Hitchcock and the lanternfish camera: or, an experiment with drugs and dreaming
Yesterday a reader of this blog upset by my criticisms of that Kiwi cultural treasure Te Radar and by my use of the words 'imperialism' and 'New Zealand' in the same sentence accused me of lacking any sense of my own absurdity. Rather than reply directly to such a serious charge, I thought I'd get around to posting about a rather absurd experiment I made a couple of months ago.
I've blogged occasionally about the opioids I use to help control the pain from an old nerve injury, and about the strange dreams these drugs sometimes produce. After I described the very light sleep that the opioid tramadol gives me, and the dreams of floating on or flying above the Pacific Ocean that seem to accompany this light sleep, a numbers of readers discussed their own experiences with drugs and dreams. Richard Taylor confessed to a fear of tramadol-induced states of consciousness, Keri Hulme recommended dark chocolate as an aid to dreaming, and a chap named Sven revealed he used opioids solely for their dream-inducing effects.
Three months ago I abandoned tramadol in favour of another opioid called dihydrocodeine. Where tramadol kept me on the borderland between waking and sleep, dihydrocodeine makes me sleep very deeply. Skyler is less than impressed with the drug, because it makes me sleep right through the occasional night-time cry-fests of our baby son. While she's forced out of bed to comfort the poor little lad at two or three in the morning, I'm snoring away contentedly in the land of dihydrocodeine.
Like tramadol, dihydrocodeine gives me vivid and extraordinarily detailed dreams, which are often repeated night after night. But where tramadol sent me flying and floating over land and seascapes, my dihydrocodeine dreams often have an oddly pedagogical quality. All too often, they keep me indoors, in a classroom or the corner of a crowded room at a party, and make me listen to someone's academic lecture or drunken confession. These orations seem profound while I sleep, and then either nonsensical or tedious, or both, after I wake.
At about the time I started to use dihydrocodeine I came across a copy of Graham Greene's posthumous book A World of my Own, which is a selection of entries from the dream diaries the novelist kept for twenty-five years. Greene describes dreams about a Nazi invasion of Britain, a journey up a Colombian river with a cheery Henry James, and spying missions for both Mi5 and the KGB. In the introduction to A World of my Own, which was written in the last months of his life, Greene looks back over his career and reveals that he often used dreams to determine the course and outcome of his novels and short stories. He would go to bed thinking of a story he was trying to write, and find whatever he needed - the right twist of a plot, the necessary supporting character, the essential setting for an event - in a dream.
A few nights after my chat with Paul I took my regulation dose of dihydrocodeine, watched fragments from several of my favourite movies and from Paul's documentary Tongan Ark, flicked solemnly through my collection of old photos of the Great South Road, and resolved, as I was drifting off to sleep, to work imaginatively on our stalled documentary. I dreamt nothing so coherent, and so tried the same formula a couple of nights later. The dream that resulted from this experiment is recorded in all its curious detail below.
I thought the dream was probably meaningless, except to some Freudian or Jungian psychiatrist able to find significance in the silliest images, but Paul seems convinced that Alfred Hitchcock was offering us an obscure message, and wants to repeat the experiment.
[Great South Road Project Dream Log Entry # 1 5/5/12, 2:37 a.m.]
I was standing at the lending desk of the University of Auckland library, watching a young man with skin so white it was almost translucent run some kind of sensor over my library card. The young man squinted at the dreadlocked twenty-something version of myself on the library card, looked up at my bald, middle-aged head, then turned his attention to the screen of his computer. After a silence that might have lasted a minute, he began to recite, in a sonorous, solemn voice, a list of books my younger self had borrowed and then forgotten or lost, and the fine that was due for each of these books.
As the librarian went on and on, giving the author, title, publisher, and fine for each book, I imagined him as a pedantic priest reciting one of the lists in Deuteronomy to a dismayed congregation.
I realised how foolish I had been to believe that I could return, even after an interval of years, to this scene of my old crimes, especially when I was wielding the same library card I had used to commit those crimes.
As the young man's litany continued, I remembered that my wallet was empty, and began to wonder whether I would be allowed to leave the library without paying at least some portion of my fines. What non-monetary service might I provide, to compensate these policemen and women of the printed word for the losses I had caused them? I remembered a scene in a movie where restaurant patrons could not afford to pay for their meals, and had to wash stacks of dishes before they were allowed to go home. Perhaps I could put in a few weeks work in the library's bindery, gluing maroon-coloured replacement covers onto copies of Foucault for Beginners and Zizek on Film?
