“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

DREAM SEQUENCES IN THE COEN BROTHERS

Dream sequences have a long history in the cinema, stemming from at least as early as Surrealist involvement in film, although of course previous instances may be adduced. Recourse to the inner life of a film’s main character may serve an array of functions, and the techniques used—both to signal the transition to the dream-state and to express the manifest content of the dream—are multifarious. This paper will examine in detail the use of the dream sequence in Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998). Of the films discussed so far, only Fargo (1996) lacks a dream sequence. According to Coen biographer Ronald Bergan, “Because Fargo was meant to be the most realistic of [their films], a dream sequence was cut from an early draft, involving, as they insist, Marge and a Native American foetus” (Bergan 195).

Late in Blood Simple, Abby (Frances McDormand) has a dream which expresses the tangle of confusions and suspicions between the main characters. The dream also foreshadows subsequent events. Going to Marty’s (Dan Hedaya) bar, she discovers the evidence of a break-in and attempted burglary, which she assumes to be the work of her lover, Ray (John Getz), whereas the culprit is in fact Visser (M. Emmett Walsh). In perplexity she begins to sit down in Marty’s chair. The action follows through a subtle edit (and change of background) to her lying in bed, shot from above. This transition—disrupting the expected unity of action and location—is followed by shots of Abby falling asleep. The screen fades to black and then fades back into a sleeping Abby dreaming fitfully. She awakes and checks an alarm clock. This naturalistic action leads the viewer to take what they’re seeing at face value. But this is in fact the start of the dream sequence. Waking up within a dream—thus establishing the permeable line between the two states—is of course common in actual dreams; however, here it is an index of the epistemological uncertainty the Coen Brothers mine in most of their films (Barton Fink, for instance).

Going into the bathroom, Abby hears someone coming into the apartment, and the camera traces their course into the apartment (which foreshadows the final confrontation with Visser) where Abby expects to find that the intruder is Marty. In the dream, she finds just that. The broken glass on the floor as the bathroom door swings open links to both the shattered glass at the scene of the break-in and to the subsequent assassination of Ray by Visser. The opening door also creates tension, as the shadows of the darkened bedroom give way to the light from the bathroom. But the viewer must now suspect this moment of “enlightenment,” as they know (as Abby only suspects) that Marty is actually dead. The limitations of knowledge and the resultant misunderstandings and miscommunications form a major thread throughout the works of the Coen Brothers.

Marty tosses Abby’s compact to her and his line, “You left your weapon behind,” echoes Ray’s in the earlier scene when he returns her gun, which Visser has stolen and used to kill Marty, and which naturally leads Ray to suspect Abby and so volunteer to clean up her dirty work. Cryptically, Marty assures her, “He’ll kill you too” before he falls to his knees and vomits up a prodigious amount of blood. The vomit echoes an earlier scene when Marty attacked her and she broke his finger in self-defense. Thus the entire dream links the three male characters as figures of menace through associative (or foreshadowing) links of dialogue and action. These interpenetrations also foreshadow the fact that Abby will stand as the “final girl,” the only character to survive the slaughter.

Raising Arizona explores a more complex use of dream imagery and symbolism, incorporating Biblical allusions and the supposed prophetic power of dreams (an idea referenced, and parodied, in Barton Fink, in its use of the Nebuchadnezzar story). The first reference to dreams and dreaming occurs as H.I. (Nicolas Cage) lies in a prison bunk, ruminating, “Yeah, the joint’s a lonely place after lockup and lights out, when the last of the cons has been swept away by the Sand Man.” Over the mesh of the upper bunk, H.I. sees a vision of Ed (Holly Hunter) and her camera, before turning in. The flash of the bulb serves as transition to the next scene. It might even be possible to read the rest of its film as an extended dream of escape, a reading the film’s conclusion (with its own evocation of dream and vision) does little to undermine. At any rate, the notion of dream as compensatory wish-fulfillment, responding to the perception of lack (or desire) on the part of the dreamer, runs throughout the film.

