ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
Oct. 4, 1998
"Verisimilitude" means "the appearance of truth." Just because something seems to be true doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. Things look like wood all the time that turn out to be plastic. If you never get a chance to inspect something closely and it looks like wood, why wouldn’t it be wood?
A motion picture can’t really be true. At it’s best, a film can only give the appearance of truth, even a documentary. This concept gets raised occasionally and I always find it amusing. For instance, some people came down very hard on "Roger & Me" at the time of its release for distorting the truth. This condemnation was specifically based on a shot of a big house that Michael Moore (the writer, director, host) said was in Grosse Pointe, but was really in Bloomfield Hills, or vice versa; both are wealthy areas on different sides of Detroit. Michael Moore is from Flint, an hour outside of Detroit, so he’s probably not terribly familiar with Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills. He shot his film over the course of 4 or 5 years or more, using quite a few of the same crew members I used on my first feature (including the editor, Wendy Stanzler, who was a sound editor on my film). All of that aside, Michael Moore (or Wendy, perhaps) possibly mislabeling a single shot of a house seems ridiculously minor in the scheme of things. That Mr. Moore is condensing 5 years into 100 minutes is the big, big lie and nobody ever questions that.
Previous to D.W. Griffith discovering the language of film in 1915 with "The Birth of a Nation," movies were weirdly truthful items. Back then a shot was a scene and a scene was a shot, just like "Stranger than Paradise." Whatever we see occurring during the course of the shot/scene is in fact what occurred during the course of that shot/scene, from the time they turned on the camera to when they turned off the camera (minus what you’re not seeing, of course, such as all the stuff behind the camera). Then Griffith realized if he photographed a scene in one angle, then did all or part of it again in another angle, the two angles could be cut together and people would readily accept and believe that both angles were occurring simultaneously.
Of course, they’re not occurring simultaneously, they were shot at different times. The clouds are in different places, the sunlight is different, and the actors are performing somewhat differently. It’s all an illusion, and an illusion, I’m very sorry to tell you, is not true.
Every single time a film director decides to show you one thing and not another, a decision has been made and a deception, if you will, has been put forth, a ruse; the wool has been pulled over the viewer’s eyes. Every time someone steps out of frame and steps back in somewhere else, a hunk of time has been lost, very possibly the locations have changed, and another deception has been foisted. Every single solitary time it cuts from 2-shot to a close-up, particularly in a one-camera documentary, you’ve been manipulated or lied to, depending on how you want to look at it.
Thus we get back to verisimilitude and the appearance of truth. Movies as we know them cannot be true, they can only give some impression of truth to varying degrees. That to me is the whole game: to what degree does your story appear to be true within its own context? To what degree are you getting the viewer to believe what they’re seeing?
As a friend of mine once said, "If I can believe it, I can have fun; if I can’t believe it, I can’t have fun."
The moment that jumps to mind right away, having recently seen the film, is from "The Big Lebowski." Jeff Bridges as Dude, a 45-year old pothead stoner, is smoking a tiny little roach while driving and drops the roach into his lap, then begins screaming and cracks up his car. He is wearing pants and his car seats are totally worn-out and split. Do you believe this? I don’t. Anything short of perhaps dumping a big bong in his lap and I don’t think he’d care. I can drop hot ashes on my bare legs now and not panic, and I’d say Dude is supposed to have a minute edge on me, experience-wise.
In "Starship Troopers," we are asked to believe that in a future where we humans have an entire fleet of 100 starships along the lines of the Enterprise, our weapons still fire plain old bullets. The best plan our futuristically advanced culture can conjure up when threatened by swarms of giant alien bugs is to pump 1000s of rounds of .25 caliber bullets into them. Bravo! Good thinking!
Here’s a good one: "Contact" with Jodie Foster. Aliens send us plans for a transporter system to another dimension. All of the planet Earth kicks in and works together to build this giant gyroscope, but before they get a chance to use it, Gary Busey’s kid blows it up. Luckily for everyone on Earth, we have an Emperor Ming character who is the actual ruler of our whole planet, floating around in the Mir space station (played with obvious glee by John Hurt, looking like he’s really hit pay-dirt playing a short bad guy part in a very expensive movie). Anyway, the Emperor Ming made sure that there were really two giant gyroscopes, so have no fear, the plot can keep going. And all the while, that which seems like it’s taking 12 years is apparently occurring in 12 months, because Bill Clinton is still the president when they’re done.
