Daddy, or The Death of Fantasy
Once upon a time, the silver screen held projections of our deepest desires. But now, even our handsomest sex symbols have lost their deadly edge, drained of their power by pocket-sized screens and eroticism on demand.
For a while, cinema was the grammar of our dreams. Lacan’s writing on fantasy is all glances and gazes and screens, with the screen as “the locus of mediation”, a flat space on which we project our desires. This is not a metaphor. Dreams are cinematic: a succession of images, a montage. Some people even dream in third person, watching a version of themselves having little adventures through the lens of an invisible camera. But this was not always the case. In dream-accounts from before the invention of cinema, they’re not made of images but space. The writer Thomas de Quincey spent his dreams wandering through caverns and halls. “Buildings, landscapes, etc were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fit to receive.” English esotericist Thomas Browne dreams a huger version of waking life. “A little water makes a sea, a small puff of wind a Tempest.” Maybe childhood dreams are the same: when I was very young, my nightmares always started with some familiar space – my home, my friendly Montessori preschool – suddenly swelling, growing Gothic and dark. And I knew that in the depths of that space there were monsters.
But somewhere in the twentieth century, cinema swallowed the inner world. Shitty blockbuster movies didn’t just show us alluring images; they taught us what it’s like to be allured. Occasionally, someone would get too absorbed by all the shiny patterns on the screen and decide to shoot the President about it. The system was not perfect. But now, it’s breaking down entirely. There’s a silent crisis in mainstream cinema: even as the franchises reel in their billions, the form has lost its ability to represent desire.
I went to see the new James Bond film with my dad. The Bond films are dadly; they were cobbled together out of a strong daddish energy. The fantasies of ten million frustrated men across the business parks and development sites of England. James Bond is a middle-aged man who likes classic cars and terrible jokes and getting pedantic with his drink order – but Bond, of course, is childless. He has absolutely no responsibilities, beyond a vague attachment to Queen and country. He can fuck or kill whoever he likes – sometimes both – without effort or consequence. The last image of dumb male potency, a Gilgamesh who never learns he might die.
As soon as you really start thinking about it, though, it’s a pretty shabby fantasy. Not just imperialist and misogynist, but sad. Sure, Bond can chug martinis and screw around on the job – but that is his job. Outside of his work, he has nothing: he’s ambiguously orphaned, without any family or any private life; it’s not even clear he’s fully capable of thought. He is 007 – a number, a code in a computer system somewhere. A fantasy for people who can no longer think outside of bureaucratic systems of control.
Once, it was taken for granted that every narrative was basically libidinal; desire was the stuff of fiction... Now you can show anything you want, and nobody wants much of anything.
Some of the fascination might come from somewhere else; it’s worth noting that the universe James Bond inhabits is structured exactly like a dream. His adventures are all disconnected, like half-remembered fragments. He saves the world, again and again, but nothing ever seems to actually happen as a result: the next night, there’ll be another giant space laser, or another nuclear bomb hidden in a circus. He’s a secret agent, but he doesn’t do much intelligence work: he just arrives in a foreign city, and then weird-looking men try to murder him. How did they know? They didn’t: these aren’t really people, just moving elements of an unfolding world.
The dream theorist Matthew Spellberg points out that what really distinguishes dream cognition isn’t that it shows you things that don’t really exist, but that there’s no contemplation at a distance. “Thoughts are experienced as reality”: as soon as you consider something in a dream, it’s tangibly there. If anything, waking life is more unreal; we spend half our time considering things – hopes, fears, possibilities, God – that simply never arrive. But James Bond is told to find out what the villain’s plan is, and the villain obligingly appears to let him in on the secret. He glances at a girl; the next moment she’s in his bed. And the man himself seems to belong to a different order of logic, too. He lives at the origin of sex and death, and his entire face changes without explanation. Everything about James Bond suggests an underworld figure: a shadowy King of Sleep, a very old and very cruel god, wearing the skin and manners of an Englishman.
Well, not anymore. For the past few decades, they’ve been humanising this monster, trying to bury him in psychological depth. They’ve introduced continuity: every film now follows on directly from the next, and Daniel Craig slowly buckles under the weight of all the things he’s seen and done. In the latest film, Bond is no longer a roving priapic demon. He has a girlfriend – they spend most of the pre-credits sequence checking in on each other’s mental wellbeing – and, by the end of the film, a five-year-old daughter. We get to see him retired: just another man, without his magic number or his licence to kill. He’s relatable; schlubbier and defeated, a dad like all the dads in the audience. These films are not particularly fun; there’s none of the “spirit of extravagance” or “virtually uncontrolled sensibility” of Susan Sontag’s camp, but there’s also none of the deftness or insight or actual humour of serious cinema. It’s not really clear what they’re even trying to do any more, other than simply tone everything down to reflect the grey daylight of what we know.
