Speculative is a word used to describe any kind of character-driven fiction that employs a science fiction or fantastical element as backdrop, or even just a piece of its setting. It is an interstitial genre, and difficult to place. Girls who write Speculative fiction, like Aimee Bender or Karen Russell, are often marginalized as “Slipstream,” which is a kind of synonym for Speculative. Nobody knows what to do with these writers. They’re writing small and complicated literary stories about fantastical things. Do we call this literature? Or do we call it genre? It’s a stupid question, because of course it’s literature, but what makes it literature? What makes it something more complicated and artistic, not written merely for entertainment or escape, but as a means of truth and enrichment and exploration?
The Speculative is special, and it’s different than any “hard genre” writing, because unlike Hard Scifi or Fantasy, the Speculative’s main focus is not typically the fantastical element or world at work, but the human experience going on in the foreground. In Speculative fiction (this includes film, TV, any kind of written medium) the fantastical element is merely a backdrop for characters and ideas, and its existence is often symbolic, and this symbolism is often oblique or complicated. Or, the fantastical world or element, in some way, parallels the inner-story of the characters and situations. This creates a cool, attractive richness. It is the best kind of writing.
Examples of Recent Speculative Film:
Another Earth (2011) – When scientists discover, quite literally, “another Earth,” which seems to be a parallel of our own, a young girl who makes a terrible mistake copes with the constant unpredictability of life. Yep. That’s my blurb! This is a very good movie.
Take Shelter (2011) – Kind of Biblical, Michael Shannon plays a rural father who begins to have apocalyptic visions of a deadly storm to come. The movie wrestles too much with the possibility of schizophrenia for me, but in the end, it’s terrifying and a little mystical.
28 Days Later (2002) – Very much extremely awesome. Cillian Murphy kills it in this zombie movie that’s a lot about zombies but more about the human struggle going on amidst a very “realistic” zombie apocalypse.
Last Night (1998) – A Canadian movie starring Sandra Oh that I like, recommend to everyone. It all takes place on one night–It’s like a Canadian, more depressing 200 Cigarettes on the eve of the apocalypse–What if the world was ending at midnight? What would you do? Where would you go? This movie is light on the scifi and explanations, which is actually what makes it so strange.
Cloverfield (2008) – Well, I would argue that it’s Speculative. I really like Cloverfield, and I think that this new “found media” riff on the mockumentary is a fantastic sub-genre. And I think that, while action and violence sort of take the forefront in Cloverfield, the real f#cked-upedness about it lies in the small, human drama, and the rescue story.
Melancholia (2011) – This is the one I actually want to talk about to illustrate the Speculative, and what I think it means…
In Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a rogue planet (aptly named Melancholia) is discovered to be on path to collide with Earth. Its collision course is mostly up for debate–many scientists seem to think it will merely pass us by, creating a fantastic but harmless celestial event, while others think it’s the end of the world. Meanwhile, here on Earth, character Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has been tasked with caring for her clinically depressed sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her vast estate in the English countryside. Barring the end, which I won’t give away here, this is the entire premise of Melancholia.
The movie is strange. It is rife with anachronisms, such as Justine’s inexplicable “American” accent and demeanor, while Claire and the rest of her family appear to be British. Also, Keifer Sutherland plays Claire’s American husband whose infinite wealth is also inexplicable, along with his mansion–the number of rooms seems to grow and change, and at times, feels like the Ritz, while at other times, feels like a quaint country cottage. In all of our time spent in this movie, not once do we leave the estate, and any time any of the characters tries, it is nearly always on horseback, and as they approach a bridge that leads off the property (and presumably into town), the horses invariably start to act funny. They’ll lay down, or turn around and gallop the other way. None of the characters really questions this. It is merely a part of their world. The horses act noisy and weird all throughout the movie, and though we don’t know why, we can guess that it has something to do with Melancholia. Also, as the planet gets closer, it begins to leach off the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing our characters to become lightheaded or faint–again, this is only once dealt with directly and by a layperson. Unlike a typical disaster movie, such as M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, we’re not given any newscasters on TV to denote an outside world, and there’s only one (rather simplistic) foray into the internet. There are also Justine’s unexplained midnight treks into the forest–She goes alone and lies in the brush by the river, and, as if a goddess, bathes naked in the blue light of Melancholia. On this, she’s never confronted. She is merely observed. Nearly everything is oblique and unexplained in Melancholia–from the mundane accent discrepancies to the spooked horses and the virgin goddess imagery.
