Graham Sack says that dream analysis and the language have film have co-evolved together as visual forms of symbolic communication, and he wanted to further that exploration in an experimental narrative series funded by Samsung VR. Sack and Sensorium produced a four-part series called The Interpretation of Dreams translating some of the original dream analysis case studies that either inspired or were included within in Freud’s book called “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Sack translates the personal symbols that appear in these dreams into a surreal dream logic that unfolds visually as it cuts back and forth between Freud and the patient unpacking the symbolic meaning of these dreams.
I saw all four episodes of this series at the Vancouver International Film Festival in September 2018, and then had a chance to unpack Sack’s process of translating these source material into an immersive VR experience. There’s something about the affordances of virtual reality that makes it a perfect medium to be able to explore the inner symbols, myths, and dramas that are playing out within someone’s unconscious psyche. We talk about the various problems of Freud’s psychoanalytic approach whether it’s colonizing dreams with his own interpretations or being aggressively insistent in the validity of his interpretations, which are all topics that are covered within the 4-part series.
While Sack was initially skeptical of Freud’s approach while studying it in college, he gained a newfound respect to the value of working with unconscious desires and motivations through associative methods like dreams, active imagination, or free-form therapeutic conversations after working with the phenomenological source material that Freud had aggregated at the turn of the century. It’s a unique archive and documentation of the symbolic inner lives at a very specific moment in history, and it’s nice to see some of the source material come to life within these VR experiences. A common theme that comes up in the stories is the grief and psychological impact that comes from the death of parents, which is a loss that Sack personally experienced before creating these virtual experiences that have qualities of a grieving ritual.
Given the success of films that rely on associative dream logic or archetypal metaphors, then this type of symbolic communication is sure to find new forms as the virtual and augmented reality mediums start to experiment with it more. Sack’s The Interpretation of Dreams is a good place to start to see some of the early experiments of this type of symbolic communication and storytelling.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So back in 2018, in September, I went to the Vancouver International Film Festival, and I had a chance to binge-watch all of the different experiences there. It was about five straight hours of watching different VR content. One of the series that they had there was all of Samsung VR's pilot season. They had created and funded like four or five different programs and they were showing all of the individual episodes and preparing some of them for the first time there at the Vancouver International Film Festival. And one of them was by Graham Sack. It was called An Interpretation of Dreams. And what it does is it takes Freud's interpretation of dreams work and takes those dream logic imagery and starts to then create entire VR experiences that allows you to step into the world of these participants who are sharing their inner life, their unconscious life. And we talk about this process of the history of film and dreams and dream logic and symbolism and all the ways that he was trying to do this creative interpretation of Freud's work and interpretation of dreams. So we'll be covering all that and more on today's episode of the Oasis of VR podcast. So this interview with Graham happened on Sunday, September 30th, 2018 at the Vancouver International Film Festival in Vancouver, Canada. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:36.713] Graham Sack: My name is Graham Sack. I'm a writer and director. I work in film, virtual reality, and augmented reality. I've done probably a half dozen projects in the space over the last two years. The first was Lincoln and the Bardo. It was an adaptation of a best-selling novel by George Saunders that came out through NYTVR, the New York Times virtual reality platform. This past spring, I had a big augmented reality installation that was part of Tribeca Storyscapes called Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear. It was kind of a sort of abstract storage unit that people navigated with augmented reality gear disguised as 19th century antiques. And here at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I have four episodes from a series called The Interpretation of Dreams. It's a virtual reality adaptation of Freud's case studies, his original case studies that kind of led to his theory of dreams. So a lot of the purpose of the piece is to explore the nature of the unconscious and dreamscapes in an immersive medium.
[00:02:42.783] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I really love the interpretation of dreams because I feel like if there's any one experience that humans have that is perfect for virtual reality, it's interpreting dreams. And to have this kind of surrealistic dream logic that happens, but to have this spatial environment to be able to explore all the different dimensions of a dream. In the context of that individual, it's symbolically representing different dimensions of their psyche. And we kind of learn through the process of watching these episodes what those symbols mean for that individual, but there's also universal archetypes. And so I feel like the future of immersive storytelling is going to have this symbolic dream logic embedded into it. that if it is done well enough, it's going to tap into these universal symbols that are going to be able to communicate these different aspects. But exactly how to do that as a storyteller and how to translate these symbols into emotions, I think, is the fundamental challenge of virtual reality. But dreams seem to have a key component of that. So I'm just curious to hear your process and journey of exploring that and what you think about that concept of how dreams inform the language of storytelling within VR.
[00:03:50.193] Graham Sack: Yeah, absolutely. Well, a big inspiration for it, you know, partly was thinking about the way that cinema has been in conversation with dreams for really the whole of its existence as a medium. And that I think that conversation in a cinematic context has happened on two levels. One is films representing dreams, which happens explicitly in the work of Christopher Nolan, for example, or David Lynch, but secondarily in the way that the language of cinema is like a dream. And so you find that in the films of Tarkovsky. People often use this term, Oniric Cinema, to refer to films that have a kind of associative, pivoting structure. So, partly I was interested in what does it mean to begin to tackle the representation of dreams and the logic of dreams in a virtual reality context, which I think is, as you were starting to say, seems like it lends itself even more to a kind of dreamlike experience than cinema. It's multi-sensory. It fully surrounds you. A lot of the information that you're absorbing is coming in not through logic or information, but through a sense of atmosphere, a sense of emotion. And so I was excited about that and the ability to kind of drop people into what felt like a kind of associative dream world that they could navigate through without being able to fully pin down. So part of the work on that was, as you were starting to allude to, in each of these case studies, having a kind of associative language, partly symbolic, and that being very grounded in an individual human being's emotion and personal symbolism. So if you take The first case of the series is based on Freud's famous Rat Man case. This was a young Austrian soldier who was sort of obsessed with guilt around not being present when his father passed away. A lot of his inner life was organized around this language of German law. And it has an almost kind of Kafkaesque quality to it, where he was studying to be a prosecutor, but was sort of pointing the finger back at himself for not fulfilling his family responsibilities. And then he happened to hear this story about this horrifying rat torture that prisoners were sometimes subjected to. And so out of that kind of raw material and this powerful sense of guilt, love for his father, you get this kind of associative landscape that invokes elements of a trial and law and conviction and punishment with this rat imagery. And so I think what I tried to do with the experience was to translate the language of Freud's case, which is linguistic, into a visual language, where you feel like you're being dropped into something that is emotionally powerful, and filled with these very strong symbols that are very personal and very rich, but you can never quite pin down the meaning of them.
