28/01/2017

A Matter Of Life And Death - Lost Fantasy

Thoughts On: A Matter Of Life And Death

A British WWII fighter pilot narrowly escapes death when jumping from his plane without a parachute and has to keep it at bay to stay with his new-found love.


A Matter Of Life And Death (also known as Stairway To Heaven) is certainly one of those films that just couldn't be made today. From the unabashedly romantic story line, concept, themes and performances to the sparkling, sometimes surreal, fantasy. A Matter Of Life And Death is a staple of 1940s British cinema - fantasy as a whole even. And it's looking back on this Powell-Pressburger picture that you're easily hit with a question of why this kind of film has gone away. What I mean to ask by this is, where has this kind of fantasy gone? Save animated features and huge blockbuster trilogies or series (The Lord Of The Rings, The Dark Knight Trilogy, The MCU, The DCEU, The Harry Potter Series...) fantasy films have not made it well into the 21st century. When we think of fantasy from the last couple of decades, we usually come to science fiction - everything from Arrival to Avatar, The Martian, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Star Wars. There is not a healthy amount of good fantasy films being produced by the modern market. When we look back to the 80s and beyond, we see films like Ghostbusters, Labyrinth, Beetlejuice, The Princess Bride, Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Jason And The Argonauts, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sinbad, Harvey, The Thief Of Baghdad, It's A Wonderful Life, The Wizard Of Oz... I could go on and on and on. These are all films we can't imagine being made today without being rip-off sequels or remakes. In such, it's clear that we have lost things such as The Wizard Of and A Matter Of Life And Death to Captain America and Batman. Whilst I don't think either of the newer films mentioned are bad, I certainly think there is an over-saturation of them that has massively changed how we perceive fantasy - and this is what I want to talk about today.

Being a science fiction writer, I obviously love many things around and about the likes of Nolan's Batman films as well as the likes of Inception, Interstellar, Iron Man, Avengers, Spider Man and The Martian. Moreover, I think these are important films that draw from and project fantasy into the real world. However, when we look to The Martian, Interstellar or Gravity, we see films that are judged almost purely on their realism. Though it is harmlessly entertaining, it's someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson that will tear these movies apart and set a president or expectation for realism in sci-fi/fantasy. Though he has said many times that he does not object to fantasy if it has a fundamental basis in scientific truth (the embellished wave scene on the water planet in Interstellar for example), the perception around sci-fi/fantasy films is often one that demands realism. This is what we see in features such as The Martian and The Dark Knight. With The Martian, we saw a particular focus on getting everything as real as possible. And with all superhero films after The Dark Knight, everything has to be gritty and believable. I've said it once, I've said it a thousands times, but, when this philosophy of realism is injected into so many sci-fi/fantasies, you begin to truly miss their point, conventions and purpose. Though a film like The Martian is a great example of realist sci-fi survival, its approach to the genre needn't be thrust upon everything from Captain America to Batman V Superman. This is because the films are often left constantly explaining things and/or suppressing themselves needlessly - hence missing the reason why we go to see a film called Batman V Superman (p.s it's to see impossible nonsense in a realm of compelling characters).

My overarching point here is then that realism has diluted modern sci-fi and almost completely alienated the fantasy film. We can see the extent to this when looking back to the 30s, 40s and 50s - to films like The Wizard of Oz, A Matter Of Life or even Forbidden Planet. Taking A Matter Of Life And Death as our focus, we see in this kind of cinema an openness to belief. With A Matter Of Life And Death, this is represented in a belief in an afterlife. In accepting this idea, which arguably has no basis in reality, an audience can sink into the romance, the spectacle and utter ingenious of this film. Belief is so important in cinema as it is its driving mechanism. If an audience does not somewhat believe a narrative, if they are not sucked into the fantasy, made to see past the actors, set-design and frame, a film cannot exist. Many, many, many films fail because there is no fantasy, no magic and no belief from the audience. This is because most bad films have shit acting which forces us to see actors, not characters; terrible writing which makes obvious the clunky imaginings of a screenwriter sat naked in a dark room; horrible direction that reminds us that a bunch of morons have decided to come together and film adults playing make-believe. Recognising how important belief is to both audience and filmmakers, we see a crucial point of judgement of all cinema. To reiterate, we need believable narratives, characters, direction, acting and writing. However, when we look to modern audiences who can't wait to see the CinemaSins video on the film they just watched or hear Neil DeGrasse Tyson tear a film down with science, we see a narrowing field of believably. Before we go ahead, this isn't an entirely bad thing. We need things such as CinemaSins to be so prominent in the realm of cinema and film just like we need critics and theorist. It is the art or craft of the cinema-sinner, critic or theorist to process complex and dense pieces of art and articulate their essence, what they did wrong, what they did right, what could be changed, what they teach... and so on. For this reason, CinemaSins (as a metaphorical archetype) has always been important in cinema--in all art.

