Tilda Swinton Traverses Time, Space, and Technology in ‘Dreams Rewired’

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“To be is to be connected,” goes the narration at the conclusion of the essay film Dreams Rewired, and by the time it arrives, it sounds like the modern manifestation of Hamlet’s most famous line. The film itself is a peculiar beast, an 87-minute mediation on communication and connectivity comprised entirely of footage from silent and early sound films – stock footage, silent melodramas, early sci-fi, educational shorts, oddball cartoons, newsreels – a film about the present and the future, illustrated with images of the distant past. Tilda Swinton narrates, and it’s the kind of movie where she seems like the only logical candidate for the job.

“Our time is a time of total connection. Distance is zero,” she intones. “The world has a new rhythm. Every message travels as an equal.” (Okay, I take it back — they also could’ve hired Werner Herzog.) Swinton’s narration, which is constant, philosophical, and witty, accompanies a vast array images collected by directors Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, and Thomas Tode. None are new; in the mold of archival assemblies like Atomic Café and Teenage, they pull from a wide variety of sources within the running motif of progress.

Bound by the sprung rhythms of Swinton’s intonations, they end up with a brief history of communication, technology, fantasy, and propaganda, by tracing the vehicles of those ideas: the film strip, the phonograph, the radio, the telegraph, the telephone, the television, and, ultimately, the computer. It’s a marvel of montage, charming and bizarre and frequently funny, thanks in no small part to the good humor of our narrator; there’s at least one scene where they clearly just let her improvise imagined dialogue for a silent movie (“I’m jolly and I’m well-endowed!”), and anachronisms that might’ve sound forced coming from another voice, like blind daters pining for a “look-up before the hook-up” or a ’20s radio operator announcing, “Check out the remix, y’all,” instead key in to Swinton’s ethereal persona, which includes ageless cultural vampire (Only Lovers Left Alive) and ageless shape-shifting chameleon (Orlando).

The cross-streaming of world cinema, English narration, and German directors gives the film a kind of otherworldly feel; it’s simultaneously informative and expressionistic, functioning in a kind of dream state where fiction and reality are all grist for the mill. At first, in fact, it’s somewhat jarring to see the clips juxtaposed as they are, dramatic narratives intercut with archival footage, fact intermingling with fiction. But at a certain point, the adaptability makes sense — after all, we’re far enough from these scenes that they’re all documentary, where even the props on a set or the scenes in a script aren’t just representational, but a reminder of how we lived then, “a universal family portrait,” as Swinton muses, “a book of faces.” And that’s what the movie’s all about.

“Every age thinks it’s the modern age,” she notes, and the clips back it up. If there’s a recurring image here, it’s of some proud inventor unveiling the device that’s going to change our lives, and the awe with which they’re greeted by the assembled throng. Swinton finishes the above thought by insisting, “but this one really is,” and maybe that’s to be taken literally, but I doubt it. When she’s philosophizing about communication and connectivity over footage of a crowded street corner circa 1925 or so, they’re creating a context where we can’t help but notice that no one is looking at their phone; we might consider how far we’ve come, or what we might’ve lost. But one day, our modern innovations will seem as quaint as that telegraph or telephone-that-only-makes-calls do now, and all of our Apple product presentations and virtual reality animations will merely serve as fodder for another movie like this one. And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tilda’s still around to narrate that one too.

Dreams Rewired opens tomorrow in limited release.