Thursday 8 January 2009

In praise of the fantastic

In a webchat earlier this week, Danny Boyle responded to the question of whether he would consider directing a superhero movie with this comment:

"Not a great fan of superhero movies. We need those extremes of storytelling, but are reluctant to use them in anything other than fantasy movies. I think that's a bit sad."

Although I wouldn't dismiss superhero movies as quickly as Boyle, he's right in his main point - most mainstream directors shy away from using fantasy elements when telling stories based in the real world. If you think about it, there's no good reason for this tendency apart from accepted convention. But film is an imaginative medium, a place where the flights of impossible fantasy that we all go on every day, in our minds, can be made real, so why don't more filmmakers explore this? I can think of a handful of directors who blur this real/imaginary line, and I count them all among my favourites.

Boyle himself uses "extremes of storytelling" all the time, and not just in his sci-fi films. His excellent new movie Slumdog Millionaire (pictured) is firmly based in the teeming slums of Mumbai, but it's also shot through with a vein of magical realism that allows characters to fall off a train in the middle of nowhere and come to their senses in the grounds of the Taj Mahal. It's reminiscent of the tone which pervaded his equally lovely 2004 film Millions, which similarly had a child as its central character; perhaps it's a childlike sensibility that allows Boyle to easily step out of the bounds of reality in his screen creations.

Another director who has a healthy understanding of the fantastic and its place in everyday life is Michel Gondry, who continually lets his real world characters have impossible experiences. Whether it's Gael Garcia Bernal in The Science of Sleep discovering a musical note that keeps cotton-wool clouds suspended in mid-air when played or Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind, impossibly making a whole series of elaborate movie homages using only a camcorder and some cardboard and sticky-tape, the point is that these flights of fantasy connect with us on an emotional level. The experience of being human is often inexplicable in 'real' terms, and Gondry understands this, using his films to explore the often fantastical places that our internal lives take us.

And in much darker ways, Paul Thomas Anderson does a very similar thing in his under-appreciated 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love. In fact, considering that Boyle's quote above is specifically about superhero movies, it may be this film that most effectively uses "storytelling extremes" in a way that Boyle would approve of. While on the surface it's a story of two rather odd characters finding each other, the film is also about the extreme sensation of falling in love, and how it's comparable to the empowering transformations that overcome Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk et al. Falling in love fills Adam Sandler's character with a superhuman strength that threatens at moments to go completely out of control, and haven't we all felt that kind of emotion? Anderson makes the experience physical, visual and 'unreal', but it's in this unreality that he gets to the truth of our common experience.

So I'm with Danny Boyle - why should superhero movies have the monopoly on the fantastic when it's such a powerful way of communicating about reality?

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