There is a boy running down by the shore, in search of something he has lost… or longs for. It’s hard to say at this point. This is just but the opening shot, after all. The possibilities for the film are still numerous, slimming down a bit as the second shot cuts in. A panning track of feet by the water. A dreamy, ethereal mood sweeps over the viewer as they soak in the presented images that depict a sunny day at the beach. Clips of rushing waves, gasping marine life, and running boys flutter against the screen. The boys stop for a moment, catching their breath. James, the one in the pink shirt and terribly dyed hair, looks up.
“You never told me your name,” he says. The other boy smiles at him and laughs. He wears a blue button-up, hair slicked back with a tight undercut that’s all the rage in the 2014 gay community. His name is Jasper.
“Is it important?” the other boy asks.
“I think so,” James replies. Jasper just laughs again, and continues running down the beach, James calling out to him and running to catch up; past the choppy brown waves of the muddy beach, through the barnacle-encrusted posts that litter the sandbar, and the terribly disorienting “bloom” effect added in post to indicate that none of this is real.
The other week I had the pleasure of viewing my professor Caryn Cline’s short film “Perchance” in class. The work consists of found footage salvaged from two different films from the 1960’s (or 50’s?) and features a small boy dreaming of another reality, a blue-tinted world where he is free to roam the beach of his dreams all day, forever until the end of time, accompanied by a menagerie of frightening seagulls and hungry sea urchins. Of course, as a filmmaker myself, I did what every other filmmaker does when confronted with another director’s work: I compared it to my own. “Perchance” however, reminded me immediately of a dream sequence I shot myself two years ago. The production was an eight-part web series about dreams, titled Wake Up!, and the opening sequence featured two boys running through a beach together. The similarities don’t end there.
So what is going on here exactly? These aren’t the only two examples of a dream sequence taking place at a beach in the world. What is it about beaches that present a surreal dreamlike quality to Cline and myself? Something about chasing after someone you lust for in a dream screamed “BEACH” to me, and viewing large amounts of found beach footage screamed “DREAM” at Cline. Does this say something about us? Our subjectivity?
“The process of assembling images and texts strongly involves the artist’s subjectivity in ways that constantly recompose possible narratives across associations between disparate fragments,” says feminist scholar Giovanna Zapperi (27). Cline’s subjectivity is called into question when we look closely at “Perchance.” What led her to arrange the film in this particular montage of images and sound? “Perchance” is without question an artwork, an avant-garde film, but perhaps the artist’s personal subjectivity should not be bothered with when reviewing these things. At least, that’s what Russian-American experimental filmmaker of the 1940’s Maya Deren believed. Everyone has a subjective. Big whoop. Deren wrote of the collective subjective, the “communication of art between these elements common to all people” (208).
Deren herself includes a few (non-personal, of course) subjective beach dream sequences during the course of her production “At Land.” (Deren referred to the setting in her film as a “relativistic universe,” where locations shift all the time and distances are shorted or stretched out. So… basically a dream.) “At Land” opens with a black and white shot of the ocean, waves crawling up onto the sand and washing over Deren (or the nameless character which Deren plays). She coughs, appears to wake up, and the waves swiftly retreat in reverse motion at the sight of her awakening. Deren proceeds to stare up into the sky at a flock of seagulls, reach around her, climbs up the root systems of an upturned tree that wasn’t there seconds before, and discovers a dinner party at the top. Adventures ensue. This relativistic method of moving about the dream world, combined with the reverse footage of waves retreating, grants “At Land” a dreamlike status, henceforth I am counting it as a filmed dream sequence.
It is totally curious to note that out of these three beach dream sequences, it is only Deren’s that actually exhibit any physically impossible happenings in her film, and yet she is the filmmaker that does not specifically reference her work as a dream. While Deren’s character flits through an eternal space of doors and cliffs that lead to other realms, Cline and I mostly represent our films’ dream aspects through filters. “Perchance”’s dream footage soaked in an array of cyan hues, contrasting from the magenta “reality” footage, while Wake Up!’s dream sequence has been run through the aforementioned “bloom” effect in Final Cut Pro. (It looks weird, I know it looks weird. But we all must get the “bloom” effect out of our systems at one point or another. This was my time.) I use the word “mostly” to describe this filter method as there are a scant number of other surreal qualities that Cline and I use. The closing shot of “Perchance” features the ocean, much like Deren’s opening shot, except for the slow wanderings of the camera as it’s gradually tilted upside down until the scene fades out. Likewise, James finally catches up with Jasper after playing an almost dragged out game of cat-and-mouse, holding each other in their arms.
“Why won’t you tell me your name?” James asks. (I, like Deren, have starred in my own films sometimes. James was me, and I was James, forever until the end of time.)
“Because this isn’t real anyway,” Jasper, whose real name was Sonny Nguyen, replies. Instead of showing anything surreal, like a good filmmaker would, I simply had the characters state what was happening. A common rookie mistake that I am probably still making in my work, let’s be honest. The most surrealist aspect of Wake Up!’s opening dream sequence, perhaps, is when I kiss Nguyen on the mouth (which would have never of happened in real life)—reflective water of the Puget Sound behind us, uncomfortably embraced in reality, but looking hot as hell on camera; so it was probably worth the shot.
