Dream Film Syllabus

Dream Film Syllabus
by Jane Schoenbrun

I’ve always been obsessed with the oneiric approach to filmmaking. My favorite way of thinking about and appreciating cinema is through the lens of dreams. The films that linger deepest in my memory are the ones that conjure up a dream state; the ones that use the tools of the medium to explore the uncanny and the unconscious.

Here’s a brief syllabus overviewing the history of dreams on film (my own dream project collective:unconscious not included):

A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
This film feels like the cinema’s version of that first dream you remember as a child. The one that lingers in the back of your brain through the rest of your waking life.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene)
And this would be the first nightmare.

Un Chien Andalou (1929, Luis Buñuel)
Suggested reading: André Breton’s surrealist manifestos.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren, Alexandr Hackenschmied)
This is the center of the whole course. An eighteen-minute masterclass on how cinematic tools can be used to bend and manipulate perspective, location, and emotion in service of conjuring up the uncanny.

Dead of Night (1945, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer)
This early horror anthology by Ealing Studios is full of genuinely frightening segments, but its place on this syllabus is earned by the wraparound segments, featuring a man’s slow and dreadful realization that he’s living inside the endless repetitions of a dream.

Orpheus (1950, Jean Cocteau)
There’s a line in this film — the most essential of Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy — about “the zone,” a liminal space between life and death represented here through a passageway in a translucent mirror. See also: The Twilight Zone; ‘Zona’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker; Matthew Lillard’s fanboy character in Twin Peaks: The Return, who suggests a new name for the place that the series has thus far classically referred to as The Black Lodge — “the Zone.”

Carnival of Souls (1962, Herk Harvey)
The liminal space of a carnival at night is ever-present through the history of oneiric filmmaking. Here it’s represented at its most ghastly and ephemeral.

Gertrud (1964, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Mood, tone, and longing, this is film as the memory of a life, or the memory of a film about life. “Life is a long, long chain of dreams,” the aging protagonist suggests at one point.

Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
There’s a dozen Bergman films that I could have included on this list. While Persona overtly draws a line between dreaming and filmmaking, nothing beats the middle of the night dread of Hour of the Wolf for me, in which the cold logic of a clock’s ticking slowly gives way to the psychosis of a fever dream.

The Woman in the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)
That nightmarish logic of the premise, and Teshigahara’s full commitment to it, remind me of those dreams where you find yourself unable to stop doing math equations in your underwear in front of your high school class.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir)
There’s a sequence in here where the doldrums and unspoken repressions of civil daytime society gives way towards a deeper reality — a manic, saturated state of horrific ecstasy. You’ll know it when you see it.

Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
“Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” – Ingmar Bergman. There’s no greater or simpler summation of dream cinema than that shot of a train slowly entering a new place.

A Million Miles Away // Blood Below the Skin // Crystal Lake (2014, 2015, 2016, all by Jennifer Reeder)
A stunning triptych of short films that exists in an imagined feminist dreamscape of 80s teenaged nostalgia.

Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Twin Peaks: The Return (1997, 2001, 2018, all by David Lynch)
For me, the biggest achievement of David Lynch’s later work (of which there are so many) is the gradual deepening of complexity surrounding the notion of dreams and dreamers. In Lost Highway, Bill Pullman’s Fred is unambiguously the dreamer, stuck in a prison cell awaiting death row. In Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watt’s Betty is the dreamer, though it is unclear which version of herself is dreaming the other. In Inland Empire, the mirror is shattered and the notion of a single, linear dreamer is abandoned. In Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch fractures the narrative further until the viewer and artist drift through the same subconscious. “Who is the dreamer?,” indeed.

Suggested Reading:
Oneiric Metaphor in Film Theory by Laura Rascaroli
The poems of Jorge Luis Borges
A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka
The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud

Jane Schoenbrun appears in Social Media, On Screen, a syllabus by Claire Davidson.