At the end of No Time to Die, James Bond dies. He has become mortal. The villain infects him with deadly nanobots, genetically targeted at his girlfriend and his daughter; his slightest touch would be fatal to them. So he sacrifices himself instead. But in light of his past adventures, this is strange: from 1962 to the end of the twentieth century, just about every woman James Bond touched would end up murdered, and it barely troubled him at all.
Maybe it’s a good thing that we’re no longer indulging this kind of sociopathic male fantasy. This is where the film’s advocates and the embittered dads actually agree: if Bond has changed, it’s because leaving a trail of murdered women wherever you go is now widely acknowledged as unwoke. But if this is a political decision, why is the same thing happening to every kind of cinematic wish-fulfilment? How come superheroes no longer spend their screen time playing around with fantastic powers, but mope around in psychological abasement instead? When was the last time you saw an actual romantic comedy? And what else are we losing, when dreams disappear?
It’s difficult to really see the collapse of fantasy, but some things are unmistakeable. For instance: visual culture simply no longer wants anything to do with sex. Once, it was taken for granted that every narrative was basically libidinal; desire was the stuff of fiction. When it was forbidden to directly represent sex onscreen, it simply permeated everything else; even landscapes became a kind of pornography. Now you can show anything you want, and nobody wants much of anything. Barely one percent of major Hollywood films contain any kind of sex scene. The technical term is aphanisis: not the repression of desire, which lets it brood and fester away in the unconscious, but its disappearance. As soon as you drag this thing into full view, it simply melts away. As the writer RS Benedict put it, “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny”.
Other people are always unknowable; we can’t ever really touch – but fantasy papers over the gap. Without it, we are not doing well.
In psychoanalysis, fantasy isn’t a substitute for the sexual relation; it’s what makes the sexual relation possible. Other people are always unknowable; we can’t ever really touch – but fantasy papers over the gap. Without it, we are not doing well. Lately, multiple friends have started telling me very similar stories. They’ll match with someone attractive on an online dating app and spend a few days obsessively messaging each other. Finally, they’ll swap nudes – and then all interest suddenly vanishes. My friend realises that they’ve got all they really need from this person, and going any further would just be a chore. Hookup culture without the hookups. A human body without fantasies is hollow, barely even there; it’s not even ghosting when everyone is already a ghost.
Usually, all this gets blamed on pornography. It’s rewired our brains and numbed our bodies; the fantasy is blocking off the real thing. And if people want to look at sex, there’s a trillion hours of it freely available online; no need to drag it into the cinema. Except – how come the exact same process of desexualisation is also taking place within porn?
Lately, cinema has come up with a clever new way of telling its audience not to expect any sexual tension between its leading characters. There’s still the male lead, older, lightly grizzled, and the female lead, younger and slinkier – but in almost every case, they are father and daughter. This summer, the big tentpole blockbusters from both Netflix and Amazon were daughter movies; Marvel’s output is increasingly daughterified. In our weird new age of family values, even James Bond is a daughter guy. And what does mainstream pornography increasingly look like? For obvious reasons, fewer people want to theorise about this, but we all know the answer. Stepbrothers and stepsisters, stepmothers and stepsons, stepfathers and stepdaughters.
Whenever people do try to account for the rise of incest porn, they all tend to founder on the idea that this is about the thrill of breaking humanity’s oldest taboo: that it’s all some kind of sick fantasy. But incest porn isn’t really a niche or fetish product – it’s the cheerful, brightly coloured mainstream of a monstrous billion-dollar industry: inoffensive mass-market pap. Not what people want, in the most shameful recesses of their minds, but what they’ll tolerate. A lowest common denominator. And as bemused masturbators occasionally point out, nobody actually asked for this material. Pornographers invent family stories for the same reason screenwriters do: it’s a way of establishing a relation between two characters without having to deal with any kind of actual sexual desire. A role, set in advance – sister, daughter – instead of the sheer implausibility of another living person. Not fantasy, but rather, familiarity: the only thing remaining once fantasy has gone.
These days, I often wake up to discover that I’ve been dreaming about my phone. A mysterious email giving me baffling instructions, or my name plastered across the top of every news site, or a camera roll full of creepy dead-eyed girls staring from behind their grid. Dreams without any narrative structure at all, just a schizoid dithering, flicking between apps. Nothing to explore, and nowhere to be. In these dreams, I’m not in a room somewhere, looking at my phone. The phone is the dream; the edges of the screen are the edge of the world.
SAM KRISS is a writer and dilettante surviving in London.