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A Ribbon of Dreams: Dreams and Cinema

By Matt Levine

“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.” —Federico Fellini

The lights dim, the projector whirs to life, light is flung upon the screen, and all rules of science and sensory experience are broken: this is part of the appeal of film, that it can give life to our nocturnal visions, abiding by a reality that, before movies, could only exist inside our heads. True, movies entice us for other reasons: storytelling, entertainment, escapism, populating seemingly real places with apparently real people in a mirror image of our own world. The dominance of narrative linearity was more or less entrenched in cinema by the mid-1910s, as movies supplanted literature and theater as the most commercially popular storytelling medium. Yet from their birth to their turbulent recent history, as Hollywood continues its cultural invasion and celluloid gives way to digital formats, movies have also pulsated with the language of dreams, drawing us irresistibly closer to their uncanny visions, fashioning a new language of hieroglyphics in motion.

This year, the theme of Walker’s annual Summer Music & Movies series, In Dreams, highlights this inextricable connection between cinema and the dream world.

Silence in the Dark

The Lumière Brothers’ first public film screening in December 1895 was, on the surface, about as un-dreamlike as possible: showing workers leaving a Parisian factory, the one-minute film appeared as a vérité slice of life (though in fact it was staged for the camera). But what kind of street scene is this? Devoid of color, conspicuously silent, brimming with jerky, nonhuman movements (thanks to the hand-wound crank of the camera), these visions were obviously far from an everyday street scene that could actually be witnessed by Parisians of the time. The oneiric quality of the Lumières’ supposedly documentary films was heightened by another film shown weeks later, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, in which a locomotive steams headlong toward the audience; the now-archetypal account of this screening holds that numerous audience members fled the theater or ducked beneath their seats in terror. Of course, the fear wasn’t that an actual train would barrel through the wall of the theater; it was the newness, the strangeness, of the sights that cinema could now offer us, the uncanny blend of veracity and impossibility.

If the Lumières’ films were implicitly dreamlike, the movies of their contemporary, Georges Méliès, were outright phantasmagorias: manifestations of the ghoulish creatures and miraculous fantasies that could previously only be envisioned in children’s stories or picture books. Humans shed skin and turned into skeletons, devils wreaked havoc, mermaids posed luxuriously, objects vanished into nothingness, men took trips to the moon and encountered lizard beings: Méliès created waking dreams, as the darkness of the nickelodeon resembled the soft blindfold of sleep.

Ravished by the unique visions that movies could now offer, critics and commentators quickly drew the analogy between films and dreams. Liberated from the constraints of real-world visual sensation (not to mention the single, distanced perspective of much live theater of the time), writers recognized that, in movie theaters, space and time could be transcended in leaps and bounds, and any object, from a tin can to a fluttering eyelash, could be magnified to epic proportions. In 1907, Rémy de Gourmont wrote that the movie theater is “the best place to repose: the images pass borne aloft by light music. One need not even bother to dream.” Five years later, critic Jules Romains echoed his sentiments: as the projector stirs to life, “the group dream now begins,” he wrote. “They sleep; their eyes no longer see. They are no longer conscious of their bodies. Instead there are only passing images, a gliding and rustling of dreams.” And in 1919, in the words of the filmmaker and writer Jean Cocteau (whose 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is itself a pinnacle of dreamlike resplendence): “At the end of a cinema program, figures in the crowd outside seem small and lackluster. We remember an alabaster race of beings as if glowing from within. On the screen, enormous objects become superb. A sort of moonlight sculpts a telephone, a revolver, a hand of cards, an automobile. We believe we are seeing them for the first time.”

The movie world was more real than reality; a massive anthology could be dedicated exclusively to French writers from the 1910s who explored this very paradox. They even coined a new term—photogénie—to describe the cinema’s ability to transform real-world images into something radically, hypnotically new. At the end of the decade, Louis Delluc claimed that movie stars themselves were dreamlike creatures, larger than life and irresistibly magnetic. With Charlie Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa (the Japanese actor who starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 masterpiece The Cheat), Delluc wrote, “the spectacle of true beauty reveals us to ourselves. And to recognize, behind the tragic will of Hayakawa and the comic frenzy of Chaplin, an echo of suffering or dreaming, such is the secret of an infatuation.”

