On DREAMS (and Dreams Captured on Film)

“Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.” – Santayana

Jacob's dream of a ladder of angels (painting by Michael Willmann)

No one is certain about dreams. There isn’t a universally accepted definition of dreams. Many people don’t understand, or heck, even remember, their own dreams. The whole idea behind dreams isn’t wholly understood. My moseying around different blogs and websites brought me a bit of knowledge about the subject. I read there are two kinds of dreams: Authentic and Illusory.

Authentic dreams are those that reflect actual memories and experiences of the dreamer. I guess that would mean they stick to the laws of physics and stuff too. Illusory dreams, on the other hand, contain impossible, incongruent, or bizarre content.

I guess my brain must be messily wired or something, as I have, or atleast remember having, mainly illusory dreams. I had a dream in which the world tilted and all the water on it flowed to one side. In my dreams, people transform into one another and not much makes sense. I had a dream, only two nights ago, in which I was admitted in a hospital and they served me stray dogs for meals. Now this is interesting… as I was admitted in a hospital only a few days ago, and there’s always stray dogs barking outside, here in Bangalore. Dreams, as you know, are stemmed from our experiences and memories.

The Dreamer

Aside from memories, I read that the drugs you take could affect your dreams too. And your health condition. And several other things. I heard somewhere that you could reach an age where you can’t dream anymore. And that a small population of people on this planet dream solely in black and white.

Have you ever wondered why people say, “Never give up on your dreams,”, or, “It’s my dream to become a pilot,” when it actually doesn’t make sense when you think about it? Why are dreams synonymous with goals? What separates a dream from a nightmare?

I find all of this fascinating. Dreams.

I especially like this line from Wikipedia’s page on dreams:
“Dreams have been described physiologically as a response to neural processes during sleep, psychologically as reflections of the subconscious, and spiritually as messages fromgods, the deceased, predictions of the future or from the Soul, for symbology is the language of the Soul.”

I remember seeing a play in our school once; ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. The show director had ripped off Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical. In it, a character Joseph interprets the dreams of the Pharaoh, and saves Egypt. How? Apparently, the Pharaoh’s dreams are predictions of future events. I’m quite sure that dreams don’t predict the future… but do they? We can never be sure, can we? Who can?

Okay, knowing me, you’d know this would end up being a talk about movies. Movies have endlessly employed the ‘dream sequence’ trip, either for dramatic effect, for psychological exploration, or just for those goddamn cheap thrills.

Rosemary has a dream in which a dark figure raped her. She wakes up in terror, only to find it was 'just a dream'. But... how come there are scars on her back? 'ROSEMARY'S BABY'

By cheap thrills, I refer to those corny horror movies in which a character gets stabbed by a creepy kook, only to wake up and find, ‘Oh, it’s just a dream!’ These are dream sequences of the worst kind; just to induce momentary shudders, false alarms.

Dream sequences can be used effectively in horror movies though. Take the example of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, an excellent 1968 thriller (Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut) in which the protagonist Rosemary is haunted by dreams that actually mean something to the story, including that terrifying dream in which she is raped by Satan. Those kind of dream sequences plant the seed of doubt in your mind that keeps growing throughout the movie… “Did that really happen? Or was it just a dream?” Unfortunately, horror movies rarely employ dream sequences worthily.

The Dream Sequence from Hitchcock's black-and-white 'SPELLBOUND'

Then I’ve seen the dream sequence applied to show the audience flashbacks, incidents from the characters’ past. Another thriller that effectively and prominently uses such the dream sequence is Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ (1945), a film I saw only yesterday. I really liked the movie as it keeps you guessing throughout. I shall not get into the workings of the plot; all you need to know for now is that it is the story of a man who is suffering from memory loss and a guilt complex; and there’s a scene in which two doctors interpret one of his dreams to find some hints about his past. I thought that was ingenious. And oh, how wonderfully the plot works as well; the film is a true mystery.

The dream sequence in ‘Spellbound’ was designed by renowned artist Salvador Dali, so you can imagine how beautiful and surreal the whole sequence was. It was extremely effective, and had the real feel of a dream; and I don’t think I’ve seen a film in which one single dream sequence is so very important to the plot.


Another thriller that utilized dreams cleverly is ‘Shutter Island’, Martin Scorsese’s latest film. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Teddy, experiences hallucinations and dreams which at first seem incoherent, but by the time the climax hits you, you’ll realize that all the little pieces of dreams and visions form a bigger puzzle. It was a very powerful movie, and I absolutely loved the dream sequences in it; they were so much like real dreams, they were bold, memorable images, and they all had some meaning. I urge everybody to watch this psychological thriller.

