Dreaming in Films


By Peter-Shaun Tyrell

Image courtesy of geralt.

“A film is not a dream that is told, but one that we all dream together.” – Jean Cocteau

Some people theorize dreams have meanings, others think they could be a prophetic series of images. Or, it could simply be they are a collection of thoughts we’ve had, randomly selected, and connected to form a nonsensical perplexing story. There is not one theory that is conclusive enough to be fact.

However a certain school of psychoanalytics believes there is a direct link between our dreams and films–that these mediums are actually synonymous with each other. They also believe that the way we watch and understand films is the same as how we dream. It is no wonder why we call Hollywood “The Dream Factory” as psychoanalytic scholars claim film and dreams are linked together. Sigmund Freud established the foundation of this theory with psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, but did not relate it to films.

Try to remember the last time you went to the cinema or watched a film at home and were truly intrigued by the movie. Do you remember feeling groggy after the film was over? Yawning and stretching after you stood up to walk out of the theater?

According to Roland Barthes, an early 20th century literary theorist, and Andre Breton, a French writer and poet, they believe this to be your body imitating the “dreamlike state” while watching a film.

The “dreamlike state” (a term coined by French filmmaker Rene Clair) isn’t a coincidence but a conscious effect film directors hope to create within their audience. The term “oneiric” is used to describe movies that utilize the metaphor of dreams or present dream states in their film.

Movies such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive would be a quintessential example of an oneiric film. Although this is an extreme example since it uses the components of the theory to create a dream world, which helps entrance the audience into the dreamlike state. Because these components imitate the land of nod, they are the reason why we are subdued into the state as talked about by Breton and Barthes.

The time frame of movies and dreams are also similar. During deep sleep we have two different REM cycles that people drift between: light REM and deep NREM. These cycles can last up to 90 minutes each, just like the average length of a film. As these cycles change, so do our dreams; dreams can last anywhere from five minutes to 30, 45, or 90 minutes, like reels changing in an old movie theatre.

These REM cycles can be linked to when a film has an important plot point coming up that changes the narrative path of the movie as seen in the dramatic structure. Even in our dreams we have exposition, rising action, a turning point, falling action, and then the conclusion.

This progression fits right into how our brain digests stories and makes them easier to absorb. If films break away from this structure or have a long run-time we do tend to come out of the world–similar to how our dreams change after a 90-minute cycle. Films replicate these cycles and create two dramatic structures in those 90 minute cycles to keep us in the dream state.

For example, in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring it is roughly around the 90 minute mark that Frodo reaches Rivendell. Up to that point, the film had exposition (Frodo, Biblo, and Gandalf talking about the ring and the world of Middle Earth), rising action (Frodo’s journey to Bree), a turning point (the Wraiths find and chase the group, injuring Frodo), falling action (the hobbit’s escape and arrival at Rivendell), and a conclusion (the appointment of the Fellowship and another journey beginning).

When we dream, we feel like we truly experience them. Whether it be a terrifying nightmare or a guilty wet dream. The fact is, while we are asleep we believe it’s real. Even after we have woken up, the emotions we felt linger like an after-effect of the dreams. Our mind knows it’s just our subconscious, yet we hold onto it until it’s forgotten.

When we watch a film there is a “willing suspension of disbelief” in which we accept what transpires on the screen as real. The most unrealistic horror film will make you jump out of your seat, or the most inexplicable animated inanimate object from a Disney film will make you cry when they die. It is only after we have walked out of the cinema that the after-effects of the film leave us–unless it’s Paranormal Activity and it stays with you for the rest of your life.

Dreams and films are relatively similar mediums in the sense that what we are seeing isn’t real, yet we can derive emotions and experience out of each. These emotions and experience aren’t necessarily as accessible in the real world, which is why we are so attracted to dreams and films. The only difference with films, however, is that we choose what we are watching, as Remy de Gourmont said, “the best place to repose: the images pass borne aloft by light music. One need not even bother to dream.”