillwork Girl, played by Teneil Whiskeyjack. Quillwork Girl dreams quillwork designs and makes the designs she dreams. She dreams of a lodge and seven brothers, so when her mother says to her, “dreams are sacred, they are teachers – they tell us of paths to follow”, she follows the vision, walking alone, followubg where her dream has told her to go. She finds her way to the lodge with the seven brothers, and makes her home there – she finds her purpose there as she has been shown it in the dream. Again, Quillwork Girl’s story shows how a dream offers direct instruction to find what it is the soul longs for – it shows the path leading to the place where one should be, the dream is the guiding light. The dream itself offers knowledge and guidance which then becomes the character’s goal – the character is motivated to fulfill the dream – and that goal is the basis of the story itself, directing and creating the shape of the narrative.
Directed by British filmmaker Michael Apted, and written by John Fusco, Thunderheart (1992) is loosely based on the events in Sioux country in the 1970’s during the rise of the American Indian Movement that led to the detention of Leonard Peltier. (Wikipedia) The film is an interesting hybrid or crossover of cultural and narrative impulses, as it is a star-studded American political suspense film with the clear character delineation and goals, action sequences, strong underlined timelines and causality, but there is a fidelity to the primacy of the dream and the vision in Plains culture. It bears the shape of a Hollywood suspense film, yet the role of visions has been deeply incorporated into the narrative structure of a political thriller.
Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) is an FBI agent with a job investigating a murder alongside a senior Frank Coutelle (Sam Sheppard) on a Sioux reservation. The revered Coutelle is impatient and dismissive of Levoi’s role and capacity, as is local tribal police officer Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene). Levoi has been placed on this job because his father was native, not because of his credentials, but he is a big city kid, uninterested in his roots. The investigation introduces Levoi to many of the characters on the reservation, most importantly, Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk), an ancient wizened medicine man known as the spiritual guide of “ARM” (the stand-in for the American Indian Movement). At first impatient and condescending to Sioux traditional ways, necessity forces Ray to begin to drop his guard. The slow rapprochement between Ray and Grandpa Reaches begins to open many doors for Ray, the most important being his insight into and acceptance of his past. This acceptance and coming of age is tightly tied into Ray’s comprehension about what is actually going on behind the murders on the reservation.
Grandpa Reaches is a man of visions who speaks with the spirits – he sees Ray Levoi’s past, his childhood, can read him “like last month’s Sears catalogue”, as Crow Horse puts it. Through these visions, he reveals to us Ray’s back story in the most expository sense, the character’s desire to deny his roots, which becomes an essential plot point, his recovery of self, woven in with the murder investigation. But the way Grandpa Reaches speaks his visions out loud to Ray is very strong dramatically as it becomes not only the revelation of an internal conflict, but deepens the understanding of his conflict with and condescension to the locals. However, as viewers we do not see most of Grandpa Reaches visions, he is not the main character and we are not generally privy to his point of view – we are told of them, and they are presented as insight and later as instruction on how to proceed. The spirits deliver instructions about what must be done. His dreams are not video montages of what is about to happen or a mysterious string of images, they are instruction for what needs to be done to succeed again the evil corrupt forces of Frank Coutelle and the corrupt local gang.
When Ray Levoi begins to have dreams / visions, we do see his visions, we do experience his subjectivity as the main character. Ray has shimmery waking sightings of the Ghost Dance, drifting off in his car, he dreams of “running with the old ones” as Crow Horse calls it, and he dreams of what he is going to see, what exists for him to discover about himself, who he is, and from whence he came. The dream sequences are realistic, not heavy on effects, and in the same landscape, appearing to be real life until Ray startles awake in his car, sweaty and confused. These dreams reveal information and knowledge – what he needs to know, what he almost can see, what he is about to do to understand who he is. It becomes clear that this is a deep driving unconscious character motivation, linked to, yet also distinct from the external goal of discovering the truth about the murder under investigation. His identity, his sense of self, and his ability to be empowered as an individual, and as an individual in service to the greater good of the community, is rooted in the ancestral memories being revealed to him in his dreams. His ability to understand the assistance being given to him by the residents of the reservation opens up exponentially, and he begins to grasp the significant role that he must play in helping the community in the grip of pernicious problems – the corruption and violence of local politicians, the poisoning of the waters, the ongoing shootings and murders. Ray’s determination as an FBI agent to find out the truth about the murder that opens the film ends up requiring that he have insight about who he is on a deeper level, and what this place and community are really about, to help him overcome the ruses and obstacles set out by his FBI partner, Frank Coutelle.
