Dream Vignettes: An Essay

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By Aditi Mukund Prabhudesai

Imagine Bruce Wayne’s parents alive, enjoying a swing on the golf links, silver streaks betraying their advanced age.  Imagine Bruce hitched to Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman). This cozy, domestic possibility is dangled in the episode “Perchance to Dream” of Batman: The Animated Series. One moment Batman is chasing goons and the next finds him living the life he must have always yearned for.

It’s interesting that instead of exploring this world, one where his parents are not snatched away from him violently and Bruce’s Batman doesn’t exist, Bruce tries his utmost to resist it. He is convinced he is living a lie.

That indeed turns out to be the case. The Mad Hatter has sent Batman into a dream state with the help of a contraption which conjures up a world ideal for its user. It’s not entirely clear on what basis this ideal world is forged. The thingamajig, which “reveals nothing to the real world”, presumably extracts Bruce’s deepest longings to create the illusion. Bruce’s defiance then can be viewed as a conflict between his dual identities.

The Bruce of the dream is familiar through generations of pop culture: shaped by the tragic death of his parents into Batman. It would be fair to surmise that Bruce Wayne (the person not the alter ego) is driven mainly by the Batman side of his personality. When he finds himself stranded in his alter ego’s perfect world, he is flustered by the absence of any traces of ever having donned the cape and the cowl. What’s more, there’s someone else out there posing as Batman adding to Bruce’s bewilderment.

At one point in the narrative, he is almost relieved when told that he is simply harboring delusions of being Batman (“Then the nightmare is over”).  But his Batman persona asserts itself again; his detective instincts kick in shattering the temporary bliss.

The dream construct here is used to chronicle Bruce’s struggle against the deception even as it sidesteps the rabbit hole of the What-If scenario. But it provides telling images of Bruce and Batman at loggerheads with each other. Intermittent flashes of lightning during their confrontation render them in black and white as if to deconstruct them to the bare elements, mirroring the theme of duality.

The presence of the Mad Hatter is apt. The wanderings of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are excursions into her psyche. In most fiction, the discovery “it was only a dream” at the end elicits a chorus of groans from the audience. It leaves one with a taste of having been letdown. But in Alice in Wonderland, the revelation is incidental. The clichéd saying “It’s the journey that’s more important than the destination” would certainly apply here. One is drawn into Alice’s rich imaginary land of card people, solemn caterpillar, mournful turtle, grinning cat and other fantastic creatures. Alice wanders from one surreal landscape to another and we follow her dazed and enchanted.

In regular film or TV if impossible or improbable events occur, or people behave out of character, more often than not a character wakes up sweating profusely and we realize it was only a dream sequence. One can usually sense something is amiss as the events unfold in the dream. The movie version of the short story by James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) directed by Ben Stiller uses this intuitive feeling to great effect.

Walter, played by Stiller himself, is prone to frequent bouts of day dreaming. In his dreams he is far removed from his diffident personality; he is assertive, taking on his unpleasant superior in one fight scene which would be at home in a Marvel movie. His outlandish dreams are more a wish fulfillment, contrasting with his seemingly uneventful life.

However, as the story progresses, the movie itself takes on a dream-like quality. As Walter sets off to Greenland in search of a film negative, his job at stake, doubts began to creep within me. At several instances I found myself wondering whether what I was watching was real or just another of Walter’s daydreams.

In Greenland, he’s about to give up on the search for the negative when he slips into a daydream where his love interest played by Kirsten Wiig pops up and spurs him to go off on the big adventure with an effective rendition of the haunting ballad Space Oddity.

He finds himself travelling on a ship, escaping on a longboard from a volcano in Iceland and playing football with locals in the Himalayas. As his actual life becomes something out of a dream, his day-dreams recede. Stark scenery filmed in long shots and the slightly off-kilter nature of his travels create an unreal effect. In dreams, abrupt changes in locations are quite normal and barely perceptible. The changing landscapes in Walter Mitty produce a similar impression. The editing also bolsters this feeling. It becomes difficult to gauge just how much time has elapsed between his travels.

