If you were to ask someone off the street why it is we like stories, they’d probably say “escapism” first. So let’s explore this in more detail.
It probably goes without saying that most of us feel a lacking somewhere in our lives. There’s always someone richer, smarter, more attractive, living a more exciting, meaningful life, or so we think. We also become progressively beaten down by virtue of how no good deeds seem to go unpunished, only good die young, and crime too often pays. The news only depresses us, and it seems to get more and more depressing over time, and we feel powerless to influence it.
If we’re not suffering some serious misfortune, we’re bored stiff at work, so who wouldn’t want to fly away?
Yes, even films themselves have self-reflexively studied escapism. Sometimes it seems that filmmakers, in their own infatuation with the medium, are more interested in studying the medium itself through their own stories than just telling a straight story.
There are countless stories about escapism itself. The Matrix, Wizard of Oz, Avatar, Total Recall. But that’s just a subgenre of stories where the protagonist is literally looking for escape. But what kind of worlds are appealing?
Most of the kinds of films that make money these days offer a simple escape to “a better world”. These are your comic book movies which operate on the level of myth and legend. Despite the fact that they are getting increasingly grim (like Batman v. Superman that I covered earlier), they’re all based on the desire for myth, which is to erase nihilism or moral ambiguity and see things as a clear-cut case of universal right against universal wrong. That these films are increasingly straining to do this only reinforces how difficult even filmmakers are finding it to muster the conviction to present a world of classic good and evil. This level of idealism is really the realm of childhood. Adulthood is the realm of creeping cynicism.
If we go even deeper into the psychological aspects of escape, one could go as far as to say that when we lose ourselves in story we’re also escaping the limitations of who we are. Most of us dream big, but few of us take risks. We play it safe. We fall victim to our own vices. We wimp out in the game of life.
Story gives us the opportunity to take virtual risks, to test-drive on the road not taken, the idea of life being a choose-your-own-adventure book was explored best in Groundhog Day.
Who hasn’t had an inner-dialogue asking constant “what if?” questions? What if I did this rather than that, constant risk-assessment. Story at least convinces us, via suspension of disbelief, that we can peer ahead, like a clairvoyant, into these possible futures. It helps us ruminate over our own life-choices. It’s that last bit that differentiates the passive experience of simply being comforted by a pleasing virtual world and offering extended perception into different ways of being. Groundhog Day is the fictional manifestation of this concept, since Murray’s character has been given the gift to try out as many ways of living as he can imagine and compare the results, all without any long-lasting damage. Story can be a flight-simulator for life.
In my case, there’s also the guilty-pleasure style of escape, nostalgia, which is the feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket. When I think of moments of entertainment from my childhood that radiates warm-blanket feelings, that always bring a smile to my face, regardless of how stupid and cheezy it is, it’s stuff like this:
Ah, the days before auto-tune..
What of subjectivity?
Everyone’s idea of escapism is different. When it comes to nostalgia, I’m sure anybody younger than I am simply will not feel the same warm-fuzzies I do from The Brady Bunch. Likewise, I don’t feel much in the way of nostalgia for things like Saved by the Bell because I was already well through high school when that show started. I was more pissed that crap like that was displacing Saturday morning cartoons instead. I also have no direct nostalgia over the 50s. Any nostalgia feelings I have about Grease, Happy Days, or Laverne & Shirley are more to do with the 70s when they were made rather than the period they were trying (badly) to recreate.
Also, the kind of alternate-reality life experiences I’d like to “try out” are not the same kinds as others. I shy away from anything that seems to glorify violence for its own sake. Take the 300 films, for instance (yep, singling out Zach Snyder again).
I find this music-video-ification of violence empty if not also offensive.
Of course, there are probably other reasons why people like the 300 films besides the allure of being able to live vicariously as a well-oiled soldier. Liking or disliking something is a layered thing. But one can guess that the majority of the appeal is going to be from men, despite the well-oiled bodies. When it comes to female equivalent with the same male physiques on display, you get this:
Now what would be the opposite of escapism? Sad, depressing, disturbing movies. Things like Leaving Las Vegas or The Godfather I and II. They have their fans, but they don’t deliver the kind of enjoyment that I’m looking for most. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate sad moments, I definitely can, and the cliche’ best movie of all time is a downer, but for reasons other than escapism, so I’ll get into that in a future post.
Dropping into what seems like a better world is the initial hook, but it needs the final payoff. You’ve probably watched movies that have anti-climactic endings. You can’t quite put your finger on what’s missing. You just feel cheated out of a proper payoff.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I enjoyed Time Bandits up until the ending. Here it is in all its annoying mean-spiritedness.
I saw this film when I was only 11 years old. I couldn’t understand why the film chose to just kill off this boy’s parents at the end and have Sean Connery just wink at him and drive off. It felt, abusive, like Terry Gilliam was shitting on the audience with his cynicism. The world of Time Bandits is all about good and evil in an abstract sense, but when it comes down to it, there’s very little compassion for your fellow man on display, and the child himself ends with a state of shock, not grief, as we just fly out into space and kick into George Harrison’s happy little ending tune. Nobody is intended to care that two people just blew up as if they just triggered an IED in Iraq. So where before, the world of Time Bandits seemed somewhat exciting as an escape through various portals, the ending turns it into a nightmare.
And it seems that I’m not the only one divided on this ending:
“one of my top ten favorite endings in cinema!”
“The worst ending to a film I ever truly wanted to like.”
“IMO It’s a fantastic conclusion to the greatest film ever made! No namby-pamby happy ending for Kevin here! And just like real life, he has to make it on his own! All the clues are there for him to make his next move.”
The reason why the guy at the bottom likes the ending is that it is iconoclastic, that it eschews the happy-ending, sticks a finger to the man, and is “like real life”. And that’s fine, if what you want is further reinforcement that life sucks. But as a piece of escapism, the film falls on its face, and the ending probably heavily contributed to its poor performance at the box-office. It was sold as a kids movie and I had a comic-book adaptation of it, but with that sort of ending, it’s hardly family-friendly.
The proper way to end an escapist story is with a scene of what I call “uplift”. Uplift is something that ISN’T “like real life”, but it’s what we wish we could experience. It’s when the planets seem to all align and something miraculous happens that is a combination of fate, luck, and mysticism. “Uplift” is something that really justifies its own post, so I don’t want to go on a tear of posting a bunch of examples. For now I’m only going to post two. They both operating on the same basic frequency:
One for Generation X:
And one for Millenials:
Naturally, I prefer the GenX version, but what do these two scenes have in common? I could easily deconstruct it all for you, but having simply identified this phenomenon, I’m hoping you’ve just had a proverbial “aha” moment.
Until next time,