Film and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick and Wong Kar-wai

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein,
Film and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick and Wong Kar-wai.
New York: Lexington, 2007.
ISBN-13: 978-0739121870
US$65.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Lexington publications)

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is a scholar of philosophy with a background in formalism, dream theory and cinema studies, so it makes sense that he should be attracted to the work of filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Alexandr Sokurov, Stanley Kubrick and Wong Kar-Wai. All of these directors share or did share a pronounced interest in the human unconscious and its relationship to film form, in how filmic discourse can mirror or express the internal dynamics of dreaming. With his latest publication, Film and Dreams, Botz-Bornstein presents a compilation of essays that situate these directors’ films in relation to some of the more influential aesthetic and psychoanalytic theories of the past century (especially Freudianism and Russian Formalism). Though wide ranging in his interests, Botz-Bornstein’s general argument that these filmmakers encourage us to apperceive the limitations of what might be called our “daylight-centric” ways of thinking and theorising. A dream, Botz-Bornstein suggests, is not the shadow of consciousness, but rather its twin. By cultivating an understanding of this twin’s internal logic (and not its logical distortions of the familiar other) we can better comprehend the purposes and functions of dreaming. Cinema, it appears, has an important role to play in this bridging process.

But let’s get things straight first. Although the full title of Film and Dreams lists the names of five directors, it is clear from the book’s contents page that the author is largely concerned with only two. Alexandr Sokurov receives less than four pages of attention (students of this auteur beware!), Wong Kar-wai gets less than nine and Stanley Kubrick plays second fiddle in a short chapter exploring the representational differences between Eyes Wide Shut (UK/USA 1999) and its literary source, Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. It’s Bergman and Tarkovsky that consume the bulk of Botz-Bornstein’s attentions, and were it not for a scent of duplicity in the book’s title, this imbalance is probably for the best. Bergman’s films, particularly Persona (Sweden 1968), are the subject of Botz-Bornstein’s most interesting chapter, while Tarkovsky’s films, or more accurately his aesthetic theories, are discussed in no less than four chapters. Because of the disproportionate focus of the book, my review here will concentrate only on the author’s ideas regarding Bergman and Tarkovsky.

In his chapter, ‘Ingmar Bergman and Dream after Freud’, Botz-Bornstein suggests that Bergman’s Persona(1968) can be understood as a cinematic example of an oneiric narrational mode pioneered by the playwright August Strindberg. Although Strindberg’s plays contain elements explicitly suggestive of dreaming (the title of his most famous work, A Dreamplay, establishes this relationship unequivocally) they remain intrinsically ambiguous as to the source of their dream narration. Who is the dreamer of this play? Where is the dream coming from? None of the characters involved seem to be responsible, and yet neither is there any evidence of an absent or omnipresent dreamer narrator. Confronted with this dilemma, Strindberg’s audience can give no other answer than that the play itself is dreaming. Likewise in Persona, Botz-Bornstein suggests that the film “is perceived as a dream without being a recording of Bergman’s (or anybody else’s) dream” (p. 45). “The dream looks as if it has produced itself.” (p. 46) Persona is in this sense “its own first-person narration”, a self-sustaining, filmic dream (p. 45). Botz-Bornstein speculates on the ramifications Persona’s oneiric-aesthetic reciprocation has for formalist concepts regarding authorship and the interaction of style and narration. He argues:

Persona has not been made strange by an author in order to speak the language of dreams: Personaattempts to be a dream. This means, that if Persona has not been “stylised” through the reworking process of an author, Persona itself is already style! (p. 46)

Such a definition, though bold and fraught with overstatement, is extremely pertinent to film studies in that it both utilises and, paradoxically, contradicts formalist notions of stylistic technique and narrative construction. Formalist scholars since Victor Shklovsky have consistently presented notions regarding the oneiric functions of style. But most, if not all, have framed these considerations within theoretical schemata that necessarily define such stylistic techniques as estrangement devices; that is, as diversions from a narrational norm. If, however, Persona is already a dream, already style, then the formalist notion of it being an aberration from a norm can no longer find any firm footing. We must instead, in order to appreciate the film and understand its form, confront its compositional narrative logic within the terms of its own dream construction. This implies a wholly different theoretical premise for the structural analysis of narratives than that which has been institutionalised by scholars of the formalist school.

This key idea, of narrative as dream as style, also reverberates throughout Botz-Bornstein’s wide ranging discussions of Tarkovsky’s aesthetics. Comparing Tarkovsky’s intellectual orientation to that of the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, the author astutely finds that while Tarkovsky’s obscurantist philosophical tone suggests his wholesale rejection of intellectual discourse, the filmmaker in fact conscientiously developed his aesthetic system in reference to earlier ideas put forward by arch-formalist artists like Sergei Eisenstein. For both Plotinus and Tarkovsky, however wild their views may appear, the intellect remains central. “The intellect becomes the source of wisdom,” be this wisdom mystical, spiritual, transcendental, or whatever (p. 86). This holistic union of day-time rationality (the stepping stone of formalist theory) and higher or “anti” rational capacities once again leads the author to suggest a dissolution of the formalist distinction between normal perception and “strange” devices. Tarkovsky, like Bergman, creates artistic form from the “matter” of unconscious dream images. Thus, there is no necessary reason to distinguish the narrational logic of Tarkovsky’s films from the subjective narrational logic of dreaming (or, in turn, the “normal” logic of waking perception).

