An Old, Familiar Tune)
The first Guardians of the Galaxy film opens with a shot of alien worlds. We descend upon one of these to a rocky wasteland, upon which a single spaceship lands. A lone spaceman emerges wearing a high-tech suit and a mask with glowing, red eyes. He pulls out a fancy scanner, which reveals that the rocky ruins around him were actually once a great city, and he follows a signal to an old, decrepit building, now more nature than artificial construct. With a push of a button his helmet disassembles itself, he puts on a pair of headphones, and presses play on a walkman. Come and Get Your Love by Redbone blares as he dances his way through the ruins.
It is a surreal moment. The starkly foreign setting has been pervaded by a song from our real-life recent history. Obviously the song doesn’t belong in that place. The movie knows this, yet it puts it there even so.
And this is a common reoccurrence in the film, too. We see all manner of strange worlds, species, and technology, and none of it has anything to do with real life as we know it. Yet all throughout we continue hearing the real-world music that Peter Quill keeps on his mixtape. Not only that, but he continually makes references to real pop culture, such as the film Footloose starring Kevin Bacon.
But as strangely out-of-place as all these references are…they actually work. They don’t break the suspension of disbelief, they don’t shatter the fourth wall, they don’t turn the drama into a parody, and they don’t make the fantastic world feel mundane. Rather the two flavors combine in a way that complement one another.
This works for two reasons. On the one hand, those of us that were born too late to experience the real-world media firsthand find the tunes to be familiar, yet also otherworldly. The past can be like a fiction to us, a story we hear of, but which is distinctly different from all of our first-hand experiences.
And for those of us who were born early enough to experience the release of that media directly, nostalgia is an experience not unlike visiting another world. A favorite song transcends its true-life story. To us it isn’t a temporary collaboration of individuals fulfilling a contractual obligation for a record deal, it is an otherworldly piece of magic that dropped from the heavens to make a spark inside of us. Indeed it seems to come from a place not unlike the magical world of Guardians of the Galaxy. It belongs there more than it does in reality.
It was this same reasoning that led me to include real-world media references in my latest story: The Time Travel Situation. My characters are in a real-life setting but they are also playing a game of pretend. I describe them as they see themselves: special government agents racing through time to stop temporal bandits! Yet as they go through this world of fantasy I have them call out real-life media that my readers might be personally familiar with. I don’t think these real-world references will feel disjointed to the reader, though, because I specifically chose media that was fantastic: the Journeyman Project games and Star Trek. Those works fit very well with my fiction, they seem as if they could easily be a part of it, and so it doesn’t break the story’s immersion to make mention of them.
So it is possible for fantasy stories to make reference of otherworldly media in a way that feels integrated and coherent. But what about a more dramatic or grounded piece?
Tom Hanks’s directorial debut That Thing You Do! cleverly recreates 1960s music culture without ever using any actual artists, labels, or songs. Everything in it is a complete fabrication, yet it all feels very real and authentic. Given that this film was trying to capture the spirit of the era without being a biopic of any actual musical group this was an excellent line to walk. If this film had interspersed its portrayal of a fictional band with scenes of real-life performers, such as The Beatles, then it would have felt disjointed. Contrast this with Forrest Gump, which is able to tell fictional stories about real-life characters like President Lyndon B Johnson and John Lenin because it is a less grounded piece, full of hyperbole and fantasy in its pseudo-real setting.
However there does still remain a way for a grounded piece of fiction to make reference to real world material. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel of a teenage boy caught in the awkward phase between youth and adulthood. He is not a fictional character, but his experiences are extremely relatable and true-to-life. The title of the film comes from when he hears the real-world song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye and misunderstands its lyrics. In reality this is a bawdy folk song, but the lyrics cause him to imagine children playing in a field, being saved from falling off the cliff by a Catcher who protects them.
It is a wonderful expression of a young man who is confused, and misinterpreting his world in fanciful, imaginative ways. But it wouldn’t work very well if this was an unknown song that the reader didn’t know the real meaning of. The author, J. D. Salinger, was using the real-world song as a shorthand to quickly communicate a complex idea to his readers.
This was my logic when I wrote Phisherman, in which I made reference to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris from the film The Way of the Dragon. That story of mine was also heavily grounded in reality while still being a fictional tale. Towards the end of it I wanted to show a memory of the main character with his father. The two of them would discuss the nature of heroes and villains in stories, and they would relate those archetypes to themselves. Now if I had made up a fictional film with fictional actors for them to reference, then the audience wouldn’t have properly understood what they were talking about. And if I had tried to explain the fictional film and characters in great detail it would have broken the flow of the story. Thus I elected to make a singular reference to real-world media. Something that would immediately get my main character, his father, and the audience all on the same page. It was a meant to be a tasteful intersection of fact and fiction that provided just enough context for a shared understanding.
As I already said, I have given fantasy-media references in my new story, The Time Travel Situation, and with my next chapter I would like to try for the more grounded kind. I will try to give a reference that utilizes a shared understanding between my characters and the audience. Come back on Thursday to see how I incorporate it.