There’s a scene in one of my favourite films, High Fidelity (2000), in which John Cusack’s Rob plays out a number of angry reactions in his head to the arrival of his ex’s new boyfriend into his record store. We watch these short, comical scenarios play out one after the other, only to see sensibleness, or should I say mundanity, kick in, and Rob begrudgingly keeps his cool. Played for laughs, the scene is one that nevertheless continues to flesh out Rob’s incomprehension as to his fault in any of his past relationships- in other words, it reflects his and the film’s narrative crisis. While heavy handed in execution, the scene made it apparent to me that fantastical as it may be, daydreaming in film has the most purchase when it is contrasted to inertia and is not simply novel.
Episodes of such cathartic daydreaming pop up remarkably often in popular cinema, serving as shorthand for inaction and frustration of restrained desire. Whether its Seth’s increasingly absurd scenarios to get alcohol in Superbad or Cady paralleling the Plastics to vicious wildlife in Mean Girls, these vignettes work because their surrealism compliments the films’ sincere but light hearted tones. But crucially they are only passing vignettes and the characters involved do change; what happens when the escapism of daydream sequences becomes more narratively integral in film?
John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) offers a compelling case in favour of such an approach, coming straight out of the British New Wave to boot. The titular Billy (Tom Courtenay), a low-level clerk at funeral directors, indulges in Walter Mitty-Esque fantasies and uses his imagination to escape from the drudgery of his own post-war existence. Retreating to his imaginary realm of Ambrosia intermittently throughout the film, Billy inhabits it with his family, friends, girlfriends, who all admire and respect him- a stark contrast to reality.
Billy Liar, however, refuses to settle for the spectacle of Billy’s imagination alone to carry it- it illustrates expertly how such fantasies have coddled its main character into refusing to take risks, even when he claims he will. Billy is caught within a stasis that his fantasies imply he wants to escape, but which he chooses not to do out of fear, convenience and or obligation. Admittedly, there is sense that the film benefits from the visual kitchen sink realism of the sub-genre it finds itself in, serving as a natural contrast to Billy’s outlandish imagination. But thankfully, this is not to its detriment.
Comparing Billy Liar to another 1963 release, Federico’s Fellini’s 8 1/2, the utility of dreamlike fantasy states to help explain a static character becomes even more striking, albeit a lot more deconstructive. Semi-autobiographical in tone, 8 ½ refers to the number of films Fellini had made at that point in his career. The narrative follows Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a popular Italian director struggling to make his next film, a film he earnestly wants to be “honest”, and which stands in sharp juxtaposition with his fraught and adulterous life. But the two converge more throughout the film, as Guido’s surreal fantasies and memories begin to crop up, while his own film looks increasingly like it will not be made.
Superficially, it would appear a creative block is the root of what compels Guido to be inert and dissatisfied. Like Billy, he adopts a looser grip to reality than most, as a way to escape; one particularly infamous scene sees Guido waited on by his own harem, made up of previous romantic partners and figures from childhood. Moreover, inertia in the realities of Guido and Billy is what propels the fantastical plane of their daydreams. But where the films differ is how such daydreams are played in relation to reality. There is never much doubt as to the reality of Billy’s existence- his daydreams are abrupt enough departures to be identified easily. Fellini’s baroque style and childhood sequences place Guido’s reverie in flux, and make the audience consider the line between his daydreams and his film to be intentionally blurred. 8 ½ is as such a film that examines the creative quagmire its protagonist faces when attempting to turn the fantasy of his film into a reality that we are not sure is 100% genuine.
But how have more contemporary releases fared with the role of the daydreamer in character development? Well, our fascination with dreams certainly has not waivered- Inception, Total Recall, Shutter Island are but a few examples that can attest to that. But daydreaming as a form of fantastical reprieve is a subject matter that is proving more difficult to translate without coming across as kitschy or self-regarding. Tepid reviews to Robert Zemeckis’s recent Welcome to Marwen (2018), for instance, reflect the dangers of when daydreaming is chalked up to cloying sentimentality and little else.
It is easy to understand how such a danger can arise. The visual opportunities that daydreaming sequences offer to even independent modern films, means that the stasis of their characters is at risk of being discounted for spectacle and whimsy. There needs to be a crisis of substance within a character for the fantastical elements to matter- otherwise audiences remained jaded and unable to resonate. Even the king of bizarre cult fantasy, Charlie Kauffman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) has noted this in the past: “I think if something resonates, even if it’s surreal, it’s because it is relatable, and I think that that’s a core issue for me”.
That relatability may not be absolute- how many of us can relate completely with an angsty Italian director? – but an understanding of the constraints of reality is more crucial than we anticipate. If a film wants us to escape down the rabbit hole of fantasy and dreamlike escapism, it first needs to ask why.