The following article was published in N-SPHERE Omega.
What makes cinema such a powerful environment is its ability to make the worlds presented seem real. Indeed, literature does that too, but in many cases cinema does this faster and with greater impact, because of its immediacy. Whereas literature has to create from scratch those worlds, cinema only has to make them believable. While this is not very difficult when it comes to a neorealist motion picture for example, or a documentary, one cannot say the same about those movies that deal with fictional aspects. Here, things may get a little complicated, but they also get more diverse, because there is no standard recipe as far as this aspect is concerned. Basically, in my opinion, this is where cinema starts: in depicting the less-familiar.
Fiction and intimacy go hand in hand here, because there is no standard pattern that is applicable on large scale in the real world and even if there would be, many would prefer to avoid it. To make things even more fun, this does not apply to the plot development only, but to the way the characters are developed as well. It is a matter of perspective.
One of the first movies that comes to my mind, in this particular case is Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures whose protagonists end up taking a life. However, the film revolves and is constructed around the notion of fantasy and even the real scenes have the same feeling attached to them. This is, indeed, a fairly standard approach and I am aware you have seen it before in many films, but what is not so standard about it is the way the protagonists are being portrayed. Not even in the final scenes are they directly depicted as murderers. The fantasy layer here goes as far as to alter the »real« layer as well as if the real protagonists were mirror images of the characters fleshed out in the fantasy world, not the other way around.
El Laberinto del Fauno by Guillermo del Torro revolves around the same notions and goes even further, by directly linking the two worlds. Therefore, here we do not have fantasy and reality going hand in hand, but two distinct worlds, both real in their own rights, interacting with one another. This is, again, another pattern that is used on a large scale. The first example that comes to mind is Darren Aronofsky‘s The Fountain and even Gerard McMurrow‘s Franklyn. The latter depicts both worlds very convincingly, so the end of the film is not really that relevant: take it out of the table and you will have an even more delicious movie. The list can go on with many other films. In these particular cases, the real/fantasy junctions work mostly only on the level of storytelling, they create new possibilities and sometimes may even give the viewer some new ideas.
However, in spite of everything mentioned earlier, strictly on a cinematic level, this approach is pretty plane and some dedicated cinephiles may find it unrewarding because in most cases it revolves only around the story and the same things could have happened in case of a book.
This is why some directors and viewers prefer a different approach, one where the fantasy elements are not treated/rendered differently from the real ones, where we don’t have indicators to tell us which is which. On the one hand, this may be a more effective approach because, if anything out of the ordinary will happen in real life, I am pretty certain that we won’t have any »indicators«, but those things will happen in the same way every other casual thing happens. So, in this case, the real challenge is to make those scenes extremely convincing. In mainstream cinema, one of the most popular examples is The Blair Witch Project, which not only attracted praise by both the public and the critics, but also a considerable number of copycats. However, The Blair Witch Project was not the first film to use this approach, but the first modern film to bring it back into the spotlight. More than two decades ago, an Australian film had walked the same grounds. It’s named Picnic at Hanging Rock and it was directed by Peter Weir (The Last Wave, Dead Poets Society). The difference between the two of them is that Picnic uses a far more poetic tone, but, interestingly enough, to the same effect – to »summon« a new protagonist: Nature (this will occur in Weir‘s later effort, The Last Wave as well). Of course, younger audiences may find this film dated, some would not understand what is the big fuss about it, mainly because of the two decade difference between the two films. On a similar ground, but on a more »metaphysical« tone, we find Tarkovsky‘s Solyaris or Stalker.
However, fiction does not only include supernatural events; a fictional event may be also something we imagined we have seen, someone we imagined we met or we think we are – I will choose three films here: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock), Fight Club (David Fincher) and American Psycho (Mary Harron). In Psycho we have a pretty clinical and straightforward approach, but also an effective one. We do not see Norman’s mother in the flesh, but we do hear her in the end and somehow feel her presence. Psycho is effective because it does not show much, but suggests a lot. The film does not focus on showing how its protagonists became who they are, instead it’s focused in depicting »the result« in a very convincing manner. In simple terms: we are not told or shown, in detail, throughout the film, how Norman developed his possessive alter ego (his mother) – we are given a brief explanation in the end – but the more we watch Norman, the more we are convinced that we are face to face with a deeply deranged human being. This strategy of focusing on depicting convincing characters or events, instead of wasting time with useless explanations was frequently used by Carl Theodore Dreyer and the resurrection scene in the end of Ordet serves as a perfect example.
