Looking for a visionary and poetic film with something relevant to say about the ongoing personal tech revolution? Brilliant vintage film clips, many from experimental films, show how our desire for ‘connectivity’ reached critical mass. With brilliant editing, evocative music and a stirring narration read by Tilda Swinton. And it even has a sense of humor…
Icarus Films Home Video
2015 / B&W (and a little color) / 1:78 enhanced widescreen (variable, actually) / 85 min. / Street Date March 22, 2016 / available through Icarus Films / 29.98
Narrated by Tilda Swinton
Animation Hanna Nordholt, Fritz Steingrobe
Film Editor Oliver Neumann
Original Music Siegfried Friedrich
Written by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, Thomas Tode, Mukul Patel
Produced by Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu, Bady Minck
Directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, Thomas Tode
In writing about science fiction I’ve seen the technological advances of the 20th century organized into fantasies about militarism, the invasion of privacy, thought control. When Robert Scott Carey shrinks into microscopia, Universal’s verbal message is that ‘to God there is no zero.’ But the message received is that the fearsome science fiction future isn’t about changing the world, it’s about changing US. Writing in 1990, Wim Wenders put everything he could think of into a prediction of the tech world just ten lousy years in the future. He got a lot of things right yet was blind-sided by a game-changing revolution that hit just a couple of years later, the Internet. Combine the Internet with cell phones and we now have an entire generation born and raised in an environment where one can be completely ‘connected’ at all times. Those of us old enough to remember telegram blanks, telephone party lines and film newsreels have barely begun to realize what all this means, beyond never having to make a plan in advance or wait for any product or piece of information.
Well, I’ve just seen a single movie made about 97% from ancient film clips, which shows us that this ‘new’ phenomenon has been with us ever since the first experiments in electrical communications. Filmmakers Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, Thomas Tode and Mukul Patel have assembled Dreams Rewired, a fascinating, entertaining ‘inter-media’ documentary about our obsession with connectivity. That idea has been at the center of modern living for over a hundred years. It starts like a history of sciences, except that the gentle, poetic narration read by Tilda Swinton doesn’t directly explain things; it instead reacts with us to the genuine miracles of earlier days. Beautifully chosen old film excerpts bring out the magic of talking to someone far away, or seeing action broken down into pictures that become motion studies. The emphasis is not on the technical, but on the way we interact and intersect with these new magic devices. Our desire seems to be to conquer and surpass reality. Humans can suddenly be heard miles away. Our voices are recorded so we can hear ourselves, or be heard after we die. Movie images record a shadow of reality, perhaps forever.
Movies as a communal experience are shared dreams, a consensus experience that gives us a sense of unity… I haven’t seen or read anything that expresses that truth better than Dreams Rewired. The filmmakers use a wide range of film sources to advance their thesis but also to show that the filmmakers of 1915 were as fascinated by technology as we are now. Movies are hungry for the thrills added by a technical wrinkle. An audio recording on a wax cylinder provides the legal evidence of human trafficking, from a 1913 movie.
A montage mixes up several silent suspense melodramas in which a telephone transmits news of someone in terrible danger — Dorothy and Lillian Gish cower in fear as an evildoer hammers at the door. Alice Guy at Gaumont invents the narrative film while playing with actors and a camera; one of her film splits the screen to show the victim, the attacker, and the fellow at the other end of a phone line, all in the same frame. It’s an exact depiction of the connectivity imparted by the new technology: they’re connected in the 21st century sense.
World’s Fairs of the past are built to celebrate futurism. We see people marveling over moving sidewalks, or seeing what is essentially a human zoo, with Africans and Inuits brought in or faked for special exhibits. Films will soon make the effort unnecessary. A strange CG image accompanies talk of an idealized fairground attraction that provides an immersive experience of the kind that amusement park rides and virtual reality are trying to make commercially viable today. (We aren’t told that H.G. Wells’ time travel novel inspired a prototype for a space & time machine ride simulator… in 1896.)
Film clips predict and demand the invention of television, a word invented in fantasy before the engineers of the 1920 begin working on the problem. In their earliest ‘magic’ films Méliès and De Chomon are already ‘inventing’ television and picture phones, and the notion of a miracle connectivity is universally desirable. Children see their mother from afar. The Martian princess Aelita (large top image) observes life on Earth, looking for a suitable mate. Tilda Swinton’s amusing narration notes that Aelita’s TV teaches her about human kissing. Before TV, the movie screen presents ‘magic’ images of people on the Ganges. An amusing clip from the 1924 L’Inhumaine shows a French opera singer sending her voice out to an African woman in a straw hut. The TV device pictured is an enormous, mysterious invention.
Ms. Swinton’s voice asks us, “Does seeing the world bring it together?” Radio and TV were given the government’s blessing with the idea that a connected world would be a peaceful world, but commercial exploitation has taken over. A big result of radio and TV was to give avaricious fundamentalist preachers new media to fleece the faithful. We’re immediately reminded that the Internet promised to create a world community of idea sharing, understanding and harmony; instead we have the unfulfilled promises of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Some pundits advising a reversal of human history would like to shut down the Internet because it enables terrorists.
