Posts Tagged ‘Escapism’

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Escaping Into Explosions: A Thematic Analysis of Sucker Punch

08/26/2011

Zack Snyder has never been one for subtlety.  Though he was applauded for its absence in 300, he was criticized for a hyper-violent and over-sexualized interpretation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen.  But by far his most divisive film is Sucker Punch.  Snyder’s self-proclaimed “Holy Grail of Nerd Movies” is certainly unlike any other film you’ll ever see.  It has depth, certainly, but it also has NO subtlety, leading many to consider it pretentiously exploitative, as if it is trying to justify its exploitation with the vague theme of female empowerment.

And in the opinion of this author, that criticism is dismissive at best.  Make no mistake, Sucker Punch is not for everyone.  Its audience is very specific.  Not even all nerds can get into it.  Its structure is weird.  The music is cartoonishly literal.  The dialog leaves no room for subtext.  But you know what?  I love this movie.

Its action scenes have been criticized for having no “real world stakes.”  As in, the impending threat in the main character’s (Baby Doll’s) world is that she is going to be lobotomized, but in the fantasies she faces off against dragons, trains, and clockwork men.  Thus, as the criticism goes, her accomplishments in the escapist fantasies are in fact anti-accomplishments.  Nothing is achieved.  Nothing is learned.  In any traditional story this would be a major flaw.  But Sucker Punch is not a traditional story. It is a thematic commentary on escapism and an explosive meditation on why we even go to movies like this in the first place.

The highest level of reality in the film (that of the asylum) has no more bearing on the audience’s reality than the genre-blending fantasies have on Baby Doll’s.  We all choose to substitute our stakes with those of high-concept fantasy worlds.  Take a beloved story like The Lord of the Rings.  The stakes in that story are very high – all of Middle Earth could be overtaken by the dark lord Sauron.  And yet, we find these stakes to be more comforting and relaxing than our real-world problems – problems which are comparatively much smaller.

The falseness of fantasy is part of its appeal.  It allows us to experience our messy emotional selves in a context where being emotionally manipulated is considered a good thing.  Then we walk away from the theater and back into our real environment; the same, but different.  We’ve matured with our characters, even if such maturation is exclusively psychological.  We relish the opportunity to explore ourselves emotionally, to redefine our lives in a new and safer context where good can triumph over evil.  In the film, Baby Doll does just that.  Her life has become a mess.  At first, she redefines her surroundings – the asylum becomes a brothel, rape becomes a dance.  But there comes a point where this fantasy is too close to reality, so she escapes even further into a world that bends itself to her needs.  Gravity?  Psh!  If we can’t climb we’ll jump, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll fly.

This is where the real commentary starts.  This deep layer of fantasy features the girls triumphing over impossible odds.  They’re the best in the world.  Nothing can keep them down.  This represents one of the most common escapist fantasies – victory.  But there comes an inevitable point where something so tragic, so jarring happens that the escapism fails.  I won’t spoil it here, but what we see happen toward the end of the second act forces Baby Doll to be self-conscious about her escapism, when faced with pain, she actively chooses to return to the fantasy.  But now the escapism is back a step, it simply redefines.  It repurposes a tragedy to be something of a different kind of failure.  What was a simple failure to steal a knife becomes the failure to disarm a nuclear explosion.  Perhaps that extremist failure is more comfortable to watch than the more personal tragedy.

There’s lots of talk in this film about Baby Doll’s virginity.  She’s supposed to lose it to the High Roller, the fantasy version of the lobotomist.  The idea of course is that the moment he inserts a needle into her brain is symbolized by sexual intercourse.  There is also much reference to the lie of entertainment.  The opening shot is of curtains being drawn (not unlike Moulin Rouge!), and the first layer of fantasy is filled with song and dance, countered by backstage scenes of sadness and pain.  The multitude of mirrors remind us of the different sides of every person, and maybe produces the anxiety of being watched from every angle.  And at the end of the film we get a glimpse of Paradise – the final escape.  This is what everyone in the film has been after since the beginning; and arguably, everyone in the real world too.

