The Inception Files

The Inception Files by Kelly Bulkeley

It’s reasonable to expect a dream researcher would have a clear, informed opinion about the movie Inception.  Unfortunately I don’t.  Instead I’m caught between conflicting impressions, some favorable, mostly critical. Three factors inclining my thumb in an upward direction:

1. Christopher Nolan.  It’s great to see a brilliant director at the top of his game deciding to do a film entirely about the multiple realities of dreaming.

2. Intellectual daring.  As good dreams often do, Inception pushed its audience to think new thoughts and question their epistemological certainties.

3. Accurate portrayal of the “realness” of dreaming: When Ariadne (Ellen Page) is sitting at the sidewalk cafe she suddenly realizes she can’t say how she got there—and in that moment understands she is dreaming.  This is true for many people whose dreams start in media res and who simply accept their dreaming experiences as real while they’re happening.

Five problems drawing my thumb downward:

1.  Lack of dreaminess.  This was the biggest disappointment.  For a film supposedly about dreaming, it lacked the visceral power and alluring weirdness of actual dreams.  Everything fit together too neatly; every detail in the dream worlds had a direct explanatory cause, whether because of the emotional repression of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), or because of actions in outer reality.  It seemed a very cerebral take on dreams.

2. Heavy heavy heavy.  The press of gravity seemed to drag everything in the movie down, from the fantastic buildings crumbling into the sea to the elevator down to Cobb’s unconscious basement, from the suicidal plunge of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) to endlessly falling passenger van.  There was virtually no humor in the movie, no romance, no lighthearted playfulness.  Falling is indeed a common experience in dreaming, but that gravity-bound vibe took over the movie.

3. Loud, noisy, and filled with unnecessary action.  This may have been necessary to attract teenage boys, but it helped extinguish any kind of truly dreamy atmosphere.  On the contrary, all the Bond-esque mayhem and derring-do merely reminded me it was summer and I was in a movie theater paying $10 for a popcorn spectacle.

4. Lame motivation.  If I understood correctly after two viewings, Cobb and his crew were risking life and limb to help one mega-corporation stop another mega-corporation from getting too much money and power, so the first mega-corporation could…get more money and power?  Of course Cobb has the personal goal of getting back to his kids, but the murky corporate espionage theme made it hard to care about his team and their mission.

5. Didn’t make me forget The Matrix. I re-watched that film with my kids a few nights ago, and we loved every single scene of it–as soon as it was over we wanted to watch it again.  I don’t think Inception will generate that kind of long-term reverence and delight.

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood by Kelly BulkeleyThe April 2010 issue of the British film magazine Empire includes a feature in which I interpret the dreams of 14 movie actors and directors: Robert Downey, Jr., Kate Winslett, Peter Jackson, Milla Jovovich, Judd Apatow, Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Steven Soderbergh, Marion Cotillard, Rachel Bilson, Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone, and Sam Mendes. 

The editor and “dream wrangler” who gathered the reports, Nick de Semlyen, did not tell me who the dreamers were–all I had to work with were the dreams themselves. 

Below are the full commentaries I sent in response, the “director’s cut” as it were. A pdf of the slightly shorter published article can be accessed here:

14 Weirdest Dreams in Hollywood

This method of blind analysis appeals to me because it strictly focuses one’s attention on the themes, symbols, and emotional dynamics of the dream itself, without prematurely seeking connections with the known details of the dreamer’s waking life.  This was not a pure experiment, however, because I did know the dreamers were involved in the film industry in some way.

For more on the blind analysis”method of studying dreams, see the paper I recently co-authored with G. William Domhoff, “Detecting Meaning in Dream Reports: An Extension of a Word Search Approach,” which will appear in a forthcoming issue (June, I’m told) of the IASD journal Dreaming

1) “My favourite dream is one I had in college, I was a homeless person on a bridge, wearing very tattered layers of clothing and the world was cast in this sepia tone and I was fishing with a piece of string off the bridge into the Thames for worms, and I would pull them out and put them in my mouth.”

 (Gillian Anderson)
            For many people college marks the transition to adulthood, when we leave our families and begin living on our own.  Here the dreamer is cast as a homeless person, in a scene of apparent misery and hardship.  As a metaphor, this could reflect the concerns a typical college student might feel about difficult life changes and, in a real sense, becoming “home-less.”

            But much more seems to be going on.  Consider the setting: the River Thames is the most historic waterway in Britain, an ever-flowing source of collective life and cultural power.  The dreamer is sitting on a bridge that spans this epic river.  She is connected to the water with a string, just as the bridge connects the two sides of land.  It’s a remarkable image of elemental symmetry, with the dreamer positioned at the very center.

            Then there’s the strange business of backwards fishing. Instead of taking worms from the earth and putting them into the river to go into the mouth of a fish, the dreamer pulls worms out of the river and puts them into her own mouth.  It’s the complete reverse of normal fishing—as if she were the one being fished.

