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Dreams and films and dreams

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'Head in the Clouds' - artwork by Krishna Shenoi.jpgNo one is certain about dreams. If they tell you they are, they're either fooling you or themselves. There isn't a universally accepted definition of dreams. The whole idea behind them isn't wholly understood. Even scientists aren't sure about the purpose of dreams. And most of us don't understand, or heck, even remember, our own dreams.

My moseying around different blogs and websites has brought me a bit of random knowledge about the subject. I read there are two kinds of dreams: Authentic and Illusory. Authentic dreams are those that reflect actual memories and experiences of the dreamer. I guess that would mean they stick to the laws of physics and stuff too. Illusory dreams, on the other hand, contain impossible, incongruent, or bizarre content. Dali-esque stuff, maybe?I guess my brain must be messily wired or something, as I have, or at least remember having, mainly illusory dreams.

In my dreams, people transform into one another and not much makes sense. I had a dream in which the world tilted and all the water on it flowed to one side. I had a dream one day in which I was admitted in a hospital and they served me stray dogs for meals. Interestingly, I was admitted in a hospital only a few days before I had that dream. Dreams, as you know, are stemmed from our experiences and memories.Aside from memories, I read that the drugs you take could affect your dreams too. And your health condition. And several other things. It seems you could reach an age when you can't dream anymore. I forgot where I heard this, but some people on this planet dream solely in glorious black and white.


(A side note. When my bladder is full, I have dreams that involve flowing water, rain, etc. Just a side note.)And let me ask you this: what causes dreams? Just some brain activity while asleep? A friend and I were talking about this. He pondered aloud, "Do you really think your dreams are just some biological reactions or processes taking place in your brain, in your head? Don't you think it might be something more?" Could be. And it might be more than just some memories too. Memories when awake aren't ever as vivid as your dreams, now are they? What could that mean? That dreams are more than just memories?

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And what of dreams predicting the future? What about your fortune being interpreted from your dreams? Divination? I read in a book that if you dream about buckets, it forebodes an upcoming death. Of course it doesn't! I may not say the same thing after dreaming about a bucket and later learning of somebody's death, though. But what is a dream, anyway? I like this line from Wikipedia's page on dreams: "Dreams have been described physiologically as a response to neural processes during sleep, psychologically as reflections of the subconscious, and spiritually as messages from gods, the deceased, predictions of the future or from the Soul, for symbolism is the language of the Soul. "I'm not the most interesting or skilled conversationalist. Whether you start a conversation with me regarding your uncle's death or quantum physics, I will invariably steer the conversation towards movies. Don't ask why, I just do. Perhaps it's because I know more about movies than about anything else. Consider the topic at hand - dreams. I read a bit of this and a bit of that off the internet and I flipped through a few books and have garnered knowledge (possibly half-knowledge) on dreams. But my knowledge about dreams in the movies is certainly more than just half-knowledge. Movies have endlessly employed the 'dream sequence' trip, either for dramatic effect, for psychological exploration, or just for those goddamn cheap thrills. By cheap thrills, I refer to those corny horror movies in which a character gets stabbed by a creepy kook, only to wake up and find, 'Oh, it's just a dream!' These are dream sequences of the worst kind; just to induce momentary shudders, false alarms. I could mention the names of movies that have done this. I could mention them.

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Horror movies can employ dream sequences effectively though, if they're clever enough. Take the example of "Rosemary’s Baby," an excellent 1968 thriller (Roman Polanski's Hollywood debut) in which the protagonist Rosemary is haunted by dreams that actually mean something to the story, including that terrifying dream in which she is raped by Satan. That kind of dream sequence plants the seed of doubt in your mind that keeps growing throughout the movie..."Did that really happen? Or was it just a dream?"  It was obviously a dream. She wakes up safe and sound in bed. But why are there scars on her back? She wonders again if it really was just a dream. Her husband assures her it was; he was drunk last night, the scratches on her back are his fault. But the dream... she wonders. We wonder too. The film is surprisingly chilling for its time. Strike that - it's chilling for any time. Unfortunately, most horror movies rarely employ dream sequences worthily. Instead of taking inspiration from newer run-off-the-mill horror films, today's filmmakers should take a look at the classics like 'Rosemary's Baby'.

