Dreams of a Storytelling World

James Cameron at Starpulse.com

I did watch Avatar last Wednesday, as I had planned. And it was like a comic book adventure. But as a good book could do with me when I was young, the flick captivated me. What can I say? Thatʼs two for Cameron. I enjoyed the movie, especially the mutilayered/collaged opening sequences that so efficiently got the story going (those of you that may have been reading my own fiction posted on this blog should have noticed by now how I struggle with that initial narrative background exposition). Cameron plays us much fairer than the typical action/adventure flick that throws you into events and explosions with no knowledge of whoʼs who or whatʼs what; but he still gets to the action fast, as contemporary audiences evidently demand. I did notice that the story is pretty rough on minor characters and spearcarriers, again. His movie is pretty hokey and old-fashioned in the storytelling, but right on the cutting edge for effects, just like Titanic (and also with a strong love story) — the same concept works again.

On the other hand, the movie reminds me of a dream that holds you in its grip while it lasts, but thinking back on it, you realize that dream really didnʼt make any sense. The details donʼt add up. The individual sequences, although overpoweringly interesting in themselves, donʼt match with the others exactly, nor does the whole story actually hold together. For Cameron and Avatar, even bringing back the hammerhead creatures for the climax doesnʼt do much more for coherence than herald that the end is at hand. Ultimately, the plot doesnʼt makes sense altogether: simply lots of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” (a better summary of dreams, King Macbeth, than of life, I hope). Of course, that is the nature of dreams: they donʼt quite make sense (in details or overall).

Dashiell Hammett

I have been rereading Dashiell Hammett over recent months, mainly because of the impetus that led to the critical essay on The Maltese Falcon. (Did anyone else notice how that thing starts out being about the movie, Hustonʼs adaptation of Hammettʼs novel, but ends up being about the novel with some references to the movie? Thatʼs because I read the book again after creating the first three posts.) Rereading, I reviewed The Maltese Falcon, of course, and then headed on to The Glass Key, at which I dabbled in off moments until last week when I devoured what I hadnʼt read yet (about two-thirds or three-fourths of the story), and I found myself enjoying it the most I have yet. It is also the Hammett book that most reminds me of Raymond Chandler. As I have written on Hammett already, Iʼll just refer to what ties in to where I started — dreams. First, Ned Beaumont, the hero, seems to me very much to be a dreamlike version of Hammett himself — tall, thin, moustached (finger-biting? I donʼt know if thatʼs a Hammett behavior or not), and coughing with perhaps tuberculosis. Second, the book has formerly read to me much like a dream — sequences that seem fine in themselves not quite adding together. (However, I donʼt feel that way after this reading; I just wanted to have three dream parallels, and thatʼs the second one I could think of.) Third, dreams are an issue in the novel — both literally and as ambitions or visions for the future (or the past).

The title, The Glass Key, even comes from a dream. At the end, Beaumont is going off with the Senatorʼs daughter, Janet Henry. (That relationship is perhaps the most dreamlike aspect to the plot, as I still donʼt quite believe that connection, although it seems fine all by itself. However, as sneering as Ned has been about the upper crust citizens, the Senator and his family in particular, and as unpleasant as Janet Henry has been, spreading lies about Nedʼs friend and boss, Paul Madvig, obsessively manufacturing evidence to convict the man of a murder he did not commit, conniving with the opposition against Madvig, and basically being unscrupulous, selfish and — worst, in Hammett-world — wrongheaded, I donʼt think their relationship has much of a future in the unwritten events after the novel ends. He and Janet earlier have shared their dreams (which she romantically wishes to believe they had dreamed simultaneously, in some psychic contact with each other; they had not, naturally). Just before the climactic scene, she reveals that she had lied about the outcome of her dream: they hadnʼt in the dream gotten into the witchy house, avoiding all the hundreds of snakes, and eaten themselves full of the cake (Beaumont had  known that ending was false all along, as “all the dreams I ever had about food ended before I got a chance to do any actual eating”). Instead, the key they had found to enter the wonder house was made of glass, and they dropped it, and it shattered.

Salvador Dalíʼs Study for the Dream Sequence in Spellbound 1945 © Salvador Dalí. Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS, 2007 Oil on panel

The shattered glass key is also the symbol of the plot, which is why the last chapter is “The Shattered Key,” and we are left to determine just how happy an ending we have…

However, the dream element I want to explore comes from a matter-of-fact insertion into Janetʼs original narrative of her dream: “You helped me to climb up on the roof — it was low in this part of the dream: I donʼt remember what it was like before — and you climbed up after me and leaned down and unlocked the door, and all the snakes came slithering out.” Her unamazed, everyday dismissal of the overall coherence of dreams is exactly correct. San Francisco is actually Olivet, Michigan, and New York City. Houses change into theaters, but your dream and you dreaming donʼt notice exactly or care, and those buildings contain strangely long and winding corridors that are staircases into nights that were afternoon when you entered the building. Your partner in a dream changes from your best friend into your brother (or vice versa or in some manner both at once), but itʼs all the same in the dream somehow. Your dream is about you as a child, but somewhen during the events you became an adult, but it doesnʼt matter or reflect back on the earlier events when you were a child at all. Dreams lack all coherence, and Janet Henry, tossing away that internal logic (that storytellers often struggle mightily to maintain) about her dream, has expressed an utter truth about the nature of dream narrative without doubting it or wondering at it at all (which in itself is dreamlike).

It would be another whole essay to consider the relationship of dreams and storytelling — orally, in print or onscreen. And I donʼt have an answer about that relationship except that I suspect there is one, and it may explain our human  interest in stories. Maybe it can help explain why we dream, or at least why dreams (okay, mine anyway, as I donʼt know about yours at all, because as I have quoted before, “We live as we dream — alone”) have storylines, narratives. Do we imagine or want to believe our stories connect us as our isolate dreams do not?

And thatʼs along way from the beginning, when I thought I might write a review of Avatar. Letʼs give it three nods of approval (worthy of rental and not a waste of my time for the viewing) only, then, a continued strong thumbs-up for The Glass Key, and wonder whatʼs in the air for tomorrow.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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