Saturday, 21 February 2009

Part II: The Rise of Fantasy

It would be tempting to attribute the rise of fantasy simply to a ‘pendulum’ process in popular taste, where sci-fi and fantasy alternate each other in the preferences of the public. The decline of science-fiction could then be seen as a matter of fashion; people became tired of the genre and turned to fantasy to find entertainment elsewhere. There may still be some truth to this, yet as an explanation it is still insufficient to explain the impressive technical and thematic movement in cinema that we have been seeing since the turn of the millennium. Fantasy movies, we are going to claim, have exploded precisely because they stage the death of the medium (or, they offer a representation of the space that is created after the death of the medium). But if this is what they do, they are certainly not alone: in fact, their rise to prominence must be understood as only the tip of the iceberg in a general phenomenon comprising several other overwhelmingly successful films in genres far different from that of fantasy. A few examples: the new CGI animation films by Pixar and Dreamworks, the recent Marvel superhero movies, Zack Snyder’s Sin City and 300, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. These are but the most notorious, and despite their belonging to a different 'genre,' they pertain to exactly the same kind of film as Lord of the Rings.

How are these films really similar? Let’s explore the question for a second.

One of the things that binds most of these films together is the heavy use of CGI. We may even call them a CGI-genre of their own, inasmuch as this technique, in them, transcends its status as a special effect and dictates the very vision of the movie. The claim that I would like to forward is that the unreal worlds generated by means of these CGI techniques function in the same way as the ‘beyond-the-borders’ space symbolised by the screen (as mentioned in the previous entry), and that it is on this account that we determine their success: fantasy films seem a more pertinent, more incisive representation not of an alternative reality but of our real world (at least in terms of how we visualise and conceptualise it) than the scenarios offered by science-fiction.

In part, this process begins with CGI itself. CGI is massively employed in fantasy films as the means to create a cogent world. It is not simply a corollary special effect, but it invades the entirety of the world of representation, as is most notable in 300, which exploits its effects in everything from the lighting to generating inexistent locations, or the Pixar movies, which are of course composed solely of CGI. CGI images exist on a plane which conforms to the rules of unmediated, simultaneous space which constitute the screen: even though their qualitative difference is retained, their value and function is homogenized: a dinosaur is recognizably distinct from a space-ship, but they are both perceived to exist on the same plane, as unreal to the same degree, with the same relationship to the characters, to the actors or to the camera, and generated by the same technique. In old special effects, the technical source of the effect was differentiated: mechanical engineering for robots, stop-motion for moving models, bomb-disposal teams for explosions, blue-screen for montage. When these effects were captured and translated into images, these images retained the differentiated value that they originally held when on the ‘other side’ of the camera. But CGI images have no ‘other side’ of the camera; indeed, they have no relationship with the camera at all, for they are never filmed, they are never actually with the actors or under the eyes of the director. Whatever the image being displayed will invariably come from the same source and correspondingly have the same value.

A real fake shark

An unreal fake shark

Yet the ‘source’ in question – the matrix of their virtual plane, the point of origin or reference which generated them – is not a different world in itself, but only another virtual plane. It is the world of computer programs. These images are a virtuality emerging from the same space of another virtuality; it is a world that generates itself, and no grounds for differentiation are given. Such a virtuality permeates fantasy movies to an unprecedented degree, no longer simply as a special effect, but influencing and dictating the very filming techniques.

For example: one of the most distinctive camera effects in fantasy movies is the ‘aerial’ sweep, a case in which the camera ‘unhinges’ itself and goes flying wherever it pleases, nullifying all practical problems of distance or perspective. It depends on CGI inasmuch as only through this effect it is possible not only to generate but also to choreograph the massive amount of detail being swept over. Occurring almost every time there is a battle or, often, when we are introduced to an important setting such as Sauron’s fortress or Saruman’s mines in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, this technique has expanded well beyond the fantasy genre (see for instance Spiderman’s leaping between skyscrapers with the camera flying after him, or the perspective in 300 closely following the bodies of Persian guards as they fall down a deep well). While there are variations in degree and technique which allow for individual exceptions, still in most of these cases this is no-one’s perspective, with neither a stable centre nor a stable frame, with no point of reference or anchorage; we are not watching the action from a given location, rather letting the action magnetise the movement of the frame, following every single sword-clash and death. There are other camera techniques also which conform to these principles, such as the ‘spinning’ fight-scene pictures, as first seen in The Matrix: in the middle of a confrontation between two characters, the camera will suddenly enter slow-motion, unhinge itself from its original perspective, and spin freely around the two characters.

