Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Some Thoughts on the Utopian Film 1

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Some Thoughts on the Utopian Film 1

Article excerpt

As a literary genre, the utopian novel has a long and distinguished tradition. Beginning with Thomas More's founding text Utopia in 1516, there has been a steady stream of outlines of a better state. In film, however, the positive utopia - the eutopia - seems to be non-existent. There is wide agreement among scholars that a classic positive utopia lacks some of the basic elements required for a narrative film. In this article, I want to offer a different perspective and sketch out a research programme on utopian film. I believe that utopian films in the Morean tradition do exist, but that we have been looking in the wrong place. Fiction films are indeed unsuited for positive utopias, but as soon as we turn to non-fiction films, we find many examples that largely fit the paradigm set up by More. I will first discuss the concept of utopia and then deal with the relationship between utopia and film. After analysing some examples of utopian films, I will finish with some general thoughts on utopias and non-fiction film.

Generic problems

One of the main problems of utopian research is the lack of a unified nomenclature: there is no consensus regarding what 'utopia' actually means. Depending on the context, the neologism coined by Thomas More can mean quite different things. In colloquial speech, 'utopian' often has pejorative connotations. We use it to denote illusory or crazy ideas, pies in the sky that no one should take seriously. As soon as we turn to academic discourse, we encounter different traditions of research, which, despite some overlaps, can differ quite substantially; there is even disagreement on the nature of the object under discussion. Is utopia a genre, a political or sociological concept, a philosophical stance or an anthropological constant?

In an often quoted paper, Lyman Tower Sargent distinguishes between 'Utopian literature [...]; communitarianism; and Utopian social theory' ('Three Faces' 4), which are all expressions of 'social dreaming' (3); on the other hand, political scientist Thomas Schölderle, who primarily looks at Germanspeaking social sciences, differentiates between three academic traditions: literary studies, theories of totalitarianism and social psychology.

In both cases, looking at utopias from the perspective of (literary) genre theory is only one of several possibilities - but it is the chosen approach in this article. When I talk about utopia, I mean the literary - or, in my case, filmic - genre as it was 'invented' by More. In my understanding of genre, I follow film scholar Rick Altman, who conceives of genres as groups of films that share certain semantic and syntactic elements. By semantic, Altman means the 'building blocks' of a genre: typical characters, props and locations, but also stylistic features such as a typical way of framing or the pace of editing. The syntax, on the other hand, describes the way the semantic elements are connected with one another; this mainly refers to the structure of the plot and its dramatic rendition. Additionally, a third level, the question of how genres are used, comes into play. Since genres are not Platonic entities that remain stable over time, but are instead objects of discourse that can vary considerably depending on the specific context, the pragmatic level, as Altman calls it, is of great importance. Ultimately, genres can never be pinned down with some fixed, abstract rule, but can only be described in their historical evolution (see also Neale Genre).

Concerning the concept of utopia, I follow Schölderle, who develops a useful framework for describing classic utopias in his 2011 study Utopia und Utopie. Starting with More's Utopia as the prototype, he undertakes a journey through the history of utopian literature and its research to refine his model. Although Schölderle is a political scientist, his study relies heavily on work by literary scholars such as Hans Ulrich Seeber, Peter Kuon and Wilhelm Voßkamp, and has in turn proved useful in that field. …

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