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The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

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The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

In the coming weeks (on consecutive Mondays), The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran.

Yeah, right.

I’ve heard this a lot lately; I suppose you have too. We may have said it ourselves on occasion. It’s the common phrase uttered by people who believe a piece of fiction has drifted a little too far from reality. Alfred Hitchcock had a name for these people. He called them “the plausibles.”

Take a closer look

Spotting the flaws in films has become quite a popular game these days. Websites like MovieMistakes.com and MovieBloopers.com (ed. note: now defunct) contain vast collections of goofs, gaffes, glitches, flubs and mishaps divided into categories named “continuity,” “factual,” “anachronisms,” “plot holes,” “geography,” “visible crew/equipment” and “revealing mistakes.” In an ongoing quest to uncover the most blatant blunders ever committed to celluloid, anyone online is encouraged to submit a newfound error, and the most frequent contributors earn themselves a spot in the Member Top 20. “Take a closer look” is the proud tagline of the site Whoops! Movie Goofs. Indeed, all that nitpicking may seem pretty clever, but is it not the most rudimentary way of evaluating a work of art: to see if it resembles real life accurately? “Picasso, he can’t paint! My five-year-old can do that.”

Filmmaker Brian De Palma has often been ridiculed because of the supposedly ludicrous elements in some of his thrillers. His twisty plots and ultra-stylized visions are sometimes hard to swallow and provoke skeptical remarks like: How come the gangster still stands after being shot so many times? (Scarface) Why are the blood stains on the jewel thief’s shirt still bright red when they should have dried to a brown color during the seven years he spent in prison? (Femme Fatale) Why does the Indian take forever to kill a woman with that awkward giant drill? (Body Double) Why does the sound technician go through so much trouble to wire the call girl and send her off to meet a famous news reporter when he could have gone himself (and isn’t it a little too “convenient” that she is not able to recognize this reporter because she never watches the news)? (Blow Out)

Yeah, right.

Suspension of disbelief

De Palma never made much of an effort to defend these creative liberties, other than to say he is “bored by” or “too old for” reality to even care. The thriller genre has always been an easy target for the plausibles. Unlike the horror genre, thrillers cannot rely on the supernatural as the element of surprise and depend instead on ordinary factors such as chance, cause and effect. Consequently, if a logical error in a thriller seems blatant, the entire narrative construction may appear to fall down like a house of cards. On the other hand, drama has a logic of its own that needs to be taken into consideration too, otherwise there will be hardly a narrative to speak of. Paradoxes thus make suspension of disbelief a delicate balancing act. An emphasis on the sensible may make a movie more representative of real life, but all the exposition and excuses needed to cover up or fix the improbabilities tend to get in the way of the flow of the narrative. Hitchcock was very clear on this point:

“Aside from the waste of time, they make for gaps and flaws in the picture. Let’s be logical if you’re going to analyze everything in terms of plausibility and credibility, then no fiction can stand up to that approach, and you wind up doing a documentary.”

Hitchcock’s particular brand of storytelling was often improbable, but banal it was not. In order to achieve drama, the old master of manipulation argued that the dull bits of life have to be cut out, resulting in “a slice of cake” rather than a slice of life. He even went so far to claim that filmmakers should have total freedom to do as they like, “just as long as it’s not dull.” Still, as much as Hitchcock would have liked the contrary, the members of the audience do need some convincing. After all, without make-believe there is no movie magic. In the 1990s the Coen brothers came up with a marvelous workaround by opening up their purely fictional Fargo with the following title:

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

A crude way of suspending disbelief, perhaps, but to those who took the message seriously—and there were many—the false introduction turned out to be sublimely effective. The profound influence of such a simply stated lie on the overall viewing experience says something about the value we attach to real events and about how little it takes to alter perception. The trick of the Coen brothers was later repeated to similar effect in movies like The Blair Witch Project and dozens of mockumentaries.