[00:06:42.662] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I know that Rick Tarnas has written in Cosmos and Psyche of how Freud had sold only about 341 copies in the first five or six years. But one of the people that bought and read The Interpretation of Dreams was Carl Jung. And I think it sort of catalyzed this relationship. And I think Jung also had an approach of looking at dreams. And they collaborated and eventually split and went off their own ways. But maybe you could sort of contextualize the importance of the interpretation of dreams and when it comes to defining a methodology for looking at the unconscious of an individual.
[00:07:17.501] Graham Sack: Sure. So the interpretation of dreams was published in technically 1899. I think on most publications you'll find it marked 1900. So in a way it partly symbolizes the beginning of the 20th century. It's obviously had a huge impact on a variety of media, film, but also major artistic movements like surrealism in the 20th century. So it's interesting to sort of see if you think about the way that virtual reality reacts to its interaction with Freud, the way that painting reacted to its interaction with Freud. But the essence of it is that one, dreams are a form of wish fulfillment, and so they're deeply grounded in an individual's desires. Second, that dreams are a kind of trace that often take their raw material from waking life, but then twist that material around the individual's wish. And so you'll take the elements that are kind of readily available to you in your daily existence, but then they'll kind of be reorganized. And the sort of dream interpreter, which in the context of this virtual reality experience, you sort of are kind of drifting through someone's unconscious, that you as the interpreter kind of collect together this set of associations and begin to kind of figure out the linkages, the way that rat imagery reappears the Ratman case or the way that images of fire and the destruction of a home reappear in Dora's case, and that eventually by sort of almost reading through that, you can find your way back to some original pathological idea. Freud's idea was that if you spent enough time kind of sifting through the different turns of meaning, looking at the different facets of these images, almost the way you'd look at the different facets of a diamond, you can eventually sort of see your way through to the pathological idea. In treatment, what he would do is then, once he identified that, which could take years, he would then try to sort of replace that pathological idea with a kind of healthy idea. I'm not sure how successful he really was, but it led to some of the most detailed descriptions that we have of unconscious life. So that's, in a way, what the VR piece is trying to do on some level, is to put you in the position of observing someone else's unconscious, both in terms of the intensity of its emotional life, its symbolism, its hopes, its desires, its fears, and come away with it with kind of an open-ended meaning that, to some extent, you're left to interpret, but that you feel the intensity of the emotion behind it.
[00:09:47.752] Kent Bye: Yeah, it was really interesting to see in the third episode of how there was quite a visceral trauma the woman was going through and there was the imagery of fire and Freud was, in some ways, you talk about how it's a wish fulfillment and there's a certain amount of desire but there can be a little bit of that translation of looking at some trauma event and saying that, oh, well, you're actually kind of secretly want that to happen. And it's a bit of like blaming the victim, or it just feels really weird and gross. And the woman was like, no, it's not like I want to be sexually abused because I want it. It's because I'm furious that it may have happened. I think Jung had a little bit different orientation around dreams, which is less about turning everything into sex or desire, but more that the unconscious symbolically represents this polarity point where there's this threshold by which we're not aware of things, but there's a thesis antithesis and synthesis where there's these things that are bubbling up that are creating this opposition point that We kind of have to embody that polarity point in a way that is maybe working through things, but it doesn't always necessarily have to go back to sex or desire in a way. And so it was just interesting to see that play out within the film of even having that kind of resistance to that. So I don't know if you have any comments on that.
[00:10:58.713] Graham Sack: No, absolutely. So the third case that you're talking about is the Dora case, which is probably the most famous of Freud's case studies. All of these cases required a lot of work in order to adapt. That one was one of the most difficult because, as you're pointing out, it sort of has almost the most tension between Freud's interpretation of what's going on and, as you read through it, your sense of what's actually going on with this young woman, Dora. You know, the other thing that's happening that's kind of complicated in that case is there's transference that's happening where To briefly summarize, what happened with Dora was she was 16 years old, her father was ill, and they went to a sanatorium where her parents became friendly with another couple, who were identified only as Eir and Frau K. And then this kind of complicated merging happens between the two couples, Dora's parents and Eir and Frau K., where Eir K., it seems like, sort of falls in love with Frau K., who helps to partially nurse him back to health. And as her father is distracted, it creates this kind of power vacuum in which Erkay begins to attempt to create a kind of sexual dynamic with Dora. She stops it very quickly in the case, but it's clear that even his initial attempts are very traumatic to her. So when she arrives at Freud's office and describes this, Freud at this point is obsessed with things that are suppressed by Victorian society, right? And the major things that are suppressed by Victorian society and therefore end up in unconscious life are sex and violence. Freud's position at that point is that everything that he encounters is produced by the individual's own desire. He doesn't really have a theory of trauma from the outside. And so when Dora presents him with this material, she presents it in the form of a series of dreams. One of them in which she's woken up in a burning house by her father, rushes downstairs, her parents are fighting, and then she leaves and watches her house burn down. She first had this dream shortly after this initial sexual encounter with Air K. When Freud reads her description of this dream and then another dream, he interprets it as her desiring Air K. this piece is coming out in a moment where people are very sensitive, appropriately, to the way that male desire imposes itself on the female body. And certainly when you read it now, you're very, very aware of Freud imposing his point of view on Dorian, essentially saying, you must have wanted this. So, the complicated thing in putting that case on screen, particularly right now, was finding a way to kind of read through Freud's interpretation, which says, you wanted this, and instead represented as this kind of tension between her point of view and Freud's point of view. And so it's good that you picked up on that when you watched it, that you felt that tension, because all we have as a historical artifact is, of course, just Freud's interpretation of what was going on. One of the really complicated things that happens in the case, and that I tried to sort of introduce in the VR film, is the way that Erke, who's sort of imposing his sexual desire on Dora, becomes a kind of symbol for Freud and vice versa, who's trying to impose his interpretation on Dora. And you see that in the way that this sort of faceless figure is represented by the same actors, Freud kind of reappears over the course of the dream.
