Storytelling and escapism in the age of lockdowns

‘Alfio, want an escape?’

As New Zealand braced for the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown, the subject heading of a new email in my inbox seemed alluring yet ominous … An escape from what? From the physical restrictions imposed by the lockdown? From the threat of a potentially lethal pandemic? Or from the impending gloom of a devastating economic recession? As I opened the email and images of The Rock, Black Panther and other popular cinematic icons materialised on screen, the mundane nature of the message became gradually apparent: it was a local video-on-demand streaming service reassuring its customers that the new programme would ‘get us through’ the next few weeks.

My initial reaction was one of disdain. Who would want to seek an escape at a time like this when all our critical resources are needed? What about the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, on the global economy and on international relations? The notion of a media company offering a ‘way out’ at such a critical time stank of the hegemonic media manipulating the masses into passivity by promoting the consumption of the easy pleasures of popular culture, as Horkheimer and Adorno would put it.

This disdain was gradually replaced by the awareness of my own hypocritical position. Earlier in the day, I had relished the opportunity of sitting at home and reading the sci-fi graphic novel I received on my birthday and watching some of those cheesy sword-and-sorcery films I had ordered on Amazon a while ago. More than that, the thought of immersing myself in the fantastical universe of Moebius’ Inqal or the pseudo-mythological world of Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts reassured me. I was longing for popular culture to provide me with an escape. So why would it be wrong for a media provider to explicitly articulate that proposition?

Traditionally, the notions of escape and escapism – the tendency to seek distraction from what has to be endured – have had negative connotations. I began to wonder whether the kind of escape I was hoping to find in my movies and comic books had any positive value. Is escaping a cowardly act or a potentially constructive one? And does the kind of escape we choose matter or not?


Crisis, immersion and storytelling

Self-reflexive fictional texts have provided powerful illustrations of the escapist potential offered by storytelling. In Boccaccio’s Decameron, for example a group of youths seek escape from the plague that is ravaging Florence by isolating themselves in a villa where they entertain themselves by telling stories. In One Thousand and One Nights, storytelling literally provides Scheherazade with an escape from certain death, as the king – curious to know the end of each story – repeatedly postpones her execution. The relationship between storytelling and escape is also often foregrounded in film. In the iconic opening sequence of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) for example, the protagonist – a famous film director – is caught in a massive traffic jam as smoke fills his car. He escapes by climbing out of his vehicle and begins to soar above it, ascending into the clouds and enjoying a brief moment of freedom. As he is pulled down to earth by one of his associates, the director wakes up and the opening sequence is revealed to be a dream. Throughout the rest of the film, dream sequences offer the protagonist with an escape from the anxiety of his real life while providing viewers with an insight into his fantasies and aspirations. The power of the film resides precisely in its ability to capture the logic of dream as a fantastical escape.

In The Matrix (1999), by contrast, the protagonist, Neo, is offered the opportunity to escape the simulated reality in which he is unknowingly trapped. As Neo chooses ‘reality’ over the simulation, his mentor, Morpheus, tells him the ‘true’ story of the simulated programme, which was created by intelligent machines to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source. It is the knowledge of the simulated nature of the Matrix that grants Neo and the other rebels their superhuman abilities which in the film are rendered through technologically advanced special effects. The film has often been read as an allegory for contemporary existence within a heavily commodified, media-driven society – however, paradoxically its success led to the emergence of a pervasive media franchise which encompasses films, comic books and videogames.

What these widely disparate texts have in common is the fact that the need for storytelling emerges as a reaction to a moment of crisis: the threat of the plague or an execution, the stress of everyday life, or the oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime. On the relationship between narrative fiction and reality, Umberto Eco suggests that

by reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative — the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.

For Eco, consuming fiction is like playing a game that allows us to make sense of what happens or what will happen in the actual world. Stories can therefore be a way for humans to feel that they have control over the world, allowing them to see patterns where there is randomness, meaning where there is chaos.

