Suspension Of Belief: Why Fantasy Tends towards Camp

Watching Ridley Scott’s Legend last night got me musing on why fantasy has long been regarded as a campy genre. It wasn’t till Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings that fantasy truly made its presence known at the Oscars in any category other than special effects (a category which, I might add, is essentially campy itself). Yet for every Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter success I can count dozens of Eragons, Dungeons & Dragons, Fires and Ices, Legends, Willows, and Slaves of the Realm (and yes, that was pretty much every bad fantasy movie I own, but there are lots, lots more). Of all these films, though, Legend left a lasting impression on me. After all the film has, if not an all-star cast, a highly respectable crew. Between Blade Runner and Alien Ridley Scott has well earned his place in cinematic history meanwhile Tom Cruise, while no Pacino, has produced a respectable body of work and doesn’t destroy scenes. In fact, I would say that Scott and Cruise acquit themselves quite admirably for the material, but then that’s the real trick, isn’t it?

The material of Legend, of course, is high camp. The evil lord Darkness seeks to shut out all the light in the universe by killing off the last unicorns (a job made especially easy considering there are only two unicorns left in the world. Someone get the WWF in here on this!) His job is made even easier thanks to the luckless Jack and Lilly (played by Cruise and Mia Sara respectively) who inadvertently lead Darkness’ forces (or is it the forces of Darkness?) directly to the unicorns. Only one unicorn gets axed, sending the world into an ice age. The plot then becomes a matter of protecting/rescuing the other unicorn such that Darkness’ evil plan is not fulfilled.

Throw in some themes of love, innocence, and temptation and you have the content of Legend. It’s really no worse than your run-of-the-mill fantasy novel, and this, I believe is where the real problem lies [those were probably the most pun-loaded three words I have written on this site, as we shall soon seen –ed./]. Scott wanted to create a live-action fantasy. In his commentary on the Ultimate Edition DVD he states that he was heavily inspired by the classic animated Disney films. To this effect, he created an entire fantasy world. He famously ordered the building of a forest set in the famed 007 soundstage (which burned to the ground during filming). Meanwhile almost every actor except the two leads is covered in at least some form of prosthetics, most notably Tim Curry as the gigantic, red horned Darkness himself. There are all sorts of ambient effects including excellent lighting and “atmosphere” (bubbles, snowflakes, and pollen whirl around constantly… actually I am convinced that I would have major allergies were I to live in the world of Legend.)

Despite all this beauty and craft, however, there remains a disconnect between the visual aesthetics and the content. No matter how hard he tries to create his fantasy world, Scott occasionally falls short. These failures, when they appear, are as a result incredibly glaring. They remind the viewer that they are, of course, only watching a movie. This happens in various genres, to be sure. It’s even used at times as a dominant aesthetic (see Singin’ in the Rain), but in fantasy it’s problematic. Not only is the viewer reminded that he or she is only watching a movie, but they are in effect also reminded that unicorns, goblins, and magic don’t exist. And if those don’t exist, who’s to say true love, destiny, and pure evil/innocence exist either? Aren’t they just as fantastic and mythical as swords and sorceries? The result is a domino effect which causes the entire fantasy film to self-destruct. The content itself becomes eradicated leaving only the visual style and form which, as Sontag guides, is one of the tell-tale signs of camp.

Let me give an example from Legend to illustrate my point. In the film, the unicorns serve as the film’s MacGuffins: magical beasts which Scott describes as god-like whose powers hold the key to controlling the entire world. Just reading the previous sentence, or a fantasy novel, a decent number of readers can picture a unicorn in their mind. We all know what they look like, more or less. Parts of us know, of course, that unicorns don’t exist, but just by thinking the word unicorn we summon up a referent which does exist, if only in a purely linguistic sense. We might never see a unicorn, but we can all think of one as a single entity/referent. So what do we get when we try to film this referent for which there is no real life equivalent? A horse with a horn glued on its head. That is, the realism of film is poison to a fantastic referent. No matter how well glued that horn is, the viewer still knows that it’s a fake horn glued onto a real horse. The horse is real, we’re certain, but the part of the horse which makes it fantasy is fake and inherently cheaper. As such the singularity of the referent “unicorn” which we can imagine linguistically becomes broken down into two parts: horse plus horn, the first of which we know is real, the second of which is inescapably fake by comparison. Of course, once the unicorn looks “fake” the rest of the story looks fake with it. Once I expect reality, its further absence is jarring. The struggle between light and darkness over a unicorn is one thing, the struggle between light and darkness over a horse with a fake horn glued to its head is quite another.

This is why historically animated fantasy has been far more successful than live-action. Because the form of Disney’s Snow White is animated (fake) we aren’t bothered by its fake content (magic mirrors on the wall, for example). Whoever imagined the magic mirror isn’t breaking it down into one part real mirror one part rear-projection of an actor’s face. Instead it’s one, single, non-real entity: an animation. Two fakes make a fantasy; a dash of reality makes a farce.

The keys to success in live-action fantasy are thus verisimilitude (Richard Donner’s favorite term to describe Superman) and simulacrum. Both words in a sense are about approaching reality without ever fully embracing it. I “believe” (accept is perhaps a better word) that Superman can fly not because the rear-projection effects are completely deceiving, but because the world Superman flies over isn’t entirely real either. Likewise I can accept hordes of CGI orcs, Ents, and Balrogs in Lord of the Rings because—though there are real actors and sets—the world of LotR isn’t all that real to begin with either. In fact, Tolkien went to great lengths to make up centuries of “fake” history for his realm to disconnect it as much as possible from any real life source.

Legend tries nobly to achieve this simulacrum as well, to be sure, but as I said in the beginning, the few moments where it fails to achieve verisimilitude (ironically by putting real things into the movie) have a nasty way of eradicating all of the fantasy content. This is why I believe fantasy tends towards camp (and why it is so damn hard to make a good fantasy). It’s the brief moments of the real which undo all the hard work in making the unreal. To truly “appreciate” a film like Legend paradoxically requires a suspension of belief, not disbelief. It’s up to the viewer to gloss over the reality of the horse with horn on its head in order to continue believing in the unbelievable. This is quite a lot to ask the average moviegoer, and it’s one of the biggest reasons films like Legend are on this site.

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