Cinematic Dreaming

In The Nation, Gilberto Perez reviews Colin McGinn’s book, The Power of Movies, in which McGinn argues that “by the intrinsic character of their medium, films are like dreams.” Like Perez, whose The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium I’ve been meaning to read for some time, I’m suspicious of many of McGinn’s claims (at least as Perez represents them). According to Perez’s read, McGinn pushes the dream/movie metaphor to the point that “the images on the screen lose all bodily mooring and become sheer figments of our imagination, indistinguishable from the images we dream.”

As Perez implies, such an approach ignores the materiality of the cinematic image and the dynamics of the movie-watching experience in general. This is perhaps most in evidence in McGinn’s discussion of the “dematerialized body” of on-screen actors, suggesting that figures on-screen appear as “ghosts” or “angels,” using Fred Astaire’s gravity-defying dance performances as his ultimate example. Like Perez, I see Astaire’s performance (and dance in general) as an “art of the body.” One might add the comic performances of Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd to the mix. Their performances depend on the materiality of their bodies and the props with which they interact.

But McGinn’s argument also relies on a very limited notion of cinema, one that limits itself to a fairly restricted range of Hollywood films (and one that McGinn himself admits that he doesn’t readily remember). While Perez speculates that McGinn may be unfamiliar with Surrealist films such as Un chien andalou that work through dream concepts, I think there are other reasons to suggest that movies and perhaps dreams, but I’m less certain here, “remove us from the physical world.” It might come as no surprise to my regular readers that I will offer documentary as a counter-example to McGinn’s thesis, but to regard the documentary images of war and violence as removed from the physical world seems rather dubious.

Concluding his review, Perez explains that McGinn imagines some ultimate form of cinema in which movies will be “downloaded directly into the brain. You rent a cassette, plug it into your cortex, and enjoy the experience. There is no screen, no light projection–just mental images floating through your consciousness.” Perez is quick to note that what McGinn imagines is not “the movies,” and I’m inclined to agree, in large part because I think we do need to reserve some distinction between different media. This disagreement does point back to a question I find intriguing, specifically the degree to which digital media continue to upset some of the long-held assumptions about the materiality of cinema, and as Perez’s comments imply, the various technologies, such as the VCR, DVD, and cable TV, that multiply the sites where we encounter movies chnage the ways in which movies are enjoyed and studied and are a testament to the fact that movies are more than dreams.

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