Fun fictional worlds
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
This week’s question:
My favorite films, books, and television shows create a time or place that I find irresistible and captivating. I mean, I wish I could live in the world their authors envision, even if for only two hours, 300 pages, or a season. How cool would it be caught up in a caper like The Maltese Falcon or The Sting? Which works of fiction create a world (or a version of reality) that you’d consider most enjoyable to live in? — Dan Bresette
When I first floated this question past Josh to see whether he liked it for this week’s AVQ&A, he laughed and said it sounded pretty LARP-y, and added “I wish to live in Helm’s Deep, m’lady. Pre-war.” Under the sting of his preemptive mockery, I’m hesitant to even pretend to answer this question honestly. But the fact is, the first thing that came to mind for me was the Star Wars universe. I’ve never been a proper geek about the films, and I thought the recent trilogy in particular was pretty lousy. But while the stories themselves have suffered under George Lucas’ “bigger, louder, and CGI-ier” aesthetic, the world itself has become a ridiculously involved, candy-colored carnival packed to the gills with interesting places to go and people to see. The Empire aside, it seems like a pretty neat, infinitely explorable place to hang out, even if people do tend to get their limbs lopped off an awful lot.
Though if I can be even geekier than that, one of my favorite fictional worlds has long been Steven Brust’s Dragaera, largely because of its central conceit of a society where the average lifespan runs to thousands of years, and citizens spend centuries upon centuries focusing on and becoming experts in whatever most interests them. As a result, no one ever seems to be in much of a hurry, and the entire society is ruled by a sort of slow-burn ritualized formality and elaborate politesse. The more frantically paced our own society gets, the more that appeals to me. Finally, in the same spirit, few films have gotten to me like Hirokazu Koreeda’s quiet 1998 drama After Life, in which Japanese bureaucrats spend a quiet afterlife helping the recent dead select the memories they’ll take on to the next world. For years after watching it, I wanted to move into that ramshackle, run-down public building on the near side of eternity, and just hang out, sweeping up leaves, repainting the peeling walls, and talking to people about what they’d made of their lives, and what little parts of them they most wanted to keep.
While reviewing Lost this past season, I wrote that I’d like to live inside the first few episodes set between 1974 and 1977, when the hippie scientific collective The DHARMA Initiative had reached an uneasy truce with The Hostiles, and our time-traveling Lost-aways wound up settling into a new life in the past. It’s not that I’d enjoy being yelled at by that hothead Radzinsky, or shot at by Young Charles Widmore—or even that I’m all that wild about hippie piety—but I like the idea of living on a tropical island rife with secret passages, ancient mysteries, and regular deliveries of all the modern comforts, like DHARMA beer and 8-track tapes. Plus I think I’d get along with the new head of security Jim LaFleur. Reading helps me think, too.
I’ve always found the version of Sweethaven in Robert Altman’s unfairly vilified 1980 movie version of Popeye to be one of the most fully realized, compelling fictional worlds I’ve ever seen in a movie. Whatever you thought of the flick, the set design and casting of the little village were just fantastic, and there’s so many little touches, from the background characters to the floating boxing ring, that they got right. It’s a world I always wanted not only to visit, but to inhabit; I know the town still exists (in Malta, where the movie was filmed), but it’s essentially a tourist-trap theme park, and not the magical place it is onscreen.
I’ve got certain issues with Joss Whedon as a writer, but if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that those issues are as much based on my emotional investment in the worlds he creates as it does on any critical assessment. Good TV shows in general excel at creating surrogate families, but there’s something about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel that gets through my defenses every time. I actually have to take a break from both every now and again, just because I get too caught up in them—it is surprisingly hard to explain carrying a sack of wooden stakes into Wal-Mart. (Look, I don’t care if the florescent lights wash out skin tones, that pale motherfucker in Gardens had a hungry air about him, and those bottles of “V-8” weren’t fooling anybody.) Apart from Dollhouse, which I enjoy but hasn’t really gotten its hooks into me yet, I’d be happy to live in any part of the Whedon-verse, even knowing I would almost certainly be killed off in some later season just because Joss doesn’t believe in happy endings. (No spoilers, but yes, I’m still bitter.) But if I had to pick, I’d want to be part of Serenity’s crew in Firefly. Same core group vibe as in Buffy and Angel, with no high school or lawyers to worry about, and all that space to move around in—it sounds pretty shiny. Oh, and being there would give me a chance to see some of the storylines through, provided I lived long enough.
