Dreams, Movies, Photography: Knowing the Unknowable

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag describes a shift in how we perceive catastrophes: 

“A catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was described as “unreal,” “surreal,” “like a movie,” in many of the first accounts of those who escaped from the towers or watched from nearby. (After four decades of big-budget Hollywood disaster films, “It felt like a movie” seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: ‘It felt like a dream.’)” (Sontag, 22) 

Why do we tend to understand catastrophes as being like something else in the first place? And what does it mean for a catastrophe to be like a movie instead of like a dream

Describing a catastrophe as something else is a consequence of what Sontag calls the “unassimilability” of these events—the fact that they cannot be incorporated into a schema of lived experiences and explanations, a mode of understanding that describes a thing as being like some other experience, caused by some other intelligible phenomena. A catastrophe is, by definition, out of the ordinary, a thing that can never experienced before it happens, and the immediate, visceral, terror that it inspires understandably overrides our ability to understand it. In the absence of relatable experiences and deductive explanations, all we can describe is our inability to actually do so—at best we can compare this inability to know with previous, simulated confusions like dreams and movies.

What I think is more interesting about this phenomena, however, is why movies have replaced dreams as a go-to rationalization of the unassimilable. How are they different? And does it mean anything if we are more likely to witness a catastrophe as a movie instead of as a dream? 

There are certainly some obvious differences between the two. You can choose to go see a movie—to buy a ticket and sit in a cinema and watch it, to stream it, to search up and read the plot. None of these are options for dreams, which are largely out of our control, and though they happen pretty regularly, they certainly cannot be done on demand. Nor can the content of a dream be controlled in the same way as a movie. Dreams are subconscious and confusing, and more often forgotten than remembered. Dreams are spontaneous and movies are deliberate—not just because we can deliberately access them when we want, but because they are objects that are accessible and tangible. Movies are made by actors and directors and producers, by people who we can not just know of, but fetishize and commodify as well—we have favorite actors, we know about their personal lives, and even how much they are paid. These might be trivial differences, but they show at least that movies are more thoroughly knowable and tangible than dreams. And though movies and dreams are alike in that we associate them with a kind of un-reality—we are aware (at least retroactively) that they are not real—a movie lays claim to a narrative in a way that fundamentally distinguishes it from a dream. A movie, unlike a dream, is not just a collection of images but a narrative, which purports to represent something that is finite and knowable—a plot that we can search up, and a meaning that we can get.

What is at stake in a transition from dreams to movies as modes of understanding catastrophes is therefore that the “unassimilable” approaches assimilability, that we interpret catastrophes that are fundamentally unknowable through the lens of a movie which, at its core, is about being finite and digestible. 

Evidently, movies are not particularly accurate ways of understanding catastrophe. War photographer Eric Bouvet describes the difference between movies and the reality of a catastrophe: 

Eric Bouvet, Chechnya, May 1995

“This is the morning after a night that left four men dead and 10 wounded. It was heavy fighting, and I was very afraid. I discovered a dead Chechen four metres from me when I got up in the night. You see movies, you read books, you can imagine anything. But when you are in front of something, it’s not like the movies. We started out as 60 and came back 30 – one in two people injured or killed. I was lucky.”

To a large extent it is unfair to level this account as a criticism of our tendency to see catastrophes “as a movie.” After all, both movies and dreams are imperfect ways of rationalizing experiences that, by definition, can never really be understood. Rather, what is more significant is that Bouvet’s testimony, that really being “in front of something [is] not like the movies,” implies the same kind of concern that Sontag poses when she recounts that “‘It felt like a movie’ seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through:” (Sontag, 22) namely, that we perceive movies as capable of representing things (catastrophes) that they are fundamentally unable to. 

Sontag qualifies the danger that lurks around this perception when she describes war photography:

“One can feel obliged to look at photographs that record great cruelties and crimes. One should feel obliged to think about what it means to look at them, about the capacity actually to assimilate what they show.” (95)

She states that war photography (and, broadly, our witnessing of catastrophes) is powerful precisely because it calls attention to the limits of what we can assimilate—because it captures something that we know we can never really understand. 

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that witnessing catastrophes as movies is a hugely dangerous phenomenon, or that it is even really involved in the concerns Sontag raises about movies and the contemporary media in Regarding the Pain of Others. Rather, I think it is best to conclude on the same note that she does: “we don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine” (Sontag, 126). It is a sacred thing to not know and to be aware of it. In a modern (western) world the transition from witnessing catastrophes as dreams to movies at least raises a concern that depictions and experiences of catastrophes (particularly through photography) are powerful because they border on what we can truly know and what we cannot, and that we should be conscious of new forms of media that seem to make everything knowable.

One thought on “Dreams, Movies, Photography: Knowing the Unknowable

  1. It’s interesting how media influences the way we perceive real life. Typically, we try to recreate real life through media, but now perceive reality through different forms of media. Will we say “that felt like VR” in some time? Also, I feel that “it felt like a movie” connotes a performative aspect to it which could be interesting to look into.

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