[00:14:39.009] Kent Bye: So is the part where she denies this interpretation and says, no, no, no, this is about my rage, was that something that was in an original case study? Or is that something that you added in to kind of update it to be a little bit more contemporary in terms of giving her a voice where she may have not had a voice within the context of this case study?
[00:14:55.408] Graham Sack: I would say it's present and I amplified what was there. So in really no situation did I kind of invent things from whole cloth, but you pick up on things that are maybe under-emphasized in the Freud cases and then I amplified them. So in the case of Dora, it's clear from the beginning that she's resistant to Freud's interpretations. And when Freud's writing about it, he's sort of frustrated by this. He sees it as more evidence of him being right, which is sort of the kind of perverse megalomania of Freudian psychoanalysis, that the more you resist my interpretation, the more it must be true, because the intensity of your resistance is just evidence of your own denial. And so he reads her resistance as evidence of denial, which is really just evidence of him being even more right. And so continues to insist that the key to her becoming a kind of psychologically healthy person again is accepting his interpretation, right? And so that is present, you know, and when you read it, you're like, this seems insane by contemporary standards, right? Like sometimes what a person tells you about their trauma is exactly what happened. Rather than being some cover story for hidden desire. So that's present and then what's really remarkable about Dora's case It's the only case that's titled as a fragment Because Freud was expecting to work with her for years and she cut off treatment after only three months and so it's an amazing case to read because it it stops very abruptly and She ends her treatment basically on a week's notice. She says, you know next week is our last week together and for it is kind of shocked and he he doesn't have an opportunity to complete his desire as a psychoanalyst in the same way that Eric a doesn't have his opportunity to kind of fulfill his sexual desire as concerns Dora so they're both kind of in a sense sort of unrequited lovers and And then Freud writes this postscript to the case that reads almost like a spurned lover. You know, he's deeply confused over why she's broken off treatment. He feels terribly hurt and wounded and deprived of this opportunity to interpret her case. And then she kind of returns one last time. in this kind of surprise denouement and says, I just came back because I wanted to tell you how things ended. And she goes on to describe essentially that she was right all along, that she confronted the K's and got them to sort of confess, that Err K confessed that he did try to impose himself on her. And she was right all along and no one believed her. And it's this, you know, when you read it, it feels like a kind of heroic vengeance. When I was reading it, I kept thinking about the end of the Lars von Trier film Dogville, if you know it, where it's basically about this woman who has been kind of abused by this town, all of the people in this town in one way or another. And then at the end there's this kind of Old Testament justice, and her father, who seems to sort of represent a kind of Old Testament god, but is represented in the film as this gangster, kind of shows up and kills everyone, right? And I sort of felt that same feeling coming through in the case. And so I was trying to find ways to represent all of these things, right? I mean, the piece is eight minutes long and relies on a certain amount of narrative, but also a certain amount of rich imagery. And so that kind of fire image ended up being something that was already present in Dora's dreams, this image of a burning house, which had these resonances of the destruction of home, but also to me felt very resonant in terms of representing her rage. And so the way that things play out in terms of the burning of home at the end, I think it has this kind of element of Old Testament justice cutting through the case and sort of punishing everyone.
[00:18:39.002] Kent Bye: Yeah, no, I tend to be a little bit more of a fan of Jung than Freud. I think that they both were innovating in a certain way. But after hearing more and more about how Freud's colonizing someone else's experience and really has his own agenda. But that said, I think that there's still a lot of really interesting things about these case studies. This is really my first introduction to the actual source content. So I feel like watching a VR experience of these is a great introduction to the context where a lot of this psychoanalytical theory was being born, but it was also in that same time period when film was just starting up as well in terms of being able to translate and use this visual storytelling language. So it just feels like this turn of the century that there is both the psychoanalytic dream interpretation, but also film that both have this kind of visual storytelling language that were coming together. And one scene that you mentioned, the burning house, that you had that I thought was quite interesting was to do this five or six different slices of time of the house as it's burning. So that when you look, it's just beginning on one end, and you look completely around 180 degrees. It's at full capacity. And it kind of just reminded me of this metaphor of the moon going around from the new moon to the full moon into the different phases. But it was through this lens of the house burning, through this course of being able to show long distance of time in a spatial format, but you're completely surrounded. So I'm just curious to hear what you were thinking in terms of what the deeper symbol of what you were trying to communicate with that time-lapse dimension of the fire.