Perhaps more than Chaplin, though, another American silent comedian recognized the linkages between dreams and cinema. In Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Buster Keaton played a projectionist who falls asleep on the job and dreams that he enters the movie-within-the-movie as a detective. The other characters are embodied by his real-world acquaintances (thus foreshadowing later “it was all a dream” fantasies, such as The Wizard of Oz and The Woman in the Window). Chock full of bewildering slapstick sequences and recognized as “an example of primitive American surrealism,” Sherlock, Jr.’s more anarchic moments act as precursors to the Marx Brothers’ later frenzied masterpieces. (Indeed, Sherlock, Jr.’s astonishing set piece in which Buster appears to leap through the torso of an accomplice presages the gag from Duck Soup, in which a dog seems to emerge from a doghouse tattooed onto Harpo’s chest.) But the conceptual crux of Sherlock, Jr. arrives as Buster acclimates himself to his new cinematic surroundings, apparently stepping into the film screen and realizing that he can leap around the globe in the blink of an eye (or, more accurately, in 1/24th of a second). A series of quick edits shows him stepping from a bustling intersection to a steep mountain precipice to an African jungle to a barren desert, all transformed through intricate match cuts. Dreams and cinema are literally intertwined here; indeed, where else can physical reality seem to change shape within a fraction of a second?

A Nightmare World

Close-ups, montage editing, the hyperreality of the cinematic image: if these magical qualities could resemble dreams, they could also take on the semblance of nightmares. In the silent age, this unsettling truth was realized more potently in Germany than anywhere else. A country that was experiencing its own share of waking horrors at the time, Germany gave birth to directors who transmuted sociopolitical nightmares into distorted cinematic shapes. As the Great War waned, German artists experimented with bold, pointedly nonrealistic set design, harsh lighting, and topics that gravitated towards insanity, betrayal, and violence. Many of Fritz Lang’s German films—among them Destiny (1921), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), and Metropolis (1927)—contained moments of hellish foreboding, pointing toward a social collapse that would take on overstated, monstrous forms. Also in the 1920s, F. W. Murnau concocted audacious nightmare images to parallel a decaying society, particularly in Nosferatu (1922), which laid the template for how horror movies would look for decades afterward, and The Last Laugh (1924), which catapulted the camera into frenzied motion, its acrobatics meant to symbolize the characters’ untethered mind state.

Before them all, though, was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Robert Wiene’s hallucinatory vision of a sinister carnival in a sleepy German mountain village. Sleep and dreams are enfolded into the plot, which concerns the titular doctor and a nearly mute somnambulist, Cesare, whom Caligari controls through hypnosis, keeps in a perpetual trance, and imprisons in a coffinlike cabinet. Caligari hawks Cesare as a sideshow attraction, claiming that his hypnotic trance allows him to answer any question about the future, and it soon becomes clear that the duo’s twisted partnership is responsible for a number of horrific homicides that have recently taken place. The bizarre sets, which are overloaded with jagged angles and extreme curved lines, don’t aim for any kind of reality that we know of; furthermore, the actors move and behave in halting, ghostlike movements indebted to a burgeoning Expressionistic dance movement, pioneered in Germany at the time by Mary Wigman. The resemblance of Caligari’s world to a nightmare state becomes even more overt with the groundbreaking ending, one of the first to utilize a frame-story structure, in which the protagonist who has been relating this entire narrative is ultimately revealed to be an inmate in an insane asylum. It’s all a dream, then, or more accurately a demented vision of an alternate reality—a description that might just as easily be applied to cinema itself.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was so pioneering, and its portrayal of a society devolving into schizoid violence so disturbing, that the critical theorist and German émigré Siegfried Kracauer would use it in the title for his seminal 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler. Kracauer—a theorist especially concerned with ways that formal aesthetics both crystallize and influence a culture’s politics and societal mores—argued that Wiene’s film was an allegory for German society between the world wars, which was plagued with rampant inflation, a perceived moral laxness, and an almost anarchic disregard for forces of law and order (which were seen as weak and ineffectual by much of the populace). If Caligari represents an autocratic tyrant whose reign of power leads to numerous deaths (the prototype for Hitler), the movie suggests that the only social alternative, according to Kracauer, is complete and utter chaos, represented by the bewildering lines and shapes that festoon the claustrophobic sets. Although many theorists have since challenged Kracauer’s interpretation, it seems clear that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari visualizes some kind of violent societal unrest, a sense of anxiety that clearly tapped into real-world fears of the time. If cinema naturally utilizes the language of dreams, then German Expressionist directors realized they could amplify this language to materialize our worst nightmares—sinister visions that, in the case of Caligari, bore an uncomfortable likeness to real-world traumas.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Then as now, Hollywood had a bit of coopting influential artists and techniques from throughout the world into its assembly line of manufactured dreams, so it’s no surprise that the look and feel of German Expressionism found its way to the States during and after the war. A number of European artists bearing the legacy of German Expressionism—Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Edward Dmytryk, Otto Preminger, Fred Zinnemann, Michael Curtiz, and Edgar G. Ulmer among them—emigrated to the US and contributed to a dark, unsettling cinematic movement that would eventually be termed film noir by French critics. The translation of this moniker (“black film”) points to the thematic and visual darkness that most of them conveyed: if German Expressionism manifested the cultural malaise then permeating German society, then American films noir seemed to express a more universal, perhaps existential anxiety—one that may have been bestowed by World War II.

