Essay: Dream Metaphors in Mainstream and Experimental Film - 2012

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Combination of Question 2 (Compare and contrast early cinema (1835 – 1910) and mainstream narrative cinema) and question 7; (Explore the power of the dream metaphor in experimental film and video).

 In this dissertation, I want to explore dream sequences; their technique, design and how each genre of film and the directors themselves wanted them to be approached. To do so, I needed to associate with the narrative of experimental and mainstream cinematography – as the process itself is more incestuous than originally believed. I’m going to feature the works of Hitchcock (Spellbound), David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet), Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), and Winsor McCay (Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend), instigate the future discussions of the unique tactic of each film maker. To assist explanation for the classification of the act, I will be looking to Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams; which I feel was a large sector of how the hallucinations stemmed.

As it may be clear, the usage of the dreams all depends on the inspirational impact of the director; their vision for the film. With the conventional narrative, a dream must have a meaning. A subject of which the dreamer, and in this case, the actor within the character as well as the viewing audience themselves must be able to relate. While, the opposite side of the coin is the untried film narrative; the experimenting director ventures into the visual aspect. It all revolves around the artistic structure, how the spectators respond to the image.

Despite that contradictory value involving the imagination of the mind as one’s sleeps; as I specified earlier, there is an incestuous connection. Many of the arrangements of extravagant Hollywood movies, the scenes involving daydreams, lucid dreaming, nightmares and subtly flashbacks and flash-forwards are designed by an experimental director. For example, Hitchcock’s Spellbound’s dream structure was constructed by Salvador Darli; an extravagant surrealist painter best known for his melting objects.

Hitchcock was interviewed the same year, after the film Spellbound was released; this footage seen for the very first time in 2010, when the BBC broadcasted a documentary on the said director. He explains that the media at this time, thought that he only chose Dali’s collaborative insights for publicity value; but he ventures on to dismiss this theory:

“What I wanted and again what we were talking about earlier; was the vividness of dreams. As you know, Dali’s work is very solid, very sharp. Very long perspectives and black shadows. Actually, I wanted the dream sequences to be shot in the back yard, not in the studio at all. I wanted them shot in the bright sunshine, so the cameraman would be forced to, what we call “stop damp” and get a very hard image. This was again, the avoidance of the cliché. All dreams in movies are blurred, which isn’t true! Dali was the best man for me to do the dreams, because that’s what dreams should be! So that’s the reason I had Dali”

The atmosphere of  the first dream act of the film was overwhelmed with still human and painted eyes created into the architecture of the set, with a man randomly cutting through the paper drapes whilst a crowd were sitting at tables playing poker.

The initial meaning behind eyes, in the study of dreams is interpreted to represent the dreamers inner subconscious experiencing a sudden revelation upon a subject, or oppositely struggling to accept the comprehension depending upon the condition of the eye; for instance if an eye out of the pair were injured, missing, or had something within it – it symbolises the dreamers’ inability to reach a certain goal with an internal truth about themselves or something that will come to matter one day.  To see a singular eye (commonly referred to as the third eye) imbedded in the dreamer’s forehead; foreshadows a spiritual veracity that will be upon the person in waking hours; moreover, seeing a pair of eyes, receding back into the head signifies that the visionary should attempt soul searching for an occurring truth if in doubt.

To bring this interpretation into the imaginary world of Spellbound, and Dali’s hallucinations for the protagonist to experience; it appears that the use the singular eye; excluding the physical setbacks and the third eye to conjure the image of the eyes watching. This appears to represent the character’s struggle to acknowledge a reality, that he is unconsciously suppressing an issue related to him.

In deep contrast however, to the narrative of commercialised filmography hunting for an individual in particular to use experimentation in their films, as Hitchcock strived for; two contemporary film makers replicated the achievements of Windsor McCay.

Winsor McCay was perhaps the first film maker in the experimental film era to co-ordinate dream sequence visuals as an official dream would conjure; using his own effects, by duplicating the ever moving cinematography that was acknowledged in his comics. He was a skilled film and art director; he pioneered most of the special effects that would be taken advantage of today because they are so well adapted by modern contemporaries. Stop motion, floating objects, animation; all essentials that are later seen being obtained by the two directors of interest. Coincidentally they are also inspired by the surrealism and expressionism artistic movement, like Hitchcock. However, they instead of finding a particular meaning for the dream-like-states, both categorically aimed to make each film throughout every scene somewhat out of focus. Regarding the works of Tim; there are two elements of his visionary with film that separates him from his contemporary, Lynch; particularly in Edward Scissorhands – this was a motion picture that used flashbacks, one of the director in question’s first films using this technique.

