Since November 2017, there has been anxious hype around Instant Dreams–a documentary that is supposed to give the Instant film initiative a major pat on the back. The film, done by Willem Baptist, offers hypnotizing visuals while following the stories of a few key individuals who adore Polaroid and the culture. Those visuals are some very gorgeous scenes mixed in with perplexing shots and motion graphics that cause someone to either look away or be hypnotized without intense concentration. At the same time, Instant Dreams does very little to tell the stories of these folks, and does even less to humanize them through the lens of objectivity. Overall, it ignores a few elephants in the room.
Instant Dreams introduces us to three individuals; German Artist Stephanie Schneider, New York Magazine Editor Christopher Bonanos (who wrote a fantastic book on Polaroid), and retired scientist Stephen Herchen. Their narratives are told in little pieces before moving onto another member of the trio and then returning to yet another member. Stephanie’s story revolves around being infatuated with the desert, then coming to America and getting into a horrific accident that changed her mindset. Her unorthodox personality is clearly illustrated through the duration of the film as it follows her through what seems like a very long photo shoot. On the other hand, the stories of both Christopher and Stephen paint them in a way that makes them seem very obsessive and at times illogical. Arguably, one could say the entire idea of this process was illogical and that’s why it was called “The Impossible Project.” But years have passed since, and we’ve seen otherwise.
While Christopher seems to be more of a fanboy, Stephen left his wife behind for a number of years to go to Europe to figure out the process Polaroid did to create the images they’re known for. These are followed by a few scenes that seem ultimately depressing with him eating alone and watching TV alone.
At the same time, Instant Dreams perhaps inadvertently frames the perspectives of the men being very much about the cool tech nerd factor while Stephanie embraces the randomness combined with her very intentional photo shoots (the artistic side if you will). Some may see this as a bit sexist in 2019; but what’s worse is the lack of humanization in the film. It’s only later in the film that we’re introduced to Christopher’s relationship with his son and how old Polaroid film helps them bond–all while revisiting old haunts in New York. But any good interview process involves getting into the mind of how and why people do what they do. At least in my eyes, Instant Dreams fails to ask a number of rather burning questions that would explain how Stephanie and Stephen got to where they are.
Even worse is how the entire film doesn’t really give any substance, but instead spends too time on the main characters’ obsession with the medium. While Christopher is obsessed with “Polaroids” what he’s really in love with is both SX-70 film and what is essentially both Polaroid and Fujifilm Peel Apart. (Peel apart film said goodbye to the world but is currently in the process of being brought back to market.) Ultimately, it neglects to address a big elephant in the room: Fujifilm continues to make a very good and very viable instant film that makes the sales from Sony, Canon, and Nikon look like an almost insignificant cult. To that end, this is the spiritual solution to what Stephen worked on and a very usable option for Christopher. But Stephanie instead embraces the flawed and imperfect look expired Polaroid film gives her. Furthermore, the current offerings from Polaroid Originals also tend to be very flawed. In this way, Instant Dreams offers a very balanced view on things–though someone probably won’t think of it this way.
Visually speaking, Instant Dreams isn’t perfect, but is mostly positive (no pun intended). There are many beautiful, heartwarming shots that are very well executed. Then there are very questionable shots, like an awkwardly long static look at a nude, attractive woman from behind, which we later discover that we’re on one of Stephanie’s shoots. At least from a photojournalistic perspective, it would have made more sense to have had Stephanie in the scene trying to get the photograph from the start. Then there are all the 3D motion graphics designed to hypnotize you. If you’re prone to seizures, I’m going to give you advanced warning about these scenes. I’ll also advise you to look away at times. If you’re experienced in meditation, you’ll probably find a way to retreat into your mind while these visual sequences are on the screen.
While some may think that Instant Dreams gives a genuine effort at explaining the obsession with the analog world, I’m not quite sure that it will tranlsate. Something is sure to be lost here. Further, the film doesn’t do anything to give the story of the revitalization of Polaroid’s work any justice. The least that it could have done was given us some time with Florian Kaps on screen. But instead, we get more of the end result–which are consumers. Perhaps the end result is more important, but then in that case I’m unsure why Instant Dreams doesn’t explore the stories of the generation that is currently the most obsessed with instant film: Millenials and younger folks. Though we see a bit of the interactions between Christopher and his son, I’m not certain I understand why the biggest consumers of instant film were thrown to the side with the exception of a few scenes involving a young woman’s usage of the Instant Lab.
Instant Dreams hits theaters on April 19th. And unfortunately, I can’t say that everyone will be satisfied by this movie.