The Secrets Of The Universe Through Cinema, Part 3
By Michael Karp, SOC
Cinema and "reality"
A basic truth about creating films that move audiences is that they
must be emotionally true even if they are not literally true. By this
I mean that fantasy and reality films alike must give realistic moral
the audience about how life actually works. Audiences secretly crave to
be told by the filmmaker the difference between right and wrong, good
and evil. Often by placing the mundane and pedestrian moral
our lives in fantastic, unrealistic venues, we can achieve emotional
distance from these questions and once removed, achieve objectivity.
For example, in the real world, humans do not morph into
animals, but this does not reduce the emotional and moral realism of
certain Disney films. It is quite common in these movies for humans to
In Disney's Beauty and the
Beast, a prince becomes a hideous animal. In The Little Mermaid, a siren
becomes a human. In The
Emperor's New Groove, a man becomes a Llama. In Brother Bear, a human
becomes a Grizzly. In Freaky
Friday and Big,
an adult becomes a child, which, if you are a parent, you understand to
be a different species.
The basic moral premise of Beauty
and the Beast is that beauty is only skin deep. A handsome
prince is cruel to an old woman and she punishes him by casting a spell
and making him hideous to look at. On the inside, the prince is already
spiritually ugly, so the incantation makes the prince's insides and
outsides match, so that he can
learn humility and grow as a human being. The actual literal events are
impossible, but the moral story
is very accurate. That is at the heart of keeping a fantasy or
science/speculative fiction story spiritually relevant, the film's
possession of moral relevance.
In Brigadoon, a
Manhattanite gentleman discovers a magic Scottish village that only
every hundred years. As luck would have it, he enters Brigadoon on that
fortuitous day and falls in love. However, he must make a quick
choice, stay with his beloved when Brigadoon disappears, or return to
the lure of New York and another woman who wants to marry him.
The venue is fantasy, but the moral choice is oh so real! A man may
have many loves, but must choose only one at a time...or more. In real
cannot have it all. One cannot have one's cake and eat it too. The
unrealistic premise of Brigadoon
reflects actual painful choices in life.
In Mulholland Drive,
there are at least two bizarre narrative
that cannot literally coexist. But it doesn't matter, because the moral
truth is completely realistic and any of the individual events are literally
possible. Only the overall and impossible arrangement of these
completely plausible situations is dream-like. In the actual town of
Hollywood, events as depicted occur regularly, just not to the
same one individual. This fascinating film of shattered dreams cannot
literally be true. Figuratively and morally, it is
In Lilo & Stitch,
a Hawaiian orphan named Lilo adopts a violent and selfish space alien
named Stitch, whom she mistakes for a common, terrestrial canine.
Although I have owned some very ugly dogs, to the best of my knowledge,
none were alien science projects. Lilo, who is being raised by her
sister, is very selfish and destructive herself. It is through the
mirror of viewing her foul behavior reflected in Stitch's analogous
antics, that she achieves objectivity about her own flaws as a
The Wizard Of Oz takes
place in a fantasy environment of flying monkeys and beautiful witches,
but the emotional issue is quite real. Is there no place like home? Are
those who obsessively search for happiness somewhere else, revealing themselves as fools
visionaries? Are they running from themselves or to themselves? Is the
true gold of life beyond reach or right under one's nose? In Los
Angeles, many people have come from other places to find their dreams
over the rainbow. Others have their dreams crushed.
Literal objective reality is impossible to achieve in a film, but don't
let that stop you from seeking emotional truth in art. The invention of
photography carried with it the promise of visual "realism", but even
most layman sense that photos take on a life of their own and do
not accurately reflect reality. There is always something "fake" and
subjective about photography, no matter what the intentions of the
photographer. Even neo-realistic films like The Bicycle Thief feel
hyper-real, but they do not feel like true life. A gritty, realistic
film like Babel
quickly feels like a dream, a waking nightmare of brutal reality. The
moral message of these films is obvious.. Bicycle Thief is clear in
expressing the Golden Rule. Even if your bicycle gets stolen, that
doesn't mean that is okay to steal someone else's.
One is reminded of the hallucinogenic soaked 1960s, when the motto was
"Reality is a crutch". The French philosopher and mathematician Rene
DeCartes had previously countered, "I think, therefore I am", staking
his claim in favor of objective reality.
There are other questions about reality that challenge the filmmaker.
Consider the treatment of the revolutionary leader Che Guevara in the
recent films The Motorcycle
Diaries and The Lost
City. One movie portrays Che as a freedom fighter, the other as
a vicious murderer. It is hard to reconcile the conflicting realities
of the two films.
When viewing a film about the inspiring life of Joan of Arc, one is not
always sure how to consider her religious visions. Maybe today she
would not be considered a saint, but perhaps "unhinged". The
in the Zemekis film Contact
is also considered delusional by the authorities, as are the heroes of Big Fish and Forest Gump.
Even the subjects of lighting and art direction bring up the question
of reality. There was a movement in the 1970s to encourage "realistic"
lighting, as seen in films like Cinderella Liberty and in
the work of cinematographer Nester Almendros. There will always be
temporary backlashes against the stylistic unrealities of MGM
Technicolor musicals and of many Hitchcock films. Just as every decade
is repulsed by the fashion choices of the past, an even later
generation will consider those indulgences retro and newly hip.
Filmmakers at the
dawn of the "talkies" worried that audiences would wonder where the
music soundtrack was "coming from". But the reality is that a movie
with no music and an uninteresting soundtrack is boring and will not
make an emotional connection with viewers. The 1970s even saw
attempts to remove laugh tracks from situation comedies like The Odd
Couple. This produced both reality and tedium and so the
of live studio audiences resulted. This provided both "reality" and the
contagious laughter so necessary for a comedy to flow.
The brilliant film Crash
is also realistic in a hyper-real way, but again, the reality
paradoxically creates a dream like state in the viewer. In Los Angeles,
racism of that quality does actually occur, but not in the quantities
portrayed. Filmmaking is like life with the boring parts removed, so in
order for Crash to
work as a film, the accurate depictions of racism must be numerically
exaggerated, for the needs of drama.
Even documentaries are never really "accurate". What they choose to
highlight is always subjective, even if the facts are all objectively
true. We see this in fiction and non-fiction films that attempt to deal
with calculating the military strength of adversaries, which is always
a tricky area. This is depicted in Hotel
Rwanda, The Killing
9-11, Tora, Tora, Tora,
Harbor, Sum of All
Fears, Wag The Dog,
and the Trojan Horse scene in Troy,
where the military realties of the enemy are always difficult to fathom.
Another assault on the idea of reality is the subject of 007 actor
Pierce Brosnan. Womens' attitude about the suave portrayer of secret
agent James Bond varies widely. Some females think that Brosnan is too
"manly" and masculine. Others eshew him as too soft and feminine. But
many find heart throb Pierce Brosnan to be just right. Of course there is no
objective reality in this discussion at all, only subjective
conundrums. Such is the mystery and paradox of attraction.
Art and film are inherently unrealistic. It does not matter whether the
movie is nominally a fantasy or cinéma vérité.
What is important is that the moral message of the film is realistic
and relevant to the audiences' lives.
SOC is a
twenty-five year veteran of the motion picture industry. Working as a
effects artist and vfx cameraman on such blockbusters as Titanic,
Apollo 13, X-Men2, True Lies, etc., Michael has
state of the art in that field. He is also an experienced
of Photography and story development analyst. Michael is a graduate of
Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, as well as a longtime film
there. He is currently working on the stereoscopic Journey To The Center Of The Earth
film, starring Brendan Fraser.