Movies, Dreams, and Silence

It is commonplace to observe that the experience of seeing a movie is a lot like the experience of dreaming. Watching vivid, fantastic and shifting images unfold before you in a dark space seems to naturally invoke comparisons to the dream state.

I thought a lot about the relationship between movies and dreams during production and post on my film, The Art of Dreaming. One of the goals of that film was to try to capture the experience of dreaming.

And one of the things I noticed is that silent films are much more dream-like than sound films.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One of them, I think, is that the lack of extended conversation in silent films helps keep the experience from being overly verbal, overly rational.

But the most important reason, I think, has to do with the nature of dreams themselves. Sound does not play a very important part in most dreams.

For most people, dreams are primarily kinesthetic, visual, and emotional, not aural. .Just think about the way people describe dreams that they’ve had. People talk about what they saw, what they did, or what they felt. Not what they heard.

(There are two exceptions to this. Conversation is the first. People will sometimes report what was said in a dream, though dreams don’t frequently focus exclusively on conversation. And occasionally people will report hearing vivid and elaborate music in dreams. I’ve experienced such dreams myself, where I heard music far more complicated that I could have written in waking life, but these dreams are the exception rather than the rule, and so extraordinary that they seem very special when I have them).

This is why I love silent films so much. Despite the truism that movies are like dreams, very few modern films really are. Very few modern filmmakers are comfortable and skilled in the use of silence as a positive element. This is one of the great losses of modern cinema.

Sound has become a way of concretizing the film world, anchoring us in a specific time and place, or overwhelming our emotions with manipulative cues.

If you want to see how sound can be used to create a truly dreamlike feel, take a look at Carl Dryer’s 1932 film Vampyr. Made in the early days of sound film, Dryer shot it as a silent film, with all the sound added in post-production. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and sound effects and foley are added sparingly. You hear the sound of a door shutting, but not the footsteps of the person walking to shut it. This adds to the bizarre and dreamlike feel of what is truly one of the strangest films ever made.

What Length Should a Film Be?

One of the frustrations I’ve encountered with my film The Art of Dreaming has been trying to get it shown at film festivals. I suspected a 40 minute film would be a tough sell, because festivals seem to want to program either full-length features (approximately 75- 120 minutes) or shorts under 20 minutes long. There wasn’t any place for The Art of Dreaming.

But that 1 1/2 to two hours length for a feature film is such an arbitrary length and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the way people watch movies anymore, an anachronism from older times.

Andrei Severny has a very welcome essay on the Tribeca Film Festival website questioning this convention and urging film festivals to be more flexible in their programming. I can only say “Amen!”

Check it out.

Why We Must Free Film From Running Time Prejudice at

Movies vs. TV

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether contemporary television is better than film, meaning that mainstream TV nowadays is generally more interesting and innovative than mainstream films. Most of the talk has to do with how the economics of each medium has forced filmmakers to play it safe and take less risks than their television counterparts.

I’d like to take a step back and talk more about more fundamental differences in the art forms.

One of my writing teaches, Ela Thier ( once said in class that the difference between TV and movies is that TV presents episodes in a person’s life, whereas a film presents the most important event in a person’s life.

A bit of a generalization, but I think there is a lot of truth to this.

(And when I talk about “film” in this post, I’m talking about narrative feature films. Short films, documentaries, and experimental films are different animals, with different aims, different pleasures and different rules.)

This distinction illuminates a lot, for example why movie sequels so often fail. How many “most important events” can a person have in his or her life? You might be able to find material enough for a second film (Tim Burton’s Batman: Batman finds the person who murdered his parents, Burton’s Batman Returns: Batman falls in love), but there are only so many times you can return to the well before it runs dry and becomes just another episode in the protagonist’s life, especially when facing the pressure to give audiences “more of the same.”

Thus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (as in the comic), Spider-Man’s defining moment comes when he discovers that the two-bit criminal he didn’t bother to stop went on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben. But by the time of Raimi’s third movie in the franchise, when it’s revealed that Uncle Ben’s killer was really another criminal, it all just seems both too much and too the same.

When I wrote for Marvel Comics, we were told that a good story involves the hero facing a moral choice that defines him or changes him. But can you really write this same story issue after issue, month after month?

Many episodic series solve this problem by sometimes having stories where the hero is not the true protagonist, but just plays a part in someone else’s story. Will Eisner’s weekly Spirit comic used this device often, where The Spirit would only be a tangential figure in the story of a small time hood or some other Everyman.

Another way that episodic stories can deal with this challenge is to have an ensemble cast. Not every Buffy The Vampire Slayer story is about Buffy. Individual stories could focus on Willow, or Xander or Giles, or any one of the large and rotating supporting cast.

Of course, sometimes films and TV can skirt these fluid boundaries, like the movie trilogies that plan from the start to tell one story, or the TV miniseries that do the same thing. And in pure, escapist action movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you can have an exciting story that doesn’t necessarily tell anyone’s most important event.

My point isn’t to say that one form is superior to the other, but to point out how, even beyond the economics of production and distribution, there are inherent rules to any art forms (of course, rules are made to be stretched, broken, twisted and re-formulated), and whether you choose to write episodic TV or full-length films depends on which type of story you want to make.

Film Threat Reviews The Art of Dreaming

Film Threat has published a new review of The Art of Dreaming, calling it “thought-provoking,” “compelling.” and “frightening.”

Check it out:

The Art of Dreaming on Film Threat

The Art of Dreaming Hits 1000 Plays

AoD 1000 Plays The Art of Dreaming hit 1000 plays on Vimeo today! Congratulations to all! Let’s keep spreading the word!