Dreaming and watching a film share some common qualities. In a dream, we are staying still, asleep, likely surrounded by darkness, and are engaged with sensory images which, regardless of its probability in real life, appear emphatically real at the moment. Similarly in a movie theater, we are seated still, surrounded by darkness in which we are soon absorbed into a few hours of vivid sensory experience that is realistically alive to us even if we acknowledge that they are not happening in real life. Thus, both in a movie theater or a dream, the necessity of logic often fades away and we often develop a unique personal relationship between the images and our minds. Some films make use of this unique quality shared between dreaming and cinematic experience to engage the audience more to their ideas or themes. These two films which I will talk about from now, Blue Velvet and Inception, are excellent examples of such films.
In Blue Velvet, we follow a young man named Jeffrey through his discovery and engagement with the existence of abnormality such as violence, unhealthy obsession and distorted sexual desire not only in the other part of the world but also and more strikingly, inside himself. An object that leads Jeffrey and the audience into this journey is a severed human ear he finds in the field. This image is uncanny itself, but a zoom into this ear and out of another one even drags us to a completely surreal realm.
The realm is often, if not always, separated from the normal one. While the normal is set in the brightness of the day, this abnormal realm is set in the darkness. The chronological or logical link between the two is broken. For example, both of the most eerie scenes, Jeffrey’s first encounter with Frank and Dorothy and the mad car ride, are cut immediately to Jeffrey’s waking up in the next morning without any wrapped-up conclusion in between. Such abruptness is very similar to dreams, which often lack of logic and which we often unexpectedly wake up from. With this fragmented link, the film then employs surrealistic images to further enhance its dream-like quality. A severed ear in the field, a dancing woman on the top of the car regardless of an intense violence right next to her, and the dead body of the yellow man in an erect position, all illustrate the surreal. The images certainly have an absurdity, but when they are visually embodied on the screen, it fades away, just like the logic disappears in dreams.
Through these choices, David Lynch describes the abnormal world as a nightmare. However, that does not mean that he disregards it as unreal. In fact, by making it dream-like and surrealistic, he reminds us that in the very bottom of our unconscious minds, there always exist these repressed and distorted desires, and that they can never be completely apart from us, just as we live our real lives when we are awake but also live our dreams when we are asleep. Therefore, like an insect in the beak of a robin in Jeffrey’s restored peace, the presence of dark side of human nature that Blue Velvet has demonstrated, is still there in the awareness of the audience even after they wake up from this film.
Since dream is an actual subject matter in Inception, it has more prominent presence than it does in Blue Velvet. Nonetheless, the way Inception exploits the notion of dream to convey its theme is just as unique and creative. In Inception, the lack of logic in dream is also introduced, and is solved again with the ability of cinema to create vivid sensory images. The explosion of the streets in Ariadne’s first training, the world that bends and folds into half in her second training, and the abstract world if limbo, are all most effectively realized with cinema as their medium. Christopher Nolan has genuinely made use of these purely cinematic factors to create his world of dreams and present it as a new reality to the audience.
However, Nolan’s technical use of dreams shows its real worth at the end of the film. When the entire journey seems to have ended and when the audience is waiting for a final resolution, the film ends abruptly without any conclusion. The lights in the theater are turned back on and the audience wakes up from the film unexpectedly just like they are waking up from their dreams. The ending is almost a ‘kick’ that Nolan gives to his audience, with which the audience realizes that by watching this film, they have also gone through the process of inception. Just as the inception plants a new idea in Fisher’s mind, the film plants its whole new world in the audience’s mind, and in doing so, Christopher Nolan has smartly incorporated the shared qualities of dreams and cinema.