Apart from movies that have dreams in them, there are movies about dreams themselves.

My favorite shot from 'WAKING LIFE'

A friend of mine recommended a movie, ‘Waking Life’, to me, simply because it was created using a process known as rotoscopy, by which real-life footage is made to look like animation. It’s somewhat like the 2-D artist’s version of the 3-D artist’s motion capture techniques. ‘Waking Life’ is one of the best looking films I’ve seen. The images are memorable and very dream-like, with characters’ features constantly shifting and evolving. The film follows a man who’s in a constant lucid dream-state. A lucid dream is simply one in which the dreamer knows he’s dreaming. So this man keeps meeting people in his dreams who converse with him. The film doesn’t have any plot… it’s simply these conversations with strangers (or are they?) and friends in his dreams that keeps the film going. And some of these conversations are absolutely fascinating. The conversations flow into each other, covering various aspects of philosophy, psychology and the human mind. And though some of these conversations don’t make sense at first, repeat viewings will give you new insights.  Let me give you some examples…

Two people converse, 'WAKING LIFE'

“The trick is to combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams. Because, if you can do that, you can do anything. The worst mistake that you can make is to think you’re alive when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room. Did you ever have a job that you hated and worked real hard at? A long, hard day of work. Finally you get to go home, get in bed, close your eyes and immediately you wake up and realize… that the whole day at work had been a dream. It’s bad enough that you sell your waking life for minimum wage, but now they get your dreams for free.”

“(I’ve been thinking) about reincarnation and where all the new souls come through over time. Everybody says they have been the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Alexander The Great. I always want to tell them they were probably some dumb fuck like everybody else.”

It’s an absolutely brilliant film, and I advise all thinkers out there to watch it. Do note, most people who’ve fed on pulp fiction and blockbusters might find it pretentious and boring.


There’s another film, ‘The Science of Sleep’, which analyses the nature of dreams. I haven’t seen the whole film yet, but whatever I saw of it was quite interesting. The film follows an imaginative man who dreams a bit too much, if you ask me. The opening lines of the film grabbed me instantly: We are shown the main character, Stephane, as he hosts a cookery show in his dreams.

“Hi, and welcome back to another episode of “Télévision Educative”. Tonight, I’ll show you how dreams are prepared. People think it’s a very simple and easy process but it’s a bit more complicated than that. As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts. And then, we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day… mixed with some memories from the past… Love, friendships, relationships… and all those “ships”, together with songs you heard during the day, things you saw, and also, uh… personal… Okay, I think it’s done.”

This film was directed by Michel Gondry, who also directed the excellent ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, another high concept psychological film.

Speaking of high concept psychological films…
When you read the words ‘Dreams’ and ‘Film’ in the title of this post, you were asking for ‘Inception’, weren’t you?
Of course you were.

The Bending of Paris, 'INCEPTION'

My whole interest in dreams was recently renewed by ‘Inception’, a film that took the ‘dream sequence’ and applied it to its plot unlike ever before. Sure, ‘The Matrix’ also has several people in a shared virtual world, but that was a computer programme… this is a dream. And when you talk about dream, you’re talking about endless possibilities. That’s why films employ dream sequences so much—you can do anything to your characters, or show anything your audiences, in a dream sequence.

‘Inception’, as you probably know, follows a group of thieves who extract information from the subconscious mind of their victims while they dream. I won’t go into the details of the plot as they are too tedious to explain, and because you’ve probably already seen that incredible film.

Joseph Gordon-Lewitt in the Corridor Fight from 'INCEPTION'

I loved the film’s theories on dreams…

  • The theory about dream time running faster than real time as your mind works faster when asleep.
  • The theory about changes in the real world affecting the dream, like splashing water.
  • The idea behind the totems.
  • The idea behind people bringing projections of their subconscious into the dream space.
  • I enjoyed how they applied impossible architecture and physics into the film too… especially the Penrose steps and the bending of Paris. Oh, how could I forget. That excellent hotel corridor fight.

The film challenged audiences to keep track with it’s dream-in-a-dream-in-a-dream-in-a-dream-and-so-on plot. And it begs the question… “How do we know we’re awake? What if we’re still dreaming?” What if?

