Filmmaking is dream-making; a state of total non-existence is inherent in film. The audience watches but is completely helpless to do anything regarding what they see. Crying, screaming in anger or fear, laughter, discomfort, or even diverting one’s eyes does nothing. The scene and whatever it depicts continues on with stopping the playing of the film being the only means of escape. But even this changes nothing. The scene and its events remain the same, totally unchanged. Averting one’s eyes changes nothing. Existence is having a choice, but non-existence is no choice at all; pure helplessness in the viewing of an event is the result. When the audience sits down they cease to exist. Their choice is taken away from them (aside from leaving or pressing “stop” on their remote). Their options are limited. They have nothing to give the scene. They simply watch.
The helpless feeling of sleep paralysis should be the feeling an audience has watching a film. The viewer should never feel as if they are literally the characters in the story, but they should instead feel as though they exist outside of the events they are watching (which they clearly do). Since the viewer is clearly not a part of the world they are viewing, then they should clearly feel helpless regarding what happens in it. If the view has choice or input then what they see is a video-game and not a movie. There is a difference. Video-games call for awareness of existing inside of a world which is not your own; they call for needing input into the events that you see. But film requires total detachment. The viewer is not in the depicted world, has no options in that world, and must therefore sit by helplessly watching the onscreen events unfold.
This sensation of helplessness also crosses over into things like home movies. Even while sitting and watching moving pictures of your daughter when she was seven, or watching movies of yourself when you were seven, there is still a feeling of detachment. The events you see are what might be called “shadows” — they are static and unchangeable. When you see a video of yourself acting like a foolish child there is nothing that can be changed about it; it is far off, distanced, and no longer alive. Paint dies when it hits the canvas and dries; light on celluloid or a digital sensor does the same. It becomes frozen, lifeless, and static. The life in it ceases to exist. Much like a fish, caught and mounted on a wall, it is no longer a fish but instead is an image of a fish. The home movies of yourself are not you, but are instead images of you. They are dead; they have no choice.
Choice is the key thing to keep in mind when regarding images. An image has no choice and is therefore not alive. And because images are not alive, they cannot be affected. No matter how hard we want Ethan Edwards to stay with his family at the end of The Searchers we cannot do anything regarding his choice. It is set in stone. It cannot be undone. To quote Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh from The Ten Commandments: “So let it be written, so it shall be done.” Once it is committed to film it is possible to reshoot, but the footage itself stands as it is. It can be done over, but not changed.
Giving an audience choice in anything is to sacrifice the creation of art for the sake of framework. A video-game is not art. But the things that happen in it are. Possibly even the many pieces of a video-game are art. But a video-game is a framework; it is something for an audience to play inside of and possibly create art. But for something to be art it must die; its choice must be taken from it. If choice remains then it lives, but dried paint and developed film are dead and have no choice — they have been set in stone.
To illustrate this, consider a man and woman in a grocery store: the man is yelling at the woman, she is cowering in fear, and he strikes her; now you have the option of turning away, pretending you saw nothing, or intervening and stopping the abuse in front of you. But take that same scene and place it on a projection screen. You are helpless. You cannot defend that woman, and she is entirely on her own. Or consider it this way: you read a story in the newspaper about this event at the grocery store. Once again the event is “dead”, it has passed and is what it is; you know the event, you know the outcome, and it is finished.
By its very mechanisms of working film is a medium of the past. It captures an images in a moment, but those images are instantaneously made into memories and shadows. They are images of the past, but they are not the past. The past is, as the expression goes, “dead and gone,” but these images seem to continue on. They are not alive, however, because they have no choice in anything. They could be ascribed to that of a wind-up toy: it always does the same thing in the same way, because it was designed to do so.
Thus, if film is life captured in the form of an image and that image is dead, then when we watch a film, video, or even look at a painting or photograph, then we are looking at death. When we see Charles Foster Kane tear his wife’s bedroom to
pieces in Citizen Kane what we are seeing is the death of an outburst; the death of a movement. By the time Citizen Kane was shown in theaters the acting done in that scene was long gone and dead, and yet the moment lives on in memory and shadow.
Film is death. But there is also an element of rebirth. Every time a movie is viewed the moments that were captured are allowed to spring back into a state of existence. Their choices are gone, and because of this they are not “alive” in the scene previously discussed, but the memory contained within is allowed for a moment to flash back into existence. However, this death is the magic of film; this is the sensation of memories. Movies do what our minds try to do: make our memories come to life in a vivid and visual and realistic way. Movies do this in a very literal and tangible way. Watching a movie is like watching a dream; therefore, making a movie is like making a dream.
Saved on my computer are 8mm and Super8 home movies of my grandparents, father, and uncles, which were scanned and digitized many years ago. Being the filmmaker in the family, I was charged with overseeing the footage and fully restoring the best pieces of it (a task I need to finish), but I was also made its safekeeper. The other morning, while sitting at my desk, I opened the files on my computer and watched through some of them. An alarming and beautiful image leaped across the screen: my grandfather, probably in his late twenties, loading crates of milk onto his milk truck.
The image was fuzzy and grainy (as 8mm footage often is), but for the moment I was watching it teemed with life. The footage was broken, often skipping frames and portions of action, and my grandfather at times leaps around on the screen like a character from Godard’s film Breathless. When watching this footage it sank into my mind even more: film is like a dream; it’s like a memory. While watching that footage I was not watching my grandfather, instead I was watching an image, produced by light, of my grandfather. That moment is dead. Long gone. Yet the memory of that moment, and my grandfather, both still live. It was like looking into someone’s mind and seeing the fragmentary memories someone stores away for a rainy day (and being 8mm footage, it literally is the footage stored away for a rainy day).
Dreams are distant, unclear, aged with time and separation, fragmentary moments to be recalled at a moment’s notice. We see something and we carve an image of it in our minds. The same thing happens when light passes through the lens of a camera: light reflects off of a person or object, the light particles travel through the air, hit a surface which is sensitive to light, and are recorded. Organically to the mind or to a piece of film covered in silver nitrate; digitally to a sensor and then to a storage device. The technology and method might be slightly different, but fundamentally it is all the same.
We dream to remember moments that have passed on. Films are recorded dreams. Moments die, but films and dreams allow light to live forever. We take an image, load it into a projector, shine light through it, and suddenly it leaps back to life: a living dream.
There is no greater joy than dreaming for a living.