"Inception" and the Cinematic Depiction of Dreams

By Greenberg, Harvey | PSYART, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

"Inception" and the Cinematic Depiction of Dreams


Greenberg, Harvey, PSYART


abstract

The paper uses the film INCEPTION as a taking off point for discussing the representation of dreams in cinema, and problems associated therewith. A history of dream depiction from the silent era until today is given. The development and nature of a cinematic 'vocabulary' of dream representation is presented. Central problem: the unconscious only being available by its traces in waking life, cinema sui generis cannot authentically capture the dreamwork, inflected by primary process operations. Film can only hope to offer a 'dream like' simulacrum, which but rarely and potently catches a trace of the dream's ineffable 'alterity'. (Parallel drawn to the individual's censored recall of a dream, inflected by secondary process operations. Plato's cave etc). Against this background, the strongest 'oneiric' material is NOT found in "therapeutic cinema", although dreams, like therapists, provide substantial narrative benefits to screenwriters. Powerful oneiric shots and sequences are found in experimental cinema (little seen), but are - intriguingly enough - most likely to be discovered by the average viewer in mainstream genre - not merely sci-fi and horror films, but westerns, comedies, musicals etc. Given the feedback loop between viewer and maker, in which collective preoccupations, interest, etc are processed, a body of films has intermittently reflected interest in entering and manipulating dreams - recnetly in 'image rehearsal', 'lucid dreaming'etc. INCEPTION is the latest such film certainly the most financially successful, lauded for its aesthetic 'authenticity' of dream representation. In fact, by the above criteria, it is remarkably unauthentic and unoneiric. The article ends with a brief reprise of the cinema of David Cronenberg, notably eXistenZ, which comprises the most consistent and closest approximation of the dream's 'other place'. Requisite examples of oneiric material provided.

"Are we still in the game???"

Freud famously declared that bringing a patient's relatives into the office was as disruptive to the analytic process as 'spitting into the surgical field'. One expects he would have thought it was as contrary to the lapidary purity of psychoanalysis to use dreams in any other fashion than interpreting them.

Despite the founding father's obiter dictum, psychotherapists from diverse backgrounds have developed innovative approaches to dreams beyond mere interpretation. These are grounded in the implicit assumption that waiting for a patient to produce a dream makes as much sense as keeping a computer off until it decides to turn itself on.

Methods of orchestrating, provoking, and parsing dreams include re-enacting dreams in psychodrama; teaching patients to induce and record dreams; 'waking dream' work, in which the patient is guided through conscious continuation of a dream. 'Image rehearsal' and 'lucid dreaming' techniques supposedly enable patients to consciously alter repetitive traumatic dream imagery, or manipulate dreams 'from the inside'.

Popular cinema has always been inflected by that obscure feedback loop which joins creator to viewer. Cultural preoccupations are constantly being received, processed and projected back to us by filmmakers, in scenarios of variable accuracy. Scientific developments are subject to the same cybernetic, notably in the speculative genres.

Inception(2010), conceived and directed by Christopher Nolan, refracts current conceptions about dreams - particularly lucid dreaming - through Hollywood's idiosyncratic prism. It's the most technically accomplished and lucrative 'dream' picture ever made; nearly half a billion dollars at the box office, still counting.

Cinema has busily depicted dreams since its own inception. A familiar silent screen trope was the revelation at the end of a film that what one had thought was real was in fact -"only a dream". The mise-en-scene and the narrative structure of such pictures were 'natural' . …

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