However, there is certainly a frivolity and arbitrariness in a lot of film criticism. In such, we often either see a herd of sheep saying the same shit or individuals trying to spit the most witty or vicious thing about a film. This detracts from the purpose of film criticism as the spotlight is taken away from the film and put onto the witty article, the obnoxious, impossible-to-impress asshole or comedic video. With the internet and a million other schmucks like me writing, talking about and making videos on films, there has been a huge uprising in film criticism. This has effected cinema in many ways - some good, some bad. One of the negative effects of this huge pool of criticism seems to be an audience's capacity to believe in film. This is what I mean to reference when saying a film like A Matter Of Life And Death could not be made nowadays. Many seem to want realism, grittiness, action and gloom and so shy away from unconventional fantasy films like Swiss Army Man, anything by Lanthimos or even a musical like La La Land. I believe paradigm this is all the more prominent to those who delve into films of the past. It's when you look at the classical horror flicks, the screwball comedies, the melodramas, fantasies, musicals and romances of the 30s, 40s and 50s that you can gain perspective on the likes of Paranormal Activity, Ted, Star Wars: Force Awakens, Captain America: Civil War and Batman V Superman. You see an across-the-board move away from the old Hollywood magic - which isn't entirely bad, but, as mentioned, not entirely great. All of this comes down to our capacity to believe. Whilst it's great, horrifying, exciting, unbelievable, intriguing and outraging-inducing (all at the same time) that we live in a time where anyone with a phone, including kids/teens, can easily, easily, watch people screw, see people beaten up and killed, learn about quantum mechanics, talk to people on the other side of the planet, gain access to literally any kind of information... whilst these things are profoundly intriguing and scary, there has undeniably been a huge decline in innocence and naivety (again, not entirely good, not entirely bad). This seems to be why, after we have moved into the digital age, that fantasy has gone out of the window - people assume its outdated or just for young kids. As said, it's around the 90s, after films like Groundhog Day, Edward Scissor Hands and Forrest Gump, that we saw films like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner take over the market in the form of films like The Matrix, more Star Wars stuff and superhero movies. It's at this point that the fantasy in sci-fi/fantasy began to wane. No longer would we really get films like E.T, The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. These are all films that are science fiction in the same capacity as Méliès' A Trip To The Moon.

Georges Méliès is one of my all-time-favourite filmmakers and is, in my opinion, one of the most important directors ever. Whilst he is heralded as the magician of the early silent pictures who seriously advanced editing and introduced incredible special effects, he was also the greatest proponent of sci-fi/fantasy cinema. When you look to pictures such as The Impossible Voyage, The Kingdom Of The Fairies and A Trip To The Moon, you see films that kind of said "fuck it" to real life. This is a kind of Intro-Retro-Spective-Stupid-Genius, something we talked about with A Trip To The Moon. And in such, Méliès accepted that he didn't know the future, that he didn't know much about the true nature of the universe, but wanted to make films to capture the imagination nonetheless. This is also what we see (to vary degrees) in films such as E.T, 2001 and Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman; there just isn't an overriding need to project a true and believable story. Instead, Kubrick, Spielberg and Juran trust the audience to accept their film's premises assuring that they themselves provide high-quality (mainly in the cases of Kubrick and Spielberg) and immersive films. All of this comes back to movies such as The Dark Knight, Interstellar, The Martian and Gravity. These films, nor their directors, really demonstrate a trust in their audience to accept a great sci-fi/fantasy--provided that it is made well. As opposed to this, they spoon-feed grounded sci-fi, often in the form of a tight, somewhat safe, derivative or formulaic, script.

So, what sci-fi across the ages reflects is a change in the audience of the digital age. But, just as the digital age gave rise to Flat-Earthers and a plethora of other ridiculous conspiracy theorists, the digital age and how it effects societies seems to have also given us Batman V Superman. This is why I think that films by the likes of Georges Méliès and their philosophy on fantasy needs to be looked at again. Moreover, and coming back to the crux of the essay, films like A Matter Of Life And Death need to be looked at now more than ever. If we want the next Wizard Of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life, Jason And The Argonauts, Star Wars or Ghostbusters, that isn't a crappy remake or mediocre blockbuster, we then have to understand what makes them work.

