Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Make believe

Here’s another one of those weird things that always happen in movies but never do in real life. You know the kind of things I’m talking about. Like way that the driver of a car can go for five minutes without looking at the road while engaged in conversation with a passenger but doesn’t run into anything. Or the way people can talk about someone just a few feet away and that person doesn’t hear them. (That’s actually more of a television thing.)

Well, another one of those things that always amuses me is the way we always see a movie being made within a movie. There are lots of examples of this, although the one that immediately springs to mind is Richard Rush’s 1980 flick The Stunt Man, in which Steve Railsback played a fugitive from the law who stumbles onto a movie set and winds up becoming a stunt man for a megalomaniac director played by the magnificent Peter O’Toole. The funny thing about movies within movies is that, when the cameras roll, the takes usually go on and on for many, sometimes endless, minutes and all the stunts and special effects are in place during filming—even ones elaborate ones that, in real life, are shot in separate takes or added by computer in post-production.

Now, if there is one thing that filmmakers actually know about in the real world, it should be, well, filmmaking. Why would they portray the process as something unreal and more or less magical? The answer is that they do it for the same reason they do most of the other things in movies that aren’t really true to life. It’s called dramatic license. The main reason is to make the story “better,” i.e. more involving and interesting to watch. Sometimes the movie-within-a-movie thing is used as a plot red herring—to make us think that something is happening, only to reveal that, no, it was only a movie scene and not part of the reality of the movie containing it. But is there possibly another reason? Could it be that filmmakers portray filmmaking this way because they think or know that this is how most people think movies are actually made? And they don’t want to confuse the audience with the facts?

The question entered my mind because my discussion last week got me to reminiscing about how I experienced movies as a child. And I began wondering if it is the same for my own child—or if the world has changed so much that kids don’t have the same wonder at cinema that my generation did. I can actually remember a time when I thought that the things I saw in movies were really happening. I couldn’t fathom that anyone could or would go to all the trouble of faking the things I saw on the movie screen. Or that the people on the screen could actually be pretending so consistently and convincingly. Part of me knew that, say, a boy probably couldn’t really turn into a dog or that a dog couldn’t drive a car but, hey, there was the evidence right there in front of my eyes. Seeing is believing, right? How long did I have this view of cinema? It’s hard to remember, but I’m pretty sure I copped on by age of, say, 20 or 21. Okay, it was much younger than that, but it did slowly dawn on me that my favorite movies were indeed elaborate illusions. But I was at an embarrassingly advanced age before I fully appreciated how moviemaking really was completely unlike the way we see movies being made within movies—how much it comes to editing and post-production, not only special visual effects but also sound effects and dialog dubbing. It takes some of the magic out of movie viewing to understand too well how it is all done but, on the other hand, it makes you more appreciative and discerning of the many talents needed to make an elaborate cinematic entertainment or work of art.

Being susceptible to the illusion of cinema, as I was and I confess sometimes still am, has advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that, by easily buying into the illusion, you get the thrill of experiencing the psychic equivalent of magic. You can explore other worlds virtually. The downside is that you can also experience otherworldly terror. When you accept too easily the reality of the movie screen, you go through the same psychological hell as the victims you see in horror movies. Actually worse hell because, in addition to sharing the babysitter’s terror at knowing that there is a stalker with a sharp implement, you also have the frustration of knowing that going into the basement is exactly the wrong thing for the babysitter to do—and you have to watch her do it anyway. This syndrome of emotionally accepting what you seen on the screen, when your brain should know better, was immortalized in a gag line by the late Richard Pryor: “It is fun to watch movies with black people because black people think the movie is really happening.”

As a parent, one of my instinctive concerns for my own child is that she is not unduly upset by anything she sees on television or in a movie. It seems as though TV shows and movies are rougher than they used to be for kids at a younger age. And there is a lot of pressure (from marketing, friends, etc.) for very young kids to be able to see PG movies and even PG-13 ones (or the 12 cert, as its known in my part of the world). The current marketing frenzy over Spider-Man is a case in point. Rather than try to be an overly active censor of what the Munchkin sees, I try to compensate by educating her on the illusion of cinema so that she knows it is not real. The idea is that you can tolerate a fair amount of violence or upsetting situations if you know that it is not real. Even without my help, however, she has always seemed remarkably sophisticated about what is real and not real on television. This just seems to be a by-product of growing up in a media-saturated age. After all, there is more of everything now than when I grew up. Lots more movies, way more TV channels, and the internet and myriad video gadgets as well. I don’t think there was ever a time when my daughter thought that something she saw on a TV screen was real. She has always demonstrated a keen ability to differentiate, say, actors from the roles they play and, unlike myself at a similar age, has no problem accepting a familiar actor playing different roles.

So, even though my child has vastly greater quantities of movies to watch and ones which are generally technically superior to what I watched as a child, is she missing out on something? For her generation, have dazzling special effects been substituted for sheer wonder and the innocence of seeing each movie as something special and real. I can remember a time when every movie I saw was the best movie I had ever seen and I couldn’t imagine any movie ever being better—until I saw the next one. The Munchkin has been weighing and judging movies dispassionately since she was old enough to talk. Have I and the world denied her something special that I cherish in my memory?

When I start thinking like that, I get a shiver up my spine because I realize I sound like my mother when she talked about how my generation’s actors couldn’t hold a candle to the Hollywood stars of her youth or how much better it was to use one’s imagination listening to radio programs instead of watching television. You cannot stop progress or change, nor should you want to. The world keeps changing, and it is going to be a different place for each generation and each individual that comes along. While it is natural enough to want for my child what I had for myself, that is essentially selfish. My daughter will have her own memories and will presumably cherish different sorts of memories than I do. And, before it’s all over, she may even come to pity me for not being able to experience what she did—just as I wonder what things my father might have done with the internet.

Standards of entertainment and art will constantly evolve, but we can at least take comfort in the fact that the really important things in life mostly remain constant. Like experiencing the world all over again with your kid. Or knowing that going down in a dark basement, when a slasher is on the loose, is a really bad idea.

-S.L., 17 May 2007

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