Magical Realist Films
by David Isaak
A Miser's Dozen
Ah, Magical Realism. Or maybe Magic Realism. Even in literature, we aren't quite certain of the label, much less the definition. There is plenty of room for debate when the label is applied to a given story or novel.
The debate redoubles when the term(s) are applied to film. People have asserted that any number of films are Magical Realist in nature, including The Night of the Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Both of those are great films, but I see little in common between them except that they are, ahem, "kind of weird." That isn't enough for me. If "kind of weird" is sufficient, we would have to include the atrocious John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, the epic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and anything Ed Wood directed. (My significant other insists I mention the talented but odd turn by Brando as an Okinawan in Teahouse of the August Moon.Yep. Kind of weird.)
One of the problems, of course, is lifting a literary term and trying to apply it to film. Film is a medium that dwells on the surface. Unless voice-over is employed, film is literally superficial: it shows what people do and say, but can't penetrate to what they think and feel except by implication. Cinema is brilliant at visual and auditory power, but it is still a very thin medium compared to written fiction.
Seeing is believing. The camera is generally perceived as an objective observer, and few filmmakers care to quarrel with this interpretation; they want to preserve the authority of the camera, without the filter of a point of view. Unless it is clearly shown to be a dream sequence shortly after, movies generally avoid the subjective. (Exceptions can be made for brief eyes-of-the-beholder moments where vision goes wobbly because of drugs, or the screen goes to black after the detective is clouted with a bottle.)
Almost no films are shot "through the eyes of." Indeed, very few films even maintain a single-character point of view. Many screenwriters cite Robert Towne's Chinatown as the best screenplay ever written—and I wouldn't argue against it, as it's a masterpiece—but almost no one notes that much of its power resides in never departing from Jake Gittes' (Jack Nicholson's) point of view; we never, ever see a scene where Gittes isn't present, and we never know more than Gittes knows. This kind of discipline is common in the novel, but rare on the screen.
This perceived objectivity of the camera gives film immense authority, but it also presents the filmmaker with special problems. The more multidimensional universe of written fiction allows greater latitude; the writer can smear the boundaries between internal, external, and metaphoric realities with ease, and, unless constrained by genre conventions, can create a unique reality.
The objective, somewhat documentary quality of film turns apologetic, almost defensive, when confronted with the uncanny. I'm not arguing that film can't portray alternate realities. It can handle Star Wars, or even Harry Potter. The problem is that film generally aches to explain or parameterize what you see on the screen. After all, you saw it. They never want you to question the pictures. You can have a different set of rules (science fiction, or standard fantasy, or even—whoops!—it was all a dream!) but the viewer needs to understand and have faith in the all-seeing, emotionless camera.
Explanation is inconsistent with what I think of as the nature of Magical Realism. Magical Realism isn't a self-consistent alternate reality; otherwise why not include Lord of the Rings or Asimov's Foundation trilogy? Nor is it a series of odd points of view that are later explained away as someone's dreams or insanity or fantasies, or a shifting temporal frame as in Pulp Fiction. The whole reason Magical Realism works is because, in some unexplained way, another order of existence has intersected with, collided with, or bled across into what would otherwise be everyday reality. It is not the exchange of one set of rules for another; that would be fantasy or science fiction. Nor is it the simple existence of the unexplained or the uncanny, which can easily veer into horror. No, the sense of Magical Realism only arises when the extraordinary is either an immanent pattern perceived in the background of ongoing events, or is illumination or culmination of realistic events, or offers a counterpart to consensus reality.
The brilliant psychiatrist Stanislav Grof describes the boundaries of states of consciousness as being similar to the beach. On the shore, everything is stable, and beyond, out in the gentle rise and fall of the ocean, everything is stable in another way, but the real action is in the surf zone, where the two worlds intersect. That uncertain, unpredictable, unmappable zone is where Magical Realism reigns.
Cinema isn't at home in the surf zone. The surf is fluctuating, moving, indescribable, beyond rules. This is a comfortable region for the writer, with all perceptions coming through the consciousness of characters, or at least a narrative voice; but it is difficult territory for the presumed objectivity of the camera. Therefore, I believe the key element in Magical Realism in film is an acceptance of ambiguity that is rare in film. This can range from a powerful but unexplained undercurrent of meaning behind realistic events, to intersections or intrusions of another order of reality.
To put it in more practical terms, for me Magical Realism in the cinema consists of ambiguous stories where the peculiar or magical elements could, in principle, be explained away; yet preserves a sense of purpose and portent that goes beyond the surface meaning. I'd like to list a few of these movies, journeying from the most staid to the most peculiar. No director seems to have a particular affinity for Magical Realism as I define it, except for Terry Gilliam, who appears three times in my list.
SOMETHING'S GOING ON HERE . . . I THINK: Movies with undercurrents of ineffable significance
Picnic at Hanging Rock (directed by Peter Weir). Based on Joan Lindsay's novel, which gives the feeling of historical events but in fact is fictional, the film covers the disappearance of three schoolgirls and a teacher on a school outing in Australia in 1900. Every scene, every conversation, every moment is fraught with meaning and a sense of imminent disaster, and yet the truth never emerges. Almost bulges with undisclosed implication and nuance.
