“People talk about escapism as though it’s something nasty but escapism is wonderful.” —Margaret Forster
The word escapism dates to 1930s when it was chiefly used in conjunction with films from that period. It was the time of the Great Depression in America, the only industry that was booming was the movie industry. Studios would regularly turn out 50 pictures a year and huge audiences went to see them. It was this phenomena of escaping from the troubles of every day life to a fantasy for an hour or two every week, or even every day, this being before the advent of television.
Today people still go to see films as a retreat from life however there have been and still are films made that pander directly to this desire to leave the world behind. Movies of this genre, escapist films, tend to be fantastic in nature with the action taking place in a screen world that is normally not accessible to the viewer. All films are escapist on one level by their very nature.
An obvious example is the Star Wars series where the theme, and means of escape, is a simple fairy tale. In this case the audience knows how to relate to the central theme of the film because has been familiar to them since childhood. They can empathise with the central characters and see themselves as heroes in their own concurrent fantasy.
Jack Zipes talks about the fourth episode of the series, A New Hope: “The film which was naturally made into a book to capitalise on the cinematic success can be interpreted as a science fiction fairy tale about the evils of totalitarianism…The most obvious symbol of the republican [democratic] virtues is our snow-white princess Leia… It is obvious that the alliance or forces she represents are true-blooded Americans: they are clothed in the traditional American khaki uniforms and behave loosely and good naturedly in contrast to the members of the Empire who are clothed in dark olive resembling the uniforms of the Nazis…Their manner is austere an authoritarian, and, of course, Lord Darth Vader, the dark force behind the throne, is clad in black.”
Another key factor about escapist films is the mood they set. It is larger than life, as opposed to naturalistic or realistic films. In the pictures of the 1930s this was characterised by the influx of European film makers, especially from Germany, who used shadows to great effect, or filmed mostly at night. In these films the screen envelopes the audience and draws them into a world that becomes real for the duration of the film.
In Double Indemnity, there are a number of factors at work which make the film escapist. It was taken from a novel by James M Cain, and the screenplay was written by Raymond Chandler who was one of the best escapist writers of the time and whose detective, Philip Marlowe, has become a symbol of films of that era. Let us attempt to dissect the film to demonstrate how it allows the audience to enter its world.
The film’s title sequence opens with sinister music and a menacing shadow figure walking on crutches. The music is important because it can be used to make us, almost involuntarily, feel a mood and already we begin to be drawn in to the scene. The use of light is important the shadow is suggestive of many things including death. We are tempted in further.
The opening shot is at night. We see a ‘Los Angeles Railway Corp’ sign for a moment long enought to remember it. Then a car careening out of control along railroad tracks, going through a stop sign. This is a subliminal implantation, made possible by the audiences acceptance that the film is in some way real.
The film centres around an insurance agent called Neff. Chandler uses him to great effect by having him play the role of the audience. In other words the individual watching the film takes the place of Neff and sees the world of Double Indemnity through Neff’s eyes. It is a standard device but interesting in this case since not only is Neff ultimately an anti-hero, he is also quite probably gay. He boss keeps on telling him: “I love you”, and at the end of the film, as he lies dying, Neff replies: “I love you too.”
There is a psychoanalytical view that Double Indemnity is very symbolistic, the clipped style neck ties implying impotence or castration. Correct or not it is clear that there are things in the film there primarily to help the audience get their barings. There is the ‘match-snick’ device, where a character lights a match on his thumb nail, which occurs at significant points in the movie and helps the viewer to stay on top of it without getting lost. If the audience did become lost the spell would be broken, the illusion shattered and it would not work as an escapist film. Contrast this with Jean-Luc Goddard whose films compel you to realise you are watching a film in every shot.
The film sees Neff making a telephone call to sort out a renewal for a man whose wife wants to get rid of him. Neff realises this when she enquires about taking out life insurance on him without his knowledge. He conspires with her but he knows he can’t get away with it “I couldn’t hear my footsteps, I was walking the walk of a dead man.”
As part of Chandler’s wider work the film can be seen as an extension of his metaphor of the city for modern life. However what makes the film escapist is its ultra-reality. An intensified reality that Umberto Eco explains as the reason why Disneyland feels more real than a wax museum. It is because of the audience interaction and the induced willing suspension of disbelief.
Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) let people live out an interactive fantasy existence where virtual riches are there for the taking and death is a mere inconvenience. But are there any fringe benefits to games that could see you spending years of your life clicking rocks?
Runescape, the most popular free MMORPG, has been the subject of much discussion about its effects on children. The game was developed by Jagex (Java games experts), a company based in Cambridge in the UK, and is played directly in the web browser without the need to download a standalone client application. In it you play a human adventurer in a Tolkeinesque world with a very British sense of humor. For example all the names of the white knights are puns, such as Sir Amik Varze, and the game references old British television shows from The Adventure Game to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Until recently Jagex went to great pains to deal with parents’ concerns about the content of the game, even to the point of censoring mild curses such as ‘hell’ from in-game chat. One of the effects of this ‘swear filter’ was to make it difficult for players to exchange personal information, blocking out words such as ‘address’ and ‘telephone’ to allay parental fears of online predators. However, as its community of players grows up, Jagex is attempting to make the game appeal to an older audience and almost a decade after its release players under 13 are now banned and the ‘swear filter’ is now optional. Younger children who signed up before November 2010 can continue to play, but the filter is always enabled for them. However, it’s not very difficult to lie about your age.
The main criticisms of Runescape are that the game encourages stealing, is overly violent, is addictive, pits players against each other, is filled abuse and negative behaviour, encourages gambling, and leads to depression. Interestingly, none of the articles criticising the game seem to take issue with the morality of killing town guards for experience points, although as previously mentioned very few characters stay dead. On the other hand the game has been praised for teaching children about economics, encouraging co-operation, and even for encouraging self-discipline in limiting the amount of time spent playing the game.
Many MMORPGs have their own unique backstory, but an alternative approach is to create a game based on an existing franchise; Star Wars and Lord of the Rings being two of the most successful. These two examples both require Microsoft Windows, but Bigpoint’s Battlestar Galactica Online is another browser based game making it platform independent. What these games have in common is a well established universe which the fans are already familiar with. Both Tolkein and Lucas created epic fantasies where good and bad are relatively clear cut, but Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica is far more nuanced.
So how well do the themes of the series translate into what is essentially a space shoot-em-up? The answer is surprisingly well, for now. Whichever faction you choose to join, it’s a battle for survival, with limited resources, the ever present danger of attack, and only your friends to rely on. The experience system feels refreshingly unobtrusive and while not the focus of the game, the interactions with characters from the series feel right. There’s just one problem. When the game gets out of beta you’re going to be able to spend real cash on resources, at which point the whole illusion will be ruined by people spending hundreds of dollars on upgraded ships and recouping their cost by ratcheting up kills against players who don’t pay to play.