            The dreamer probably didn’t know it, but the color sepia originally derived from the brownish ink produced by a certain species of fish (sepia means “cuttlefish” in Greek).  Details like this may be just a coincidence, but sometimes they point to deeper unconscious meanings. 

            So this whole dream is enveloped in a strangely “fishy” atmosphere, with a superficial drabness masking a deeper structure and hidden purpose. 

            It sounds to me like the first chapter of a heroic myth: the youth who begins as the lowest of the low is drawing strength from the waters of her ancestors, getting ready to seek fame, fortune, and adventure out in the wide world.  

 2) “I had a really cool dream that I was doing a scene with the young Jack Nicholson.  Five Easy Pieces era Jack. We were in the desert, with this really rad-looking ’70s car, and I was really killing this scene, being super-great in it. And then the wardrobe people came over and said ‘Oh my God, he’s wearing the wrong colour shirt’ and I was really upset — all this good work I’d done was ruined because Jack’s shirt wasn’t the right colour.”

 (Millo Jovovich)

             When people dream of celebrities it usually reflects some degree of psychological identification with the public personas of those famous people.  The dreams envision us being in the company of powerful, talented people who embody the qualities and strengths we wish to possess ourselves. 

            When the theme of time travel enters the picture it suggests a quest for a deeper connection, something akin to what Australian Aborigines seek in the Dreamtime, when the ancestors still walked through a freshly created world.  An actor’s version today might be something like this dream, going back to a legendary time when movie-making was a daring, creative adventure.

            The dream turns into a nightmare, however, when the dreamer is confronted with the brutal fact of her lower status on the actor’s totem pole.  No matter how good her work may be, her career is still vulnerable to the whims of bigger stars.     

 3) “I was standing under a huge tree — it must have been on the Serengeti, somewhere in Africa — and I was watching my family being eaten by lions. I had that dream over and over again when I was a kid… I’m guessing it came from some programme I saw on the telly. For that reason I’ve never been to Africa and I would never take my family there. Even now I’m shit scared of lions and when I go to the zoo I get the feeling that they can smell me and they’re plotting to get me. I’ll tell you how ridiculous my fear of them is: my daughter had to go to South Africa last year to do a film and I was begging her not to go. Because of the lions.”

 (Ray Winstone)

              One can imagine exactly the same nightmare being experienced by our human ancestors thousands of years ago when they actually lived on the Serengeti and had to worry about real lions attacking them.  The instinctual imprint of that fear still echoes in the dreams of people today.  A TV show might spark it, but the unconscious mind is already primed to raise the alarm.  Even if they seem out of place in modern society, even if they seem entirely foolish and unreasonable, these hard-wired instincts still shape our perceptions of possible dangers in the world. 

            There might be something more to the symbolism of the lions for this dreamer, perhaps having to do with family aggression or masculine authority.  The persistence of this fear from a childhood dream into adulthood makes me wonder if this is a person who, for better or for worse, puts great trust in his instincts and gut-level reactions. 

4) “When I was nine years old, I dreamed I was a hippo in a ballerina skirt, like the one in Fantasia. It got worse, because I had to pee in my dream and when I woke up I’d wet my bed. That’s pretty embarrassing, right?

 (Rachel Bilson)

             It shouldn’t be.  Bedwetting in childhood is fairly common, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.  A precocious desire to perform in the movies comes through in this dream, and also perhaps a warning that too much “fantasy” can interfere with impulse control and taking care of one’s basic physical needs.

 5) “I’m coming into a modern city and the buildings are charging each other with electricity, like big Tesla coils. Then I go on a date with two twins and they kill me at the end. Analyse that.”

 (Robert Downey, Jr.)

             This sounds like the dream of a maniacal super-hero! Or someone with extraordinary creative talents he struggles to control.  Or perhaps just someone who’s pulling our leg. 

            The vivid image of an electrically surging city, followed by the lustful fantasy of dating twins, leads to an abrupt end with the dreamer’s death.  As a brief set of images, whether from a dream or not, it does accurately portray the up-and-down psychology of a manic episode.  During such episodes the cognitive line between waking and dreaming can effectively disappear.

 6) “I have this dream about falling all the time. People say that if you ever hit the ground in a falling dream you’ll have a heart attack and die. So I try to stay with the dream and see what happens. I’ve actually fallen from very high distances, hit the ground, gone through and ended up in water. But I can still breath and finally end up in air again. Then I start flying. It’s a very cool dream; I kind of look forward to it now.”

 (Samuel L. Jackson)

              To actually die in a dream, rather than waking up just a moment before death, is indeed unusual.  When it occurs it tends to be very memorable and thought-provoking.     

            One of the general functions of dreaming is to expand our conscious sense of possibility and keep our minds flexible, adaptive, and open to alternative perspectives.  In this case the dreamer pushes the process further than most people are willing to go.  In many religious traditions these would be considered mystical experiences, and the dreamer might be taken aside for special training as a healer or shaman.

