40 films that manage to get magical realism right where 'Winter's Tale' failed
Yesterday on Twitter, someone asked me the simple version of a larger point made in some angry e-mails about my "Winter's Tale" review. Several people accused me outright of simply hating magic and romance in movies, which is silly, and it was @SamShotFirst (Sam Van Haren) who asked me: "Just read your "Winter's Tale" review. What are some films you think handle magical realism well?"
I suggested that this is the sort of a question worth answering in an article, but offered one immediate example that came to mind. "Field Of Dreams."
Now, sure, part of the reason I'll accept "Field Of Dreams" is because they get the emotional side of things right. That's missing the bigger picture, though. The main reason it works is because first it feeds you just enough information to understand who everyone is. Then you introduce the first element of magic. We watch everyone react. We watch them puzzle it through. Then there's another element of magic. And they have to adjust again. And in each case, the moment where they have to adjust is playing honestly, because you have to acknowledge that something outside of the ordinary is happening. You can't shrug it off.
But you also can't pound on it in such an obnoxious and obvious way that it's just VFX wanking, pointless flashes of lights and explosions. "Field Of Dreams" only has a few special effects, and one of the best ones is used to sell just how important the entire moment was. When Doc Graham has to decide if he's going to stay young, if he's going to remain the ball player he was or if he's going to save that little girl… it's not really a choice. He steps out, changing back, and it's a beautiful simple moment of visual magic. Everything in the film is undersold, and that helps.
He wrote back "Of course. I guess I was having a hard dime figuring exactly what makes something magical realism. Something like 'Amelie,' too?"
Absolutely. I think on film, magical realism is something different than it is in literature. In film, you have a fundamental realism that is had to get around. It is much harder to do full-blown fantasy in some ways because of how much you have to do to create something that feels lived in. Jeunet and Caro couldn't help but deal in magical not-so-realism in their first few films. They had such a strong sense of world-building, controlling everything you see, every part of every set and costume. That was a skill set that seemed to be a big part of some of the guys who started in the '80s, both within the studio system and in the broader international sense. I think they were all responding to one another, and this sort of insular world-building stuff became the primary skill needed to get one into the 21st century, where each new franchise has to create an extended world for books and sequels and games and MMORPGs and theme part tie ins and prequels and costumes and cosplay and Comic-Con ready shtick and if it's not, then WHY ARE YOU EVEN BOTHERING?
There are the start of this new wave, though, Jeunet and Caro put together "Delicatessen," "The City Of Lost Children," and then they had a rough experience with Hollywood and Caro basically bailed while Jeunet made "Amelie," a confection, a film that uses all of the same artistic lessons learned on creating the artificial worlds of his earlier movies, but grounding it in a part of Paris that has its own identity, using that level of obsessive detail to give not only this particular corner of Paris, but the entire romantic notion of Paris, creating an onscreen Paris that is everything Jeunet feels about this city, all poured through the filter of this lovely, lonely, oddly-kind woman who he cast with a preposterous Euro-Angel. It is a film of joy and love and hope and it teases the city and it loves the city and it dares the city to be the version that this film shows.
I would say Lars Von Trier is unafraid to let magic intrude on the real in his films. There are moments in "Anti-Christ" that are unsettling not because of graphic sexual violence… of which that film contains a startling amount… but because they run so completely counter to the natural order. The fox may say "Chaos Reigns," but isn't that communicated clearly through the sheer terror of the idea that the fox said anything? Von Trier must feel that the world is always ready to unravel, and that there is magic that you can touch, that you can hold and that may even help you, but that it might equally destroy you. There is magic in "Breaking The Waves," although he makes you take the long painful ride with Emily Watson, her faith holding up against blow after blow, past the point it makes sense, past the point any of us could hold up to it. And she's sure. And she's sure. And it's so clear she's just a broken crazy girl. And then that bell. That bell. That magic bell that means so much. And the feeling in the theater when it rang, and I realized that I had already given up, my logical side saying, "Of course there's no bell," and my emotional side practically erupting when the bell finally sounds.
Magic, done right, can devastate. I believe that. There's nothing quite like a movie where invisible narrative threads all come together and you suddenly realize what you're about to see and the hair on the back of your neck stands up and they nail it. We are entering an age where some filmmakers are going to very quietly start doing impossible things on a daily basis. You'll see a film sometime in the next five or ten years, and you'll completely accept every part of what you saw as what it purported to be, and when you are told what you really were watching, you will calmly, with the full weight of all of your professional experience behind you, explain that it is impossible.
And you will be wrong. There are things that are so close right now, test work being done, and characters and worlds that we have only ever seen in pen and ink or in clumsy lesser forms are going to appear to walk and talk and live and breathe in ways we will simply have to accept, for all practical purposes, as "real."
That's when we'll get great at pulling this sort of thing off. When you can bend reality in a million small ways, and when production design and cinematography and visual effects and performance can all work together to create things that will be flawlessly realized, and amazing. Not a watered-down version of that word, either. I mean genuinely awe-inspiring.
So the films that have done it best have been films that I think establish both the reality and the magic in ways that feel like they work. You have to have a handle on what world this story takes place in before changes to that world have any significance to the story. If it's New York 1986, and suddenly you're dropping dinosaurs and UFOs in Times Square, I get it. I see what's different. But when you're introducing a reality that your audience doesn't already know completely, you have to work to make the mythology simple if you want to tell a dense and complicated story. If, on the other hand, the dense and complicated mythology is the point, then the story better be "A+B=C".
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is right on the threshold for some people. I find David Fincher's attempt to prove he does indeed have a human heart, and not just the one he keeps encased in lucite on his desk, to be a very vulnerable film, a film that pretty much rolls over, belly up, and admits, "This is a very precious premise. If we pull at these threads at all, not a word of it makes sense. So we'll try to make it very, very easy." The Benjamin at the start of his life and the Benjamin at the end are very creepy and sad and wrenching, and I think there's so much sadness to the movie that I buy his magical tale. Besides, much of this is a story told by Benjamin. When we see him out in the world and we see what he remembers, this is someone whole-hearted devouring of experience and images. He lives wide open, trying to pack as much experience in as he can, and his world view is as romantic as possible. Who knows how much it really looked like that? That's how he felt. That's how it felt like he lived. And that's beautiful. I'll buy an outrageous premise if it's beautiful in the end. But that's not a very easy target to reach.