To what effect does our dream state have on cinema? How many films are loosely based on a dream? In what way are dream sequences used to carry the plot? What methods do some filmmakers use to give the audience the feeling they are watching a dream on the screen?
Jean Cocteau once said:
‘One of the characteristics of the dream is that nothing surprises us in it. With no regret, we agree to live in it with strangers, completely cut off from our habits and friends’.
Upon countless moments we as an audience have surrendered ourselves to the world painted on screen. We have often been deeply moved by the characters we know to be fictional, accompanying the protagonist on their journey… only to return to our ‘waking life’ at the end credits.
Filmmakers have decorated and lit sets in a particular way, so as to recreate the look and feel of previous dreams: peculiar angles, recurring themes, symbolism, phobias. All widely used to create that dreamlike aesthetic. In fact, the influence of dreams in cinema has been so all-encompassing that it has ever so often blurred the lines of what in essence is actual reality.
Master director Ingmar Bergman once divulged in an interview that his strict childhood upbringing led him to escape into a fantasy world:
‘Hence my difficulty in separating the dream world from the real one’. His many brilliant films are stylistically peppered with images from previous dreams.
What initially began as a casual conversation on dreams over a meal between two artists, culminated into a film worthy of mentioning. More specifically, these weren’t just two artists… and this wasn’t just a film.
The 1929 Surrealist silent film Un Chien Andalou or ‘The Andalusian Dog’ is the masterwork created by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. It’s revolutionary, disjointed structure that disregards all conventional methods of plot, is widely recognised as the first Avant Garde film, and paved the way for such classics as Jean Cocteau’s Blood Of A Poet (1930) and Maya Deren’s Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943).
Prior to production on this film the artists agreed on 2 rules:
1. The film would solely and entirely be depicting each of their dreams.
2. ‘No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted’.
The end result is a Surrealist platter of dreamlike images painted with bold strokes of artistic genius. Dali would also go on to work with Alfred Hitchcock in Spellbound (1945) to create arguably the best dream sequence in cinema history.
In 1990, almost half a century after Akira Kurosawa’s highly prolific filmmaking career began, he released possibly his most personal work. Dreams (1990) combines 8 separate stories based on the director’s dreams spanning boyhood adolescence, adulthood, and elderly life.
Through wonderful exterior locations, painstakingly precise set and costume design, meditative long shots and dreamlike pacing, we gladly descend into the master’s vivid web as if we had dreamed these images ourselves. The end result is horror, beauty, nostalgia, euphoria.
The legacy of our dreams lives on through the memories we keep and one’s documentation to preserve these images etched into our psyche. In modern history – and indeed in the future, cinema will be paramount in both maintaining these images and furthermore using dreams to assist mood and storytelling.
As reputable filmmakers have demonstrated in the past, there are various ways one can use dream imagery; from colours to lighting, camera angles, pacing, symbolism, story structure, plot – or no plot at all. Keeping a dream diary under your pillow may well be a filmmaker’s most useful tool.