Electric Dreams

How to Portray a Dream in Film

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1998 May). How to Portray a Dream in Film. Electric Dreams 5(5). Retrieved July 8, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Originally posted on the ASD bulletin board

The request from a film producer in England was posted. I enjoyed answer this request and thought some of you might want to post a some suggestions too. -Richard

Re: Research For a Feature Film
We are researching dream disorders for a character in a feature film script. Can you suggest a disorder induced by extreme stress, plus symptoms, side effects, etc.? Any information would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you. B. Worth UHFilms, London
Date: Wed, 8 Apr 1998 17:41:46 -0400
From: Barbara Worth
Sender: Barbara Worth

Posted by Richard Wilkerson on Wednesday April 8th, 1998 at
7:25:28 PM PDT:
In Reply to: Research For a Feature Film posted by Barbara Worth on Wednesday
April 8th, 1998 at 7:20:03 PM PDT:

OK, you are probably looking for something like this: Guy back from Vietnam and has reoccurring dreams of horrid death, wakes up with pounding heart, sweat, and near suffocating breath....

But here's my entry:

Note (a): I'm not really sure that you mean *dream* disorder. You probably mean a character disorder or waking life stressor situation that is played out in some fashion in a dream that character will have and experience as a nightmare. In other words, a dream that either is itself disturbing (to the dreamer or audience) or is disturbing to the dreamer upon awakening and recalling. Note (b): I recommend that you find the dreams for the character via your own dreaming. Dream Incubation: Before going to bed, read over all you know about the character's life and go over how the character does things. Fantasize about the character. Then set a conscious intention that you will have a dream about this character, or a dream about the character's dream. Upon awakening, write everything down. Do this for at least a week. You will have some great material this way.

Some suggestions
I would suggest that the dream(s) reflect the overall message or point of the movie:

If the point of the movie is 1. To be a "thriller", then the dream needs to be thrilling. What makes dreams scary? It is almost always that they are mistaken for reality. This is easy for the film producers to portray for the *dreamer* but more difficult to be thrilling for the audience, who see it as "just a dream" and don't worry or fret over it. 'Nightmare on Elm Street" overcame this by mixing dream and reality, and getting the viewer to believe that what happened in the dream would greatly effect the waking dreamer. Real - Life Variations of this include what are usually called Night Terrors, where the left-over into waking reality includes heart-beating, sweating, gasping for breath - basic panic attack stuff. Another trick is to have some occult like figure or past ghost like figure enter into the dream and have some control. Other scary thing are taboo areas. This is more difficult (in drawing in a large audience) because one man's taboo is another's daily routine. The horror of being perused by what one fears most is usually handled best in films by not ever showing the pursuer, as we all learned in the first 'Alien' movie. But there are many other kinds of taboos. I liked the dream nightmares in '100 monkeys' where bodies did things gross and unexpected. Philip K Dick used to write a lot of his science fiction towards this kind of horror. We start with the normal, but slowly the walls, ceiling, and eventually floor (figuratively speaking) all begging to become less stable and dissolve away. Playing with values is the key here, and then slowly producing paranoia about the stability of reality. My feeling is that taboo areas are not really areas, but what is outside of area. We like to feel safe and talk about taboo areas, sex, violence, inevitabilities, desire, ect. but the really frightening scenes are when the boundaries between these areas collide. Generally, dream and reality should be mixed. At first things show up in dreams that are in the character's life. Later things show up in life that were in the dream. Eventually there is breaking down between the borders of waking and dreaming reality. If there are rules the audience can follow, they will be able to participate in this reality testing the character will have to go through. It was an intense moment in 'Total Recall' when Arnold had to decide what was real and what was simulation of reality.

Speaking of choices... if the point of the movie is 2. A moral play, then the producers/writers need to decide the role of the dream. Is the dream going to be a *reflection* of the character's struggle to live up to a particular value or find a way between conflicting values, or something else? What else? Well, if you take a Jungian stance, the dream is trying to find higher ground. It produces symbols, images, that resolve the character's problem on an imagistic level not comprehendible by the character at the time. PLEASE, don't make dream symbols the audience understands but the character doesn't. This is a cheap trick that undermines the point. 


