My love of Dreams is probably unsophisticated -- it's a very personal appreciation. I was 13 when it came out and before I saw it knew nothing about Japanese cinema and not really much about all the cinema that existed and all its possibilities. Some films I had seen previously (e.g. Satyricon, Koyaanisqatsi, Lynch, a few classic Hollywood movies) had revealed some of these possibilities but had not impacted me quite as deeply. Perhaps it was partially the time in my life and that it came along but it really made me realize how important cinema was to me and just how potent it could be. I started to explore and study the medium in many different directions and have not stopped since.zedz wrote:I for one would be fascinated to read your defence of Dreams. When it came out I found it a crushing disappointment (albeit a photogenic one) and have never been inclined to revisit it. What's your take on it?
However, it wasn't just this experience and what it led to that's important to me; it's also very much the film itself. When I've watched it since the first time the things I originally liked about it have held up. I'll try to summarise what they are.
First of all, I like that the chapters are story-driven rather than being confined by conventions of the development and arc of the characters.* Some of the characters are almost ciphers. What the viewer is left with are beautiful fables that did not seem to me to come primarily and directly from Japanese folklore or science fiction but rather whole-cloth from Kurosawa's own creativity and imagination.
There is I think an unfortunate tendency to quickly dismiss Kurosawa's three final films as the work of someone past his creative prime. One of the qualities of what they communicate to me (Dreams especially) was expressed well by Edward Said in his essay on "late style." I can't do justice to the entirety of his essay, but he wrote that "the accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality." However, he concludes that late style "has the power exactly to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them." In the case of Dreams I would say that Kurosawa was trying to make a statement about retaining hope in the face of oppressive despair. This is something that holds great significance to me for many reasons, for instance my aspiration to the Gramscian maxim that we may have pessimism of the spirit but we ought to have optimism of the will.
In Dreams, the tension between hope and despair is established in the first two chapters which (to me) communicate both the innocence and the sorrow of childhood. It is further developed in the tragic struggle of the mountain climbers to make it back to their camp but who die peacefully and serenely in this simple quest. The sixth and seventh chapters also show the world descending into apocalyptic scenarios which show profound degradation but in a hallucinatory or dreamlike fashion.
The pastoral final chapter of Dreams seems to show that from the villagers' perspective it is a simple matter to maintain a safe, just, humane society in which people flourish. From the viewer's perspective (represented in the film by the traveler) this finale poses the question of how this hope can be constructively realized: that to me is the point and the most significant challenge. Given what we've seen in the film (some of which show real creativity, beauty and goodwill) and in our lives, I don't believe there is cause for total cynicism but neither is the bright final segment a facile wiping away of really existing horror and sadness.
(*This is not to criticize Kurosawa's earlier work or generic conventions in general but to try to get at what makes this film stand out to me in the way that it does.)