O Lucky Man! (directed by Lindsay Anderson). A crazy, long film based on the structure of Candide, it carries the protagonist through a torrent of events which eventually suggests that his whole life has been propelled by the need to make the film he is currently starring in . . . all of which is made stranger by the fact that many actors appear in multiple roles, giving the impression that large wheels are moving behind the fabric of reality.
Heavenly Creatures (directed by Peter Jackson). Love them or hate them, don't judge Peter Jackson entirely on Lord of the Rings and King Kong. If you ever had doubts about Peter Jackson's brilliance, watch this film. Based on real events in the life of mystery writer Anne Perry, it takes place in New Zealand, where two young girls, obsessed with one another, are pried apart by society, and decide to murder their parents rather than be separated. Tabloid stuff? Sure—until you see the way that Jackson counterpoints the girls' storytelling world against reality.
Adaptation (directed by Spike Jonze). In an attempt to translate the lovely little nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into a movie (a supremely idiotic idea in the first place), real-life genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) and his not-so-genius and nonexistent twin brother (played by Nicholas Cage) keep trying to attack reality to make it conform to the needs of a movie, and eventually succeed, somehow, in twisting actual events utterly out of kilter until they conform to Robert McKee's screenwriting rules. Artistic precepts—if you can call them that—reshape life itself, in unpredictable yet very Hollywood ways.
NOW, WAIT A MINUTE, I REALLY SAW THAT: Not satisfied with lurking in the background, other realities begin to intrude
Tideland (directed by Terry Gilliam). Based on Mitch Cullin's slim, brilliant novel. Poor little Jeliza-Rose. Daddy's a junkie who up and dies out in the middle of Nowheresville, Texas, leaving Jeliza-Rose all alone (well, Daddy's just resting . . . ). Alone, that is, except for her talking doll heads, and various rodents and insects, and a pair of really odd neighbors. Any bit of it might be her imagination, and any bit of it might be exactly real. This is how Gilliam spent his time when he was supposed to be concentrating on the big-budget flop The Brothers Grimm.
The Fisher King (directed by Terry Gilliam). A wonderful film that garnered all sorts of awards, at first glance the story seem straightforward. It's easy to dismiss Parry's (wonderfully filmed) visions as the fantasies of a disturbed mind. But as the movie progresses, the message splits in two: yes, Parry is deluded, and the things he thinks are magical are mundane things he has misconstrued; and, yet, those mundane things are magical in their final results, like it or not.
Don't Look Now (directed by Nicholas Roeg). One of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen, and more disturbing each time I see it. Yet not much happens. The death of a child, early on. Some premonitions and warnings. And . . . Venice, which in Roeg's hands is even more foreboding than in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Something begins to close in on the protagonist as he searches for his daughter (or her ghost, or her double . . . ). Unexplained and inexplicable. I've been lost in the back alleys of Venice around midnight, and I have to tell you I was starting to see little hunched figures in red coats out of the corner of my eye. If anyone knows what this portentous movie is really about, will you drop me an e-mail and explain? I get goosebumps just writing about it,
Pan's Labyrinth (directed by Guillermo del Toro). A young girl explores a magical kingdom and underworld against the gritty backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. This could be interpreted as a story about how imagination allows the human spirit to thrive even under the bleakest of conditions. It could also be seen as two parallel realities. The director bravely gives no unambiguous clues, and treats the two worlds as if they are equally real and valid.
Jacob's Ladder (directed by Adrian Lyne). A sleek little story about death. But what is real, what is metaphoric, and what is real but colored by "The Ladder", a hallucinogen? Or are all three facets of a single reality? Alternate realities intrude into our everyday world, and the film finally suggests that the intrusions are the only real elements . . .
Celine and Julie Go Boating (directed by Jacques Rivette). In my book, as far as Magical Realism can go in film without falling off the ledge into full-blown fantasy. Two women, who seem to interchange roles at moments, appear to discover the solution to a murder mystery through ghostly personal experiences of the event . . . which they can then share with each other through a piece of candy. At last, they manage to save the victim from this recurring fate. But then their own story starts over, with roles reversed. Is this all imagination, or very real but subject to rules we don't understand? Don't count on Rivette to explain.
That makes ten films. I would have been happy to think of a dozen, and I certainly considered more (The Red Balloon; Run, Lola, Run; Intacto; 21 Grams). Yet I can only come up with one more I feel fits my criteria; hence, the Miser's Dozen, two less than the Baker offers.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (directed by Terry Gilliam). Gilliam treats Hunter Thompson's book, line-by-line, as though it were the Bible. The problem is, you never know for sure, in Thompson's gloriously messed-up world, what really happened, what was hallucinatory, what was exaggerated, and what is miraculous. Does Gilliam give any additional clues? Nope. He films it as written, without the slightest directorial suggestion as to where reality lies.
Now wait a minute. Am I actually suggesting there is such a thing as Magical Realism Journalism?
I guess I am. Perhaps James Frey should have used that as a way of explaining away his "memoir" A Million Little Pieces, which he eventually characterized as "ninety-five percent true." (As a friend of mine pointed out, that leaves 950,000 Little Pieces, which is still a lot of little pieces.) If Frey's book had tossed in a few children floating up into the air or a frozen river running through Ohio in the summertime, perhaps Oprah would still have him on speed-dial.
Story Copyright © 2007 by David Isaak. All rights reserved.
About the author
David Isaak is the author of Shock and Awe, a thriller recently published by Macmillan. He lives in California and maintains Tomorrowville, an active blog.