‘Dreams Rewired’ Is an Early Cinema Fantasia of New Technology

Icarus Films

We are all connected, now more than ever. This sentiment is repeated so often these days that it has lost its power, a technically accurate observation of the 21st century without any real, productive meaning. It summarizes the digital age without actually explaining its specific impact, opting instead for the bold uselessness of a CNN hologram. And yet the basic point is everywhere, leading pundits across the world to credit revolutions to Twitter and revel in awe at surveillance technologies that really ought to be scrutinized instead.

Dreams Rewired is an attempt to reframe this discourse by projecting it backward, onto the history of cinema itself. Directors Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode craft a feature-length montage out of footage from old films, nearly 200 of them. There are early cartoons and silent serials, newsreels and documentaries, Soviet propaganda films and American comedies. All of it is narrated, the text written by the filmmakers and voiced by the eminently intrepid Tilda Swinton. And while these words occasionally come frustratingly close to the rote babble of 21st century cliché, there is a truly intriguing argument made in the film’s whirlwind middle section.

Dreams Rewired is a very cleverly edited film. Miniature narratives are built out of the archival material, frequently from combinations of totally unrelated footage. A young woman in one film can become romantically obsessed with the beefcake in another, for example. Swinton’s narration occasionally breaks into storytelling, voicing silent actors with her own improvisational style. Modern language is assigned to a buttoned-up blind date sequence, as if the two lonely lovers were communicating over Tindr rather than turn-of-the-century telephones.

This anachronistic mood is the key to Dreams Rewired’s real accomplishment. The goal is not to be a thorough compendium of silent film, but to use these images to make a point about intellectual modernity. Time and again the directors highlight scenes of early cinema trickery, special effects that seem charmingly obvious today. Even the soundtrack seems consciously false, like the many silent DVD releases accompanied by electronic music that so poorly imitates the sounds of a live orchestra.

What Dreams Rewired shows, then, is the way that early cinema predicted the many technological changes of the 20th and 21st centuries. The directors present early clips of then-imaginary devices, including ornate proto-televisions and various forms of home automation. The most entertaining is a scene of two well-dressed women with mobile phones, bizarre contraptions that use electric umbrellas as antennas. The implication, which becomes increasingly obvious as the film moves forward, is that the invention of cinema opened up space in the human mind. It allowed dreams of even more technologies, many of them innovations that have since arrived.

The idea that cinema itself created new ways of seeing is not a new one. It actually goes back to the origins of filmmaking, which you can read about more in Malcolm Turvey’s excellent Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. While there was no single theory on the subject, many early cineastes posited that the advent of film brought something new to both the eye and the mind. One of the biggest proponents of this was Dziga Vertov, who is of course used in Dreams Rewired. The filmmakers then take a tip from the Soviet pioneer and cruise over from communications technology to political and social philosophy.

Granted, Vertov is not a featured figure in the narration. Sergei Eisenstein is, however, along with banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn. Taken together they seem like disparate figures, a communist filmmaker and a capitalist patron of photography. Yet both sought to use cinema as an international language. Kahn was a committed pacifist who began his “Archives of the Planet” project to document and illuminate all of the cultures of the world. Dreams Rewired positions Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as an equally internationalist project, traveling the world accompanied even by a soundtrack, another cinematic breakthrough designed to further a message of political aspiration.

By the end, this discourse of cinema as a political dream runs away from the filmmakers, who end up equating its power with ideology in general. The last few minutes of the film move toward cinema’s relationship with World War Two and German fascism, mutating the film’s message back toward the frustratingly general assertion of cinema’s power.

And so, when things close with another assertion of interconnectedness, it feels as if the directors have lost their way. Yet enough intriguing images and rewarding ideas are brought up along the way that it all seems worth it. A simple conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideas before are no longer worth discussing, and Dreams Rewired is nothing if not a fascinating provocation of ideas.

Dreams Rewired is now playing at theaters in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Santa Fe, with more cities to be added in January.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.