The film clips include plenty of rare material, much of it from little-seen documentaries and scientific films. The films of efficiency expert Lillian Gilbreth (of Cheaper by the Dozen) show film being used to study work motions. The desire for businesses to save money through motion economy turns workers into automatons performing repetitive motions, slaves to efficiency experts. German films explaining the workings of early television use sophisticated animation. Shots of the first TV inventions break down images with crude mechanical devices, giving us people that look like bizarre spectral blurs, or louvered ghost phantoms.
Clips from Man With the Movie Camera capture to perfection the concept of the world transformed by media images. We see clips of the Soviet cinema trains, the ones that are mentioned whenever film as a propaganda tool is discussed. Swinton’s narration talks about the Soviets embracing a medium that ‘leaves bourgeois history behind.’ The revolution’s aim is to ‘re-invent people.’ As it is being done through technology, cinema is itself a science fiction force that is changing us from the inside out.
The narration hasn’t many more specific political comments to make, although there should be plenty, considering how the public airwaves have been given away to private profiteers over the decades, often under the watch of our most liberal administrations. The sinking of the Titanic, we learn, enabled the watchdogs of the radio waves to set aside almost the entire spectrum for military and commercial communication, leaving little or none for private use. People today are debating the pros and cons of computerized stock trading, when the same issue arose a century ago when radio erased the time lag of stock prices communicated through telegraphy.
The 1930s take us to Germany. The mass Olympics rally designed for film and TV sees Hitler’s futurists enforcing a ‘connectivity’ that aligns an entire society in efficiency patterns that Lillian Gilbreth would have to admire. We find out that the Olympic torch relay tradition was invented for TV, by the Nazis. Dreams Rewired never adopts a dystopian mode, but it does show Bela Lugosi demonstrating a TV device from a ’30s serial thriller. We see clips from a German Harry Piel movie about a TV device that can see through walls, introducing the TV surveillance idea that is so basic to city life today. Other visions are more abstract. A radio signal of some kind is responsible for freezing time in the 1925 René Clair thriller Paris qui dort. It is a powerful expression of awesome technological fears, yet played as a light comedy. The media will eventually freeze human behavior, turning us into 24/7 consumers, our eyes peeled for the next ‘life changing’ bargain offered through TV sales.
Dreams Rewired finally brings us to a sight familiar to mainstream science fiction, the giant closed-circuit TV in H.G. Wells’ 2036 world of Things to Come. Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s Theotocopulos asks what all these inventions have done to make life better and preaches for ‘an end to progress.’ This movie shows the connections, and doesn’t pretend to have that answer. Of course life has in many ways been made far better, at least for the wealthy with access to the new technologies.
The poetic ending talks about the engines of connectivity being made progressively smaller; going from our belts to our pockets. It should remind us that the next step will be to merge the technology with our bodies, as portrayed in the still- visionary movie that advanced the notion of a cerebrum communicator. Or will we just live our lives ‘in the cloud,’ virtually? The final message? “To be is to be connected, and the network seeks out everyone.”
Dreams Rewired is different than most found-footage montage docus, in that the sum of what it shows us is more than its parts. This is the first time that the clips from Aelita don’t seem foolish; they’re integrated that well. The scientific animations and study films from the 1920 tell us that technology back then wasn’t ‘quaint,’ and that the minds conceiving these inventions were as bold as anyone creating today. These filmmakers bring out the beauty in old film by forcing us to see it with new eyes. A haunted-looking man listening to the radio? Why, it’s the Baron de Gunzburg, a familiar face from Dreyer’s Vampyr. He’s been repurposed brilliantly, as has Charlie Chaplin from Modern Times: the giant TV in his life shows that the boss can watch him in the washroom, and tell him to get back to work.
The filmmakers incorporate some unfamiliar experimental footage as well, which now looks more modern and imaginative than most contemporary abstract films. Many modern filmmakers are adept at repurposing old movie footage but rarely is it assembled with this much artfulness. Tilda Swinton’s soft voice is a winning accompaniment. All four of the collaborators contributed to the narration script, which is as expressive as the visuals. Perhaps the ideas in Dreams Rewired are already out there in the blogosphere, but this film spurs the imagination.
Icarus Films Home Video’s DVD of Dreams Rewired is a good transfer limited only by the Standard-def NTSC image. The filmmakers are surely well connected to top archival sources, for all the clips are first rate, not dupes of dupes. The only complaint is that an HD transfer would have shown more detail. A long credit scroll at the end lists all the film sources used in the show by title and filmmaker, but at this resolution the tiny print is just small enough to break up. So where’s the Blu-ray?
The excellent soundtrack gives us a mesmerizing non-melodic music score by Siegfried Friedrich, which sometimes sounds a little Danny Elfman-ish, with a theremin-like instrument poking its nose in from time to time. The narration isn’t afraid to be playful. Tilda Swinton at times comments on the characters on screen, or lip-syncs to rewarding comic effect. Dreams Rewired is forever making us smile in recognition or agreement with its little miracles and revelations, and every so often it’s just plain funny. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Booklet with essays by Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen and David Fresko
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: None, Closed Captions: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 24, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson