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Joshua Bellin: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation

I have read many books and academic articles that probe deeply into horror and science fiction film, television, and literature, but rarely can such analysis be found related to fantasy. For those interested in such an exploration seek no more. Joshua Bellin has done us a great service, providing us with both an academic exploration and a treat for fantasy film enthusiasts. Bellin is part of the School of Arts and Sciences at LaRoche College, and he is the author of a number of books including Framing Monsters: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005). Thankfully he loves to talk about monsters and fantasy film, and he made some time to discuss these as they relate to his book’s thesis.

TheoFantastique: Josh, thanks for writing your book and addressing fantasy films. Some of what follows in our discussion as you flesh out your book’s thesis may be a bitter pill to swallow for some readers. So let’s begin where you begin in your book. Even though you offer a critique of fantasy films as perpetuating problematic social and cultural phenomenon, you are a fantasy film fan. In fact, the original King Kong is your favorite film. Can you share a little of your appreciation for fantasy films, and how this is nevertheless connected to an academic analysis of what might be considered the “dark side” of this genre?

Josh Bellin: I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t a fan of fantasy film. I’ve tended to mark watershed moments in my life via the fantasy films current at the time: Star Wars came out when I was on the verge of my teen years, Jurassic Park appeared just before I got married, The Fellowship of the Ring coincided with my first full-time academic job, and so on. But King Kong was special. I first saw it when I was five years old, and it absolutely changed my life. The combination of amazing visuals and compelling narrative gripped me, inspired me, made me believe that the world was alive with mystery and wonder. I drew books of monsters (most of them looking exactly like Kong!), I dreamed of becoming a stop-motion artist, I drafted countless (unfinished) fantasy novels. In a way, I think my love of fantasy led me to academia; my passion for research and teaching reflects my belief in transcendence, in limitless possibility, and this belief in turn can be traced to my lifelong love affair with worlds of fantasy.

But as I’ve grown, and as my academic training has encouraged me to read literary and cultural texts closely and critically, I’ve become more reflective about fantasy films and my own relationship to them. I’ve come to believe that fantasy films, as cultural texts, are invariably connected to their social, historical, and political contexts, which means they’re also connected to the prevailing prejudices of their time and place. And I’ve had to ask myself how I can love films that frequently promulgate social attitudes I find repugnant: racism, sexism, mistreatment of the mentally and physically different, and so forth. That was the germ of my book: asking myself that question, which is really a moral question more so than an academic question. So this book is the most personal of all my books, the one that touches not only on my research interests but on my history, my self-definition, and my sense of purpose as a human being. Because after all this, I’m still a diehard fan, and that means I need to reconcile my very different personal and professional responses to these films.

TheoFantastique: Can you summarize the thesis of your book?

Josh Bellin: The book’s thesis grows out of the question I just posed: how can I—or more broadly, how can we, as individuals and as members of past and present societies—be so strongly attracted to films that often promote our worst qualities rather than our best? My answer is that fantasy films are particularly adept at representing these negative qualities in ways that insulate viewers from recognizing them or, more specifically, from taking responsibility for them. Because fantasy films can so easily be dismissed as “pure” or “escapist” entertainment, because viewers and reviewers alike tend to divorce fantasy films from social and historical reality, such films become ideal sites for harboring the social and historical beliefs we most wish to distance ourselves from. So when Depression-era viewers watched Kong, which I situate within the context of twentieth-century racism and segregation, they were able to luxuriate in feelings of fear and hatred toward African Americans while simultaneously denying that they held such attitudes or that the film reinforced them. But of course, that’s what makes these films particularly powerful vehicles of social alienation, the phrase I use to suggest the whole range of processes by which marginalized groups are stereotyped, victimized, and scapegoated: fantasy films’ resistance to critical scrutiny enables them to perpetuate loathsome social ideologies under the guise of “harmless entertainment.”

I should also say here—and this has helped me in my own struggle to reconcile my feelings about fantasy films—that the very qualities that make these films such powerful vehicles of alienation can also make them vehicles of liberation: because the genre is steeped in histories of alienation, it can become a fertile ground for investigating, critiquing, and rejecting such histories.

TheoFantastique: You drew upon certain fantasy films as you argued for your thesis, including King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad trilogy, and Jurassic Park. How are you defining fantasy in relation to sci-fi and horror films, and why did you select these films as illustrative of your thesis?

Josh Bellin: First, I tend not to draw hard-and-fast lines between fantasy, science fiction, and horror; I feel that there are too many conceptual problems in these generic definitions for them to be useful. Just to cite one example: what does one do with a film like Aliens? It’s science fiction, right? But it’s also a monster movie—so I guess it’s also either horror or fantasy, depending on where you fall on that ill-defined difference. You’ll see critics tie themselves into verbal knots trying to prove that these are three distinct genres—yet they always end up admitting that there are exceptions to whatever definitions they propose, and once the exceptions start to outweigh the orthodox examples, you realize that the definitions are attempting to create something that doesn’t exist in reality. It ultimately collapses into tautology: fantasy films become films that possess whatever qualities the particular critic defines as characteristic of fantasy.

That being said, my choice of films was guided by my desire to select films that seemed particularly unlikely candidates for the sort of social/cultural analysis I was conducting—films, that is, that have typically been treated as pure flights of fancy. I figured that if I could demonstrate that even these films are rooted in particular histories of social alienation, readers would be more inclined to see the value of my thesis than if I’d chosen more obvious, transparent, or critic-friendly films. But that also means that I’m courting a certain degree of reader resistance; though many readers would readily agree that a film like Blade Runner (which I don’t discuss in the book) speaks to a range of social issues, they might find it hard to believe that The Wizard of Oz was every bit as pertinent to its historical contexts as Blade Runner is to ours. But that was the challenge of writing this book: making an argument that fantasy films are socially relevant rather than socially redundant. And the payoff is that if the reader finds my analysis convincing, it’s a lot more powerful of an “a-ha!” moment than if I’d gone with more immediately plausible examples.

TheoFantastique: In the Introduction of your book you note that while sci-fi and horror films have been subject to academic scrutiny for their deeper levels of meaning, including the portrayal of the social other, fantasy films have been given a pass. Why is this, and what assumptions have been operating in fantasy films that aren’t present in the analysis of the cousin genres?

Josh Bellin: As I said before, critics have tried to distinguish fantasy, science fiction, and horror as distinct genres. In particular, they’ve tended to define fantasy and science fiction as simple antitheses. Sci-fi, according to this line of argument, relates in specific and identifiable ways to its social contexts; fantasy, by contrast, represents that which falls outside the social contexts of its time, that which is “timeless” or “archetypal” or “mythological.” Needless to say, I don’t buy this argument, which I think is both schematic and reductive. It not only fails to recognize that all cultural productions operate on multiple levels—the historical, the topical, the psychological—but it quite cavalierly categorizes as “fantasy” whatever the critic can’t connect to the social contexts of its time. To return to the example I used earlier, there’s no film so regularly dismissed (or exalted) as “pure fantasy” than The Wizard of Oz; critics either see it as an innocent children’s film or, at best, as an escapist vehicle for Americans caught in the throes of the Great Depression. But as I demonstrate in the second chapter of my book, The Wizard of Oz relates in quite overt and tangible ways to discourses of technological utopianism and class conflict that were pervasive during the 1930s. We don’t see these relationships today because we’ve lost the cultural context in which the film was originally viewed. But with a little historical archeology, reconstructing the era in which the film first appeared, those connections become manifest—in fact, they become so obvious and inescapable, you’re amazed you didn’t see them before. And what’s more, if you look at Oz this way, it becomes apparent that what we call a “fantasy” today would have struck Depression-era audiences as science fiction! So when you do this kind of historical research, you recognize very quickly that the separation of fantasy from its cousin genres simply doesn’t hold water; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and an excuse to avoid analysis rather than an analytical tool.

TheoFantastique: In your first chapter you begin with your favorite film, King Kong. At times the film is interpreted as escapist entertainment during the Depression, but you frame it within its “historical and cultural matrix” and thus connect it to the racism of the time. What was the racial situation in 1930s America, and how is some of this coded in the visuals and storyline of the film?

Josh Bellin: The 1930s were a period of great racial tension and transformation in America. In the South, lynch law was coming to a gory end, as its excesses were becoming the targets of journalistic exposés and legal challenges. In the North, meanwhile, the demographics of the region’s cities were undergoing significant changes, as thousands of African Americans from the rural South were relocating to the urban North. So throughout the nation, systems of racial apartheid were becoming strained, and this brought about a predictable backlash by the dominant culture in its attempt to reinforce the practices of de facto and de jure segregation that appeared to be under assault. The backlash manifests itself variously, in everything from racist representations of African Americans in minstrel shows to the rise of the eugenics movement to the mushroom growth of the KKK. I see King Kong as arising from that social climate: it’s not simply an “allegory” about enslavement, as James Snead has argued, but a film that speaks in very specific ways to the fears and anxieties of its time. Viewed historically, Kong becomes a film about protecting the privileges of white society against an overwhelming black threat; the golden woman, Ann Darrow, becomes at once a symbol of white womanhood carried off by a black ravisher and a signifier of imperiled white power and privilege. And in this context, the state-sponsored violence unleashed against Kong becomes justified as society’s necessary and appropriate response to quell such a monstrous threat.

TheoFantastique: Eric Greene makes a similar argument in his book for racism surfacing in the Planet of the Apes films, another collection of favorites of mine. Why do you think we tend not to see these elements?

Josh Bellin: The simple answer would be that we don’t want to see them, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But if we ask why we don’t want to see our own worst qualities, we come to recognize that it’s not only a private or personal matter, keeping up our own self-image or something like that. The fact is that whites during the Kong era benefited in every conceivable way from the system of racial apartheid that prevailed in their society; wealth, power, access, and all the other indices of social wellbeing were inextricably linked to the color of one’s skin. But if you come to recognize that—and by “you” here, I mean “society”—then you’re faced with the fact that all the social “goods” you enjoy are unearned, that the system is unjust, that it needs to be dismantled. That was precisely what the Civil Rights activists of a later generation argued, and in so doing they brought questions of race and social privilege into public discourse. But it took a catalyst like that to bring such issues to the fore; it wasn’t going to happen without a struggle. So one way of looking at a film like Kong is that it performed a palliative or even soporific function for its society; it enabled people to continue denying what the plain evidence of their senses should have shown them to be true, and as such it enabled them to retreat farther into the comfortable and comforting fantasies that favored their privileged status.

TheoFantastique: I was pleased to see you include a chapter devoted to Ray Harryhausen’s films. There are a wealth of treatments of his films not only by Harryhausen himself (at times with co-authors), but by his many fans as well. Yet his films have not been the subject of much critical treatment. Why is this?

Josh Bellin: First, let me say that I simply had to include a chapter on Harryhausen in this book! He was an enormous influence on me, second only to Willis O’Brien and King Kong, and it has always bothered me that his films haven’t received anything approximating the critical attention I feel they deserve. But if you accept my thesis about fantasy films in general, it’s not hard to see why Harryhausen has been so critically neglected: because his films seem so far removed from social reality, because they deal with figures from mythology and fable—rocs and hydras and dragons and Ymirs—it’s particularly easy to bracket them as miraculous works of “pure fantasy.” But I’m always skeptical when I encounter the adjective “pure.” It seems to me that the language of “purity” serves as a denial mechanism, and I always want to investigate not only what these “pure” products are but why we’re so heavily invested in insisting on their purity.

Parenthetically, I might add that it wouldn’t take much to argue that Harryhausen’s films should be analyzed in respect to their social contexts. After all, three of them are based on famous works of political satire, while others deal with topical issues such as the A-bomb, alien invasion, and so on. But again, there it is: we seem to have a particularly strong desire to protect fantasy from the dirty work of history.

TheoFantastique: As you situate Harryhausen’s Sinbad films in their cultural contexts of America over several decades you connect them to changing American views of the Middle East. Can you illustrate how you see this connection and its development from the 1950s with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and how this changes as we move to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and later Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger?

