40 films that manage to get magical realism right where ‘Winter’s Tale’ failed

02.14.14 3 years ago 33 Comments

Universal Pictures

Yesterday on Twitter, someone asked me the simple version of a larger point made in some angry e-mails about my “Winter’s Tale” review. Several people accused me outright of simply hating magic and romance in movies, which is silly, and it was @SamShotFirst (Sam Van Haren) who asked me: “Just read your “Winter’s Tale” review. What are some films you think handle magical realism well?”

I suggested that this is the sort of a question worth answering in an article, but offered one immediate example that came to mind. “Field Of Dreams.”

Now, sure, part of the reason I’ll accept “Field Of Dreams” is because they get the emotional side of things right. That’s missing the bigger picture, though. The main reason it works is because first it feeds you just enough information to understand who everyone is. Then you introduce the first element of magic. We watch everyone react. We watch them puzzle it through. Then there’s another element of magic. And they have to adjust again. And in each case, the moment where they have to adjust is playing honestly, because you have to acknowledge that something outside of the ordinary is happening. You can’t shrug it off.

But you also can’t pound on it in such an obnoxious and obvious way that it’s just VFX wanking, pointless flashes of lights and explosions. “Field Of Dreams” only has a few special effects, and one of the best ones is used to sell just how important the entire moment was. When Doc Graham has to decide if he’s going to stay young, if he’s going to remain the ball player he was or if he’s going to save that little girl… it’s not really a choice. He steps out, changing back, and it’s a beautiful simple moment of visual magic. Everything in the film is undersold, and that helps.

He wrote back “Of course. I guess I was having a hard dime figuring exactly what makes something magical realism. Something like ‘Amelie,’ too?”

Absolutely. I think on film, magical realism is something different than it is in literature. In film, you have a fundamental realism that is had to get around. It is much harder to do full-blown fantasy in some ways because of how much you have to do to create something that feels lived in. Jeunet and Caro couldn’t help but deal in magical not-so-realism in their first few films. They had such a strong sense of world-building, controlling everything you see, every part of every set and costume. That was a skill set that seemed to be a big part of some of the guys who started in the ’80s, both within the studio system and in the broader international sense. I think they were all responding to one another, and this sort of insular world-building stuff became the primary skill needed to get one into the 21st century, where each new franchise has to create an extended world for books and sequels and games and MMORPGs and theme part tie ins and prequels and costumes and cosplay and Comic-Con ready shtick and if it’s not, then WHY ARE YOU EVEN BOTHERING?

There are the start of this new wave, though, Jeunet and Caro put together “Delicatessen,” “The City Of Lost Children,” and then they had a rough experience with Hollywood and Caro basically bailed while Jeunet made “Amelie,” a confection, a film that uses all of the same artistic lessons learned on creating the artificial worlds of his earlier movies, but grounding it in a part of Paris that has its own identity, using that level of obsessive detail to give not only this particular corner of Paris, but the entire romantic notion of Paris, creating an onscreen Paris that is everything Jeunet feels about this city, all poured through the filter of this lovely, lonely, oddly-kind woman who he cast with a preposterous Euro-Angel. It is a film of joy and love and hope and it teases the city and it loves the city and it dares the city to be the version that this film shows.

I would say Lars Von Trier is unafraid to let magic intrude on the real in his films. There are moments in “Anti-Christ” that are unsettling not because of graphic sexual violence… of which that film contains a startling amount… but because they run so completely counter to the natural order. The fox may say “Chaos Reigns,” but isn’t that communicated clearly through the sheer terror of the idea that the fox said anything? Von Trier must feel that the world is always ready to unravel, and that there is magic that you can touch, that you can hold and that may even help you, but that it might equally destroy you. There is magic in “Breaking The Waves,” although he makes you take the long painful ride with Emily Watson, her faith holding up against blow after blow, past the point it makes sense, past the point any of us could hold up to it. And she’s sure. And she’s sure. And it’s so clear she’s just a broken crazy girl. And then that bell. That bell. That magic bell that means so much. And the feeling in the theater when it rang, and I realized that I had already given up, my logical side saying, “Of course there’s no bell,” and my emotional side practically erupting when the bell finally sounds.

Magic, done right, can devastate. I believe that. There’s nothing quite like a movie where invisible narrative threads all come together and you suddenly realize what you’re about to see and the hair on the back of your neck stands up and they nail it. We are entering an age where some filmmakers are going to very quietly start doing impossible things on a daily basis. You’ll see a film sometime in the next five or ten years, and you’ll completely accept every part of what you saw as what it purported to be, and when you are told what you really were watching, you will calmly, with the full weight of all of your professional experience behind you, explain that it is impossible.