These inconsistencies, phenomena, and the sense of isolation, I think, lend to a film predicated on idea–we’re in a movie that, rather than illustrating its themes and ideas through traditional means of plot and characterization, explores them from some intellectual distance. We’re not meant to fully understand these things like why Kirsten Dunst’s character seems American and why they never leave the estate, because these things don’t matter. It is almost as if–the characters cannot leave the estate because, Von Trier wants us to believe, nothing exists on the outside of the estate–all that exists is this, the setting of the story, because that’s all there is, and there is no life going on anywhere else, because it’s just a story, and that’s all there is. The characters don’t even know. The irony is Lynchian. It’s almost meta. In the grand scheme, the characters of Melancholia, despite their complication, are elaborate strawmen, and the setting, despite its beauty, is just stage design. What matters is the idea. This is often the case with Speculative fiction. The writer is attempting to get at something that seems “ungettable,” and so they use a fantastical means to explore it in ways that, in any ordinary setting, would be too difficult or impossible. In this case, the characters are vessels for idea, and the fantastical element, the planet Melancholia, is a vessel as well.
The idea here is depression, or melancholia (if you will?), a deep exploration of it. Von Trier uses the planet Melancholia’s “death dance” with Earth as a parallel to the inner story of Claire and Justine to fully “get at” the idea. As Melancholia nears, Justine’s depression begins to yield, and of the planet, she becomes a kind of worshipper. Claire, on the other hand, grows more and more anxious, more frantic with fear that the planet will hit, and the world will end. What does it mean? I don’t really know. I know that Justine’s depression somehow enables her to cope with (what could be) the apocalypse, while the rest of the “sane” characters cannot cope. I know that both the characters and the planet serve Von Trier’s idea and exploration of sadness. In the end, whatever happens, we’re left with ONLY this exploration, no answers and no conclusions. If you watch the movie, you’ll see that the ending, in terms of action, seems finite, but it is, thematically, wide open.
This kind of thing is the case with most of Von Trier’s work. For some people, it’s a complaint. For me–Melancholia is one of the most beautiful and moving films I’ve ever seen. It’s the Speculative.
Anyway, this is a pointless blog post other than to illuminate this “genre” of the Speculative for people who might care or be interested, or people who are really liking this recent turn a lot of films are making toward the quiet science fiction, or the human story amidst the apocalypse. People like me. The whole thing makes sense to me, and it’s my favorite kind of story. These stories, and these movies especially, tend to be beautiful and well-rendered–That’s what I think. Their quietude lends to a feeling of rarity, preciousness. They are gems that sparkle in strange ways. They are made with care, because, without the great big heavy stones of plot and formula to hold them down, they have to be. They’re airy and chilly. Part of their appeal is that they float in the air–but they’re not light. Their nuance is made of plausibility within the impossible, which is a large part of why they’re so strong and so effective.
The Speculative can also, I think, show up in a quiet kind of horror movie, like Let the Right One In (2008), also beautiful and well-rendered. I actually think that horror movies have been doing this for a much longer time than fantasy or scifi–Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Carrie (1976), and The Thing (1982) are all “old” movies that value their stories, ideas, and characters, and that prescribe, in some way, to the Speculative. David Lynch, also, sort of dabbles in this, but while similar, his style of filmmaking is its own thing entirely. The fantasy is more of a feeling in his movies, or like, an infection. It’s not a “reality.” It’s the inside of David Lynch’s weird, haunted brain.