The rules of plausibility

Stanley Kubrick once observed that “most films don’t have any purpose other than to mechanically figure out what people want and to construct some artificial form of entertainment for them.” Our increasing focus on logic and cynical delight in spotting inconsistencies have made plausibility one of the main criteria for evaluation. We’ve collectively robbed the filmmaker of his poetic license and have pushed the artform in a corner where suspension of disbelief, a mere storytelling tool, seems to have become the highest obtainable goal for a filmmaker to achieve. This self-declared No-Bullshit position has increased public interest in films like The Usual Suspects and TV series like CSI; clever variations on straightforward narrative development that sidetrack skepticism by examining a series of “facts” in pursuit of Absolute Truth. Solid entertainment, for sure, but little more than a jigsaw puzzle to kill the time. Ironically enough, these popular examples have as little to do with the real world as any other piece of fiction out there. As long as everything is played by the rules of dramatic convention, the audience does not seem to notice.

Our frame of reference is formed by what we are accustomed to. Traditional Hollywood scriptwriting based on three-act structures, life-defining dilemmas, melodramatic character arcs and emotional pay-offs have seriously screwed up our sense of realism. What we experience as naturalistic in a movie is often nothing but a worn-out stereotype. We are conditioned to accept a hero who does not eat, sleep or shit for days in a row, that the light from the moon is blue, that cars explode as soon as crucial passengers have had the time to crawl out, that thunder and lightning is perceived in perfect sync, that no one bothers to say goodbye at the end of a telephone conversation and that leading ladies in full make-up wrap sheets around their naked bodies as soon as they rise from their beds. We ask no questions about all of this, but we wince at the “incoherencies” in movies that make a genuine effort to stray away from predictable paths.

Looking for truth

Why is realism held in such high regard anyway? Back in 1967 François Truffaut posed the following, most obvious explanation, aimed at the critical establishment:

“It’s sometimes said that a critic, by the very nature of his work, is unimaginative, and in a way, that makes sense, since imagination may be a deterrent to his objectivity. That lack of imagination might account for a predeliction for films that are close to real life.”

Everybody is a critic nowadays. The cult of plausibility might be our way of filtering a culture of information overload. With endless streams of images mirroring each other and continuous loops of resampled soundbites numbing our senses every second of the day, authenticity has become a thing to cherish. So much so that anything with a sheen of realism is automatically construed as more truthful. It is reasonable to assume that the Danish Dogme 95 movement has profited considerably from a cultural elite that had grown weary of audiovisual excess at the close of the 20th century and applauded a return to basic “truths,” not quite realizing that this hardcore take on cinéma vérité was just another opportunity for Lars von Trier and his fellow rebels to mislead the skeptical spectator all over again.

Context is king

Belief is a funny thing. Chuck Jones once said about the sense of absurdity in his animated work: “It doesn’t have to be realistic, as long as it’s believable.” It makes you wonder why a coyote surviving a fall from a cliff for the umpteenth time in a row is somehow more “believable” than Tony Montana taking a few bullets more than medically feasible. And now we’re asking ourselves that question: why do the plausibles seem to have less of a problem with Peter Jackson’s fantastical vision of Middle-earth or the mind-blowing fever dreams of David Lynch?

It has to do with context and expectation. A literal-minded audience that watches a Roadrunner cartoon is more than willing to stretch the imagination because the action takes place in a wacky universe where a total disregard for logic is part of the fun. Its far-outness makes it immune to a sensical approach. The reverse is true for Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s trilogy, in which a mythical world is presented with a sense of authenticity that many appreciate for its extraordinary attention to detail. Because Jackson’s screen retelling was treated as the reconstruction of a historical event, brought to life by elaborate visual effects, art direction, costume and set design founded upon a thoroughly formulated hypothetical culture, millions of people bought into it. And as far as Lynch is concerned—however weird and improbable his twisted tales may be, nowadays they fit more or less conveniently within the extremely flexible parameters of a genre he pioneered: the “mindfuck movie.” Much like Jacob’s Ladder, Abre Los Ojos, Pi, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento and Donnie Darko, Lynch’s films are surrealistic extravaganzas treading overtly subconscious territory, where we perceive the world distorted through the eyes of an outsider who lost all touch with reality.

