A Categorical Defense of Things
"I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak."
- André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924
Surrealism has a rich history, both in art and in film, of bringing the things which we experience in our dreams into the real world. Usually, this act is done for some sort of philosophical implications or even simply to obtain the surrealist aesthetic. For examples of good surrealist film, look to the brainwashing sequence of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), or the more recent Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe (2007).
But what if one was not trying to obtain this "resolution of two seemingly contradictory states"? What if the purpose was neither to philosophical nor aesthetic in nature? What if the only purpose was to capture the experience of dreaming on film? I contest that the end result would look something like Barry J. Gillis and Andrew Jordan's 1989, direct-to-VHS, postmodern surrealist masterpiece Things.
What Things accomplishes is a perfect capturing of the experience of a nightmare. Allow me to point to some anecdotal experience. Dreams often are held together by some continuity, but being slightly disjointed in nature. In our dreams, it is fine to jump ahead to a different narrative or focus on unimportant things. Occasionally objects like running water or needing a beer or the fake fish on the wall take precedence in our dreams.
Sometimes in dreams, a moment is repeated three or for times for no apparent reason, like a skipping record. Likewise, as Don Drake attempts to get out of the bathroom, we see the same sequence of him opening and closing the door three times. Perspectives are changed with no care for continuity or composition. At times, dialog from a dream goes missing, as we try to mouth words, but sounds fail to come out. Occasionally, the mundane tasks, like plugging in a drill, become our greatest obstacles.
Furthermore, our dreams often contain touches of our own reality. Is it so hard to believe that Things is not simply the nightmare of a man who has tried many times with his wife to have kids, but has failed, and in dreams turns to the science fiction nightmare that he hopes will not be their only hope?
In a similar way, dreams often draw upon pop culture reference, changing them in subtle ways. For example, the tape recorder in the beginning of the film reflects the tape recorder scene in Evil Dead. Or, it is possible that the dreamer might take the monster from Alien, with its unique teeth and its stomach based parturition, and change it from a giant alien into small menacing little... well... things.
Furthermore, this way of understanding Things perfectly explains the role of Amber Lynn in the film. This is the mind trying to go from the nightmare dream to the sex dream, inhabited once again by figures from reality. But of course, when the mind is consumed by the nightmare, it cannot focus on the sex dream for too long, and the moments are brief, even, at times, cut off, so that Amber Lynn cannot finish her lines of dialog.
But beyond this, it is important to note that Things is not a horror film, and is not meant to scare us, in the exact same way that our nightmares do not really terrify us beyond the moments that they consume our mind. Our nightmares are terrifying precisely because we have no connection with reality, but fell ourselves entrapped within our own minds.
Of course, when we watch Things, we have a perfect sense of reality, because the reality surrounds us. When we experience a nightmare, we have no part of our mind left to logically discern what is going on. But when we have a nightmare placed on the screen before, and our minds are free to comment and critique on the nature of what we are seeing, suddenly, it is not quite as scary. We are called not to be terrified of our nightmares, but to laugh at them.
It is when we are awoken from the nightmare, when dreams and reality come crashing together for the first time, that we are the most scared. And likewise, it is not the experience of watching Things that really terrifies us, but the moment at the end, when we realize what we have just watched, and that we must now venture on into our lives, into reality, with that burden.
Does Things demonstrate filmmaking competence on the part of the auteurs? Perhaps not. But then, most of us do not dream in perfect HD quality with professional grade sound mixing and lighting, shot by masters of cinematography. (Well, most of us.) But an artist lacking the culturally established definition of "competence" in their field is certainly not something which we hold against them, especially not in the modern age. We know that Pollock cannot paint the Mona Lisa, but we are unwilling to call him anything but an artist.
It is among artists like Pollock and Truffaut, and even the original surrealists like Dali, that I hold Barry J. Gillis and Andrew Jordan. For what the surrealists and modernists did with the work that came before them, so to have the postmodernists, and in this case, the postmodern surrealists, done with the work of the surrealists and modernists. Where surrealists try to blend together reality and dreams into one piece of art, Barry J. Gillis and Andrew Jordan understand that they only need to supply the dream, or rather the nightmare. The viewer can provide the reality themselves, and, in their own way, resolve the seemingly contradictory states.
Thank you for reading this short thought on the film Things. Just to be absolutely clear: I am not recommending that you go out and buy Things. I am not even recommending that you find a way of watching Things. If you like bad movies, and are into that sort of thing, read some other materials or watch the Red Letter Media review of the film first. You have been warned.
André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924. (If you are interested more in Surrealism and the history of Surrealism, this is a must read.)