Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fantasy in Film

To begin with, I haven't the seen either of the installments of this bloated new Hobbit trilogy. I have nothing against them or people who like such things – well, perhaps just a little bit – but to me they and the LOTR movies are a mere mockery of the works closest to my heart. The spinning-out of subplots in the interests of making millions upon millions of dollars I pass over in silence. Same goes for the utter tone-deafness of the screenplays (or what I know of them, at least). No, right now I just want to focus on the visuals, which many would say is their strong point. For they certainly represent a superbly realized vision (and I use "vision" in the literal sense) but such overabundance of eye-candy is somehow inimical – indeed, diametrically opposed – to Tolkien's own vision.

In his "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien says that one purpose of fantasy is to open our jaded, cynical eyes to the beauty of the common everyday world and its inhabitants. It ennobles grass and trees, bread and wine, sun and moon. This he calls Recovery. In his works, most of the narrative takes place in the unadorned, silent forests, plains, mountains, and deserts of Middle Earth, or else in such homely settings as the Shire. These elements combine their various strands into a wordless litany. Tolkien pays attention to mundane detail (food, plant species, topography) while refusing to constantly bombard the reader with the strange, the wonderful, and the terrifying. Because that, ultimately, is what really does jade the reader, and Tolkien's aim is to make us really see the strangeness, the wonder, and the terror in all that we take for granted.

Alas, this is something that has little chance of making it to the big screen in this sad era of bloated, multimillion-dollar CGI epics.

This isn't to say it couldn't be done. It is possible, I think, to use the art of film to fulfill the functions of fantasy. But film adaptations of fantastic fiction rarely achieve this. Generally they serve as vehicles for special effects instead. The eighties was the heyday of such films, e.g., the Star Wars trilogy, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Dune, and so on. I have more than a little affection for several of these. A few of them occasionally come close to what I call fantasy. I think, for instance, of the last part of Excalibur, from the search for the Grail through the departure of Arthur, though the movie as a whole is something of a mess. But in general these films are content to remain action movies. They simply aren't contemplative enough to be fantasy.

Indeed, it isn't every director who can construct the silent cathedral spaces needed to effect Recovery. Fritz Lang was one. He was aided by the fact that his great works were made during the silent era, of course, but his Die Nibelungen and Metropolis will never be equaled in the genre categories of fantasy and science fiction. Both, of course, are fantasies in the sense that I often use the word.

Andrei Tarkovsky was another. His Andrei Rublev and Solaris are two of my favorite films. The Carver quote on my sidebar says: "At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement." Tarkovsky does this with film, and, miraculously, bears the viewer along with him. His movies aren't necessarily "fantasies" in the genre sense, of course, but perhaps the translation of the formal definition from written fiction to film involves a loosening of the matter.

Actually, the film that probably most successfully achieves Recovery – time and space, man and nature – isn't even fiction, but a documentary. I speak of Into Great Silence (2005), an intimate three-hour exploration of life in a Carthusian monastery (the Grand Chartreuse) without background music or a single word of spoken commentary. I went to see it in the theater and have since watched it many times at home; my children, who are four and five, often ask to see it. One of its most beautiful images is of the stars wheeling over the nighted monastery while the monks chant the divine office in a pitch-black church where the tiny red sanctuary candle throbs silently, perpetually. But it also bestows loving attention on mundane details, like ice crystals on green leaves, and jars full of buttons, and the placid surface of holy water in a font, and vegetables ready to be chopped. Its "interviews" consist of the prolonged gaze of the monks themselves.

And perhaps this gives away the extremely high expectations I have of fantasy fiction. I want it to replace, in a small way, the need that in a previous age would have been satisfied by making a retreat at a monastery or visiting a rustic shrine. I'm not speaking of any particular religion here, you understand, but of the universal human need to affirm life's goodness, to open one's eyes to that which is and see one's place in the universe.

I began this post with the intent of writing about a movie I received as a Christmas present, a movie that achieves the goals of fantasy in a distinctively American way, though lying well without the genre. It's gotten away from me now, though, so I'll continue in a second post.

NOTE: Just to show that I'm not just a curmudgeon who doesn't like anything new, I happen to greatly admire Peter Jackson's King Kong. In my humble opinion, he did a service to humanity in making this grand homage to the original film.

Friday, January 17, 2014

An Observation

There is something terrifying and depressing about putting your art out there for people to see.

As long as you're holding something back, you can always say to yourself, I have this in reserve, and can pull it out when I really need to impress. But once it's out there in the cold, clear light of day, you can at last see it from every side, and realize how very small and inadequate it is, and how flawed. Every person who views the work is a curved mirror, and in them you scrutinize your naked self from a million different angles, and are petrified as by the gorgon's head.

It takes a certain humility to strive for any type of greatness, for if you fail then people will see it. It calls for magnanimity, for strict attention to the work itself, for forgetfulness of self. Pusillanimity is secretly tied to pride, the pride that would say to God, I went and buried my talent for I know that you are a hard master, thus flinging his gifts in his teeth.

That is all.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Getting There

I posted recently about my chosen vein of speculative fiction, namely, planetary romance, or the sword-and-planet novel. One peculiarity of early practitioners of this high and lonely art is the variety of means they employed in getting their protagonists to the Other Side.

