NEW YORK - For the visually savvy filmmaker, there's a new frontier with as much cinematic appeal as the old West held for moviemakers half a century ago.
With often dazzling results, filmmakers are turning to the mind itself as an uncharted landscape worth exploring. Movies such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and the new "Incep-tion" turn cameras inward, sending their characters headlong into dream worlds and psyches manifested on screen.
These dreamscapes offer a boundless universe for cinematic bravado where real world rules need not apply. Although Hollywood - the "dream factory" - has a long, intertwined history with psychology, recent movies of the mind suggest a new trend where characters and cameras dive headlong into the mind.
Christopher Nolan, who directed and wrote "Inception," said the way a dream is formed, to him, "suggests infinite potential for human creativity, an infinite mystery to the way the human mind works."
"I really think that that's when the tools of large-scale Hollywood filmmaking are being used to serve their best ends," he said. "Really, it's just creating an alternate reality for people to explore that they could never have imagined themselves. With 'Inception,' that is certainly my attempt to try and do that."
And so audiences are treated to startling visions in "Inception": Paris turning on top of itself; a train suddenly barreling through a downtown street; Leonardo DiCaprio stealthily traveling through another person's multileveled dream, moving secretly past a peopled subconscious in a wholly fabricated city.
Whereas older movies such Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (1945) - with Salvador Dali's surreal dream sequence - dealt with psychoanalysis, or "The Manchurian Candidate" (1965) dealt with mind control, current films are more inclined to physically represent the mind's inner terrain.
This is partly because of advances in digital effects, which have made it possible to create nearly anything imaginable. But this cinematic trend also dovetails recent developments in psychiatry.
In recent years, scientists have increasingly pinpointed how the mind works using technologies for brain imaging and brain mapping that can localize brain activity.
"Now in psychology we're using a lot more neuroimaging devices, such as PET scans, CAT scans, MRIs," says Dr. Sharon Packer, psychiatrist and author of "Movies and the Modern Psyche," a 2007 book that looks at the connection between psychology and film.
"Psychiatry is now thinking in terms of visions, if we look at neuroimaging. Psychiatry is getting much more visual, so I think that plays into a different kind of film."
And so filmmakers, too, have mapped the brain.
In 2004's "Eternal Sunshine," Jim Carrey stumbles through his memories while they're being erased: rain falls indoors; a bed is suddenly transported to a beach; a tiny Carrey is washed by his mother in the sink.
And in "The Matrix" (1999), which influenced Nolan, Neo (Keanu Reeves) spends most of the film plugged into a separate world, his eyes closed and body strapped down while he crusades in another reality.
The experience of moviegoing has long been said to be similar to a waking dream, and many of the most beloved films ("Wizard of Oz," "Vertigo," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari") are positively dreamlike.
But in contemporary movies, outside views of the psyche often aren't enough. Perhaps filmmakers, reacting to developments in science, feel that they know much better what the mind looks like.
"Because I pay attention to (dreams), I become more attuned to them and I become more sensitive," Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine," "The Science of Sleep") once said. "It's a good way to see filmmaking, associating disparate images."
Many of these films are among the most complex of recent mainstream movies, with nonlinear plots and elaborate systems of reality. Often, these journeys into the mind are less likely to unlock a simple secret or memory, but reveal an unknowable, mysterious labyrinth. And those who think they have the mind figured out usually get their comeuppance.
The 2000 film "The Cell" was written by Mark Protosevich and starred Jennifer Lopez as a psychotherapist who literally goes inside the nightmarish mind of a serial killer to search for clues for his latest victim. Inspired in part by "Brainscan" (1994) and "Dreamscape" (1984), it was ornately and lavishly directed by Tarsem Singh.
"This type of story does give directors who have a strong visual sense a great opportunity," said Protosevich. "I sometimes think that movies visually have gotten a little bland or are just sort of over the top. But a visually strong director given this kind of environment to work in can create something that you've never seen before."
Protosevich said the world of the mind was, to him, "as interesting as Pandora on 'Avatar.'"
"The potential for a unique experience is there, and that's what I'm looking for when I go to the movies. I could see movies that deal with this idea all the time."
There are also many less literal movies of the mind. "The Usual Suspects" is essentially the figment of an imagination. Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is the deranged vision of a psychotic, his paranoia made real. David Fincher's "Fight Club" actually splices the film with subconscious flickers of the protagonist's (Edward Norton) alter ego, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).
Others, too, are on the way. HBO is developing a drama series, to be executive produced by Fincher, based on the book "Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit." Next March, Matt Damon will star in "The Adjustment Bureau," in which his character is given a glimpse of his future.
Audiences have often been eager for the ride. Into-the-mind films such as "The Matrix" and "Being John Malkovich" are among the most widely revered movies of the last decade. The early, glowing reviews of "Inception" suggest it could continue the trend.
"Hey are you a dreamer?" asks a character in Richard Linklater's animated "Waking Life" (2001). "The dreamer is banished to obscurity. Well, I'm trying to change all that, and I hope you are, too."