How about this one: in "Good Will Hunting," the janitor at M.I.T. is smarter than everyone else there, including the teachers. In fact, the janitor is the smartest person who ever lived, not to mention he’s really an OK guy, too, ’cause he likes to drink beer and get into fights. Not bad fights, mind you, just fights with bad guys who deserve to be beaten up. Every now and then, just to prove he’s the smartest person who ever lived, he’ll make marks on a blackboard and a lot of intelligent-looking professors, with patches on their elbows and smoking pipes, will have intellectual orgasms, proclaiming, "It’s not possible!" and "It cannot be!" Then, since being the smartest person who ever lived is incompatible with drinking beer and fighting, the character is put through a psychiatric miracle, figures out all of his problems in a single session with his wise, bearded, no-nonsense shrink, and can now go on to solve the problems of the world. Quick, give these guys an Oscar.
Maybe it’s just me. I’ll accept that. Maybe I’m just hard to please.
There is a theory called the "One Gimme Theory," that I will now put forth. It says that the audience will go anywhere with you once. If you say a caveman was frozen a million years ago, they’ve thawed him out, and he’s alive, OK, fine, that’s your one gimme. But if you say that the caveman has ESP, too, you’ll lose everyone. You get one gimme and only one, and you can’t ask for another. In "Contact," the one gimme is that the aliens sent Earth these transporter plans. Having a second transporter conveniently standing by is gimme number two.
I just watched "A Night to Remember" again for about the seventh time. This is the 1958 British version of the Titanic story. It is so much better than James Cameron’s version they are not even comparable (the 1953 Hollywood version called "Titanic" is much better, too). The only thing Cameron has going for him is the special effects, period. If I had my own video editing system I’d cut Cameron’s ship sinking effects into the end of "A Night to Remember," making sure to remove every shot of Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett and every other character from "Titanic," and that would make "A Night to Remember" a great film. As it is it’s just a very good film. "Titanic," I dare say, is a complete piece of crap, without one single believable moment in it. Nichtverisimilitude.
James Cameron’s film is 71 minutes longer than Roy Ward Baker’s film, yet doesn’t tell a third of the story. If you only watched Cameron’s film you wouldn’t know that there were two other ships in the vicinity, one of which is within eyesight of the Titanic the entire time it’s sinking.
Let’s deal with the verisimilitude issue for a moment, shall we? I don’t have the passenger list before me, but I’ll just bet you there were no Americans in steerage. There may have been a crabby, creepy little English rich girl onboard who didn’t want to marry her rich and handsome betrothed (although I don’t know why), but I’ll bet you that absolutely no one tried to kill themselves aboard the Titanic. You can be certain that there were no evil bad guys like Billy Zane and David Warner firing weapons onboard the ship. You can also bet that no one got handcuffed to a pipe and no one else came with an axe to save them. We’re up to gimme #5. How about an American from steerage having sex with a first-class, well-brought-up, upper-class English girl in 1912 within 24 hours of meeting her? I kinda fuckin’ doubt it.
The is more verisimilitude and honest emotion in any 60 seconds of "A Night to Remember" than in James Cameron’s entire bloated, elephantine, 194 minute snooze-fest.
I believe that verisimilitude can all be summed up in the look on the face of the captain of the Carpathian, the ship that is frantically rushing to get to the sinking Titanic and will not arrive in time under any circumstances. I absolutely believe that no matter what the actual captain of the Carpathian looked like compared with the actor that’s playing him, the sense of helplessness that is conveyed must be accurate. The captain of the Carpathian must have felt that way. That is the appearance of truth. It must be true, therefore it is true.
Of course, in Cameron’s version you never see the Carpathian at all, so what the hell. Then again, the poor guy only had $200 million to make his film; he probably just couldn’t afford it. So what happened? Where did all the verisimilitude go?
I mean, I still remember New Year’s Day, 1973, when I hitch-hiked to the movie theater (I was 15) and saw "The Sting," then walked across the multiplex and saw "Papillion." I completely took it for granted that of course you could see two really good, brand new movies in one day.
I honestly feel like I haven’t seen a really good new movie in 6 years!
I guess then it’s my job to try and make one. But shit, man! That’s a big responsibility. Bigger still since no one will finance me.
Ah, for the days when I could just go to the movie theater and see good movies. Now I have to make the damn things myself. I’m undoubtedly not pulling it off, but I am trying. I may not know the answers, but at least I think I know what some of the questions are.