Even by 1955, when the movement was still in full swing, commentators and critics recognized the nightmarish quality of these films. In their book A Panorama of American Film Noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton defined the quasi-genre as “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel,” to varying degrees. The labeling of film noir as dreamlike might seem odd at first: lean, economical “B” movies on the surface, typically thrillers or crime/action movies, the plots of most films noir do not seem particularly ambiguous or unrealistic, though many of them end ambivalently (if not outright hopelessly). Yet, as Paul Schrader pointed out in his 1971 analysis “Notes on Film Noir,” it’s a body of films unified not by storylines, character traits, specific settings, or thematic interests, but by tone, mood, and visual style. The plot of The Maltese Falcon (1941), for example—directed by John Huston, adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, and starring Humphrey Bogart as the iconic noir gumshoe Sam Spade—is not overtly surreal, yet we still know what Bogey means when he grips the glistening Maltese falcon in his hands and claims that it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Composed of harsh gradients of light and dark, thick shadows, distorted lines and angles, and urban landscapes that often seem hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, films noir take on the disfigured look of eerily convincing dreams that only appear one step removed from reality. As Schrader suggests, this may be because of the overlapping influences of German Expressionism and postwar realism, which burgeoned after the war in an attempt to reflect upon real-world tragedies and social forces. “It is the unique quality of film noir,” Schrader wrote, “that it was able to weld seemingly contradictory elements into a uniform style. The best noir technicians simply made all the world a sound stage, directing unnatural and expressionistic lighting onto realistic settings.”

Sometimes, the grueling process of Hollywood filmmaking, simply by manipulating directors and writers’ original visions into something completely alien, granted movies the semblance of dreams. For example, Jean Renoir’s notoriously problematic and short-lived Hollywood career resulted in at least one underseen masterpiece, The Woman on the Beach (1947). The jagged, tawdry narrative, which splinters off in numerous directions like a fracturing mirror, begins with a Surrealistic dream sequence and wallows in a lasciviousness that enraged the censors and forced RKO to reshoot the film after disastrous preview screenings. But according to scholar Janet Bergstrom, the studio’s meddling actually enhanced the movie’s nightmarish qualities, condensing its obsessive fetishes and pushing it further “towards abstraction.” Renoir, in his autobiography, agreed, calling The Woman on the Beach “the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari.”

Signs and Symbols

By the mid-20th century, the notion that movies and dreams speak the same language had entered academia under the term “oneiric film theory” and began to permeate the filmmaking world. But the application of psychoanalysis to cinema had begun much earlier: even before the 1930s, disciples of psychoanalysis had analyzed films using Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams as a template. After World War II, though—perhaps because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which is still one of the most overt linkages between dreams and cinematic storytelling in cinematic history—the idea that dreams and movies operated on the same wavelength gained considerable cultural prestige.

Edgar Morin and Jean Mitry, in 1956 and 1963 respectively, began exploring the distinctly different modes of vision offered by dreams and movies. They both loosely agreed that whereas the former offers oneiric or mental images completely removed from a real, physical presence, films were closer to a “perceptive image” of a physically-existing object: though the film images still stampede before us in an ethereal manner, there is an actual strip of film arranged into a definitive sequence. Therefore, movies are between dreams and reality, a totally new way of seeing. Both Morin and Mitry also thought that the movie theater itself (in its darkness and absence of movement) engendered a passive state that prepared the spectator for psychic and emotive engagement in the new, cinematic pseudo-reality.

If Freud originally practiced the interpretation of dreams’ “latent” content, psychoanalytic theorists of the 1960s and ’70s—among them Raymond De Becker, Raymond Bellour, and Guy Rosolato—thought that movies, too, contained a latent subtext that could be unearthed by analysis. If our dreams are primarily founded on “preconscious residuals,” as Freud called them—traces of thoughts, perceptions, and feelings accumulated in our psyches throughout the day—then movies too originate from their “profilmic” content, or the real-world production circumstances and on-set interactions that subtly influence the finished cinematic text.

Around the same time, a whole wave of theorists, some associated with influential magazines such as Communications and Screen, infused this psychoanalytic strain of thought with semiotic analysis. The study of language and communication systems, semiotics was a natural (if unexpected) bosom buddy to psychoanalysis: after all, both dreams and films communicate via a similar system of symbolic images and complicate questions of how images signify meaning to us in the first place. Given this theory, each establishing shot, dissolve, close-up, zoom, etc., acts as a loosely defined word in an ongoing sentence. Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Christian Metz all considered dreams as precursors to cinema itself; so did the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in a 1965 essay deemed cinema not a language but a system of signs, pre-grammatical, in which—as in memories and dreams—“an entire world is expressed by means of significant images.”