And you will be wrong. There are things that are so close right now, test work being done, and characters and worlds that we have only ever seen in pen and ink or in clumsy lesser forms are going to appear to walk and talk and live and breathe in ways we will simply have to accept, for all practical purposes, as “real.”

That’s when we’ll get great at pulling this sort of thing off. When you can bend reality in a million small ways, and when production design and cinematography and visual effects and performance can all work together to create things that will be flawlessly realized, and amazing. Not a watered-down version of that word, either. I mean genuinely awe-inspiring.

So the films that have done it best have been films that I think establish both the reality and the magic in ways that feel like they work. You have to have a handle on what world this story takes place in before changes to that world have any significance to the story. If it’s New York 1986, and suddenly you’re dropping dinosaurs and UFOs in Times Square, I get it. I see what’s different. But when you’re introducing a reality that your audience doesn’t already know completely, you have to work to make the mythology simple if you want to tell a dense and complicated story. If, on the other hand, the dense and complicated mythology is the point, then the story better be “A+B=C”.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is right on the threshold for some people. I find David Fincher’s attempt to prove he does indeed have a human heart, and not just the one he keeps encased in lucite on his desk, to be a very vulnerable film, a film that pretty much rolls over, belly up, and admits, “This is a very precious premise. If we pull at these threads at all, not a word of it makes sense. So we’ll try to make it very, very easy.” The Benjamin at the start of his life and the Benjamin at the end are very creepy and sad and wrenching, and I think there’s so much sadness to the movie that I buy his magical tale. Besides, much of this is a story told by Benjamin. When we see him out in the world and we see what he remembers, this is someone whole-hearted devouring of experience and images. He lives wide open, trying to pack as much experience in as he can, and his world view is as romantic as possible. Who knows how much it really looked like that? That’s how he felt. That’s how it felt like he lived. And that’s beautiful. I’ll buy an outrageous premise if it’s beautiful in the end. But that’s not a very easy target to reach.

Would you like a recent example that surprised me? “Jeff Who Lives At Home.” One of the movies that might be described as Magical Realism that I very firmly do not like is the M. Night Shyamalan film “Signs.” I think the set-up and pay-off is silly, and the expertly staged monster scenes in the middle don’t make up for the sort of insulting game he’s playing here, “proving God’s hand” to Gibson’s doubting priest in a way that is so obvious that he no longer has to worry about free will at all, since he is now shit-terrified of what God will do to anyone else who angers him. When I learned that the Duplass Brothers film was about Jeff (Jason Segal), who does indeed live in his mother’s basement, where he has been developing a plan for how to live his entire life according to the movie “Signs.” And then, for one long remarkable day, that’s what Jeff does. And sure enough, his entire life, and the lives of the members of his family, all change on that day. That sounds like such a terrible movie when I describe it, but what makes it work is that the Duplass Bros aren’t remotely suggesting that following “Signs” is the answer to life’s mysteries. They’re just capturing a moment where this guy, who feels like he needs answers from the outside, finally just invents the answers he needs to give himself the excuse to do what he know he has to do if he ever hopes to have a real life of his own, and once he starts, it’s like pulling off the band-aid, and it just keeps escalating. The magic in “Jeff” comes from watching what happens when people realize that change is happening and they can either fight it or embrace it, and how they respond is all about who they are to each other and how they feel about themselves and it ends up really digging into this family that is at a stress point, not healthy, and things need to change. Not just for Jeff, but for everyone. And what happens isn’t magic. It’s momentum. But it’s the belief that set that momentum off in the first place, and maybe there is something in that process that you have to call magic. Maybe just that touch.

I almost skipped seeing “The Fall” because I had so little use for Tarsem’s previous film, and that is a really stupid thing for a film critic to do. Holding grudges is never a good plan. We all do it for a million reasons. I don’t like Lee Daniels films but it’s just because they’re gross. The push some particular aesthetic button for me where he does some specific wallow at some point in each of his movies, like Steven Dorff snapping off a used condom standing in silhouette in “Shadowboxer” or the split-second after the first good shot of Nichole Kidman’s crazy eyes in “The Paperboy” There are points with filmmakers where I know we’re not going any further together. I may try again later, but you do that to me enough times, I’m eventually not going to bother. I don’t watch Troma Films. Not because I “hate” them or because I have any particular problem with anyone from Troma. I just can’t. There is something about the Troma House Aesthetic that makes those movies smell bad to me. And that’s it. Done.

