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Favorite Movie Series: Ryan Hall on Dreams

Hey gang, Ben here. This week’s “Favorite Movie Series” guest poster is the one and only Ryan Hall, founder and co-editor of Tome to the Weather Machine, a fantastic indie music blog. This isn’t the first time we’ve hosted Ryan here at the Movie Advocate. Just last week he wrote in with some kickass Sundance coverage. Today, Ryan throws down about his favorite movie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.

My favorite movie of all time is Dreams by Akira Kurosawa. Now, I know what you are thinking. Isn’t Kurosawa simply a name on a mental rolodex that film school wanks use to drop whenever the conversation gravitates even slightly towards the realm of “film”. He is foreign, he makes three hour long epics based on Shakespeare, his films, while wildly popular in Japan, have been relegated to the dungeon of “art films” in America. The name Kurosawa is one used for good and evil among bachelor degreed film majors. It is often used as a club to bludgeon the tasteless and the neophyte into submission into the canon of “all time best filmmakers”. “Wait, you haven’t seeeen Hidden Fortress? Leave me this instance until you see a real fucking movie.”
At over 30 films and 57 years in the industry Kurosawa is simply too indispensable not to be taken seriously. Here is where I come into the story. Although one of Kurosawa’s last films, and certainly not one of his most important, Dreams was my first introduction into all things film. It totally and completely changed the way I viewed movies and created an insatiable appetite to have more of these experiences where the moving image spoke to something I couldn’t completely grasp but communicated something very real to me.
To set the scene I saw Dreams when I was a freshman at an intensely religious private college. I have written at length about this extremely fragile and very weird time in my life at length on my music blog tome to the weather machine. While I only attended one semester at this school I don’t think I acted out more in my life than during these few short months. With the lack of cultural interaction outside of the campus I hooked up with a slightly ostracized group of misfits and pretty much ate up anything that was deemed inappropriate by the school ethics board. I got really heavy into grindcore and watched A Clockwork Orange more times than I can recall. I have never really had much of a rebellious streak so this was pretty much the extent of it. During that time I was introduced to Dreams.

I don’t know what I found so appealing about the movie. Its messages of disenchantment with popular society, human stupidity and innovation struck a chord with me. Its Taoist message of unity with nature stoked my budding fascination with eastern religion. Its anti-authoritarian message was consistent with the anarchist thinkers and authors I was reading at the time. Pretty much, I was like any college freshman.
Dreams, like any Kurosawa film, is a calm and meditative work punctuated by moments of real terror. Dreams is a series of eight short films based off of dreams that Kurosawa had. Three of these films are nightmares and the other five are meditative ruminations on nature, Japanese cultural mythmaking and the creative process. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make the movie much easier to digest. Kurosawa overcomes some of the more convoluted messages by making the film one of the most visually stunning pieces of art I have ever seen. Everything is shot with as much light as possible and processed as some of the most vibrant Technicolor color palates I have ever seen. Nature, the film’s main character, is painted on with huge, thick strokes of acrylic to the point where the warm colors jump out of the screen bathed in a surreal brightness. The flowers in “Sunshine through the Rain” and the ominous sizzling red in “Mount Fuji in Red” could be hung up on a canvas.
The films that I connected with the least, but have subsequently come to love, are the nightmare sequences. “Mount Fuji in Red” decries man’s stupidity in manipulating nuclear power while knowing it is inherently unstable and deadly. The cataclysm in the film ends with two survivors, innocent victims duped by the government into thinking nuclear power is safe, trying to fend off the poison gasses by batting their coats at the noxious wind blowing straight at them. The film’s overtly fatalist outlook is fairly heavy handed. The film ends with absolute futility in struggling against imminent death.

On a much more positive not, the short film that does it for me every time is the movie’s last segment “Village of the Waterwheels”. I don’t think I have ever watched this segment without tearing up a little bit. A young traveler is passing through a village where he runs across an old man repairing a broken waterwheel. The young man asks questions about the primitive nature of their village. In their dialogue the old man drops some serious truth bombs, which for me as an 18 year old, rocked me to the core. He states that man’s relationship with nature is totally out of balance. The more we pollute our earth and streams, the more we pollute our hearts. The more we fill up our lives with the “convenience” of modern technology, the further we get from any labor that is actually fulfilling and worth doing. The mutually assured destruction of the cold war in which this was made is completely anathema to the principles of love and compassion consistent with most traditional religious worldviews. The more things we do to make our life easier, the more we hate ourselves. Our view of death is totally whack…Phew. I was spent.
As I watch this film 7 years later, the indictments are even more stinging. Suddenly I am back to that precocious 18 year old staring at my dorm room ceiling listening to my dorm mate (my wife) sleep peacefully as the world’s problems race through my mind.
The thing I take comfort in, however, is that Kurosawa wrote himself into this movie in just about every segment. A young man with a fisher hat (Kurosawa in his early days) stumbles upon something he does not understand. He stares in bewilderment at the conflict of science as God and a deep spirituality animating classic Japanese mythology. It isn’t until the last segment that his character seems to learn anything. The last scene is Kurosawa’s young man avatar placing a flower at the tomb of an unknown traveler who died in the town. The scene speaks to an acceptance of the cycle of nature. Birth. Death. Rebirth. It isn’t hard to imagine Kurosawa, who was reaching the end of his life, choosing to frame his most personal movie with his own symbolic death.
This movie totally opened my eyes to the fact that movies can be more than entertainment. Movies can be vehicles to explore some of life’s deeper questions and that spirituality and religion do not need to be excluded from the filmmakers dialogue with the audience. It wouldn’t be until three years later when I started my film degree at the University of Utah that I would see another Kurosawa film.
Did I mention Martin Scorsese plays Vincent Van Gogh in one of the short films. Whaaaat?
– Ryan Hall

RUSHMORE by Luke Hunter James-Erickson
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