Monday, June 2, 2008

Big Budget Fantasy

I had a conversation recently that made me think in broad terms about the films I see. I had to admit I had not seen "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood", well reviewed, realist films that are, by all accounts, genuine additions to the "good film club". I had every intention of seeing them on release, but I often have good intentions to see films currently on the big screen. This is the way movies should be seen. But I didn't go. They are available on DVD now. And I still haven't seen them.

On one hand, I love serious film - on a simple level, artfully made cinema can show us real life and the problems involved with it. I love Carl Dreyer; I've started exploring Bergman. Murnau. Lang. Capra. By that short list alone, you can tell I am very cautious with new films.

When you don't watch films every day - and with stories available in so many other forms, I don't - sometimes the film you find yourself watching is simply for entertainment. Can we expect more from a film that supposedly is only for entertainment purposes?

Which brings me to Hollywood's seemingly recent high-priced love affair with big budget, epic fantasy films. I love a fantasy movie. I am excited by the ways in which the unreal can be shown on screen. The fantastic, in the right creator's hands, illuminates the possibilities of our reality instead of just showing reality. By finding humanity in situations that are not real, the meaning of that humanity seems to be clearer, felt at a deeper level. Fantasy comments on what could be, if only we looked at our situations in a different light. This "different light" is what cinema - fantastic or realist - does so well as an art form.

But the "different" is what seems to be lacking in most Hollywood cinema. I saw "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and found it to be a pretty powerful cinematic experience. This was only because of the small moments in the film, moments not copied from other, similar films. What gets repeated? The wide angle, amazing landscape shot, for one. At the beginning of the film, when Caspian rides his horse valiantly out of the castle and through the woods, past mountains and trees and... you know this scene. It was a staple of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Place, and landscape, are very important elements in any fantasy. But when we see the same shots over and over, they lose all their power and grandeur. And it really doesn't take long for that to happen.

The other major similarity in these films is the epic battle scene. I don't feel I even need to detail this.

In contrast to the battles, I believe fantasy works better on a smaller scale. At least it becomes more meaningful, better able to tell us about reality. After all, fantasy is an inward look for most of us, bringing forth what we have inside of us - our dreams, aspirations and fears. Filmmakers often ignore this scale, but there is a sequence in "Caspian" that is a true triumph. When Lucy falls asleep at the campfire, she awakens to find herself called by Aslan into the forest. The lighting is the clear lighting of a new day, the leaves float around her, forming into spirits as the trees move and direct Lucy toward the lion. The joy on Lucy's face throughout mimics our joy at the beautifully imagined and produced mise-en-scene.

Then Lucy truly awakens. It was a dream - the leaf faeries, the moving trees and the Lion - were all inside of her. She brought them up and met them because they were in her. But when she truly wakes, the light is different. It is day time, but it is a murkier light. The landscape is not so crisp and delightful any longer. And because of this, we instantly realize it was Lucy's dream we were in. But we have learned all about Lucy. We know what is inside of her. Since fantasy is imagination, isn't that what we really want to see?

Epic battles are a fantasy stereotype at this point, and "Caspian" plays along, offering a lot of those. But there is another small moment that makes it easier to sit through more warfare. When High King Peter battles the Telmarine King, one-on-one, they call a respite because they both need a breather. As they turn from each other, leaning sideways, hands on hips, limping slowly, they remind me of my own aging body, standing up after sitting too long and the pains of old age that come creeping up slowly. Realism steps into the bloody fray for one brief moment. It makes the fantasy all the more real. As well as makes us laugh at how foolish the violence really is.

Fantasy's small moments are the ones that offer insight into ourselves and our reality. Since there are very few "small" fantasy movies made, hopefully Hollywood will learn to scale back. Till then...