Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Seeing is believing

People with no lives will have agonized over the fact that this week I am posting a day late. Those with even less going on will know, however, that this usually happens around this time of the year and will be explained next week. In the meantime…

The other day I was continuing the long process of migrating to a new computer and I was going through old folders of email, trying to sort out the chaos of my years of saved messages. In the process, I came across one much-forwarded message that a friend in Seattle had sent me, and it make me chuckle—again.

You may have seen it, or a version of it. It’s the one called “Things the movies taught you.” This version had 26 items, all detailing things that routinely happen in Hollywood movies but rarely, if ever, happen in real life. It begins with “Large, loft-style apartments in New York City are well within the price range of most people-whether they are employed or not” (an entertainment conceit popularized by the sitcom Friends). It ends with one of my favorites: “When they are alone, all foreign military officers prefer to speak to each other in English.” In between there are such gems as “When you turn out the light to go to bed, everything in your bedroom will still be clearly visible, just slightly bluish” (No. 6) and “A man will show no pain while taking the most ferocious beating, but will wince when a woman tries to clean his wounds” (No. 17). A couple more give keen insights into movie character mortality: “Honest and hardworking policemen are traditionally gunned down three days before their retirement” (No. 8) and “You’re very likely to survive any battle in any war unless you make the mistake of showing someone a picture of your sweetheart back home” (No. 14). And here’s a tidbit that comes in very handy for anyone in the defusing business: “All bombs are fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts so you know exactly when they’re going to go off” (No. 22).

We can all think of a million of these. Just as cartoons have their own laws of physics that differ from the real world but are amazingly consistent (e.g. anyone who steps or runs off a cliff will be suspended in mid-air until they make the mistake of looking down), the movies have their own laws and rules that are surprisingly consistent, so much so that we accept them nearly without question—if we have watched enough movies, that is.

But some of these movie conventions or conceits can be annoying to people who, well, who have a personality like mine. I wrote about some of these seven years ago. These included 1) the way people driving cars in the movies seem to be able to carry on lengthy, emotionally involving conversations with the person next to them, with plenty of lingering eye contact, and still manage not to crash the car they are driving, 2) the way people tend to sit down for a meal or a drink, immediately get worked into an emotional state over something or have a major argument, and then dramatically stomp off without touching their food or beverage, and 3) the way people, who are storming out of a restaurant or a bar or a taxi cab, simply reach in their pocket and throw money on the table or at the waitress or driver and run off—leaving us to wonder if they actually knew how much money they were leaving behind. The previous week I had railed (this relates to one of the items above) against the way everyone in the movies seems to speak English, no matter what country they are in or from or what planet they are from.

The reason for the language thing is, of course, pretty evident. Who wants to sit and watch a movie with a stretches of dialog that he or she doesn’t understand? This could be got around with subtitles, and sometimes it is. But generally, filmmakers wager that the average moviegoer is only slightly more willing to read subtitles than he is to sit through dialog he cannot understand. So we are meant to understand that, when non-Americans are talking to one another in English, they are really talking in their own language. Often we are alerted to this fact because these people are speaking with a foreign accent. Usually, this is an accent associated with their country, but sometimes in historical dramas, moviemakers get more creative. Sometimes we are meant to understand that the characters speaking with, say, English accents are really meant to be speaking French or Russian. This is handy in that characters can be assigned lower-class or upper-class accents that are recognizable to the ears of English-speaking audiences and can give us cues as to the character’s status in society. Generally, if we understand the rules that the movie is following, we are happy enough to accept the rules, as long as they are followed consistently.

Incidentally, this foreign language business in movies also applies to animals. In recent months, BBC film critic Mark Kermode could be heard on the radio ranting about inconsistencies in flicks like Bee Movie and Alvin and the Chipmunks relating to when small creatures are talking among themselves and when they converse with human beings. Frankly, given that there is no evidence that bees and chipmunks in the real world have the same kind of structured verbal language as human beings, this is taking things a bit too seriously. At some point, you have to accept that fact that you are watching a fantasy. Still, I would agree, that it is easier to enjoy a fantasy, or any other entertainment, if the story has a consistency about it that works within its own framework of logic. Either the bee or the dog or the cat has its own language, separate from human speech, or it doesn’t. Just pick one and go with it.

Similarly, just because you have created a world in which magic exists, doesn’t mean that magic should not be consistent. If a character has magical powers, we like to have some idea of the limits, if any, of those powers. And, if we are dealing with characters that travel the cosmos, we like to know if we are watching a fantasy or science fiction. There is a difference. In fantasy, just about anything can happen, including magic. In proper science fiction, everything that happens needs to conform to known real-world natural laws or at least to natural laws that conceivably could be discovered in the future. Technology like teleporters (“Beam me up, Scotty!”) and warp drives and wormhole/jump gates solve practical problems in telling stories that take place in the vastness of the cosmos. They allow characters to get from one place to another with a minimum of time and fuss, in cases where the known laws of real-world physics dictate that the journey should take multiple human lifetimes. Are the supposed physical principles that will in the future, according to these films and TV shows, to disassemble atoms, send them a great distance and then reassemble them or to find a shortcut from one end of the universe to the other really viable? Or are they merely concoctions of writers’ minds that amount to a form of magic? Since the nature of future technologies is unknowable, we give the writers a pass. (Cf. Clarke’s Third Law, mentioned last week.) Or we just get so accustomed to these technologies depicted in our entertainment that we accept them.

And sometimes reality does imitate our sci-fi entertainment. Who of us watching Star Trek back in the 1960s thought that within our lifetimes we would be pulling out our own compact communicators from our pockets, just like members of the Enterprise crew, and immediately be conversing with anyone on the planet? Then the question becomes: did Gene Roddenberry’s series accurately predict the future? Or did it actually influence the future? Personally, I am still waiting for the computer with the Majel Barrett voice that can understand my verbal queries with no misunderstandings. And maybe even sort out my old emails.

-S.L., 28 March 2008

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