The Life Of The Mind
All of this INCEPTION talk has been enlightening and refreshing, and not just in a Facebook status update "that movie blew my mind" sort of way. I'm still a bit on the fence about it, personally, and though I do have some small problems with it, I tend to fall much more squarely on the side of having liked it. The story of a dream heist is too good for me to pass up, given my interests in crime dramas and my own concerns with the nature of memories and how they shape our lives and those of other people. Despite whether or not I like the film or not, the discussion surrounding it justifies its existence on some level, even if you, like many others, find talking about the movie more fun and enlightening than actually watching the film itself.
Of course, as a natural outgrowth of all of this, I've gone back again and again to thinking about dreams and reality and the nature of cinema altogether. As many blogger, commentators, and others have pointed out, a movie is not entirely unlike a dream, in that you enter a fantasy world, usually via a surrogate's experience, and exist within the imagination of the filmmaker for the time you're watching the movie. It's a point the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg have made over and over again in their films. Below is a brief discussion a few of my favorite films concerned with reality, dreams, perception and memory. (Oddly enough, BARTON FINK doesn't make it in here. I just liked using that reference as a title.)
Arnold Schwarzenneger plays Quaid, a regular guy who dreams of taking a trip to Mars - where he may or may not have been before. In order to get there, he opts for an implant in his brain that will give him the memories of his amazing, romantic, spy-themed vacation. During the course of the procedure, something goes wrong, and he awakens suddenly with very concrete memories of a huge conspiracy that has gone down, and has been covered up by having his brain wiped. All of the pieces begin to fall into place, and before long, we're transported to Mars for real (maybe), and Quaid begins to lay waste to his enemies as he unravels their dirty deeds one by one and helps the "mutants" of the colony reclaim their humanity and rights. Adapted fairly loosely from a Phillip K. Dick story, TOTAL RECALL has aged remarkably well, mostly thanks to pulp-auteur Paul Verhoeven, who infused the story with enough stunning visuals and ridiculous adventure (and that camp humor that anchors all of his films) to make the film stay fresh through repeat viewings. The movie is fairly non-commital as to which parts of it are fantasy and which are reality - the potential is there for several different interpretations - and that's one of its many charms. The dreams in TOTAL RECALL are also structured pretty literally, if they're dreams at all, and though they're fantastic images, there's nothing really hallucinatory about them as they're all based in some sort of physical reality that is easily interpreted as only being slightly outside the realm of possibility. In other words, the dreams are normal science-fiction worlds. Verhoeven is less interested in the perceptions of reality, though, than he is in examining the effects of memory on these perceptions (a common trait among all the best dream films.)
In one of the great fractured mind performances ever put on film, Naomi Watts plays Betty / Diane - a mash-up of two personalities, real and imagined - an aspiring actress freshly arrived to Hollywood to live out her dream of becoming a star. Lynch is not a director to shy away from surreal imagery and unexplainable and disturbing themes. His films are maybe best described as being the aesthetic kin to fever dreams, most definitely in the cases of ERASERHEAD and LOST HIGHWAY. To this day I am still freaked out by the oddly creepy homeless man behind the dumpster of Winkies, a typical diner, and the build-up that leads to his reveal. That sequence begins with a discussion of dreams, and a fear of a particular nightmare becoming reality, in which Dan (played by Patrick Fischler, who is well-known to television fans from his stints on LOST, MAD MEN and dozens of guest spots on other shows) finds a monster behind the dumpster that kills him. I won't give away what does happen, but there is indeed a monster to be found, and its relevance in the reality of Watts' character later in the film is as puzzling and mystical as it is profound and, in some ways, moving.
The NIGHTMARE films have always had a firm grasp on the wild and weird world of dream and nightmare imagery, even as they had varying degrees of success at making those worlds interesting, fresh and scary for the intended audience. In NEW NIGHTMARE, original director and series creator Wes Craven returns for the first time in a decade to the characters and the world he forged in the seriously creepy and remarkably dark A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Heather Langenkamp returns as herself as Nancy in a story that sees the child-murderer and, at this point, demonic Freddy Krueger attempting to break through from the celluloid world of dreams into the real world by attacking his oldest nemesis Nancy, who is, of course, Heather. If all of this seems too convoluted to worry about, don't worry, it's not, though describing it to someone could induce headaches in all parties involved. This is one of the most fun meta-excursions into films about films about dreams and all that jazz. Robert Englund has some of his best lines as the character, and the 'reality'-based make-up for Krueger is truly frightening. I wish they had just followed this film up (with Craven behind the scenes) instead of rebooting it into a soul-less, humor-less excursion into boredom and wasting a solid performance by Jackie Earle Haley as the new face of the franchise.
The portion of this film in which Keaton, playing a projectionist in a movie theater, falls asleep while showing a film and dream himself into the movies themselves is inarguably one of the most famous movie sequences ever, silent or sound era. Never lacking in imagination, Keaton's dream world flashes from the film he is screening to a crowded city street, to the mountain ranges of the West, and then to the African plains as he is surrounded by Lions. This may be one of the first such instances drawing the parallel between the nature of dreams and the nature of film itself, though it's certainly not the only silent-era film to do so. There are more amazing evocations of dreams in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, and Carl Th. Dreyer's early sound film VAMPYR, which features proto-Lynchian imagery and disjointed editing techniques to specifically and subtly cause an uneasiness in the viewer.