Tragic Fantasy – A Filmmaker’s Manifesto

In times of hardship, conflict, and change, people will gravitate to escapism. The fantastic is sought out and produced as a cultural painkiller, offering cathartic release, hope, and feelings of agency. However, as escapism is pursued as an alternative to hardship there enters a risk of separation from reality, rejecting the responsibilities of the real in favor for the pleasure of certain fantasies.

Film offers a greater element of fantasy than other mediums through its unique use of editing, lighting, close-up, and framing. When images are watched on a screen, moving in quick succession, we accept them as they are. The painting is seen as a still, unchanging, its reality contained within a frame, examined fro the outside. The written form is taken one word at a time, analyzed, compartmentalized from word, to sentence, paragraph, chapter and volume. Theater is seen in acts, conforming to the stage.

Film’s ability to manipulate space and time while maintaining continuity within the mind of the viewer presents it a unique opportunity in the realm of the fantastic. That is, when the viewer sees the unreal in a film – whether it be a monster, an impossible action sequence, or a remarkable location – it is accepted as reality. But when the film ends, the mind must reject the fantastic that was witnessed only moments before. This gives rise to what I call the tragedy of the dream, and, conversely, the tragedy of the nightmare.


In a dream we feel we are part of the fantastic. The unreal usurps the real through the use of familiar images that are mixed and matched in unusual and taboo ways. When we awake the true reality comes into conflict with the dream reality. We feel a sense of tragedy upon realizing that the fantasy we experienced is at odds with our reality.


In a nightmare a similar process is at work, but the tragedy is reversed. When we awake from a nightmare we feel relief that the reality of the dream is at odds with our own reality, but we then experience tragedy when we see that our reality contains vestiges of the nightmare. If I awake from a nightmare where I am chased down an endless, dark hallway, I shall reasonably experience fear when I encounter a dark hallway in real life.


When we see a movie that we enjoy we are drawn into its reality. If we envy that reality we feel the tragedy of the dream when the movie ends. We attempt to rebuild and reenact the fantasy within our own world. If we fear the world of the film we experience the tragedy of the nightmare, and we seek to remove the elements of the fantasy that exist in our reality.

This is film’s greatest power, and its greatest danger. To utilize the tragedy of the dream and the tragedy of the nightmare allows us to rewrite our reality and work towards common goals. But it also has the chance to be abused, to create propaganda and turn us against our own world.


The advancement of film editing, effects, and post-production lies at the heart of fantastic tragedy. All of these elements help build the unreal in the film through manipulation of space and time, and the creation of unreal imagery and sound. Ultimately, the film should create a reality upon which fantasy imposes itself. The viewer must be drawn into the fantasy, only to find rejection. Either the viewer must reject the world of the fantasy, or the fantasy must reject the world of the viewer.


The advancement of these technologies and techniques must never allow the elements of the unreal to overtake the real. A film must present a world that is real. The elements of the fantastic must encroach upon this world and be recognized for their unrealness in the tradition of surrealism, magical realism, and horror. To present the fantastic as a part of reality merely promotes an attitude of conformity where the hardships of reality are avoided and ignored in the search for a few moments of escape.

If this trend continues we risk erasing the tragedy, and embracing fantasy wholeheartedly as reality itself. We must embrace fantasy for what it is. We must embrace the tragedy it provides us. Films cannot move towards false reality in good conscience.

To embrace the tragic fantasy is to promote thought and the reexamination of our own reality – its wonders and its horrors. Tragic fantasy is the reclamation of the technology and aesthetic of the screen, the reclamation of the modern psyche and the reclamation of our world and our art.

-Patrick Higgins

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