The Point, (for Jung) was that we are on a trip of becoming ourselves, uniquely ourselves, individualized from the crowd. This means the character knows something about themselves and other parts are a mystery. But a REAL mystery. If you know more about me than me, it's not really *my* individuation. It needs to be a mystery beyond what - at this time in the plot - ANYONE can know. The dream attempts to deal with this (from a Jungian viewpoint) by playing with the tensions and holding them apart in various ways, allowing for a spontaneous occurrence to emerge between them. I want to live forever, but I can't. I want to love you but I'm married. I don't want to love you but I do. If I pay Peter, I must rob Paul, ect, ect. Irreconcilable opposites. There is a tension between these two poles. If i try to resolve them with the ego strengths I have at the moment, pushing into or through the problem in the same old ways I always do, then I will collapse the poles and will either stay the same person I am or regress to an even earlier version of myself. If I can stay aware of the problem long enough, consciously hold the poles apart, then there is a chance that something evolved and new can happen, a synthesis on a new level. (Yes, Jung was very Hegelian, I feel). 

The dream symbol functions to hold this un-expressible truth or position for us. Jung even felt there was a general process and progress one could follow towards this truth becoming manifest in our life. First we accept our own solutions and same old paths aren't working. Then we dialogue or dance with the devil, or that part of ourselves we would rather die than admit to being, the personal shadow we see as a morally inferior way of being, and it gives us the creeps or bugs us when we are around someone like that. Some can't handle it when they learn they contain dark elements and move back into denial and moral certain-tude that goes no-where. Other's find such a relief in the evil other that they identify and become more fully this shadow, hence abused children who themselves become abusers. The answer on how to move down that middle path is for the Jungian maintaining the tension long enough for something unexpected to happen. It can't be a simple deus-ex-machina that could have happened at any time, or until the character learned some moral lesson (ick, yuck) , it must be something that comes from the conflict itself. The Shadow is often referred to as a Trickster. He robs us of something visible, but returns to us something invisible. Jung often saw the Shadow in people's dreams as the same sex as the dreamer, but he may be even less or more evolved as an animal or monster. 

We never fully resolve the issue of the Shadow. At some point there is in our depths a shadow that is larger than us, a collective shadow, (something like nuclear stockpiling) that can only be handled by the group. I suspect we all have these kinds of dreams, but they would be more appropriate for a character destined to play a major role, like Gandhi or Roosevelt or Clin... well, maybe not all leaders... As we begin to draw new energy from this Shadow dialogue, a new and even tougher gate appears, the Animus/Anima. The first was getting past what we didn't like. Now we have to get past what we desire most. This (or they) usually appears in dreams as the contra-sexual other, but for gays may not. Perhaps the Most-Desired Other is completely non human for some.

The point is that this beautiful other is very hard to resist. But mating is death. Or at least, it collapses the opposites again and the character remains the same or regresses. And again, there is no specific resolution to the problem that fits everyone. Mythically we have the story of nymphs and sirens drowning men who head there calls. Odysseus spent years and years with one on an island. All the possessions, intoxications, enchantments, fascinations, wild longings, and affairs of desire and love are seen are part of this path. And again, we can deal with these tensions by going for it, for denying it or other distractions, or we can come into relationship with it in a way that is mutually beneficial. The particular path is again very individual, but some generalities are often made. For Jung, differentiation was important. Instead of accepting this huge thing that overwhelms us, we begin to peel off layer by layer. The path may be quite different for men and women as well.

There is a Babylonian Myth of a woman who descends into the underworld, and at each level she must take off one item of clothing until she stands naked before the dark witch that called her. This seems to be the path of psyche for the Jungians as well, the exploring of the down and in. A man might begin to learn the difference between the inner mother and the inner anima woman. As children we want to fall into their embrace, but as adults we can learn that the falling is different for each. The mother aside, we learn there are different anima women. Each plays out a different role, usually a sexually stereotyped gender role at first - sexual partner, wife, sister, friend's wife, etc. Later, (for men in the Jungian system), this anima who leads the man away from himself into deep waters begins to lead him away from himself into higher ground. In other words, she becomes the guide or psychopomp that lead the person to themselves. Breaking down the earlier barriers of inner and outer, this partner will be in waking life as well as dream life.

Many movies are about this and end here. Miss-guided fellow works his way through his personal hell, meets girl (of his dreams?) and goes off into the sunset. These movies miss the point for me. They are sweet and fun and entertaining. They keep me right where I am, and validate the same old story, over an over. What is needed is to keep the couple apart long enough for something very special to occur. Let them have all the sex they want, the real issue of apart- ness at this point can be worked out with a real life partner, but not ever fully solved. If the couple cannot hold each other's essential loneliness, then nothing new will occur. If I find it all in you and you in me, the show is over. Sulley and Muldar in the X-Files are attempts to do this, (hold each others loneliness) but other media problems exist in that prevent a really significant staging of this issue. As we begin to share the problems that are larger than we are, we find others with similar but different struggles with inevitability. A really moral play will find a way to help me be more of who I am, not long more for someone that can only bring me to normalcy and sameness.

