May 26, 2015

SIFF 2015: Classic Films and Technology in Dreams Rewired (2015)

Every age thinks it's the modern age.

I was drawn to the Austrian essay film Dreams Rewired because I'd heard that it had over 200 archival clips, some of them from classic films. I was curious to see how this material would be used to explore the phenomenon of consumer reactions to new innovations. It didn't hurt that actress Tilda Swinton was narrator.

Co-directed by Martin Reinhart Thomas Tode and Manu Luksch, I found the film an interesting, if not terribly illuminating exploration of anxiety about technology over the past 100 years. Director Martin Reinhart made an appearance at the SIFF presentation of the film this past Saturday and shared some of his thoughts about the film and technology.

Twelve years in the making, Dreams explores the technology that caused delight and debate in past generations the way social media and smart phones do today. With clips showing everything from early television and switchboards to an extremely early version of the portable phone that uses a wired umbrella to get a signal, the film is worth the watch for the archival material alone. You get a sense of not only how far we've come, but how in many ways we are continually reacting in the same way to technical innovation.

The film concentrates on various forms of communication, from the ever-evolving telephone to early recording devices, television and film. Pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché is credited for the role she played in bringing storytelling to the medium, while Georges Méliès gets his due for investing movies with magic.

Dreams tries to imagine the way audiences felt when they saw these new innovations, even artfully restaging the how the crowd reportedly screamed and ran away when the Lumière Brothers first screened their film of a train racing toward the camera. You do get an idea of how magical these new tools must have seemed in the early days, when even the concept of technology was foreign.

The common use for new inventions was not always clear from the beginning. Film was originally used most frequently for the study of motion, by racehorse owners and doctors. Before it was considered a medium for entertaining and informing the public, television was meant to be used for surveillance.

In the end, all of this information is fascinating, but I didn't come away with a clear point of view from the film. As interesting as it was, it felt a bit like an essay with an underdeveloped thesis. Yes new technology has always caused anxiety, and will continue to do so. Is this something that must be addressed? Or is it simply a necessary growing pain to endure in the face of progress?

While I found Swinton to be a pleasant narrator, always with a bit of edge and a twinkle of humor in her delivery, I sometimes found the script to be excessively jokey. I think this is mostly because I'm a bit sensitive about modern actors adding their own voices to silent film clips, which she does in a few instances. Maybe it's all in good fun, but it always seems disrespectful to me.
A SIFF programmer and co-director Martin Reinhart

Co-director Martin Reinhart spoke to the audience and answered a couple of questions after the screening. When asked if there was a master list of all the clips used in the film available, he told the crowd that this most impressive document was available on the film's website.

Reinhart was also asked if he felt society was better off with the technology at our disposal. At first, he shrugged his shoulders--and I thought that perhaps that also reflected the overall view of the film. He then shared that he felt that that kind of progress was "two fold…it makes you almighty and you are helpless." Ultimately, he said "we have to take our own responsibility to shape the world we live in." 

Maybe that's not the most novel sentiment, and it is perhaps that same point of view that makes Dreams Rewired feel slightly underdeveloped, but it's still a fascinating ride. I'd love to watch the film again, just to get another look at those amazing clips.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

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