Tom Sutcliffe: When fantasy and realism can collide

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Let me start with a confession of inadequacy. I don't do very well with fantasy. I don't mean by this that I can't enjoy a science fiction film or an animated film in which a house is suspended from party balloons. I don't sit there in the auditorium, mentally calculating how much helium it would take to lift a modest family house and wondering how an old age pensioner of limited means managed to pay for it. And I don't even need helium balloons to suspend my own disbelief.

Provided that I know what the rules are, I'll go along with pretty much anything – as long as the rule-setters don't try to evade their own legislation. Working this kind of thing out isn't always easy, incidentally. I've found myself before now having arguments about the psychological consistency of a talking lion – which doesn't really make a lot of sense when you pull back a little. But I guess most people will know how this kind of thing operates. Even within a fantasy world, characters must be obedient to some kind of dynamics which tells us whether they are behaving realistically or not. Even Terry Pratchett – not a policeman of the imagination in any dull sense – recently got quite exercised about the liberties Dr Who was taking with its own self-imposed realities.

There are forms, though, in which realism itself is the thing under attack – and those are what I tend to have a problem with.

Generally speaking I think the most interesting fictional problems are those that acknowledge gravity, inertia, friction and resistance – all those impediments to liberty which take both a physical and an emotional form. One way of phrasing this is to say that if anything can happen in a fictional world, then nothing that does happen is likely to be very charged with meaning, since the writer can simply write themselves out of any corner and any problem. And, though there are people who prefer malevolent elfs and unicorns and magic rings to the kind of challenges and opportunities you might encounter on the morning commute, I'm not one of them.

I'm always uncomfortably aware that there's an element of tidy-mindedness to this – a reluctance to have imaginative categories confused in messy ways. There's a box marked Fantasy and a box marked Realism and I don't usually like it if something from the first appears in the latter. Last week it happened twice, though – and oddly enough it was quite exhilarating on both occasions. Which got me wondering whether my own stern resistance is faltering or whether these instances were in some way defensibly superior to the sort of eruptions of otherworldliness which generally make me growl.

The first of them was in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. And since this isn't exactly a benchmark for naturalistic cinema, it might seem a little odd to even mention it. But, in its own way, it breached that rule of segregation. Malick's film has many deliriously-transcendent passages, of course, but set into them are relatively straightforward accounts of a Texas boyhood. And it was during one of those comparatively down to earth moments in his film that the mother in the film was shown drifting in mid-air beneath a tree in the yard, a beatific expression on her face. There was no narrative explanation for this flight, no obvious reason for it to occur here rather than elsewhere. And simultaneously the moment seemed like a fake transcendence (achieved by simply ignoring reality) and a real one (because the film-maker had the power to make a fantasy real).

The second instance occurred in Amos Oz's new book Scenes From Village Life, a collection of linked short stories about a small Israeli town. This time the modulation from descriptive realism to the other worldly was seamless – in a story that began with an middle-aged resident being pestered by a mysterious caller and ended with the two men climbing silently into bed besides the resident's elderly mother. As a metaphor of invaded privacy it was both potent and uncanny, but it made no sense at all within a context of straightforward realism.

Naturally I don't like to think that I'm going soft in my old age – so I've worked up a new rule for myself which says that such dream moments are permissible if they derive from the intense emotion – bliss or fear – of a character represented. But I can't shift the uncomfortable feeling that I'm cheating myself.

Wood's genius may soon be lost on youngsters

There's a lovely joke in That Day We Sang, Victoria Wood's "play with songs" for the Manchester Festival. Or at least it was lovely for me and those in the audience roughly of the same age – which is to say old enough to remember decimalisation, and the nationwide apprehension that preceded that great social change.

The joke wasn't actually about decimalisation and it didn't take joke form as such – consisting of an allusion to a social innovation almost as unnerving to the British in its day as the disappearance of the shilling. It was about yoghurt – now a blandly ubiquitous component in the British diet but in the late Sixties and early Seventies still a substance with a certain exotic mystique to it.

I can't remember where I was when I first encountered yoghurt but I can certainly remember approaching it with a wary uncertainty – as the middle-aged protagonist does in Wood's play. I laughed, anyway, and the friend who was with me did too but, as she later established by talking to younger audience members, they were baffled as to why a mere mention of yoghurt should provoke such gales of laughter.

How much of Wood's comedy, I wonder, is similarly date-stamped?

This isn't a criticism, incidentally. The exactness of her social references is part of her genius. But I can't help feeling sad that younger generations will eventually need footnotes to get it.

Salvator Mundi is not so perfect

As the BBC's series Fake or Fortune has been demonstrating for the last four weeks, there are few fields of human endeavour as susceptible to wishful thinking and subjective vision as fine art attribution.

Where one person (quite often the recent purchaser of a painting) sees the unmistakable fingerprints of genius, another (generally a defender of the canon) can detect only pastiche. And experts aren't immune either. I think Leonardo's Salvator Mundi may be a case in point – a painting bought for just £45 in 1956 but shortly to feature in the National Gallery's upcoming Leonardo show as unequivocally from the hand of the master. I don't really doubt that attribution, but one of the arguments advanced for it – that the orb of glass in Christ's hand is painted too beautifully to have been produced by one of Leonardo's imitators – seems distinctly odd. Look closely and you'll see this sphere of glass does not appear to distort, magnify or diffract the drapery behind it in any way– as a real glass orb would. So, did Leonardo – who struggled to capture vortexes in water and carefully plotted the distorted reflections in a convex mirror – simply not see those effects; or deliberately leave them out; or just not do very well in capturing them?

Whichever the case, surely the orb is a problem for the attribution and not a clinching detail.



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