In a subsequent scene, H.I. lays asleep next to Ed. The overhead shot shows them at opposite sides of the bed, a third pillow and blank space between them, intimations of the child they lack and have recently supplied through theft. A dog howls and a clock ticks audibly on the soundtrack, lending a tinge of menace and tension to what might otherwise suggest calm and rest. As H.I. in voiceover describes the dream, the scene cuts between the dream’s enactment and an increasingly restless H.I. in bed:

“That night I had a dream. I drifted off thinking about happiness, birth and new life. But now I was haunted by a vision of…[rather than name him yet, the mise-en-scène shows the Lone Biker erupting from a wall of flame]. He was horrible. The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. A man with all the powers of hell at his command. He could turn the day into night and laid to waste everything in his path. He was especially hard on the little things, the helpless and the gentle creatures. He left a scorched earth in his wake, befouling even the sweet desert breeze that whipped across his brow. I didn’t know where he came from or why. I didn’t know if he was dream or vision. But I feared that I myself had unleashed him. For he was the fury that would be, as soon as Florence Arizona found her little Nathan gone.”

There are several elements worth noting: 1) The confusion between “dream or vision” denotes an ontological confusion, a difficulty establishing a firm boundary between binary oppositions: real/unreal, truth/fiction, objective/subjective, etc. As we have seen, “dream” indicates compensation, while “vision” suggests foresight. In dream, desire blurs the line between having and not having, while in clairvoyance the future bleeds into the present. 2) Given the desert setting, the language of Apocalypse, scorching the earth and turning day into night, betrays a fear of nuclear destruction and bolsters other dialogue in the film suspicious of politicians and political solutions. The terror of nuclear annihilation hangs over the nuclear family. 3) The fact that H.I. knows he has unleashed the Lone Biker establishes them as doubles, the Biker as a “monster from the Id” (to borrow a phrase from Forbidden Planet). The Biker is also linked to the maternal, motherly fury and destruction, as H.I. ponders birth and new life. His “seed” can find no purchase and so he dreams up a tale of surrogate families.

The final instance of dream imagery begins similarly. The voiceover intones, “That night I had a dream” as the camera zooms in from overhead. However, at this point the soundtrack conveys folksy hopefulness. H.I. dreams poetic justice for his characters and then, casting far into the future, he dreams a possible scenario for Ed and him. This Norman Rockwell-like homecoming causes doubt and trepidation in H.I: “You tell me, this whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality, as I know I’m liable to do?” The final shot shows H.I. waking up as he delivers the monologue’s punch line: “Maybe it was Utah.” Of course, aside from its humor, the last line references the Mormon “Promised Land,” in keeping with the film’s Biblical references and imagery, as well as suggesting one possibility for such a “happy ending”: some kind of polygamous situation which might circumvent the McDonough’s marital dysfunction. (On a side note, this ending seems to presage the conclusion to No Country, where a character finishes up a recitation of his dream life with the ambiguous line, “And then I woke up.”)

In Miller’s Crossing, dream analysis supersedes the elaboration of manifest dream content. The dream image—unknown as such at the time—occurs under the title credits: a hat blows through an autumnal wood, coming to rest as the film’s title appears. The hat—and the woods—signal the crossroads of the film’s title, a locus for murder and deceit. The film makes nothing more of this until a post-coital conversation between Tom (Gabriel Byrne) and Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Verna wakes to find Tom sitting pensively on the edge of the bed:

Verna: “What are you chewing over?”

Tom: “Dream I had once. I was walking in the woods. I don’t know why. Wind came whipping. Blew me hat off.”

Verna: “And you chased it, right? You ran and ran. You finally caught up to it. And you picked it up, but it wasn’t a hat anymore. It had changed into something else, something wonderful.”

Tom: “Nah, it stayed a hat. And no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.”

Like Blood Simple, the film uses this dream and its earlier image as foreshadowing: the scene where Eddie Dane (J. E. Freeman) takes Tom to Miller’s Crossing to look for Bernie Birnbaum’s (John Turturro) body. The Dane says, “If we don’t find one, we leave a fresh one.” The idea of exchange—symbolized by the Crossing itself—continues when the body they find turns out not to be Bernie’s but Mink’s. Thinking there won’t be any body there at all—confronting, that is, the likelihood of his own death—Tom collapses and vomits. Eddie Dane takes Tom’s hat off and tosses it into the woods, preparatory to “putting one in his head”. Thus what is seen early in the film (the effect) only finds its cause later in the film: the dream abrogates linear causality.