Because I have these prejudices, it is easy to skip something, but someone finally talked me into seeing “The Fall,” and I think it is not just a good example of magical realism, but that there is real magic in it. The way Tarsem made the film might sound like part psychological experiment, part acting exercise, part let’s blow this little kid’s mind, but I think what it truly becomes is a moment of magic that he was able to not only create, but capture, a moment in which a little girl who has come to love the person who talks to her and tells her stories, this striking stranger who she is sharing the coolest experience of her life with… a moment where he suddenly does something impossible. Something that is magic. Something that makes that little girll’s whole world view expand. And he had a camera right there pointing at her. To make someone believe like that… and then to explain why it’s not real…. that is the process we all face with magic in this world. Tarsem made his movie to capture that crushing moment when we all have to give up on the notion that magic will ever just be handed to us, and he did it in such a way that it’s real.

We can make magic in our worlds, though. We make magic in agreement with other people. If they are open to the magic that we are open to, then all sorts of things can happen. Alfonso Cuaron has been dazzling people a lot longer than just with “Gravity,” and I might argue he made a stronger overall impression on me with “A Little Princess.” I love movies about children who are bright but somewhat lonely who are dropped into environments they must explore if they are to learn what has been done to them and why. I think it’s a very strong starting point, and especially here, in a film about why stories are essential. The stories our parents tell us about who we are are the stories we tell ourselves. Then other people start to edit the story that is told to us about us, and we carry that stuff back to our parents, and then they edit that stuff and they try to put back the stuff they already liked and they just want to make sure it’s all all right, but more and more, it is hard to hold on to those early stories, especially when so many others want to tear those stories down for us. Liesel Matthews is fantastic as Sara Crewe, a girl raised in India who gets dumped in a boarding school in New York. Her stories entertain the other girls, but the school’s headmistress see them as a battle to be drawn, a light to be extinguished. Will things work out just right? Sure. Eventually. But done right, a story like “A Little Princess” makes us feel that Sara has earned her way back to the life she had, and that she has made others better besides.

Guillermo Del Toro has a warrior’s heart, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” may look like a standard issue film from the guy who likes to do comic books and vampires. But the realism here is more real that the genre is used to. It’s Spain 1944. Franco’s Falangists are everywhere. There are rebels in the hills, but not for long. Capitan Vidal is going to make sure of that. Imagine a child watching fascism drop roots into not only her country and her village but also her home. And imagine what sort of magic that girl might call upon, what she might find if she digs deep into herself, and what that magic might do to Capital Vidal and his trash. Even in the film’s final moments, Del Toro doesn’t give you clear answers about where the battle is being fought or even which battle is the one he considers most important. There is old magic, hungry magic, and sometimes, that is what gets served and so be it.

When I was a theater manager in Sherman Oaks, I frequently had to help the guests before, during and after the sneak preview screenings we did about four times a week. On one afternoon, I was told to make sure Albert Brooks and David Geffen were taken care of. We had two screens of “Defending Your Life” playing, one starting earlier, and one starting later. Not long after the first screening started, the two of them stormed out into the lobby and started yelling at each other, heated.

Brooks clearly felt that everything he had in the film in the first ten minutes about the daily life of his character was 100% essential to sell who he is in his life, what he is afraid of, how he acts with other people, and how clearly fear fails him. Then, and only then, there’s the car accident where he dies.

Geffen’s very emphatic suggestion was to cut everything from that first ten minutes except a few shots. “He’s at the office. It’s his birthday. It’s sort of crappy. He gets in the car. He’s fucking with the Streisand CD and drops it. There’s the truck. Bam. You’re dead and in heaven, and we’re a minute into the film.”

That infuriated Brooks. He was apoplectic about it, and he had good reason. He really felt like to understand how hard it is for his character to let go of his fear during his afterlife, you have to see examples of it in his life. Geffen said there was plenty of it at the trial. We get it.”

Geffen won that very heated fight. The final cut of the film, which Brooks meticulously built over the course of a few more screenings, has a great rapid opening, very funny, and then immediately gets to work establishing the rules of the world. It’s done in a very funny way because Brooks simply isn’t good with directions. There is tons of real magic on display here, and it’s played mainly for laughs, like we can’t fully comprehend how weird and big the universe really is. Rip Torn makes me cackle when he talks about the unfortunate limits of Albert Brooks and his brain. And amidst all the magic that is used in the story, what this gets right is that it’s all just a tool to illuminate character, setting off a reaction that can only be resolved in personal ways. It’s brilliant. That’s when magical realism really punches a whole in you, when it plays the heartstrings so very well. The love story in that film works beautifully, and the tension that’s set up has to do with the magical premise of souls moving on or souls being sent back, but we relate on a basic human level, so the magic is almost incidental.

