Like a Dream that Vanishes by Janine Marchessault


“Faith is the substance of things hoped for,

The evidence of things not seen.” (St. Paul)


“Community simply means our endless connection with, and responsibility for, each other.” (James Baldwin)


Like a Dream that Vanishes (1999) juxtaposes three interrelated  puzzles: miracles, cinematic ontology and human experience. The film opens with scratched emulsion, a house at night, a woman swimming, flickering colours, a baby on a beach, roads-all marked by a beautiful and abstract materiality. We cut to John Davis, philosophy professor at the University of Western Ontario, who lays out the film’s central problematic with the eloquence and passion that comes from a lifetime of contemplating paradoxes: do you believe in miracles? Divided into seven short parts (a reference, no doubt, to the myth of Creation), this question is refracted across the film.



In the eighteenth century, Scottish philosopher David Hume set out to explore the plausibility of miracles. In his essay Of Miracles, he challenges the belief in miracles; in so doing, he threatens the foundation of all organized religions, and most especially Christianity, for which the founding miracle is the resurrection of Christ. Hume does not deny that miracles ever happen; he ponders the nature of the evidence upon which we believe that miracles occur. A miracle is “a violation of the laws of nature, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” With this definition, he finds that there is in fact no physical evidence for miracles beyond human testimony (which is itself unreliable and contradictory). This philosophical attack was part of the Enlightenment challenge to all things supernatural.


The argument against the belief in miracles sought to direct attention away from mystical sources, to focus attention on society rather than God, as a means to understand human misery. Hume’s materialistic attack was devastating to organized religion. And even today, it continues to function as a model for legal reasoning and for the evaluation of evidence. It is Sternberg’s great talent as a filmmaker to bring this argument to film form. For the cinema, founded upon the violation of natural laws, is nothing if not miraculous.



Popular responses to the first screenings at the turn of the last century characterized cinematographic spectacle as modern miracle. Moments long gone could be made to come alive once more. Like its predecessor, the Phantasmagoria, early moviegoers described the cinema in terms of resurrection. (Perhaps this is why some of its most astute commentators have been Catholic.) This kind of description would grow into what film historian Noel Burch has called the “Frankensteinian” tradition. By this he means a way of seeing and understanding images in terms of their relation to reality, either as ontological proof of a past event and/or as something real in and of itself.


In the one-hundred-year history of the moving image, film has been employed both to document and create realities. While the cinema grows out of the positivist and rationalist tradition that Hume helped to establish-a tradition intent on making visible all things hidden, on bring to light—it has also worked to create a whole phenomenology of aesthetic experience that depend on the hidden and visible.


What would Hume say of the cinema? Could it supply him with the kind of empirical evidence he claimed was lacking to support belief in miracles? Since film can be used to create and document, Hume’s answer would be “no.” Like human testimony, film is unreliable; we cannot wholeheartedly believe in the empirical reality it projects. Yet, as we watch Sternberg’s montage of movements, the argument against miracles is reframed in a blinding flash of light: a white lamb, lightning bolts, sun reflecting off of water, light streaks across emulsion.


Sternberg cuts back to philosopher John Davis throughout the film; his presence and words inflect our reading of the images. As an old man at the end of his life, he looks shyly towards the lens, speaking to the filmmaker directly as if in conversation. Each time we return to him, the argument and debates that ensued from Hume’s famous challenge to religious belief are clarified in greater detail; possibly the definition of miracles was not accurate enough, perhaps we don’t know enough about the laws of nature, leaving the very character of a miracle inconsonant. As the film unfolds, the argument against miracles appear increasingly incomplete, unresolved. Is it simply a word game or can it tell us something about the world we inhabit?


In the juxtaposition of those small, everyday gestures so familiar in Sternberg’s films-film scratches, emulsion flares, Niagara Falls, children paying, teenagers drinking beer and smoking hash, a lake seen from a boat, two women in loving conversation, more children, the sky, the wind in the trees, light on water, old men debating in a town square, a woman blowing out a birthday candle, more children’s parties, a man running on a dirt road, a young woman leaning over a bridge, a woman swimming-there is something present. In these images, silent for the most part, cut rhythmically to create a collage intensified by the contemplative music of Rainer Wiens, Hume’s argument is displaced by the filmmaker’s sense of wonder. Located in and through the connectedness of things, people and nature, the film sculpts a profound invisibility that reconfigures the rationality of a logical argument. It lays it to rest on the brink of uncertainty. The image of a birthday candle about to be blown out recurs throughout the film and is one of its central picturings: children blowing out candles, opening gifts; a woman leaning over, eyes closed, breathing, a wish out into the darkness. Such images speak to being human: hoping, wishing, innocent faith in the future.



John Davis died shortly after Sternberg filmed the interview with him in 1998. This brings an added dimension to his reflections and presence in the film. Towards the end of the interview, he tells us that every culture has built into its very structure the need to undersand “what it’s all for,” a need to make sense of the universe. Yet no one has solved the riddle, and the world is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Philosophy, he feels, has come full circle, is moving back to its origins of “beginning in wonder.” He continues: “The world is not a very tidy place; in fact, it’s pretty messy.” He leans back in his chair and gives Sternberg a beautiful, mischievous smile. This ist he last time we will see him.


The film does not resurrect anyone from the dead, not does it promise a miracle. What it conveys, however, is the mystery of life itself. This mystery is contained in the very materiality of the life-world, in social rituals and languages, in the communication between people. The two lengthy, sync-sound sequences in the film concern communion: two East Asian women sitting across from one another at a table, discussing a map, laughing, gesturing, engrossed in each others’ directions. And teenagers hanging out on a front porch, drinking and smoking to pass the evening hours. The camera does not intervene or pass judgement in either case; it simply captures at some distance the communication and sharing that exists between people. These social exchanges are grounded in gestures, words, clothes, meaningful glances; that is, they are in the cultural fabric that binds communities. The final sequences of the film record communities in movement (marches, parades, and celebrations of solidarity), communal identities (Chinatown, Caribana, Gay and Lesbian Pride Day) and communication.


The very last image in the film returns us to the black-and-white sequence of a young woman blowing out a birthday candle. It brings us to the wish and, crucially, to the gift. It is fitting that Sternberg ends the film on this image, for gift-giving is perhaps the oldest of social rituals, initiating and maintaining personal relationships. It is a gesture that is undoubtedly at the root of community. The gift is held out not as actuality but as potentiality, tied to the wish that disappears into darkness. It is this darkness, this invisibility, that the film insists upon, and like a dream that vanishes, we are left with rich uncertainty.