Whereas Psycho suggests, Fight Club shows. Here, the protagonist and his alter-ego are treated as separate entities. An obvious choice after all, since the film does not spend too much time on clinical observations regarding the evolution of its protagonist. Instead, it takes a rather »positive« attitude towards his condition – »OK, I am having a stranger period, let’s see what I can make of it« – which, indeed, points to a more stylistic approach. Many things that happen throughout the film (the ending included) are more legit as pure fiction, however, because it is very verbal and has a rather pragmatic tone. Fight Club makes its viewers forget these minor details and so does American Psycho: even if Bateman remains a serial killer only in his mind, in the end of the film he makes a convincing serial killer outside as well.
I mentioned before Dreyer and explaining versus suggesting. While this is a very effective approach on its own, Polanski proves that we can have it the other way around as well, especially in films such as Repulsion or The Tenant. In both we are shown how a mind can turn against itself. However, do not expect a standard recipe here, because none of these two films are wasting time giving lectures. Instead, Polanski accomplishes his task by using very little. Basically, he takes small events that can cause slight distress, and plays them against a character who has a predisposition to paranoia (for example: the scenes in which Trelkovsky asks for Gauloises, but he is served only Marlboro because the bar he was in »conveniently« ran out of Gauloises and Marlboro was the only brand they had). There is also another detail that I think contributes a lot in creating the right atmosphere: the way the people’s faces are shot. It is menacing, as if those people are ready to kill you anytime.
There is another category of interesting films here: the ones in which you cannot tell for sure whether what you see is fiction or reality, or in more exact terms: you can’t tell for sure if it is one reality or another. There are these films who use two opposite assumptions simultaneously and they never give you a direct on clue on which one is real and which one is fiction. For me, these films are interesting both on a storytelling level and on a cinematic one. The most recent film exploring this ground I came across is Sound of My Voice by Zal Batmanglij in which we are given reasons for both sides and – what is even more amusing – that we are given plenty of reasons to believe that both sides are true simultaneously. What I like about these films is that they are exploratory by definition, and somehow they encourage you to make various connections, to expand the material and it is not an easy task to accomplish cinematically, either.
There is another notion that rhymes with fiction and that is eroticism, especially if we talk about fiction of a darker nature. Ken Russell‘s Gothic does a fairly good job combining the two. While there are not many passionate character interactions in the film, one cannot deny it has a deeply erotic approach even it its sickest scenes. Russell‘s (and implicitly Gabriel Byrne‘s) depiction of Byron plays and important role, I would go s far as to say the most important role. He is not depicted as simple character/protagonist, but he is depicted nearly as a God of sorts, an entity coordinating everything and Gabriel Byrne I think is the perfect actor for this task. His performance is mesmerizing, submissive and passionate and at one point one may ask oneself on whether the film incorporates it or if this sole performance is guiding the film. And then, there is the imagery. No surprises here, for Ken Russell‘s ability to create vivid and striking images is well known (Altered States anyone?).
Another film I found particularly erotic was The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes by the Quay Brothers. In this case the first thing that comes into my mind is the story: it is both eerie, but strangely believable (not as in it can happen for real, but as in yes, this looks like a story). It does not have a particular message, but it can catch you in its web just by looking at it. The story itself if deeply cinematic. There is also the outlandish tone/acting, the animations; overall, it is a film to be experienced rather than dissected for a particular meaning.
With all its political allegory, Mircea Danieliuc‘s Glissando walks the same shoes. The film – which is an adaptation of Cezar Petrescu‘s short story Omul din Vis – binds together dream and reality, realism and surrealism and works best as an eerie fairytale with an occasionally Fellinesque touch (Satyricon, anyone?). And yes, the film contains a fair amount of nudity, but yes (again) this is an irrelevant aspect.
In the perspective discussed here, eroticism doesn’t necessarily imply anything involving a sexual act, but is referring to that specific type of energy. I think a film can be erotic without necessarily having sex scenes (Valerie and her week of wonders) and, even when it does have it, it is not those scenes themselves that give the film this tone, but the way they are crafted (the sex scene in Don’t look now or the more intimate scene in Tarkovsky‘s Offret are two examples). But if we are to talk about eroticism in both ways, we cannot overlook Walerian Borowczyk. In The Beast(1975), he takes a straightforward story and overlaps it with an erotic fantasy revolving around The Beauty and The Beast, framing everything in the tone of a farce. The latter was barely noticed at the time of the film’s release, due to its shocking content. While his name is sometimes unfairly and unwittingly linked to soft-core porn, Borowczyk‘s films (especially his earlier ones) show a versatile director, able to shift gears and create idiosyncratic and haunting films.
The list can go further with titles, names and approaches, but I believe that so far, this is enough. It is time for you, dear reader, to take your pick and viddy well.
photo | The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Quay Brothers. Filmstill.
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