Flashbacks are a psychosomatic state where a person recalls past memories; sometimes falling into a trance, sometimes going as far as to re-enact that memory. The recollection within itself is the equviliant to a daydream, where the person unconsciously switches off to reality.

How he approached the performance was using what Hitchcock called ‘the blur’, a cliché in mainstream narrative. This was to dissociate himself from other directors who wanted to co-exist between the two spectrums of cinema; to be appreciated by both parties.

Flashbacks, in the replacement of dreams however, in the terms to sampling Burton’s work, is how each figure in the remembrance represents a certain significance to the character’s memory; similar to dreams in their ability to deploy people. Most commonly, the films involve an elderly patriarch, the father of the protagonist and according to the study of dream interpretations; there is a shared established connection with an elderly male character conjuring up in dreams of ordinary subjects. It’s one of the most common archetypes stated to present an embodiment of a dad, and this can relate to a spiritual guide such as God(s), or a more harmful appearance; such as a tyrant, a giant, Devil etc.

Specimens, like Wilbur Wonka, Willy Wonka’s father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) portrayed by Christopher Lee and the Inventor, played by Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands (1990) separately decipher their stories into distinctive references to the individual characters, using their view upon not only parenting, but the world in which they co-exist. Edward’s creative parental substitute is reflecting the untimely death of someone important to the dreamer. The language of dreams, see this as a sign of a future enlightenment or rebirth, something has ended purposely so a door can open to a new aspect of someone’s life.

Furthermore, if we go by how Scissorhands was dressed, if this was seen in the context of the reverie; it would be a philosophical suppression of the dreamer – the clothing that Depp’s character wore was a physical restraint; a theoretical obstacle that he was trapped in and for the purpose of the flashback was based on the fact that Scissorhands was left incomplete, out of touch with a future he would never be able to experience – not being able to be fully human, without the sense of touch; his hands. Burton has there for combined two denominators into the flashback scenario; Edward’s hands are not only artistic transition of the injury of the hands, but the disembodied hands of which his “father” was giving to him as a gift before he died. He accidentally destroyed his new hands, which is observed to characterise the attack upon one’s ego, and the notion that they were incorporeal was a metaphor that Edward Scissorhands was destined to be a misunderstood character; he would never be able to express himself like an ordinary human would.

Dr. Wonka is the opposite; his presence demonstrates a typical tyrant; and in young Willy Wonka’s eyes the man who won’t let him be who he wants; the hindrance of his dream career. Conversely in the psychology of dreams – the orthodontist isn’t to be taken as a factual physical person, genuinely; the equviliant to the confectioner’s subconscious displaying self-doubt. In any scenario where the dreamer has someone standing beside or in front of them, either verbally or physically disrupting their course; most frequently a person that the dreamer knows – it’s the unconscious state of the mind preventing the conscious from pursuing its goal.

Frued spoke about the three elements of the mind- the Id (an area of the conscious that concentrates upon the primal instincts; including the impulsive desires and pleasures of the individual – whether based on sexuality or another form stimuli); the Ego (the rationalisation of the impulses, controlling the nature of our waking state of mind) and the Superego. The superego is the automatic function of the Id; it censors what it feels to be a destructive need when we are awake, but while we are asleep, the roles switch place. It is one of the many reasons for when a dreamer suddenly starts to move in their sleep, as if they are running like in the vision they are experiencing at the time.

The flashback in this case, to take it to dream context may be showing an example of the Superego and Ego combined; in the formation of Dr. Wonka prohibiting Willy Wonka’s Id; the strong urge to become something wholly extravagant, and in the process rationalising them. However, the future confectioner eventually surpasses those two elements of his subconscious and continues on his path regardless, demonstrating the strength of the Id.

Now turning my attention to David Lynch, who as I mentioned earlier approached Winsor McCay’s experimentation of dream visuals differently to Burton; there is the familiarity with the usage of the blur but unlike his peer; the purpose of his films work around the traditional experimentation – every single frame of the scene is figuratively out of focus, yet vivid, and the storyline itself questionable; an component that is shared with the escapade of dreams.  Eraserhead (1977) shows these characteristics quite strongly; but one, Eraserhead validating true inspiration from the surrealist movement; and pictorially a film noir; what is also observed by some, especially his fans – the use of the animatronics in this film are still to this considered a pioneering test; because what he was using as a puppet was a deceased lump of flesh. Unlike the future of animatronics, such as Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Thing coming up six or so years after.