Tom’s dismissive response to his dream—a counterpoint to feminine folly, at first—might stand eventually as epitaph: His actions are foolish, pointless, meaningless. By the end of the film, he gains nothing and loses everything from his gamesmanship. It also suggests that consciously he doesn’t know—or won’t admit—why he does what he does (a repressed homoerotic fixation on Leo, bolstered by the film’s final shot of Tom staring wistfully at Leo as he departs with Verna). Verna’s reading of the dream suggests something different. Clearly, she assumes that the hat turning into “something wonderful” refers to her; that is, Tom will gain by action and pursuit what she insinuates can be his: her. Her narcissistic reading of Tom’s dream is reinforced by the many occasions when Verna is shown looking at herself in the mirror: an expression of feminine vanity (at least in the eyes of the protagonist) that links her to Abby in Blood Simple.

Having written about Barton Fink in my previous paper, I would only like to add some comments that weren’t addressed earlier. The film continues and consummates the “ontological insecurity” of previous Coen Brothers films. There is no way of deciding—from start to finish—what is real and what is dream, if indeed any of it can be said to be “real”. That is, the film exemplifies the concept that critic Bruce Kawin termed “mindscreen”: a movie “narrated in first person through a consciousness that originates either on screen or off” (Mindscreen back cover). By its nature, the mindscreen obfuscates whether the organizing consciousness being depicted resides “within” the screen (character) or “behind” the screen (writer/director) and allows for a kind of collective dreaming. This designation seems equally appropriate to Raising Arizona and, later in their career, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). Rather than functioning as a merely unreliable narrator, mindscreen is a space where multiple perspectives and possibilities collide and interpenetrate, and where it becomes the viewer’s task to participate in the narrative by ordering, reordering or resolving it.

In keeping with previous cinematic adaptations of pulp detective novels (particularly relevant is Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944)), The Big Lebowski employs dream sequences on two occasions when its protagonist, the Dude (Jeff Bridges), is rendered unconscious. Thus, on a superficial level, the employment of these sequences might seem the most “ordinary” of any in a Coen film. But such is not the case.

What sets them apart is, firstly, cinematic technique. The first dream sequence combines visual and audio cues into its warp and woof: Lying on a surrogate rug for the one that “tied the whole room together,” the Dude listens to the sounds of bowling. However, the B side of his tape (clearly visible) reads only “Bob”. The Dylan song that underlies the dream sequence (“The Man in Me”)—and which serves earlier as a theme for the Dude—has its own naturalistic provenance: it is subtly prepared for by the film’s framing. Upon being clobbered by one of Maud’s (Julianne Moore) henchmen, the punch registers as fireworks (a conventional symbol) which, in turn, scatter to form the LA skyline at night. This transitional effect turns the familiar into the unfamiliar (one of the hallmarks of modernist art in general). In a parody of Superman, the Dude flies along like a superhero, in pursuit of Maud on her flying carpet (perhaps a nod to the Douglas Fairbanks film The Thief of Baghdad (1924)). Thus, a certain density of pop cultural reference further “defamiliarizes” this dream sequence.

Now weighted by his bowling ball, the Dude plummets to earth. Night turns into a bowling ball return chute. The Dude gets run over, entering into the ball, and we get a POV shot as it rolls down the alley. Maud stands at the foul line. Pins plunge into darkness and a lone red light becomes the Dude’s pager. Concluding with the ironic lyric “Oh, what a wonderful feeling!” the Dylan song shifts from soundtrack to diegetic use, as we see the Dude returning to consciousness. All along, the dream registers metamorphosis: things are not what they appear and freely become what they are not. Maud (unknown to the Dude at this point) stands as harbinger of things to come. Here again, we see dream as portent and foreshadowing.

The second—and more elaborate—dream sequence occurs after the Dude has been drugged into unconsciousness by Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). Significantly, this happens right after a discussion of the Dude’s rug: the rug ties the narrative together as well. The Dude’s predicament parallels Philip Marlowe’s encounter with Dr. Sonderborg in the Dmytryk film. In fact, the Stranger’s (Sam Elliott) narration parodies the earlier film’s: “Darkness warshed over the Dude. Darker’n a black steer’s tuchis on a moonless prairie night. There was no bottom.” The incongruity of Yiddish slang being used in the midst of the Stranger’s cracker barrel delivery only adds to the defamiliarization.

