Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Archetype Abides

For psychologist Carl Jung his patients' dreams were to be taken as seriously as any waking experience they may have had. If one described a dream about traveling to India, Jung would get a map and ask him to point out exactly where in India he had been.

Taking the dream experience seriously, as an arena of symbolic clues, led him to believe that the psyche contained common archetypes, recurrent images that could be found in cultures all over the world, past or present, primitive or modern.

Studying ancient texts and traveling the world, spending time in African villages and American-Indian reservations, he came to believe people saw these images in dreams or visions, that these states were a way for our minds to access a reservoir of shared knowledge, what he variously called universal consciousness or the collective unconscious.

BRYSON: I understand that the geology confirms the images. The images are your private images in Dali's head but painted out they correspond to a reality.

DALI: delirium is injected and sublimate in these rocks and in this geology. There's many kinds of imagination, [such as] the Romantic imagination, almost never exist in rock. It's only fog, music, evanescent visions of Nordic countries [where] everything is completely musical. This also is very clear in my moustache because my moustache is the contrary of the moustache of Friedrich Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche is the depressive moustache, plenty of music and fog and romanticism and the Dalí moustache is exactly the same que two erected scissors completely metallic.

Salvador Dalí, interview with David Bryson, BBC Third Programme, 1962

In his autobiography Dali told a story about how he used to go walking with a girl to whom he showed off with copies of L'Esprit Nouveau, a magazine edited by Le Corbusier and Fernand Leger: 'she would humbly bow her forehead in an attentive attitude over the Cubist paintings. At this period I had a passion for what I called Juan Gris' 'Categorical imperative of mysticism'. I remember often speaking to my mistress in enigmatic pronouncements, such as, 'Glory is a shiny, pointed, cutting thing, like an open pair of scissors'...'

Before the age of digital editing suites, the link between film and scissors was always strong. It was the chief implement in the editing process, that destructive act of cutting that gave birth to the language of cinema, montage. Alfred Hitchcock was a passionate believer in the manipulative power of montage, so it's no surprise he held the humble scissors in such high regard.
In his book The Hitchcock Murders, Peter Conrad tells of a Lincoln Centre tribute to Hitchcock in 1974, during which the great man watched a compilation of clips from his films. The anthology of abreviated killings concluded with Grace Kelly stabbing her attacker in Dial M for Murder. 'The best way to do it,' Hitchcock commented, 'is with scissors.'

The idea of the scissors predictably stimulated Hitchcock's taste buds. For him, murder was aesthetic, erotic, but also appetitive. He rejected a shot from Dial M for Murder because the blades of the scissors did not flash as they arched through the air. 'A murder without gleaming scissors,' he reasoned, 'is like asparagus without the Hollandaise sauce - tasteless.'

Peter Conrad, The Hitchcock Murders

When Hitchcock and Dali came together to collaborate on the dream sequence for Spellbound (1945), it's no surprise to see scissors playing such a prominent role, a giant pair slicing through eyeballs, not only in homage to Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou (1928) but also in symbolic allusion to the editing process itself, its power to do violence to our minds via our eyes. Cinema, this moment implies, is the unconscious incarnate, a shining implement to access those archetypal images buried deep in our dreams.

Fifty years later and those same giant scissors made another appearance in a dream sequence. Everyone remembers the feelgood gutterball sequence in The Big Lebowski, but possibly tend to forget how it ends, the Dude being chased by three nihilists in orange body-suits brandishing enormous, threatening scissors.
Is this an example of Jung's archetypal unconscious at work? Did one or both of the Coen's dream those scissors, or see them in a vision? Or were they found in a studio cupboard, left there ever since filming on Spellbound finished? Or is it simply that the Coens know their film history so well that they wanted to pay homage to Hitchcock's dream-image in much the same way he did to Bunuel's all those years before? You decide.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Here Be Monsters

Spanish painter Goya's famous dictum that 'the sleep of reason breeds monsters' has special significance for cinema, which has always been happy to show us those monsters, to use our superstitions and fears against us. What Goya was getting at was the way sleep leaves us vulnerable to the thoughts and desires we'd rather not acknowledge. So those conditions that impose sleep on us without our control are particularly frightening.

We all know stories of people who sleep-walk, of children sitting up in bed in the middle of the night, seemingly in a trance, holding conversations with siblings they have no memory of the next morning. These incidents are usually recounted as funny stories but the reality of the moment is certain to have been unsettling. We don't like not being in control in this way or even seeing it in others. It provokes too many questions we don't have answers for. What monsters are we prey to in our sleep? In what ways are they controlling us? What would we see if we remembered these states? Are dreams just surreal mental debris or coded visions of the future? Many societies have certainly associated trances with precognition.
Part of the appeal of cinema is its mimicking of this state but with the comforting knowledge that we are, more or less, in control, the monsters can't really get us. But not everyone believes this. The public outcry against video nasties in the 80s, or the knee-jerk attempt to blame certain movies for the acts of those who go on killing sprees suggests that there is an instinctive fear that invoking our hidden demons on the screen can somehow activate them in our minds, bring them into this world, as if the cinema acted as some kind of portal between our dreams and reality. At the very least it suggests that our unease with sleep has passed over to the daydream of cinema. The two are inextricably linked, versions of each other. We don't need intellectuals or critics to make the connection, we feel it instinctively.
Which is all another way of saying that the somnambulist may be the perfect cinematic subject, the sleepwalker who can see visions, who can be manipulated into participating in terrible acts under the spell of sleep. Just like us, of course, accessories in the dark.