The process of this particular motion picture regulated from a grant given to him in 1968 by The American Film Institute; which is one of the largest experimental film production companies in America alone. The Independent Film Maker’s grant, as it was known back then was a newly procreated programme; and Lynch was one of the very first few to become a part of the programme in its early stages.

Attempting to translate the narrative of Eraserhead has become quite difficult by many mediums, because Lynch has left most to the viewer’s imagination into how the film should be interpreted. He was interviewed for a behind the scenes feature on the official DVD release of the feature film, to explain the origins of Eraserhead, and it was clear that even he, the creator of this project no longer remembered the significance behind it; saying  “It’s strange how Eraserhead is, it isn’t a personal film. It’s my first feature, and it took the longest of any film; and I lived and loved that world. I can’t remember when I got the idea, when the word “Eraserhead” or any part of the idea came to me first.  I can’t remember if it was in Philadelphia, or when I first came to California. Completely don’t remember; don’t remember writing the script and I don’t remember the ideas coming in; especially the initial idea.  A lot of times I remember when the first thing kind of came, maybe I don’t. But, for sure I don’t remember this. ”. From this quote alone, this may be a consequence of writing the narrative on a whim, possibly on the influence of recreational drugs or alcohol.

Despite of the lack of knowledge concerning the influences; there are noteworthy meanings to each valuable character; however which can only be estimated. Many of Lynch’s fans have speculated for example that the purpose of the entire film is about the fear of conceiving, becoming a parent. There are sections of the film which do confirm this notion; for example the scene with the main character, Henry Spencer spending time with his estranged girlfriend’s family for dinner; the tiny chicken which was put upon his plate began to convulse as if in agony until from the opening that was used to place stuffing; spurted out dark thick liquid, the reminiscence of blood; replicating what appears to be a woman experiencing a miscarriage or abortion. The pregnancy of the girlfriend, Mary and her mother define a connection to this incident by informing the protagonist of his child’s condition; it’s premature with small disfigurements. Its mother identifies herself as not being maternally bonded when she classifies the new-born as being other than a human.

The revelation of how strained the relationship between parent and child is then demonstrated in the following scene; the child’s deformities are strikingly revealed for public scrutiny; it is how the young woman, Mary stated – it couldn’t be compared to any normal human child; it was deformed to the point where it had no limbs, a face similar to a burn victim, it’s organs were exposed if not for the bandage, keeping the undeveloped skeletal structure together and it was intensely ill – to the point where it couldn’t eat.

The philosophies of dream significances conclude that all these sequences are related to the disruption of the pregnancy alone; it’s communally stated by many women that experience dreams where they are either losing the foetus, having bodily malfunctions while pregnant or the child is born malformed. The meaning behind most is from the mother-to- be experiencing fear of not being able to handle raising a child; not having confidence.

With this in mind, the incentive of Hitchcock, McCay, Burton and Lynch was to take dreams and explore them with a distinctive point of view and regards them into the technology that was at hand; and by doing so, managed to validate films that are considered ahead of their time. Hitchcock was the first mainstream director to ask the hand of an artist, Salvador Darli; the most influential surrealist painter of his time to question the structure of dreams in films; to step outside the border of how dreams should be perceived. McCay, a multitalented artist in film, animation, stop motion and comics designed the word cinematography and used that remarkable talent to emphasis the hallucinations onto paper with only ink at hand. Burton took the wisdom of McCay, the surrealism of Darli, and tasteless clichés of dreams in narrative cinema and warped them into a gothic adventure; and productively kept an amateur film maker’s attitude in distributing his filmography. Then there’s Lynch, the sore thumb of mainstream cinema in the sense that he walks amongst those of Hollywood but keeps the mentality of experimentation, namely with the usage of his “living” animatronic puppet; popularising the technique before the years of animatronics came into popularity outside the avant-garde.

It brings me to question what the future is going to hold with mainstream narrative and experimental cinema as they are today. They are always finding new technology to experiment with, and if you take into account the current sensation of three dimensional technologies; it makes you wonder how dreams will be one day constructed; if the likes of dreams as visions and the metaphors behind them are so extraordinary. How is a new and forthcoming director going to transform Freud and psychoanalysis?