So once I was home, I was able to see the final episode of Life on Mars, only several weeks after everyone in the UK. There'll be spoilers in this post for it, along with spoilers for Pan's Labyrinth and Brazil.
I'll leave you a little space so you don't get ruined.
I wish there was an lj-cut equivalent.
I'm starting spoiling after the beeps.
So Sam Tyler goes back to the future, finds he doesn't like it, and suicides - to wake up again in the Seventies. It's seen as a joyous act, but while I was charmed I was also troubled by it, to be honest - it seems something of a retreat, even a defeat. As if a choice has to be made between fantasy and reality, rather than allowing each to sustain and nourish the other, to make and remake each other. It's the same at the end of Brazil, only in Brazil it's all far more explicitly sinister: Sam Lowry retreats from an unbearable world of torture and the death of the woman he loves into a fantasy escape and life with his love in the mountains. I wish Sam Tyler had given the future another go. The Seventies weren't that great. The Noughties aren't that bad. You can even wear flares, Sam, nobody will laugh. They'll think you're being retro or copying that man off the telly.
All of which - apart from the flares - set me thinking again about the end of Pan's Labyrinth, when Ofelia is killed and triumphantly enters her father's kingdom to be crowned princess. But the big difference to me is that Ofelia doesn't choose suicide: she refuses to submit and is murdered as a result. Obviously it's still hard to see it as a happy ending (not to mention her options are pretty limited when she makes that choice), but nevertheless for reasons that are currently beyond me, I do think it's a victory. I think in part that's because we - watching that film - are a necessary part of its temporality. When we leave the rebels in Pan's Labyrinth, we know they're about to lose the war. But from our POV perhaps that seems different, and their struggle was worth it, and was ultimately - through the passage of time - transfigured into a different kind of victory. In Life on Mars, we're asked to disconnect from the past - the Testcard Girl reaches forward and switches off the telly, switches us off. It's a cool shot, but I don't want the transmissions from the past to be interrupted. I want to keep on remaking them. I don't want the end of history. I want my fantasists alive and well and ready to dream another day.
ETA: I woke up this morning to make connections between this and Moorcock's criticism of something Tolkien wrote about the uses to which fantasy can be put. China Mieville sums up Moorcock's position in this interview: "In On Fairy Tales [Tolkien] says, 'Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?' The fantasy writer Terry Pratchett puts it very simply: 'Jailers don't like escapism.' The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism--what they don't like is escape."
But I think I'm with Pratchett on this one - jailers don't like escapism either, at least not of a certain kind. Because surely imagining the possibility of a way out is a precondition of enacting a way out. So it seems again that Sam Tyler's is a retreat backwards, not a push forwards. Ah, what do I know? You'd like to think you'd still be giving it your best pop while they're dragging you out to the firing squad, but who knows when you might end up following Sam Tyler and Sam Lowry into the consolation of your own mind, or for what reason.
In Spanish he whispers there is no time left.
It is the sound of scythes arcing in wheat,
the ache of some field song in Salvador.
The wind along the prison, cautious
as Francisco's hands on the inside, touching
the walls as he walks, it is his wife's breath
slipping into his cell each night while he
imagines his hand to be hers. It is a small country.
There is nothing that one man will not do to another.
- Carolyn Forché