[00:20:08.973] Graham Sack: Yeah, well, so part of it was symbolic and then part of it was the result of the process of making a film and the kind of delightful accidents that happen. So, early on I had been trying to figure out, along with my editor and cinematographer, Matt Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald, who are at Sensnorium, and I've done a number of projects with them and they're fantastic, and as well with our key grip, how to practically represent some of these things. So the way that I think the fire image shows up in the context of Dora's case is one as a kind of symbol of her own rage, a kind of symbol of the danger of sexual desire, both male sexual desire and also the beginning of female sexual desire. and the destruction of home. And that was, I think, maybe the most personally resonant idea for me was that every adult in her life fails her in this case. Her parents fail to protect her. The K's fail to exercise kind of any moral responsibility around this child that they both contribute to victimizing. And then Freud fails catastrophically to recognize what's happening and to be a figure who believes her rather than a figure who's just trying to impose his own interpretation. And that all of those things collectively kind of end her childhood. and force her into this situation where she has to say, no one is going to stand up for me. I'm furious about it. And I have to become a kind of independent person and kind of realize that. And to me, that's the transition from childhood into adulthood. And so, you know, some of those things I think are present in the case. Some of it is me reading into the case, things that just resonated with me. as a writer and director, but I was trying to figure out how do I burn a house down, you know, and watching Tarkovsky's last film, which has this famous house-burning image, and I finally hit on this idea of, well, I can incinerate a dollhouse, is what I can do, and it's already a symbol of childhood. I thought from a practical production standpoint we could do some really interesting things in terms of taking very small 360 cameras and placing them inside and you would feel like you were in the interior of a dollhouse, which I thought would be a kind of fascinating experience in virtual reality and would encapsulate a lot of that quality of being a child or being the toy of a child who kind of towers over you. So it's both a figure of childhood, but also she's empowered at the same time, so there was some complexity and ambiguity there. So we did a series of shots where we filmed in the interior of this dollhouse, and then at the end I said I want to incinerate this. And so we put a number of small cameras inside of the dollhouse. and then filmed it from multiple angles simultaneously. And huge credit goes to the key grip, Brandon Taylor, who I've worked with on a number of projects, who figured out a way to do this, and we got permission from the local fire department where we were. And we burned this thing, and it took substantially longer than I thought it was going to take. It took about 25 minutes for it to burn to the ground. You know, as it started to burn, everyone in the cast and crew kind of fell silent and it had this really hypnotic quality to it. Both just in terms of the raw imagery, I mean fire is always hypnotic to watch, but also in terms of the symbolic significance of, you know, watching this meticulously constructed dollhouse burn to the ground. and the kind of meaning that it had in terms of the end of this girl's childhood. So partly I was left with, one, we had beautiful footage and it was beautiful in such radically different ways in different stages of collapse. So one, I just wanted to use the imagery because it was so gorgeous. But two, I felt like it really captured something about this idea of the end of her childhood. And it's a symbol of home. The fire, I think, captures this idea of the way that the destructiveness of sexual desire in this context, her own rage breaking forth, and it being the end of her childhood. And so you being able to sort of be surrounded by this destruction.
[00:24:17.612] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you know one of the other things that was really striking to me was in the second piece you had said that that patient had like Freud had credited her for discovering the psychoanalytic method and you know often people will cite Freud's interpretation of dreams and all the credit goes to Freud but Freud himself is saying no actually it's this case where this woman in the actual imagery within the case is a lot about the moon, which is a symbol for the lunar yin. There's so many different rich imagery and symbolism with the moon that points to this unconscious dimensions and just to have that as the root of the case. But maybe you could expand a little bit on that in terms of why was it that Freud was crediting her as the discoverer of this?
[00:25:03.218] Graham Sack: So yeah, so you're referring to the second case in the series, episode two, which is the case of Anna O. So first, that actually wasn't Freud's case. It was Breuer's case. Breuer was Freud's mentor, and Breuer is responsible for several key pieces of what became the psychoanalytic method, and he developed them through working with Anna O. Freud was aware of the case of Anna O. by way of Brewer and then published his own interpretation which Brewer completely rejected and it was actually a breaking point in their relationship as mentor and student and their relationship as friends. So basically what happened was, and I'll get into this moon imagery because it's actually not in the case, it was something that I introduced through other source material that was related to the case. What's in the actual case of Anna Oh is published by Brewer. It's a description of this young woman, she's about 20, 21, and she has really extreme symptoms, the most prominent of which are more or less total paralysis and an inability to speak during the day, and then by night, she would often begin to relax and be able to express herself in a very limited way. Initially they were trying to figure out what was happening with her medically and then Brewer came along and he really just out of frustration because he didn't know what else to do Stumbled on this idea that if he prompted her She would begin to express herself and as she spoke through her inner pain She would sort of relax and it would seem to relieve the symptom and the form that he found for that was were these fairytale-like prompts. So he would say to her, there once was a girl, or there once was a boy. And then she would spin a fairytale impromptu that, as Brewer describes it, had the form of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales. It's basically a series of vignettes that are all from the perspective of the moon. They're these beautiful melancholy little scenes with the moon looking down on a lonely little girl carrying pails of water or Pagliacci the clown mourning over unrequited love. And each of them is this sort of moon looking down on a lonely person, but they're all beautiful in their own way. So he describes her descriptions of her kind of inner psychic life in terms of these fairy tales. So he would just give her a prompt and then she would spin a story for hours every night. And it was her way of emptying out all of the psychic pain that she was experiencing. And then over the course of a few hours, she would loosen up. Suddenly she wasn't paralyzed anymore. She could speak fluidly. And then by morning, she'd be frequently back to square one. And so Brewer spent literally two years working with Anna Oh, sitting with her every single night and helping her to talk through what was going on with her. And this is the beginning of the talking method. The idea that by speaking about psychic pain, the symptoms can be relieved. And it all built up to her description of this night where she sat next to her dying father, and Brewer kind of recognized that this was kind of the origin point of her symptoms. So, what I had when I was working with her was why, you know, I had her in this state of paralysis, tremendously sympathetic character who was kind of this figure of, you know, almost like New Testament-like suffering, and it felt like there was some missing element. So I went back and I read these Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales because there are no dreams described in the Anna O case, but the fairy tales to me seemed like they filled the same psychic role as a dream, right? By funneling desire and pain into an associative form like a fairy tale, I felt this is close enough that it makes sense. And so I went back and I read through the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and this image of the moon seemed resonant and powerful and to overlap heavily with the way that the night time functioned for her. This time of sort of peace and calm as opposed to the day. And also linked with the big psychic origin point of her trauma which was the death of her father which happened in the evening. Some of it was also personal to me. I lost both of my parents in the year before making these pieces and really every