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Article – Cinema: The World Of Dreams And Fantasy


Posted November 5, 2017 by

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Cinema: The World Of Dreams And Fantasy

Cinema by its nature often finds itself shackled by the laws of reality; the rules of logic creating restrictions for the limitless potential of imagination, the world of dreams and fantasy offer a realm where ideas can flourish unencumbered. Dreamspace can allow films freedom, to pursue themes and storylines that do not make any literal sense, but develop and explore characters in ways not possible in the waking world, this seemingly rule-free method of storytelling has been a great tool for any filmmaker who has dared to dream a little bigger.


Films from the mind of Terry Gilliam are never short on imagination and ventures into the fantastical; Brazil offers the most famous examples, with Sam Lowry’s soaring dreamscapes offer sharp contrast to the bureaucratic nightmare of reality. These sequences serve to further the plot, sparking Sam’s search for his ‘dream’ girl – Jill – and showing the torment that the suffocating world of red tape has on him as dreams turn in nightmares, setting up a blurred line of reality which comes into play in the films sobering final stretch. After Harry Tuttle stages a daring escape from Sam’s interrogation everything seems to end a little too picture perfect, but that is punctured by the revelation that it has all been dreamt up by Sam, seen in a catatonic state, humming the titular tune. Throughout the extended sequence, the revelation of fantasy is clearly suggested as event continue to unfold with an increasing lack of logic, the heroic Tuttle is – as the soundtrack puts it – ‘consumed by paperwork,’ disappearing without explanation, when Sam stumbles into a funeral he mistakes Jill for his mother and falls through an open coffin where he is then pursued by the demons from his nightmares. All of this combines to strengthen the scabrous satirical overtones of the film, symbolised by the final denouement, showing what can happen to an innocent man overwhelmed by the world around him. Though this gut-punch of an ending wasn’t well received by the distributors, who aimed to leave in the ‘happy ending’ dubbing it ‘Love Conquers All,’ seemingly unaware that doing so makes the whole escape sequence completely nonsensical, fortunately this never came to fruition.

Fellini’s examination of the life of film director Guido Anselmi often uses dreams to explore and address his problems in real life; the film opens with Guido stuck in a suffocatingly hot traffic jam, and when trying to literally float away, he is pulled back to earth via a tether on his foot, suggesting he wants nothing more than to get away from his current struggles but remains powerless. Though the most introspective sequence comes later in the film, after his relationship with his wife grows more terse, Guido creates a fantasy for himself, a harem containing all the woman that have ever been in his life, romantically involved or otherwise. Guido is pampered from head to toe and waited on hand and foot, whilst his praises be sung by everyone involved, but a rejected woman, past her prime and forced to leave the harem lets Guido know the truth about himself, sparking a mass revolt by the rest, forcing him to face the harsh truths about himself, a revolt he has to quash by force. The extended sequence highlights the power of dreams as means for character examination and exploration, a form of self-psychoanalysis, not bound by the laws of reality, free to bring in characters from abstract times and places and to come to some sort of conclusion, perhaps acceptance.

The King Of Comedy

Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy is a masterpiece of comic awkwardness and awfulness, life isn’t quite going to plan for protagonist Rupert Pupkin, his continually failed attempts to break into the world of stand up comedy and the late night circuit provide pained hilarity for the audience, but the only joy for Pupkin is when he drifts into his own imagination. In Rupert’s version of his reality success isn’t so evasive, the roles between his and Jerry Lewis are reversed, Lewis begging for Pupkin to fill in for him, and Pupkin plays it aloof, hiding his enthusiasm. These scenes are quietly unnerving in Pupkin’s self-aggrandisation, though even more disturbing is his imagined marriage to Rita, who has continually rebuffed him in real life, dreaming of wedding bells may not be so strange, but the unfolding of events in Rupert’s mind quickly escalate in awfulness. The scene starts off fairly unsuspectingly, Rupert dreams himself hosting Lewis’s late night show, but then a surprise guest is revealed – Rita – and it is proposed that they wed live on air, if that isn’t strange enough, officiating the ceremony is Pupkin’s old school teacher, who issues him a mass apology from everyone who ever doubted him. You can feel Pupkin’s ego inflating throughout the scene, the levels of self-indulgence are almost saddening, to see his continued non-success force such a narcissistic imagination. These sequences also help blur the feeling between reality and fantasy, to the point where the film’s ending cannot be taken one way or the other, when Pupkin finally finds success, it’s reality is not ensured.

Blade Runner (The Director’s Cut)

A small but vitally important sequence, Deckard’s dream of a unicorn running through a forest suggests that he is indeed a Replicant, though this of course still remains contentious, the subject continues to draw debate even in the wake of Blade Runner 2049. It seems that opinions on the nature of Deckard have always been divided; this scene didn’t actually appear in the film till The Director’s Cut (and subsequent cuts) a full ten years after the films original release, and the footage itself came from unused material from Legend, Ridley Scott’s follow up to Blade Runner. While it may seem like an afterthought to suggest Deckard is a Replicant, Scott clearly thought it would add something to the film, extended the films musings on humanity and consciousness in artificial intelligence to the main character, putting the hunter on the same level as the hunted. The inclusion of this scene lends further viewing of the film a new sense of ambiguity; Deckard gets thrown about a startling amount for a Harrison Ford movie, showing him much weaker than his ‘fellow’ Replicants, but at one point – briefly – his eyes show that red glow that Replicant eyes have under a certain light, perhaps Scott always had this idea in mind. 2049 director Denis Villeneuve understands that this ambiguity is what will keep audiences coming back, refusing to set Deckard’s nature in stone in the recent revival, despite Scott’s continued assertions that he is a Replicant. While Scott’s seems certain of what the insertion of this dream means, it is the suggestion that it offers that continues to enthral.

Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend

Edwin S. Porter’s short film way back in 1906 is noteworthy as it marks perhaps the earliest example of cinematic dreaming, creating the template and clichés that are still seen today. By todays standards the film is pretty straightforward, a man eats some cheese before bed and has some strange dreams, he is attacked by imps, his bed spins around and he finds himself flying above a cityscape below, clinging to his bed in nothing but his nightshirt, but back then it defined the way that cinema conveys dream states. The image of flying, especially in the nightshirt is one that has been copied time and time again, The Big Lebowski springs to mind, and it is interesting to think that is Porter had used a different approach, how different the expression of dreams would be. It is worth noting how Porter captures the dreams from an observer’s point of view, the film is not subjective, the viewpoint of reality and dream is identical, there is no compositional attempt to separate the two, much as is the same with dream sequences throughout the rest of cinematic history. It is the events that occur that separate form reality, rather than the viewpoint, perhaps if Porter had used a first-person point of view, things could be very different, but with cinema in it’s infancy, the style of fixed camera positions didn’t evolve until the 1910’s, so any stylistic invention was not technically or artistically a viable notion.


Scorsese is no stranger to the silent era, he referenced The Great Train Robbery (1903) at the end of GoodFellas, but Hugo takes thing to whole new level, his ode to silent cinema features many nods to films of the past, famously the image of Harold Lloyd hanging perilously from a clock face in Safety Last! and of course the many references to George Méliès, but a dream sequence in the film allowed Scorsese to create both cinematic and real life references. The sequence sees Hugo finding a key on the train tracks but an incoming train, a roaring, steaming behemoth turns things quickly into a nightmare, Hugo narrowly escapes while he train crashes through the platform, making light work of stations elaborate façade. Whilst being terrifying, Scorsese captures the derailment with a typical visual brio; the sequence takes on further significance through two references, firstly the Lumière Brothers L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896) a film that famously – and also contentiously – made audiences jump out of there seats, believing a station-bound train was headed straight for them, an effect which Scorsese aims to emulate by aiming the train straight at the camera with almost demonic possession. Secondly the train crash is a visually echoes the derailment of the Granville-Paris Express at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895, an event that makes the image a scarily believable, not allowing the sequence the safety of fantasy.

Modern Times

Chaplin’s work often focused on the fantastical, madcap sequences that pushed the boundaries of physical possibility and whose heightened sense of imagination served a pure escapism for audiences, and it was escapism that became a recurring theme throughout Chaplin’s output. Right from The Immigrant (1917) through to The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s characters tend to find themselves in a hot spot, in need of a disappearing act, and this was especially prelevant in Modern Times, a scathing assault on industrial evolution.

After being broken by life on the production line Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’ dreams of a better life for him and fellow down-and-outer Ellen, a quaint, homespun idyll, free of the oppression of modern technology and cheerfully self-sufficient. He picks fruit from out of the window and gets milk from a convenient cow without having to leave the house; Ellen may serve as an out-dated view of the ideal housewife, but it is a simple, peaceful imagination, one that clearly emphasises the quality of life from out under the industrial thumb. Modern Times was one of Chaplin’s most satirical films, that didn’t always the prospect of escape in reality, the harshness of that reality meant it had to be attained via fantasy, making Chaplin’s commentary all the more poignant.

Midnight Cowboy

Life in New York is no picnic for Enrico Salvatore Rizzo A.K.A. Ratso Rizzo, he exists a forgotten man, scorned upon by society and living in a condemned building with the worlds worst male escort, also his only friend Joe Buck. The only comfort for Rizzo is the dream of a new life in Miami; a poster on his wall provides the only colour in his life, in his fantasy he is the centre of attention, dressed in white, adorned by followers and life of the party. This sequence is stark contrast from reality, and makes the films final act all the more dispiriting, forced to try and make his fantasy come true due to ever decreasing health, Rizzo makes it to Miami, though only in physical presence. To be within touching distance of his dream and fall at the final hurdle is the fitting with the films indictment of the New York existence, that like many others like The Crowd (1928) Taxi Driver and The Fisher King, showed that rather than being the epitome of the American Dream, the big apple could often be the stuff of nightmares.

Mulholland Drive

The divide between reality and dreams in Mulholland Drive is virtually non-existent, defying categorisation and continuing to provoke debate about what is real if anything at all. The first part of the film, glossy mystery thriller, may be the dream or reality, as may the stark disturbing psychodrama of the second part, but for a film that starts with a unidentified character collapsing face-first into a pillow, any semblance of reality is questioned right from the start. Lynch takes glee in pulling the rug out from the audience’s feet, switching focus or introducing new elements just when some sense of understanding may be forming, differing personas, conflicting information and (seemingly) unresolved narrative threads provide perpetual bafflement, all creating a undeniably dream-like experience. The blurring between dream and reality is signposted famously in an early scene where character visits the location of a recurring nightmare, where his description of said vision is captured in a particularly woozy style of composition, and when he goes to confront his nightmare, hoping to dispel its existence, it becomes a harsh, shocking reality. This sequence sums up the films approach, one that creates a constant feeling of uncertainty and that shock element for what is ostensibly a scrutinisation of Tinseltown, just one of many interpretations that can be drawn from the film. While not much that takes place may make literal sense that is not really the films goal, rather aiming to evoke the dreamlike experience where events are not connected by physical logic but through emotional connections.


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Written by:

Sam May
Freelance Contributor

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