Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dreaming the Movies

July 15

Colin McGinn's book The Power of Movies connects the experience of going to the movies with the experience of going to sleep and having a hell of a dream. That's an interesting way to look at it, and the book actually gives you -- or gave me, anyway -- a new way of thinking about the movies and even about waking life. I've alluded to The Power of Movies before, but now I'm further along into it, and finding that you might want to know about some of the things he says. You may take more away from the book than I do, or less; nevertheless it's got ideas in it that I don't think I ever would have come to on my own.

First off, the aspect of movies I referred to in an earlier post, of looking into a movie as you look into a mirror. Sure, a movie is light and shadow projected on a flat screen, but you become unaware of that screen as soon as the images come on it, just as when looking into a mirror you are not looking at the surface. In a movie, you inhabit the bodies you are looking into just as you are the principle character in your own dreams. Your mind does this for you, and McGinn asserts that the process is similar to what it does in sleep when those images come forth.

What happens when we are transported by a movie is that we are reading the actors' minds, we look into their eyes (being granted greater access by virtue of the close-up than we can ever be in life except in the most intimate moments) and reach another level of experience. The incidents in the film are happening to us, too. In a dream, this is automatic, it is internal and we are the author, but we are not working at it so much as functioning within it. It takes on the same semblance of reality that a movie does, and on some level we accept its inevitable outcome, just as we must when seeing a movie. In reading a book, we turn ourselves over to the writer; in dreaming, we are the writer, but also the protagonist. In a movie, we are being led, but we willingly go. We are injected into the experience rather than objectively observing it through the eyes and voice of the writer.

McGinn says, "The suspicion that there is some sort of connection or similarity between dreams and films has been around for a long time and has struck many theorists of film as well as filmmakers. Hollywood is sometimes described as a 'dream factory'; there is a film company expressly entitled Dreamworks; talk interrelating dreams and movies is rampant." He quotes Suzanne Langer, in Feeling and Form: "Cinema is like dream in the mode of its presentation: It creates a virtual present, an order of direct apparition. That is the mode of the dream," and Parker Tyler, "movies are dreamlike and fantastic," and "the movie theatre is a darkness, a kind of sleep in which we dream." (Myth and Magic of the Movies)

Movies are like dreams, perhaps, but McGinn says that dreams are not. They are like reality, at least at the time. "...during a dream there is nothing 'dreamlike' about it -- there is no sense that we are dwelling in a land of fantasy. On the contrary, even the most bizarre dream strikes us, while dreaming it, to be the purest reality.

He goes into the unreality of the characters on the screen, the floating shadows and light who resemble our vision of angels rather than the real-life animal qualities of actual human beings -- which to a degree explains our tendency to idolize the actors we see in movies. This is a side point which I found quite compelling.

There are many directions in his arguments, and it is so easy to dismiss any discussion of movies as trivial that one may wonder why a philosopher-scientist so respected would be concerned with defining the significance of the film image. To those of us whose lives have always been intertwined with the shimmer of images on a screen in the front of a dark room, surrounding by strangers sharing the experience, there is much to learn from this book and more like it.

And I found myself driving to Montrose the other day, thinking, "I'm looking at the road, but I could look into the road --" and mentally shifting the whole aspect as I headed toward Target. Who knows where this new perspective may lead?

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