Diving into this, we'll take A Matter Of Life And Death as a case study. As said, the crux of cinema, especially fantasy films, is belief. The essential element that you must believe in, or suspend your belief for, in A Matter Of Life And Death is the concept of the afterlife. If you trust in this idea for 105 minutes, even if you don't in your everyday life, this is a spellbinding narrative with a myriad of ingenious details. The suspension of space and time, the debate on death, on responsibility, love, countries and international relationships are all facilitated by the concept of the afterlife. And it's all of these details that allow this film to be great, to be such a poignant commentary on social interactions - both on a large and small scale. As I've said many times over, this is the kind of thing afforded to you with sci-fi. You can take huge concepts or philosophical questions on reality, dreams, relationships, life, death and our existence and make a film about them. The truth about sci-fi, however, and why it is a genre we are continually returning to in an essay on fantasy, is that sci-fi is fantasy. We can understand this by accepting that fantasies are built around accepting and believing in one thing. For A Matter Of Life And Death this is the afterlife, for It's A Wonderful Life this is angels, for The Wizard Of Oz this is witches, wizards and munchkins, for Jason And The Argonauts this is Greek mythology. The only difference between sci-fi and fantasy films in this respect is that you have to believe in science and suspend your belief for how a screenwriter interprets it. So, just as films like Clash Of The Titans or The Ten Commandments may be centralised on myth, legends, folk tales or religious teachings, so is Blade Runner and 2001 based on science.

This is such an important idea to recognise as it gives us the key to reassessing and reigniting fantasy today. Before getting on this, a brief side-note, sci-fi is in a category of its own that is distinguished from fantasy because of the way sci-fi narratives are/should be justified. Science fiction is fantasy, but made objectively believable or acceptable. In such, it has to explain its assumptions or concepts - like we see throughout Inception. In doing this, sci-fi writers have the opportunity to delve into another realm of fantasy through which philosophy and huge ideas may be discussed in a more comprehensive manner. This is what we briefly talked about with Ghost and will be picking up on in a moment. Returning to bringing fantasy back into the cinema, however, when we look to A Matter Of Life And Death, the concept of an afterlife has been used to project a thematic story with a powerful commentary. A Matter Of Life And Death then demonstrates how to create great fantasy. All you need is one thing, that isn't scientific, that your audience can suspend their belief over to create original and highly versatile narratives. So, instead of using the afterlife to make a commentary on society, you may use religious teachings, mythology, history, legends, folk tales, magic, psychoanalysis, astrology - anything that isn't a strict science but has a strong world of ideas around it. Great examples of this are Monty Python's Life Of Brian, The Holy Grail or The Meaning Of Life. These films take a handful of fantastical modes, like legend, religion and history and put a twist on them to make great movies that say a lot through satire and irony. You can take anything, anything, anything, that isn't scientific to create fantasy. Thus, especially when it takes sci-fi under its wing, fantasy is the most dexterous and diverse genre of all - one that taps into the crux of cinema: belief. The only thing to remember here is that fantasy should be intertwined with character, theme and subtext. In doing this, narratives become all the more complex, enjoyable and powerful - maybe great.

Getting great fantasy back into the cinema is so simple - this doesn't mean that it's an easy task, but it's a simple one nonetheless. To get great fantasy back into the cinema, we only need to reassess the pop-realism that has permeated it to poisonous depths, take chances and create original, outlandish content. Creating this content is not impossible. The 'formula' is an obvious one. You take a concept, a huge one with major depth, that holds a world in its breadth and you use it to make a point. Your fantastical concept will build the world and construct many elements of your narrative. Imbuing these elements with character, subtext and meaning is how you make a great movie, is how you make the next Wizard Of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life, Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Life Of Brian, Bill And Ted, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Labyrinth... A Matter Of Life And Death. And I believe this is all very possible. We only need to look to Swiss Army Man as a recent example of great, though obscure and borderline surreal, fantasy.

So, through A Matter Of Life And Death, we see a perfect springboard from the 40s to present day, one that will initially have us languish the fact that this is the kind of film you can't make nowadays, but should hopefully lead us to question why? And, in doing this, as we have done, I believe it is easy to find inspiration to inject new life and energy into cinema, to aid the evolution of the art form and continue the production of great films.

Before you go, for more thoughts on fantasy follow the link:

  





Previous post:

Kes - Realist Cinema

Next post:

Manchester By The Sea - Dramatic Purpose

More from me:

amazon.com/author/danielslack

No comments: