Wednesday, September 26, 2007


This blog will have a lot of piccies sprinkled throughout, all of them clean and suitable for kids. They're there just to keep you reading to the end. Of course, you might just look at the piccies and ignore my cogent rant. But that's OK, too.
You can lead a horse to water and all that...

Last night I learned an important lesson. Or maybe I should say that I was prompted to understand the difference between two things that, in popular usage are conflated, and thus, as is often the case when terminology gets used lightly and carelessly, one tends to overlook the finer points of the things being thus labeled.

The cause of the lesson/understanding was a viewing of what might well be the most enchanting and just sheer bloody enjoyable 'fantasy' movie of recent years, and possibly this decade, Stardust.

If you follow this link, you'll notice that, apart from a few naysayers, it has been received very well; and many of the comment made at IMDb would reflect my views. Though, I hasten to add, quite a few, even positive ones, don't; because I look for different things and think that many reviewers tend to nitpick and lose sight of the big picture.

Bygones. The bottom line is that this little flick—well, not so little, with a runtime of 130 minutes!—is a bit of almost-pure magic, with just about everything in it done right. Stardust is so totally unpretentious that it sets new standards for that particular attribute, unpretentiousness, in the area of 'fantasy film'. I can't imagine how any of the current or up-coming crop of same-genre flicks could possibly rival it. Oh, yes, they may have more drama, more tension, more violence, more tragedy, more romance, more action, more special effects, more character development, more 'intellectual stimulation', more 'stars'. Whatever. These things might all be true and pertinent in certain contexts and as answers to particular questions and judgment systems of what has artistic, story-telling or cinematographic merit. However, in this instance they concern me far less than something else, which has to do with that quality of a 'fantasy' movie that makes it into what's commonly called a 'fairy tale'.

Nowadays it qualifies as 'commonplace wisdom', and in terms of language use it's a matter of interchangeable terms, to conflate, say, 'fairy tale' and 'fantasy story'. This is due to, by and large, justifiable similarities between the two, their origins, structure, subject matter, the kinds of creatures populating them, the use of magical themes, and so on. Indeed, one could argue, again with justification, that even some non-magical tales, taking place in this world and at this time, might be considered 'fairy tales'; mainly since there adheres to them a quality of...well, let's call it 'unrealism' or maybe 'surrealism', depending...that gives them certain properties which are also those of 'fairy tales'. Nobody would seriously dispute the connections, overlaps and shared history.

Yet, watching Stardust—which instantly, and despite a very different plot and context, brought to mind The Princess Bride, which was made almost exactly 20 years ago!—I realized that the ready conflation of 'fairy tale' and 'fantasy story' conceals some important differences. For fairy tales, or so I realized, are a very special kind of fantasy story. So special that they deserve their own niche and should be considered on their own and separate from the larger genre.

So, what's the difference? What makes, say Lord of the Rings into a fantasy story, but Snow White into a fairy tale? Or, maybe more provocatively, what makes Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy in to a set of stories that rightly belong into the 'fairy tale' niche of the much broader general 'fantasy' spectrum. And what, to come back to the original subject of this blog, makes Stardust, like The Princess Bride, into a fairy tale—whose appeal, by implication, will not necessarily extend to the full range of 'fantasy fans'; but to those to whom it appeals it will do so with significant intensity. Just like, let's face it, fairy tales aren't for everybody, and one has to be of a particular disposition to relate to them. The same, naturally, applies to the subset of people who like 'fantasy', and to whom it 'speaks'—while others just can't handle the symbolism and context(s) and require more real-life, present day, immediately familiar contexts for the tales they like to listen to/read/watch.

By the way, and this will no doubt get a lot of hackles up, but 'science fiction' of any kind is also a subset of 'fantasy'. But that's by-the-by and not pertinent to this discussion.

I know a lot of this sounds like, and maybe is, splitting semantic hairs; but so be it. Sometimes one has to in order to understand things. As a follower of sorts of General Semantics I would be the first to agree that words per se are basically meaningless, unless symbol-grounded in some way; and everybody will ground said symbols differently from everybody else, sometimes significantly so, at others hair-splittingly. But it is also true that conflation of different symbols encourages an attitude that lumps together, but loses sight of possibly small, but nonetheless essential and significant differences between the things considered, be they real-world objects or more conceptual.

I'm still not certain just exactly what makes me say that Stardust is a 'fairy tale', while Lord of the Rings is not. It was a matter of sudden insight, more than anything else—and it no doubt had a lot to do with me basically having been reared on fairy tales; an influence that has proved perennial and pervasive in at least my 'literary' preferences, and probably has had wider ramifications, possibly extending far beyond just my own person. And I admit that if you started pointing at this story or that one and asked "Fairy tale or not?", I'd probably be stumped in most instances. Because there are a lot of stories lurking in the nebulous area where you can't really tell. It all becomes a matter of trying to find, as we humans usually do, some set of classifying phenomena that allow us to make such judgments.

The thing is that some stories are all the way in fairy tale land, while others are definitely not so. Stardust is in it with both feet, and body and arms and legs and everything else that counts. I could almost hear Ian McKellen continue his brief intro voice-over throughout the narrative, and I could imagine this same story, almost with the dialogue verbatim as in the movie, told around a spooky campfire—in installments!—or maybe to a young kid before bedtime. Every beat was 'fairy tale', with maybe a few slight mis-steps to mar the perfection. But that's cool, too. The actors obviously enjoyed themselves hugely in their respective roles. Claire Danes was a radiant 'fallen star', and the unknown Charlie Cox wore his role like a glove. Robert De Niro though really has to watch his alter ego, 'Captain Shake-speare'. And there was that term: 'whoopsie'. Never heard it before, but, yep, it fits just right.

Stardust wasn't what you might call a 'character piece'—and I don't know if you'd noticed that fairy tales never are; for they're not about 'character' per se, but what people do with the character they have. It was about something quite different. I still am working on trying to figure out just exactly what that is.

Give me time. I'm sure to come back to it. I only know that I haven't just 'enjoyed' myself quite as much in the cinema for quite some time.

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