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A newer horror film that utilized dreams cleverly is "Shutter Island," Martin Scorsese's latest film. Here, the dream sequence is applied to show the audience flashbacks and incidents from the characters' past. Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Teddy, experiences hallucinations and dreams which at first seem incoherent, but by the time the climax hits you, you'll realize that all the little pieces of dreams and visions form the pieces of a bigger puzzle. It was a very powerful movie, and I admired the dream sequences in it; they were so much like real dreams, they were bold, memorable images, and they all had some meaning. Second or third viewings of this underrated film will bring new'll realize little details in the dreams and hallucinations that all hint at the revelation at the climax of the film. If you haven't seen 'Shutter Island' yet, I urge you to.

Another thriller that effectively and prominently uses the flashback dream sequence is Alfred Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' (1945), a film I saw only recently. I really liked the movie as it keeps you guessing throughout. I shall not get into the workings of the plot; all you need to know for now is that it is the story of a man who is suffering from memory loss and a guilt complex, and there's a scene in which two doctors interpret one of his dreams to find some hints about his past. I thought the way they doctors discover vital clues to the mystery of the man's past solely from his dreams was ingenious. And oh, how wonderfully the plot works as well; the film is a true mystery.


The dream sequence in "Spellbound" was designed by renowned artist Salvador Dali, so you can imagine how beautiful and surreal the whole sequence was. It was extremely effective, and had the real feel of a dream. (Dali is one of my favorite artists, so to see a version of his art in motion was a delight). My only problem with "Spellbound" is a problem I also had with "Vertigo" - the love plots in both are ridiculous. Of course, you might beg to differ. Apart from movies that have dreams in them, there are movies that are about dreams themselves. A friend of mine recommended a movie 'Waking Life' to me, simply because it was created using a process known as rotoscopy, by which real-life footage is made to look like animation. It's somewhat like the 2-D artist's version of the 3-D artist's motion capture technique.

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"Waking Life" is one of the best looking films I've seen. The images are memorable and very dream-like, with characters' features constantly shifting and evolving. The film follows a man who's in a constant lucid dream-state. A lucid dream is simply one in which the dreamer knows he's dreaming. So this man keeps meeting people in his dreams who converse with him. The film doesn't have any's simply these conversations with strangers (or are they?) and friends in his dreams that keeps the film going. And most of these conversations are absolutely fascinating. The conversations flow into each other, covering various aspects of philosophy, psychology and the human mind. And though some of these conversations don't make sense at first, repeat viewings will clear all the clutter. There are some interesting ideas presented in this most experimental film. They say you can't adjust light levels in your dreams. And that if you know you're dreaming, then you can control your dreams and do anything. "The trick," says one of the characters in the film, "is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because, if you can do that, you can do anything. The worst mistake that you can make is to think you're alive when really you're asleep in life's waiting room. Did you ever have a job that you hated and worked real hard at? A long, hard day of work. Finally you get to go home, get in bed, close your eyes and immediately you wake up and realize...that the whole day at work had been a dream. It's bad enough that you sell your waking life for minimum wage, but now they get your dreams for free."

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There was a point of time I was obsessed with the film. I would watch segments of it repeatedly, trying to completely understand all the ideas presented in the film. It took me some time to realize that that isn't the way this film isn't meant to be experienced. "Waking Life" is not a textbook. It's a painted canvas. You aren't supposed to comprehend every syllable of the conversations; you're supposed to let the conversations wash over you and get you thinking. It doesn't matter if you didn't completely get all the new ideas presented to you - the point is to get some new ideas. I advise all thinkers out there to watch it. Do note: most people who have fed on pulp fiction, blockbusters and certain transforming automobiles might find it pretentious and boring. Then there's another film, "The Science of Sleep," which analyzes the nature of dreams. I haven't seen the whole film yet, but whatever I saw of it is quite interesting. The film follows an imaginative man who dreams a bit too much, if you ask me. The opening lines of the film grabbed me instantly: We are shown the main character, Stephane, as he hosts a cookery show in his dreams.

