DIRECTED BY: Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein
FEATURING: Will Blomker, Ryan Cassata, Frank Mosley, Tonya Pinkins
PLOT: In this experimental compilation, five filmmakers adapt each other’s dreams into short films.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As both a film depicting dreams and as a formal experiment, the project presents a pressing case for inclusion on the list of the weirdest films ever made. There are a number of arresting images within this film and some truly bizarre moments.
COMMENTS: Dreams have always proved a tantalizing subject for filmmakers. Arriving from the unfettered unconscious mind with surreal imagery and associations to codify our thoughts, feelings and memories, dreams have forever enticed filmmakers to realize these bewildering experiences on screen. However, translating this phenomenon presents a number of challenges. One is budgetary, because of the opulent settings and fantastical creatures that can be found in a dream. Another is sensory: despite film’s ability to engross us it remains an outside object, never as immersive as the internal, subjective experience of dreaming.
Successful translators of the experience, such as David Lynch, recognize the limitations of film immersion and focus on pacing and juxtaposition of image and sound to recreate the atmosphere and “feel” of dreams. Surrealism as an artistic movement is deeply tied to the unconscious and dreams, so it is hardly surprising that one other successful interpreter is Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who overcame budgetary restraints through jarring combinations of everyday objects and people in unconventional ways.
Film compilations also come with their own separate challenges. Unless there is a strong through line each segment will have a different tone and pace, and invariably some episodes will be more satisfying than others. Throw in some deeply personal dreams as subject matter and you could have a hotchpotch of cinema that doesn’t gel together as a whole. Despite the technical sophistication and invention of each filmmaker—none of whom are familiar to me, so I can’t comment on the clash/serendipitous mix of subject and filmmaking styles within—I’m afraid this is the case here.
The film opens with its linking device, a man addressing the camera and attempting to hypnotize us, luring us to sleep and imploring us to lower our resistance, as dream logic demands. It is an effective device to prep us for the experience, if, like most wraparounds, narratively weak on its own. There follows some pretty if perfunctory animation from Maya Edelman before the film begins proper with arguably its most successful segment, “Black Soil, Green Grass,” directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone from a dream by Lauren Wolkstein. Combining Lynch and Buñuel’s techniques, it successfully creates a surreal, dream-like atmosphere through unusual juxtapositions of the everyday: a watchtower that inexplicably pipes a recording of a man counting sheep through loudspeakers, a man encircled by amps playing an arresting East-European lullaby. It is also the only film that contains genuine intrigue and tension, drawing the viewer into the mystery. (I will confess that my tastes as a filmmaker and critic lean towards narrative material rather than pure formal experiments).
Josephine Decker’s “First Day Out,” from Lily Baldwin’s dream, is such a formal experiment, combining the narration of former African-American inmates with spasmodic dancing and cardboard car immolation in various settings. As a series of steadicam shots and arrangements of dancers within the frame, it interests without ever really engaging, physicalizing the struggles of former inmates to receive acceptance from society.
“Beemus, It’ll End in Tears,” Wolkstein’s film of a dream by Frances Bodomo, is the second most successful entry, combining the tropes of a high school drama with unsettling undercurrents of teacher-endorsed masochism and apocalyptic survival. It is also the most demonstrably “funny” segment, with an over the top performance from Will Blomker as gym instructor Beemus. Transgender musician Ryan Cassata features as the student towards whom Beemus directs the majority of his ire.
As a dark comedy, Bodomo’s “Everybody Dies!,” based on a dream by Decker, is highly effective and disturbing, depicting a twisted game show where an African-American Grim Reaper teaches African-American children the realities of death. It provides the only confluence of subject matter across the films, highlighting the divisions between white and black culture that were touched on in “First Day Out.” The Grim Reaper even shepherds some Caucasian children who wander onto the set away from the black children, noting a mistake has been made and that “cookies” await the white children. The flimsy set and degraded, VHS aesthetic suit the nature of the film, but this ugliness ultimately turns us away compared to the slick look of the other segments.
The least successful entry is the concluding chapter, dancer Baldwin’s take on Carbone’s dream, “Swallowed.” Its mistake is treading the all-too-familiar horror territory of films like Rosemary’s Baby, without ever delivering any real horror. While we do get two scenes of CGI manipulation, for the most part the film relies on Baldwin’s bodily contortions to sell the idea of her being taken over by a demonic force. Sadly, despite an excellent sound design, these movements are prosaic and become quickly boring, especially when compared to the apoplectic throes of Isabelle Adjani in Possession.
Collective:Unconscious is a welcome entry in the genre of bringing dreams to life, very often succeeding in translating the dream experience, but is ultimately let down by a lack of coherence in style and subject across its short films.
Download the “deluxe” package free with BitTorrent (fully authorized by the creators)
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Shot in different formats and aspect ratios, the result offers enough tonal and aesthetic flavors that sheer variety elevates those sections that might seem too twee or obvious if viewed in a different context. Commercial prospects are iffy, but this serving of surreal cinematic appetizers is perfect fest fare, and will burnish the directors’ developing resumes.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)
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Here’s another take (and my second attempt at reviewing in English):