Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

All in your head

One of the strange things that I do late at night these days is watch a satellite channel seems to air nothing but house ads, punctuated by the odd old television program or movie that has passed into the public domain. I think they must download these videos from the internet. The visual quality is not great and usually in black and white.

What I like to see are the occasional classic TV shows that turn up sometimes, like Bob Cummings’s sitcom or Groucho Marx’s game show You Bet Your Life or the show that Lucille Ball had in the 1960s after getting divorced from Desi Arnaz. But my favorites are Burns & Allen and The Jack Benny Program. Maybe I’m just getting nostalgic in my old age, but there is something comforting about seeing these old shows again. For one thing, they were really good. The humor was quite sophisticated when compared to some of the stuff that has followed. Burns & Allen and Benny were comic geniuses, the like of which we don’t see any more. The shows also have some interest as portals looking back, through the prism of television, at how America saw itself during the 1950s.

I would have seen some of these shows as a child, but it is a whole new experience seeing them as a mature (well, older) adult. Lots of stuff would have gone right over my head the first time around. But what is really amazing is how my perception of the shows has changed. My childhood memory is that Jack Benny and the Burnses lived in fabulous houses. Having another look now, I see that what passed as their houses were fairly flimsy stage sets. How had I been so impressed back then? Maybe I was just a really gullible kid. Or maybe it’s just that kids more easily suspend disbelief.

For example, I recall being very intrigued as a child by the way George Burns could be talking directly to us, the audience, one moment and then the next be interacting with the other actors in the show in a domestic scene. This is what is called breaking through the fourth wall. To viewing adults, it was an acknowledgement that we were watching a TV show and not reality. But to me, George Burns was some kind of magician who could step out of reality and view it from a detached point of view. Jack Benny, on the other hand, did not walk in and out of scenes. He usually presented his show as a straight variety show with a stage and a curtain and a studio audience. But sometimes he would tell us a story about something that had happened to him and then, as if by magic, we would be in his Beverly Hills home and watching him interact with his man Rochester or his lady friend (actually his real-life wife) Mary Livingston. I was young and naïve enough to think that we were actually seeing Benny’s real home and maybe even seeing his real life as it was occurring. I was actually ready for reality TV long before reality TV! Somehow I didn’t question how it all got filmed for the television show. But my own eyes told me that Benny lived in some sort of palace down in southern California. To see those shows now makes me realize that it was all in my own head, suggested by Hollywood writers and set designers.

We all know that live plays on stage require suspension of disbelief. But we tend to think of television and movies as being perfect illusions that ape real life (and sometimes fantasies) more or less perfectly. But the illusion can never really be perfect if, for no other reason, the image we are seeing is two-dimensional (rather than three-dimensional) and cropped down to a relatively small rectangle. Never mind when the special effects are less than artful. We easily see the artifice in old movies and television shows but not so much in new ones.

To small kids in the 1960s, the space ship in Star Trek seemed pretty impressive. By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came out in 1987, that old Enterprise had long since looked tacky. But the new, more detailed models in ST:TNG were impressive. By the time we got Video Toaster era CGI in Babylon 5, the new Enterprise still didn’t look that bad, but it was already starting to look old hat. There is something about the new that seems to make us more willing, at least for a while, to buy into the illusion that is created for us.

Seeing something new definitely helps the illusion. But so do other things. Like seeing it on a big screen instead of a small one. Or seeing it in the dark. Or having anticipated it for a long time. Have you ever felt the same thrill over a major special-effects-laden set piece while watching a DVD in your home as you did when you saw a major movie release, which you had been looking forward to for weeks or months, in a cinema on the opening night? I’m guessing not. Even if the movie was ultimately disappointing or fell short of your expectations, there was still that initial rush during the first minutes after the movie started, right?

In some strange way, we seem to be complicit in this suspension of disbelief. Novelty seems to have something do with it. Ambiance seems to have something to do with it. And anticipation seems to have something to do with it. But at the end of the day, the fact is that we ourselves want the illusion to work. If you were in the audience in 1968 when the curtain rose on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you know how breathtaking and amazing that opening was, with the cavemen and the bone that was thrown up into the air and twirled and magically changed into a spaceship. And how amazing and utterly real and bigger than life the space station seemed. And if you watch those scenes again now on a television screen, it may evoke admiration and nostalgia but it can hardly elicit the same thrill as it did on a large movie screen, when it had never been seen before.

This ultimately means that, despite the fact that movies (especially ones that have been saved digitally) can last forever, there is something heartbreakingly ephemeral about them. The images may be preserved indefinitely. But, for each individual human being, the moment of seeing them the first time and under the right circumstances comes and goes and is afterwards nothing more than a memory.

It also means that the ultimate special effect is the human mind.

-S.L., 20 November 2008


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