Josh Bellin: It would have been fairly easy to demonstrate that the Sinbad films fit into a longstanding pattern in American popular culture of caricaturing and demonizing the Middle East, a pattern that has gained new strength in the post-9/11 era. But rather than showing the presence of what cultural critic Edward Said calls “Orientalism” in these films, I decided to zero in on how the films represent mobile, historically contingent relationships between East and West. In the immediate post-World War II era, for example, Western attitudes toward the Middle East were far more amorphous, ambivalent, than they would later become; most Westerners simply didn’t know much about the Arab world, and so it tended to be represented in Western popular and political discourse as a mysterious region, perhaps a future ally, but probably best left to itself. The first Sinbad film clearly manifests these emergent attitudes: Sinbad is a much more wary hero in this film than in the latter two, while the motivations of the villain and monsters are notably less straightforward than they would become as the series progressed. In the 1970s, however, a number of factors—including the OPEC oil embargo and the rise of Palestinian terrorism—helped bring into being the twin stereotypes we still hold today: the Middle East as an area of dreadful economic power and random, inexplicable violence. The second Sinbad film demonstrates these attitudes as surely as the first demonstrates an earlier mentality: Koura combines the qualities of terrorist and sheik, while virtually all the monsters are pawns in a deadly struggle for geographic and material domination that he orchestrates. Finally, Eye of the Tiger embodies a complementary or competing set of attitudes that arose in the seventies, as increasing sympathy for the Palestinian cause and the Carter presidency’s attempts to broker a deal between Israel and Egypt brought a more balanced assessment of the region’s difficulties and a corresponding hope that its conflicts could be resolved. You see this in Eye of the Tiger both in the internal conflict experienced by Prince Kassim, who must struggle to overcome his bestial self, and in the heroes’ appeal to the Temple of the Arimaspai, a pyramid—symbol of Anwar Sadat’s nation—within which a divine power for mediation and transformation resides. So though I would never be so bold as to say that each film expresses a single attitude toward the Middle East—popular culture is never that simple—I do feel that excavating the guiding philosophy of each film reveals how films we tend to take at face value exist in rich and complex relationships to their historical contexts.


TheoFantastique: In chapter four of your book you discuss gender, the feminine, and the idea of family values in connection with Jurassic Park. You take the position that this film actually confirms notions of patriarchy in connection with family values. Can you give readers a few threads of your argument and how dinosaurs like the rampaging T. rex might be construed as supporting patriarchy vs. the feminine seeking to rise above patriarchal subordination?

Josh Bellin: The book’s fourth chapter marks a shift from “classic” fantasy films to films of the past few decades; I was attempting to show that it wasn’t only in some supposedly benighted past era that fantasy films upheld processes of social alienation. So the fourth chapter, “Dragon Ladies”—a title I’m very proud of, by the way!—focused on the role of monstrous women in contemporary fantasy films. This is one of the most frequently discussed topics in studies of horror and science fiction film; the original Alien film touched off a flurry of feminist studies detailing how male discomfort with female sexuality manifests itself onscreen. But my concern with these studies is that they tend to fall into the trap of universalizing (and thereby de-historicizing) representations of the monstrous feminine; their argument tends to be that men are always and everywhere repulsed, and in identical ways, by female genitalia and reproductive functions. Though this may be true for all I know, such studies overlook the quite specific and historically shifting discourses surrounding women, reproduction, and the family that held sway during the era of the Alien series, the Jurassic Park films, Species, and the other monstrous-women films I discuss. The eighties and nineties were the heyday of the so-called “family values” crusade, when ideologues in or near the Reagan and Bush administrations popularized the belief that the collapse of patriarchal power, the rise of mother-headed families (especially among African American communities), and the degradation of a “culture of life” had destroyed the “traditional” family, with disastrous cultural results. And if you look at the first Jurassic Park, you see all the rhetoric of the family-values campaign: irresponsible men who dabble in reproductive processes outside the sanctioned family unit give rise to super-empowered females whom they are then unable to control. In this light, the whole subplot about Dr. Grant’s initial distaste for children and his subsequent heroic shepherding of Lex and Tim across the female-ruled Park (a subplot that, interestingly, plays next to no part in the novel on which the film was based) becomes an argument for the reassertion of male authority over a feminized wilderness.

As a closing comment, I should say that this kind of analysis is in no way meant to diminish people’s appreciation for the films, on any level—whether that be enjoyment of their special effects or immersion in their fantastic plots. On the contrary, I feel that it diminishes the films to call them “pure fantasies,” to treat them as if they are not products of human labor and history. As a fan, I think we owe it to these films, their creators, their societies—and not least, to ourselves—to acknowledge how complex and powerful they are.

TheoFantastique: Josh, thanks again for subjecting fantasy films to the same probings of analysis through historical and cultural reflection as other genres of film. I hope your thesis provides additional levels of meaning and understanding to the enjoyment of these films.

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