Here is where I’m going to reveal just how shallow and revolting I really am: I would like to live in the world of Sex And The City. I could actually give or take the sex part, but I would certainly enjoy being able to buy couture and cigarettes on a writer’s salary, not to mention the ability to prance around in Manolo Blahniks for long stretches of time. Plus, I really enjoy going out to eat with friends, yet the ladies on that show barely ever have any weight issues, so that’s an additional perk I’d appreciate. In addition to this, while I’ve contemplated living in New York City, the fact that I would probably have to whore out my body in order to find a place to live has been a hurdle, but on that series, a lady with a dinky weekly column in a second-rate newspaper can afford a pretty decent place, so that’d be swell. Finally, in real life, my friends have fallen pretty short in the inviting-me-out-to-the-Hamptons department, which I think would be remedied if I lived in that world. I’d take all that silly stuff over the ability to fly or fight space creatures any day.
Funny—the first thing that came to mind when I read this question was the kind of fictional world I don’t want to live in: anything designed by Tim Burton. Nothing against the man, whose ingenuity and wit I deeply admire, but the worlds he creates always seem so… small. Their horizons are claustrophobically close, and there’s a sense that if we keep going down one of their roads, we’ll smack into the backdrop, Truman Show-style.
I suppose that means I want to live in a fictional world that feels limitless—as if it would never lack for new crannies to explore. In fantasy fiction, that’s my beloved The Deed Of Paksenarrion, a reality I want to inhabit largely because of its taken-for-granted gender politics and refreshing attitude toward religion. Television hasn’t ever been very good at these infinite spaces, but who wouldn’t want to live in the universe of Star Trek, with its mandate to explore and its civilized attitudes about otherness? And as for the movies, I’ll happily take a job in Judgment City from Defending Your Life (assuming I meet the brain-development criteria), where I can eat unlimited amounts of wacky food and hold the dead’s reincar-fate in my hands. Just the chance to do ethnographic research in the immense social space hinted at by the film—different classes of hotels, tourist attractions, restaurants, and leisure activities—would keep me busy for several eternities.
I don’t have a great answer for this, I’m afraid. I’m not sure that movies or books work as wish-fulfillments for me as well as they used to. I remember wanting to live in the world of Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful fantasy books when I was a kid, but that’s the last of it. I’m not sure if everyone grows out of that mindset, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to hold onto. Maybe it’s that my critical impulse kicked in too early. But I will say this: I sometimes still find myself wishing the world looked a little more like the movies. Specifically, I wish I could live in a world filled with the rich, autumnal colors Robert Burks’ Technicolor cinematography captured for Alfred Hitchcock in The Trouble With Harry. That or, you know, that I could be a jaded-but-principled private eye in ‘40s L.A. That would work too.
What Keith said, except for instead of ’40s noir L.A. I’ll go with the ’70s version. Very specifically, it would be fun to exist on the margins of 1973’s The Long Goodbye. Apparently you get to live in L.A. dirt-cheap, slouch through the nice weather, crash beach-house parties with the slightest of introductions, go shopping for cat food at all hours of the night, and have no trouble finding topless stoners across the way. If you’re lucky, you run into Elliott Gould. Wretched Hollywood types and Coke-bottle-wielding psychopaths aside, it seems like an enjoyably seedy place to hang out. (If not that, I’d settle for the equally nudity-casual Floridian degeneracy in 1975’s Night Moves. You get boats there.)
Putting aside the rampant misogyny and crumbling home lives, I think it would be pretty darn cool to live in the world of Mad Men for a while: bouncing around from smoke-filled bar to smoke-filled bar, eating oysters and drinking martinis at lunch. Not to mention all the (public) drinking while at the office. But most of all—to professionally geek out for a moment—I’ve always been fascinated with the world of advertising, and a little jealous of all those copywriters and creative directors. Think about something like Gatorade, a beverage invented in the ’60s at the University of Florida that now means something to people all over the world. Back in the early ’60s, though, bold advertising was definitely not something to strive for (just look at the episode with the VW print campaign, and how baffled the ad guys were upon seeing it); the creatives at Sterling-Cooper, though, were pushing themselves to do just as incredible work. It would be like advertising fantasy camp for me. Okay, professional geek-out over—did I mention all the day-drinking?