If we compare for a moment the dream elements of Thunderheart to those in From Hell, we see that Detective Abberline’s visions give him fragments of the present and / or future, of what is or what is to come in pictures, but without truly helpful clues about who or where or why. In Thunderheart, Grandpa Reaches appears at first glance to get visions that are similar to this – he sees the past, he sees Ray’s childhood and his older lineage and heritage, his connection to the ancestral Thunderheart. Ray also begins to receive these flashes of the past, of his own childhood, but also what has been in the past with these people, with his people. However Grandpa Reaches speaks his visions aloud to Ray, as though pulling the pain and denial to the surface – they have a healing, cathartic role. And the spirits have told him that this Ray person has an important role to play in the community. Further, we can see that Grandpa Reaches also gets another kind of vision which is not about the past, but involves instructions from the spirits on what must be done – the spirits say Ray and Walter Crow Horse must go to Red Deer Table together – they must go as two. The spirits say so. The visions guide Grandpa Reaches on what should happen, what path it would be best to follow – even if it seems unreasonable or unlikely. Walter Crow Horse insists they must not mess with the visions, and Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell) also berates Ray for not following up. This message from the spirits in a vision thus become an imperative that is discussed as a community, and the individual who does not follow instruction is pressured to do so.
The chain of cause and effect thus originates to some degree from the vision. There is a problem in the community; the vision supplies instruction on action required; and after some delay in Ray’s ability to take this seriously, the instruction is followed. And when the two finally drive out to Red Deer Table it becomes clear that what is really going on is illegal uranium mining and the various shootings and murders are a cover up, involving none other than his own FBI partner, Coutelle.
Folded into the film is a retelling of the Wounded Knee incident, when 300 people were gunned down for participating in the Ghost Dance. One of those killed was named Thunderheart, who was killed while running for the Stronghold, a geographical landmark. What is placed in Ray’s lap is the responsibility to rise to a vision of Thunderheart reincarnate – “Thunderheart has come to a troubled place to help his people – that’s what I’m told”, says Grandpa Reaches. So when Ray and Crow Horse drive to the Stronghold at the end of the film, it is an echo, a following of the path of the original Thunderheart.
Throughout this film we see causality as a powerful narrative force, in the service of a culture of dreams and visions – where the dream is progressive rather than regressive. Dreams and visions are not so much about the past, but must be acted upon. A dream imposes an imperative to action – it is an event, a directive, telling the character what must happen next, even if they don’t know why, they must follow through.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
Written and directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, collaborators for many years, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2007) is an exceptional example of a feature deeply connected to a living culture. The Kunuk / Cohn partnership has produced numerous videos and more recently feature films using a unique process of community involvement and collaboration. Born from a video artist background, they have worked for years totally off the Hollywood grid, less influenced by the imperatives of a classical narrative structure and more by the bringing to life a culture in its recent past for the enrichment of that same culture in its current form.
Based on the actual journals of explorer Knud Rasmussen, “during Rasmussen’s ‘Great Sled Journey’ of 1922” (Wikipedia), the occasional use of voice overs of the women, Apak (Leah Angutimarik) and Orulu (Neeve Irngant), immediately gives a feeling of a documentary, of the capturing of a time. The “plot” or story, is a fairly simple one where several white men have met up with famous shaman Avva (Pakak Innuksuk) and ask him to guide and accompany them to Iglulik. But it is more about the demise of a community and in particular the family of Avva, who struggle to maintain their traditional ways in a period when it is difficult not to move towards integration into larger Christianized communities in the 1920’s. While it is clear that Avva, the father, wants to maintain his culture and his community and is in a fight against hunger in the effort to keep his values alive, this powerful conflict is played out slowly, cryptically at first, never overstated.
