Motifs in Cinema, 2011: The Dichotomy Between Fantasy and Reality

Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in much different manner that literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across nine film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists.

– Andrew Kendall

Accidentally or otherwise, every year we get several films that deal with the same themes. Often, similarities between these films are so many and so clear that a narrative starts to build around one of these themes. Everyone spoke about the omnipresence of nostalgia in 2011’s films, for instance. Most of these motifs give way to different ones once everybody stops talking about one year and moves on to the next. One theme that never really disappears from the conversation is the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, which is why I chose to write about it as soon as Andrew introduced his Motifs in Cinema mini-blogathon to me.

Fantasy, in the strictest sense of the word, is inseparable from the cinema. What are fictional films if not the fantasy of those who imagine them, write them and act them? What is fantasy if not the imaginary world we immerse ourselves in for a few hours in the dark? Here, I want to write about filmmakers who, aware of the power they hold over their audience and making the most of their psychological advantage, presented an image of fantasy that changed the way we think of reality. Needless to say, different directors had different approaches, they worked in different genres and affected us in distinct ways.

Woody Allen, for example, chose romantic comedy. His preferred genre is hardly a surprise to anyone and it really shouldn’t be a surprise that he succeeded in bringing fantasy elements to it either. He’d directed The Purple Rose of Cairo after all. In Midnight in Paris, Allen filters reality twice – once through his own eyes and once through the eyes of the hopelessly romantic writer at the centre of his story – to take us to a re-imagining of Paris in the 1920s. Allen specifically delves into the dichotomy that we create between reality and fantasy. Did Paris really look like that in the golden age or is that simply Gil’s imagination? How far removed is the boisterous arrogance of Corey Stoll’s Hemignway from the real man? Who among us hasn’t imagined Dali randomly shout “Rhinoceros” mid-speech? These possible lapses in reality are funny wrapped under Allen’s cheeky tone but they got me thinking about how I view my past. Gil hasn’t lived in the Golden Age before seeing it, but would it change anything if he had? How much of my perception of the golden days of my childhood is really what happened and how much have I made up in the years since in my fantasies to make it appear better than it really was?

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was similarly infatuated with a fantasy version of Paris, if not so much with personal nostalgia. Scorsese used film preservation as a tool for celebrating magic and took us into the world of cinema’s greatest magician, Georges Méliès. Hugo’s approach was radically different from the rest of my selections because it relied on spectacle. It’s awe-inspiring because of the cacophony of colour and costume and detail. In a sense, Scorsese’s method is a more direct confrontation with fantasy. There are no questions asked. The magic and the magician are separated. We know what is real and what is not and we appreciate the fantasy nonetheless.

There were also film that created a fantasy world without special effects and flashy sets and costumes. Two of my favourite films of the year, Martha Marcy May Marlene (my review) and ALPS (my review) dragged me into their worlds and frankly, have not yet let me out. It’s been difficult to shake them off since. In Martha… the protagonist herself is wandering in the limbo between fantasy and reality. With Elizabeth Olsen’s astonishing performance, this dichotomy, which is very small and blurred in this particular film, is given a fragile and horrifying quality. We are not told if the cult members are really after Martha and it doesn’t seem like she knows for certain either. Her paranoia becomes ours and all sense of reality is lost. ALPS takes the reverse approach. We know exactly what is real and what is acted by the members of the ALPS group, but it seems like they gradually lose touch with reality. As they act out the fantasy version of the lives of the deceased, they become so engrossed that their own lives are completely taken over. We almost want to stop the protagonist from taking further steps but she is lost in that gap between reality and fantasy.

Yet, when it comes to explaining this gap, no film can hold a candle to Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This is not a Film (my review). As Panahi acts out a small scale version of his new script on the carpet in his living room, he lays out the creative process behind his films and becomes disillusioned, almost disappointed, in their artificiality. His “film” doesn’t have a narrative, but it’s a thought-provoking analysis of how we watch and understand films. Panahi talks about presenting his story to the audience in a way that they believe it, but is ultimately torn between the realism with which his films have portrayed their cultural bedrock and the inevitable element of fantasy that is embedded within his stories because, well, they’re products of his imagination. This is not a Film might be shot on an iPhone but it doesn’t fail to remind us of the power of cinema, and above that, the power of fantasy. Even though we know Panahi is shooting the film inside his apartment, we doubt ourselves about our perception of his story time and time again. And after all, isn’t that why we love the movies? To walk the fine line between reality and fantasy and get lost in a magical world?



  1. I love how you focus on the pleasures of blurring the line between fantasy and reality. I'm on a Tennessee Williams binge at the moment, and his characters are so often blurring the lines between what's real and what's a lie…and the world fantasy is only a fancy word for lies, but fantasy is beautiful, isn't it? So glad you bring up Martha Marcy may Marlene which makes the chilling look SO beautiful.

    Who doesn't want to get lost in that magical world, indeed.

  2. Yay for the blogathon! I suppose the reason I found Midnight so suspect is because of how historical figures like Hemingway or Dali behaved so much as themselves. But it's like the geek at the cool kids' party and everyone embraces him and who wouldn't want that?

    I also haven't seriously considered Martha's time at the Catskills as fantasy, although that makes sense because she can't even speak of it to her sister and the latter's boyfriend.

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