Whereas in the Dmytryk film we get an overtly Freudian dream laden with water symbolism, the Dude’s dream takes the form of media parody, linked to the adult video (Logjammin’) that Maud Lebowski shows him. Granted, the Dude is prone to parrot lines of dialogue he picks up from others (George Bush’s “line in the sand” and “unchecked aggression” get tossed around between several characters), but are we to believe his drugged dreams parody porno so perspicaciously?

At any rate, the dream testifies to the influence of media on modern society, akin to Fargo’s ubiquitous use of (and mockery of) television. Art in decline—Jackie Treehorn ironically laments the effect of video on porn aesthetics—leads to parody. The opening credits appear over bowling balls and pins, an overtly sexualized balls-and-pin configuration. The title Gutterballs serves as a double entendre: the meaning is sexual as well as connoting failure (throwing a gutter ball). The first half of the dream deals with prowess: the little man casting a giant shadow, the infinite possibilities of the sky-high shoe rack, the stairway to heaven (lifted, perhaps, from Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946)), the Busby Berkeley girls with their nine-pin headdresses (a parody of Carmen Miranda). The Dude wears Karl Hungus’ (Peter Stormare) cable repairman outfit from the earlier porn video. The figure of Saddam as shoe supplier points both to the mediated nature of the dream and to the underlying element of aggression working itself out via the Dude’s dream.

Now Maud enters dressed like Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle, complete with horned helmet and bowling ball breastplate (a hilarious detail). She represents fierce femininity, the “strongly vaginal” as expressed in her artwork. In his dream, the Dude takes the upper hand and shows her how to bowl, their back-and-forth rhythms suggestive of intercourse—“the old in-out” from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), often referenced in Coen films. Holding the ball aloft not only parodies Jesus’ gesture earlier in the film, it also suggests the Dude as an Atlas figure, another exaggeration of his potency.

But the Dude is no match for the strongly vaginal Maud and becomes the ball floating down the alley between the Busby girls’ legs (another example of metamorphosis). Spinning around, he gets a sight of the “promised land” between their legs, which prompts a glazed leer. Voyeuristically, he functions fine. It’s in the performative area where his problems lie. Scattering pins mark the transition to the dream’s darker second half: the buoyant, psychedelic song (“(Just Dropped In) To See What Condition My Condition Was In”) gives way to distorted, wailing feedback. Red-suit-clad nihilists wielding oversized scissors (the members of Autobahn as pictured on their album cover, Nagelbett, or “bed of nails,” further linking sexual pleasure and mutilation) chase the Dude. The threat of castration is manifest and links the Dude’s fears to paintings of scissors seen in Maud’s studio. Even here, the primary components of the dream are media references. The Dude’s fear and desire—like the emotional life of society in general—is always mediated, at second- or third-hand.

The sequence segues into reality as the Dude runs from the nihilists—at first seen against a black backdrop, the background fills in to reveal the Dude running along a highway. As in the first sequence, the dream bleeds back into reality using a variety of the dissolve as a transitional device. “Dream is a second life…Here began for me what I shall call the overflow of the dream into real life,” wrote Gerard de Nerval in Aurelia (1855). Anticipating depth psychology, these statements could serve as a manifesto of sorts for the Coen Brothers’ use of dream imagery, as well as the relation between dream and what we consensually call reality. Their persist use of dream sequences also clearly allies them on some level with the Surrealist movement, as does their eschewal of the pretentious “art film” in favor of popular forms of entertainment, where the contestation with authority (state, church and family) occurs as a subtextual Trojan horse, below the level of conscious, deliberate realization—for the creators perhaps as much as for the audience.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

  1. Randy Woodall says:

    The sequence where the nihilists are chasing the Dude with giant scissors reminded me of the dream sequence in Spellbound, which was a collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Salvador Dali.The Coen brothers are certainly familiar with the film, and may have referenced it again in O Brother, Where Art Thou.

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