One filmmaker who has proven himself very adept at pulling off magical realism is Woody Allen. “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” has a huge jump you have to make if you’re going to believe anything that happens, when a character in a movie notices the same woman in the audience so many times during a week that he has no choice but to step down off of the screen so he can meet her. It’s handled in a way that is very matter of fact, and the reactions of the people on both sides of the screen becomes enormously funny the longer things stretch on. In “Zelig,” he gives his main character an ability that would basically make him an X-Man if you told a different type of story, a natural defense mechanism that allows him to blend in to any social situation by literally changing who he is. In his recent hit “Midnight In Paris,” he made a nightly act of magic seem completely mundane, and time travel simply becomes an accepted part of the story being told. Even in a film that plays things as straight as “Everyone Says I Love You,” he’s willing to allow his actors a moment of literally dancing on air because it expresses something they’re feeling, and he never stops the movie to explain or to try to justify the choice. That is a big part of pulling off these moments. You have to simply present them as part of the natural order of things, implying that there is a world of magic just beneath the surface that occasionally bubbles up and spills over and trying to explain it is pointless.

Honestly, the list of movies that have successfully used magical realism is so long, so dense, and so diverse that the more I started thinking about how well it’s been done, the more I’m irritated to see how badly “Winter’s Tale” mangles even the basics of establishing the reality of that world. Look at something like “Being John Malkovich,” where Spike Jonze creates a left-of-center reality from the very beginning, and he makes it seem effortless. This is a world where you can go through a door and emerge inside the head of someone else, and then you get ejected onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, and Jonze makes it all seem like it makes sense. There’s not a moment in that film where it feels like he’s struggling to create something that feels real. Because Jonze believes it completely, you end up believing it completely. David Lynch has always had a knack for creating a world that feels real and unreal at once, and I think “Blue Velvet” remains the best example of the way he is able to slowly pull back the corners of reality until we suddenly find ourselves in a waking nightmare. There’s nothing in the film that is explicitly magic, but there’s also a sense that the rules of the real world don’t apply by the time we find ourselves standing in a room while Dean Stockwell lip-synchs into a lightbulb. When there’s that insane moment in “Lost Highway” where Robert Blake makes the weirdest phone call in the world, it somehow seems like it makes perfect sense in the world that Lynch creates.

I understand why the urge exists in storytellers to mix romance and magical realism. When you see something like “L.A. Story,” the leaps of non-reality serve to express the way love makes us feel, and it can be a very potent way of drawing us into that emotional state which is created, especially in those early days of infatuation. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is not meant to be taken literally, but when Zhang Ziyi takes that leap off of that mountain at the end of the movie, that is one of the most perfect illustrations of just how terrifying love can be. “Edward Scissorhands” does a great job of dropping a Tim Burton world right next to an average ugly Florida suburb, and it is precisely because of how ugly and mundane that world is that that it seems so beautiful when Kim ends up dancing in the “snow” that falls when Edward is carving the ice angel. She has never seen that kind of beauty before, and it is a moment that we can understand and take part in precisely because of how carefully the reality has been established.

Sometimes, the best way to make us believe in the magic is to use a sense of humor to defuse it, like in Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait.” The film is very smart about how it treats the supernatural stuff, and it uses laughs both big and small to wink at the audience and let them know just how seriously they are supposed to take things. And, look, I don’t mind sappy. If you’re going to be over the top gooey, just go for it and commit to it. There’s a film called “Fly Me To Polaris” from Hong Kong that is very much cut from the same cloth as films like “Ghost” or Steven Spielberg’s “Always,” a film about destiny and love and fate, and while it is patently ridiculous, it believes every single bit of its ridiculousness, and when it pays off, it is genuinely emotional because of how whole-heartedly it does what it does. You can’t be embarrassed if you’re making a film like that, and you can’t over-explain. It’s like when a liar goes too far and starts adding details to a lie that someone already believed and totally blows it. Sometimes, the best way to make this stuff work is to just lightly hint at it, because the more you explain, the more likely it is that you’re going to end up talking your audience out of believing what you’re doing.

