Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema – Dreams

Independent Cinema Office

Seeing a film in a cinema has often been compared to having a dream: both cinema and dreams involve people immersing themselves in the dark and being magically confronted by a series of manufactured images. “Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema – Dreams” mixes cinema and dreams together, presenting audiences with a compilation of six dream-themed short films that span the history of movies in the 20th century.

Un chien andalou
is the first and most famous (or possibly infamous) film of the six and this is primarily because of its notorious “eye” scene, which still elicits gasps of horror from contemporary audiences. Putting aside the shock factor of the film, this collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali is also a witty assault on audiences’ need for narrative coherence in cinema, with the love story shown here being repeatedly subverted and deconstructed. Mixing surreal Dali-esque dream imagery and with a Buñuelian attack on society’s institutions (law and order, religion, relationships), the film has inspired endless debate and numerous interpretations, and still ranks as one the most influential short films ever made.

The second short is Les jeux de anges, an animated film that starts with what appears to be a train journey, as various indefinable images rush past, as if they are being seen from a moving train. But when the train arrives at its destination, coherence and logic suddenly vanish. The audience is plunged into some kind of heaven/hell/purgatory, with mysterious echoing sounds and biblical imagery. This is a world where angels are seemingly disposed of in some kind of industrial process; a wasteland where the mechanical is destroys the spiritual, and which is presided over by a glamorous Brigitte Bardot look-alike. This short film resembles an animated Terry Gilliam Monty Python sketch, but the humor here is tinged with darkness.

Meshes of the Afternoon is no less surreal then the first two films, but it seems slightly more coherent, as a narrative incident is repeated a number of times, but with slight variations and additions each time round. We see a woman (played by co-director Maya Deren) following a mysterious, cloaked mirror-faced figure up a path, finding a key, entering a house, venturing upstairs and holding a knife. Out of all the films that make up this collection, this is the one that is most obviously framed like a dream. This short implies that the woman could be dreaming about the events shown in the film, or that she may be dead and having an out-of-body experience. However, there’s no definitive answer given, and the audience has to try to piece everything together from the clues they are shown throughout.

Jan Svankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue is possibly the most straightforward of these dream-themed films, with the filmmaker showing a series of conversations between people using stop-motion and sound effects, but with no spoken dialogue. Svankmajer finds witty visualizations for his ideas: he shows people talking to each other a lot but failing to communicate, a person trying to change the mind of another person they are talking to, and people hurting each other with words. His film makes the audience look at the familiar and the everyday in a new way (which could well serve as a credo followed by all the filmmakers featured in this collection), heightening their awareness of how we communicate by inventively showing what people are saying, how they say it, and how their words affect each other.

It’s back to traditional animation for Suzan Pitt’s film Asparagus, which is a striking fantasy that takes the audience into a brightly colored child-like world that resembles a dollhouse come to life. Most of this film centers on a girl home alone, but this seemingly benign childhood environment has an eerie, unsettling undercurrent. The girl (whose face we never clearly see – it’s either turned away from the audience most of the time or hidden by a mask) is shown exploring her environment, both inside and outside the house. This film features images within images that constantly throw the audience off balance, and shows overt sexual imagery that is unnerving. This feels like some kind of nightmare world, with a girl deciding to leave home and venture out into the dangerous outside world on her own. This is a film that dazzles the eyes with its colorful visuals, but whose imagery troubles the mind with its implications.

Our Lady of the Sphere is the final film of the six, and it is an all out attack on the eyes and ears of the audience. Pictures of Victorian-era settings are presented to the audience, with the screen flooded with color throughout. The pictures are occasionally interrupted by a buzzer sounding loudly, and the near constant flow of images features a series of objects flying around the screen. This film plays like a Georges Méliès short that has been ratcheted up to high speed, with the traditional pictures rendered surreal and extraordinary, both by the color that washes over them, and by the objects and sounds that seem to intrude on them. With its visual and aural assault of the senses, this is Catherine wheel of a film, sparking and whizzing around, and seemingly out of control.

“Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema – Dreams” is a collection of films not to be missed. For inquisitive film students and adventurous cinemagoers, this compilation is both a great introduction to alternative cinema, and a rare opportunity to see these classic short films on the big screen as they were meant to be seen.

© 2008 Martyn Bamber. All rights reserved.

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