            Some research has suggested that people who can guide their dreams like this have better physical balance and spatial coordination in waking life.  Perhaps this dreamer is a dancer or an athlete of some kind?

 7) “The recurring one from my childhood was the witch of the west walking up my road, bending each lamp post over and blowing out each lamp one by one as she got closer and closer, and when she blew out the last lamp I woke up…like wailing. It happened over and over again.”

 (Sam Mendes)

             Recurring dreams from childhood often stem from problems and conflicts destined to last a lifetime.  Sometimes the dreams have a personal context, but often they draw upon collective images that express the shared concerns of all humankind (what Jung called “archetypes”). 

            I don’t know anything about the dreamer’s personal life, but his nightmares reveal a painful truth: death is coming to get us.  The reference to the Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” indicates an early turn to movies as a refuge from this fear.  Movies offer the fantasy of immortality—if death is cast as the wicked witch, perhaps the dreamer can be like Dorothy and escape her clutches.

            Although it might seem cruel for a child to be confronted so early with the dark specter of mortality, such dreams mark a valuable step in the development of mature consciousness.  Most of the world’s religious traditions regard an acceptance of death as the key to true wisdom.

Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch

(Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams 2003,
vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 49-60)

Abstract: This essay explores the influence of dreams and dreaming on the filmmaking of David Lynch. Focusing particular attention on Mulholland Drive (2001), Lost Highway (1997), Blue Velvet (1986), and the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91), the essay will discuss the multiple dream elements in Lynch’s work and how they have contributed to the broad cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreaming and movies in contemporary American society.

More than perhaps any other contemporary director, Lynch draws upon dream experience as a primal wellspring of his creative energy. Dreams and dreaming suffuse every moment of his approach to filmmaking. The disturbing impact of watching Mulholland Drive and his other works (especially Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and the television series Twin Peaks) derives in large part from his uncanny skill in using cinema as a means of conveying the moods, mysteries, and carnivalesque wildness of our dreams. One of his biographers, Chris Rodley, puts it this way:

“The feelings that excite him most are those that approximate the sensations and emotional traces of dreams: the crucial element of the nightmare that is impossible to communicate simply by describing events. Conventional film narrative, with its demand for logic and legibility, is therefore of little interest to Lynch…. Insecurity, estrangement, and lack of orientation and balance are sometimes so acute in Lynchland that the question becomes one of whether it is ever possible to feel ‘at home’…. If Lynch could be called a Surrealist, it is because of his interest in the ‘defamiliarization’ process and the waking/dream state—not in his frequent use of the absurd or the incongruous.” (Rodley, 1997)

On a first viewing Lynch’s works seem baldly psychoanalytic in their emotional preoccupations, almost to the point where there does not seem to be anything for a latter-day Freudian or Jungian to interpret. All the great passions of the unconscious are right there, out in the open, without any disguise, repression, or arcane symbolism. Although I do believe psychoanalytic film criticism has its uses, that is not the path I want to follow in this essay. My interest here is both more focused and more expansive. First, I want to identify and describe several specific means by which dreaming is woven into Lynch’s approach to filmmaking. These include the use of dreaming as a narrative structuring device, the inclusion of scenes in which characters experience a dream, the inclusion of dialogue in which characters discuss dreams, and the use of Lynch’s own dream experience as an inspirational source for his creative work. After that, I want to reflect on the role these multiple dream elements have played in the broader cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreams and movies in contemporary American society, and at the end of the essay I will suggest the common nickname for Hollywood—the “dream factory”—is not merely a figure of speech but is in fact an accurate description of the profoundly interactive influence of films on dreaming and dreaming on films. It is this mutual interplay of dreams and movies that ultimately interests me, and my hope is that this essay will open a new path toward a better understanding of that dynamic relationship.

Dreams and dreaming play several different roles in Lynch’s filmmaking. The following summary of the most prominent of these roles is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Indeed, a complete accounting of these roles would require a detailed review of Lynch’s whole body of work. But even the limited description I am offering should be sufficient to prove my basic point, which is that dreams and dreaming play an absolutely central role in his filmmaking process. Is there any director who does more than Lynch to integrate dreaming and filmmaking? Perhaps so; I would enjoy hearing someone try to make the case. For the present, I offer the following analysis not to prove Lynch’s superiority to other directors, but rather to illustrate the dream-inspired artistry of one particular director who has made, and is continuing to make, a substantial contribution to contemporary attitudes toward the dream-film connection.

