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What Do Dreams Look Like?

Five filmmakers tried to find out in the new movie ‘Collective: Unconscious’

‘Collective: Unconscious’
‘Collective: Unconscious’

On the game show “Everybody Dies!” a black-cloaked woman named Ripa the Reaper shuffles to and fro beneath a glimmering disco ball, scythe in tow, as she pushes five black kids into a room labeled “Death.” Ripa is our host. “Everybody Dies!” is a crash course on the underworld for newly dead black children.

“You can squeal or whine or pray,” Ripa sings, to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” but “ev-’ry-bo-dy dies some-day.” Is that meant to be a comfort? The game show, shot on video, looks like a foggy memory of a public access TV show, with a budget to match — the effects are poor, and a discourteously tacky curtain spans the stage. Red lights blink on a cheap-looking “Murder Map” of the United States, a running tally of where and when black kids across the country are getting killed. Each new crop of kids is rung in with a cheer. “Kids,” offers Ripa, with singsongy charm, “beware if they attack.” Audio of gunshots and barking police officers ricochets through the room. “’Specially if you are black.”

“Everybody Dies!” is not a real show, of course — you’d have heard about it. (Ripa is played by Broadway luminary Tonya Pickens.) It’s a short film written and directed by the young Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo. Its images and story are products of Bodomo’s own imagination. But the seed of it was dreamed by Josephine Decker, an independent filmmaker and performance artist in New York. Like Bodomo, Decker has a knack for morphing dreamy abstractions into furious images: If you know her work, you may sense her here.

Bodomo, on the other hand, didn’t know whose dream she was making. Neither did Decker, nor the remaining three filmmakers enlisted by producer Dan Schoenbrun to make movies of each other’s dreams. Their source material: 200-character blurbs, barely longer than a tweet, written by each director at Schoenbrun’s request. From these came five cryptic, surreal, and occasionally political miniature narratives filmed independently of each other, with none of the directors seeing the others’ work until postproduction. They’ve been compiled into the omnibus movie Collective: Unconscious, available to download online — for free — as of Tuesday.

That wasn’t the original plan. When Schoenbrun launched a Kickstarter for the project in 2014, he envisioned these films as a web series. The essence of the idea has remained the same. Schoenbrun, who currently works for Kickstarter in film outreach, worked for the Independent Feature Project in New York when he came up with an idea to help some of his favorite younger filmmakers make “daring, noncommercial things,” he told me. “I’d noticed how quickly the commercial industry put pressure on filmmakers to conform.” For filmmakers like those featured here, the price of making money is “papering down the experimental edge,” he said. “I had no interest in doing that.”

The Kickstarter raised $25,000 — about half of the overall budget, according to Schoenbrun. The rest was obtained film by film, with grants and, in some cases, the directors’ own money. It may sound like a pittance, but $50,000 is also something of a lucky number: The 2014 thriller Coherence, memorably praised for its microbudget, is rumored to have cost the same. Money — having it, making it — was of course never the object of Schoenbrun’s crew. “Our film has very little commercial value,” Schoenbrun wrote in an Indiewire column last week. “It’s too strange, lacking the name talent and hooky premise an indie film requires these days to boost it to the top of the algorithmic listings.” The object, instead, was the freedom to get weird.

The movies constituting Collective: Unconscious vary in style, tone, and, inescapably, merit. But they share a fascinating, rapt strangeness. The black-and-white opening selection, “Black Soil, Green Grass,” dreamed by Lauren Wolkstein and directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone, features a wooded landscape overwhelmed by a loud drone emitted from a radio tower and an anonymous voice slowly counting sheep, lulling an unseen republic into sleepy submission. In “Swallowed,” directed by Lily Baldwin after a dream recorded by Carbone, a woman’s ambivalence over motherhood gets realized as a set of oddly parasitic dance fits. Lauren Wilkstein’s task was to adapt Frances Bodomo’s dream: “My PE class and I are stuck in a volcano and we’re being made to drink hair in soap water to stop from getting blown up by the volcano-master (who has a walrus mustache).” That one is manifest in off-kilter physical comedy, strangely slow zooms, and, yes, a divine walrus mustache.

Schoenbrun has described Collective: Unconscious as an anthology movie à la “The Twilight Zone movie, or V/H/S,” but dreamier and more daring, as if directed by famed Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. Which is to say: too artsy for genre-driven Hollywood, or even for an increasingly restrictive indie scene, a poaching ground for studios seeking smart but unestablished younger talent to tempt into overstuffed tentpoles. Collective: Unconscious, by contrast, debuted to some excitement at South by Southwest earlier this year — it was the first anthology to compete in the festival — but that may be the closest to the usual indicators of “success” the movie will have. “We think we succeeded in making something unapologetically weird,” Schoenbrun recently wrote, “so why try now to fit it into a marketplace that doesn’t value weird?”

There’s no better support for this logic than the movies themselves, which, at their best, remind us that, comprehensible or not, dreams are the wellsprings of our imaginations. There’s potentially some commercial appeal here, too: Just ask David Lynch, whose inscrutable but effective early shorts led to a career that spans subconsciously terrifying films like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and Eraserhead — but also The Elephant Man, which is no less dreamy or terrifying than his other films, but is much more straightforward.

No short in Collective: Unconscious traipses the divide between the commercial and the inscrutable better than Josephine Decker’s “First Day Out,” which adapts the dreams of Lily Baldwin into a freewheeling, choreographic adventure detailing a few black men’s first interactions with women and freedom after getting out of prison. Decker invokes the glory days of hip-hop videos — think Biggie in a hot tub, glossy Lamborghinis, women lolling everywhere — but in a style much more chaotic and ambiguous than those videos’ aspirational glamor. It’s a loose, spontaneous, invigorating movie, hard to describe and harder to imagine, the way dreams are — the way films are meant to be.