Finally, the Self. In the New Age, we have almost turned the encounter with the Self into a cliché, a crystalline encounter with UFO's from a Hot Tub. Encounters with the Self become whole movies in and of themselves. But again, its like the movie where the dreamer doesn't know it's a dream, but we do. We, as audience, are rarely effected regardless of the transformative effect on the character. Jung's view of the Self held that is was always seen as a defeat for the ego. Now if we are in a film and identified with the character - any defeat is not going to sit well with the audience. Maybe that's why only bad guys change in movies, but good guys just stay the same. Jung had a dream once of a man sitting in a little room in a peaceful lotus position, sleeping. He knew that when the man woke up, Jung would be gone, that Jung was just a dream of his. It may be that's as close as we can really get in a movie, close to the edge of decision, but not over. Its just too personal. I feel I overstated the issue of the ego's defeat. In an encounter with the Self, the ego is really not defeated but valorized and honored for who and what it is. Its just that we are no longer just that ego, but something new. Some people again go to far, and try to become the Self they encounter in one leap. This leads to the nutty inflated ego we see so much of in the New Age. I am god. I am god... Oh my gosh, I am god.... Again, for Jung, this collapses the tension of the poles and creates disaster. The question of how the small and mortal can come into relationship with the larger than real pops up again from the work with the anima/animus. To the degree we attempt to reconcile all the differences ourselves, is the degree to which we rob ourselves of the real experience. If we have learned when to put up our sails and when to take them down, the winds of the Larger-than- Life can carry us far. Jungians often report abstract dreams, mandala like circles, flaming visions of light and other such events in dreams for close encounters. Moses in the film The Ten Commandments is a good model for this kind of encounter on a large scale. He comes back from the mountain with something useful, though the encounter has blasted his hair white. Good Will Hunting' may provide more down to earth encounters. Will has an incredible math talent that comes to him as if he were a god, but has some character disorders. Will's first professor encounters him but want to be him, and thus the relationship fails. He can't relate personally, he wants to be a god too. Robin Williams plays Will's psychotherapist, and Williams realizes that his own transformation must take place to help Will. He has to relate to Will with his whole self, even though he will never be the mathematical genius that Will is. Now in the movie, this isn't too big a problem as Williams doesn't himself have any interest in being a mathematician. but it still serves as an example. The Self will continue to appear to us as something always a little dreadful. Usually the words used by Jungians are numinous, awe inspiring. Something like what one must feel before getting tossed into a volcano as a sacrifice.

3. If the point of the movie is a comedy Then you may want to view the dream as Freud did. People are pretty sophisticated about this, or think they are and lots of humor is available. Here the dream serves to protect sleep. Disturbances can be handled by fantasy. Whether it's the need to urinate, a sound from outside or a disturbing thought, feeling, fear or memory, they must all follow the same path. The dream must let off a little of the steam, but not too much. Freud felt that the disturbances must get out somehow. But they must not be recognized by the dreamer if they are taboo or repressed subject. And so the dreamwork takes place. The Truth is switched by displacement to something else, it is projected back to the source from which it came, it is denied by the dreamer as existing at all, it is symbolized abstractly and in misleadings ways, it is pictorialized in puns (I can = a can of soup?), diversions lead the dream consciousness away from the thing itself, several know people may be condensed into one and all sorts of voices say things like, "its not really important anyway" "Just forget about it", "its just a dream" , "so what?".

4. If the point of the movie is artsy - existential Then we might draw upon modern psychoanalytic thought, such as the French Renegade, Lacan. Jacques Lacan felt that we chase desire continually. But what we desire can't be had, it simple just doesn't exist. None the less, we think and feel it does and move towards it, buying more, drinking more, doing it all to get it. Thus we suffer. In dreams, they would end every time we are about to get it. The rest of the dream would be about trying to get it - finding home, losing pursuers, getting rich, having sex, whatever - when we finally get it, we go unconscious, the dream ends. There is a kind of hole in the center of the universe around which everything points and we think there is a thing there (Lacan says a Phallus, in a literary kind of way). There is no way out, but there are alternatives to trying to fill our emptiness unconsciously. We learn to separate desire from appetite first. We can satisfy appetite, but desire must be held, or held off. Thus the lover learns to hold off his or her orgasm and to play with the bodies desire as long as possible. We sacrifice the thing itself to get everything else. Albert Camus came to much the same conclusion.