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.