Why dream sequences don’t work

Film has often been compared to dreaming. After all, we watch them in darkness; they’re not bound by the conventions of time, space and period; they take us to new, invented worlds but feature people who feel familiar to us; and very often they don’t make any sense. Orson Welles said that film was “like a ribbon of dreams”. So why are dreams in films so unconvincing and, despite their often vivid visuals, dull?

Sometimes the reason is narrative laziness. Screenwriters use dreams as exposition, conveniently filling the character’s backstory, or as a cheap shock in a bad thriller. But there’s a deeper problem than bad screenwriting: the difference between watching and feeling. What you see when you’re dreaming may be surreal, with its leaps of time, place and character, but it feels, at the time, completely logical. It’s only when you piece it together afterwards that you become aware of the leaps. In a movie, conversely, you can film what the character sees, but too often, as a result, you end up with something that feels inauthentic and forced, like the Dali-designed dream sequences in Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Spellbound, in fact, is perhaps the least dreamlike of Hitchcock’s films; few other directors make films that feel so close, in their “real” world, to dreams. His fetishistic close-ups, sudden violence and rich, sweet atmosphere of paranoia all have the authentic feel of dreams, as do his plots: ordinary people caught up in thrilling, illogical adventures. Intruding on this atmosphere with something that’s supposed to be a dream, paradoxically, does exactly the opposite of its intention. And that’s the real problem with dreams in movies: intended to enchant us, they more often break the spell.

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