Watch IN BED: Hollywood Dreams

Words by Joe Brennan

It was 1950 when a mid-career anthropologist first referred to Los Angeles as the “Dream Factory”. Hortense Powdermaker had spent months stalking film sets, Hollywood parties and production offices before concluding that the industry plied the public with grand illusions — led by manicured stars, fabricated gossip and a ruthless group of studio heads. It didn’t make her popular with the town’s ruling class.

What was a blasphemous observation at the time is now an acknowledged truth. We’re all grateful, especially in times like this, for a welcome slice of manufactured escapism. But how has the Dream Factory gone about depicting that most universal form of fantasy — the act of dreaming itself?

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Mostly it’s by leaning into wild excess. There’s Jeff Bridges flanked by a chorus line of bowling pins in The Big Lebowski (1998), there’s a cotton candy-haired Frenchy as the “Beauty School Dropout” in Grease (1978), and Ellen Greene crooning about a suburban paradise in Little Shop of Horrors (1986). Whether it’s Jason Schwartzman solving an absurd maths equation in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) or Gene Kelly’s all-singing, all-dancing daydreams in An American in Paris (1951), these celluloid confections share a sense of impossible grandeur, their real-life protagonists always falling a little short of their aspirations.

Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 (1963)

So too have filmmakers long struggled to conjure the entirely unique visual terrain of dreaming. Between the surreal opening scene of Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 (1963) and the Escher-like indulgence of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), the challenge has spurred all manner of innovative trickery. When Alfred Hitchcock began production on his Freudian thriller Spellbound (1945), he turned to iconic eccentric Salvador Dalí to design the film’s pivotal dream sequence. A swirling mass of melting eyes, faceless men and sun-baked pyramids, it was unlike anything the filmgoing public had previously been shown.

Eraserhead (1977)

When drafting up the nightmare scenes in Vertigo (1958), the frustrated director once again enlisted an artist — this time, American Abstractionist John Ferren — to blend garish colour and hand-drawn animation to dizzying effect. It’s true that some illusions can only be rendered with paint and spackle. Take the cyberpunk hallucinations in anime classic Akira (1988), the still-terrifying pink elephants parading through the mind of Dumbo (1941), and the latex and modelling clay that crafted each imaginary face in David Lynch’s feature debut Eraserhead (1977).

Wild Strawberries (1958)

Of course, not all dreams overflow with splendiferous colour and giddy abundance. They can just as easily be cryptic and spare. Cameron Crowe spent over one million dollars to film just thirty seconds of Tom Cruise walking through an emptied Times Square in Vanilla Sky (2001). Winner of the coveted Golden Bear in 1958, Wild Strawberries saw Ingmar Bergman weave a series of lonesome daydreams through a deceptively simple tale of ageing. In 1973, the severely underrated Papillon would do the same with its infamous scene of a desperate Steve McQueen running in slow motion through his own head.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Some puzzles are less gloomy. It’s a treat to watch Gael García Bernal stumble around with a giant pair of hands in The Science of Sleep (2006), to be bewildered by the psychological thrills of Take Shelter (2011) or to somehow step inside a Van Gogh painting in Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking, and aptly named, Dreams (1990). These are the moments when imagination and reality are made to blur. Nowhere is this more immersive than in the woozy Hollywood enigma of Mulholland Drive (2001) with its dazed mysteries layered like onion skin.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Foreboding, frenzied and spiked with bizarre American optimism, it validates every possible critique that Powdermaker had ever made about the City of Angels some fifty years earlier. And yet for all its shadows, David Lynch’s dreamy masterpiece still shares a lot in common with the Technicolor fantasies of a film like The Wizard of Oz (1939). Like Rushmore, Vertigo and Vanilla Sky alike, these are stories of desire – for identity, fulfillment and human touch. And just like Dorothy Gale opening her eyes in a Kansas bedroom, they rely on the realisation that upon waking up — or switching off the TV set — you were at home all along.