Botz-Bornstein develops this mammoth ideal by further comparing Tarkovsky’s aethetics to the ideas of the more recent mystically minded philosopher Walter Benjamin. Both Tarkovsky and Benjamin situate their ideas against materialist notions of abstraction. They do this by (to put it very simply) suggesting that life is stranger and more wide-ranging than the routinised forms of perception that formalist-materialist thinkers have claimed as constituting normality. Life is a dream, it is strange, and following these routes Tarkovsky and Benjamin “suggest that we awaken not in order to enter non-reality but in order to find reality more “real” than before” (p. 98). Once again, for the field of aesthetics such a premise bears weighty implications. We are asked by philosophers and artists like Tarkovsky and Benjamin to comprehend art not in reference to our fixed conception of the real, to our rigid conceptual schemata, but rather to expand our own reality, to subsume the other’s horizons into our own field of consciousness. In doing so we not only comprehend the narration laid before us. We simultaneously grow with it, we are transformed by it, in some way or another, at every conceivable level. (Of course, without constriction, without containment, this process of opening out to art and the world is a sure way to madness, as Tarkovsky’s final film The Sacrifice (Sweden/UK/France 1986) makes clear. One thinks of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s words: “Hold on to your Ego”.)

As statements reflecting a general philosophical premise, Botz-Bornstein’s arguments regarding Tarkovsky’s “post-formalist” conceptions of art and reality shed a distinct light on the depths and relevancies of this fascinating filmmaker’s oft-belittled aesthetic theories. However, as a more substantial interrogation of how, exactly, Tarkovsky applied his ideas, Film and Dreams is a little lacking. Like many scholars more comfortable with theoretical discourse than artistic expression, Botz-Bornstein neglects Tarkovsky’s films (which are surely the primary reason for his historical significance) and instead treats the artist as a theorist of his own work. This leads to some highly dubious reversals of the horse and cart, when theory is used as evidence for an artistic discovery’s merit. For example:

Were his detailed shots that insist so much on their non-symbolical quality not supplemented by a parallel theory of time, Tarkovsky would have remained where the Formalists arrived: at a cinema of signs that are held together by the abstracting work of montage. (p. 12)

One has to wonder when reading this passage what would have happened to Botz-Bornstein’s argument had Tarkovsky not published his theory of cinematic time. (See Tarkovsky, A., Sculpting in Time, pp. 113-124) Clearly this is ad-hoc historical reasoning, running something according to these lines: Because Tarkovsky stressed the importance of time, and because he distinguished his approach from Eisenstein, and because Eisenstein is associated with formalist theory, it follows that the crucial historical improvement that Tarkovsky achieved over Formalism must be his theory of cinematic time. But how, we should ask, do Tarkovksy’s films substantiate this formal evolution? On this Botz-Bornstein remains vague, as do all who write about Tarkovsky’s time-image. Contrary to the notion that Tarkovsky discovered a new dimension of cinema previously overlooked or ignored, I would suggest that the historical significance of his films is actually grounded in their presentation of an extremely developed understanding of narrative composition.

There are at least two other serious problems with Film and Dreams, both of which could result in this book being unfairly dismissed. Firstly, Botz-Bornstein’s use of English (he is German) is frequently awkward. Many of his expressions lead the reader into a kind of mental seizure, thereby confusing her ability to grasp the salient concept. Take this sentence for example:

As a matter of fact, Sokurov’s painterly cinema is more than the simple ‘postmodern’ combination of traditional and avant-gardist devices but it introduces an entirely new use of cinematic devices. (p. 32)

If the book is granted a second edition, simple errors like this should be remedied.
The second and more serious flaw in Film and Dreams is the conspicuous lopsidedness of Botz-Bornstein’s authority. On some topics (Formalism and its critics for example) he displays a masterful degree of familiarity and understanding, not only of the concept in question but also of the concept’s historical relativity. On other topics though (like pan-Asian consumerist culture) he leaves the impression of barely a few days reflection. While this problem is not specific to Botz-Bornstein (many humanities scholars today neglect the importance of deep contemplation and instead become fascinated with those things new and exotic) the lamentable effect this has on Film and Dreams is that the author’s undercooked discussions draw attention away from the book’s stronger passages. Arguments of genuine intelligence could, I fear, go unnoticed as a result of their dull siblings.

Nevertheless, as I have tried to briefly illustrate here, Film and Dreams contains a great deal of vital argument, which for formalist and psychoanalytic scholars of film should provide a great deal of impetus for much needed discussion. If a successful bridge is to be built between these two dominant schools, if subjectivity and objectivity are to fruitfully merge, perhaps a focus on the work of those filmmakers who have developed forms on the basis of psychological realities will play an important part. Perhaps we should exert as much effort trying to understand their films as we do in attempting to understand our peers’ arguments.

Thomas Redwood,
Flinders Unversity, Australia.

Created on: Saturday, 20 September 2008

About the Author

Thomas Redwood

About the Author

Thomas Redwood

Tom Redwood is a post-graduate student at the Screen Studies department of Flinders University, South Australia. He is currently working on a detailed analysis of Andrey Tarkovsky's late films.View all posts by Thomas Redwood →