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Five Great Fantasies

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  • Noel Vera <noelbotevera@hotmail.com>
    Five great fantasy films Noel Vera With the advent of Peter Jackson s Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, I m reminded of other works of fantasy
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2003
      Five great fantasy films

      Noel Vera

      With the advent of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of
      the Ring," I'm reminded of other works of fantasy rendered on film.
      Does "Fellowship," the first third of a work taking up 270 million
      dollars, 20,000 extras, and over two hundred days to shoot, deserve
      to be called great? Or are we simply talking big numbers, the
      setting aside of which would reveal what is at heart a conventional
      piece of moviemaking? What makes a fantasy film great anyway?

      By way of reply...here's a list of what I consider five of the
      greatest fantasy films ever made, and why I thought them great:

      John Boorman's "Excalibur" (1981)

      Boorman reportedly worked on an early attempt to adopt "Lord of the
      Rings" to the big screen, and was dismissed when he wanted to
      condense the book drastically. Instead, he took all the preparation
      and research he did and poured it into another, far more ambitious
      production, an adaptation of nothing less than Thomas Malory's "Le
      Morte d'Arthur."

      The end result is every bit as insane as Jackson's "Fellowship" is
      not. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of Arthurian legend compacted
      into a two-hour-plus film; characters and entire plotlines lopped
      off, like limbs in the violent battle sequences; muttered
      metaphysical nonsense about Arthur and England "being one," as if
      this explained everything (which you suspect it does--to Boorman, at

      Yet despite the mad-revisionist approach--or perhaps because of it--
      the film achieves overwhelming visual density and grandeur; with
      Boorman barely able to shove it all in, the images fly past like an
      illuminated bible flipped at super-speed. Some images do linger,
      despite everything--Gabriel Byrne in full spiky armor, pumping into a
      naked Katrine Boorman (the director's daughter) before a raging fire;
      Arthur's knights with swords upraised, standing atop a grassy hill
      against a starry sky; Arthur himself riding to battle with Carl
      Orff's "Carmina Burana" blasting away in the background, the trees
      behind him bursting out in full bloom. "Excalibur" is not an easy
      film to like, much less respect--it moves at such a headlong pace
      that it tumbles as often as takes off. But it's recognizably
      Boorman's "Excalibur" the way "Fellowship"--which any number of
      reasonably intelligent, highly talented filmmakers familiar with
      special effects (Spielberg, James Cameron, even Peter Yates) could
      have done--is not.

      F. W. Murnau's "Faust" (1926)

      Murnau, if anything, is crazier than Boorman. He took one of the
      greatest works in German literature and turned it into a
      phantasmagoric head trip, with a sequence--Mephistopheles flying
      Faust across the world, an incredible use of miniatures and special-
      effect photography--that influenced Boorman's almost-as-
      crazed "Exorcist 2: The Heretic." His Mephisto (an outsized Emil
      Jannings) is magnificent--hundreds of feet tall, with batwings that
      spread across the sky. Disney borrowed him to preside over
      the "Night at Bald Mountain" sequence in "Fantasia," and J.R.R.
      Tolkien possibly pays homage with his Balrog, a fearsome (if
      comparatively less impressive) creature found in "Fellowship of the

      Then Murnau turns on a dime and from his gargantuan first half zooms
      in on the story of Faust's forgotten love Gretchen (the impossibly
      beautiful Camille Horn), and her bastard child. Gretchen's story is
      as horrifyingly masochistic as anything D.W. Griffith could cook up
      for Lillian Gish; Horn makes her predicament plausible, even moving.

      Ever since Siegfried Kracauer dismissed "Faust," the film has been
      relegated to the dustbins of cinematic history; it's rarely
      mentioned, much less considered one of Murnau's better works. But it
      is; with its tremendous, intensely larger-than-life first half, its
      more human-scaled yet equally intense second, it's one of the
      greatest forgotten films ever made.

      Victor Fleming's "The Wizard of Oz" (1939)

      A Hollywood film a great fantasy--and a musical at that? But "The
      Wizard of Oz" is more than just some Hollywood musical; as Salman
      Rushdie in a brilliant New Yorker essay once pointed out, it's a
      great film that seemingly came out of nowhere. To who would you
      ascribe artistic authority--to Victor Fleming, a merely competent
      craftsman ("Gone With the Wind," "A Star is Born") who, as it turned
      out, directed the film with four other filmmakers? Judy Garland, who
      IS great but could hardly have written her songs? To the composer
      (mainly Harold Arlen) and writers (Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson,
      and Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum, with
      contributions from Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and, if you can believe it,
      Herman Mankiewicz and Ogden Nash)? By any rights, "Wizard of Oz"
      should be an incomprehensible mess and it is; it's also one of the
      most fun, least pretentious great films ever made.