A brief note – is it a coincidence that there are a number of films which stand in opposition to the trend we are discussing and which base their appeal on ‘looking real,’ or on making a claim to some form of realism, simply by using the opposite cinematographic techniques? By this I mean not only ‘documentarian’ films like Moore’s Bowling at Columbine and Spurlock’s Super Size Me (another phenomenon which has exploded in popularity), or borderline titles like Cohen’s Borat, but also more common productions like the Jason Bourne trilogy (Liman / Greengrass), Reeves’ Cloverfield or the TV series 24. It is important to note that these films base their realism less on the plausibility of their representations than on exploiting camera techniques which are the opposite of those discussed above: they are meant to show not the real world (this we have forgotten how to visualize), rather something which we may call ‘real film.’ While Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer produce themselves in combat scenes often worthy of The Matrix, the camera which follows them is strictly in real time (24 especially makes a point of this), often fixed in incommodious locations like the top of a shower or a corner obstructed by furniture, and invariably lacking a stable tripod support. The resulting ‘shaky’ or ‘bouncy’ effect underlines precisely the limitations of the perspective, incapable of transcending its status as simply a (hand-held) camera following the events in the world. This too is a trend which occurs across multiple genres; the TV series Battlestar Galactica is rather far-fetched science-fiction, but it still uses the above techniques in its attempt to produce a ‘realistic,’ gritty, materially dirty, close-to-real-life vision of the future.

In fantasy films, by contrast, the ‘eye’ of the camera has been liberated from the referent of its perspective and can be anywhere at any time (or in any time). While it used to be that perspective determined the signs that could be seen, it now seems that the signs are foregrounded over the perspective – as though they had no medium. To put it another way, it seems that the view does not need to be mediated through the perspective.

Not that the dialectic between these two kinds of film is all-comprehending of course, but consider its implications: it's not a duality between realistic and unrealistic films, rather a duality where one kind of film uses unreal cinematographic techniques and the other uses real ones, but the world they represent is always unreal. Hence the point: we have forgotten how to visualize the real (or we are not interested in representing it, which amounts to the same thing). Hence, also, the rise of fantasy as a reflection of such a process in our collective imaginary. Much like, in The Matrix, the real is just a desert (an absence of signs as much as it is in absence of objects) and all occurs in the dialectic overworld - underground (skyscrapers versus tube stations, to make it clearer), so in our own imaginary there is no such thing as the real anymore, there are only variating forms of unreality.

The above is also the novel and binding feature of fantasy, Pixar’s and Snyder’s films which truly has them all as belonging to the same genre: the fact that the signs composing these films do not need any medium at all. No doubt this finds its best expression in the ‘Black Pearl’ ship in Pirates of the Caribbean: its capacity to sail with ripped sails is emblematic of the sign being sufficient, and its medium (the wind) being unnecessary.

Of course, the image is not ‘wilfully’ symbolic – it is supposedly justified by means of ‘magic.’ But this is precisely the point. Magic is supposed to be the contemporary deus ex machina by which fantasy justifies the levelling of the value of its signs into the space of the screen (the fact that everything in that world, all of its signs, can be arbitrarily ‘changed’ or made to follow arbitrary rules) – or, the equivalence of value by which they become immediately and mutually exchangeable, or unreal. To further explain (and clarify, since the above few sentences must have sent the brains of almost anyone in my readership into overheating): much like everything in fantasy worlds is touched (or ‘touchable’) by CGI, so everything can potentially be affected by magic: when Gandalf loses his temper in Bilbo’s home, the world suddenly turns dark around him and he augments in size; when one of the dark riders approaches Frodo on a country road, the whole road seems to expand and contract (this too was pre-empted by The Matrix, the last great science-fiction film which announced the very death of science-fiction; immediately after Neo assumes his prophesised identity and destroys Agent Smith, he flexes and the corridor around him contracts with him); when elves such as Arwen or Galadriel enter into scene, they do so shining in a sort of tunnel of light. None of these details are present in Tolkien’s original book, or not nearly so explicitly. What we are witnessing is magic used as an alibi for the immateriality of these fantastic worlds; worlds which are immaterial inasmuch as they are not burdened with questions of history, geography, science – in brief, they are not burdened with reality. They are light, like helium, bearing no weight of their own at all.

