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For six months I couldn't sleep. With insomnia, nothing's real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy" - The Narrator, Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk.
Few lines in fiction, at least in the recent past, have better embodied what it means to suffer from chronic sleeplessness. Famously spoken by the narrator in the 1999 movie version of the novel, and played by Edward Norton to great effect, they resonate even more with a whole generation that's apparently struggling with its slumber. The film shows Norton's character telling us this by setting him up inside a dreary office, dark circles around his eyes, making photocopies as he agonises over his insomnia.
That's how it begins. He's also completely detached from his surroundings, his semiclosed eyes just half an inch away from the state of bliss denied to him every night. And thus begins Norton's journey to awareness - via hell - in this cult movie.
Sleep, wakefulness, dream-like states, and the twilight zone of the in-between, are subjects that have often been explored on the big screen, especially in Hollywood. Notable recent flicks that have zoomed in on protagonists with sleep issue include The Machinist, Insomnia, Fight Club and the much-acclaimed German film, The Lives of Others. Movies like these have made artful use of - or exploited, if you prefer - our problems with the sleep cycle to illustrate emotional and moral complexities, violence, loneliness, inner conflicts, guilt, despair and unresolved questions. Besides, the fluidity of the alterations between our various stages of consciousness and the psychological toll that chronic insomnia sufferers incur, have also provided for a wide variety of surreal visual narratives and stylised elements
And sleep behaviour disorders and disturbances have made appearances even in films which one would expect to usually steer clear of such gloomy elements — old Disney animated flicks. An analysis done in 2007 of full-length Disney animated films showed dogs in the animated film Cinderella (1950), in the classics films Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Fox and the Hound (1981) suffering from various sleep disorders. In Lady and the Tramp a key canine character was also depicted as losing his sense of smell and his memory, two side-effects of human sleep abnormalities.
In fact, the slow attrition of everyday human abilities as the essential fallout of lack of sleep is amply used in films as well. It is that neither-here-nor-there state of consciousness that lends itself fittingly to either a state of guilt (Insomnia, The Machinist ), psychosis (Fight Club, Identity), to the ache of an infatuation (The Lives of Others) and a few more. The alternate/split identity trope as a climax element, though clichêd, is also common seen in films steeped in insomnia (Identity, Talaash, Fight Club).
"A good cop can't sleep because he's missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can't sleep because his conscience won't let him, " says Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) in the film Insomnia. That, by itself, explains why the inability to sleep has been more than incidental to various detective films (Talaash, Insomnia, The Lives of Others). Sleeplessness is often a manifestation of anguish over an unsolved crime, an unfulfilled responsibility that transforms itself into personal obsession.
There is a difference between sleeplessness and insomnia, however, even though both have been used to the same effect in films. While in Talaash, Inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat (Aamit Khan) is wracked with so much guilt over his son's death that it leads to periods of sleeplessness and walks through the city, Detective Dormer (Al Pacino ) in Insomnia is afflicted by a medical disorder. And insomnia in movies is usually the mark of a flawed man. In a way, the arc of the swing between guilt and the pangs of conscience mimics that between sleep and consciousness - always off the mark, always in search of some manner of elusive reconciliation.
And more often than not insomnia and sleeplessness in Hollywood help characters along on a downward spiral, spurred on by inner moral anguish where absolution lies in confronting that other self. This is where peace for these troubled souls may be found. But for sleep-deprived characters the answer might just lie in the resolution of Morpheus's question to Neo in The Matrix - "How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
However, the only remedy for those who find manufacturing sleep as difficult as snatching a feather from a tornado, the best answer may lie in the last lines of Insomnia, when Dormer (Pacino) says before dying, "Let me sleep...Just let me sleep".
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