Monday, June 13, 2011

The Unexpected Fantastic

AmelieIn Amélie, the French film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the heroine stands at the back of a café, awash in gold light and self-imposed invisibility. She is too shy and too quiet. She lets the man she loves walk away without declaring herself, or even giving him her name. She is on the edge of tears. She turns into a sheet of water and collapses into a puddle, splashing across the tiled floor.

That instant of sudden and unexpected magic is a direct kick to the heart. You know precisely how Amélie Poulin feels. It’s a moment of recognition pulled straight from our solid, ordinary lives, resurrecting every hopeless infatuation and all the things we wished we said. You realize that you know exactly how it feels to turn into water, and that you’ve done so yourself—maybe more, maybe less—every time that you’ve wanted to be noticed, but been unable to do anything except systematically vanish.

The world of the fantastic is the world on the inside of our heads and the inside of our skin. A part of us expects to see it, and when we do, there’s a thrill of recognition. If you look closely enough, or tilt your head at the proper angle, or simply pay attention, there’s magic in the details, even the most mundane. That hot, long afternoon crushed by an hour of gray. The sheets on a bed, one half crumpled, one half smooth. An upside-down face in the silver bowl of a spoon. There are bigger magics too: the lab-bound replication of scent, the illusionist in Covent Garden who eats balloons, the old couples who gather in Yerba Buena Garden, early, early on a foggy morning, and waltz in each other’s arms.

And while all of these might not be immediately identified as magic, lacking as they do that final twist of impossibility, they lie perilously close. The line between the fantastic and the real is a tricky one, exceptional in both its mobility and fineness. It will jump out of the way, or take you by surprise, and when you come face to face with something that might almost belong on the other side of it, you will be struck delighted with how good it feels.

I love hunting down things that wander both sides of that line. As a glutton for the odd and specific, and an enthusiast of things fantastical and magical (both fictional and real), I was thrilled when Kat Howard suggested that I write this column. I hope you enjoy it.

Beauties, oddities, quirks (personal, non-), wrong things, good things, curiosities, etcetera, and (possibly) interpretive dance.

Fourteen Actors Acting, a video gallery of exceptional actors inhabiting classic film archetypes. Produced by the New York Times Magazine, it’s the trap door that led me to a weekend of glorious silent films. Each portrait indulges in melodrama, precision, and retro, high-contrast lighting. In particular, I hope you find Lesley Manville’s one minute and eight second transformation from chatty to heartbroken, accompanied only by a silent phone, as magical as I did.