Yet magic’s role of pretence as such has already decayed. Zack Snyder’s 300 is not a fantasy film, and has no ‘magic’ in it at all (if anything, its portrayal of the oracles as well as some of the Spartan claims to ‘reason’ suggest a certain hostility towards mysticism). Nonetheless, it boasts a plethora of lavishly unreal creatures which matches anything in Jackson’s movies, from the initial wolf with disproportionate body-features and glowing eyes all the way to the impossibly deformed Ephialtes, the ‘orc,’ the mammoth-sized elephants, or the gigantic executioner. These creatures are patently free from all referents of reality: the wolf is not meant to look like a wolf at all, nor even to have any connection to a real wolf whatsoever. Yet there is no ‘magic’ to excuse this disassociation of the sign from its material referent. It is simply a given premise of the film – more than that, it is part of its appeal.

In fact, even in something like Lord of the Rings, magic can only account for part of its simulacral order of signs. The heightened use of lighting is employed for much more than the introduction of the elfin characters: from the Edenic Hobbit-shire to the overdrawn shadows in Moria’s caves, the entirety of the film appears set in locations too ‘shiny’ or intense to be real. The council at Rivendell, for one, sets such a glow on the frame that it almost anticipates the techniques in 300. As importantly, the ‘Black Pearl’ tendency to foreground signs over their mediums is not restricted to magic at all, and it is this tendency which truly binds all of these films together, from the pirates as representatives of a Disneyland simulation rather than murderers and rapists to the 300 Spartans as mythical identities consuming themselves in their own spectacle.

The similarities in the presentation of these concepts suggest that these films are much closer than their differences in genre would lead us to believe. They all represent in common a space where everything is instant, simultaneous, equal in value – immediate, and by extension unmediated. By this representative register do these films better reflect the reality of our world than science fiction, and for this reason they have a greater appeal. But the implication of their belief that all that is interesting, good, dramatic or valuable must occur within the confines of an unmediated space (a space which I have called the screen in our previous essay, but which may go by any other name) is, of course, a very preoccupying one: for in such a scenario, any ideology that is expressed outside that space appears impoverished. In other words, we are looking at a world where the only ideologies which function are those which are unreal, existing only in the neutral space of the media. This may be the driving force behind anything from Yathzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation to the ascent of Barack Obama. But until we learn how to visualise the real again, rather than exiling it (in our imaginary) to the style-less, sign-less deserts of the out-world of the Matrix, fantasy will remain the only genre that we deserve.


Mory said...

Some of this I find unreadable, but what I understand of it is very interesting.

I don't think we've gone as far from reality as we're going to. The more prevalent virtual spaces become, the more divorced we're going to get from the old way of perceiving the real world, and I don't think that shift is over. Today, we regularly switch back and forth between realities without giving it any thought. I walk into a room, then I'm on a web site looking around, then I get a call on my cell phone and start having a conversation, then I choose to relax with a videogame. It's all one virtual environment on top of another; the real world is not "all there is", it's just one possible place to spend your time.

But we still haven't reached the point where the real world is no more important than any other environment. We're approaching it, to be sure, but such drastic changes in worldview don't happen overnight. So I suspect movies will only get less attached to reality in the future.

By the way, you seem to be implying that that's a bad thing. I may have misinterpreted. But if I haven't, I disagree.

John Silver said...

Hey Mory, apologies for taking so long to reply. Work is really hectic these days.

I don't know if our incapacity to visualise the real should be ranked as a 'bad' thing. However I do have a gut feeling that the real should not be forgotten at the expense of these other worlds if only because it is their matrix. All these other worlds are just peripheries, and forgetting where they come from cannot be good.

I guess a lot depends on our meaning of the term 'reality'. You seem to refer to it as a cohesive representation of 'a world', hence on par with other possible representations of worlds, real or virtual (or did I misunderstand you?). Me, I'm thinking of the real primarily as a referent - representations 'refer' to the real to the extent that consequences must have causes, different places must exist in different spaces, etc. If representation forgets how to visualise this, we get a space where everything is simultaneous - the world of fantasy (and beyond) where magic can revert any sign, object or event without reference to anything.

But as I say in the post of course magic is no longer needed to attain this effect; hence all the movies I mention (300, Spiderman, Pixar) are fantasy to the same degree even though they have no magic and don't belong to the genre.

I don't know if that clears things a little, I hope it does!