The other element that these self-reflexive texts have in common is a reference to the immersive power of storytelling. According to literary critic Marie-Laure Ryan, immersion as the product of fundamental processes of world construction is common to all narrative media forms from literature (the process of ‘getting lost in a good book’) to film and videogames. Referring more specifically to cinema, French sci-fi writer and theorist Renè Barjavel claims that the destiny of film is to provide a fully immersive experience:

since it first emerged, cinema has been undergoing a constant evolution. This evolution will be complete when it is able to offer us characters in full relief, in full colour, and even perhaps whose perfume we can detect; a time when these characters will be freed from the screens and the darkness of the film theatres to step out into the city streets and the private quarters of their audiences. Even then, science will continue adding finer touches to its perfection. But to all intents and purposes it will have reached its ultimate state. A state we can call Total Cinema.

Barjavel’s theory of ‘Total Cinema’ likely influenced André Bazin’s influential essay ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’ (1944), in which the founder of Cahiers du Cinéma suggested that the type of cinema that dominated the first three decades of the twentieth century – silent, black and white, fictional feature film – would only be a temporary stage in the evolution of the medium. The two critics had, however, different ambitions for the future of Total Cinema. While Barjavel advocated for a cinema completely emancipated from reality, which would allow for the creation of fantastic creatures and universes, Bazin regarded the guiding myth behind the invention of cinema as a quest for an integral realism, the perfect reproduction of reality through sound, colour and ‘relief.’ The technological evolution of moving images seems to validate Barjavel’s and Bazin’s prophecies. Media technologies such as VR, digital stereoscopy and holograms emphasise the visceral qualities of mediated experience. The escape provided by these new technologies is increasingly multisensorial. However, the type of texts produced for these media reflect the same opposite stances taken by Barjavel and Bazin. Realism and fantasy as modes of representation still coexist and battle for dominance.


Escape, genre and ideology

As a mechanism characterised by the delicate balance between imaginary and realist elements, the fictional story would seem to possess equal potential for both escape from or engagement with social reality. Traditionally, the modes of storytelling characterised by a prevalence of imaginary elements such as the fairy tale, myth, fantasy, horror and science fiction have been deemed as more ‘escapist’ than their realist counterparts. Furthermore, the divide between realist and escapist modes of storytelling has also corresponded to the opposition between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Traditionally, critics – particularly left-wing ones – have privileged realism over fantastic or escapist genres because of the perceived ability of the former to engage more effectively with real social issues.

And yet it would be grossly inaccurate to assume that escapism necessarily excludes engagement with reality. For example, celebrated science fiction scholar Darko Suvin famously articulated science fiction’s fundamental role as follows:

Science Fiction is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Similarly, JRR Tolkien points out how fantasy actively engages with reality by allowing the reader to review their own world from the perspective of a different one. In his essay On Fairy Stories, he claims that one of the main functions of the fantasy genre is ‘recovery’ – namely, the power to create imaginary (secondary) worlds that enable us to look at our everyday (primary) world so that we can re-gain a ‘clear view’. Tolkien also argues that ‘escape’ is central to fantasy. However, this term should not be understood as ‘the flight of the deserter’, but rather as ‘the escape of the prisoner’. According to Tolkien, as a creative process, escape is first of all a departure, a departure which can be ‘very practical and … even heroic’, enabling us to re-learn things that we might otherwise have forgotten.

Although Tolkien recasts the notion of escape in a positive light, emphasising its potential to impact social discourses of the real world, his framing of this concept is essentially conservative. In order to ‘re-gain’ a clear view and re-learn what they have forgotten, readers need to look back at an idealised past and an established set of traditional values. In The Lord of the Rings, as the hobbits depart from the familiar space of home and embark on their fantastic journeys through Middle Earth, they discover qualities – heroism, bravery, loyalty and comradery – they did not think they possessed. The journey (literally an escape in Frodo’s case) has a transformative power over the protagonists, and the readers who have vicariously identified with them. Upon his return home, the once timid Frodo raises a rebellion to liberate The Shire from the last of Saruman’s henchmen and he and his companions are eventually celebrated as heroes.

Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are explicitly inspired by Nordic mythology, emulate the narrative structure of what narratologists like Joseph Campbell call the ‘monomyth’, namely a type of story in which the heroes (Thor, Gilgamesh, Jason, Ulysses and so on) are often forced  to depart from the familiar space of home and embark on a perilous journey. By tracing the hero’s transition from adolescence to maturity, the monomyth provides with symbolic social models thus potentially perpetuating established norms and values. Malinowski highlighted the intrinsically conservative nature of the mythic tale by demonstrating how myth serves to justify the status quo in a given society by proving why institutions must support those in power. Much has been written about the fact that the fantastic worlds explored by the mythic heroes during their ‘departures’ or ‘escapes’ are inverted versions of the real world (ie the kingdom of the Amazons where women wage war and rule over men) implicitly warning of the consequences of social deviance.

