PART I: DREAMING WITH OUR EYES OPEN
(The Call To Adventure)
The film [Inception] is a metaphor for the way that Nolan as a director works, and what he’s ultimately saying is that the catharsis found in a dream is as real as the catharsis found in a movie is as real as the catharsis found in life. Inception is about making movies, and cinema is the shared dream…” – Devin Faraci, CHUD.com
“You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” -Morpheus
“From the perspective of your brain, dreaming and movie-watching are strangely parallel experiences. In fact, one could argue that sitting in a darkened theater is the closest one can get to REM sleep with open eyes.”
– Jonah Lehrer, The Neuroscience of Inception
Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION is a metaphor for what all good films do: They create a dream world: an alternate, fantastical reality which a subject (or audience) can enter. The audience then fills this ‘reality template’ with their subconscious projections: our hopes, longings, fears, all parlayed all in an epic quest for catharsis and rebirth.
(In fact, this struggle for resolution and catharsis—the dream of transcendence– takes place in all dimensions of subjective experience, not just movies. Even in our day-to-day existence we deal with trials and tribulations, we search for purpose and meaning, we bring our past experiences and preoccupations to every situation, we fall, we get back up, and we have profound realizations. We seem to live and unfold inside this pattern.)
‘Psychedelic’ means ‘mind-manifesting’ and beyond its usual connotation, I believe we can use the term to describe the nature of all subjective experience: whether it be by merging with a film, entering a virtual reality environment, or literally tripping on an entheogen, we always bring a bit of ourselves to any reality unfolding before us, particularly in the realm of the hyperreal. We must understand that our experience of ‘the world-out-there’ is mediated through the prism of our nervous system, and that means our preoccupations, conflicts, unresolved issues– you name it– will always manifest through to influence the unfolding plot of our subjective experience. We, essentially, are co-creators, our life is a creative project. The “reality” of every movie, videogame, geographic or psychedelic trip, is sculpted not just by what surrounds us in that moment, but by what we project, both consciously and subconsciously, from within our minds and memories. We live in a hybrid reality.
PART II: A HYBRID REALITY
(A Departure from the Ordinary)
This idea is explored further in an essay titled “Still in the Game”, by Lia M. Hotchkiss, in which she states that the film eXistenZ features a virtual reality game that is run through and powered by the players’ nervous systems, and therefore the particular gaming sessions or plots “incorporate (and hence manifest) the individual players’ preoccupations”.
In other words- the virtual world of ExistenZ is partly a blank canvas, a universe whose purpose and function unfolds through the prism of your actions, stereotypes, yearnings and fears when you’re plugged in to it—it is mind-manifesting, and just like a movie that envelopes you, or a psychedelic trip, is heavily influenced by the player’s intent and mood, or set and setting. This serves to remind us that our experience of the world is heavily shaped by the lens of our mind, our intent and our expectations, and our life’s ultimate meaning and purpose literally emerges as we play.
Furthermore, the game’s “inferred, rather than explained, rules and objectives are designed to mimic the frequent uncertainties of life itself.”— As in our waking lives, figuring out the purpose of the game ends up being the purpose of the game.
The virtual world of ExistenZ should be seen as a metaphor for ALL the realities we experience through our nervous systems. No matter the scenario, we perceive what happens to us through the prism of perspective, expectation, preconception and more, and our reality is therefore tinged through the filter of our minds.
We gravitate towards and long for catharsis in all of our meanderings: It doesn’t matter if we’re dreaming, tripping’, or engrossed in a film— what we see and experience is a composite–a hybrid–of what our senses interpret and what our minds project.
PART III: TRAVERSING THE UNIVERSAL MONOMYTH
(Challenges, Lessons, Tests)
We have seen how every journey—cinematic, virtual, psychedelic and geographical— reflects the inner journey of the self, and thus each serves to teach us something about ourselves in the larger context of the cosmos.
The interplay between the inner and outer journey offers the key to illumination: by tuning to both journeys in concert—and having them serve and reflect one another–we create the conditions for an epic self awakening. Every ‘peak experience’ involves our psyche answering the call to adventure, departing from ‘the ordinary’, dealing with and overcoming obstacles along the inner/outer quest, facing a final test, becoming ‘epiphanized’ by some great, ecstatic truth, internalizing this catharsis and then making the return… with the confidence of having become more than what we were– True cosmic heroes. Even our romantic adventures share this pattern in our epic search for rebirth, as Alan Harrington explains: “Our lovers act as ‘stand-ins’ in a staged-managed resurrection where the pilgrim without faith can die and live again.”