While these ideas were rattling around academia, modernist filmmakers throughout the world—practitioners of the so-called art cinema—were incorporating similarly loaded dream imagery into their works. The examples are endless: Ingmar Bergman’s shuffling between memory and reality in Wild Strawberries; Federico Fellini’s use of dream imagery to suggest raucous subjective states, epitomized by the opening of ; the bold abstraction of space and time in such celebrated art classics as Last Year at Marienbad and L’Avventura; Andrei Tarkovsky’s infusion of the spiritual with the earthly in Solaris and Stalker; the latter-day surrealism of Luis Buñuel; the extravagant hallucinations of Japanese New Wave filmmakers like Masaki Kobayashi and Hiroshi Teshigahara; and on and on. Recognizing that cinema was uncannily suited to manifesting our inner thoughts and dreams, these filmmakers made the most of the camera’s transformative capabilities, seemingly offering visual access to their own uncharted psyches.

Postmodernism: The Dream Factory and Beyond

Then a funny thing happened: dreams in movies—previously the dominion of modernist art filmmakers—made the leap to big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe it was the thirst for box-office juggernauts and special-effects bonanzas that followed Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) that pushed mainstream directors to explore increasingly fantastic territory; after all, what better way to show off cutting-edge resources than to craft a completely alternate reality? Or maybe it was the onset of the digital age—with its roaming satellites offering universal Internet and hundreds (or thousands) of cable TV stations and the downloading of media content on iPods and cell phones—and the concurrent rise of postmodernism that suggested reality was fake (or, at least, diluted), and that media outlets are truly where life takes place in the 21st century.

Whatever the case, from 1984’s Dreamscape (in which a psychic is recruited by the government to enter people’s dreams—including the US President’s!) to the Nightmare on Elm Street series, from Blade Runner’s film noir-inspired questioning of human consciousness to the horrific nightmare states of Jacob’s Ladder, on to the glut of reality-is-fake ’90s actioners (Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix), cinematic dreams became fodder not for ambiguous introspection but for the dissolution of reality altogether. If theorists had once claimed that movies replaced our actual lives as the new reality, these movies attempted to prove the exact same thing, suggesting that our everyday lives were carried out with wool over our eyes. Obviously, technology plays an important role in many of these alternate realities, which begs the question: have new digital media created yet another entirely new language, expressing a not-quite-reality built by a system of digitized image-signs?

This all culminates in Inception, Christopher Nolan’s mammoth jigsaw puzzle about the disastrous interweaving of dreams and reality. Both big-budget spectacle and (to an extent) subjective exploration of trauma and memory, Inception represents the breaking point of cinema’s embrace of dream imagery. (Imagine if Alain Resnais made Last Year at Marienbad as a mega-blockbuster, with a warehouse of cutting-edge resources at his disposal.) For better or worse, Inception suggests oneiric film theory as pop-culture talking point. It even tantalizingly withholds narrative resolution from us, in a manner that Carl Jung ascribed to dreams themselves: when our unconscious mind is unable to propose a solution to the dream conflict, Jung theorized, it will often refuse to supply a conclusion at all, like a postmodern narrative lacking an ending.

The growing prevalence of dreams in mainstream movies has made Hollywood’s longtime moniker “the dream factory” ironically apropos. Yet if movies such as Inception and The Matrix blatantly question what is real and what is fantasy—especially in a modern world overrun with mediation—this trend merely represents what theorists and filmmakers have pondered for a century or more. Some movies are more dreamlike than others, of course, but it’s more generally cinema itself that offers an oneiric alternative to our waking lives. It all goes back to those first Lumière films, in a way: they proved as soon as the art form was invented that this was an alien vision, not dream or reality but somewhere bewilderingly in between, no matter how convincing the illusion appears on the surface. Another creator of awe-inspiring visions, Orson Welles, called cinema “a ribbon of dreams”—a ribbon made of celluloid, threaded through the projector of our collective unconscious for the past 120 years.


Matt Levine is a Walker Film/Video intern and a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. With Jeremy Meckler, he writes “Still Dots,” a Walker blog feature dissecting Carol Reed’s The Third Man by capturing a frame every 62 seconds.

The Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1895

The Lumière Brothers

Buster Keaton, Sherlock, Jr., 1924

Robert Weine, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon

Image ©Warner Brothers

Poster for Jean Renoir’s Woman on the Beach, 1947

Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound, 1945

Image ©Twentieth Century Fox

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979

Poster for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, designed by Andrzej Bertrandt

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, 1982

Image ©Warner Brothers

Andy and Larry Wachowski, The Matrix, 1999

Image ©Warner Brothers

Christopher Nolan, Inception, 2010

Image ©Warner Brothers