Dreaming as Narrative Structure. For many viewers the most striking feature of Mulholland Drive (2001) is the abrupt rupture in the narrative about two-thirds of the way through the film. Although there are several other story threads woven in and out of Mulholland Drive, the main narrative follows the experiences of Betty (Naomi Watts), a pert young blond who has just arrived in Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress but who instead finds herself caught up in a dangerous mystery involving a dark-haired woman with amnesia (Laura Harring) who adopts the name “Rita” from a movie poster (among other things, Mulholland Drive is a wicked satire of the ultimate emptiness of “Hollywood dreams”). Betty and Rita find a little blue box that matches the strange blue key they found in Rita’s purse, but just when they go to put the key in the box, Betty all of a sudden wakes up—and even though it’s still her, it soon becomes clear that it’s not her, at least not the same person whose life viewers have been following for the past hour and a half. This Betty (now her name is Diane Selwyn) is darker, angrier, and full of bitterness and despair. Likewise, many of the same people from the earlier scenes are still present, but they are different, too, with different names, personalities, and relationships to one another. Confronted with all these sudden changes, viewers are forced into a radical reconsideration of their understanding of all the preceding scenes in the movie. Each new scene that follows this profound shift in the narrative takes on an added layer of meaning in its retrospective revelation of what was happening in the earlier scenes, and this in turn creates a mounting sense of inexplicable foreboding as the story builds to a climax. (A similar narrative rupture occurs in Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director the same year as Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Mulholland Drive. The different use of this narrative device in the two films is a good measure of the difference between mainstream Hollywood movies and Lynch’s distinctive, “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” brand of filmmaking.)

When the film finally ends, with Betty’s/Diane’s horrific suicide, viewers are still left with several open questions about the precise relationship of the various scenes to each other. It is plausible to think of the “second” Betty as the “real” one, who was having a dream that involved the fantasized experiences of the “first” Betty (the image of a red pillow frames both ends of the “first” Betty’s scenes). But even that interpretation does not account for everything (e.g., how exactly does the willful director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) fit into the dreaming/waking interaction?), and in the end it seems contrary to the spirit of the movie to insist on any one explanatory framework.

The film Lost Highway (1997) also involves an unexpected rupture in the narrative. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a musician plagued by the fear that his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is being unfaithful to him. When she is found horribly murdered in their home, Fred is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death, even though he professes his innocence. While Fred is sitting despondently in his prison cell, something strange happens—and suddenly it’s not him any more, but a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) sitting in the cell. The baffled authorities have no choice but to let Pete go, and he returns home to his parents and girlfriend. Viewers are naturally at a loss to explain what has happened, and whatever initial expectations they may have formed about where the story was going have been abruptly dashed. Funny things start happening to Pete, and soon he meets a beautiful, vivacious woman whom viewers immediately recognize as the same woman as Fred’s wife, even though she says her name is Alice Wakefield. Pete and Alice fall in love, but their torrid affair soon leads to violence, betrayal, and death. When Pete’s life has finally collapsed into ruins, when Alice has abandoned him and he realizes that his life has been completely destroyed, he suddenly disappears—and Fred is back. Dazed, Fred gets in his car and speeds away down a dark highway. The police are right behind him with flashing lights and red sirens, and the film ends with Fred becoming consumed by a violent physical frenzy.

So what was happening during the interlude with Pete? Was Fred having a dream? Did Fred really murder his wife (something hinted at by one of his dreams—more on that later), and in his abject despair did he fantasize being an entirely different person? And in the end was the fantasy not strong enough to escape the gravitational pull of the agonies of his “real life?” I am reminded of the famous painting called “The Prisoner’s Dream” in which a downtrodden young man is sleeping in a jail cell, while an ethereal version of himself lifts off from his body and soars through the metal bars at the window, out into the freedom of the air and the light. The painting testifies to the power of dreaming to relieve people’s suffering by imagining different and better lives for themselves. Freud’s notion of dreams as disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes is based on this power, and even though Lynch is reluctant to endorse any psychoanalytic interpretation of his films he does grant that what happens to Fred in Lost Highway could be considered a “psychogenic fugue,” i.e. a form of amnesia involving a flight from reality. He says he had never heard of that mental condition before making the film, but appreciated learning about it later—“it sounds like such a beautiful thing—‘psychogenic fugue.’ It has music and it has a certain force and dreamlike quality. I think it’s beautiful, even if it didn’t mean anything.” (Rodley, 1997)

Does it mean anything, then, that Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive end ambiguously, tantalizing viewers with unanswered questions about the basic narrative structure of the films? If nothing else, this had the perhaps predictable consequence of stimulating widespread criticism from viewers who accused the films of being too hard to understand. In the eyes of many viewers, Lynch had failed a filmmaker’s primary responsibility to tell a coherent story. According to critics, either he didn’t know how to present a comprehensible narrative, or he didn’t want to because he was more interested in self-indulgent artistry than in communicating with an audience.