Breaking the pattern

Things get much more confusing whenever something with a surface of reliability unravels on the screen. Comforted initially by the prospect of following a recognizable story logic, some viewers come to expect the certainties such a familiar narrative structure implies. Then, if something happens that falls outside the established framework, the plausibles spot it as fakery and cease caring.

Enter Brian De Palma: Ever the non-conformist, De Palma lures the spectator into familiar waters and then, halfway into the movie, flushes all certainties down the drain, reverses the roles of his antagonists, shifts drastically in tone, unveils the identity of the bad guy too early, uses deus ex machina to drown dramatic logic altogether, or worse: makes his femme fatale wake up in a bathtub to show it was all just a bloody dream! When traditional plotting prescribes that subtle clues must be handed out in advance to give the audience a fair shot at guessing the final twist, De Palma turns that expectation against us by subverting the genre itself as a form of misdirection. Providing reliable hints is not what this man is about. De Palma is interested in pulling the rug from under our feet and he does so with a graceful, almost sadistic style that borders on parody and often calls attention to itself. It is hardly surprising that such anarchic behavior has frequently maddened an audience spoon-fed on formulaic crowdpleasers.

Believe it or not, it’s the relative subtlety of De Palma’s deceptions that most infuriates his detractors. To literalists who take his films at face value Brian De Palma doesn’t exaggerate enough to be forgiven for his stylistic eccentricities, schizophrenic obsessions, filmic references, Brechtian devices, off-the-wall inversions and violations of convention. In this light, the plausibles may not view De Palma as a delirious postmodernist, but as a painfully inept, cheating realist. His self-reflexive use of the medium alienates them as much as it mesmerizes others. To be reminded that they are watching “only a movie” pulls the plausibles out of the dream and makes them wonder why they wasted their time looking at something that did not, will not, could not actually happen.

The paradox of fiction

A fair question, actually. Why are we compelled to believe in something that we know to be untrue? How can we be emotionally moved, sometimes to the core, by anything lacking a reasonable dose of verity? Many books and articles have been written about what Noël Caroll called the “Paradox of Fiction.” All of them go out of their way to explain what intellectual mechanism enables fiction to convince our minds that a murder is taking place in front of our eyes, without causing the proper response for us to get up and call 911. In his wonderful article, “How is Disbelief Suspended?” Pablo Ortega-Rodriguez comes to the conclusion that human beings are able to hold a certain “double belief”:

“Think of cases where we execute actions which only make sense if we believe that it is at least reasonably possible to succeed in their objective, although we are in some level deeply convinced that they are completely pointless, as when we are watching the last minutes of a football match wherein our team is losing by many goals: very rarely do we turn off the TV set before the final whistle, and there is a sudden and vivid upset when that ending occurs, although a few seconds before we stated with complete sincerity (seconded by our knowledge of the game) that nothing could be done. In such cases, hope makes us irrational, in that it is not settled with the things we do know and believe about the real world, forming a kind of second ’blind’ belief simultaneous with our ’intelligent’ belief, to the point of seeming to pertain to a second individual inside us.”

Sometimes the improbable makes perfect sense. Not only because escapism helps us to cope with reality, but just as much because fantasy can function as a short-cut to a deeper, poetic truth. Fiction has always been about imagining our lives in a wholly different light, testing ordinary dilemmas within extreme situations and projecting ourselves onto anything we’re not. Metaphors and hyperbole provide a level of abstraction that is often needed to illuminate universal concerns. Faith, fear, love, hope, sex and death: they’re all very much part of the fabric of everyday reality.

Realism versus formalism

Director Todd Haynes defended his radical stylizing in the critically acclaimed Far from Heaven as follows:

“I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth.”

The “impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it” is a more romantic notion than André Bazin has led us to believe. Cinematic realism is only superficial; no matter how naturalistic a filmmaker intends to record reality, what ends up on the screen is hardly objective. What is in or out of the frame depends on perspective, focus and selection, just as much as editing is a manipulative process that places things out of context and modulates time into bits that “matter” and bits that “don’t.” The same can be said about every other part of the filmmaking process, right up to the illusion of movement caused by the projection of a succession of stills. Brian De Palma makes no secret of it: he refuted Jean-Luc Godard’s credo “cinema is truth 24 frames a second” by restating that “the camera lies 24 times a second.”