But still, why the beach?? Why are we filmmakers dabbling in the dream genre? Photography and filmmaking are already surreal experiments in themselves. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag stated that “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, or a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision” (52). Have Cline, Deren and I given into a kind of filmmaking trope? “Dreams on the beach”?? All three sequences have spooky similarities. Each features motifs of running (James chases after Jasper, Cline’s child protagonist runs freely by the shore, Deren’s character rushes with her hands in the air down the beach into the distance at the end of her film), marine life (dying barnacles litter the rocky beach in Wake Up!, seagulls and pelicans fly about in “Perchance” along with an urchin that tries to eat the child’s finger, a flock of seagulls that I already mentioned make a cameo appearance as Deren looks up into the sky in “At Land”), and a common theme of escapism and exploring (James dreams of the perfect boyfriend, the child a life away from school where he’s free to adventure, and Deren… who knows what Deren’s trying to find). Do these motifs and themes mean anything though? After kissing Jasper on the beach, James wakes up to an alarm clock to find that everything just experienced was all a fantasy. (He was told this anyway…) He calls his best friend, Nicole, and asks if she can look up “beaches” in a dream encyclopedia she owns.
“To dream of the beach represents a time in your life when you are facing uncertainty, it may also represent a transition from a familiar setting to an unfamiliar one,” she says.
“This is not a scientific fact, by the way,” Wake Up!’s narrator cuts in. (The show has an omnipresent narrator.) “No dream interpretation is.”
James gasps. “What do you think that means??”
Probably nothing, indeed. In a world that attributes meaning to everything in its narratives, Maya Deren dared to argue that symbols might just… be symbols. Already an advocate against personal subjectivity, Deren wrote “If one assumes something is a symbol, one must be prepared to answer why the artist has substituted at all; why one should assume that every image is a mask for meaning . . . The face that image has fallen into a second class in symbol is apparent. As, ‘bird in flight.’ Well, I mean bird in flight. ‘Oh, you mean that is not a symbol for something else?’ No, it is a bird in flight. ‘Oh, it’s just a bird in flight?’ It is all a bird in flight might mean.” (209-210).
Deren did not seem to be a fan of literary interpretation, going against people attributing their own or the artist’s subjectivity on a piece of work. Rather than “What does this mean to me?” Deren preferred the question “What does that mean in terms of thing?” (211). There is a tendency in our culture to look into the meanings of our dreams, relating these meanings back to ourselves. Can we really call these sequences dreams though? Even with “At Land”’s relativistic setting, all of these “dream sequences” actually make sense, unlike actual dreams, where characters and objectives always seem to change on a whim. In attempting to appropriate the surreal language of dreams, maybe filmmakers have created a new form of subconscious exploration through art in itself. In speaking of another of her films, “Meshes of the Afternoon”, Deren stated that her short “establishes a reality which, although somewhat on dramatic logic, can exist only in film” (204). Giovanna Zapperi describes the process of montage in film as “produc[ing] a form of non-linear, anachronical temporality, in which images migrate from one context to another, and time is understood in terms not of continuity but of returns that engage the artist’s subjective desires” (28). Of course, Deren would disagree with the last subjectivity part, but she would agree with Zapperi on the subject of non-linear temporality. Throughout her career Deren’s quest as an experimental filmmaker seemed to be trying to discover the logic of film form, and not the form of a narrative (212).
So these aren’t really “dreams,” so to speak. (And Deren never called “At Land” a dream anyway.) What we call “dream sequences” may just be a form of play with our own subconscious in a narrative language. (“What particularly excited me about film was its magic ability to make even the most imaginative concept seem real,” says Deren, who I will keep quoting forever until the end of time.) I believe we call them “dream sequences” because dreams are the only other form of narrative subconscious exploration that we know. Again, for the last time: Why beaches? Why??? I have still yet to explain this. Why aren’t James and Jasper running through a forest, for example? Or how come Cline didn’t just create a narrative that involves a boy going to the beach and getting his finger caught in a nasty sea urchin? The answer could quite possibly lie in a filmmaker’s subjectivity. (My apologies to Deren as we promptly throw everything we have just discussed out the window and into the darkness below.) Beaches, typically, are reserved for “vacation days.” “Beach trips,” we call them. For me at least, beaches absolutely represent escapism. A place where I travel to and sit for hours, staring into the endless void we call the ocean and letting go of my problems, at least for a day. There’s a reason I chose a beach for the first dream sequence in Wake Up!, some setting of carefree bliss where James is allowed to pursue his subjective desires, much like a filmmaker. I imagine Cline has experienced similar carefree beach experiences herself (I could be wrong, of course). Her protagonist idolizes the beach, somewhere he is free from the confines of his claustrophobic school and (hinted at) overbearing father. Beaches are conceived as places of relaxation, of refuge from the real world, much like dreams. What better form of artist to portray that than the filmmaker, the creator of artificial, parallel realities?
Wake Up!: Introduction to Dream Interpretations. Dir. Jonah Barrett. Self
Released, 2014. Web Series. Vimeo.com. Web. <https://vimeo.com/91951318>.
Perchance. Dir. Caryn Cline. The New School, 2008. Short Film. Vimeo.com. Web. <https://vimeo.com/19257195>.
At Land. Dir. Maya Deren. Self Released, 1944. Short Film. Youtube.com. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVMV0j6XVGU>.
Deren, Maya, and Bruce R. McPherson. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “Melancholy Objects.” On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973. 208. Print.
Zapperi, Giovanna. “Woman’s Reappearance: Rethinking the Archive in Contemporary Art–Feminist Perspectives.” Feminist Review 105. 21-47. Feminist Review. Palgrave Macmillan.