Among the earliest we have Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel) and H. G. Wells (The First Men in the Moon), both of whom use mechanical means. Verne, who was obsessed with gadgets and "realism," has his travelers fired out of a cannon (and, truth be told, they never actually land on the moon), while Wells, who was more interested in ideas and settings, uses a rather absurd physical artifice, giving mere lip-service to theoretical constraints, much as he does in The Time-Machine. Verne, I believe, took him to task for this, but wrongly, to my mind – I find that I can forgive the author any amount of ridiculousness as to means of transport, so long as his style is sufficient to bear it along, and he attends to realism once we get there. Chandler wrote that plausibility is mostly a matter of style, and I agree with him.

And anyway, look at the historical antecedents, such as they are. Ariosto has his hero drawn by hippogriffs to the moon, and Dante is conducted by celestial spirits. Perseus – the archetypal voyager to the Other Side and slayer of fearsome alien foes – flies on winged sandals lent him by the gods, while St. Brendan executes his wonder-voyage through the North Atlantic in a flimsy leather coracle. The whole point is to get there, never mind how.

David Lindsay follows Wells rather than Verne in the absurdity of his conveyance in A Voyage to Arcturus, but the account is mysterious and quite compelling. Once again, I find it easy to suspend my disbelief in the hands of a competent storyteller. And, once we're there, we're caught up in the protagonist's physical and spiritual reactions to the alien landscape of Tormance, and Earth is all but forgotten.

Other writers didn't trouble themselves to employ even the most superficial of mechanical means. In The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison has Lessingham borne to Mercury in a hippogriff-drawn chariot conducted by a wise martlet (after which he was promptly forgotten). On the other side of the Atlantic we have Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose John Carter has only to look upon the Red Planet with a certain measure of longing to find himself there, though stark naked and seemingly in a different body. Otis Adelbert Kline, a Burroughs imitator from the thirties, uses telepathic body-exchange to get his down-and-out character to Mars. His artifice is less successful, in that we're apparently expected to forget about the fate of the Martian prince trapped in the dispossessed, jilted hero's body back on earth.

Most of the examples we've cited so far have the device of a framing story that involves the principals but is quickly forgotten, which (to me) adds a certain charm not to be found in other veins of literature. Here, then, are the keynotes of classic planetary romance:
  1. The main structure of the tale is that of an everyman observer in an alien milieu.
  2. The observer must be someone with whom we share rapport, hence must originate from Earth or an Earth-based society in something close to our own day and age.
  3. The observer must be immersed in the alien milieu, hence must effectively be cut off from mundane society – marooned, as it were. The milieu must be a closed environment, like a desert island.
  4. Because it's the immersion that matters, the mode of conveyance is of little import. The simpler and quicker, the better.
Some time after the "classic" period, C. S. Lewis wrote two planetary romances, consciously using both mechanical and spiritual means. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped by a rogue professor and his gentleman accomplice and taken to Mars in a spaceship. The ship is just as absurd as anything in Wells or Lindsay, but much more artfully introduced and described. The interplanetary voyage itself is starkly beautiful; I can't think of any other description of space that compares with it. In Perelandra Lewis doesn't bother with technology at all, and has his hero conveyed to Venus in a stone sarcophagus carried by angels. By his own account, this was inspired by a reading of A Voyage to Arcturus. Again, the point is to get there, never mind how.

Later writers were apparently uncomfortable with such flights of fancy, I suppose because the growing canon of science fiction and the advances in rocketry were daily making this scientifictional license less acceptable and less necessary. The protagonists in works like Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, Ursula Le Guin's Rocannon's World, and Frank Herbert's Dune get there by means that are purely mechanical and (within the genre) plausible. So, sadly, we have no more hippogriffs, astral projection, angelic sarcophagi, telepathic mind-exchanges, or backyard rocketships. They've lost something essential, though, because a keynote of the subgenre is that travel to the Other Side has to be exceptional. Otherwise we just have space opera or some other form of science fiction.

Some "planetary romances," instead of taking place elsewhere, take place elsewhen, in the very far future. Examples include H. G. Wells' The Time-Machine, William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, A. E. van Vogt's The Book of Ptath (a.k.a. Two Hundred Million A.D.), Brian Aldiss' The Long Afternoon of Earth, and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. The keynotes are much the same. There is usually some kind of framing story and a fanciful mode of conveyance, or at least (as in Wolfe's case) some playful description of how the account was obtained.

For me personally, what really defines the subgenre is the sense of remoteness, of otherness. I like an observer I can identify with, or at least some kind of reference point with what I'm familiar with, however tenuous, but equally important is my total immersion in the other sphere. These two factors go hand in hand. A novel taking place in some other planet not linked to our own in any way would be out-and-out fantasy (like The Dark Crystal, say); a novel taking place in a planet linked to our own but not utterly severed in time or space is science fiction or alternate history.

Planetary romance: it's its own thing.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Upcoming Fiction

I'm pleased to report that my story "At the Edge of the Sea" is scheduled to appear on Beneath Ceaseless Skies in April, in both print and podcast form. This is my third story to appear in BCS. It's a slightly fractured, fantastic love story with metaphysical flourishes. When I was a kid my dad taught high school marine biology, and sometimes took me on fossil-collecting expeditions in the Hill Country as well as specimen-collecting expeditions to the coast. I loved poring over his copy of the Beachcomber's Guide to Gulf Coast Marine Life. My story is inspired by those memories, and also by Adolf Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns.

To see (or hear) my previous stories at BCS, click here for Misbegotten and here for The Goblin King's Concubine.