Fantasy & Place
February 27th, 2015
Fantasy is, after all, the oldest kind of narrative fiction, and the most universal.
Ursula K. Le Guin
I am disappointed I could not summon the gusto to post anything last week: I’d been house hunting feverishly, and have since transitioned into the awkward lame duck period when nothing feels like home. My thirty-days notice is in, but I’m not close to being packed. In order to spend less time dwelling on my dwelling (God, I’m sorry) I chose to riff on fantasy in literature, film, and television.
A Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin has been my tag-along bus book as of late: it’s a snappy collection of essays on reading and writing with a choice blend of craft discussions and unresolved musings on form. I use “unresolved” in the sense of a blue note, rather than a bad ending. She includes just enough shrewd insight to convince, but does not attempt to convert.
The piece “Things Not Actually Present” addresses the origins of fantasy, and its present state: the title alludes to only one of several oblique traits history has offered the form. Le Guin wisely avoids pigeon-holing herself into a single dogmatic principle. Her most staunch conviction is that fantasy can be more universally understood and appreciated than realistic fiction – in the long run, at least. And I agree: people will never stop telling stories about dinosaurs, dragons, magic, aliens, seamonsters and superheroes. Crock pots may not enjoy such a tenure.
Le Guin is optimistic that society’s taste in literary fiction will continue to “return to the sea” and embrace fantasy as more than pop trash or cheap escapism – the clout of authors like Salman Rushdie, J. Luis Borges, Gabriel García Marquez and Italo Calvino serve as evidence of this trend. These writers use the universal imagery and spectacle of fantasy to represent their marginalized communities to a captive global audience. Magical realism, Le Guin suggests, is a more effective cultural guide than any Rick Steve’s, or Carnival Cruise…
Meanwhile, it seems like American visual culture is flagging in the wind. Nationwide’s “dead kid” commercial from the Super Bowl is a perfect metaphor for the state of American film & television: our young protagonist is swept up in a flurry of whimsical playlands (wow! I’m on a pirate ship!!) only to be crushed by a huge flat-screen TV. The source of his brilliant, boundless imagination becomes brutally realistic, and we are back in Kansas, in drab suburbia, once again.
What are some of the best, most artful milestones of American media from the last 20 years? Shows likeBreaking Bad, True Detective, The Wire and The Sopranos come to mind. Yes, they are all television shows, but they all have something else in common: they pay homage to their settings, their landscapes. Just watch the opening credits of The Sopranos again: throughout all six seasons it does not change. It’s North Jersey – the pizza shops, the delis and the small, caged-in lots thinning out into mini-chateaus. In our minds Tony Soprano makes that drive several times a week: just by nature of being a protagonist, by leading a life that is part soccer dad and part nefarious intrigue, he becomes a fairy tale character. As gritty as The Wire is, Omar Little is a modern-day Robin Hood, a Shakespearean mold operating in a Baltimore of legend and lore – a fictitious Baltimore built out of real stories, real people, real crime. Only in that way, through the magic of the lens and the pen, does Charm City (or any city) live up to its name.
Are these shows really fantasy, though? My favorite of Le Guin’s excavated definitions derives from the Greek phantasia, or, “a making visible.” The frame allows any moving image to be fantasy, in the ancient sense of the word. The effect is achieved through a symbiosis of mise en scène and spectatorship. But good fantasy is devotional: the screen pays homage to the matter of the living world where its characters, plots, and devices hover in a hazy web. The twisted voodoo spirit of True Detective is not magic, just awesome production design paired with killer locations. Rust & Marty occupy a Louisiana underworld that captures, then contorts the landscape and folk traditions of the bayou, flirting with the supernatural through drugs, ritual, and psychosis. Verisimilitude isn’t what makes the show interesting – it’s the idea that such a place could exist outside our imaginations, yet functions best within.
TV shows have much more latitude to explore their settings than movies do. Perhaps that is why Peter Jackson chose to stretch The Hobbit into three installments (aside from the obvious monetary interest). A fictional universe with the richness of Middle Earth or a galaxy far, far away deserves to be foraged, fostered, savored, and digested several times over, and people continue to empty their wallets at the box office for whatever umpteenth sequel hits the marquee.
When you invest in fantasy, you expect it to pay dividends. Why, then, do superhero movies, Hollywood’s golden heifer, continue to strip-mine the cities, fortresses, and hideouts that writers, artists, and readers have reveled in for decades? My beef with the genre does not solely concern design or faithfulness: often, poor continuity is the culprit. Take The Dark Knight Rises. Aside from being tedious and clunky, the movie made some egregious leaps away from the murky Gotham of its predecessors. In Nolan’s first two iterations, the iconic city is portrayed as a sprawling river-bound urban wasteland, a grotesque mish-mash of Chicago, Pittsburgh, sixteenth-century London, and even downtown Buffalo. In Rises, Gotham city is Manhattan — there are even fly-bys of the Empire State building — purely for the sake of realizing Bane’s silly, sinister plot. The shortcomings of the writers’ room betrays the moodiness that made the series fun, and at the time, forward-thinking for a popcorn flick.
The grisly superhero flick is already a cliché, though, only a few years since Nolan’s trilogy wrapped up. Superhero movies that don’t go for grisly usually end up as self-parodies, mired in cheese (they can still be pretty entertaining – I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, for what it’s worth). I can’t speak for their quality, but shows like Arrow and Gotham are enjoying committed fanbases and critical recognition; producers may be realizing that the 90-minute feature film is an inferior outlet for the kind of stories that really rope us in. Fantasy, in particular, requires depth: the arcane forms of our collective imagination amount to mere pastiche when presented hastily.
Who knows where that dead kid may have found himself, had he not drowned in the tub – probably not a pirate ship. Still, the American dream of health and prosperity shares three main principles with any good fantasy: it’s all about location, location, location.