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Watching the Future: Worlds of Whimsy and Despair

Thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its follow-up trilogy The Hobbit), the Harry Potter series, and HBO’s own A Game of Thrones, audiences think they have a good understanding of fantasy, or what they think of as fantasy: a setting with a medieval or quasi-medieval feel, with feudal systems and fiefdoms dotting lands plucked from European storybooks; epic battles waged amid the thunder of hoofbeats, the wail of battle cries, and the clang of swords; magics, both subtle and overt, cast by white-haired, robed old men or children brandishing wands (at times with uncomfortable Freudian overtones); and of course a dragon or two—indeed, seldom does an audience member find a fantasy movie lacking enchanted animals.

Ask somebody to stretch their definition of fantasy beyond the borders of Faerie, however, and suddenly a perplexing look crosses their face. Some make perfect sense, even if they don’t involve elves or dwarves: The Thief of Bagdad, King Kong, the Sinbad movies, all certainly qualify, and audiences accept them as such. But what of the cinephile? The sort who calls movies “films?” How many would acknowledge movies where the distinction blurs, where the fantasy passport is scrutinized by the keepers of the arthouse gates? Perhaps they might consider Terry Gilliam’s Brazil fantasy, but the odd mixture of technology and Fascist architecture confuses them. Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse displays much the same structure as, say, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Laybrinth, but many moviegoers I talk to who happen to have caught that particular movie consider it a psychological thriller, the fantastic elements mere flights of its young protagonist’s fancy than anything actually otherworldly. Move way beyond the realms of genre, to artists and masters of craft, and the spectre of fantasy is refused admittance. How could anybody serious about movies (I’m sorry, “films”) classify Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel or Un Chien Andalou as fantasy? Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales is not fantasy but an adaptation of classic literature; surely, they scoff, you cannot classify it as genre? You know the arguments.  These are art; how on earth can they be fantasy?

I confronted something of this dialogue myself recently, albeit internally, as I saw two recent releases. One was Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s loosely translated Biblical epic, a box office darling that is meeting not only with hostility from pseudointellectual bantamweights like Bill Maher but also outrage from those doughy of mind, body, and certain philosophical leanings. The other was The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest foray into his own brightly colored mental landscape, a much-lauded hipster and indie favorite that, less than a month after its release, appears to be on a course to becoming this year’s Midnight in Paris. These movies by highly regarded artists of the medium differ in their subject matter, approach, and intent—one epic in scope and grandeur, one told in a manner resembling Russian nesting dolls—but both share a non-mimetic, non-realist look at the world. They are fantasies.

The controversy already surrounding Noah resembles the soupy amber smog settling over Hong Kong, so those howling in outrage at the picture’s existence might consider calling it a fantasy the least of its eldritch tendrils. (This being an Aronofsky movie, controversy, especially as the transgressive filmmaker focuses his obsidian eye on one of Christianity’s core mythical images, seems inevitable.) Indeed, the apparatus and tropes—the Watchers, fallen angels turned to stone by the Creator after they decide to help humanity (and resembling petrified Ents); a lone man given visions of a universe created, a world kissed with life and then drowned; prologues and epilogues—borrow so heavily from annals of the fantastic that comparisons to modern-day fantasy movies become unavoidable.

Of course these should sate the average, non-distriminating moviegoer, but those with more epicurean tastes may require more. And perhaps they believe Noah will serve more. This is, after all, the work of Darren Aronofsky, who, from Pi to Black Swan, challenges his audiences with disturbing images and unconventional subject matter, and whose interests often intersect with those of the contemporary blockbuster; after all, studios considered him to take over the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher left it a ruin, and his fingerprints smudge the recent The Wolverine, even if director James Mangold scrubbed what evidence of Aronofsky’s involvement he could. Someone armed with this knowledge, then, seats himself at his local theater in expectation that Noah will be an at times intriguing mélange of religious epic equal parts sacred and profane, post–Lord of the Rings CGI festival, and modern pre-summer blockbuster, all overseen by a director whose grasp of the medium, from the grimly meditative experiment (The Fountain) to harrowing adaptation (Requiem for a Dream), ought to ensure a cinematic experience few viewers would soon forget.

The key words are “at times.”

