Dark Utopias: The Dream Life of New Cinema

Dark Utopias
The Dream Life of New Cinema
by Daniel Baird

There are several dreams that I have had for the greater part of my adult life. They are not specific dreams or nightmares repeated over and over in exact detail, but rather, places and people in an unfolding and largely formless story that is intermittently revisited. None involves any especially dramatic occurrence, and for that reason they do not lend themselves to recounting; their power and mysteriousness for me rests in their ambiance and the possible worlds and lives they imply.

In one, I am in a large house with high ceilings, high windows and wide open doors. It is evidently summer in California, where I grew up, because the house is warm and full of sunlight, and I am leaning back on a couch, barefoot. There are people around me I cannot identify but who seem familiar. They mill about drinking coffee and wine, eating, talking, laughing and smiling. On the tables are blue glass vases with immense bouquets of dark red roses and white chrysanthemums. When I get up and walk outside, I quickly realize that the old wooden house is not connected to any road or path, but is isolated on a hillside dense with towering redwood trees, overlooking the ocean, waves crashing against the steep, sandstone bluffs. And the ocean here is always the most intense cerulean blue–empty and vast, overwhelming and beckoning.

My recurring dream life, most of which I only remember in stray fragments, intermingles with my daily life in uncanny ways. I am sitting at my kitchen table drinking coffee, still in a haze of sleep, when for an instant I fully believe that outside my window I will see the grove of redwoods, motes of light slowly filtering down, the same ones that had appeared in my dreams the night before. Or, I am wandering home late, through quiet residential streets–parked cars packed in for the night, one after the other, toys abandoned in unruly front gardens, curtains pulled over the windows of the houses–and suddenly I have the feeling that were I to turn down a narrow laneway I would enter a ghostly dream city, a different world, a different life. Or, I am at a party and a strange woman’s face radiates familiarity. Or, out of nowhere I can smell the sea. I often feel as though I am on the threshold of dream worlds the way Orpheus, in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, stands in front of a mirror of shimmering water that is also the gateway to the underworld.

Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was hardly the first time dreams were identified as significant: Aristotle wrote two treatises on dreams, describing them as the continuation of mental life in sleep, and countless visionaries and shamans have attributed prophetic powers to dreams. It is hard to view Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1504, or Francisco de Goya’s harrowing mural, Pilgrimage to St. Isidore’s Hermitage, 1819-1823, or read William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790, or Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, 1873, without thinking of them as feverish dream-visions. What Freud did was secularize dreams, deprive them of their magical, oracular power, rooting them in the repressed anxieties, fantasies, archaic desires and memories that live in the unconscious, unconstrained by reality and fuelled by our wounded histories. Freud was above all a great humanist, replacing the demons that haunt us with the concrete, if labyrinthine, histories of our bodies and minds. It was the prospect of liberating the unconscious and its ravening inhabitants, breaking down the otherwise categorical divide between the conscious and unconscious, that made dream imagery so appealing to surrealist painters and filmmakers. Once you give up the ecstatic visions assumed by Bosch and Blake, the unconscious is the last, dark frontier of the spirit, a strange theatre of primitive fear and desire, and dreams are its resplendent expression.

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