I was about to suggest a period of penance in the bindery when a shoal of students - I knew they were students, because the males amongst them had hair on the crowns of their heads - begun to move towards the building's exit, pushing through turnstiles and waiting noisily for large glass doors to slide open. "It's Hitchcock" the librarian said, interrupting his litany. "He turned up half an hour ago - he's giving a guest lecture".
Taking my opportunity to escape, I pushed my way into another crowd of students surging towards the library exit. In a few seconds I was outside the building, and following the crowd across Princes Street, into the steel and glass ruin-in-waiting that makes an admirable home for the Owen Glenn School of Business. Alfred Hitchcock had, I gathered, commandeered the largest of the half-dozen lecture halls in Glenn's building.
The hall was very dark, but I could hear the sucking and sighing of hundreds of lungs in the rows of seats that fell away to a small stage lit dimly by an invisible source. I stood in an aisle and watched Hitchcock, who was dressed in a powder-blue suit, begin his oration.
I noticed that two tanks filled with dirty-looking water sat on the stage behind Hitchcock. In one of the tanks, a large fish with a single, dull green eye and a jutting jaw full of ill-fitting teeth swam motionlessly.
"This is a mutant lanternfish" Hitchcock announced, gesturing at the appalling creature. "Now look in the other tank, where one of my cameras swims. Look at its eye, which has turned green with slime. Note the way that the buttons that control its various functions have fallen off it, and drift about like pellets of fish food. See how the creature's leather sides are rotting, like the boots of drowned sailors. This camera barely works, when I rescue it from its green ocean. And yet it works."
Lights flickered in the tiered seats, and for a moment I imagined that the young men and women who had gathered to hear Hitchcock were holding cigarette lighters aloft, like fans during a ballad at a U2 concert. But the lights belonged to cellphones. The great film-maker was being filmed by a hundred hands.
"This morning, before any of you knew I was around, I shot some footage in your school." As Hitchcock spoke a screen slid into place behind him, and a film began to play on it. We watched shaky footage of one of the long narrow corridors of the Owen Glenn building. After a few seconds a door onto the corridor began to open slowly, as though the person behind it were pushing against a great weight. As the first of a series of students emerged, the air seemed to ripple. When the students walked up the corridor, towards the camera, their bodies became strangely elongated. Necks and shins stretched, exposing inch after inch of pale green skin. The creatures on the screen opened their mouths to speak, and then to laugh, but all we heard in the hall was a single prolonged gurgling noise, like the sound a bath makes when it drains.
"I regret Psycho" Hitchcock said quietly, as the images on the screen behind him faded to a green fuzz.
"All that panicked editing, all those shots, those endless changes of view. Seventy-two shots for the shower scene alone. I cut time into little pieces, like a child torturing a worm. And the subdivision of consciousness has followed the subdivision of time. The brain's attention span is getting shorter and shorter."
Hitchcock paused for a few seconds, then continued. "Put away Psycho and study The Rope, the film I made with a single shot. The camera has to de-evolve, lose its speed and range and focus, lose its digital memory. The camera has to be a primitive, ancient eye, the eye of a lanternfish, an eye that operates ten thousand feet under the surface of the sea, where the sun is a splinter of green light strained through layered nets of seaweed. The lanternfish generates its own light, green and bacterial, and hunts by it - "
I had taken the silence of the audience to be a sign of its reverence for Hitchcock. Now, though, boos and jeers were falling on the little man on the little stage, and balls and darts of paper followed. The lights of the hall flicked on, and a handful of students began to run down an aisle towards the stage. "Grab that camera!" one of them shouted. "You've made us into monsters! Get that fish!"
Before his critics could reach him, though, Hitchcock flicked his wrist, and sent the screen behind him flying up to the ceiling. Behind the screen a dark grey internal wall of the Owen Glenn Building had been replaced by a rough slope of limestone where a green rivulet ran. In the centre of the limestone outcrop was a huge, ochre-coloured fish with a single staring eye. I wasn't sure whether the fish was a massive fossil, or a crudely executed cave painting. The lecture hall was silent again.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]