Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Escapism, Then and Now

Steph and I are headed to Las Vegas this weekend to celebrate our third wedding anniversary.  Naturally, Allie and I got sick, we have a million things to do around the house, and I'm grinding through an unusually busy time at work.  Saturday can't get here soon enough, and Steph and I will indulge in two days of paired aces, buffet dinners, and the whimsy of shiny, colorful lights everywhere.

We know, of course, that Las Vegas is the epitome of artifice.  Without the Hoover Dam, it would be physically impossible to support such a desert oasis without mandating the use of stillsuits.  The casinos have no clocks and no windows, because while a tourist is spending time in Vegas, the party never ends.  Well, not until the tourist's wallet runs bare, anyway.  Steph and I know and recognize these things, and we aren't looking for health, meaning, or intellectual development while on this trip.  We are going to blissfully evade reality for a weekend.  When we return, we will thank my parents for watching our daughters for the duration.

It occurred to me while contemplating our Las Vegas trip and watching the Cardinals' harrowing 51-45 victory over the Packers in Sunday's wild card game that escapism has shifted in meaning over the last few decades.  During one of the game's commercial breaks, the network showed a commercial for Tooth Fairy, an upcoming box-office turd starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a skeptical hockey player whose nickname is derived from his habit of knocking out the teeth of opposing players.  He tells his daughter that there is actually no such thing as the tooth fairy, but for his sin of skepticism, he is transformed by some mysterious intervention into a life-sized tooth fairy, tutu and all.  The trailer goes on to spoil that there is an underground secret society of tooth fairies spreading their magical pixie dust or whatever all over the world; essentially, a Men in Black for kindergarteners.  And I couldn't help but realize as I watch that commercial that Tooth Fairy would never have flown back when I was young.

When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, society's eyes were fixed on the stars.  For escapism in that era, we had not only the original Star Wars trilogy, but the first several Star Trek movies, lesser works such as The Black Hole, The Last Starfighter, and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, and cartoons such as Transformers and Voltron.  Video games ruled the universe until the crash of 1983, and the fundamental video game scenario had player piloting a spaceship and blasting enemies of some sort ad infinitum -- Asteroids, Space Invaders, GalagaTempest, Scramble, and so on.  Girls had mostly pony-related toys and Barbie dolls, true -- but that's because the boys' side of the equation was so mainstream it included everybody.  There was no more glittering escapist dream than the thought that we were luminous beings, as Yoda said, not this "crude matter," and would soon leave our Earthly chains behind and ascend to the great unknown.  It was the classic adventure/exploring motif dialed Up To Eleven.  Adventure is Out There!

Fast forward to today, and escapism wears a different face: technology and the brilliant future have been cast aside in favor of magical lands of make-believe.  The best of these make use of the Magic A Is Magic A trope; the worst turn instead to And Man Grew Proud, All Myths Are True, and Clap Your Hands If You Believe.

The clear champions of the fantasy escapism era are the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings.  Remember, Rings was not popular in the mainstream in the 1980s -- this was before the ascendancy of nerddom as "cool."  In both stories, Magic A Is Magic A.  That is to say, the magical effects are part of a consistent system of magic where doing something a specific way produces a specific result.  When Magic A is Magic A, the story is more plausible and better suspends disbelief, because the magic is really just a thinly-veiled metaphor for technology.  The story is left free to develop plot and character without the reader or viewer wondering whether Gandalf is going to "go blind if he keeps doing that."  In the end, Harry Potter is the hero, not Expelliarmus.  The latter was merely a tool.

Unfortunately, such excellent fantasy escapism is outnumbered by a deluge of lesser works in which the other tropes are used.  Without seeing Tooth Fairy (and I'm not likely to do so), I can't say whether it uses All Myths Are True or Clap Your Hands If You Believe, but its director's previous films, the Santa Clause trilogy, suggest the former.  Magic is not a stand-in for technology, but for divine, capricious anvil-dropping morality.  The protagonist in both is forced to don the mantle of the titular mythical character as punishment for the grievous sin of being rational and intelligent enough to know the myth is make-believe.  How dare he!  The Polar Express (2004 adaptation) is an example of the latter trope: only those who believe in Santa can hear the Christmas bells.  This sort of story is probably pretty harmless for young children, who were the original intended audience of fairy tales in the first place -- part of growing up is learning the difference between fiction and real life. 

There are people, however, who choose to continue to believe deep down that maybe fairy tales are secretly real -- or who wish they could be.  These make up the target audience for execrable works such as the Final Destination films, in which a mystical vision prompts the protagonist to avoid dying in some squicky fashion, thus "ruining Death's design."  And Man Grew Proud, audaciously insisting upon continuing to live, angering a pseudo-anthropomorphized Death who does not take such insults lightly.  The protagonist is doomed to spend the remainder of the movie scrambling to escape a series of deadly contrivances.  If only he would just give up and die like he was supposed to, Death would be appeased and the ordeal would end!  Once again, magic is a stand-in for divine will or caprice.  As with the fairy tales, this makes the characters tools of the magic, marionettes on strings, rather than making magic a tool for the characters to use as they Go Forth and Commit Great Plot.  Mature readers/viewers have little tolerance for a story in which the writer has prevented the protagonist from protagonizing!

The meaning of escapism was once, not so long ago, a celebration of an eventual ascendance above the dreary present day.  Faced with a cold war, economic variance, and an increasingly toxic political culture, escapists of that time turned to romantic, hopeful notions of what might happen if we humans ever harnessed the best within us.  Two decades later, faced with a cold war, economic variance, and an increasingly toxic political culture, escapists turn to pure absurdity as an intellectual analgesic, and a diminishing minority of works display any recognition of the romantic, heroic ideals that sustained the previous era.  It is comforting to realize that the most successful fantasy is of the latter type, but what changed in the interim that wrought such upheaval of the rest of the landscape?  Whoever finds the answer to that question will be the one who leads the way forward into Whatever Comes Next.

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