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.

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