Three very different kinds of movies have much to say about their leading ladies through dream sequences. The Spiral Staircase (1946) directed by Robert Siodmak, is an atmospheric thriller centered on Helen McCord (Dorothy McGuire), a live-in attendant at Warren House. She is afflicted by a temporary loss of speech following a childhood tragedy. The dream sequence in question revolves around her wedding to Dr. Parry, her fiancé. 

The idyllic atmosphere changes to one of menace when the vicar presiding over the ceremony prompts Helen to say “I do”. The phrase signifies a promise to uphold the wedding vows. Her distress over her inability to utter the words is palpable. The flock of wedding guests now possesses the tinge of a mob. The statue holding aloft the lamp fixture in the upper left corner bears a faint resemblance to Lady Justice. Together, the accusatory mob and the statue lend the flavor of a court proceeding to the image. The sequence ends with a close-up of Helen, agony writ large on her face. Siodmak, who had received training in the German Expressionist style, fuses the trope of the dream sequence with Expressionism to bring forth Helen’s anxiety and self-perceived guilt or shortcoming about her lack of voice.

I Know Where I’m Going by the British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were aka The Archers, came only a year earlier than The Spiral Staircase. The romantic film too, is strongly centered on its heroine Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller). She is an ambitious young Englishwoman who is off to the Hebrides in Scotland to marry a much older and wealthy fiancé. A delay in her journey due to the elements leads to a gradual erosion of the belief in her plan; her marriage is but a means to live the comfortable life she so covets.

The dream sequence takes place on the night of her train journey. It too features a wedding, but the mood is cheerfully crazy. She is seen exchanging vows grimly with her betrothed’s Consolidated Chemical Industries, represented by giant spinning wheels. Her swift “I do” is reciprocated by the mournful hooting of the train horn which only increases the ludicrous mood. The ceremony is shown through the now empty transparent cover of her wedding dress. The cover is both a visual and verbal metaphor for what her marriage to a fiancé she doesn’t particularly adore could turn out to be: hollow and a facade. A smile is plastered on her sleeping form as snatches of dialogue (“Charged to your account madam”) indicating luxury filter in. The tempo of the background music increases by the repeated utterance of phrases (“Everything’s arranged”) in an urgent tone to generate a feeling of claustrophobia as if Wendy’s trapped in some predicament. The repetition of phrases to generate a particular mood is in a similar vein to that of “I do” in Helen’s dream. Thus while showing Wendy’s state of mind, Powell and Pressburger also plant subtle clues which belie the ongoing narrative.

A train dream of another kind kicks off Basu Chatterjee’s serene dramedy Rajnigandha (Tuberose) (1974).  Deepa (Vidya Sinha), from whose perspective we see most of the movie, finds herself in an empty train compartment. Afraid, she yanks the chain to stop the train only for it to fall into her hand. The long empty passage radiates menace. Beads of sweat trickle down Deepa’s forehead. Eventually the train pulls up to a station where she gets down. Looking around at the deserted place, she starts pursuing the departing train in its wake. With outstretched hands, she desperately tries to get a hold on to the train. Mysteriously, the train now appears to be full of passengers, mocking her attempts. She stumbles, the non-diegetic sound evoking images of rotating fractals which performs a role not unlike those of the phrases “I do” and “Everything’s arranged” in the previously described dreams; they emphasize the otherworldly nature of dreams.

Deepa alludes to missing the train or stumbling before a taxi in recurring dreams. At the risk of reading too much into the wordless dream sequence, one can see how it summarizes the central dilemma of Deepa. In the first half of the movie, she appears to have a nice stable long-term courtship with Sanjay (Amol Palekar) and they weave dreams of marriage. Sanjay risks Deepa’s ire with his inattentive and forgetful behavior at times. But he always manages to soften her anger with his winsome personality. When Deepa arrives in Mumbai one day for a job interview, her past in the form of Navin (Dinesh Thakur), causes her to take a detour from her planned life. Navin, quiet, gallant and mysterious presents a stark contrast to Sanjay. She comes to believe that Navin was her true love all along and she is ready to forsake Sanjay. However, a key letter and the timely appearance of Sanjay avert a disaster of sorts. This time unlike her dreams she’s back on board the train, despite the stumble on the way.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated

People who liked this also liked...
Share on Google Plus


Post a Comment

Thanks for sharing for valuable opinion. We would be delighted to have you back.