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.