Understanding that the Monomyth pattern is perhaps the ultimate road-map for self-realization, we can see why cinema is the pinnacle of mankind’s artistic and philosophical achievement thus far: Film is the most complete sensory involving art form created to date and has the ability to induce feelings like no other can.
In The Neuroscience of Inception, Jonah Lehrer explains how films suspend disbelief and suck us in. He cites some studies showing how the intense ‘sensorimotor processing’ activated by a giant screen and surround sound somehow also inhibits our prefrontal cortex: When watching films, “senses are hyperactive and yet your self-awareness is strangely diminished,” says Leher—And it is this “inactivation” that allows us to lose ourselves in the movie, he explains, quoting the scientists: “Thus, the common idiom ”losing yourself in the act” receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.”
PART IV: CINEMA, THE ULTIMATE TRIP
(Catharsis, Resolution, Transcendence)
The very fact that cinema can edit and compress reality, fold time, space and distance, means that in two hours of “dream time” while watching a movie, we may experience a level of catharsis and psychic readjustment that might have required years in “Normal” reality.
Movies are perhaps the very best psychedelic trips because they are highly tuneable and controllable, no doubt assisted by an inhibited prefrontal cortex. Christopher Nolan is a master craftsman in that he can design a mind-blowing hero’s journey in every movie without the existential risk that DMT or LSD might entail. The level of precision a filmmaker has in “sculpting” the details of the unfolding cinematic experience, means he can cradle and carry our psyches along for the ride of a lifetime, leading us towards a place of ecstatic illumination. Movies offer the ultimate Inception: an epic quest for self-awareness.
So lets look closely at why cinema is the ULTIMATE TRIP:
MARK ALLAN KAPLAN wrote a magnificent article about the transpersonal power of cinema. He cites the work of Avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton on how going to the cinema is akin to a mystical experience of divine revelation, offering sacred spaces for spiritual and psychological catharsis. This is Dreamspace. Godspace.
“From this perspective, the movie theater can be seen as a sacred ceremonial space, the audience members as the participants of a religious ritual, and the motion picture screen as a holy altar.”
“The projection of the cinematic image by means of a beam of light cast through a darkened space can also be seen as an archetypal and visceral representation of the symbolic interplay between the light of divinity and the darkness of illusion that is often referred to in the sacred stories and myths of many of the world’s cultures and traditions”
He quotes James Broughton directly:
“For the moment, look at cinema as a mystery religion. Going to the movies is a group ceremony. One enters the darkened place and joins the silent congregation. Like mass, performances begin at set times. You may come and go but you must be quiet, showing proper respect and awe. Up there at the alter space a rite is about to be performed, which we are expected to participate in. Then comes the beam of light out of the shadows: the Projector, the Great Projector up there behind us! Turn out the little lights so that the big light can penetrate the darkness! Ah, behold the unreeling of the real reality of practically everything: our dreams, our idiocies and raptures, our nativity, passion and death.”. (Broughton, 1978, p. 19–20)
Broughton goes on to say that cinema does more than just reflect reality:
Cinema is “both a mirror and ever-expanding eye. It creates what it sees and destroys what it does not see…[it] is a lie which makes us see the truth”
Perhaps this is what filmmaker Werner Herzog means when he speaks of “ecstatic truth” which is so much more interesting than factual truth.
Cinema has the power “to make visible the invisible, express the inexpressible, [and] speak the unspeakable”….
Films are “willing to sacrifice a naive realism in order to achieve realism of a deeper sort, like a poet who, though less factual than a journalist in describing an event, may nevertheless reveal truths about it that find no place in the other’s literal grid,” wrote Philosopher Alain De Botton.
Through the integration of word, image and sound, the cinema produces a form of aesthetic arrest, a “synchronization of the senses”, according to Russian filmmaker and film theory pioneer Sergei Eisenstein.
In turn, this ‘sensory synchronization’ “allows the filmmaker to converse with his or her audience on higher, deeper, and subtler levels of communication by more closely replicating the multidimensional sensory stimulation of actual lived experience.”
Screenwriters write immersive worlds of experience into being and “use letters as objects of ecstatic meditation, recombining them to engender alphabetic rapture,”, wrote Erik Davis wrote in Techgnosis.
The cinematic experience renders mental landscapes into visceral form and ‘inspires’ by “opening up vistas of meaning and interpretation that further unfold the self,” he continues.
When we watch films sensations have a steeper gradient… The audience, intoxicated, is carried along in a punctuated flow of perceptions.
It is no surprise, then, that James Broughton declared that “the secret name of cinema is transformation” (p. 20).
