We Are the Illusionists

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Because of my expressed preference for animated movies, Netflix suggested The Illusionist, an Oscar-nominated 2010 film (originally titled L’Illusionniste for Pathé Pictures). (Note: This is not the Edward Norton film, which has the same title, but debuted in 2006.) So, I added it to my queue and watched it soon after its arrival. This post isn’t exactly a film review, but I have to tell you about the film in order to get to the point I’m trying to make.

The film was written by Jacques Tati and directed by Sylvain Chomet, who also directed an animated film I love: The Triplets of Belleville. Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

The Illusionist is a story about two paths that cross. While touring concert halls, theaters and pubs, an aging, down-on-his-luck magician encounters a young girl at the start of her life’s journey. Alice is a teenage girl with all her capacity for childish wonder still intact. She plays at being a woman without realizing the day to stop pretending is fast approaching. She doesn’t know yet that she loves The Illusionist like she would a father; he already knows that he loves her as he would a daughter. Their destinies will collide, but nothing—not even magic or the power of illusion—can stop the voyage of discovery.

To view the trailer, click here.

220px-The_Illusionist_PosterAfter reading that synopsis, you might be thinking of Alice in Wonderland by now or wondering whether the film is a mashup of Alice in Wonderland and the Edward Norton film or even Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film about dueling magicians: The Prestige. Uh, nope, though the Alice in Chomet’s film has curiosity and wonder similar to that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.Prestige_poster

While the film has moments of wonder, the wonder is overshadowed by the bleak realities of life. At one point, the illusionist, whose stage name is Tatischeff, leaves a note for someone that reads, Magicians do not exist. You’ll have to see the movie to understand who or why. But I don’t agree with the supposition that magicians do not exist—the point I’d like to make. (I can hear you sighing and saying, “Finally.”) In fact, the main character’s profession seems an apt metaphor for the writing life.

What is a writer but an illusionist whose literary sleight of hand becomes the stuff of magic to a rapt audience? The skilled writer/illusionist weaves a world of wonder that draws you in and makes you want to stay forever. Oh, I don’t mean the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” kind of shallow storytelling that never caused anyone to be immersed in a narrative. (Yes, that is a line from the movie, The Wizard of Oz. And no, I’m not implying that story is shallow. Glad I cleared that up.) I mean a narrative that makes you believe the world could be real.

imagesRemember how you felt when you read about Harry Potter getting his letter from Hogwarts and finally escaping from the home of the horrible Dursleys? Remember that rush as you followed Bilbo on an adventure with the dwarves? Or, remember how a talking spider named Charlotte captured your heart with her encouragement of a pig named Wilbur? I do. I get giddy just thinking about these stories. That’s magic; that’s the power of a story.CharlotteWeb

So yeah, magicians exist. We just need someone to believe in us, as Tatischeff did. We can start by believing in ourselves.

The Illusionist 2010 movie poster from filmint.nu. Other movie posters and book cover from Wikipedia.

The Fictive Dream

You know that feeling you get when you suddenly realize there’s a hole at the back of your sweatpants, and you’ve just showed the UPS guy more than your signature? Mortified to the point of death is an accurate description. If you know that feeling, welcome to my world. And I truly wish this was a made-up story (it isn’t; it happened last week), or that I had the assurance of never again clapping eyes on this guy. Alas, avoidance is impossible, since my street is within his route.

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If you cringed at my story even a little, you have the right mindset for a fictive dream. What do I mean by that? Take a look at this quote from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real. (Gardner 31)

Man rides cloudSo, how does one go about creating the fictive dream? Don’t look at me. I really am asking you.

You’re still looking at me. Sigh. Fine. Let’s examine the dream state first. In a dream, we experience the tang of ripe strawberries, the velvety softness of a flower petal, the fulsome beauty of a sky at sunset—as vividly as if we were awake. We solve problems or escape from them. And that in a nutshell is the fictive dream—total immersion in a story. As Gardner explains, “Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind” (31).

Consider the last book you read that gave you the sense of stepping behind a curtain into another world—one in which you longed to dwell. Maybe you think of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, thanks to J. K. Rowling’s vivid imagination, or you think of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels. Or perhaps Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is your drug of choice (I would live in Lothlórien if I could) or you prefer classic books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Zorah Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Coming to the end of that fictive dream was as startling as waking from a dream, wasn’t it?

In the fictive dream, not only are the senses fully engaged, a reader’s empathy is as well. If you feel nothing for the characters or their conflict, total immersion is not possible.

Authors weave their stories to keep a reader (or listener) engaged. As I consider how to craft such a story, I keep this advice in mind: I must be fully immersed in the world. If I’m not fully engaged, how can I expect you the reader to be? If I only half-like my characters or even . . . shudder . . . hate the “bad” characters, as if my role is to judge them, how can I expect you to love, sympathize with, or even come to a place of understanding about them?

What do you see as the key ingredients of the fictive dream? What book have you read that fits this model? Has there ever been a time when your familiarity with a story, or the situation depicted, prevented you from being fully immersed in it?

As you consider those questions, I’ll leave you with this cat, who seems to be living the dream.

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Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1983, 1991. Print.

For another great post on the fictive dream, click here.

Man riding a cloud picture is from anintrospectiveworld.blogspot.com. Shocked smiley face is from shocked free.clipartof.com. Footrest cat is from LOL Cats.