“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.”
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, pathos, 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.
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, 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 turn into skeletons, devils wreak havoc, mermaids pose luxuriously, objects vanish into nothingness, men take trips to the moon and encounter 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, theorists drew the analogy between films and dreams early on. 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.”
This article was originally published by the Walker Art Center (August 3, 2012). To read the rest of the article, click here.