episode in some way is about the loss of a parent. The first episode is Ratman losing his father. The second episode is Anna losing her father. The third episode is this not literal death but kind of figurative death in terms of her father kind of surrendering his position as a protector and kind of allowing these kind of wolves in. And I think I was picking up on that partly because of my own experience, but I think Freud was also picking up on it because of his experiences. So if you read the beginning of The Interpretation of Dreams, one of the first things that he says before he goes into dream interpretation is he dedicates the book to his father. And he says, I started to think about my own unconscious life after I lost my father, which I consider to be kind of the most psychically important event in a man's life. That's what Freud says. So there was this kind of accidental thing that that happened I think in terms of you know My contact is a person and a writer director with that material and I think there was a similar thing happening in terms of Freud's contact and his own psychic life and that material and so it's this amplification of the death of parents that was resonant So that's a situation where I took poetic license because I felt there was a kind of absence in the case that needed to be filled in in order for it to become a virtual reality experience that was principally visual. But I like to think that I filled in something that would have been there for Brewer, but just isn't described in the case. I'll give you a little bit more detail since I'm already delivering a massively long soliloquy here. So the break point between Brewer and Freud, because this was Brewer's case, was Freud said, well, clearly she's in love with you and you're in love with her. And she wants to have a romantic relationship with you. And Brewer, who thought of himself as being a kind of father figure and benefactor to this girl, was so furious with Freud at this perverse interpretation that he completely broke with him over it. And so my first response when I was reading this was, God damn it, you know, Freud, like, again, reading the worst impulses into everyone, and can't anything be sort of pure, right? Because Brewer comes across as being such a generous soul and such a caring doctor in this case. And then as you think about it, or as I thought about it, I was like, well, there's something to what Freud's saying also, though. You know, if you imagine, you know, yourself in the situation of this girl who, you know, is spending all of her time alone, totally unable to connect with anyone else, the most important person to her in the world, her father has died, and, you know, she's surrounded by these sort of, you know, unsympathetic medical figures who don't understand her and, you know, she can't talk about anything that's really going on with her. And then suddenly this person shows up night after night after night for two years and spends all evening just trying to understand her and give her an opportunity to express her pain. Like, wouldn't you fall in love with that person in some way, right? And I don't necessarily mean that you want to have, you know, sex with that person, right? But wouldn't there be an element of falling in love that would happen? And so I think in a way Freud was picking up on that. I think it's fair to maybe fault him for putting it in more perverse terms, but some of the idea around what he's picking up on I think probably was there. It seems psychologically very believable to me that it's there. And I think a lot of, I actually, I sort of hated Freud's writing when I first encountered it in college. I was reading his theory of infantile sexuality and I found it preposterous. And partly it was because I was trying to meet it on scientific terms, you know, like, is this true, is this not true? It was a wonderful privilege to encounter it as a filmmaker because I was reading it this time as raw material and a kind of jumping off point for imagination. And so I didn't have to take things in terms of their literal truth. And it gave me this much more sympathetic position to have in relation to the case studies, where I could kind of say, I don't agree with what he's doing here, but the level of attention, the level of detail is staggering. And that's really what comes through, I think, in the cases. and why they were so rich as material for making this virtual reality series was some of the most meticulous accounts of what is going on inside of someone's mind. in a kind of non-logical way that we have. And you have to applaud and respect that level of care and detail, even if he's wildly wrong in some places, or even if he may have damaged these people in certain ways, which I think he did probably in the case of Ratman. kind of leaning in on this sort of violent obsession that he had, or in misinterpreting Dora. There's still something incredible about having produced this careful and meticulous account of what's going on with other human beings. And so that was much of the draw to it and sort of, you know, what I learned in the process of reading these things over and over and again and trying to figure out how to turn them into a film.
[00:34:43.686] Kent Bye: Yeah, so it sounds like that Anna Oh was really doing more of a little bit of active imagination that Jung was doing during the Red Book, which was sort of get into this place and really let your imagination run wild.
[00:34:56.083] Graham Sack: And part of the reason that dreams were helpful, there are multiple routes to sort of the unconscious. And we use this quote at the top of the piece, Fred felt that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious, because when you're in dreaming life, You're letting yourself free associate, but you can achieve something similar through free association in a therapy session, right? Just by kind of speaking aloud and letting your thoughts go wherever they go, right? You're allowing one idea to lead to another to lead to another to lead to another without trying to control it. in the same way that your mind is naturally doing when you're in a state of sleep and dreaming. So free association in a Freudian therapeutic context is a parallel of what's happening in dreaming. And the reason that that's useful is because as you review the kind of material that comes up, you get this kind of mental map. And it's not a logical mental map, it's an associative mental map. But his idea was once you have enough of this material to kind of map a person's unconscious, you can begin to identify the kind of core pathological idea that's driving their neurosis. So in the case of the Rat Man, you know, this was again me kind of reading into it a little bit and trying to read past Freud. Freud identifies in it that a lot of this seems to revolve around the moment when Rat Man's father dies. He's out of the room. He's not present when it happens. and he feels deeply guilty about not being there when his father passes away. And the way that that guilt starts to manifest itself is in this kind of obsessive idea that somehow his father's ghost is still around, that the actions that he does, and Ratman was probably the first recorded obsessive-compulsive, So he has all of these little rituals, and a lot of his explanation for them is, if I don't do this, if I don't study until 1 a.m., if I don't study, you know, the law until 1 a.m. every night in preparation for my exams, you know, my father will die. Or if I engage in onanism, masturbation, you know, my father will die. And Freud said, your father died eight years ago. How can you have the idea in your head that engaging in onanism would kill your father when your father's already dead? And so a lot of them were these sort of irrational ideas, but as Freud kind of created this map, he starts to have this feeling that all of your OCD revolves around this idea that one, in some sense you can still sort of keep your father alive, or deny the reality of his death, and that your thoughts have enough power somehow that they can influence the world, which is sort of the beautiful aspect in some sense of obsessive compulsive disorder. It's the idea that what I think can change the outcome of events directly, like the way that prayer can. There's something very religious, actually, about obsessive-compulsive disorder in that way. And so there was a sort of central pathological idea, and that's what all of that process was involved in kind of locating. I'm going a lot into Freud and less into the film at this point, but the way that the film touches on it is by kind of opening and closing with the moment of his father's death. And that resonated a lot with me. I made the film just a few months after my father died, and I had a lot of guilt around, could I have been there more? And so I really identified with that aspect of the case, and I think Freud identified a lot with that aspect of the case, because he was so obsessed with the death of father figures. So the piece kind of opens and closes with that the first time, I won't spoil it, but it becomes a kind of bookend for the VR film, but also kind of as the kind of central pivotal component of this dreamscape.
