Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What is "realisitic" in film and theatre?


Few of us are experts on all things. Most of us don't know how closely a spy show parallels reality, if military movies are realistic or if a moon shot can actually be done in the way portrayed in film. The two things that binds us (and we can each agree to some degree of expertise in a chosen field), technical knowledge and innate knowledge of human nature. It is the latter I am referring when I recall whether something is realistic or not. Too many people are hung up on technical jargon, time lines, and events to actually consider the realistic response of the players. We as human beings recognise good or bad acting. Why? Because we see the human response as our area of expertise. If an actors performance is multilayered, spontaneous and evokes an emotional response in us, we recognize this and are impressed. If an actor's portrayal of true emotion if off the mark it is blatant and unforgivable. So, what is realistic? Are we talking about circumstances within a film or the emotional life of the actors? I've found that non-reality, as far as plot and circumstances, can swing wildly away from "truth" given the right circumstances and the audience can accept this."Twilight" is a good example of this type of film. As long as the characters act and behave according to the unspoken or even elicited rules of their world, and have true emtional reponses to circumstances. But once an actor starts to behave in an irrationally emotional way, it just doesn't work anymore. (except if they are crazy, then that will not carry a film) So when I hear people going on about how "unrealistic" a film is, they are usually referring to the plot and circumstances rather than the acting. But I ask you, was "Animal House" realistic? No. Were the character responses within the arc of the story real? Yes. So we accept the film as being good. What about "Saving Private Ryan?" Was that realistic? I've often heard it said that the battle scenes were very realistic. So be it, but in truth films stack events in such a way as to build tension and thus are artificial by definition. All fiction is unrealistic by defintition. In adapting a true story to film, for example, reality cannot sustain the tension of a dramatic 2 hour epic without the events being manipulated into a dramatic arc. This is because that is not the way life is lived. We live in a jumble of the mundane and dramatic. Films are condensed, events are manipulated, timelines are changed, characters are often compilations of many character traits of certain key players plucked from reality. In other words, a true story has ever made it to the screen that has not in several ways been changed by the dramatic process. Drama is tension, conflict, and release. The same holds true for music. In a song there is tension in a phrase, built up by another phrase and then a release at the end. In essence a good song, let's say, Bungalow Bill, by the Beatles, is a mini dramatic theme similar to a short story. So, my point is this: When I hear someone criticize a film as being unrealistic, I consider a few things: Are they talking about the technical aspects of the story, the acting, the suspension of disbelief or all three? A good film sets up a premise in a false world that, hopefully, an audience will accept. If we have trouble getting past the world in which the characters live, we will not be able to suspend our disbelief. But if a movie is well acted, the characters live in a world that we can accept and things happen within the rules of that world, then it is, in essence, "believable." If, however, you get hung up on technical jargon, procedures, and timelines, then you will not be convinced to invest your 90 minutes. In my short play, "Do You Want Chili Cheese Fries with That?" I wanted to demonstrate the horror of killing someone. The person who does the killing knows the victim and has tried to forge a bond with him, even though he is not a fellow soldier, but an Iraqi national who has volunteered to help the Americans. So the dichotomy of the death is complicated by three factors: 1. The killer knew the victim. 2. The victim could have been working for the enemy. 3. The killer is stuck in a cave with the victim for several minutes to contemplate what he has done. Now, in reality, the soldier doing the killing probably would not have felt too much at that moment. Perhaps days, months or years later, I feel, it may have come back to haunt him. So I compressed time and had what I thought may be some future response to killing his acquaintance. Furthermore, his response was not only compressed but elaborated on by speaking his thoughts out loud. These two factors, compression of time and speaking his thoughts were an UNrealistic response considering the circumstances and timeline, but they were necessary in order for me to drive home a point. When this short play got some attention from a movie director who wanted to make it into a short film, I was confronted by the fact that these were unrealistic circumstances and suddenly they, and consequently I, became enamored with military jargon, realistic circumstances of the mission they were on, etc. And it got to the point of considering what kind of radios they had and how would they talk to each other on them. Several re-writes ensued andf finally, it came down to the point that the soldiers response would not be as written. I found myself in a position of defending my play and my film. Eventually, the inevitable happened, as so often with films, and the project got dropped due to lack of funds. But my point is, they took an idea and tried to weave a different reality around it due to a change of medium, when in fact, I felt they didn't have to do any of that. Still I went along with it, all in the name of realism. My point being, realism or reality has less to do with setting up dramatic events or structure than you may think. There are those who think that if you choose a specific technical subject, for example the film, "Crimson Tide," Starring Danzel Washington and Gene Hackman, you MUST be dead on at all times regarding reality and precedure. In this film, Danzel plays a submarine commander who goes against his captain’s orders to deploy nuclear missiles because a certain protocol has not been met. The film was taught, well acted and, I thought, realistic. When I asked the wife of a submarine commander, my neighbor at the time, about the film, she told me her husband said it was a load of crap. Very unrealistic and stupid. So, was he referring to the plot, the action, the acting or the technical jargon? He was referring to the plot. This would never happen due to certain protocols aboard ship. Hmmm. He was also referring to the way the characters acted. It would never happen. Period! The public didn't know this and the movie didn't suffer because of it. It made tons of money. But you see, they had to ignore the reality in order to get to the drama. Which is my point. So, next time you hear someone say a movie is not real, tell them, that's right. It's just a movie.

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