Saturday, October 27, 2012

Film List - Oneiric

Film theorists have commented extensively on the similarities between film and dreams, both in the nature of the experience (one lapses into a trance-like state, an entirely passive and powerless witness, the body lulled into a state of inaction close to sleep) and in the narrative form (the story told primarily through visual images, often discontinuous, and relying heavily on symbols and archetypes to present ideas of deep resonance, universal significance). And many films make use of dream sequences, where they are deliberately trying to recreate the character of a dream narrative. I think Terry Gilliam is one of the best directors for evoking that sense of being in a dream; I particularly like the fight with the giant samurai in Brazil (and it might be argued that most of his films are 'dreamlike' in their entirety, since they tend to portray the subjective experience of a protagonist who has lost touch with reality).

However, for this month's list, I want to do a rundown of some of the films I recall as striking me as particularly dreamlike all the way through, and Gilliam's don't have that effect on me. There are a number of features that contribute to such an effect: highly stylised visuals (many of these picks are in black-and-white, or use saturated colours); discordant, disconcerting, disorienting elements (particularly in the music soundtrack or background noises); limited or meaningless dialogue (lots of overlapping, indistinct, or wilfully trivial or nonsensical fragments of speech overpowering one's attempt to comprehend what's going on); recurring - often seemingly irrelevant - motifs (such as the cloudscapes in Rumble Fish); surreal or non-realistic elements (deliberate lapses in continuity, or unusual techniques such as extended POV shots); a heavy use of symbolism; a strong sense of tempo in the editing; and narrative discontinuity (occasional sudden time-jumps that challenge you to work out what has happened in the interim).

Here, then, are some films that I think exemplify this oneiric quality.

Memorably Oneiric Films

Last Year At Marienbad
(Dir. Alain Resnais, 1961)
Impenetrable, pretentious, and far too long (god, is it really only 94 minutes? it feels much longer!), this is a film I am unable to love. But it is the classic oneiric film, impossible to omit from a list such as this.

The Trial
(Dir. Orson Welles, 1962)
Welles' version of Kafka's celebrated study in paranoia is one of the best ever film adaptations of a great book.

Elvira Madigan
(Dir. Bo Widerberg, 1967)
A classic tale of doomed love, with exquisite photography but very little dialogue.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
And I'm not thinking just of the very creepy final sequences of Bowman travelling through the Stargate and being transformed into the Star Child. The whole film has those unsettling oneiric qualities I identified above.

Figures In A Landscape
(Dir. Joseph Losey, 1970)
I've only seen this once, late night on TV when I was a kid 35 or more years ago, so I'm not clear on the oneiric qualities of the story presentation, but it is certainly oneiric in its concept: Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell are two fugitives being pursued across country by a helicopter. There's almost no dialogue, and no explanation of the situation; just this relentless scenario of threat and evasion.

THX 1138
(Dir. George Lucas, 1971)
The film school graduation project of the Star Wars creator is far and away his best film (better even than American Graffiti, which is pretty good). Robert Duvall is a slave worker in a subterranean city controlled by computers and robots. When he stops taking his sedatives, he begins to think of rebelling against the system. It's a mesmerising dystopian vision. Unfortunately, compulsive tinkerer that he is, Lucas has added a lot of modified footage to the DVD version now available. Why mess with a masterpiece?

Aguirre - The Wrath of God
(Dir. Werner Herzog, 1972)
One of the first films I saw when I started university, and one of the most haunting; one I perhaps prefer even over the other magnificent Herzog/Kinski collaboration Fitzcarraldo. It depicts the descent into despair and insanity of a small party of conquistadors on a vain quest for El Dorado.

Liquid Sky
(Dir. Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The Russian emigré director's 'cult classic' is perhaps the weirdest film I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot of very weird films; they used to do seasons of them at my favourite undergraduate cinema hangout, Oxford's Penultimate Picture Palace*). I didn't particularly like it, but it certainly lingers in the memory.

Rumble Fish
(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
Long a favourite of mine, I watched this again just recently, and it gave me the idea for this selection - possibly the most dreamlike of all these films.

The Last Battle
(Dir. Luc Besson, 1983)
Besson's first feature, and possibly his best: a bleak post-apocalyptic adventure, and without dialogue.

The Sacrifice
(Dir. Andrey Tarkovsky, 1986)
The challenging Russian director's final film is a strange parable about an old man striking a bargain with God to avert a worldwide nuclear war.

Drowning By Numbers
(Dir. Peter Greenaway, 1988)
Greenaway's mannered style tends to baffle and irritate more than charm, but his more successful efforts are oddly compelling; and this, I think, is my favourite of them - and the most dreamlike.

My Own Private Idaho
(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991)
I found the wilfully weird story unengaging, but its images of the American landscape imprinted themselves irrevocably in my brain - and I was pleased to recognise many of the locations when I visited the States for the first time a few years later.

Institute Benjamenta
(Dir. The Brothers Quay, 1995)
I was driven to seek this one out after blog-friend JES mentioned it last year. The Quays, best known for their surreal stop-motion animation, here produce a haunting live action fable with an eerily Kafkaesque feel.

(Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
Aronofsky's calling card is a devastating study of paranoid schizophrenia, shot in luminous black-and-white.

Punch-Drunk Love
(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
I was lucky enough to catch this on late-night television just recently, having never heard of it before. Anderson subverts the concept of the romantic comedy, turning the form into something much richer, darker, and stranger. And much to my surprise, Adam Sandler - who I usually can't stand - is superb in this.

The New World
(Dir. Terence Malick, 2005)
I only got to see this just recently on cable TV. Malick's rendition of the Pocahontas story is fragmentary, episodic, allusive, almost devoid of dialogue, and not very compelling or even coherent in a conventional narrative sense. But it is visually sumptuous and utterly mesmerising - a lyrical evocation of a pre-industrial world.

(Dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)
This dark and brutal misogynistic fable is certainly hard to watch, but it is one of the few films of recent years that have completely blown me away - and which, despite my discomfort in viewing it, I find myself compelled to revisit once or twice a year.

Meek's Cutoff
(Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
One of the best Westerns of the past couple of decades, bravely devoid of a conventional story: we simply observe three wagon train families lost in the wilderness.

And lastly....

Blue Velvet
(Dir. David Lynch, 1986)
All of Lynch's work has elements of the oneiric about it (particularly Eraserhead and The Elephant Man - though I confess I've never been able to stay awake through the former, having attempted to watch it two or three times on late-night TV), but I think this is my favourite of his films, and the one that is most thoroughly dreamlike in its entirety (but Roger Ebert didn't like it!). Plus, of course, it provides the perfect theme song for this post...

An afterthought...

A lot of Jim Jarmusch's films have something of the oneiric about them too, especially the early ones, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Mystery Train, or his recent The Limits of Control (which I've already written about on here). I was finding it difficult to choose between them, and inadvertently omitted him altogether. After another 24 hours' rumination, I realise that his most outrĂ© work is probably his 'psychedelic Western', 1995's Dead Man - very oneiric, that.

* After some years in mothballs, the PPP was reborn as the Ultimate Picture Palace. And I have just learned via its brief Wikipedia entry that last year a documentary was made about the cinema, The Ultimate Survivor. I look forward to seeing that.

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