I wrote somewhere in this article that dreams are based on a person’s past experiences and memories. Isn’t interesting to wonder what a baby dreams about in all its hours of sleep? Maybe it dreams of its experiences in the womb? The music the mother listened to while pregnant? Race memories? I don’t know. But then again, who knows?

Who knows?

– Cinematic Jackass, signing off


The Dream Sequence from ‘SPELLBOUND’ (1945)


The Trailer of ‘WAKING  LIFE’


A Clip from ‘INCEPTION’



10 responses to “On DREAMS (and Dreams Captured on Film)

  • Ankur Vincent Peter

    This is good. And i totally understand your views here, as a fellow illusory dreamer…and a person who’s pretty interested in dreams as well. And yes, after reading like the first paragraph, I was wondering when the movie discussions are gonna come in 😛
    There’s nothing much to ‘comment’ about here ’cause like you said, there’s “no universally accepted definition of dreams”….so none of what you said above can be WRONG or RIGHT. But yes, it’s very good thinking, and food for thought, for people who like to think.

    And i’ll suggest, since it’s a pretty new blog, don’t write such long articles. It chases the “normal” people away

  • cinematicjackass

    Yeah, this IS possibly too long 😛
    Well, when you’re writing about something like ‘Dreams’, you jut can’t stop.
    I even had a paragraph about the use of dreams for comedic effect (Dumb and Dumber, Shrek the Third), but then decided it was really not worth mentioning!

  • Christina Ann Thomas

    A nice compilation of dream-related matter 😀

    Just a thought on the ‘dreams can’t predict the future’ statement:
    The scientific community holds that dream content is based on the fulfilment of wishes and the like, but you can’t entirely dismiss the authenticity of premonitions.
    Admittedly, it sort of borders on the religious, since many claim that these dreams are divine revelations.

    Still, after personally hearing the accounts of clairvoyant people, and seeing events unravel as predicted, I’ve come to put some faith in premonitions 🙂

  • Ankur Vincent Peter

    YIAY!!! Now there’s 3 of us here 🙂

  • cinematicjackass

    I think accurate premonitions are just coincidences… but what does it matter what I think?

    What does it matter what anyone thinks?

    What is is what is.

  • EternalHyperion

    There are many many ways to explain the state of mind, some might even say that it’s a gift as to how one can control one’s sense of thought, here’s something to look at though, most legends come from a recognized idea, for example, dragons = flying dinosaurs, bigfoot, the yeti, these are all legends based on fact. So if one can be in a dreamlike-state look at people who have lived multiple lives, past lives, waking out of a coma despite thinking they lived their entire life… Everything comes from somewhere…and its all immortalized in film…. nonetheless, its a brilliant observation as to how we as sentient beings are still mystified how the mind works…

  • cinematicjackass

    As sentient, intelligent beings, I’m pretty sure we will NEVER fully understand how the mind works. Sure, we can come up with theories and prove some of them, but a complete comprehensions of the inner workings of a man– it’ll just be pure speculation.

  • INCEPTION’s BIGGEST Plot Hole « Cinematic Jackass

    […] To read an article on other great films about dreams, click here. […]

  • Preethi Rajkumar

    Hey Krish
    You told me you didn’t have a blog >.< lol

    Anyways I already read this in your FFC work and I really liked how you summarised a really vague topic giving it that authentic touch of yours which is exclusive to your manner of writing (the movie references too, lol) and that kind of made your work seem passionate and also you put forth your perspective of dreams in a very diplomatic manner, which is again good for such a vague concept.

    So well done, it's nice to know you can write too 🙂
    But more than the writing, the substance is brilliant
    And Ankur's right; I cannot call this a summary although I really want to because it seems too long and descriptive. You should allow a reader to think as he/she reads through your work. Remember what I told you about the reader…?
    Lol anyway awesome blog.

    When'd you begin it?

  • Preethi Rajkumar

    Oh and I thought, although kind of irrelevant, you might like to know this :

    You know how most people are unconcious when they undergo REM and then dream?
    One of my friends, she’s got a theory that while she undergoes REM and dreams dreams and stuff, she retains her conciousness. That’s why she can remember each and every one of her dreams to date as a memory, and not all of her dreams are unrealistic (because her brain makes sense of it all) and she can do REM with her eyes when we want her to.
    She isn’t sure but that’s just her theory. Plus we’re not sure that’s feasible. :/

    Cool, huh?

    Oh and do you read/believe in Freud? He’s the centre of jokes and puns for most psychologists.

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