Devin Faraci says all films are Inceptions: “Inception is such a big deal because it’s what great movies strive to do. You walk out of a great film changed, with new ideas planted in your head, with your neural networks subtly rewired by what you’ve just seen. On a meta level Inception itself does this, with audiences leaving the theater buzzing about the way it made them feel and perceive. New ideas, new thoughts, new points of view…”
PART V: THE DREAM IS REAL. REALITY IS A DREAM.
(Return of the Enlightened Self)
“Where as once I was blind, Now I can See”
Cinema is a simulated narrative, a Hero’s Journey that we experience, at first , vicariously, and then, miraculously, it breaks through the screen and spills over into the real: “The audience is able to experience the ephemeral and transformative emotions involved in the physical and spiritual struggle for glory,” wrote Kaplan.
Chud.com’s Devin Faraci Agrees, “It doesn’t matter that the movie you’re watching isn’t a real story, that it’s just highly paid people putting on a show – when a movie moves you, it truly moves you.”
WE might go even further in speculation by meditating on the fact that everything we see at all times is hallucinated, or filled-in, you might say, by algorithmic brain software, and yet this doesn’t make our lives and experiences any less ‘real’ or meaningful. We live our whole lives unfolding within an interpretative reality, as Futurist philosopher Ray Kurzweil explains:
“Although we have the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of extremely low-resolution movies that arrive in parallel channels”
In an article titled The Dream is Real, Andrew R Long goes even further, reminding us:
“Our experience of reality is not fully within our control. Our brains, eyes, and other sensory organs make editorial decisions about how we experience life, just as surely as Nolan made editorial decisions in crafting INCEPTION. This is the problem of subjective experience — that all reasoning proceeds from behind the veil of perception, and our perception is in many ways a constructed illusion: colors are a phenomenon of the eye, “impossible” optical illusions occur because of cognitive mistakes, nerve activation occurs out of sync with the conscious decision to move. The flashlight of consciousness can never illuminate itself.”
Yet realizing the ambiguous and fluid nature of our perception doesn’t dilute the significance of our journey, in fact, it serves as an exhilarating reminder of just how malleable that journey is. The degree of freedom we have to compose our lives and decide what we pay attention to, and where we lend our energies, is what Leary called ‘internal freedom’. We can become empowered by recognizing the importance of our creative and linguistic choices and how these choices literally architect our own personal matrix. MoMa curator Paola Antonelli has written about portable music players as conduits for what she calls Existenz Maximum, the ability to design soundscapes that thrust each of us into customized realities, magic carpet rides of our own construction. Fueled by our creativity, and ever greater technology, what freedom we have indeed!!
Yet this freedom can be dizzying– it can cause a sort of vertigo— “What do we do?,” asks Darwin’s Pharmacy author Rich Doyle, and then offers this answer:
“It is, as always, the challenge of the artist to decide how we want to customize reality once we know that we can.”
In Techgnosis, Erik Davis traces back our hidden longings to mold and facet reality with our magical technologies and tools. He quotes Renaissance intellectual Pico della Mirandola’s proclamation: “what a miracle is man” in announcing the revolutionary conviction that human beings were the architects of their own fate:
“Man was to be a magus, blessed with the access codes of cosmos and mind, making himself up as he went along.”
I believe we have a unique role to play here: The Immortalist author Alan Harrington implores us to “never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order that kills everyone… Having invented the gods, we can turn into them”.
Henry Miller agrees: “If men cease to believe that they will one day become gods then they will surely become worms.”
PART VI: BEYOND CINEMA: IMPROVING REALITY
(A New Call to Adventure + Departure From The Ordinary)
A recent conference at the Brighton Digital Festival celebrated the Hacking and Improving of Reality by looking at how artists and designers are shifting perceptions of place and time, “by overlaying increasingly complex and imaginative sedimentary layers onto our lived environment, through the use of augmented reality, 3D printing and other technologies”.
In “Beyond Cinema” they looked at “How filmmakers and artists are shifting our ideas about what cinema can be, adding cinematic drama to reality, and reinventing the rules by reinterpreting creative processes”…
The dreams of merging with cinema in unfathomably richer ways are around the corner. I foresee a near future where luminous filmmakers don’t simply make movies; they create habitable, interactive worlds, with cascading layers of potential psychological catharses, gradients of bliss we cannot even begin to imagine.
And so we shall continue to dream, and architect our dreams, and remain open to visions that do not come to our ‘mature’ neighbors, with their wise, nodding resignations to nothingness.
Jason Silva is a filmmaker and media personality who advocates the synergy of art and science.