The most famous movie somnambulist appeared as far back as 1920 in the expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. He was Cesare, plaything of the sinister Caligari, owner of a stand in a traveling fair that visits a small German town. The townsfolk are encouraged to ask Cesare questions. One asks how long he will live and gets the reply, 'you will die tomorrow.' Which he promptly does.
The film is most famous today for its groundbreaking art direction, using theatrical set design to create a distorted world of narrow streets and angular buildings, deliberately artificial and exaggerated to represent the nightmarish world of the cursed Cesare.
Fittingly, it also predicted the future, with Caligari a premonition of another charismatic madman on the horizon and Cesare the German people, all too easily sleepwalked into atrocity.
That's the trouble with letting dreams into the world, y'see. Pretty soon you don't know what's real anymore, what's true. And as Dostoevsky made clear in The Brothers Karamazov: if nothing is true, then everything is permitted.

Eighty years later and another somnambulist is manipulated by a sinister figure to commit a series of crimes. In Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, troubled teen Donnie's sleep-visions of a giant rabbit also give him access to the future, not the death of individuals this time but the death of everyone, the end of the world. Of course, in the film's quantum time, the possibility exists that Donnie is both dead and alive at the same time, like Schrodinger's Cat, suspended in a dream state between knowing and imagining. Either way, sleep remains a dangerous mystery, that place on old maps yet to be fully explored, where superstitious cartographers usually wrote:
here be monsters.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Mirror of Dream

I honestly can't remember the last time I went to my local Omniplex (for a grown-up film I mean, I take my kids all the time.) Tragically that omni- is more spin than fact when it comes to the variety of films on offer. So it was a double pleasure to see Inception last week, partly because it was a blockbuster that demanded you paid attention, but also I'd almost forgotton the mind-altering magic of losing yourself in the dark, succumbing to the dream-world of the screen so completely that it clings to you afterwards, the mind still in suspension, half-believing the streets would rise up like a child's pop-up book and fold over our heads at any minute.

The film is a sci-fi thriller about our unconscious dream-worlds and how technology has figured out how to access them. But at the same time it's a meta-experience for the audience because the film itself is a dream we're all experiencing. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio's character keeps a spinning top as a 'totem'. If it keeps turning, he's still in the dream, if it loses momentum and falls over, he's back in reality. Maybe the audience should be encouraged to bring their own totems so afterwards they could double check they're actually back in the real world, despite what their minds might be telling them.

Ever since I've been thinking about cinema and dreams. The similarity between the two has been obvious since the very earliest days of the medium. Writing of Jean Cocteau in his Biographical Dictionary of Film David Thomson noted that 'Cocteau's overriding image of the poet's passing through the mirror of a very suggestive metaphor for the way a movie audience can pass into the celluloid domain.' In fact, it's almost as if cinema had to come into existence to satify the growing desire for that domain.
The nineteenth century was full of prefiguring images, of doors into secret gardens and mirrors into alternative realities. When Proust wrote that 'if a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time,' he might well have been talking about the movies. They released that insatiable craving for escape, for the refuge of dream states, that had been the subconscious hallmark of the century preceeding it, the century that seemed to will psychoanalysis and cinema into being at more or less the same time and for more or less the same reason, to give us access to our dreams.

'Alice falls asleep in a wood and dreams she sees a white rabbit, which she follows down a rabbit hole...' The mirror of dream could, of course, be an alternative title for Lewis Carroll's sequel to his quintessential Victorian fantasy Alice in Wonderland. It's appropriate then (or inevitable) that one of the earliest British fantasy films was this version of Alice In Wonderland, made in 1903, just two years after Victoria's death. The last surviving copy has been preserved and restored by the BFI. It's a fascinating document, still strangely enchanting, mainly due to, rather than inspite of, the severely damaged nature of the print. The wavering blotchiness, the kinetic erosion, the sudden jumps in time, all give it the feeling of a dream or a ghostly window into another time. It's a feeling helped in no small measure by the modern soundtrack, Samuele De Marchi's Persistence of Vision which is suitably ethereal and otherworldy.

'Do you mean you've never ever spoken to time?' 'No.' 'But ah, she knows how to beat time.' 'When I play music.' 'That accounts for it Alice. He won't stand beating y'know.'
Sixty years later, playwright Dennis Potter had an inspired notion; what if Alice Liddell, the real girl behind Alice in Wonderland, had, as an old woman, been invited to New York on the centenary of Lewis Carroll's birth to receive an honourary degree? The result was his play Alice, which twenty years later became the 1985 film Dreamchild. Potter understood the allure of fantasy and our shaky hold on reality better than most and aided by the wonderful puppetry of Jim Henson created a brilliant and disturbing meditation on memory, fantasy and the dream-states of story-telling and old age.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Big Bang Boom

My sister sent me this a few weeks ago but I only got round to watching it today. It's wall-painted animation using time-lapse photography on real locations telling the 'unscientific' story of evolution from the Big Bang to 'how it could probably end'. Very impressive. Animation continues its own evolution.

BIG BANG BIG BOOM from blu on Vimeo.