How to understand that most of the best pieces of cinema and television (and for that matter, the best stories of all time) do not adhere to or represent reality with absolute fidelity, but rather that those pieces of narrative create superrealities of their own, rich with dream sequences, fantasies, flashbacks, and mental voices under the guise of narrators? Put into a simpler question: why aren’t documentaries and newscasts the blockbusters and award-winning crowd-pleasers, instead of fantasy epics and doctored biographical movies?
Escapism could jump into the spotlight as the easy and reasonable answer to those questions. However, doing so would neglect to acknowledge that precisely most of the movies and television shows branded as “great” or “classics” actually showcase and deal with the subjects that people theoretically would look to avoid or escape from, such as the atrocities of war or the pains of romantic woes. Escapism does play a role in the psychology of the audience, though, since it contributes towards the audience’s affinity for fiction and storytelling. From that affinity comes the power and significance of narrative films and television (our modern legends and myths), for all humans have, as Nietzsche remarked in his writings, a special predilection for using metaphors and subjectivity (Latin: sub-jectare: to throw under) to interpret the world their own certain way.
Stories that capture and retell “just the facts” may be accurate snapshots of reality (Latin: res: thing), but that objectivity (Latin: ob-jectare: to throw at or against) prevents them from being assimilated by the audience. As images or representations of reality, those stories, despite all their facts and realism, remain foreign to those watching or listening them existing (Greek: eks–stasis: standing out) as mere elements of “the Other”—that external world forever strange and barely penetrable by the perceptive self. “Realistic” stories thus exist to be observed (Latin: ob-servare: to look over) rather than absorbed (Latin: ab-sorbere: to swallow up), just like the totality of the phenomenal world manifests in front and regardless of the individual.
That constant and universal dynamic between the observable world and the human perspective accounts for the Greeks’ explanation of the world in terms of what they knew best—society. Similarly to Aristotle’s definition of man as a social and rational being, the Homeric view of the world had to ground itself upon anthropomorphic representations and sociological interpretations in which natural powers, human endeavors, and human passions became gods, titans, furies, and monsters, and in which the a natural process like the rain became a symbol of love between two deities (to name just a few instances of the metaphors). The reality of the Greeks, their whole surrounding world had to be translated into human-like figures in order to ensure human understanding (to put under a stance). In other words, the Greeks (as did all other civilizations[i]) adjusted and appropriated reality and the world by creating a superreality of their own, full of metaphorical elements constructed from their favorite perspective—their own subjective bias.
Thousands of years after that Homeric view and in spite of the subsequent killing of gods by secularism and fact-based Western thought, the great movies and TV shows of our time prove that the superrealities that metaphors and subjectivity conform still reign supreme in the human psyche.
Films and television strike as great when and because their superrealities represent precisely the way life manifests for individuals—through thoughts, inner dialogues, memories, fantasies, and dreams, all triggered by the events, figures, and objects populating the surrounding reality. That flux and exchange between an individual’s inner life and the real world constitutes each individual’s superreality that Ortega y Gasset would explain as “I am I plus my circumstance.” Great narrative films and television not only tell stories but they also represent (make present again) and reinforce an individual’s own perspective and adjustment of reality. The flashbacks piecing together Charles Foster Kane’s life in Citizen Kane (1941), Lester Burnham’s rose-addled pedophilic fantasies in American Beauty (1999), Hitchcock’s voyeuristic point-of-view cinematography in Rear Window (1954), Alex DeLarge’s cynical and sadistic voice overs in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Tony Soprano’s numerous dream sequences in The Sopranos (1999-2007), and Elliot’s childish belief in an alien friend in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) exemplify reflections and simulations of thought processes that each and all individuals use to experience (Latin ex-peras: out of the limit) the world, thus appropriating as the backdrop and material of their own lives.
After all, how do people usually respond when asked for the reason they liked a film, episode, novel, story, or anecdote? They claim that they found some element relatable (Latin: re-latus: to link again), meaning that some character, piece of dialogue, or situation reminded them of or resembled an element of their own life’s experiences or aspirations. They could see, as if looking into a mirror, their own vision of life existing as a part of the phenomenal world around them, turning life itself into a fitting and belonging part of reality.
Ultimately, the great movies, television series, and classic stories do not and should not depict the real world—they ought to adjust (Latin: adapt; bring to a balance) that reality into a superreality that makes the world feel and seem more like an individual’s life than reality itself can ever appear to them.
[i] For example, the Pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica based their understanding upon animal divinities inspired by the creatures and natural vastness of the jungle that surrounded them.