Of course, those of a certain religious bent already know the core elements, as do those who have studied comparative mythology: Noah (Russell Crowe, somehow less wild-eyed than usual), the descendant of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), receives a vision of a world cleansed of the sin of humans by the Creator. He builds an ark (resembling a massive wooden cargo shipping container) with the help of the golem-like Watchers (because, obviously, he serves the Creator better as a foreman than carpenter) as his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) concocts a potion to put those animals Noah will be safeguarding in the ark to sleep (thus sidestepping the question of how he will keep order in his floating zoo). His actions meet with the hostility of his nemesis Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who cannot fathom why the Creator would send Noah visions but refuse to share them with him. And then…

Well, you know the story, regardless of your own religious upbringing. And Aronofsky does present his audience with striking images, from the breathtaking (as when Noah describes the creation of the universe) to the grotesque (Noah envisioning a world underwater, waterlogged corpses reaching for him in desperation), to the daft (a forest grown from a seed taken from the Garden of Eden in mere seconds). But too often Aronofsky plays things far too safely: there is vision, but it’s buried under effects meant to appeal more to a blockbuster audience; he presents challenging ideas, but never delves into the transgressive elements that have made him so compelling; he creates suspense and destroys an entire world, but never explains why it should matter. Worse still, Noah feels like the work of an artist pandering, as if Aronofsky is so desperate for a smashing commercial success that he scaled back his vision for the sake of a larger audience. Perhaps his next movie will return him to form, albeit through a glass darkly. Sadly, I’m expecting him instead to develop, and direct, a sequel, even more heavily steeped in Tolkienesque ripoff. I think of the prospect of sitting through a screening of Noah II: Despair and Back Again, and my gorge rises.

It’s a feeling similar to the one I had at the thought of seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest indie confection.

I had reason to feel this way. For the longest time Anderson’s work offered little for me. I paid attention when Bottle Rocket and Rushmore attracted some critical acclaim, but by the release of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou I swore that I would never watch him again. Life was too short to have to sit through yet another self-important piece of pseudo-intellectual tripe. If this was where modern cinema was headed, the millennial hipsters were welcome to it.

My guard rose at the fawning early words I heard about The Grand Budapest Hotel. Everywhere I went, people gushed over it, exclaiming that it was unlike anything they had ever seen before, marveling at the richness of Anderson’s palate, dazzled by its complex structure, and enthralled by the embarrassment of riches of its cast. “Embarrassment” came to mind for me when I thought of seeing it, though for a vastly different reason—not for me, but for the groundswell of good feeling it engendered. Did I want once again to point out that in his latest celluloid fashion show Emperor Wes not only walked into the theater naked, but that his physique impressed no one?

I didn’t want to, and this time I didn’t have to.

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s pastel-colored sets and multiple aspect ratios were unlike most of what I had seen before (even if it reminded me at times of Terry Gilliam), and the picture-book look of the movie’s major story (about Gustave, the titular hotel’s devoted concierge, and his involvement in the murder of a wealthy heiress) certainly impressed my jaded eye. Its stories-within-stories structure invites the viewer to explore the nature of story in a manner reminiscent of Borges. Yes, the cast was an embarrassment of riches, from Ralph Fiennes’s smug, self-assured Gustave to Adrien Brody’s comically villainous Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (complete with pencil mustache) to every bit character in between (Fisher Stevens and Bill Murray playing members of a secret society; Edward Norton as a Clouseau-like inspector; Matthieu Amalric as a chef who is the only person who knows of Gustave’s innocence).

It did not occur to me until after I left the theater that I realized that The Grand Budapest Hotel might be a fantasy, though vastly different from the pompous, overbearing Noah. It contained nothing overt—no Ents or Creators, no swordfights with Orcs, no gods glowering at each other on a Mount Olympus better suited to John Boorman’s Excalibur—but it had a surreal quality that informed much of what fantasy aimed for. Despite its whimsy, it held a sense of wonder that allowed for a weight that so many other fantasy movies, heavy with special effects and epic battles, lacked. Referring to it as fantasy might confuse a number of people, but with its technique, its structure, and certainly its feel, it seemed like it couldn’t be anything else.

1 Comment on Watching the Future: Worlds of Whimsy and Despair

  1. Paul Weimer // April 9, 2014 at 10:20 am //

    HUnh. Nothing in what I had heard about Grand Budapest Hotel had twigged me to the idea that it had any genre elements at all. At least, not anymore genre than the weirdness of Zizzou, for example.

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