The modest box office returns for both movies underscores this failure to attract or satisfy a broad public audience. In appraising Lynch’s films it must be noted that they have always earned more critical than commercial success, indicating that the appeal of his work may be very intense for a limited group of people (he has a remarkable number of passionately devoted fans) but does not extend very far into the general population. Although I would grant the criticism that some of his films are more emotionally effective and aesthetically powerful than others (for example, I would argue that Blue Velvet is a better film than Wild at Heart), I believe it misses the point to condemn Lynch’s films for their failure to provide clear, conventional narrative frameworks for their viewers. Movies like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway remind me of certain Hindu myths in which people become so entangled in each other’s dreams and dreams-within-dreams that readers cannot help but feel confused about the basic existential question of what is real. For example, the Yogavasistha, a philosophical treatise written sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries C.E. in Kashmir, tells the story of a hunter meeting a sage in the woods. The sage telling the hunter a story about how the sage once entered the dream of someone else and lived in that person’s world until it was suddenly destroyed by a flood at doomsday; then the sage thinks he wakes up, but another sage comes and tells him they are both characters in someone else’s dream. This makes the first sage wake up again, and he now realizes he needs to get back to his real body. He isn’t sure how to do this, however, and the story ends with no clear-cut resolution to his dilemma. Commenting on this myth, historian of religions Wendy Doniger says

“As the tale progresses, we realize that our confusion is neither our own mistake nor the mistake of the author of the text; it is a device of the narrative, constructed to make us realize how impossible and, finally, how irrelevant it is to attempt to determine the precise level of consciousness at which we are existing. We cannot do it, and it does not matter.” (Doniger, 2001)

The Hindu myths, like Lynch’s films, draw upon the powerful realness of dreaming to frustrate people’s conventional narrative expectations and provoke new reflection and new self-awareness. Their dreamy visions are enticing invitations to explore experiential realms beyond the boundaries of ordinary rational consciousness and personal identity.

Dream Scenes. Many characters in Lynch’s films are shown having experiences that are explicitly identified as dreams. These scenes all include the basic elements of a character going to sleep, dreaming, then waking up and trying to figure out what the dream means. Here are three examples:

Fred in Lost Highway tells his wife Renee about a dream he had in which he comes into their house and hears her calling his name. He sees a fire blazing in the fireplace, and pink smoke coming from the hall. He walks into their bedroom and finds her—“There you were….lying in bed….but it wasn’t you….It looked like you….but it wasn’t.”(Hughes, 2001). Renee looks up at him and suddenly screams, as if being struck by something, and then Fred wakes up. Deeply shaken, he looks across the bed to the “real” Renee for reassurance. But instead of his wife he sees the leering face of “The Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), a demonic figure who haunts Fred throughout the film (In a case of life imitating art, Blake was recently arrested for the murder of his wife). Fred cries out in terror, turns on the light switch, and finds his wife right there, looking at him with concern. He lays back in bed, shaking.

Dreams Within Films, Films Within Dreams

Films Reviewed in this Essay:

“Dreams.” Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Alexander Borodyansky. 1993 (Russia).

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” Directed by Wes Craven. 1994 (United States).

In both “Dreams” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” a young heroine is sudden ly, and frighten ing ly, unable to distinguish her dreams from her waking life. And in both films the audience becomes as disoriented as she is by the abrupt shifts between scenes appearing to portray dreams and scen es appearing to portray the waking lives of the charac ters. By skill fully inter twining the epistemological confu sion experi enced by the charac ters and by the audiences, the two films compel us to reconsider our own conventional perceptions of reality–the films demand in particular that we take a fresh look at the mounting social and cultural troubles of the late 20th century. “Dreams” lays bare the grubby, Western ized decadence of post-Cold War Rus sia, while “Wes Craven’s New Night mare” unmasks the horrors living behind the white fences and green lawns of suburban America. The films thus use the private, psychological experi ence of dreaming as a powerful narrative device to make broader claims about the public, social world of our waking lives.

“Dreams” begins with images of paintings from Tsarist era-Russia, showing beautiful, idyllic country land scapes. We then see a young Countess named Masha Stepanova telling an elderly doctor of her disturb ing, and very sexual, dreams. Masha tells him that she’s been dreaming of the future, of 1993, and of working in a seedy Moscow canteen where the owner has been making passes at her. The prim doctor, flustered by Masha’s forthright refer ences to sexuality, tells her to ignore the dreams and get some rest.

Next we see Masha, dressed as a wait ress, asleep in the grimy kitchen of the canteen.[i] The owner wakes her up and awkwardly asks if she’d like to go and watch a pornographic video with him. She brushes him off and goes to clear the counters. At one counter stands a tall man in an overcoat, who slyly asks if Masha would like to star in a movie he’s making. Intrigued, she listens to him describe the plot: it’s about the August 1991 revolution, when the old guard communists had the democratic resistance surrounded at the White House. In the film, the resistance fighters know that the army is planning an attack, and they need a young woman to go out and seduce the army’s top general into re vealing the time of the attack. As the tall man in the overcoat spins out the tale, Masha is sudden ly in that film; suddenly she’s inside the general’s tent, dressed in an absurdly seductive military outfit, and as the general lustfully embraces her Masha realizes it’s the canteen owner–

Masha the Countess abruptly wakes up, and her husband the Count (who, we now see, is the tall man in the over coat) asks with deep concern if she’s all right. When Masha tells him she had anoth er strange dream, the Count says he’s going to take her on a vaca tion to their dacha in the Crimea, so she can rest her nerves.