[00:38:39.712] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it seems like that's just the nature of the unconscious and the nature of the symbolism of how it's related to our process of dreams, but related to VR. I was just at the Oculus Connect 5, and Jelena Ruchitsky, along with one of her coworkers, was talking about the hierarchy of being, where she had put at the core the sense of self, which is all your phenomenological sense of being, but also all the different dimensions of your intention, motivations, and desires, but also This aspect of your embodiment within virtual experiences But she really put her framework of the hierarchy of being with the self at the bottom and then on top of that was the world and then on top of that was the other and I was talking with her because I was like I don't know if like that middle part should actually be like the context that is extrapolated from the world, because the world is the external part. But the meaning of that world is kind of like the associations that you have that creates a context. And we kind of decided that, in some ways, things are so context-dependent for each individual that, really, you can't design for the context. You can only design the world and hope that those symbols and objects and stuff that you're putting in there is going to be somehow associated with a context that is connected to somebody in some personal way. their interpretation of the dreams, all the objects within the scenes are somehow connected to some sort of projected representation of some symbolic aspect of that individual's complex of their psyche. And that these are very specific and sort of surrealistic images, but that just as a language in storytelling, it feels like that as you go into that world, and that's kind of what, as a VR creator, you only have access to that externality of that virtual context that you're able to create to then somehow translate that world and architecture and everything that's happening in that scene into that emotion. That it's centered in that emotion and human experience, but that there's these symbols and symbolic translation and being able to pull from what are universal archetypes and symbols that have meaning that are based upon our embodied experience of living, but there's also ones that are highly individualized. And so as a creator, you're kind of in this dilemma, which is like, what are the symbols and how do you translate them? And how do you know if you're sort of tapping into a deeper truth that people are able to kind of read into this dream logic that you have in a film? It's almost like cultivating this archetypal eye for being able to read into the deeper meaning and the context of some of these pieces. where you're able to create something that, even if they don't know all these associations, that they're still able to get it. But you're able to, for people who can read those, go way deeper. And that's kind of what I saw from your piece, was that really this deep exploration of this connection between the context and all those symbols, and trying to really get deeper down into this deeper meaning and emotion.
[00:41:27.531] Graham Sack: I want to break that up. There was a lot in there that is very relevant to the piece. The first thing around, I think, that self, world, other framework, I hadn't thought of it in this context before. I had heard Jelena talk about that before, but it works very, very well for describing what's going on in this piece, in part because what's happening is you're trying to take the self, right, in this case, you know, the figure described in the case, take their inner life and create a world that a VR viewer as other is going to enter into and The access that you is the other this kind of visitor in someone's consciousness have to that self happens entirely through an environment that this dreamscape that's created around you, you know, so I At the top of the first episode, you kind of slowly enter out of the darkness into this candlelit room with this dying father, right? And so it's rendered as a world. It's rendered as an environment around you, but it's the expression of a self, and kind of the deep pent-up wishes and fears of a self. And how do you as an other encounter it? You encounter it through an immersive environment that is a world. So it does seem to work particularly well with the description of something that is very psychologically focused in this way. I mean, there are other selves that are bouncing around in there. There's myself as a filmmaker creating an environment for you as an other to visit and hopefully connect with. So I really like that framework as a description of what's happening in the creation of like a VR dreamscape. Precisely that self is being translated into world and then the viewer is being brought in as other and trying to understand self through a world. The other thing that I think you were talking about was the use of archetypal imagery versus personal imagery. So, you know, Freud talked a lot more about personal imagery. There are some sections of the Interpretation of Dreams where he begins to propose the possibility of more universal imagery. And obviously Jung leans in a lot further on that idea of there's a collective unconscious. And there are contemporary neuroscientists like George Lakoff, who wrote Metaphors We Live By, which is all about the way that universal metaphors like up and down or fire being dangerous seem to reappear cross-culturally. In this piece, I was definitely principally focused on the personal imagery. But personal imagery, there are patterns to experience, to lived experience. And so it's sort of only natural that some of these images recur across individuals in ways that are familiar. You know, the idea that we all have the sense that fire somehow captures an idea of unpredictable danger, right? That it is some of its natural properties in the way that we observe it in the world, or that it tends to grow out of control. and there's an element of excitement and destruction simultaneously in terms of encountering it. So the idea that that would show up in many minds as something that kind of embodies that idea, I think makes a lot of intuitive sense. The way that I was tackling this in the dreams was, I wouldn't say that I consciously avoided doing things that I thought were universal imagery, but that I really wanted it to feel connected to one person's emotional life. the biggest thing that I wanted you to feel walking away from each of these was that you had an Encounter with an emotion a really powerful emotion in the case of Ratman. I think it's this sense of guilt and love being turned back on oneself as punishment and horror if you read the Ratman case, there's a lot of Horrifying material in it and as I was reading it I was like what's going on here? And how do I make something that isn't a horror film? And what I kind of felt, and again, this was personal, you know, partly because of my own encounter with my dad, but I felt, well, if you're sort of punishing yourself with this idea that, I don't know, you deserve to be torn apart by rats, where does that come from? You know, that comes from a sense of guilt, you know, that you deserve to be punished. Why do you have a sense of guilt? You have a sense of guilt because you feel that there was a right thing to do and that this person deserved more. And where does that come from? That, I think, comes from love. You loved someone. They loved you. You felt a deep sense of obligation about what that meant, what your responsibilities were. You failed to live up to those responsibilities. And you have enough of a moral code to feel that that means you should be punished. And I think that's what's going on with Ratman. Love is not a major emphasis in Freud's work It's not a major emphasis in that case, but it made psychological sense to me that guilt is very bound up in love So that you know, that was the first case or in the third case, you know, there's there with Dora, you know that sense of outrage You know and it manifests in a bunch of different ways, but I wanted that emotion shining through all of this imagery. I I I thought about these pieces in particular in terms of something that this wonderful avant-garde theatre director named Anne Bogart said. She said she makes a piece, she wants it to feel like a light behind a veil. And so the idea there being that there's something very powerful at the core of it that you can feel shining through the piece, but there's a veil in front of it, so you can never fully access the thing that you want access to. And so when I was working on these pieces, for me it was that core emotion, which was the light, and then all of this symbolic imagery is the veil, right? You can feel there's a powerful emotion shining through each episode, and it's a different emotion in each case, but the only access that you have to it is through kind of the veil of associative imagery, right? And my feeling was if that individual emotion isn't there, it will feel very academic. It will just feel like an exercise in associative meaning and finding symbols and stuff. But if there's a powerful human emotion at the core of it, it will feel important to try to understand what's going on, that you'll want to try to make sense of what's happening, even if you fail to. And I think that's representative of Freud's feeling, or any therapist's feeling, or any person when they're trying to understand another human being who's in distress, is you can feel the power of their emotion, and then you have all of this stuff, all of this material that doesn't totally make sense at first, and you try to sift through it, and you try to understand, what's the cause of their problem? How do I diagnose this? And so I think, hopefully, as a viewer, that's some of what comes through, that you feel a sense of emotional urgency that's grounded in a person. And that that animates why making sense of the imagery matters, feels significant.