We can see that the basic structure is one where the Inciting Incident (foreigners arrive and ask for travel companions) is followed by Complications (travel through blizzards with no food) and Crisis (the arrival at Iglulik and being forced to choose between food and Christianity), through to the very sad Resolution (where Avva gives up and sends his spirit helpers away). But the film never has a sense of singularity of focus on this story arc or on character motivations and goals. It is in this context that it is perhaps helpful to remember Kroker’s point about storytelling that “suspense, passive curiosity as to what happens next, was of little interest.” (2) Instead, scenes unfold without obvious purpose towards the unfolding of the “plot”. They reveal and explain values, ways of thinking; the reason or method for becoming a shaman; the nature of Spirit Helpers and Shadow People. Or they are scenes of the endless voyages across the snow, the meals shared, the laughter and dances of the community. It is part of the “large rhetorical structure”. (Kroker 4) This exploration of the culture as it was disappearing, the intensity and uniqueness of the spiritual values are the heart of the film.
The dreams in the film belong to Apak, Avva’s daughter, who dreams of having sex with her dead husband. Spatially, her dreams are massive on the screen – they are unusually close up, unlike the style of the rest of the film. The large washed out images of her face and body during sex suggest an intense subjectivity, as though deeply inside her experience, though the rest of the film does not necessarily follow her primarily. Although she narrates a little at the beginning, it is only a brief narration – later, her mother speaks as though in an interview. And the main character is really Avva, whose fight to save his traditional ways is the main story – the intense identification with Apak’s point of view as a dreamer does not mean a connection to a central conflict theory in a big way with her character. However it does create a strong point of identification with her as one of the sources of tension feeding her father’s losing battle to hold on to the culture. The essentially paratactic nature of these two story lines and the lack of a clear central focus on one character – this shared center of the narrative between father and daughter – is part of what is unusual in the film.
Within this generally loose narrative, her dreams, though subjective experiences, do have consequences and repercussions – they have an impact in the external world. Although they are her subjective experience, everyone seems to know about them. Her grandfather, a Chesire Cat of a character, is there watching and chuckling (or is he?) and / or makes his way into the dreams themselves. Various people tease her about “having sex with a dead man” – this is something to comment on; they are a social event. Her first boyfriend, Nuqallaq (Natar Ungalaq) reappears in their lives and teases her, asking whether she has to do “all the work” when having sexual relations with dead people. Worse, these dreams are a disappointing waste of her talents, according to her father. He complains, “the only child of mine with the power to call the spirits and she wastes it having sex with her dead husband”. So the dream and the spirit of her husband are in a sense, real, of enough substance to create trouble – it is considered an act that she is engaged in, not a dream. Dreams and visions are not less real than waking life, and are considered alongside elements of waking life. They actively form part of the narrative, these tensions around Apak’s activities forming a kind of loose sub-plot.
Also unusual and notable in the film are Avva’s spirit helpers. They are rendered realistically, simply as people, quiet but present – they are not other-worldly in any obvious sense. His female namesake helper in particular is present in a number of scenes, simply sitting unobtrusively in corners. The final scene of the film where Avva says goodbye to his helpers, insisting they leave him, and they reluctantly turn and begin to walk away, wailing, is a heartbreaking goodbye both to them and to a way of life he has to give up.
There are several observations that can be made from the various threads followed in this investigation. Within the content of the films, we see that while much of Western scientific thinking is dismissive of dreams, there is clearly a huge element in Western society that feels the need to make meaning out of the cryptic imagery of dreams. Ultimately chances are, if dreams are included as part of a film, they are there to suggest meaning. How that meaning works – whether it speaks to the past, the present or to sci-fi woven illusions, depends largely on genre, and on the underlying philosophy of the piece. Although there is a strong tendency within modern mainstream culture to see dreams as essentially commenting on the individual’s past, the dreams in these films are often dreams of anxiety, dreams expressing concern about possible futures, possible interpretations of the present, possible windows into a concurrent reality. These kinds of dreams allow for a role of increasing the tension of the central conflict, building towards a crisis, rather than being static expository elements. Many are versions of Jungian ideas, assisting in character growth and development.