If this sounds hard to follow, it is. As the film goes on, Masha’s tangled experiences become more and more ludicrous. In the next scene of her 1993 life, Masha is essentially sold by her hustler husband (the Count) to two Russian govern ment officials. They make her the country’s new Minister of the Economy, so she can meet and seduce an official from the International Monetary Fund, and there by persuade him to give Russia hard currency. Then Masha is suddenly part of a Western-wannabe glam rock band, shaking her barely-clad body to the electric beat while the big-haired lead singer (the Count) growls out dirty, moronic lyrics. And then she’s a contestant in a garish “best bust contest,” in which the emcee (the Count again) compli ments her breasts as superbly “represent ing Russia.” He asks the audience to bid for the privilege of kissing her bust, with the proceeds going to a pentacostal Christian charity.

Back in her Tsarist-era life, Masha tries to convince the incred ulous Count that what she’s seeing in her dreams is true. He, though, refuses to believe that such a chaot ic, corrupt, de bauchery-filled nation (which she says is now called “CIS”, although nobody knows what that means) could possibly exist. But after having a famous hypnotist examine Masha, the Count finally accepts the truth of his wife’s dreams. Feeling it his duty as a “Russian patriot,” he makes an earnest report to the Emper or warning of what the future holds for Russia and detailing the social and eco nomic reforms that must be taken to avert such a catastrophe. The Emperor doesn’t believe him, of course, and the Count leaves the meeting in deep despair. But when Masha hears what he’s done, she’s overjoyed; what matters to her is that he believed her. She leads him by the arm to a carriage, which carries them to their beautiful Crimean dacha.

At this point Masha the canteen waitress is jostled awake by the owner, who tells her it’s closing time and they have to clean up. As she clears the greasy tables, the audience realizes that this is Masha’s reality, this plain, drab 1993 exis tence in the canteen is her true waking life. Back in the kitchen, the canteen owner awkwardly asks if she would like to come with him to visit an old dacha he’s bought out in the country. After a pause, Masha says yes. They drive through the gray city, past the row after row of decaying factories, to the dacha. It’s immense, and almost totally ruined. Thick weeds surround the burned-out, crumbling structure. As Mashsa and the can teen owner walk through the building he tells her of his dreams of rebuild ing it–fixing the roof, repaint ing the walls, clearing the grounds. Masha wanders into what used to be a grand living room and sees on the floor an old, faded portrait, of a Count ess. The face she sees is her own.

“Dreams” develops a wonderful set of identities, con trasts, and mediations between Russian cultures of the late 19th and the late 20th centuries.[ii] The former was an era of glory, of sophistica tion, of elegance; the latter is a time of poverty, shame, and tawdri ness. But, the film reminds us, the Tsarist era suffered from a moral prudish ness that severely inhibited free expression, especially sexual expression. The Russia of 1993, if nothing else, is wide open to spontaneity and bawdy fun.

The key to the film is the concluding scene in which Masha, standing in the decrepit dacha, discovers the old portrait. Masha finds an image of herself–her hopes, ideals, and dreams–lying neglected in those shabby ruins. This is a moment of intense mourning for that which has been lost and for that which Masha will never have. But, as Masha looks into the beautiful eyes of her own reflected face, that very experience becomes a source of vitality, and of hope. The dacha is in terrible shape, but it could be repaired with enough hard work. The canteen owner is not particularly attractive, but he is fairly nice to her, and he does have noble hopes for the future.[iii] At the end of her long ordeal Masha has gained a deep er appreciation for her dreams and a clearer aware ness of her social world. The achieve ment of this mournful integration breaks the spell of passivity that binds her throughout the film, freeing her to become an active agent of her own future.

Like Masha, the heroine of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” finds herself thrown into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where the boundaries between dreams, films, and the waking world disappear. The movie begins with a film crew shooting a scene in which a new set of claws is forged for Freddy Kruger, the demonic villain who haunts teenagers’ dreams in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” mov ies. Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played the charac ter of Nancy in those movies, watches uneasily as the shooting pro ceeds.[iv] Her husband is the special effects technician in charge of creating the new claws, and he works with the crew to adjust the claws’ razor-sharp blades. Suddenly the claws start moving by them selves; a second later they’ve gone wild, brutally killing two crew members and coming straight for Heather’s husband, slicing his hand–and then Heather wakes up and is seized by a new surge of panic as her home violently heaves, shakes, and crashes. It’s the 1994 Northridge earth quake, and she and her husband careen through their wildly bucking house to reach the room of their young son, Dylan. When the quake finally ends and calm returns, Heather gasps in horror: her husband’s hand is covered with blood, sliced just like it was in her dream. He says Heather was probably just half-awake when he cut himself on some glass; dreams are like that, he reas sures her. But then a sharp aftershock hits, and Heather watches as four long cracks rip across the living room wall, as if a huge claw were lunging at their home.