      And it's so pop. It helps that the source is Baum, whose homely
      imagery is filched, magpielike, from anything and everything handy
      (unlike Tolkien, whose sources are practically footnoted in every
      page): a Wizard living in an Emerald City; a Wicked Witch lusting
      after Ruby Slippers (you can see the role of precious stones in
      Baum's Yankee imagination); a Scarecrow without a brain, a Tin Man
      without a heart. Throw in MGM studios' considerable talent and
      resources and irresistible tendency to go kitschy--the Yellow Brick
      Road begins with a bright yellow spiral; the Munchkins wear makeup so
      thick they look beaten, badly bruised; the Lion sings about apes and
      Hottentots in his song about courage. The film's fantasy elements
      are so camp and commonplace (compared to the goblins and elves in
      other fantasies) and yet somehow so casually lyrical they're surreal,
      as if David Lynch had conspired on a Broadway production designed by
      Pedro Almodovar, with Andrew Lloyd Weber composing.

      And it has heart; unlike most fantasy epics mostly concerned about
      their production design and overall "look," "The Wizard of Oz" has an
      incredible amount of heart. You can find most of it in the simple
      scene near the beginning, when Judy Garland sings about the end of a
      rainbow--a song that has become an anthem for dreamers anywhere, of
      any age. Garland was years too old for the role, and paradoxically
      it was this lack of comfort, this awkwardness and uncertainty and
      emotional vulnerability she displayed in the part that made her such
      a brave, touching Dorothy.

      Lotte Reiniger's "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" (1926)

      Think of spending three years of your life creating a fantasy epic
      made entirely out of paper cut outs--a filmmaker can't get more
      personal or obsessed with his work than that, don't you think? Lotte
      Reiniger's "Prince Achmed" is an exhilarating brew of ogres and magic
      horses, of birds of paradise turned into beautiful women, of hot
      tropical jungles with tree limbs as sensually tangled and drenched in
      dew as a pair of naked lovers. Reiniger puts incredible detail into
      her work, and because "Achmed" is a mishmash of stories from "The
      Arabian Nights" (Aladdin and his magic lamp make a guest appearance)
      it's also a celebration of Islamic architecture and design, of their
      penchant for doing intricate geometric shapes.

      To depict the forces of magic, Reiniger employs the talents of
      Walther Ruttman, whose experiments in abstract animation bring to
      life the unearthly magic of Achmed and his friends. Ruttman's
      effects burst out of the flat silhouette art; they make giant zigzag
      patterns and throb with insuppressible energy, as fascinating to look
      at in their world of two-dimensions as real magic must be in our
      three-dimensional world.

      But Reiniger does more than evoke wonders with her scissors; she
      evokes mood, atmosphere, the most delicate of emotions. When Achmed
      approaches his lady love (whom he had kidnapped) and offers her her
      freedom as proof of his love, it's a moment as poignant and tender as
      anything D.W. Griffith or Charlie Chaplin (on their good days) might
      have done. "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" is so stuffed full of
      wonders and enchantment that when it's over you shake your head,
      unable to believe it's all just silhouette figures in monochrome.
      You could have sworn you saw gorgeous hues of ruby red and emerald
      green; you could have sworn you saw the glitter of ardent eyes, the
      shy whisperings of luscious lips. It's the most fantastic fantasy
      ever made through the most stringently limited means, as if Reiniger
      had simply waved her hands and brought sheets of paper to impossibly
      brilliant life--which, when you think about it, is exactly what she
      has done.

      Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1989)

      Scorsese spent years trying to realize a screen version of Nikos
      Kazantzakis' infamous novel, about Christ being tempted to the life
      of an ordinary being and marrying Mary Magdalene. Of all the ideas
      for a fantasy film I've ever heard (and yes I think believing you are
      the Son of God destined to save the world qualifies as a fantasy),
      this one is the most outrageous, possibly the most dangerous.
      Christ's temptation and eventual fall reminds us that he was a man as
      well as god--if it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us, and
      if Christ can be redeemed despite his fall, so can any of us.
      Scorsese, a filmmaker who has struggled with guilt and the
      possibility of redemption all his life, must have felt the novel's
      message strike home.

      Scorsese employs all kinds of fabulist techniques to realize his
      vision on screen, on a small budget. To represent the mighty city of
      Jerusalem he shoots around a few carefully chosen ruins and Greek
      pillars; to represent the even mightier Roman Empire he has six men
      play Roman legionnaires--the same six men, used over and over again,
      throughout the film. He employs dissolves to suggest the illusory
      nature of reality in a desert landscape, and a stealthily tracking
      camera to suggest the unseen presence following Christ. He has the
      actors speak in plain English, in an ordinary American accent, the
      words carefully gone over by him and his writer Paul Schrader to
      sound more immediate, more contemporary.

      Scorsese does everything he can to film "The Last Temptation" as if
      it had happened only a few weeks ago, on the mean streets of some
      major city in the world. This may be fantasy, but it's an in-your-
      face fantasy, done in Scorsese's inimitably in-your-face style. You
      either respond with love or hate, which is the most valid way to
      respond, I think; Scorsese probably wouldn't have it any other way.

      First appeared in Menzone, March 2002

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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