Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906)


The Big Sleep

By Richard Armstrong


    Between March and August 2010 I worked as a ‘Maître de langues,’ teaching English at the University of Paris. During this time I saw hardly any films at the cinema or on DVD or video. Perhaps, mired in the newness of Paris, taken in by her looks and scents, overwhelmed by her exoticism, I didn’t feel the need for escape into movie worlds. Depending on the time of year, I taught, marked papers, read novels on balmy spring afternoons, took in art shows at sweltering summer nocturnes. After years of doing nothing but watching movies and writing about them, then researching and writing up a PhD on modernist cinema, I fetched up in an apartment in the 12th south of Bastille and inhabited classrooms and restaurants by day, and galleries, bars or my apartment by night. As my exile wore on, I had a series of bizarre dreams...
    ….I am watching Bonnie and Clyde, except that it isn’t Bonnie and Clyde but another film in which I see a band of evangelists in the Deep South walking down a country road praying, declaiming, and ‘speaking in tongues.’ When they reach the camera, they put somebody in a box; like a coffin. Then I see Clyde in prison on Death Row talking about how he can’t read because the warden won’t turn the lights up. I see a cell door and can just make out the spy hole which then closes. It looks like the eye in Un Chien Andalou. There is then a flashback to the start of Clyde’s career and he is sitting behind the wheel of a car about to rob a bank. It is night and raining....
    ….I am watching The Lost Weekend, but it isn’t The Lost Weekend. It is a film in which three men, including the protagonists of The Lost Weekend, Don and Wick Birnam, become retarded and, so to speak, ‘go native’ in appearance and behavior. I remark to some others that, made during wartime, the film dramatized the crisis of masculinity of that period in US history....
    ….I am watching Ace in the Hole with some others and comment on Kirk Douglas’ great performance. Then as we watch some business with ice cream being placed in a heated bowl on a Japanese person’s head, I begin to doubt that I am watching Ace in the Hole....
    ….I am watching The Age of Innocence and am struck by a particularly vivid scene in which a character at dinner discusses toppling a family’s reputation, thereby ensuring his social rise. This character and this scene do not actually exist in the film....

Faye & Warren/Bonnie & Clyde

    Clearly, these reveries are the result of deprivation. But what interests me about them is the way in which my movie-starved mind nocturnally fed on ‘scenes from movies,’ while these scenes do not actually appear in either these films or in any I have ever seen. Postulating the name of a film whilst withholding the film itself, the dreams staged deprivation by harping on ‘absent’ films. Whilst the scene of the evangelists walking down the road could feasibly appear in a film set in the American South, arguably the ‘kind’ of film Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) is, the scene does not appear in Bonnie and Clyde. (Given the blur of inexactitude into which these Parisian reveries plunged me, it seems imperative to stipulate their credits when referring to those, actual, films to which they referred so vaguely). Whilst it is conceivable that some left-field experimental take on The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945), might find its ‘weak’ men reverting to some atavistic condition, this does not happen in The Lost Weekend. Whilst The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993), is preoccupied for much of its length with characters jostling for social position, the scene I dreamt does not appear in The Age of Innocence. It is as though I was subconsciously ‘writing’ these scenes and labeling them so that I woke up with the impression that I had been watching a film called ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ‘The Lost Weekend’ or ‘The Age of Innocence,’ whilst in my waking state I know these films don’t go like this. It is like being sung a tune which you are told is Mrs Robinson when it plainly isn’t.

    This kind of impressionistic nocturnal ‘moviegoing’ gives rise to the sensation that what you are watching is some generic film, a mishmash of movies seen with a particular actor or from a particular period. These dreams evince a fascination with Hollywood studio fare from the early to mid-50s, hence the references to Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda and Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951). The rather odd twist to the Ace in the Hole reverie might even suggest a wish to merge that film with another desert-set drama with racism at its core such as Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1954). Far from being about singular films, the finished article copyrighted by the studio and becoming for us documentary testimony to the facts of its making, these dreams emphasize what the finished articles have in common, not what makes them stand out but what makes them blend in. Interestingly, in this later example it occurs to me while I am dreaming that I am not watching Ace in the Hole, yet I do not recall feeling perplexed, confused or cheated by the realization. In the overwhelming majority of these dreams I recall only realizing what I was not watching after I awoke. Arguably, what I yearned for was not a singular example of cinema, but for cinema itself.

Ray Milland/Don Birnam

    Other episodes embody a strong desire to talk about movies, enthusiastically rehearsing plots to figures who seem disinterested. I am relating the plot of Friendship’s Death (Peter Wollen, 1987) to someone, but they are walking away from me. I am telling someone the plot of Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957). I wonder if the impulse to discuss or rehearse, if satisfied, would have been tantamount in the dream to actually watching the film, given the mainly scopic economy of this dream sequence? Was talking, in other words, another way of seeing? The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956), The Insider (Michael Mann, 2000), They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949), The Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise & Gunther von Fritsch, 1944), Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921), L’Argent (Marcel L'Herbier, 1928), The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968): night after night I experienced the familiar frisson of anticipation as in my sleep I began to see a movie I knew I was going to savor, only to discover that it was not there... (In the case of The Wrong Man, purchased on DVD in Paris in 2007, now gathering dust in a friend’s attic, the absence seemed especially poignant).

    What am I to make of the spyhole in Bonnie and Clyde which becomes the eye of Un Chien Andalou? There is a strange contiguity about these nocturnal séances which bears out the odd associations of early Buñuel, but how appropriate, how historically coincidental, how serendipitous, to have evoked the cinematically hallowed tradition of screen surrealism in one’s dreams! This seems especially pertinent given how I had fetched up in the ‘City of Light,’ arguably the birthplace of cinema, and the site of its fortuitous affair with psychoanalysis. But was I dreaming ‘about’ surrealism in the same way as I dreamt ‘about’ Bonnie and Clyde or Ace in the Hole, merely to compensate for the absence of a singular cultural inventory? Or was I dreaming something new, a burgeoning rhetoric of association and inference producing its own artful juxtapositions after midnight slunk across Paris? Might the ‘film absent,’ itself a bizarre take on the film maudit so beloved of French film culture, give rise to a new canon of ‘film rêver?’
    On my final weekend in Paris I went to the Cinémathèque Française and caught The Shop around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) and Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) in the season then playing. They were the same films I had seen again and again across the years, each scene where I expected to find it, every flourish and remark just where I had left them. If they were different it was because I was different and they were still new. Despite their similarity to those I had seen in the past, I was not disappointed, and I have never enjoyed a trip to the cinema more, and have never dreamt of a single movie since.