[00:48:13.358] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality? And what am I able to enable?
[00:48:24.563] Graham Sack: I mean, I think it's a transitional technology. And so I don't know what the future of the medium looks like. I think we're in the Nickelodeon stage of virtual reality. When people first experienced film, they were looking through individual headsets for five minutes at a time, popping nickels in a device in an arcade. and then later it turned into projection without sound and then eventually it became projection with sound and it started to look like modern cinema. And what it made sense to create in the medium radically changed. And so I think we're in the Nickelodeon stage of it. I certainly don't think that the whole future of virtual reality is people wearing headsets isolated from one another. It may end up being hologram projection or something of the sort. What's sort of interesting to me is, what do you do if you're working in a technology, trying to make art, and you know it's a transitional technology? And what justifies the enterprise? Because in a sense, the whole thing is totally futile. I mean, I would be astonished if the pieces that I've made, you know, if the headsets that these things are being viewed on exist in five years in anything resembling their current format. And so to me, it's like, well, it's still a valid and a kind of heroic use of time and energy and human potential to try to make something that feels profound when you experience it. You know, I grew up doing theater. I grew up acting professionally. I was on Broadway as a kid. I made a lot of device theater. And a lot of people who make theater have this experience where you're like, oh my god, it was so intense when everyone was in the room together, and then the show ends, and it's over. But as you might say, it's a transient thing. Why would anyone do this? Make a movie. You can watch it later. Well, it's because the intensity of the experience is so extreme and it imprints itself on you. And there's something about that immediacy that feels powerful and justifies the fact that it's transient. And so my relationship to virtual reality is sort of similar. I kind of feel like I would be very surprised if a lot of this material survives in this format because it's changing every six months. It's a different technology. The companies keep changing. The tech platforms keep changing. But I feel like it's worthwhile if I can make something that feels very human and very profound. And then the exercise is worthwhile, even if the tech is not around in five or 10 years.
[00:50:50.298] Kent Bye: Great. And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the VR community?
[00:50:56.761] Graham Sack: I mean, there are people I want to thank. So the piece is out through Samsung VR. It was part of the Samsung VR pilot season. And I had actually had the idea for this project you know, almost a year earlier, and I was kind of, you know, I like pitched it around, I couldn't find a place to do it, and I was like, all right, I guess, you know, this may be a project that never happens. And then some wonderful people from Samsung came along and they were like, we have some grant money to support experiments in serialized narrative. Do you have anything? And I said, I certainly do. And I turned around, I sent this thing in, and within a week, they had agreed to finance it. And it's a really experimental piece. I mean, that's the other reason to work in virtual reality right now is that there's this amazing collision between kind of avant-garde experimental work and a big base of corporate and, if you're in other countries, government support. Not so much in the United States, right? In the United States, we have other things. We have corporate support. But it's sort of a wild time I mean the idea that like, you know a major multinational corporation would support something as kind of bizarre and experimental in some way as this 45 minutes of content is would be sort of to me kind of inconceivable in most other contexts and But because of the nature of virtual reality as a medium right now, it presents these opportunities. And so I am actually extremely grateful to Samsung for, you know, giving us the financing and the distribution to do this. My editor and cinematographer from Sensorium, it's the fifth project that we've done together. They did Lincoln and the Bardo with me as well, with NYTVR. The year before, they did the Stribecka project with me. And then we just had a really wonderful cast and crew. This was a huge amount of content to make on the budget that we had. And a lot of it was because people were just sort of excited about doing something that was this strange in a new medium. And so, yeah. Awesome. Great.
[00:52:53.267] Kent Bye: Well, just wanted to thank you for joining me on the podcast today. So thank you.
[00:52:56.529] Graham Sack: Thank you.
