Dreams Rewired isn't in the business of recovery or even analysis. Instead, it gestures, it implies, it signifies.
"Not only can we see over distance, but we can see through everything!" Two scientists sit beside a glorious science fictiony gizmo, illuminated by a giant light bulb and crisscrossed with wires. The men, characters in a German sci-fi film, have devised this machine to look through walls, into homes and offices. Strikingly, they mark this moment of revelation by turning away from their lens and toward one another.
From here, the remarkable essay film Dreams Rewired cuts to a nest step, from this to circa '30s live action image to animation, also in German, as men observe women, at work in the kitchen, engaged in rudimentary calisthenics, and heading into the shower. Here narrator Tilda Swinton offers a context, connecting the moment to those preceding and also to come in the film: "Husbands watch their wives, police watch their suspects, bosses watch their workers, and the corporations watch everyone."
Right, you nod. This is a story you know. If Dreams Rewired doesn’t surprise, it does provide its own poetic gloss on that story, with Swinton's voice at once soothing and thrilling, sounding over a complex, mesmerizing, nearly symphonic assembly of found footage that is both perfectly familiar and strange.
"Our time is a time of total connection," pronounces Swinton, "The future is transparent." So too, the past.
The movie, directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode and currently opening in theaters across the US, goes on to trace a history of technology. Advertised to help humans, it also, inevitably, creates new problems; for example, making communications faster but also more invasive, making travel speedier and more dangerous. Recalling the wonders of electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, television, computers, and all manner of recording devices, the film illustrates with images from fiction and documentary -- and the marketplace. Movies include the Lumiere brothers' "A Train Approaching the Station", Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, the usual suspects but still, brilliant exhibitions of magic. "In time and motion," Swinton says, "Stories are born. The military is the first client."
Ah yes, the military, the Internet, the use of magic to conquer. Technologies of movement and destruction become the means to share and steal and also to hide information. Edison invents the phonograph and then he invents the motion picture camera, and so you can see him now, demonstrating both at once. Past and present collapse onto one another, ideas turn fluid and infectious, consequences wreak havoc. Movies reveal and haunt, expose and reform. "Here's the living proof, the speaker immortalized," asserts Swinton. "Like ghosts, the traces rise to haunt us, now they mimic our words."
Who, you might wonder, is "us"? All the emotional rush and political tumble of "tele-vision" -- ways of seeing that change the world, those who are transformed, whether by production, exposure or consumption -- can be lost. "Where have we arrived?" Swinton asks, not quite a half hour into the movie. "On the shores of whose utopia?" Here the screen shows, so briefly, a series of documented bodies, photos of black and brown individuals, turned into spectacle. The presumed viewers and consumers here would be others, those with the money and machinery that might record and project.
"Another simulation, a reconstructed village, a theme park, a human zoo. A human zoo?" The question mark hangs in the air. "Exhibit one" appears before you as Swinton asks a question that might have been asked or not asked, then, but remains now, still hanging: "He'll also want to join us, won't he?"
Again, the question, who is "us"? Apart from this allusion to a Star Trek-ian Prime Directive, the movie doesn't press the fundamental dilemma of the technologies it tracks: who benefits and who pays? A mention of Alice Guy, the French secretary (as she is most often described), who became a filmmaker and cofounder of the Gaumont Film Company in 1897, reminds you that women, of all times and places and races, don't share the access to advantages that their male counterparts might assume. Like the tribes people whose names are unknown here, Guy is instantly a trace, a haunting image, a reminder of a past that is erased, or in perennial need of recovery.
Dreams Rewired isn't in the business of recovery or even analysis. Instead, it gestures, it implies, it signifies. "Our time is a time of total connection." The declaration might be a mantra, a hope as much as a possibility. Ironies are built in: as soon as "connection" is deemed total, it is not. As soon as "our time" is described, it is open to question. If, in this "new electric intimacy… we bridge the globe with a whisper", is such "bridging," so metaphorical, so pretty to think so, the end? Is there another set of steps or obligations? And again, always, who bridges?