Dreams and the subconscious is a topic that has been explored by filmmakers for as long as cinema has existed. Roxanne Sancto dives into the minds of two great exponents of the subject – Richard Linklater and David Lynch – to examine how they visualise the dreamscape on the big screen.

Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman posed a very interesting question in his witty collections of essays, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. One of twenty-three hypotheticals he poses to determine whether he can be friends with a person based on their response, is this:

“At long last, somebody invents the dream VCR. This machine allows you to tape an entire evenings worth of your own dreams, which you can then watch at your leisure. However, the inventor of the dream VCR will only allow you to use this device if you agree to a strange caveat: When you watch your dreams, you must do so with your family and your closest friends in the same room. They get to watch your dreams along with you. And if you don’t agree to this, you can’t use the dream VCR. Would you still do this?”

If you’ve been having breathless nightmares or strangely erotic dreams as of late, or perhaps have been plagued by disturbing, reoccurring dreams that directly inform your deepest traumas for as long as you can remember, chances are you would give the above hypothetical some serious consideration. If your dreams were guaranteed to play out like the profoundly soothing conversations and floaty sensations of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), on the other hand, you probably wouldn’t have to give the idea a second’s thought. Why wouldn’t you let your family and closest friends in on such a philosophical study of your own dreamscape?

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Lewis Carroll and don Juan Matus, David Lynch and Richard Linklater – they have all dedicated their time and work to a subject that leaves no one indifferent: dreams. Each school of thought offers its own unique perspective on dreams, their meaning and the many lessons we can learn from their mute narratives and scattered visual sequences, making them an intriguing topic to investigate on film. While Richard Linklater’s approach to dreams in Waking Life was more akin to don Juan Matus’ philosophy in Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, David Lynch uses an entirely different lens to capture the fears and longings buried in the depths of our subconscious.

The theatrical trailer for Richard Linklater’s Walking Life

Lynch’s masterpiece of a TV series, Twin Peaks – which recently celebrated its return 25 years after the original series aired in 1990 – moves through different worlds and realities without ever really leaving its titular town. He leaves his audience cookie crumbs in the form of seemingly dream-like garble, repetitive key features and visual, sonic distortions – and not just throughout the town of Twin Peaks and its bordering Ghostwood Forest. He employs these vague visual and structural narratives in most of his work, but his use of multiple personalities that morph from sequence to sequence, the way the protagonists in your own dreams do – never quite one person but the accumulation of various architypes in your waking life – are most apparent in Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), Inland Empire (2006).

Both Linklater and Lynch like to pose difficult questions, poke at uncomfortable emotions in their explorations of dreams, though their individual methods are incomparable. Linklater is vocal and confrontational in a colourful, animated world that buzzes on a high and hopeful frequency. Lynch is mysterious and puzzling, moving through seemingly traditional landscapes in slow motion, the constant hum of an otherworldly presence or disconnect vibrating in the distance. We often come out of Lynch movies the way we would out of a particularly perplexing dream of our own. They leave us in a state of intense reflection, with a longing to sleepwalk through the day collecting each crumb until we can make up a cookie to digest properly, rationally.

Exiting the world of Lynch and entering the kind of dreamscape we genuinely recognize to be one by ways of one of the many iterations of Alice in Wonderland, will come as a pleasant relief. While we all must embrace the duality of our subconscious selves, it is always nice to return to the strange nocturnal adventures that shaped our childhood dreams – the ones that shone bright and merely scraped the surface of the dark voids we roam later on in life. Falling down the classic rabbit hole is the perfect antidote to having been spat out of the Black Lodge, and a testament to the directors who dare to share their very own dream VCRs with the world.