[00:52:57.029] Kent Bye: This was a pleasure Yeah, so that was Graham sack. He's the creator of an interpretation of dreams, which is a four-part series. That's on Samsung VR I actually just looked at the Samsung VR and there's a ton of different content that's on there You can go search for the name of this title if you wanted to see it on the oculus go I'm not quite sure if the Samsung VR is going to be launching on oculus quest because I know that I Facebook has been talking about how the Go is going to be the media consumption, and Oculus Quest is going to be much more about these interactive games. That's yet to be seen, but at least at this point, you can see it on the Samsung Gear VR as well as Oculus Go. You'll be able to watch all the different experiences there, including all the other Samsung pilot season. But I think the thing that I take away from this interview is just the historical connection that has always been there in terms of the evolution of film and the visual storytelling languages that has been cultivated within film and the types of direct experiences that you have within your dream life. I just this past weekend finally had a chance to see Us, the movie by Jordan Peele. And both Us and Get Out does a very similar symbolic archetypal dream logic. There's so many things that you see in a metaphor for in the film, but those metaphors are symbols for larger things that someone like Jordan Peele is trying to explore. Now, in the case of interpretation of dreams, you're stepping into an individual's dream life. And so some of these symbols are very specific to their own life. And I think what Graham is trying to do in some ways is explore what's even possible to take something like a medium like VR and to be able to start to do this creative treatment to this work, which is this vast documentation of the inner life of these patients at the turn of the century. So it was interesting to hear that Graham, you know, his first take on Freud was from a very scientific perspective and actually very skeptical in terms of, you know, just not really fully buying into the types of conclusions that Freud wants to draw. And after watching the video and the experience, I could see how people have a lot of resistance to what seems to be almost like this colonization of these dreams, to take a dream and then to project onto that what you think the interpretation of that is. All the dream work that I've done starts with the principle of you just share the basis of your dream, you then give your own interpretation of the dream, and then you ask for consent from other people to give whatever they think their interpretation of that dream might be. And there seems to be, with Freud, in his process where this is at the very early beginnings of the psychogenic method and incorporating associative content like dreams into a therapeutic setting. And so all these things are being fleshed out, but there was this approach where Freud was very insistent that these dreams, this is what it's meant and that every dream is a wish unfulfilled and that it's taking the polar opposite of things that you're seeing in the dream, but it's actually like this hidden desire. I think there's likely elements of that concept that are true, but it also, you know, when somebody's talking about something that they're very angry about, then it could possibly be that they're actually very angry about it. It doesn't mean that there's some sort of hidden desire that's underneath it. Of course, there's probably likely unmet needs that are always a part of trauma or boundaries being crossed. But to me it was interesting that Graham had a new appreciation to a lot of the work Freud was doing, especially because it's got so much documentation of these dreams, this inner life of people, that it's not a rational depiction of the inner life, it's this symbolic depiction that you can get access to through the dreams. So I've actually been seeing this quite a bit within the evolution of virtuality as a medium. One experience that comes to mind is a jester's tale that I saw at Sundance 2019. And one of the things that Asad J. Malik is doing within that piece was using Poppy, who is this YouTube star who is basically pretending like she's an AI intelligence. It's kind of ambiguous as to what her whole story is, but it's a bit of this performance art that if you know this backstory where Poppy's kind of pretending like she's this AI character, and then when you see her in this experience, then you are having those associations that you have with her as an individual, you're bringing in into the experience that you're having within the virtual reality experience. And I think why that's interesting is that, you know, usually in film, you try to like set up all the different context and meaning before you dive into it. But I think more and more, we're starting to see pulling in of these different cultural symbols and different artifacts that people may have these different associations with, like this whole generation of people that may have all these very rich associations with Poppy. And for them, that experience of having Poppy in a VR experience is going to be different than if you don't know who she is at all. And so I feel like that there's something about VR that's able to both capture a level of the context and meaning that you're not able to have access to before. And there's a lot more openness when it comes to the world building and a bit of an open question for how much information do people need to know that you're pulling from existing symbols from the culture and how much are you just creating out of nothing and you're creating an entirely new world that people are stepping into. So Graham was really focusing on those individual symbols that are represented within the context of these dreams. So when you walk into these experiences, he really wanted to give you this feeling that you were stepping into the mind of someone's inner life and their experiences. And that I think there's going to be something really powerful with the medium of virtual reality, especially once the dreams experience from PSVR starts to have VR integrations as well, where you could just go into this experience and start to create these prototypes of a dream and be able to share your dreams, which are essentially these little anecdotes in these stories. So there's something really powerful for being able to both document your dreams and to share them with people and to start to potentially get to the point where you're asking for help to help unlock and unpack what the symbols and the meaning of a dream might be, because often a dream will hit you and you'll have some sense what some of it means, but if it's a really powerful dream, you'll kind of be completely lost, because in some ways what Freud is saying is that the dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. There's so much from our lives that are being synthesized and integrated within these symbolic representations within our dreams, and it's a bit of a game within itself to try to unlock what the symbolism and the meaning of those dreams are. And I think that's the cultivation of both Freud's method and Jung had a little bit of different take on some of these different things. And Graham was saying that Freud was having a break with Brauer, his mentor. You know, Freud and Jung also had their break in terms of their different philosophies of how they were approaching these different things. But in terms of the evolution of the storytelling medium of both film as well as in virtual reality, I feel like more and more we're going to be moving into this type of symbolic representations of trying to create these metaphors and things that we already have. a sense of what they mean, but to use them as a shorthand because, you know, these are very short and brief pieces. So it's very much like a piece of poetry. I mean, we're talking about these experiences for a little over 50 minutes, which is actually a lot longer than the runtime of if you were just to sit down and actually watch those experiences. And so there's a lot that you can pack into these virtual reality experiences as well as within a film, but then there's so much work that you can do to be able to unpack the different symbolism and the meaning within those experiences. as well as to, you know, kind of take away what it means to be able to work in VR and to see how the language of storytelling and the language of visual communication is evolving once we're able to actually step into a spatialized experience of these types of dream logic and surreal environments that are representing someone's inner life. So that's all that I have for today and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast and this coming week I'm going to actually be at the Tribeca Film Festival seeing a lot of the latest virtuality experiences there and doing a bunch of interviews and then following that I'll be going to the F8 conference in San Jose. So if you're going to be at any one of those conferences then definitely keep an eye out for me and If you enjoy the Voices of VR podcast, then please do spread the word and tell your friends. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this type of coverage. So please do become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.