Saturday, January 12, 2008

The fourth wall

Noel and I have a couple of TV season box sets to review this upcoming week, so during the kids' naps this afternoon we watched some of the special features on The Riches Season 1. We watched the show regularly on FX during its 2007 inaugural run, finding it often riveting.

But one particular featurette rubbed me the wrong way, and I realized that it's an example of a long-standing discomfort I feel with fiction television and the proliferation of behind-the-scenes footage. There's a snappily-edited blooper reel included on the DVD set, showing the actors getting their tongues twisted, forgetting their lines, improvising wacky bits of business, cracking each other up, and basically failing to stay in character. Now I know that blooper reels have been a staple of film and television (even radio, though mostly in the form of staged recreations of famous live flubs) from time immemorial. But they've always nagged at me. I always felt a bit ... offended by them.

And watching Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver falling back into their normal accents and clowning around really felt wrong to me. I realized that it's because the show is such an intense tightrope walk. The characters are always on the verge of being found out, of losing their ability to impersonate normal people, of falling off the wagon, of dropping one of the deadly fiery swords they are juggling. The show is almost constantly on the edge of everything breaking apart and the world as we know it ending.

Seeing the actors with their masks off almost feels like a betrayal of that tension. It communicates that nothing at all was ever at stake. It makes me feel like a fool for caring so much about what, after all, was just a job, just a set, just a script with lines that somebody had to memorize and often forgot.

Of course I always knew that behind the finished product is all this greasepaint and scenery, folks who punch the clock, professional actors who do their job and have a little fun in the process. I was never under the delusion that anything else was, at base, going on. But I find my desire to sink into the illusion of seamless story, of suspense, of impending and ongoing existential calamity somewhat ... mocked ... by a "special feature" that offers up this reality for my amusement.

I realize now that I've always had this problem with blooper reels for dramas, especially. (The opposite is to some extent true with comedies -- I feel vindicated that the actors find it all as hilarious as I do.) Perhaps it's related to a kind of purist streak I have about a number of things I love. I get offended when baseball stars don't care as much about baseball as I think they should, for example. If it's just a job to them -- rather than an all-consuming passion -- I take it as a personal affront.

All of us who work in somebody's else's (or our own) "dream job" are aware that we should not be caught grumbling about how hard our lives are. Oh, poor me, I have to spend the whole day watching television! or reading and talking about interesting ideas! or paging through advance copies of the hot new books! Maybe that's somehow related to my problem with breaking the illusion. I'm sure our readers would like to think that we do it all for the love, that we'd do it if there were no deadlines and no paychecks. I'd like to think that Minnie Driver cares as much about The Riches as I do -- heck, she probably cares more, just as I care more about my writing and my teaching than any of my readers or students.

So I don't know why my purist streak gets all huffy when she giggles at something happening off camera. It's like I can't allow her to have a life except in my fictional universe, because her stubborn refusal to stop existing when the director yells "cut" calls into question the value of the story she's telling (about which I care far more than I do about her essential humanity, whatever that might reveal about my topsy-turvy moral universe).

I take this storytelling business very seriously. It seems clearer to me with every passing day that we are built for stories, through and through; that that deepest truths (and lies) that we can absorb into our being are the ones that make narrative sense rather than propositional or logical sense; that the elegance and complexity that moves us most fundamentally is about character, plot, conflict, and resolution rather than factuality or reality.

The weakness in that position, however, is that you're vulnerable to the stories being deconstructed or exposed as fabrications. (Just look what happened to the students in my class on scripture this past semester, hurt and betrayed at the scholars knocking down the facade of the Bible's historical accuracy and even authorial integrity.) A simple change of perspective -- a move three feet backwards, behind the cameras, or a glimpse five seconds past the edit -- breaks the illusion and complicates the storyline. I'm still working on smoothly shifting between those modes. Meanwhile, I think I'll skip the blooper reel on Damages: The Complete First Season (which I'm reviewing next week) -- although I hope the set's producers weren't so tone-deaf as to "feature" one.


Maureen said...

That was a beautifully written and interesting piece. I think I might feel the same about blooper reels for dramas, although I really can't remember seeing one (only ones for comedies). But the phrase that keeps sticking with me from the entire essay is this: "the kids' naps this afternoon." I have to say I am profanely jealous of the fact that you have two kids napping in the afternoon. On a good day, we have one napping, but today after 2.5 hours of trying, we were still unable to coax the small one into an afternoon nap. This after he woke up at 3 am and refused to go back to sleep. He must be exhausted (because we, his parents, are complete zombies). So today, consider yourselves very lucky.

the secret knitter said...

There's also the issue of blooper reels rarely being funny...

I read somewhere that some directors don't like commentary tracks entirely for this reason. The audio option demystifies what they've done and can erase the magic that might otherwise have been left intact.

I think you (and these directors) have a point about the behind-the-scenes material. It does begin to have a detrimental effect on one's interaction with the work, especially if it interferes with your interpretation or ability to appreciate the text.

I can't think of specific instances, but I know there are examples where I've enjoyed someone's work and then seen or read an interview that makes them seem idiotic, thus breaking the illusion. Foreign films tend to be good for retaining the mystery since everything tends to be frozen within the work and not intruded upon by reality.

Anonymous said...

If it makes you feel any better, Maureen, the kids don't actually sleep at naptime. It's really just "play quietly in your room for 90 minutes" time. And frequently CG will come out every 15 minutes and say, "Is it time to come out yet?" But she also knows the rules and will go back to her room without complaining.

Archer, of course, is so time-conscious that we could tell him to stay in his room for three hours and he'd do so to the minute.