In Dreams: The Reality of David Lynch’s Fantasies
Have you been experiencing strange dreams lately? Ahmed Ragheb has just the article for you! Read his take on dreams in film and the strange realities of David Lynch’s work.
I’ve had some strange dreams this week. I bet you have too. Perhaps you’ve missed articles floating around the internet lately (in Vox, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc.) about this phenomenon but the bottom line is that all of us, from our respective quarantines, have been having bizarre and bizarrely similar dreams. I won’t get into why that is here (you’re welcome to go read some of the aforementioned articles for that) but it did get me thinking about dreams, what they represent in us, and how we represent them in film.
Filmmakers love dreams – all filmmakers do, the greatest of them and the worst alike. It’s not hard to imagine why. Film, as a medium, is particularly well given to analyzing and, more importantly, living and reliving dreams. A poem, a song, and a novel can all describe in great detail the atmosphere and chronology of events that occur in a dream. A painting can help us visualize the colors and the sights of it. But only through film and all its sensory power can the artist literally say: “Watch my dream, live it.”
It is no surprise, then, that dream sequences are a dime a dozen in film and television. More often than not they follow a “Surrealism-101” film school approach that is as tired as it is predictable – albeit in its unpredictability. These dream sequences almost always serve some uninspired purpose: they illuminate some hidden truth for our hero, uncover some secret, teach him or her a lesson, reveal where the treasure is buried, and so on. I don’t know about any of you but I’ve never learned a damn thing from a dream. This is not to say they have no place in film or don’t deserve our attention. On the contrary, they are extremely important; they are windows into our subconscious, into the secret desires, fears, and feelings our waking selves are possibly too ashamed to admit. I’ll return to that in a moment but my basic point here is that film scenes filmed with the true spirit of the dreaming consciousness are as frustratingly veiled and abstract as a real dream that I or you might experience in our daily lives. We don’t often get to see ourselves reflected on the silver screen because the experiences of movie characters are (almost) always extraordinary, but in the equalizing phenomenon of dreaming we have a genuine reflection of our own personal extraordinary, bizarre and horrible experiences. Everyone dreams and everyone has nightmares and those dreams and nightmares are as fantastical as anything that the most creative artist could ever conjure up – and they’re all ours.
There you have it, the most simple of explanations as to why dream sequences entice us so (my take at least). So, who does it best? Who gives us the best example of a dream realized on screen? There are dozens of examples to check out (by watching the entire movies not just the dream scene isolated!): Fellini’s suffocating and exuberant sequences in 8½, Bergman’s nightmares in Persona and Wild Strawberries, Tarkovsky’s reflective nightmare in Ivan’s Childhood, the lighthearted madness in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. These are all stupendous examples but as you may have gleaned there is an important name missing here, one that is almost synonymous with “dream” and “nightmare:” David Lynch.
Lynch has earned himself a reputation for representing and bringing to life his dreams in stunning fashion. It is a well-earned reputation: almost every film he has written and directed includes at the very least the retelling of a dream. When fans of Lynch are asked to recall his most potent dream-related scenes they make come back with the flickering candle and psychotic face of Frank or Ben lip-syncing Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” from Blue Velvet, or Dale Cooper’s dreams portending his time in the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, or perhaps (a personal favorite of mine) the character of Dan in Mulholland Drive recounting a dream to a friend in the booth of a diner in which the recounting of the dream apparently plays out exactly like the dream itself allowing us to, in essence, watch Dan’s dream by watching him recount it. What I would like to focus on, however, is not a specific sequence in any one film, but the entirety of Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead.
The film, which was made while Lynch was at the American Film Institute, is truly something to behold, the most Lynchian Lynch has ever been, one could argue. And while the film does not contain any overt references to dreams or nightmares, and the interpretation that the entire film is a dream itself is – in my opinion – a little lazy, the film does have another deeper bond with dreams and film. I said earlier that dreams in film are extremely important as windows into the subconscious and that is precisely the concept of Eraserhead. It is set in a world that looks remarkably different from our own: it’s completely devoid of color (this goes beyond simply saying that it is filmed in black and white – you get the sense that there simply is no color to be seen), the landscape is an industrial wasteland, it is filled with creatures that are not quite human (from the protagonist's own infant child, to the girl that lives in his radiator and sings to him, to the tiny roasted chicken that is served to him at dinner still writhing and bleeding). And yet, despite all this, the film is as “real” and “accurate” as any film ever made. This is because it does not attempt to record our physical world but rather our emotional and spiritual world – this it does with a haunting accuracy. The basic thought here is that you’ll never be able to truly replicate real life in film – so why bother? Like a dream, Eraserhead is pure emotion distilled and projected in sound and light for us to watch and analyze. Have you ever wanted to know what anxiety looks like? Not what it looks like for a person to be anxious but what the emotion itself actually looks like. This is on full display in Eraserhead. It is as true a depiction of the fears and stresses of fatherhood as is De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, it is as honest a confrontation with infidelity, sexual desire and shame as Lean’s Brief Encounter, and just as much a criticism of American culture as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
All this is accomplished by leveraging the powerful beauty and terror of the human dream.
While in quarantine it seems that we are all subject to the same bizarre nighttime experiences, powerless to our own subconsciousness. And while that can be frustrating and sometimes a little scary, it may just be worth giving up on trying to discover any specific meaning in the images and sounds we experience in our dreams and just open up to the emotions that we are feeling. Try watching any of the films mentioned in this article, definitely try watching Eraserhead and maybe you’ll find a cosmic sort of connection with its main character. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!