- Fictional Worlds Vols I-IV: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture by L.A. Alexander
“Homer was the best screenwriter ever,” I like to say whenever I teach screenwriting. True, Homer was blind and never saw a film in his life. But what I then point out is that Homer gave us all we need to know in creative cinematic narrative in terms of life as a journey towards our own Ithacas after our own Trojan Wars and adventures and misadventures. Thus it was with great pleasure that I recently discovered L.A. Alexander’s Fictional Worlds Vols I-IV: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture. Simply put, Alexander’s study is one of the most impressive recent books that imaginatively expands the scopes of both film and history, taking on anthropology, cultural history from ancient Greece to the present, narrative-story telling theory and, from a global perspective, looking closely at a wide variety of films from silent movies to the pop present. Fictional Worlds is refreshingly intended for all readers who love literature and film, and especially for writers, filmmakers, and videogame designers, and points at new ways of navigating, exploring, and creating entrancing fictional universes.
We know we are living in a narrative world that is changing constantly and that new definitions are needed continually to understand even the title of this journal, Film & History. Over the years, Film Studies as a discipline has expanded and exploded into Media or Visual or Screen Studies, embracing not just film and television but the internet, text messaging, and digital interaction as seen, for instance, in such recent books as Caetlin Benson-Allott’s Remote Control (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), which considers how viewers now control their own “media universes.” Still another new dimension to “Film & History” can be seen in a textbook such as Robert Gerst’s Make Film History (Michael Wiese Productions, 2012) which, as the subtitle suggests, calls on readers and students to “Rewrite, Reshoot, and Recut the World’s Greatest Films” while also including an interactive website.
Dr. Alexander, who has a PhD in anthropology but teaches film & media studies, makes it clear from the beginning that she is taking on the whole spectrum of storytelling and visual culture through the ages down to very recent films from around the world. Since societies constantly must strive to revise and revive themselves, she notes, “storytelling, thus is a mode of survival as it has always been (iii).” And in this absorbing study she offers the important insight that “Media has also altered and advanced the notion of community (iii),” especially as new forms such as the Internet require new definitions of “community.”
Alexander has created that rare textbook that is compelling to read, for she brings in cultural theory and scholarship, from Joseph Campbell’s discussion of the Hero’s Journey to insightful studies of Homer’s Odyssey, as well as narrative theory and close up looks at films, ranging from world cinema classics such as The Passion of Joan of Arc to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, not to mention spotless studies of the Coen Brother’s “Laughter Through Tears” as she discusses their films.
As both a film scholar and screenwriter myself, I am particularly pleased that Alexander has gone beyond the genre of Hollywood “How To Write A Popular Screenplay” books such as those by Syd Field to open up how narrative and character [End Page 62] development intertwine in significant patterns we’ve had since Homer and other ancient narratives. Alexander notes early on that “The importance of Odysseus for Fictional Worlds is manifold (27),” and she correctly views Odysseus’ journey to Ithaca as one in which he grows as a human being, “gradually establishing a system of values in which the family home is central” (Ibid). The result is that in a single section (Chapter 12 of Fictional Worlds IV) she manages to fruitfully encompass not only films such as Slumdog Millionaire...