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Screenshot: Focus Features

It’s not exactly clear when this happened but at some point a shockingly large number of people decided that if they could not completely explain away a movie with logic, then it must all be a dream. Tár, Todd Field’s masterwork and the internet’s new favorite movie of the moment, is the latest to be seriously interpreted this way and before that a similar theory caught fire with the audience of last year’s summer blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick

The whole “it was all a dream” thing has long been a popular crutch for fringe film and television obsessives looking for an explanation to more abstract storytelling. Whether it’s American Psycho, Kill Bill, or Taxi Driver, all kinds of movies with a questionable bent on reality have had words written about them being dreams by the most obsessive and bored fans. But in recent years, the idea of everything being a dream has seeped into mainstream film discourse, with the casual fan and the media alike pondering if what they’ve seen wasn’t quite “reality.” It’s a mostly harmless exercise to be sure, but the proliferation of dream theories by audiences is a sign for a worsening cultural literacy. After years of puzzle-box TV shows and YouTube videos dedicated to “explaining” movies to people, we have created the expectation that every film or series needs to be solved, taking away any mystery or open interpretation that many of these films aim for. Or, in the case of a movie like Top Gun: Maverick, it’s a way to discard the flaws or things that don’t make any sense in a simple, easy manner. Worst of all, it makes it so you don’t have to actually think about what you’ve watched in a deep manner. It’s all been figured out.

One director whose work is always susceptible to dream theories is David Lynch. For one, the filmmaker is open about his movies being canvases to explore his dreams and subconscious. For two, he makes extremely weird stuff that doesn’t follow any sort of grounded reality. As a result, there’s a million theories about his movies being dreams a character is having. In some cases, like with Mulholland Drive, it’s the only way to make any sense of it, but then with something like Twin Peaks, it becomes a way to overexplain things that puzzle audiences about the series. 

Any Twin Peaks superfan will tell you, it’s a lot of fun to theorize about that show. So much fun that YouTube is full of videos that theorize about the most popular theories. But in the midst of all this overanalyzation of a television show, it gets easy to miss the forest for the trees. While Twin Peaks doesn’t make any logical sense, it is strongly emotionally coherent. Is Log Lady just a weirdo who talks to a giant log, or is she a widow grieving her dead husband by talking to him through a log? Is killer BOB a ghost haunting Twin Peaks, or is he a walking euphemism for the evil lurking in idyllic towns? Is Sarah Palmer possessed by evil, or is she a mother who lost her daughter and husband to an unspeakable tragedy and it’s damaged her mentally? These are the ways David Lynch uses dream logic and magical realism to depict emotional pain and trauma in a way only film can. And it’s the kind of insight that can get lost when audiences choose to theorize their way into solving a film. 

Obviously throughout time, plenty of movies and television shows have been dreams the whole time. A lot of them have been lazy and cheap (St. Elsewhere, Newhart) but some have worked (Brazil). Atlanta recently ended after four seasons with an episode that teased the idea that the show may have been a dream in a funny way. Christopher Nolan’s Inception also plays with that idea. That’s the brilliant thing about film as a medium: It allows you to recreate the subconscious and bend reality in ways that are exciting and often intellectually stimulating.

Tár is too dense, interesting, and bold to be given such a pat explainer that she's simply dreaming the last third of the movie. The movie certainly stretches reality and uses magical realism to tell a more metaphorical story, but that's not the same as it all just being a dream. There are things that happen in that portion of the film that are funny and tragic and silly and maddening, all of it worth discussing and debating, none of which is made satisfying by thinking of it as just a dream. If anything it would make it a less satisfying experience, and movies deserve more from audiences than to be dismissed through a simple concept. A film doesn't have to be solved; that implies a single solution found by logic rather than countless interpretations pulled from our feelings. Sometimes it's OK to let what you’re watching just exist as it is.

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