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The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 28, 2015

Charles Musser reminds us that Porter and McCutcheon got much of this from Winsor McCay, and from a particular Pathé film about a dream and the moon. This is important information, but not because it diminishes this amazing film’s great accomplishment. The precedents only signify that Dream of a Rarebit Fiend is not so much an innovative triumph as it is a synthetic one. But a triumph it is. What a leap forward! Porter’s previous The Great Train Robbery depended on some pretty sophisticated special effects, some of which—colour, tinting, stencils—were mostly decorative. Other effects like rear projection were more integral to the story, and contributed to the seamlessness thereof.

Either way, though, that film’s tricks were easily contained within a more or less classical economy—narrative is contrived, but the contrivances all point toward a kind or reality, or at least a distillation of or a derivation from reality. That, or we agree to suspend our disbelief and approach these concoctions with a combination of good faith and gullibility. We circulate comfortably within the created illusion, and maybe even draw something actual from it.

The effects in Dream of… are working in a completely different register, and for a completely different reason. The first shot tips its hand, as our protagonist—he can hardly be considered our hero—consumes so excessively, both in amount and in manner, as to positively spurn our identification or admiration. Nor is this any kind of directorial uncertainty—this hyperbole is intentional, and strategical.

After witnessing this gluttony and inebriation we then witness the effects thereof. More than that, we are given something of the experience or the sensation of that inebriation, and of those effects. Previously, and ever after, movie drunkenness would mostly be accomplished through performance, so that only the individual would be transformed within an otherwise undistorted, unaffected setting. We stand apart, amused, or judgmental, but always somewhat distant. Here, however, the directors and their collaborators have extended their main character’s drunkenness to their settings, to the cinematography, to the editing and especially the visual effects.

That lamppost (obelisk?) sequence, in which our correspondent seeks his bearings at the centre of the frame while multiple superimpositions spin around and fly off at the margins, is the most dramatic. It’s very funny, but it’s also very apt in the way it clearly expresses an interior, a subjective state. (It’s also very well executed.) Did this movie discover or even invent film expressionism? The interior is externalized, is given a physical form that is completely distinct from any kind of accepted or agreed upon normality, any kind of idealized Albertian perspective.

That’s the extent of the film’s strategy, but each new iteration of the protagonist’s difficulties is distinct. The drunken variations that now follow are impressive—there’s real cinematic imagination happening here—as is the escalation and accumulation of the fiend’s distressed, distorted sensations. But again, these are far more than just film tricks. From the street, he goes home, where this generic subjectivity—what is more familiar than a drunk act?—deepens into a distinctive nightmare, a personal crisis that is played for comedy, but really has some considerable psychic and even horrific implications.

That shaking bed miniature is tremendous, as is the really stunning close-up that seamlessly incorporates those hammering, pitchforking devils that stand over their victim’s pursed brow.  Then we have the famous flying bits, with panoramic NYC below and hanging on for dear life above. Again, not only is the idea apt, but the execution is completely successful, technically and conceptually. Then, finally, there’s the steeple, and the great big crash through the roof, and a return to familiar morning-after regrets, and maybe something of a temperance message. That didactic dollop can’t do much for us, though, as the elation and degradation that went before have really changed the game.

The previous Porters are interesting, advancing, full of historical significance and valuable cultural insight. But this one is like Bob Beamon in 1968. How can you explain it? Beyond measuring, how can you even describe it. All you can do is appreciate it, in amazement.