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Hi, and welcome back to another episode of "Television Educative". Tonight, I'll show you how dreams are prepared. People think it's a very simple and easy process but it's a bit more complicated than that. As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts. And then, we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day ... mixed with some memories from the past ... Love, friendships, relationships ... and all those "ships," together with songs you heard during the day, things you saw ... Okay, I think it's done. This film was directed by Michel Gondry, who also directed the excellent "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," another high concept psychological film. Speaking of high concept psychological films...When you read the words 'Dreams' and 'Film' in the title of this article, you were asking for "Inception," weren't you? Of course you were.


My whole interest in dreams was recently renewed by 'Inception,'a film that took the 'dream sequence' and applied it to its plot unlike ever before. Sure, "The Matrix" also has several people in a shared virtual world, but that was a computer programme...this is a dream. And when you talk about dreams, you're talking about endless possibilities. That's why films employ dream sequences so much -- you can do anything to your characters, or show anything your audiences, in a dream sequence.'Inception,' as you should know by now, follows a group of thieves who extract information from the subconscious mind of their targets while they all dream. I won't go into the details of the plot as they are too tedious to explain. Besides, you must already know them by now. Since the film takes place in the world of dreams and involves characters going layers and layers in and out of labyrinthine dreams, you can never be too sure about any of your theories about the plot. Try sorting out how many possible theories there are. Once you get to a number, watch the movie again. What's the bet your number increases?

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I loved the film's theories on dreams and several of their applications...the theory about dream time running faster than real time as your mind works faster when asleep. The theory about changes in the real world affecting the dream, like splashing water. The idea behind the totems. The idea behind people bringing projections of their subconscious into the dream space. I enjoyed how they applied impossible architecture and physics into the film too...especially the Penrose steps and the bending of Paris. Oh, how could I forget? That excellent hotel corridor fight.

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The film challenged audiences to keep track with its dream-in-a-dream-in-a-dream-in-a-dream-and-so-on plot. And it begs the question..."How do we know we're awake? What if we're still dreaming?" What if? That being said, I have slight problems with 'Inception's...rule-bound nature. Somehow, I've always figured dreams to be senseless, incoherent mash-ups of ideas and images. 'Inception' is too straight to be about dreams. But maybe that's just me.On re-reading what I've written so far, some last minute thoughts strike me. I spoke about lucid dreams in this article (a dream in which the dreamer is aware he or she is dreaming). As you're dreaming, are you aware that you're dreaming? No matter how outrageous the content of your dream, it seems plausible and almost completely natural at that point of time, right? In that dream in which I was served stray dogs to eat at the hospital, it seemed commonplace to me as it happened. But I have had one lucid dream in my entire life. I was flying through a corridor...and a thought suddenly struck me. "I'm dreaming." Then I saw a signboard on the wall of the corridor. I tried to read it, well aware of the fact that you can't read in a dream. And for that little instant of time, I was certain I was dreaming. And I felt a strange sense of triumph. "According to 'Waking Life,' I should be able to control my dream now," I actually thought. And then, quite sadly, I woke up. I've never dreamt lucidly since. Another thought: I wrote that dreams are based on a person's past experiences and memories. Isn't interesting to wonder what a baby dreams about in all its hours of sleep? Maybe it dreams of its experiences in the womb? The music the mother listened to while pregnant? Race memories? I don't know. But then again, who knows for sure? One last thought: I read on Wikipedia that at least 95% of all dreams are not remembered. So you might think you remember your dreams, but most probably, you've forgotten most of them.So what did you dream about last night? Are you sure? Food for thought.

Drawing at top by Krishna Shenoi. Drawing of dripping figure by Aniruddh Menon.

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