Monday, May 19, 2008

Get Out While You Can

Before Lester Del Rey observed how the three volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s huge novel The Lord of the Rings was selling to the 1960s turned-on, tuned-out generation;

before Del Rey coined the term “trilogy” to triple sales and lock in readers eager for more Tolkienesque stuff;

before Del Rey’s success at all this created the market category of high fantasy;

before Terry Carr’s selecting and editing of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, with their wraparound Gervasio Gallardo covers and their resurrection of obscure books;

before we needed to distinguish between High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Dark Fantasy;

before writers learned to bloat their derivative medieval daydreams into three-book contracts;

before Terry Brooks shamelessly pastiched Tolkien and so many others shamelessly but more subtly did the same;

before all that, Fantasy was escapism.

The Prisoner of Zenda; The Lord of the Rings; The Strange High House in the Mist; House On the Borderlands; King Solomon’s Mines; The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath; The Well At the World’s End; The Worm Ouroborous; The Charwoman’s Shadow; The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and so many other books existed as nothing but places for world-weary minds to escape into.

None carried any particular message. None meant anything. Each existed solely for the pleasure of existing. Writers enjoyed creating them, readers loved escaping into them.

Many became private retreats for the few who knew of them. Terry Carr speaks of this in some of his Ballantine introductions. Even Tolkien, before the 1960’s revival, had been a well-kept secret for the cognoscenti.

Of course, there were always those too brainwashed, too constipated in thought, and too determined to destroy anything as pure as escapism for its own sake. These were the C. S. Lewis types, who loaded their work with lessons, allegorical parallels, and heavy-handed meanings. To them, pure escapism stood as an affront to their utilitarian literalism. If a book did not teach us something or in some way elevate us according to approved dogmatic yardsticks, it was a useless thing and probably a temptation to the sin of idleness.

These sick folks brought High Fantasy low and indoctrinated entire schools of people into thinking of escapist reading as a waste of time. During the Pulp Era reading escapist fare was so reviled it was said to rot kids’ minds. Science fiction was equated with, and often considered worse in ways, than pornography.

If you think I overstate this, read some history.

Now we have movies so no one has to bother trying to read. Sure, some still do, clinging to outmoded fiction delivery platforms, but the majority prefer movies. And my how movies have discovered and embraced Fantasy.

Every sort of fantasy, from super heroes to eerie meditations on little girls in Nazi-occupied Spain, from scary stuff to space voyages, from archaeological adventures to dreamy vampirism and beyond can be found in movies.

Sadly, this includes the stern lesson-plan fantasies of True Believers. Hoping to attract and exploit the Family Values crowd, some film makers have opted either to load their movies with messages or to film books -- remember those? -- written to persuade. Pure escapism is once again being sneered at, the scoffers accusing movies that are nothing but breathtaking and amazing and fun of being wastes of time.

These creeps want us to learn things even in fantasy movies. Worse, they want us to learn specific things, their things. It’s indoctrination they’re peddling. And they disguise it as escapism, using the images and language of High Fantasy to cover up the clutching hands waiting to grab you when no one’s looking.

Get out while you can.

Find out which movies are pure escapism and avoid the others. Best way to figure it out is, of course, to read, but if you can’t rouse yourself to such extremes at least listen to people talk about movies. The ones they say you “should” see; the ones they say are “family friendly” and “perfect for kids”; the ones they say their church approves; the ones deballed and decapitated to the point that pop idols “star” in them; the ones that arouse no controversy; the ones that church groups congregate to see; the ones the talking heads and drone dolls on TV titter about; all those and ones like them should be avoided like the modern plague they are.

Support indie films. That means independent. Meaning not dependent on or from a major studio’s marketing division.

Support fringe films and controversial movies. Go to the ones the critics universally pan. You can be sure a media massed against a movie is trying to sink a movie that might make you think or feel; they can’t tolerate that, so you should seek it out.

Get out while you can means escape the programming box.

This very urge to break free from society’s constraints is the source of those High Fantasy escapist novels of long ago. It remains the spark for quirky, individualistic, and wonderful movies today.

Anyone lacking the urge to escape the cattle pens and shipping boxes is already dead meat.

The rest of you: RUN.

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