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Double Feature Fridays: Dreams

Two extremes in the realm of dreams: an exploration of humanity, and a never-ending nightmare.

Utsav Kotrial Sep 21, 2018

A still from Waking Life

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Dreams are the original cinema. Anything can happen. They span every genre imaginable, bringing your wildest ambitions and darkest fears to life. They’re rife with emotion, packed with epic set-pieces and impossible action. Creatures of all shapes and sizes traverse across your mind. Paradoxes. Mutation. Death. A true, uncompromising view of the human condition. It comes as no surprise that so many of our greatest artists, from musicians to filmmakers, draw from the bizarre sights and sounds of their subconscious, later packaging it for the world to consume. James Cameron, E.B.White and Stephenie Meyer first saw warped versions of The Terminator, Stuart Little and Twilight in their sleep, turning them into multi-million dollar properties in real life.

Still from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

This week on Double Feature Fridays, we’re treating you to two extremes in the realm of dreams: Richard Linklater’s introspective animated indie Waking Life, and Wes Craven’s trippy Eighties’ slasher, The Nightmare on Elm Street.

Waking Life (2001):

Waking Life poster

It’s clear that Richard Linklater has an undying belief in the power of words, and Waking Life is the most unique of his films about people talking. It follows an unnamed young man through a series of conversations in an endless dream. There is no conventional narrative, just a wide range of philosophical theories discussed by intellectuals, artists, and madmen.

The movie could’ve put its faith in the talented cast and smart screenplay, but making it animated sells the idea that we’re trapped within somebody’s subconscious. With the help of motion capture, Waking Life translates actual footage of the actors into a style of animation that mirrors the instability of dreams. The borders of people and objects fluctuate, continuously expanding and contracting, as if all forms could disintegrate at any moment. There are slight variations in style in every segment, and the animated forms also respond to emotion (an angry face might balloon up and turn red, a man having a revelation will expand as if his body is liquid.) The concept and execution have made it something of a legend, spreading through word-of-mouth even 17 years after its release.

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Treat it like a philosophy seminar, conducted by a variety of teachers who are real-world scientists, filmmakers, performers, and writers. There’s a hint of a plot in the second half when he attempts to wake up, but it’s not nearly as stimulating as the topics they discuss. To name a few: human evolution, free will, God, politics, the media, self-image, and lucid dreaming (with some useful tips for those wanting to try it out.) My personal favourite is the accordion player who explores the joy and frustration of language: “When I say love, the sound comes out of my mouth and hits the other person’s ear, travels through this Byzantine conduit in their brain, through their memories of love, or lack of love, and they register what I’m saying and they say Yes, they understand.. but how do I know they understand? Because words are inert, they’re just symbols, they’re dead. And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed.. it’s unspeakable.”

If all of this sounds pretentious to you, you could skip it, but if you’re interested in having your beliefs about the universe challenged by string of articulate folks, dive in.

The Nightmare On Elm Street (1984): 

A horror sensation that spawned seven sequels and a TV series, for good reason. In 1984, teen slashers were already running out of steam, with Friday The 13th rip-offs saturating the market. The Nightmare on Elm Street breathed new life into the tired genre with a tight, witty screenplay, and a villain that has an actual personality. Compared to the silent and imposing murderers that came before him, Freddy Krueger was a diminutive figure: a scarred man in a big hat and a striped sweater. However, the terror came from one simple conceit: he can find you in your dreams. With his infamous knife-gloves, and the ability to alter the environment, Freddy didn’t need to be physically imposing.. or even quiet. The greatest pleasure of the film is the fact that he’s obviously having a blast chasing these kids, and leaves no chance to flex his ridiculous sarcasm (“Why are you screaming? I haven’t even caught you yet!”, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”)

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Wes Craven got the idea from an article about a family that fled the Killing Fields in Cambodia. After a successful escape, the young son began to have disturbing nightmares and claimed that he was afraid of falling asleep, because something was chasing him. This vision of horror was disregarded by the adults until it was too late. One night they heard screams, and arrived to find him dead mid-nightmare. Craven realised the terrifying potential of the dream world, and used it as an excuse to pack the film with surreal, gory imagery that could only be possible in the deepest recesses of our mind. There’s a dream within a dream sequence that’ll get under your skin if you’ve experienced the same in your life. In addition the special effects, many sequences walk the line between reality and fantasy, building tension because the audience doesn’t know whether the characters are awake. It sometimes reminded me of my own experiences with sleep paralysis, when your body is asleep but you’re fully conscious, unable to move, and are likely to hallucinate some pretty nasty stuff.

I find it now to be an effective horror-comedy, but having watched it when I was younger, some of the effects got imprinted in my memory. Nancy falling asleep in the bathtub and Freddy’s knife hands emerging from between her legs. Glen (a young Johnny Depp in a crop-top, the single most chilling visual) gets sucked into his own bed, immediately turning it into a geyser of blood. In one sequence, Freddy extends his arms to cover the entire breadth of the street. The movie takes full advantage of dream-logic to deliver a surreal thriller that also manages to be hilarious, because of Freddy’s sheer glee during the hunt.

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