I know, I know. I'm also wondering if there's something wrong with me. Perhaps it's simply the clouds getting to me. Perhaps its the lingering depression that I've been battling off and on for the last two months. And hey, perhaps it's the creeping, crawling apprehension, shared by many other left-leaning media theorists, that this movie is going to be, well, disturbingly right wing. The fact that the script writer is also behind a new Call of Duty game who's villain is the "leader of the 99%" has, astonishingly, done little to alleviate those fears that that this final movie will be an invective against the greedy poor, kept barely at bay by the noble and courageous upper class.
But there's something deeper at work here, I suspect, and I think it has to do with Snow White and the Huntsman.
Yes, yes, we'll wait while all the people who didn't watch it because "Eeeew, Kristen Stewaaaart!" exit the room.
Now, I watched that movie a few weeks ago at a little late Deco era theater. I happened to enjoy it quite a bit. I can see where there were flaws, but I largely overlooked them because I was so captivated by the sheer imaginative force of the film. The film was absolutely full of downright gorgeous imagery.
And, even better, all of that imagery was essential to the themes within the film. Now, I'm not sure how overt this was to others watching, but there's a very interesting commentary within the film on our own tendency to shape the world according to our perceptions of the world. This concept absolutely saturates the film, from the way the Dark Forest generates horrors in response to your fears (the Huntsman even directly states that the forest preys on mental weakness), to the Queen's claim that she is simply giving the world what it deserves. The world responds to one's expectations, and if one expects the world to be filled with despair... well, that's what the world will become. (I want to do a longer treatment of this movie and why it's so fascinating, so keep an eye out for that).
Now, what really fascinates me about all this is that so many of the visuals--especially the ones used for the trailer, incidentally--seem to fit the modern aesthetic of Grim, Realistic Fantasy. We've seen it in everything from Game of Thrones, to Nolan's Batman trilogy, to the now seemingly omnipresent Grey First Person Shooters, to action movies, to bla bla bla, on and on and on the list runs, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
It's an aesthetic that is getting really, really boring.
At least, I certainly am getting a bit weary of it it, and I doubt I'm the only one. After all, the grey or blue washed out aesthetic is, literally, dull. That's what dull means in color terms--desaturated, dark, dim, lacking shine or lustre. It is Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. It is the Elements of Harmony, driven to the point of despair by Discord in My Little Pony.
It is the world robbed of wonder.
And in any medium where color is viable, that greyness can be and frequently has been used to indicate dullness. And yet, it's become the dominant aesthetic in so much of our media. Why is that?
Well, one thing that seems common to these gritty, realistic, down-to-earth (which often seems to mean "covered in dirt") works is the embracing of the surprisingly low power. Oh, sure, Batman flips trucks and so on, yes, yes, but his fights are really hand to hand punchups. They're not the amazing, superhuman feats of strength of, well, Superman, or Thor, or The Incredible Hulk. The fantasy settings that use this aesthetic are stripped of magic. Sure, the wizards in Lord of the Rings sling quite a few spells, but the world itself is strangely devoid of the fairytale magic that seemed to saturate the pages of Tolkien's works. The elves have pretty buildings and lots of soft filter, but there's something tired about the larger world, something desolate that I, growing up with the illustrations of the Brothers Hildebrandt, found unsettling.
As I was typing this up, those terms--low-power and low-magic--triggered a memory. I thought back to an old, exceptionally useful series of posts on Dungeons & Dragons entitled Lessons from DMing with my Girlfriend. In the very first post, the author, Oakspar, describes how he has his players select the type of campaign they want to play before the game actually begins. Two of the options are a high vs low magic game, and a high vs low power game. Here's what Oakspar has to say about that:
You will probably be surprised by what your group picks. You will be amazed at how few players really want to play in that gritty low fantasy, low magic, low power campaign you have drawn up. After all, isn't that just another way to make your PCs more fragile, giving you more control to stroke your fragile ego with?
At the time I first read this, his conclusions raised my hackles a bit, and to some extent it still does. Who is Oakspar to judge me?! How dare he judge the intentions of the great and powerful DM! WHY IF I HAD MY ARMY OF ORCS HANDY I'D--
...Oh. Oh wait.
Yeah, there's some definite truth here, I think. Lowering the power of your characters, gritting up your setting, making it more "realistic," sure does boost the power of the author, doesn't it? It increases their power not just over the characters but, arguably, the audience as well. We're forced to sit there and watch the torments that the author dreams up, knowing that there can be no miracle, no Superman, no sudden, literal Deus Ex Machina like Odin Allfather, riding in to save the day.
And fine, maybe that's what you're going for.
But for goodness sake, let's please cut the crap.
This doesn't make a work more intellectual, nor more emotionally resonant, nor more artistically valuable, nor even darker, grimmer, and more seriously deconstructive, even. That last one is important, in particular, because I think it's becoming almost common sense that you have to use a grim, gray color scheme to tell a grim story that deconstructs traditional narratives, but it's simply not so.
The proof of that is in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Yeah, I almost forgot that we were talking about that, too.
See, the movie doesn't stick with that aesthetic. In fact, that aesthetic is explicitly a reflection of a world darkened by black magic. Once our protagonists reach the primordial faerie realms, well...
Yeah, not exactly what the badass dark fantasy trailers suggested, is it? There's fairies buzzing around, there's magic mushrooms, there's the Forest Spirit--
...Wait, am I watching the right movie?
Well, nevermind, the point is, all that grittiness is there for a reason: to set up the alternative, the glowing, bright world that is hidden, but not totally inaccessible to humanity.
This suggests a stunning possibility: perhaps this film isn't a dark deconstruction of a beloved fairy tale, but a deconstruction of dark deconstructions of beloved fairy tales.
It is, in essence, a reconstruction--it is taking what we know of the genre now that we've broken it down and deconstructed it, and it's using those fragments to build something better, something that is aware of the darkness of the Dark Forest, but is also capable of embracing the light of the Old Wood.
And that's something I think we're long overdue for. I think it's time for a Renaissance of Wonder--a resurrection of the idea of delight, as it were. To some extent, this is already happening--what are Iron Man, Thor, and the Avengers, if not heralds of bright, stunning, imaginative possibility that is still aware of the lessons of Nolan's Batman trilogy or, going back even further, The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen? What is Rebuild of Evangelion but an assertion of the human will, that retains the cruelty of the original Neon Genesis Evangelion but counterpoints it with a new vitality, a new vibrancy, and a new determination that even someone who seems totally broken can still overcome the odds? What is the end of Madoka Magica but--oh, wait, no, I shouldn't give this one away. Suffice to say, what seems slated to become the darkest of deconstructions might have a very different message, in the end.
In fact, it looks like our culture is ready to go back to the ur-example:
There it is, folks, the dullness of the world being flooded with color. And it doesn't have to be, as Neil Gaiman asserts, Delirium that we find in this wash of color. It can be Delight.
That's the world I'm finding, more and more, that I want to keep coming back to.
And sure, I'll watch The Dark Knight Rises. In theaters? Certainly. And will I enjoy it? It's Christopher Nolan, so probably.
But as geekdom around me is gearing up to return to that world, I'm looking out at the gray skies, and realizing that I'm just not so sure I want to go back. After all, it's not that different from home, and in my heart I think I want someplace that is... well...
No Place Like Home.
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