Another great use of magical realism is when you’re telling a story about kids, and I think it works so well there precisely because that’s how kids view the world anyway. I look at my own kids right now, and it’s obvious that magic is part of their world view. There is still potential in everything for them, and I do everything in my power to keep that alive for them. The world seems determined to kill that in us as fast as it can, and I want them to keep that belief alive as long as possible. When I look at the work of Hayao Miyazaki, I think he does the best job of any working filmmaker at capturing the way that feels. Films like “Ponyo” or “Spirited Away” or “Kiki’s Delivery Service” do a wonderful job of drawing us into magical worlds to such an extent that we simply buy the rules without anyone sitting down to explain them, and without bad guys who exist only to drive a story forward. It’s hard to explain what kind of spell “My Neighbor Totoro” casts over someone if they see it at the right age, but I see its influence in the way my children approach nature with a sense of wide-open wonder, ready for miracles wherever they might occur. There have been some very adult films that have also used magical realism to try to deal with the darker side of being a child and feeling powerless in a world run by adults who don’t make sense. I would call “The Butcher Boy” and “The Mighty” and “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” great examples of magical realism, and I think “The Tin Drum” is one of those films that only works if you’re willing to accept some truly outrageous concepts. If you do, though, there is a remarkable power to the world that the film creates.

I don’t even mind if you want to try to grapple with issues of theology in these movies. “Wings Of Desire” may use angels, but I don’t think your own religious views matter when a filmmaker like Wim Wenders tackles these ideas. He’s not telling you “This is how things work, so you better be good.” Instead, he’s using something as immediately understood as an angel to get into issues of connection and what it means to be a human being, and the loneliness of being an outsider. And while I’m not a big fan of the film, I admire Ang Lee’s approach to bringing the visuals of “Life Of Pi” to the screen, something I would have considered almost impossible when I first read the book. He opted to go as big as possible, making the magic something that is impossible to miss, which is almost the exact opposite of the approach taken by someone like John Sayles when he made the wry, subtle “The Secret Of Roan Inish.” Then there’s the way Paul Thomas Anderson introduces one magical element into the otherwise completely recognizable Van Nuys of “Magnolia,” that rain of frogs like the finger of God falling onto all of these unhappy lives for some reason bigger than any of them can imagine.

There are films that feel almost like technical exercises, that exist in a world that is nothing like ours, and done right, they can be beautiful. “Pleasantville” may be as on-the-nose a metaphor as I’ve ever seen anyone attempt, but then you get to that amazing moment where Joan Allen takes a bath and sets fire to a tree outside with the force of her sexual awakening, and how can you fault a film when it contains a moment that so beautifully articulates something so true? One of the reasons I think we are primed on some level to accept magical realism is because so much of what we digest when we are young could be described that way, and it’s a cornerstone of storytelling. One of the first stories that many modern kids bond with is “The Wizard Of Oz.” And why not? It’s got all the basics. Charming little girl lead. Trusty dog sidekick. Whisked to magic world. Has to battle the darker elements of the world to earn her way home, and in the end, it may all just be a metaphor anyway. I mean, that’s magical realism in a nutshell.

We’re practically raised on “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the ultimate what-if: What if I had never been born? I have actually had one of my kids in a fit of anger yell at one of the adults in the house, “I wish I hadn’t never been born!” I defused the situation by pointing out that his grammar was a nightmare and before I was done, he was laughing and we were able to get the conversation back to something like a conversation. But kids have been saying some variation of that to their parents in moments of rage as long as kids have had parents and those parents wouldn’t give them the goddamn car keys I MEAN IT IS SATURDAY NIGHT YOU FASCIST, and while I laugh about it when my five-year-old says it, that’s actually a very dark thought. In general, people forget how dark “It’s A Wonderful Life” really is. He’s going to kill himself, and he’s given a chance to see what that would look like. That is a pretty stark starting point for drama , and the stakes seem about as high as they could possibly be. People only remember the film’s happy ending. People only remember the hugs and the real memories that help George (Jimmy Stewart) make up his mind to stay alive. I would argue that it deserves a spot in this conversation not only because of the magic in the movie, but because it weaves such a powerful spell over viewers that they sit and watch this crazy supernatural intervention into a financially-motivated suicide during a family holiday just so they get the rush that comes when he finally pulls it out and decides to live. That is a magic trick in and of itself, and proof that this genre has wildly broad boundaries, and it takes a sure hand and the willingness to fail completely to even try some of this stuff.

When I started this 5000 words ago, I was simply trying to answer a question someone asked, but it’s made me realize that this is a very valuable part of the storytelling palette, and “Winter’s Tale” is even more mystifying when you see just how many people have successfully navigated these waters before, and to so many radically different purposes. More than anything, it is a reminder that films are often the places we turn to see our internal struggles played out on an external stage, and that the only reason any of this matters is when it says or illuminates something that genuinely matters, and that’s where “Winter’s Tale” fails most egregiously.

“Winter’s Tale” is, as I threatened yesterday, actually playing in real actual theaters. With other real films actually playing just next door. That is crazy bananas.

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