Fantasy and Construction
In the film The Golden Compass, there's an interesting moment early on when 'the Magisterium', an inquisitorial, popish institution, are shown that - via dust, hauntologists - one can find the traces of other, parallel worlds, which perhaps do without hierarchies altogether. This, of course has to be stopped, and the rest of the film follows the attempt to do so. I've not read Philip Pullman so I can't say whether the book is watered down or not, but any further philosophical intent is lost in the obligatory CGI battles and adventures (never as awesomely tedious as Peter Jackson/Tolkien but just a tad too Never Ending Story for me). Nonetheless - there's something exciting here. Yes, there are other worlds; no, you won't get to see them. The film seems to hinge on the act of what Zamyatin called 'fantasiectomy' to ensure obedience, via the removal of one's 'demon'.
The promise and the film's failure to live up to it are mirrored in the set design. How to show a parallel universe? In the first few seconds we see Wren/Hawksmoor/Vanburgh's Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, with a huge New York-circa 1911/Moscow-circa 1948 skyscraper in the middle of the Domes. This, we later find out, is the headquarters of the aforementioned Magisterium. The parallel world, as it unfolds, increasingly resembles the world stopped in 1914, just in some cases made bigger. The CGI parallel London, for instance, still has St Paul's domineering over it, but here and there are skyscrapers. Not the sort of towers that actually do surround St Paul's, but Woolworth Building style stacked baroque or amplified Gothic. It's all reminiscent of one of 80s architecture's nadirs: Robert Adam's 'Roman' skyscraper, so designed because 'the Romans would have done it if they'd had the technology'. Production designer Dennis Gassner's CGI city is reminiscent of monuments to the restoration like Moscow's Triumph Palace. The dream-city is still (here a slightly tweedier) Gotham, and the remaking of dreams into images draws on the work of the most rank of architectural revanchists.
As this is a parallel universe in which one of the most obvious features is the non-existence of modernism. Modernist architecture, even in its most populist forms, still hasn't made its way into fantasy - isn't part of what Benjamin in the Arcades called the collective dream. For fantasy film designers, oligarchs or filmgoers in search of escapism, one thing which seems to interrupt the fantasy is an undecorated surface, a ribbon window, a bit of concrete or neon. The steampunk pistons, intricate clockwork parts and so forth look beautiful, but stop just at the advent of the aesthetics of the 'short 20th century'. Maybe this a sign that after 90 years Modernism still hasn't entered the unconscious, is still hostile to popular desire: that when we try to imagine another, perhaps better world, it's one of the things excised. Or that it keeps a certain wakefulness: interrupting any attempt at escape into the imaginary. A strange fate for something so often dismissed as utopian. A dream, perhaps, but not the dream we're offered.