“Ours is a time of total connection,” narrator Tilda Swinton proclaims, or warns us, at the start of Dreams Rewired, an essay film about the repeated broken promise of a truly democratic technology. Information, whether conveyed through wax cylinders or the cloud to our speakers and smartphones, has no hierarchy. Throughout the past century, with progressively tinier and more awesome innovations, technology has consistently touted its ability to connect people across the globe more quickly than one could walk to their neighbor’s doorstep. Dreams Rewired is a reminder that long before we retreated to our bedrooms and cubicles to embrace new gadgets, we gathered to witness their revelations together.
Even then, technology changed the way our brains work and altered our perceptive capacities, just as it was being corrupted by national and commercial interests. Directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, and Thomas Tode, Dreams Rewired uses the advent of cinema as a primary source through which to document this cycle. Apart from a few animations, the film’s visual field is comprised entirely of archival footage: clips from Alice Guy, Dziga Vertov, and Sergei Eisenstein mingle with experimental and industrial material from Thomas Edison and General Motors. The directors use this footage, of huge crowds gathering to watch a projected film or listen to an audio transmission, to convey our massed wonder at innovation. The product launch, it seems, isn’t a new phenomenon.
The doc doesn’t need to do much work to connect the Internet era with the technologies of the Modernist era (the telephone, radio, and television are discussed along with film here); delicious vintage clips of animals boxing demonstrates the longevity of the meme. After a while, though, this sort of eternal recurrence is all that the film seems to have on its mind, despite its lack of explicit references to iPhones, native advertising, and the like.
Swinton’s willfully hammy narration, at times imagining cheeky dialogue for scenes from silent films, returns over and over again in psychoanalytic tones to the idea that new technologies have the capacity to open up latent desires. What those desires might be becomes irrelevant, because they’re squelched, sometimes quite literally, by the man: Militaries use signals for propaganda, radio frequencies turn into commodities, the individual becomes little more than a receptacle for mass marketing, and governments regulate it all.
Such ideas should be familiar to anyone who’s seen an Adam Curtis film. The problem here is that the filmmakers don’t advance an argument so much as simply restate a European socialistic breed of fact. Their use of steampunk, retro-futuristic sci-fi clips becomes a brand of mourning for futures that might have been, and this all rather blandly dampens an audio-visual collage that’s often quite impressively constructed. Siegfried Friedrich’s music seizes the one-man orchestra vibe of live silent-film accompaniment, effortlessly adding contemporary electronic noise into his score, and occasional original animations are seamlessly integrated with the wealth of delightful stock footage. Dreams Rewired is a repository of striking images from the proverbial dream factory, but its promises of insight into the modern and postmodern psyche go unfulfilled, in favor of a pedestrian takedown of the man.