A Ribbon of Dreams: Dreams and Cinema
From the Lumière Brothers to film noir to Inception, a film scholar on dreams in cinema.
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.”