The above can easily be read as a plea for the formalist tradition, were it not that such one-sided devotion is what has made the plausible argument so problematic to begin with. Film theory would be better off if it moved beyond the classical realist-formalist opposition, since a preference for one school of aesthetics over the other is counter-productive and simply not very relevant anymore. The truth can be revealed in the most accurately visualized naturalistic detail, just as much as it can in the most wildly imaginative allegory. In the most interesting cases, film does both at once. Of all the arts, cinema is unique in its ability to simultaneously capture the world as it is and the way we interpret it, juxtaposing objective and subjective points of view in a curious blend of fact with personal ideology. De Palma’s openly manipulative directing style and self-reflexive deconstructions of the form are ways of showing that perception is limited, that looks deceive and that we should never, ever judge on appearances. This is the truth within the lie. Apparantly, cinema is truth at 24 lies a second.

It takes a certain degree of sophistication to recognize dualities like these and with it comes an acknowledgment of the mechanics behind the magic. Sadly, even though the value of self-reflexivity is widely embraced in literature, theatre and painting, it is far from popular in the movies. Unless a touch of irony delivers us from the medium’s misleading photorealistic surface that blinds us to the layers of meaning underneath, self-conscious cinema mainly succeeds at taking audiences “out of it.” As if escapism is all the medium is good for.

Reevaluating De Palma

Let’s get back to the “flukes” mentioned earlier and see how well they stand up to a closer examination:

How come the gangster still stands after being shot so many times?
De Palma elevates the deplorable career of Tony “Scarface” Montana to equally mythic proportions as the American Dream of which he represents the flip side.

Why are the blood stains on the jewel thief’s shirt still bright red when they should have dried to a brown colour during the seven years he spent in prison?
Because Black Tie’s release in Femme Fatale is a brilliant visual gag that practically oozes tongue-in-cheek. And if you haven’t been paying attention: this image is part of a dream.

Why is the Indian taking forever to kill a woman with that awkward giant drill?
No matter what De Palma has said to defend himself from allegations of misogyny, the drill scene really does a magnificent job of symbolizing the act of penetration, or even rape. Body Double is a story that deals with issues like voyeurism, sexual obsession and female objectification. In an obvious provocation to his detractors at the time, De Palma forces the spectator into the role of the voyeur and makes them complicit in the action. During the prolonged murder scene, we are torn between wanting to save Jake’s object of desire and wanting to have her for ourselves, which makes Jake’s fruitless rescue attempt, the unseen kill and the streams of blood pouring from the hole an analogy for a number of things, along them being premature ejaculation.

Why does the sound technician go through so much trouble to wire the callgirl and send her off to meet a famous news reporter when he could have gone himself (and isn’t it a little too “convenient” that she is not able to recognize this reporter because she never watches the news)?
For Jack Terri in Blow Out, the situation at hand is an ideal excuse to try and win his dignity back. By making his odd decision, he consciously grabs the chance to reenact a traumatic event from his past in the hope to redeem himself by “covering all the bases” this time. If Blow Out is a microcosm for the political scandals and assassinations that took hold of the United States throughout the ’60s and ’70s, then Sally’s death can be seen as America’s loss of innocence personified. The fact that Sally does not watch the news emphasizes her naive purity (despite her job as a call girl, which hints at the fact that America was never that innocent to begin with), while Frank Donahue’s identity as a mask for the evil Burke illustrates the corrupting forces behind mass media.

Yeah, right.

Although these explanations are my own and won’t please everyone, they at least show how open the films of De Palma are to interpretation and how heavy they are on subtext. Surely a lot of people will have overlooked this significant quality in De Palma’s oeuvre, too busy as they were pointing out the pathetic “slip-ups.” It just proves how hard it is to beguile the skeptic. In order to let a work of fiction speak to you, you must be willing to believe.

Peet Gelderblom directs, edits and develops commercials, TV programs and broadcast design in Amsterdam. He founded 24LiesASecond, for which he wrote and edited several essays, and is the twisted cartoonist behind Directorama (the website as well as the book).