Dreaming is an oft-deployed narrative tool in cinema, but it is especially staggering when a filmmaker is able to wield the device to tread territories that that no one has been able to foray into before. Take, for example, Inception, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Within Nolan’s inspired approach — which he built after taking a cue from both the novel, and the film of the same name, Paprika — and Freddy Kruger’s terrifying traversing into his victim’s minds, we have plenty to mull and be fascinated over on how the storytelling device can be purposed into compelling visual recounting.
In the latest A24 film, produced by Ari Aster, Nicolas Cage plays a tenured Evolutionary Biology professor who finds that he has become a viral sensation due to a peculiar reason: He is appearing in people’s dreams across the globe. Though at first his presence in their dreams is passive, when their dreams turn into nightmares, the public mood darkens, and they begin to blame Cage’s character for this happening, who is puzzled as to why they are dreaming about him in the first place.
Here we take a look at five films that took an ingenious, and inventive approach to how dreaming can be visually explored.
Dorothy (played by the brilliant Judy Garland) lands in the strange world of Oz, and finds herself in the midst of adventure with a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who wants a brain; a Tin Man (Jack Haley) who wants a heart and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wants courage. Together, the four of them embark on a quest to find the Wizard of Oz who can free the realm of the witch’s curse, while granting them their wants. The musical adaptation of the 1900 children's novel by L. Frank Baum was directed by Victor Fleming, and is the most iconic film of Garland’s impressive filmography.
At the end of the film, we have Dorothy waking up in her own bed at her home. Whether this happened in her head, or if she actually came back due to things being restored to normalcy, is shrouded in mystery.
A frustrated filmmaker is tormented by a creative block, and we slowly excavate the context around this through the his hallucinations, and visions. He is particularly obsessive over the vision of an 'ideal woman'. The protagonist finds solace in his dreams through his creative pause, but soon, the escape containment and reality have a noxious tug and pull relationship, and he is jolted back to reckon with his situation. Federico Fellini’s mind-bending film consistently ranks among the best for both cinema auteurs and critics, including your very own favourite, Martin Scorsese.
In the Richard Linklater film, the unnamed protagonist seamlessly transitions from one dream to another. When he does wake up, his life seems like an extension of his dream, rather than just a small disruption to his process. He has philosophical discussions with several people with whom he tries to find the answer to the crucial difference between dreaming, and living. The conundrum about the difference between dreams, and life, seems trite on the surface but is buoyed by the gorgeous visuals and earnestness of what Linklater is trying to explore. The film hinges on free-flowing conversations, a trademark quality of the director, who has also made the iconic Before series, as well as the oscar-winning Boyhood (2014). Waking Life was shot in real-time and digitally rotoscoped, giving it a trippy quality that is immersive.
This anime film, directed by Satoshi Kon, served as an inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s in-depth study of dreams for one of the most successful films in his oeuvre — Inception. The characters in the film are battling over a prototype device that allows people to enter into other’s dreams. Soon, dreams and reality begin to merge, and the developments in the dream world shape the outer reality. Just like Nolan’s film, you will constantly second-guess yourself if the scene is taking place inside of a character’s head, or constitutes actual, tangible reality.
In Pawan Kumar’s crowd-funded film that had a significant impact on the landscape of Kannada cinema, the protagonist, Nikki (Sathish Ninasam), a cinema hall usher plagued with insomnia, decides to take the ‘Lucia’ pills to get a good night’s sleep. The pills aid Nikki in imagining a more aspirational life. Nikki's dreams become a getaway to an alternative, more desirable reality where the people around him also begin to feature in his dreams.
Both realms start running parallel — clearly distinguished, with one shown in black and white and the other in colour. But a side effect of the pill is that upon discontinuation, the aspirational dreams turn into nightmares, which leads to havoc in both realms as Nikki jostles between dreams and the real world. It is one of the few films that touches upon ‘lucid dreaming’, where dreams can be induced and controlled.