Academic journal article Folklore

Filming Fairies: Popular Film, Audience Response and Meaning in Contemporary Fairy Lore

Academic journal article Folklore

Filming Fairies: Popular Film, Audience Response and Meaning in Contemporary Fairy Lore

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study examines the idea of fairy lore (faery) as a modern concept with personal and humanistic overtones transmitted through mass media phenomena such as films. Analysis of the relationship between folk and popular culture has become increasingly sophisticated and has widened our appreciation of the ways in which mass-culture audiences use tradition to shape popular culture. Fantasy films draw on recognised traditional elements, but the significance of these elements has been mediated through nineteenth-century interpretations of fairy lore. Contemporary audiences are more likely to be exposed to such legends and beliefs in the context of mass media than by any other means, and visualisation of fairies in fantasy films is closely linked to these modern interpretations of traditional material. For cinema audiences, the idea of faery is no longer a traditional and immediate response to experience, it already carries overtones of nostalgia for the past, childhood innocence, utopian societies or sexual discovery. However, personal response and exegesis of this material, reinforced by repeated viewing, access to Internet sites and related activities such as role-play and merchandising, means that the interactions of these virtual communities can transmute and insert themselves into daily life through a shared appreciation of fantasy worlds. The ways in which these consumers of mass culture resemble or differ from a folk audience presents an interesting arena for understanding folklore as a living contemporary phenomenon.

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In 1997/8 the Royal Academy of Arts staged an exhibition of Victorian fairy paintings (Maas, White and Gere 1997). Such retrospectives often provide a platform for wide-ranging discussions about the subject in question, and this one was no exception. Art historians, musicians and folklorists were asked to comment on aspects of fairy lore, and in particular the development of visual representations of fairies. [1] Fairies had been enjoying something of a popular renaissance since the 1990s. Fairy-themed merchandise was readily available in new-age shops, and several specialist shops appeared that offered fairy-themed products exclusively. [2] Fairies also became a topic for popular magazine articles. The journalist and social commentator Christopher Hitchins compared interest in fairies to the, then current, American interest in angel sightings (Hitchens 1997, 204-10). The Royal Academy Exhibition went on to other museums--the Frick Museum in New York, the University of Iowa Museum of Art, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (Shawyer 1997-8; "Victorian Paintings from the Frick Museum" 2006 www.antiquesandthearts)--and sparked a resurgence in art reproductions of Victorian and Edwardian fairy paintings. These reproductions were widely distributed and included examples from less well-known galleries and private collections. Images of fairies suddenly seemed pervasive, and the trend has never really gone away. "Heritage" shops such as "Past Times" have consistently offered "the enchanted world of fairy" on a range of merchandise (www.pasttimes.com). Fairy images from Victorian art, drawings by well-known illustrators, lesser-known artists and even some original work appear on numerous products. Two films, influenced by the controversy surrounding the Cottingley fairy photographs, were in the planning stages at this time. The films were made as adult (Photographing Fairies 1997) and family audience (Fairy Tale: A True Story 1997) versions of fairy sightings and their consequences. The reproduction and dissemination of fairy painting, the use of fairy images to adorn consumer merchandise and the incorporation of fairies in films is not in itself remarkable as a transfer from folk to popular culture. Many such trends were dismissed as "Millennium fever" or "the mythological fetish of the moment" (Hitchins 1997, 204) in the build-up to the year 2000. However, audience reaction to these fantasy films suggests that they are not just spin-offs from a pre-millennial fairy revival, but can be better seen in the context of a more general response to fantasy films in the 1980s and to a re-definition of fairy lore that was linked to this. …

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