Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F I L M   C O M M E N T A R Y
Magical Realism and Film:
Degrading the Image

b y   g a r r e t t   r o w l a n   ~   l o s   a n g e l e s,   c a l i f o r n i a

FOR ME, magic realism was born, defined, and benchmarked by One Hundred Years of Solitude, both the genre’s seminal work and its pinnacle. No novel since has fully encapsulated that book’s blend of reality and fantasy, though some have come close when I consider John’s Wife by Robert Coover, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and selected works of José Saramago.

I’ve not made the same MR connection with films. Nothing I’ve seen has ever approached what I think of as magic realism, and I’ve often wondered why. For all the movies I’ve seen, the books I’ve read about them, and even the stories I’ve written that concern various aspects of movies and movie-making, I’ve never been quite able to apply the term “magic realism” to film.

I’ve thought about this, and I believe that the different ways words and images stimulate the imagination is critical, particularly in the presentation of magic realism. I agree with William Gass when he writes, “The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness.” (1) While I know this capture is vital to all fiction, it is crucial to magic realism. It is more than just suspension of disbelief. It is the creation of an alternate world within the reader’s imagination in a way different from, and for my purposes superior to, the way film does.

Watching movies, we are not partners with our imagination as we are in books, co-creating those images that the text suggests and adding our connotations, our coloring to the words. Instead we are spectators, and while we are not necessarily lacking in critical attention, we are never liberated from the subliminal, continual bombardment by still frames that pass by at twenty-four per second, the rate at which cinema achieves its so-called persistence of vision. We are essentially passive. The very act of watching a movie from some distance, as opposed to holding a book in our hands, seems emblematic to me.

I’m not making a distinction per se about film and books. I am saying that the creation of what is broadly called “magic realism” involves a joint venture between creator and consumer. This aspect of cooperation is absent in film. The philosopher Colin McGinn, in his book The Power of Movies, states that of the movie-going experience, “We look into and through the very thing that we see—the image on the screen.” (2) McGinn believes that movie watching entails looking beyond the screen, and I agree with his thesis in the sense that the movie image is essentially out there, existing as a kind of satellite to our consciousness. To put it another way, if fiction is a capture of consciousness, as Gass says, then film is something less, a capture of our attention.

Nothing wrong with that, it’s only that reading, by contrast, is a communion with one’s own imagination. “Good fiction,” John Gardner writes, “sets off a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind.” (3) Movies are a kind of dream too—McGinn’s book makes much of the connection—but the dreaming takes a different form than that of books. With movies, we don’t participate in the creation of the dream-images, we receive them. It can be argued that in a book we don’t create the words that produce images in our minds, and yet something happens between the page and our imagination. The philosopher Max Black has called language “a distorting mirror” (4) , and I think this metaphor is apt for the way words have associations and connotations that create a private texture. I agree with Kate the Librarian in John’s Wife, who says she loves the movies and learns from them too, but prefers to read. “To imagine something is to create it in our heads when it is not there before our senses, and that’s what we do when we read.” (5) Believing that when we read and create something we take possession of it, I fully understand when a character in Gardner’s October Light begins to read a novel and finds as she goes that the print “gave way to images, an alternative reality more charged than mere life, more ghostly yet nearer, suffused with a curious importance and manageability.” (6)

That idea of manageability is vital. As a reader of magic realism, I am a conspirator with the author in a way that I’m not in other genres. The words that pass through the filter of my consciousness leave a residue, giving the world that exists on the page an imaginative correlation. While carpets fly, blood crawls, and rain falls for four years, I’m an accomplice in these activities. By contrast, a visual presentation of magic realism eliminates the viewer’s participation. Shaped for our eyes, it is boxed magic, lacking organic vitality, without that substratum that exists in that juncture between the reader’s imagination and the writer’s, a bond that joins the quotidian and fantastic. When magic realism comes to books versus movies, perhaps we should reverse the old writer’s dictum of “show, don’t tell.” Better that the reader’s imagination manipulates what is told, rather than its passive absorption by the movie watcher’s eyes.

