A powerful little word, particularly if one was raised on "problem-solving techniques". "If", the magic factor, allowing the hypothetical to play out, without real consequences. This reminds me of what Nikola Tesla wrote in his autobiography, that he was able to visualise the working of his inventions and run them in his mind before he built them in order to see what needed fixing.
In contrast to this is the "if" of the imagined. The "if" in so many movies fails because it has been watered down so much, that it no longer resembles life - whereas if it were more familiar, it could provide valuable metaphors of how to live. I am thinking particularly of genre films, like the Jane Austen-inspired The Lake House. I will limit my criticism to but one point (leaving out more obvious criticism): all the waiting that really does happen, rather agonisingly, in the film fails to be presented alongside a convincing lack of faith in the waiting. The whole point about the difficulty of waiting comes in those terribly dark moments when one doubts the whole undertaking, and loses faith - not only in the undertaking, but in oneself.
The "if" is most vivid when rooted in the particular, mothered by necessity. Which is to say that, contrary to popular expectation, "if" can tolerate restraint, such as in the bowdlerization of the classics, to expunge them of racy material deemed inappropriate for the schoolboys of yesteryear (who decoded them, but knew they were breaking the rules). Here, the "if" of the imagined world in the classics which transgresses the norm is censored, even though reality itself cannot be censored, e.g. the body emitting unseemly sounds.
It is useful for the "shock" of literature to be restrained to a transgressive moment, apart from the norm. Today, the transgressive is becoming the norm (the shock of surrealism in advertising; the symbols of smaller societies like jungles or prisons tattooed all over youth; the politics of the bedroom brought to public discourse), and there is no place or need for the "if".
Let's go back to The Lake House: it is not enough to dramatise the Austen novel, rather the novel returns to us filtered through a K-drama, defying the force of time (and logic). As if all cultural forms must be tinkered with - even if such tinkering bleeds them of their original meaning.
Also washed out is "the time and the place", which is part of the magic of "if", like in the medicinal story, told in a specific context with the purpose to heal through words. The words were to be related to. Today, it is hard to abstain from rudely gluttonising stories not catered to us personally, and gorging them at the wrong time (by the way, wasn't timing part of the reason behind frustrated romance in Persuasion?).
If asked for help by the present, what story we would tell, how particular could we stand to be. I keep thinking that to begin with where we are requires vision, not the imaginary part of the "if".