“Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across 22 film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilised by different artists.”
The relationship between fantasy and reality isn’t merely a motif within films, and certainly not just the films of a certain year: it is one of the defining traits of what films, as such, are. For all films in their way are fantasies, even the most rigorous documentary, even just propping up your brand new cinématographe in front of the gates to your factory and filming the people walking out at the end of their workday. All cinema is unreal; some movies mimic reality better than others, and some films don’t mimic reality at all but by common assent we’ve agreed to say that the style it’s working in is to be called “realism”. Even so, film is, of its nature, a fantasy; it is the depiction on a flat surface of a certain idea or perspective that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
But since mainstream cinema, by and large, is a medium that aspires to realism, the depiction of fantasy is never so straightforward as that; frequently, one gets the impression that films with a strong fantastic component are ashamed of themselves, a little bit. And so the one thing that cinema does better than anything else, all the way back to the early 20th Century trick films of Georges Méliès and others, is something it’s extremely ambivalent about. “Serious” films tend to depict fantasy as something untrustworthy and off-kilter, resulting in movies where the inability to distinguish between the grubbily realistic and the overtly fantastic is a sign of a character’s mental instability or immaturity or the like.
Not a single film in 2012 came close to exploring this dichotomy more overtly, or more effectively for that matter, than Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that combines a prototypically realistic aesthetic of hand-held camerawork in an exceptionally tactile physical environment with the distorted view of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, played by Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. I say “distorted”, but that’s really not fair; of course, no six-year-old can be or should be expected to have a fully-formed, wholly rational sense of how the world is constructed, and that’s exactly what Beasts uses as its launching point: since little Hushpuppy is too young and small and innocent to have a good sense of what is “true”, the film – told exclusively from her viewpoint – shares her reductive understanding of the flooding and chaos and death and disease surrounding her, which has to be rendered as something of a magical realist fairy tale, right down to a boatride to a seedy restaurant, which feels halfway between a slummy shack and an enchanted castle surrounded by a moat, in any given shot.
Of course, the most overt gesture towards fantasy lies in Hushpuppy’s conception of the Aurochs, giant boar monsters rampaging towards her home after having been freed from the ice; in one of the film’s most celebrated moments, she apparently comes face to face with one of the beasts. That this doesn’t “happen”, and that the Aurochs are being used as a metaphor is obvious enough, but the film’s disinterest in removing us from the protagonist means that we are never invited nor encouraged to look down on her imaginings as a lie or as unreal. They are, in fact, real to her; they are how she makes sense of her reality; and we’d do well not to stand in judgment of that kind of innocence.
But “fantasy” doesn’t have to mean wild animals and magical realism. For a far less conventional, not to mention less laudatory take on characters whose imagination doesn’t square with the actual real world, might I direct your attention to the instantly-forgotten Oliver Stone film Savages, in which a trio of young people played by Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson spectacularly fail to understand that the consumerist-hippie lifestyle they’ve constructed for themselves simply cannot hold in the real, particularly given that it’s based on something as sordid as drug money. Which, in an extension of the theme, they look upon as being not very sordid at all, because they are the good kind of drug users, the peaceable friendly kind.
That this is a fantsy is selling it short: it’s lifestyle porn wish fulfillment of the rawest sort. Regardless, the tragedy of the film remains the same (setting aside the real tragedy, which is that Oliver Stone has forgotten how to make Oliver Stone movies): these people have decided that they are isolated from the bad things out there, and that makes them largely unable to deal with the bad things out there when they decide to come inside. If Beasts praises Hushpuppy for being pure of soul, Savages… doesn’t actually “condemn” its leads, for the reason that it has very little idea of what it’s moral perspective is. Let us say that it doesn’t cut them any slack, not even when at the end when it plays a very overt “what is fantasy and what is real” game when the beautifully sorrowful end one of the main characters imagines for the trio is presented, initially, as actually occurring, before a fake out reveals that even now, this character is still living more in her dreamland than in the world around her.
“Fantasy vs. reality” doesn’t just have to exist within the narrative of a film, though; it can also exist within the viewer’s relationship to a film, where our appreciation of how fantastic it actually is can have a significant impact on its meaning. Take, for instance, the matter of Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django Unchained; a quartet of highly-lauded films about American history in some respect or another, all of them telling at least somewhat fanciful versions of history, and only the last one has the decency to openly admit. Much energy has been spent by many people on all sides of the arguments to figure out exactly where the line between the cinematic fantasy and the actual historical reality does and should lie, and to what degree that does or doesn’t invalidate each of those movies.
