A capital clip-job, this brain-tickling cine-essay examines how last century's mass-media technology — telephones, radio, moving pictures — altered our minds, our expectations and our understanding of the world. The film is assembled mostly from early films, so its lens is that of a new medium's examination of new media: Here's the telephone operator, in a silent, overhearing some terrible plot; here are society beauties wandering the city with an eavesdropping device to hear others' calls; here's a film of a man telephoning in to an early television broadcast to prove that the broadcast is in fact live.
That last clip is endlessly rich. Tilda Swinton, our narrator, speaks about how the new technology must always convince the public of its legitimacy through the use of the old technology, and the chillingest thing in Dreams Rewired is the way that the TV announcer, a sprightly young beauty, cheerily proclaims to be broadcasting from the heart of the Reich. The filmmakers aren't arguing that mass-media tech leads to fascism, but they suggest, with some lightness, that our interconnectedness certainly facilitates it.
But Dreams Rewired is no polemic, and it never mocks the past. Instead, Swinton's narration makes common cause with it. She'll speak over the silent-film actors, at times, giving us an of-our-moment gloss on what their characters seem to be feeling. One sequence, a silent gag in which a stout phone operator agrees to meet up with a gent who likes her voice, suggests our contemporary anxieties about online anonymity. Later, there's a French animated short about a sexually adventurous flapper harnessing the power of radio to (somehow) spy on a romantic rival and then shove her out of a contested man's lap — well, there's Facebook-stalking and proto-doxxing right there. Dreams Rewired shows us becoming ourselves.
The clips come from some 200 films dating up to the 1930s; many have not been seen onscreen in years. They quickly come to seem seamless, as if their correspondences were intended at the time of their filming. Watching, we see scene after scene of actors watching, too. The screen is replete with screens, reminding us that TV and spy cameras were once science fiction — and that we should more often consider the momentousness of their invention. Occasionally, a film-history favorite shows up, like Battleship Potemkin, a breakthrough in the history of filmmakers inspiring us to feel just what they want us to. But Dreams Rewired is mostly more anonymous than that, an extended look, sans nostalgia, at how we used to envision ourselves and our future — and at how those of us alive now, at what seems the apex of communication technology, will look to everyone watching us in the future.