Structuring Fantasy

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By 2017-07-16

By Indeewara Thilakarathne

In this continuing series on film theory, this week's column further examines how fantasy in movies are structured.
In an academic article titled 'fantasy in action', Paul Willemen observes this process as; "That film texts relate to the historical dynamics which preside over their production primarily by virtue of the indexical aspect of the formation of their substance of expression is a hypothesis worth pursuing, as is the certainty that the translation from the real to the text, whether expressively or representationally, must be subject to the four distortion processes which Freud showed to be responsible for structuring fantasy and dream texts'. One of the consequences of adopting that hypothesis is that it becomes possible to differentiate between, at least, two distinct, though related, levels.

In texts, where fantasy processes are at work. At the level of the substance of content, a menu of culturally determined fantasy scenarios—ideological paradigms of a sort—exert pressure on the way networks of ideas are knitted together into secondarily elaborated ideological or philosophical frameworks or semantic fields underpinning the orchestration of a particular
'form': the particular version of the fantasy performed by in the text (such as a particular version of 'the Oedipus'—a substance of content— performed in and by a given film).

As Paul Willemen points out those fantasy scenarios which are culturally determined are at work at the level of the substances of contents. In other words, in a movie, substances of contents are more of less come under the influence of culturally determined fantasies. Obviously, those fantasies should be culturally relevance within a given culture though they may also relevance in another culture.

He observes, "At the level of a text's substance of expression, it is the way the physio-sensorial aspects of cinematic signification are transformed into menus of expressive procedures. For instance, the recourse to special effects emphasizing iconicity over indexicality or expanding the range of possible acting gestures by means of stunt doubles or suspending actors on wires, using digital editing and amplified soundtracks, and so forth: these constitute a substance of expression that, by virtue of its very selective aspect, vehiculates another kind of fantasy scenario.

So, a techno-fetishistic fantasy relating to a desirable corporate-industrial organisation of film production may come to 'double' the oedipal scenarios at work in the narrative of a film such as the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix (1999).

Going one step further, it is probable that it is the relation between these two distinct levels of fantasy embedded in, respectively, the substances of expression and content, which accounts for whether a film 'clicks' with a contemporary audience or not.
On the other hand, historical changes (cultural shifts or changes in personal maturation) might highlight alignments or discrepancies between these two levels which remained unnoticed by contemporary audiences targeted by a film's marketing strategies.

In this respect, reviews, if read symptomatically, often contain a kind of plumpes denken commentary on whether the two fantasy orchestrations are deemed to be in the proper alignment for a given economically significant consumer group.

Peter Wollen, who was the first to draw film theory's attention to Peirce and Hjelmslev in his pioneering Signs and Meaning in the Cinema first published in 1969, identified a telling example of this kind of plumps den ken. He noted how studies of film architecture seem to gravitate unreflectively towards the small group of films which feature architecture as 'star.' Focusing
particularly on Dietrich Neumann's book Film Architecture (1996), Wollen quizzically comments: "What comes across from Neumann's selection of great 'film architecture' is that it is clustered in the genres of dystopian science fiction, horror and crazy comedy. Architecture as star represents criminal lunacy, pathetic farce or untrammeled despotism". It seems strange that architects themselves should be attracted by this vision of their art, even if it makes them the centre of attention.

The apparent contradiction relates to the discrepancies between two layers of fantasy at work in the films concerned. The fantasy generated at the level of the substance of expression stimulates the positive appreciation of the architectural designs; the fantasy underpinning the formatting of the substance of content does indeed suggest criminal lunacy, pathetic farce or untrammeled despotism. The former fantasy layer, because it is anchored in the substance of expression, makes a 'positive appreciation'

possible through its implication in the economic aspects of film production. The bulk of the films singled out where architecture features as a star (L'Inhumaine
(1924), Aelita (1924), Metropolis (1927), Just Imagine (1930), Things To Come (1936),

Lost Horizon (1937), The Fountainhead (1949), Blade Runner (1982), Batman (1989), Dick
Tracy (1990), and so on) are all very expensive productions mobilizing the industry's resources to showcase 'what cinema can do' when it embarks on prestige projects designed to make loads of profit (even if this intention is not always realised on the films' release). These films constitute a celebration of the film industry's corporate financial and cultural power, even if, at
another level in the text, such power is presented as problematic."

Primarily what he suggests is that fantasy works at two levels and fantasy also influence on shaping the content of a movie and at the same time, it also linked to the substance of expression.

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