In that spirit, let’s jump over to something that’s a whole lot less politically loaded, or Oscary: I am referring of course to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is not of course historical reality at all, and is in fact quite a conventional, even archetypal fantasy. That being said, the film’s existence on the “imaginative versus realistic” scale is quite weirdly problemtic for any of us who saw it – everybody can see where I’m taking this, right? – in a high frame rate projection.
It’s become a piece of conventional wisdom, among those of us who found the 48fps technology to be sorely wanting, that if nothing else, this wasn’t the right film to introduce it with. The appeal of Peter Jackson’s films of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium, of course, is the High Fantasy spectacle of it; the orcs and trolls and wizards and magic rings and all. Except that not all of us can agree on the exact shape that appeal takes: but boy, does the 48fps debate make that question suddenly very hot, and very important.
Briefly, 48fps makes things look more physically present. That is not debated by anyone. The question then, is whether or not physical presence is what we want from The Hobbit. “Yes,” say some, “we want to feel like we’re right there in Middle Earth, chased by Wargs and running through caverns”. “No”, say others, “the charm of this setting is that it feels distant and misty and magical, very far apart from us, and it is best to keep it at a storybook”. “What the almighty fucking- barf“, say the rest of us, “I’m getting goddamn motion sickness over here”.
That is to say, The Hobbit brings the dichotomy between fantasy and reality home in an extremely active way: it is a fantasy of the most profoundly unreal sort, and it has been presented in a medium that strongly emphasises the actual physical reality of the costumes and props in a fairly unavoidable way. It’s not just a dichotomy, it’s open war, and which side one falls on (setting aside any considerations of how The Hobbit is kind of bad just as straight-up cinema) tells, I think, about how one ultimately feels about cinematic realism: is it to be embraced or avoided? Do we want our movies to resemble life more, or less?
I’ll let that question be the entry point to our final pair of movies, which address the same subject from very different perspectives about how much real-life should be in films. Both of them, mind you, are fantasies of the oldest sort: fairy tales, in fact, and adapted from one of the all-time most famous: Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman. I imagine it doesn’t need pointing out that neither of these are in any meaningful way “realistic”; but the ways in which they are not realistic is quite important. Mirror Mirror, directed by arch-fabulist Tarsem Singh, with crazy, impossible design work by Tom Foden and Eiko Ishioka, looks like the most absurdly impossible sort of children’s book illustration, while SWATH, particularly thanks to its cinematography by Greig Fraser, is filled through and through with the gritty, grey-brown-black darkness that in a post-Christopher Nolan world has come to signify “hardcore, edgy realism” in popcorn cinema. Certainly, if you had to pick which of the films is more realistic, I doubt that a single person would hesitate which one they’d point to.
But it’s not as simple as that. After all, the main charm of Mirror Mirror – many would concede that it has no charms at all, but I’m increasingly fond of it – is not that it’s physically impossible, but that it uses sets, costumes, and judicious CGI to suggest that it is physically possible, and thus find a way to realistically depict fantastic imagery of a kind buried deep within Western childhood in a way that is both plausible and imaginative at the same time. SWATH, meanwhile, maybe be grimier, bloodier, and Stewartier, but it’s still about a magical queen who can transform into a flock of ravens and speaks to a sentient mirror. The nods to summer-style realism aren’t there to ground it, Batman Begins like, but to increase the impact of those magical elements when they appear.
So the lesson of the two Snow White pictures may well be this: fantasy and reality aren’t really opposite forces, but different ways of looking a thing that accentuate each other. And while I have chosen a specifically magical setting in which to make that claim, it applies more broadly than that; think of the way Magic Mike splits its audience between hooting and hollering at the strip show and considering the facts of the lives behind the dancing; or how 21 Jump Street wins so many laughs by contrasting a purely fictional version of life in high school with a movie version of real high school with what we all know is actually high school. Heck, I bet there are even examples from movies that don’t star Channing Tatum, though if there’s a better example in 2012 of something that conflates fantasy and reality than that man’s career, I don’t know what it is.