While the first laying out of ideas in this paper may have appeared to lead towards a simple correlation between cultures with regressive dream theories having film narratives in which dreams serve simply as exposition or back story, and where cultures with progressive dream theories are making films where dreams further the narrative, ultimately the examples lead us to somewhat more complex conclusions. We have seen a wide range of variations on the way the dream or vision functions within the story and ultimately, a rich range of cultural ideas about dreams.
Although Western psychological theory focuses on dreams as addressing the past, the influence of teams of story editors, producers and screenwriting gurus, are also significant determining factors in the North American, classical Hollywood context, in ensuring the dream in film stays away from the realm of too much back story. Further off the Hollywood grid, European cinema has always allowed for more exploration within subjective and experimental types of narrative, both Buñuel and Ruiz being examples of this freedom from narrative imperatives. In art cinema, narratives can be looser, and paratactic clauses are allowed for; and not all elements of the story need to be firmly attached to the central conflict and feed the building tension around it. But the observations and concerns of the technicians of drama have no doubt been a strong influence required dreams to be a source of action and intrigue one way or another, across all cultural tendencies within North American. Whether dreams are in some way an incentive to action, or a mystery to be investigated, the examples we have seen are all in some way beyond a tedious function of character exposition. Within the range of cultural and genre variations we have observed, they all work in a way that is ultimately dramatic, that in one way or another can be seen to be furthering the action.
Within the aboriginal productions, we see some stories, such as Dreamkeeper’s Eagle Boy and Quillwork Girl, and Shelley Niro’s Mars Thunderchild, clearly having a completely different kind of dream experience – one that shapes the future. On the other hand, in both Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Kissed by Lightning, while the dreams are a kind of exposition of lost loves, giving some back story to the character’s current dilemma, these dreams also have a kind of presence in the present. The dreams, or what takes place in the dreams, also serve as mini-narratives, creating their own obstacles for characters to overcome – the dead in the dreams create conflicts with the living. The dreams in Journals exist in a way that is public, frankly embarrassing and disappointing for the community. The dreams in Kissed by Lightning, while showing the ongoing grief of the main character, and essentially asking the question of how she will heal, then go on to also remember or re-teach the condolence ceremony given to the Iroquois by the Peacemaker, effectively offering her an active way out of her grief. In this way, the dreams remain somehow active and alive in the present, as though they are also an alternate space where things go on that speak to the character in their journey. This is quite different than From Hell, in which the dreams reveal not an alternate reality, but are simply a portal into concurrent events, or sometimes a picture of the future – but this is not an alternate space with a heightened reality; it is simply a window. In Wild Strawberries, Professor Borg’s dreams suggest an anxiety and a crisis – they do not offer direction or solutions, nor are they community events. Similarly, Nate’s dream about Life and Death in Six Feet Under reveals his own anxiety, his own questions, and his own psyche’s search for answers on how to live from within the known elements of his father and a few words from the Bhagavita. In a production such as Thunderheart, we see perhaps the most tightly interwoven influences of a classical whodunit film structure meshed with a strong visionary culture, where dreams or visions work as both exposition and as goal establishment. Although it is Plains culture being portrayed in Thunderheart and in the main story of Dreamkeeper, suggesting a narrative style that might be looser, nonetheless, these films have a tight structuring around cause and effect. Thunderheart is powerfully driven by the detective genre, the need to find the bad guy and right the wrong. This is very different from productions such as Kissed by Lightning and Journals of Knud Rasmussen, which are much more meandering stories not shaped by uni-focal narrative drives – they are films in which not all elements of the story have strong causal links to the essential narrative arc. While these films were made within the North American context, as Canadian and as primarily First Nations productions, they are much further off the Hollywood grid, and while both are purposeful journeys with significant character transformation, they have been able to maintain a highly unique narrative space for dream sequences. This range of examples hints at some the degree to which culture may in fact have quite a complex influence on narrative structure.
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