As mentioned earlier, there is depth here.  But its screaming at you.  Depth without subtlety can be a major turn-off for some.  All the symbols in the world won’t mean much to an audience that doesn’t care for your story.  But at the very least, I wish that critics had more respect for the incredibly unique work of art that this film is.  Like Edward Scissorhands for Burton or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for Leone, no one else could have made this film the way Snyder has made it.  It is deeply personal and in some ways completely successful.  Its themes of escapism will certainly strike a cord with anyone interested in the idea of entertainment as public service.

For my case, these escapist action flicks are precisely the types of movies that I want to make some day.  And Sucker Punch is a very clear description as to why.

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Life: Reset, Themes of Escape in Run, Lola, Run

04/13/2011

Tom Tykwer’s film Run, Lola Run marks an important contradiction to traditional cinema, and especially traditional crime cinema.  In most films, an attempt is made on the filmmaker’s part to create a cinematic mythology that closely mirrors reality.  Typically, most films assume a naturalistic point of view of the world, only changing laws of nature that directly conflict with the filmmaker’s ability to tell the story they want to tell.  For instance, in reality, police can trace a phone call in a matter of seconds, but in every cop movie ever, the bad guy calls up the good guy only to hang up the phone right before a trace is made.  The directors of those films change the facts of the universe in order to create a stronger experience.  And in a film like Star Wars, separate sets of rules are created from the ground up for an entirely different universe.  But in Run, Lola Run, director Tom Tykwer presents us with a world that looks very much like reality, but feels and plays out like something else entirely.

For many, the closest approximation is a videogame, a story that is controlled in part by the person/character on whose focus the story is about.  This is not a world where the principle character is subject to the rules of the universe.  This is a world where the rules of the universe are subject to the desires of the principle character.  It is a prime example of film’s ability to embrace non-reality as a means of coming upon truth.  It proves beyond any doubt that the rules of a cinematic mythology are only the same as that of reality to the extent of the filmmaker’s desires.

While there are some filmmakers (Lars Von Trier, I’m thinking of you) who desire to create a cinematic experience that closely approximates the experience of reality, there is nothing non-cinematic about a film embracing fantasy, in place of reality.  There is nothing about Run, Lola Run that necessarily disconnects the viewer from feeling an emotional experience.  Therefore, there is nothing in a realistic approach to film that is entirely superior to a non-real approach.  And one quick look at storytelling history tells us that many people all over the world are more comfortable with an experience that is simultaneously escaping and escapable.

In the movie, Lola escapes her problems by taking control of her situation.  If we understand the main character of a film as being a stand-in for the audience, then Run, Lola Run builds its own story based on the above-mentioned principle of story’s being simultaneously an escape, and escapable.  I choose to escape from real world problems by entertaining myself with film, but if the film takes me through an experience I don’t desire to have, then I have the power to escape that experience as well.  When Lola is shot 20 minutes into the film, she thinks back to what she loves about her life, namely her relationship with her boyfriend.  And when she notices her dilemma of being near death, she chooses to escape and try again.  For her, reality is escapable.  But it is not without effort, and certainly not without process.

Any experience that humans can possibly have requires the process of time.  When I tell a joke, the punch line is only funny if it has been properly set-up.  Something as simple as humor is based on the need for process.  In the case of film, the director is in complete control of the process through which the story is told.  And in Run, Lola Run, Tykwer shows us a process through which the main character is ultimately dissatisfied with where her experience has taken her.  The character challenges the experience and takes control.  This gives us an inclination that perhaps the story is not dictated by the filmmaker but by the character.  Which is the god of film?  The character cannot perform any action that is not dictated by the filmmaker, but the character of Lola shows a very real drive to challenge the established “roller-coaster” experience.

In deconstructing this film, one must acknowledge that the process of film is more important than the finale.  Audiences have a love-hate relationship with the end credits of a film.  Because on the one hand it offers a form of closure, distinguishing on their behalf between reality and cinema-fantasy; but on the other hand it brings them back into the very reality they chose to escape by walking into a movie theater.  Thus, while Tom Tykwer and Lola share the ability to control the world of the film Run, Lola Run, that power cannot be passed on to the audience.  It is only in the realm of fantasy that character transcends nature.  But that does not mean that real-world audiences cannot be inspired by fantastical experience.  It is in our acknowledgments of fantasy’s inherent truth, that we embrace non-reality, for the sake of the process of experience that it offers us.