2016-06-30
Movies are the dreams of our culture. Both dreams and movies unspool vivid images into our brains while we restore ourselves in the dark. Both play with time, telling their stories in flashbacks, flash-forwards, dissolves, quick cuts, fade-ins and fade-outs. Both emerge out of the dark and entrance us, engrossing us completely in other times and other worlds. As in dreams, in movies we live vicariously.

"Talking about dreams is like talking about movies," said master filmmaker Federico Fellini, "The cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It's a language made of images. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream."

Fellini was so taken with the fundamental similarities between the mechanics of dreams and films that, after studying the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung's essay "On Synchronicity," he met regularly with Rome's most distinguished Jungian analyst, Dr. Ernest Bernhard, and kept a meticulous dream journal that had a great influence on his films.

Jung was no less taken with movies. "The cinema," he wrote, "makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion and desirousness which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life."

Below the surface of our awareness, Jung taught, lies an accumulation of attitudes, beliefs, values, mindsets, and accepted "wisdom" that is common to everyone in our society, and our world. Jung pictured all of this human experience draining into what he called the Collective Unconscious, just as a continent's streams and rivers drain into a great body of water. Out of the Collective Unconscious arise archetypes-characters that typify humanity and scenarios that summarize the history of our species.

As a summer of action movies and comedies winds down, we moviegoers can feel as if we are bobbing on a great lake of images and sounds, formula plots and swoony leading men and ladies. They are our archetypes.

The kinship between films and dream studies is partly a matter of history. Freud published his "Interpretation of Dreams," the first clinical examination of the subject, just four years after the Lumiere Brothers' first public exhibition of movies in Paris in 1896. By the time Jung's "On the Psychology of the Unconscious" appeared a decade later, D.W. Griffith's landmark "The Birth of a Nation" had already created the blockbuster, propelling movies to their central place in popular culture. It's little wonder these cradle mates share ideas and even terminology. Jung spoke about amplification, the shadow, projection, and the persona. Hollywood was nicknamed "the dream factory."

But the connection is more than chronological. Movies allow us to examine our culture the way a psychoanalyst uses dreams as a key to personality. Showing at the multiplex is what we really believe about the grand metaphysical issues that animate our material and spiritual lives--life, death, the afterlife, our human destiny, and God.

We need not look to deeply metaphysical films to tap into our dreamlife; quite the opposite. Since we're seeking a collective unconscious, blockbusters yield the purest information, since movies that make the most money are the ones that connect with something deep down. The huge moneymakers represent our common denominator, and therefore say the most about what is hanging out -- and hiding out -- in the human psyche.

We also need to suspend our critical facultiies. The usual thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach doesn't help us here. Art has little or nothing to do with a movie's usefulness as a shared cultural dream. Popularity, market saturation, merchandizing opportunities, and box office stats are everything.

For instance, let's examine the top-grossing movie of all time: Titanic, which has earned $1.8 billion since its release in 1997 (so far). Set at the end of empire and economic expansion, the popularity of "Titanic" signals our fear that our present age is passing, threatened by external forces and by shifts deep inside us.. In "Independence Day," still 19th on the all-time money list after eight years, the old order was threatened by aliens from outer space. The next year, "Armageddon" (No. 55) showed earth earmarked for annihilation by an asteroid.

Alien invasion is even at the heart of "Titanic." Remember the moment in when the sharp point of the iceberg pierces the hull of the 'indestructible'ocean liner? Think of that image juxtaposed with the now iconic video pictures of planes puncturing the walls of the World Trade Center. It was as if the movie had dreamed this defining event of our time, predicting it four years before it happened.

More recently, the agent of change has become a natural event, albeit one we are helping to bring on ourselves, as this year's "The Day After Tomorrow." Whatever births our new eposch, we seem to be convinced that, whatever is bringing it on, the coming of the new age will be accompanied by bloodshed and large-scale destruction.

Some will not make it. For those who do, life will be different-more compassionate, perhaps, more gentle, less materialistic, more spiritual. At the end of "The Day After Tomorrow," Americans who have managed to survive the destruction in the northern two-thirds of the country end up in Mexico, "grateful for the hospitality," in the words of a repentant and humbled president, 'of what we once arrogantly called "the Third World."'

Our bodies are going to require alteration in the new age. We feel the need to mutate, take on powers we don't yet possess. In "X-Men"-a surprise hit in 2001, now outgrossed by its sequel in 2003, and the two "Spider-Man" movies, mutating humans use their powers tohelp and heal. These plots ease, perhaps, our anxiety about cloning, cryobiology, in vitro fertilization, and other advances that fall under the heading of 'extropy'--the belief that we are driven by an insatiable passion for improvement.

As we transform, we appear like the centaurs, mermaids, satyrs, and other creatures of mythology, half-animal and half-human. Our spiritual nature is emerging from our animal selves, like Cat-Woman, and Batman.

Many of these characters are decades-old comic-book heroes. What's shifting is our awareness that our new powers are not novelties or toys. In a sobering moment, Spider-Man, for whom Manhattan is a big playground, is instructed about the uses of power. Spidey's uncle counsels him (and us), 'With great power comes great responsibility."

Our movies also betray our conviction that the world (like the movies) depends on our going along with an assumed idea of reality, as in "The Matrix" and its sequel. Time in this man-made world is exceedingly slippery. Dinosaurs can revive ("Jurassic Park"), we can move freely from past to future ("Back to the Future"), or a day can repeat itself over and over again ("Groundhog Day").

In such a universe, we live in the past, present and future all at once. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the settings are pastoral, medieval, but the sensibility is futuristic. The Star Wars films take place "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." but that "past" boasts advanced technology and easy intergalactic exchanges. Space also may be an illusion. Harry Potter walks through a train station wall just as Men in Black dash in and out of dimensions. In "The Truman Show," a man discovers his world is completely simulated, defined by a scrim at the outer edges of a television studio.

If the past is not even the past, nor are the dead dead. Compare the "undead" in "Night of the Living Dead" with the ghosts in "The Sixth Sense." Far from fearing them, we are charged with helping them in their process of transformation.

Or perhaps it is ourselves who, we dream, will be shown a way through. Not technically a blockbuster, Stephen Spielberg's "The Terminal" sports a blockbuster director and star. In the movie, Tom Hanks plays a man cannot leave a New York City airport, because a war causes his native country to collapse, rendering his passport invalid. The Terminal may be today's central, most insightful dream. We are between worlds. The old world (the Eastern European main character is literally from what we used to call the Old World) has passed away -- but the new world has not appeared yet. Far from despairing over the situation, we should be patient, Spielberg counsels, and try to make the best of it. Paradigms don't shift overnight.

What about God? We think of God as someone of something 'up there' or 'out there' to be feared: for some time, our major moneymakers have portrayed God the Father as professional avenger. This year's second highest grosser, "The Passion of the Christ," redoubles the suggestion that extreme suffering is necessary for salvation.

That dream image of the Divine is shifting, if subtly, fromGod as a Judging Destroyer to God as a Loving Parent. Just four spots down the all-time list from "The Passion" is "Finding Nemo." Set in an ocean--Jung's symbol for the unconscious-"Nemo" portrays a clown fish who searches for his son across the seas. It may look like a simple children's story, but in dream terms, it is a parable of, well, Biblical proportions, telling of the abiding love of the Creator for the creation.

The next time you are sitting in a theater watching a big, popular film, ask yourself what it is communicating about the large issues of life. You may be surprised to find that the cinematic dreams unfolding in the darkness hold the key to understanding who you, and the rest of us, truly are and where we appear to be going.

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