Originally published on Van Winkle's (June 2016)
Imagine your dreams played out on the big screen as a live audience ponders your innermost fears and desires. And not your dreams of owning a pie shop or conquering Kilimanjaro, but the actual inner wanderings of your subconscious. The prospect is difficult to understand and unsettling to picture. While it may strike us as seemingly impossible for anyone to visually capture the evaporative gossamer of the subconscious, a group of filmmakers did just that to strange and stunning effect.
“Collective: Unconscious” is an anthology of five short films inspired by a colleague’s actual dreams. It premiered at SXSW and was recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I viewed it as at 10pm showing. It worked like this: Directors provided other directors with a “dream statement” — an anonymous written summary of what the mind conjured during sleep. The recipient, a fellow filmmaker, then interpreted the dream statement by expounding on themes, images and ideas and turning them into a short film.
“The rubric of having them each adapt another's dream came from this desire to make something untethered from commercial pressures,” says Producer Dan Schoenbrun who’d always wanted to do a collaborative project that dabbled in surrealism. “In the end, the goal was less to have each filmmaker depict a faithful adaptation of each dream, but to use the dreams as a prompt to explore the unconscious through a filmic lens.”
If you’re down for a linear, character driven cinematic experience, steer clear. The point of these films is not to tell a story with a satisfying narrative, but to elicit emotional reactions and confront the liminal space between dreams and reality. An introductory framework to the individual pieces entitled “All Hypnosis is Self Hypnosis” sets the mood as hypnotist Dan Ryan places each filmmaker in a trance and mind travels with them on an interior journey. In that segment we see only Ryan and the director’s face with his or her eyes closed, a prelude to the deep and strange world we are about to experience.
The films all capture the fractured structure and surreality that defines dreaming. In the first short film, “Black Soil, Green Grass,” directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone, a man works to protect himself and his grandmother from Big Brother’s ear shattering droning repetitions which endlessly bellow from a nearby tower. Spastic writhing dancers and hip hop mavens populate the second offering, “First Day Out.” Like “Black Soil” there is no spoken dialogue; instead, disembodied recordings of convicts describe their experiences with the judicial system. Silent men and women twist and shudder under chairs while others are bound in duct tape. If you’re still dreaming about high school, you’ll relate to “Beemus, It’ll End in Tears.” The action takes place in a gym where a zealous P.E. teacher exhorts his students to “Feel the Pain” as they engage in farcical drills in red and white tube socks. But just when you think it’s class dismissed, a volcano comes roaring down the outside hallway and sends you to the showers for safety. Dream-like, indeed.
The task handed by each of the filmmakers succeeds with vividness and power. I was only just a bit disappointed and surprised that sex never entered the picture, considering that it’s one of the more common themes in the dreamscape repertory.
On a personal note, I expected to be bombarded with dreams on the night I saw “collective:unconscious” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, especially considering its 10pm start time. Instead, I slept more than soundly in a dreamless void, having expiated the demons of the day while seated in dark theater. The 77 minute anthology is scheduled to start streaming soon.