As a mode of storytelling that significantly draws upon traditional mythologies, fantasy has often been considered as a conservative genre, pitched against science fiction which would allegedly offer more progressive opportunities for escape. Referring to the progressive potential of the genre, science fiction scholar Philip E Wegner, for example, claims that:

Science fiction is also one of what I name … the evental genres, teaching its audience new ways of thinking about history, and brushing against the postmodern and neo-liberal commonplaces that drill into us the myths that history is finished, fundamental change is impossible, and there are no alternatives. Science fiction encourages us … to glimpse once more the infinite possibilities that surround us, and to recall our immense collective capacity to make new worlds. It is precisely these lessons that make science fiction … so threatening to the reigning concern.

Similarly, science fiction writer Adam Roberts argues that the genre’s tendency to embrace and normalise otherness and diversity (that is, the reoccurring relationships between human and non-human) is a strong marker of the progressive nature of sci-fi. Any debates about the ‘intrinsic ideological nature’ of genres such as fantasy and science fiction, however, are problematised by the vast array of political orientation of the practitioners of the two genres. Influential contemporary fantasy writers such as China Mieville or GRR Martin have explicitly articulated their left-wing political leanings both in interviews and in their own work. Similarly, celebrated sci-fi authors such as Orson Scott Card and Robert Heinlein are notable conservatives.  

In turn, within the context of the discussion about storytelling and escape, the political allegiance of the author or even the intended ideological message of his/her work might not be as crucial as it seems. The poststructuralist turn of semiotics has demonstrated the importance of not focusing on the generation of texts, but rather their reading. Building upon the theories of the death of the author formulated by Calvino, Barthes and Foucault, semioticians like Umberto Eco state that ‘the reader plays an active role in the textual interpretation because signs are constructed according to an inferential model’. For Eco, the reader deals interpretatively with the codes within a text just as the author deals with them generatively and they both cooperate in discovering the codes of a text. Readers and viewers, in other words, can shape the kind of escape offered by a text. Different readers, for example, have found radically different kinds of escape in Tolkien’s work. Far-right militants, particularly in Europe, have used Tolkien to return to an idealised world characterised by the celebration of heroism, nobility, and the ideal of blood and soil. By contrast, for hippies and peace-marchers of the 1960s, the drug references (the Hobbits’ pipeweed) and the anti-materialist and anti-industrial stance of The Lord of the Rings, in which ‘little people’ take on a large military complex, provided an escape from the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race.  

But what about for us, living in the age of the lockdown? We can perhaps conclude that there is no shame in seeking an escape. However, this short overview suggests that the kind of escape we seek matters. If escape is a departure, as Tolkien claims, the direction we take to imaginatively shape new worlds and new futures is important. As we collectively escape the physical and symbolic barriers of the lockdown, we have the opportunity to gain a clearer view of our world so we can build a new and better one upon our return.


Image: ‘A Tale from the Decameron’ (1916) by John William Waterhouse

Alfio Leotta

Alfio Leotta is a Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He writes on a wide range of topics including the relationship between film and tourism, auteur cinema, national cinema and fantasy. He is the author of Touring the Screen: Tourism and New Zealand Film Geographies (Intellect, 2011), Peter Jackson (Bloomsbury, 2016) and The Cinema of John Milius (Lexington, 2018).

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  1. ‘As we collectively escape the physical and symbolic barriers of the lockdown, we have the opportunity to gain a clearer view of our world so we can build a new and better one upon our return.’

    quite so, as I have been thinking; or as i heard one radio announcer put it in respect of tolerance …

    ‘i miss concerts – i even miss the people rustling lolly papers’

  2. Well said. It reminds me of the film title “I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore.” That idea of escaping in this day and age seems more real now more than ever. But the way the world is turning out (at least in the U.S), gives me very little hope that the focus on building a better world after this is quite bleak. I have no hope for humanity.

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