Thursday, 1 July 2010

Surrealism begins? - 1906 - Dream of a Rarebit Fiend - Edwin S. Porter

There is a lot more to Edwin S. Porter’s oeuvre than just The Great Train Robbery. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend may well have been another forerunner for the surrealist movement. As mentioned in an earlier post, The 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland presented the audience with moments from Carroll’s work as she went down the rabbit hole which hinted at later works of surrealist film-making. In Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, the transition between the waking state and dreaming is more hallucinatory and therefore more interesting and more explicit from a surrealist perspective.

Whether or not this was his intention is debatable. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend was based on a comic strip of the same name by Windsor McKay (see above) that ran in the Evening Telegraph from 1904-1914. The strip was the modern equivalent of a medieval morality play; it warned its readers against the perils of overindulgence. McKay set the majority of the strip in the main character’s dreams, thus allowing him to probe an imaginary world free from physical laws.

Unfortunately, we cannot discover what particular element of McKay’s comic attracted Porter to this project. I would suggest, however, that authorial intention can often be misleading and limiting when attempting to read any form of art.

But before beginning a discussion in relation to the surrealist sections of the film, we must not overlook the opening scene. In this scene, we encounter the film’s protagonist devouring his rarebit and guzzling one of many beers on the table (see above). Here we have film’s earliest example of gluttonous grotesquery – it is really quite hard to watch, particularly when he spits out some of his beer. The director is deliberately establishing a protagonist who the audience has little or no sympathy for, his subsequent suffering is welcomed.
As he exits the restaurant and the world around him starts to spin as he approaches a lamppost, we are given film’s first example of what the Russian Formalists termed defamiliarisation:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Shklovsky) 
The crucial distinction here is the discrepancy between perception and reality. Film will allow us to portray dreams in a manner which does make it “increase the difficulty and length of perception”, in a manner unique to this particular art form. Whereas a painting may evoke a particular image from a dream (see Dali’s Dream brought on by a bee flying through a pomegranate, one second before waking up below) and writing may evoke images that we can nurture and embellish in our imaginations, film can provide its audience with the entirety of a dream in a particular physical space where we expect to see a representation of reality.

In the latter moments of the film, such as where the protagonist’ bed is flying through the city, it is clear that the protagonist is dreaming. But at the moment where he approaches the lamppost, the two worlds amalgamate with one another, and it is at this moment that the initial defamiliarisation occurs. This is also the film’s most exhilarating moment. The energy of the protagonist combines with the dizzying whirling of his surroundings to draw the audience into his drunken revelry and subsequent dreaming.

The film has clearly taken some of its ideas directly from Méliès’ work from this period. For example, when the protagonist is being attacked by what appear to be devils as he sleeps (see above), they appear to be reminiscent of the devil in Méliès’ 1905 film Le Diable Noir. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend makes the breadth of Méliès work clearer; his discovery and implementation of ‘trick’ film-making not only heavily influenced all science fiction film but also the representation of dreams (and blurred drunkenness) in films.

To conclude however, Porter’s own diverse cinematic achievements must be highlighted. Porter is film’s first directorial chameleon and seems to be comfortable in any genre he dabbles in. As discussed in the post on The Great Train Robbery, he may not have had the creative freedom that Melies enjoyed, yet he still managed to make technically and cinematically important films that helped shape American cinema.


  1. Of course, as imaginative and zany as Melies' films were he never understood film as "cinema". Though he pioneered in special effects such as dissolves and mattes and even composed films of many different scenes he always shot with his camera essentially nailed to the floor, photographing scenes from one angle. Porter on the other hand was inspired by the early British filmmakers such as G.A. Smith and James Williamson-men who pioneered in the use of close ups and cross cutting.

  2. @ Mark - you raise an interesting debate - Melies or Porter?

    In terms of technical innovation, I think Melies visual trickery still trumps Porter's pioneering of techniques such as cross cutting...there is a thread of film history that begins with Melies that resonates heavily to this very day. The likes of Cameron and Nolan are really extending Melies' attempt to innovate new techniques which dazzle the viewer.

    In terms of pure film making, even though I am an admirer of both Porter and Melies, I think that Melies' A Voyage to the Moon and the Impossible Voyage are more consistently excellent than any film of Porter's that I have seen.

    It is a fascinating debate, and would love to get the thoughts of more readers on this subject.