McGinn says that movie watchers, restricted in their perceptions by the way that films can only “take in what is happening now to the outside of a person…cannot go straight inside to the mind and range back and forth through time,” (7) can be reached by dialogue, an actor’s expression, or just clever camera placement. Yet magic realism presents challenges. Consider the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which seems to go back to the beginning of the world, in which objects still lack names, and then to the arrival of the gypsies, as if centuries had passed between one paragraph and the next. What “establishing shot” could possibly duplicate the temporal sweep of this paragraph? Or how to photograph John’s Wife in Robert Coover’s novel of the same name, a hallucinatory reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphosis on Midwestern soil, to duplicate the enigma of a person who possesses “a thereness that was not there,” (8) and has such a vagueness of impression that not even her husband knows the exact color of her eyes? Perhaps double exposure and/or computer generated imagery could recapture the moment in Life of Pi when the protagonist looks from his lifeboat into the water and sees thousands of fish forming “highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine traffic,” (9) but what by suggestion seems fantastic would become almost trivialized to reproduce visually. And how could that most cumbersome of cinematic devices, the voice-over, equal the matter-of-fact assertion, which begins the final part of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that the rain that falls over Macondo lasted “for four years, eleven months, and two days”? (10) or the frustration of a character in John’s Wife who complains that in the book’s unnamed town everyone’s lives “just kept looping round again, casting shadows on top of shadows, giving hidden meaning to everything that happened by day, turning dreams into nightmares by night.” (11)

Films can present an ordinary world where fantastic things happen, but this hardly meets the terms of magic realism. In a movie like Unbreakable we see Bruce Willis discover that he has superhuman powers. Or in Heavenly Creatures we go into the minds of two confused teenage girls and see the teeming world of their imagination. But in neither movie do we get near the notion of community that is important to magic realism. They are subjective experiences.

And how, finally, does one photographically reproduce “magic realism,” anyway? Theoretically, a blend of the fantastic and everyday is suggested, and yet when it comes to film I’m such an inveterate watcher of photographic images that the “magic” of movie sets—makeup, focus, set design—seems to allude to another reality more than create it. The new technique of computer-generated imagery has more promise, and yet it has its own set of issues, such as the fact that the images are not the reproduction of anything real, and the way I’m sometimes drawn out of the movie by wondering, “How did they do that?” Still, if used sparingly, say, the feather whose reflection floats across the car’s hood at the beginning of Forrest Gump, these are effective techniques. Yet CIG images are often too cheesy or too high-gloss to convince me I’m seeing anything other than animated pixels. I agree with the director M. Night Shyamalan when he says that digital imagery is “just too smooth.” (12) Adding, “You almost have to degrade the image to make it more real.” (13) And the process is subject to the inevitable overuse. While not a work of magic realism, I found that Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), with its creative animation of the characters and their world, presented a kind of alternate universe of shimmering objects, but now I see on TV that the same technique is used in advertisements for Charles Schwab.

A few years ago, I published an essay in Margin in which I claimed that the work of Julio Cortázar didn’t fall within the purview of what I considered to be magic realism. In response, a reader, John Prohaska, agreed with me, adding that he’d become by necessary a purist when he saw how magic realism had been used “to give legitimacy to every ghost story and tale of altered reality.” (14) For my purpose, I would augment that list by mentioning any number of films about ghosts, altered reality, and hallucinations of various origins. I guess in the end they don’t pass the gut test of what I consider magic realism, but I still remain open to the possibility of plucking down my seven dollars and being transported to the filmic equivalent of some literary Macondo.


(1) William H. Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” in Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: David R. Godine, 1979), p. 33.

(2) Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005), p. 18.

(3) John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 39.

(4) Max Black, The Labyrinth of Language (New York: The New American Library, 1968), p. 91.

(5) Robert Coover, John’s Wife (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 223-224.

(6) John Gardner, October Light (New York: New Directions, 2005), p. 17.

(7) Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies, p. 120.

(8) Robert Coover, John’s Wife, p. 75.

(9) Yann Martel, Life of Pi (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2001), p.175.

(10) Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (New York, Perennial Classics, 1998), p. 339.

(11) Robert Coover, John’s Wife, p. 178.

(12) Richard Corliss, “Can This Man Save The Movies?”, Time (March 20, 2006), p. 68.

(13) Ibid.

(14) John Prohaska, posted on September 4, 2001, in response to "Cortazar’s Reality: another kind of magic" in Margin.



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