The Future and Magical Realism

Fenster writes:

While waiting for Crank 2 to come in to my local library, I thought I’d go to Netflix streaming and see something along the same lines.  I ended up with Miranda July’s second feature, The Future.

What, you say, I missed by at least three or four genres?  Well yes, I guess I missed the mark, but The Future was interesting and original in its own way.  No doubt a tad more twee than Crank 2 but worth a viewing.

The Future centers on a couple in their mid-thirties mightily resisting the idea of growing up.

His 'n her laptops; his/her 'n his/her hairdos

His ‘n her laptops; his/her ‘n his/her hairdos

They’d be really unsympathetic if they did anything.  As it is, for at least the first half of the movie, they do little, or seem to be sleepwalking when they do commit to action of a sort, so it is hard to be all that hard on them.  The action, such as it is, revolves around July’s character straying from the relationship and maybe coming back to it.

Oh, and there’s a talking cat, an injured stray housed in a shelter.  The couple has been told that they may have it on adoption, but that they must come to pick it up exactly when it has recovered in a month or else it will be euthanized.  You might say this device, which forces the two to consider what it means to make a commitment, propels the plot forward.  And if you did you would be technically correct.  It’s just that there is not that much plot to propel and in turn not much force is needed to propel it.

I jest, and there is something awful and cringeworthy about the whole proceeding.  But the film isn’t like much else, and seems very much to spring from July’s head. And there’s something to be said for that.  At a time when so much A-level talent goes into boosting production values on adolescent claptrap (see: Tarantino), you almost want to give July extra points for originality, even if the underlying talent is at best at the B- or C+ level.

Unlike July’s first film, which seemed satisfied luxuriating in indie quirkiness, this one works to dig a little deeper, too.  Mostly, this involves an unexpected shift to magical realism in the film’s second half.  I won’t do the details: suffice it to say that, as an example, one of the main characters figures out how to stop time, and takes advice from a talking moon in the sky.  Does it work?  Well, yes, in a way.  I mean, it is at least a way out of what threatened to be a cul-de-sac, plot-wise.  Magical realism can do that, in a pinch.  Don’t know where to go to tie things up?  Bring in the magic.

Which brings me after this set of digressions to the point, more or less.  What do you make of magical realism in films?  Better yet, what is it?  Is it the same thing in film as it is in literature, or something different?  When is it serious and when an affectation?

When academic types ruminate on magical realism, they tend to think first about literature, not film, and to focus mostly on Spanish-language authors like Marquez.   That lets the academics fit the genre comfortably into what Stephen Slemon calls post-colonial discourse.  This renders the concept political from the get-go.  As such, it is hard to square with a more expansive use of the term as applied to something as day-to-day as Family Guy.  So from one point of view, the idea is bound up with pomo post-colonial thinking; at the other extreme, a wacky cartoon serves as an example of the form.  That’s quite a stretch.

It’s probably the case that different artists put magic and realism together in different ways for different purposes, and no great thing is to be gained by trying to shoehorn everything into one all-purpose definition.  Still, despite his stilted academic style, Slemon is on to something when he writes:

The term “magical realism” is an oxymoron, one that suggests a binary opposition between the representational code of realism and that, roughly, of fantasy. In the language of narration in a magic realist text, a battle between two oppositional systems takes place, each working toward the creation of a different kind of fictional world from the other. Since the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can fully come into being, and each remains suspended, locked in a continuous dialectic with the “other,” a situation which creates disjunction within each of the separate discursive systems, rending them with gaps, absences, and silences.

That’s all a little high-toned for me, and what with the language about “the dialectic with the other” it is well suited to post-colonial thinking.  But there is something to the oxymoronic quality between the magic part and the realist part.

As David Isaak has written:

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 like the notion that film is not that much at home in the surf zone and that novelists like that zone better.

Dramatists, too.  I wonder it if it coincidence that some of my favorite examples of magical realism in film have direct ties to theater, which is more at home in the surf zone.  The Future is itself an adaptation of July’s performance work.  Moonstruck and the way-under-rated Five Corners were both written by the dramatist John Patrick Shanley.  And the wonderful Atlantic City, which has its share of magical realism (albeit understated) was written by the dramatist John Guare.  These magical realism films work for me quite well, and I think it is because they are subtle about introducing the magic, blurring the line between film and theater in a pleasant way.

Of course, the magical realist film that has made the biggest splash recently is Beasts of the Southern Wild.  I liked it, but understood its detractors, too, who often found it patronizing in, well, a post-colonial kind of way.  Here’s an “unrepentant Marxist”, Louis Proyect, arguing death to magical realism:

After twenty minutes of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I walked out of Lincoln Plaza Cinema muttering under my breath about how much I hate magical realism, especially in movies.

I sympathized with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, not so much from the blasphemy angle but on the aesthetics. Back in 2005, there was a review . . . of Salman Rushdie’s latest, “Shalimar the Clown”. I figured that the novel had to be bad from the get-go if for no other reason that it had something to do with clowns. Clowns and magical realism are a particularly toxic combination, like washing down crushed glass with lye.

Ouch.  I suppose there’s nothing special about magical realism that intrinsically makes for a satisfying work.  It’s all in how it’s done.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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2 Responses to The Future and Magical Realism

  1. Provocative thoughts. I’ve watched a number of movies that did straightforward versions of magical realism and didn’t think they worked (though the films can be mildly pleasant anyway). Your hunch about playwrights is shrewd. Have you watched any of the films by the Taviani Brothers? “Padre Padrone,” “Night of the Shooting Stars,” “Kaos” … They deliberately push things into other dimensions and it often really does take off, at least for me. And Fellini …? But maybe there’s enough in the way of magical realism built right into movies — both realistic and dreamlike whether we want ’em to be or not — so that in most cases they don’t need that further push. I always found it interesting that some of the South American authors associated with magical realism started off wanting to make movies.

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  2. agnostic says:

    L.A. Story pulled it off pretty well. The only scene that felt too on-the-nose was when Steve Martin and the English woman momentarily turn into small children after kissing. Overall it seemed to fit the broader context of “Only in L.A.!” Like taking relationship advice from a sentient light-up message board. But in a lighthearted, not ironic way. Just going with the flow and accepting it. It takes the audience through the same journey as the English woman, who starts off skeptical and perhaps superior in her attitude toward L.A., but then comes around to appreciate the anything-can-happen nature of the city.

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