As the movie proceeds, Heather discovers that Freddy is indeed back, and somehow he’s reaching into the “real” world. She refuses to believe it, but when Dylan tells her he’s scared of the “mean old man with the claws” who threatens him in his dreams, and when he shows her the four slashes in his stuffed dinosaur Rex, Heather realizes she has to do something. She goes to the Malibu mansion of Wes Craven, the creator of the “Night mare on Elm Street” series, and asks if he’s been having night­mares of Freddy. Yes, Craven says, he’s actually writing a new script–he has a dream, he writes a scene, he has another dream, he writes another scene. But Freddy’s not real, Heather insists. Craven sits Heather down and says he thinks he knows what’s going on. Freddy is the latest incar nation of an ancient, evil entity which lives for the sole pleasure of “murdering innocence.” That entity has gotten used to the Freddy form, Craven explains. Now it wants out of the films, and into the waking world.

When Heather asks how they can stop Freddy, Craven says the only way to capture that entity is through stories. Stories can bind the evil and hold it, for a time, like a genie in a bottle. Heather suddenly realizes what she has to do. She has to play Nancy again, and make another “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. She glances over at his computer, and sees on the screen a dialogue between herself and Craven–the exact conversation they just had.

So Heather goes to war with Freddy. When Dylan is hospitalized with a mysterious coma, Heather takes a deep breath and descends into Freddy’s hellish nightmare kingdom to fight for the life of her son. The climactic battle between Heather and Freddy is, of course, quite gory. Just as Freddy has Dylan in his grasp, pulling the screaming boy’s head into his horrible, impossibly widened mouth, Heather plunges a butcher’s knife (in the poetic words of the screen play) “deep between Freddy’s legs–her body blocking sight of exactly where, but we all get the idea. She shoves it hard and twists–as the howls of Freddy fill the world”.[v]

Freddy dies in a fiery, shrieking explosion, and Heather and Dylan tumble out of the boy’s bed and collapse onto the floor of his room. Realizing that Freddy is gone for good, Heather hugs her son tightly. Then she sees lying next to them a finished script. Dylan asks, is it a story? Yes, Heather answers, it’s a story. He asks, will you read me some? He snuggles against her as she opens to the first page and reads the scene about the film crew working on the shoot of the new claws.

The tremendous popularity of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies derives from Wes Craven’s brilliant ability to create a sympa thetic bond between his characters and the audi ence. Craven takes a mildly frightening experience we’ve all had (say, a bad dream) and subtly transforms it, in the world of his films, into a terrifying manifestation of true evil. Heather’s experi ences with the nightmares, the cracks in the wall, the strange phone calls and television malfunctions, all have apparently rational, non-mysterious explana tions. Everyone reassures her that there’s nothing to worry about. But Heather knows, and the audi ence knows with her, that no matter what other people say, there is evil afoot. From that increas ingly wide chasm between what society says and what Heather and the audience know, the fear intensifies to almost unbearable degrees, because now we’re totally isolated, and totally vulnerable–the evil is really out there, and we’re facing it all by ourselves.

The most interesting aspect of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is the way it reflects on the horror movie genre itself. As Craven says to Heather, these movies serve as a means of evok ing, and then containing (for a time), the violent, aggressive impulses that are seething in contempo rary American society. Throughout this film Craven draws parallels between horror movies and fairy tales, and the comparison does have merit. Both portray the experiences and perspectives of children, both have very spare, essen tially mythological narra tive themes, both are filled with blood, brutality, and violence, and both have moments of crude, bawdy humor. Heather’s reading “Hansel and Gretel” to Dylan earlier in the film, and then reading the script to him at the end, makes this equation as plain as possible.[vi]

Craven is suggesting that just as in earlier times fairy tales served to address the psychologi cal and spiri tual needs of children (despite the disapproval of moralizing adults), so today horror movies speak to those same needs felt by children in our society (despite the disapproval of moralizing adults). Fairy tales and horror movies appeal so deeply to children precisely because adult rationality is so incapa ble of truly helping kids in their struggles against the evils surging both in and around them.

“Dreams” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” build up multiple nest ings of dreams, films, and waking realities that are every bit as complex as the mind-bending dream-within-dream plots of certain Indian myths.[vii] To summarize, if that’s possible: “Dreams” is a film about Masha Stepanova, a 1993 canteen wait ress, dreaming of being a 19th century Countess, who is dreaming of being a 1993 canteen waitress, who is suddenly thrust into an absurd film about the 1991 revolution. “Wes Craven’s New Night mare” is a film about Heather Langenkamp, the actress from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, dreaming of Freddy Kruger, the arch-villain from those movies, and having to go into her dreams, and then into his cinematical ly-created nightmare world, in order to save her son and stop Freddy from escaping into her waking world. What are we, as the audience watching these films from the “outside,” to make of all this?

Myself, I first call on Freud’s hermeneutic principle that a dream within a dream is the most direct and uncensored expres­sion of the dreame r’s reality.[viii] Thus, Masha’s film-with in-a-dream-with in-a-dream-within-a-film reveals in comic, exag­gerated, but painfully honest terms something that’s really happening in contemporary Russia: a crass commercial exploitation of the nation’s natural and cultural treasures. Heather’s film-within-a-dream-within-a-film shows, amid all the blood-spattered mayhem, something that’s really happening in contempo rary Ameri ca: a failure by adults to recog nize that children desperately need help in dealing with an in creasingly violent society.

Of course, my feelings about these films are colored by the ways they’ve influenced my own dreams. The night after seeing “Dreams”, I dreamed I was in a film–it was a bad science-fiction movie, just like the 1950’s cult classic “The Amazing Colossal Man.” And the night after seeing “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” I dreamed that Freddy Kruger was chasing after me and Heather, threatening my child (who is named, in my waking life, Dylan). All of which leads me to ask a modern variant of the ancient Hindu question: am I just a character in some Director’s film?


[i].. The jerky motion of the camera throughout this scene seems intended to suggest that this is a “dream,” in relation to the “waking” scene of Masha in the doctor’s office.

[ii].. In a question and answer session after the showing I attended, one of the directors said the film is “dealing with present difficulties by making fun comparisons between the past and the present.”

[iii].. A feminist critique could easily be made at this point, that in both the past and the present Masha is subjected to the dominance of males; the apparent freedom she gains at the film’s conclusion still depends on the support of a man.

[iv].. Most of the film’s main characters play themselves, which further blurs the lines between film and “reality.”

[v].. Quoted from the 10-26-93 version of the screenplay, p. 98.

[vi].. Although I felt that the film’s one false note was the use of “Hansel and Gretel,” which provides a poor analogy to the story of the film. “Hansel and Gretel” is about a brother and sister dealing with parental abandon ment and hunger, while “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is, in these structural terms, about a mother and son fight ing off pater nal/phallic aggression. “Hansel and Gretel” does, howev er, provide Craven with the themes of the secret trail back home and the villain’s demise in a fiery oven, which he uses to good effect in the film.

[vii].. See Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[viii].. “If a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event–the strongest affirmation of it.” (emphasis in the original). Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (trans. James Strachey) (New York, NY: Avon Books, 1965), p. 374. See also pp. 526-527.

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Review: “In Dreams”

This 1998 thriller is a showcase for the acting talents of Annette Bening. She plays Claire (as in clear-sighted), an artistically inclined New England housewife who has a series of increasingly disturbing dreams that turn out to foretell the kidnapping and murder of her young daughter. After her daughter’s death Claire starts having more bad dreams, and she knows they are signs of worse violence to come, but no one believes her. Everyone-first her husband, then the town police chief, and finally the hospital psychiatrist (played with block-headed condescension by Stephen Rea)–assures Claire that her dreams aren’t real, and she just needs a few sleeping pills and some rest. She of course knows they’re all full of shit, and as she struggles to make sense of her dreams her life becomes a crazed maelstrom of fear and uncertainty, where it’s no longer possible to say what’s real and what’s not. The most intense and emotionally gripping scenes of the movie come when Claire imperceptibly slides from “real” reality into “dream” reality. These scenes are disturbingly effective in conveying a feeling of what it must be like to go insane.

Many of Claire’s dreams and visions center on apples-mounds and mounds of rotting red apples, so mealy and overripe you almost smell their sickly pungence. The apples are a clue to the villain’s identity and whereabouts, and here is where the movie begins to sag. Robert Downey Jr. does a respectable job of playing the ambiguously named Vivian, a creepazoid bad guy with all the demented intelligence, wicked humor, and perverse desire (vivace) you could ask for in a movie psycho killer. But we never really get an explanation of why this homicidal lunatic and an otherwise ordinary housewife are tuning into each other’s dreams. We’re asked simply to accept their strange psychic bond and devote all our attention to the movie’s stunning visual effects. To be sure, there is plenty to admire in this regard. Director of photography Darius Khondji fills the screen with eerie colors and haunting images. Claire’s fits of madness, Vivian’s freakish hideout, the submerged town where Vivian’s craziness began-these and many other images are rendered with a weird, otherworldly beauty. Indeed, the brief set of scenes where an adolescent Vivian cross-dresses as a nurse and slaughters his/her way out of a mental hospital are so powerful they practically jump off the screen.

But the sum of these astonishing images does not add up to a satisfying film. What’s missing? Just this: a true respect for the power of dreaming. “In Dreams” fails to take its own premise seriously. It begins with a strong burst of oneiric potency, but the film either can’t or won’t let the dreams run free, and in the end director Neil Jordan settles for the safety of irony. Claire dies and Vivian is spared the death penalty, but she (apparently in spirit form) gets the poetically just compensation of tormenting him in his dreams for the rest of his presumably miserable life. We in the audience are left with nothing more than a mean-spirited smile on our faces, and we have no deeper, richer sense of the world of dreams than when the movie began.