Here’s a video that still gives me goosebumps when I watch it, courtesy of some other ad wizards:
A lot of my favorite fictional worlds are pretty fucked-up, so as much as I’d love to visit Sunnydale or hang at Angel’s Hyperion Hotel like Zack suggested, or stroll through the dystopian urban wasteland of Blade Runner with Vangelis in my headphones, I probably wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, I’m sort of a slave to comfort and familiarity, which is why I’ve never really followed through on leaving Texas for more lucrative pastures. So my fictional world is less a matter of geography than concept: I wouldn’t mind spending a week or two in the skewed reality of a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker film like Airplane! or Top Secret. How fun would that be, to have everything you say turned into a hyper-literal pun, for every stupid question to have an attendant snappy answer, and for your life to be filled with parodic non sequiturs? It’d be sort of like working at The A.V. Club, only probably with less sexual innuendo.
Instead of providing one good answer, I will offer a whole mess o’ half-assed answers. I spent pretty much my entire childhood wishing I was somewhere else, whether it was the suburbia of Steven Spielberg and his protégés Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante, a world of immaculately tended lawns and white picket fences that seemed idyllic, yet was rife with darkness just under the surface. Or the idyllic burghs of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Being a rootless urbanite, I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for romanticized takes on small-town life. Ah, fuck it, you know what I’d really love to inhabit? The Warner Brothers lot of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Is there a more magical, fantastical place on Earth, with the exception of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium? It’s a giddy wonderland where monster movies, beach movies, Santa Claus epics, Dee Snider videos, and the most wondrous bike of all time happily co-exist, a kid’s dream of Hollywood rendered gloriously concrete.
This one is easy: I want to hang out with Lester Bangs, Penny Lane, Russell Hammond, and the rest of Stillwater on the tour bus from Almost Famous. All my adolescent passions are there: Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin, journalism, beautiful women who are also sensitive and mysterious, the promise of the open road, the scary allure of drugs. I’m sure living in the real 1973 would have been as drab as any of the years I’ve been alive. But living in the 1973 of Almost Famous would be like climbing inside my vinyl collection. So you guys can keep your aliens and whimsical cartoon worlds. I’ll take a magical place where rock criticism is still taken seriously.
It would probably be pretty silly and childish of me to say I’d like to live in the world of the Harry Potter books, wouldn’t it? Shut the hell up, joy-haters! I want magical powers, dammit! Plus I’ve always had a weird fascination with British boarding schools, and Harry Potter’s world exists in this neat middle ground between the rigorous, somewhat creepy order and tradition of old-fashioned boarding schools and the chaos, color, and whimsy of J.K. Rowling’s take on wizardry. Also, I think I’d look pretty good in flowing robes.
Of course, I’d only want to live in the magical world of Harry Potter; I’m all too familiar with the drudgery of Muggledom. In case this question doesn’t allow for the sudden acquirement of impossible magical abilities, I’d like to throw out the world of Pushing Daisies as my second choice. Once again, the wardrobe plays a big part here—I love ornate hats and overly coordinated, costume-y clothing, but have little opportunity to incorporate them into my jeans-and-T-shirt lifestyle—but what it really boils down to is idealized escapism. I’m sure the day-to-day of living in a world where people communicate in rapid-fire puns and unexpected musical numbers would become grating pretty quickly, but sitting in a bland office on a cold, gray day with nothing to listen to but the hum of fluorescent lights makes this option sound pretty damn appealing. Also, the pies always look so, so good.
As someone who make a living happily ensconced in cinematic universes of all kinds, there are just too many examples that spring immediately to mind: If I had the voice for it, the colorful world of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg seems awfully appealing, so long as the joy and romance of it isn’t chased away by bittersweet melancholy. The films of Wong Kar-wai are equally suffused with loss and regret, but who wouldn’t want to be as cool as Tony Leung in Fallen Angels or In The Mood For Love, even for a second? But lately, my nostalgic streak has me pining for a summer at the amusement park in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland. Much like Dazed And Confused, the film is intended as a not-so-rosy look back at the awkward trials of youth, but it inadvertently beckons viewers to a place where everything was better—the music, the banter, the fashions, and the thrill of discovery that adulthood inevitably extinguishes. Adventureland makes me feel wistful about a world that itself is seen through nostalgia’s distorted lens; it makes me want to throw away my iPod, crank up the new Replacements cassette in my Chevy Chevette, and hit on the hip girl who’s impossibly cool enough (“impossible” being the operative word) to own a copy of Big Star’s Radio City on vinyl.