The other day I was watching the latest episode of a dramatic television series that I had found surprisingly good: well realized plot, intriguing development, strong acting, great look. Yet as the season progressed, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with it, less on the convolution of the complex story line and more with what I interpreted as gaping lapses in judgment regarding the look and feel of the created world of the show. For instance:
A main character smokes cigarettes; that’s part of her persona. Yet most of the time when she takes a drag, there is no corresponding smoky exhale. Just… nothing. Also there is usually no smoke curling up from the tip of the cigarette while she is holding it as well as an unchanging amount of ash there, no consumption of the body of the cigarette throughout a scene, no bright glow when she inhales. She never flicks her ash. The cigarette looks good, but it just doesn’t function. I don’t know if it’s because the actress is not a smoker and refuses to partake simply to fill a role, if there are laws and regulations governing burning materials on a production set, or if it simply was more economical to have one prop cigarette with limited mechanics, but for me, that lack of realism breaches the honesty of a world in which I as a viewer am being asked to accept as real.
This same character, who lives in a gritty future world that has been devastated by plague where resources are thin and infrastructure is failing, wears glasses. A favorite camera shot has light reflecting off her glasses – which are pristinely clean. Always. In every single shot. No smudges, no fingerprints, no watermarks, no grime whatsoever. Now, I wear glasses. Have for most of my life. Not only is it hard to get glasses immaculately clean, it’s virtually impossible to keep them that way. Within five minutes of cleaning my glasses, they are smudged somehow. And I live in a modern, fairly clean environment. In a dystopian future, I would have to think that lens sprays and cleaning cloths for eyeglasses will not be a priority commodity; if shots shining off her glasses are going to be highlighted, they should have the look of something actually found in that universe.
Then there is the obligatory example of “our heroes” being brutally beaten, with blood pouring out of noses, split lips, gashes on faces, and yet mere hours later they are able to slink around (bending at waists that must surely be a mass of bruises given that they were getting repeatedly kicked by military boots, and running and/or crouching on legs that had been stomped and hit with metal bars) and enter into quickly resolved fights, with formerly open wounds now greatly lessened or non-existent, and not a splotch of blood on clothing to be found.
It would be much easier to accept these inconsistencies if the look of the show were not so anchored in “realism”. But if you are going to go in for a pound, you have to pitch the pennies in the same world, too.
I had to stop watching a movie a while back, one that was well reviewed and had won a number of awards. It was a moody film, set in the backwoods of Arkansas, and the acting was spectacular. But I simply could not accept the title character: a drifter, hiding in a rowboat stranded in a tree (no running water, eating from cans), whose wardrobe consisted of jeans and a yellow button up shirt. But that shirt was, in scene after scene, clean and crisp, unsoiled, unstained, without rips, tears or even a hint of fraying. Damn thing wasn’t even wrinkled. Some buzz was made about the lead actor wearing false teeth that “took away from his physicality”; I didn’t notice his teeth, but I couldn’t ignore that damned yellow shirt.
What really frustrates me is that I can’t help but believe these “lapses” are conscious decisions on the part of the director, production designer and/or cinematographer, based on skewed assumptions regarding the sensibilities of their audience rather than maintaining a continuity within the created world, something I find incredibly disingenuous and virtually unforgivable. My imagination can encompass dirt. It can handle grime and grit. While I don’t like violence and won’t tolerate gratuitous violence, if a created world is one that is violent, brutal and bloody, I had better be ready to see some blood, and it damn well should linger. Automatic cleanliness does not exist even in my carefully regulated, sanitized, civilized world; why should it in a less pristine, more disadvantaged scenario?
On the other hand, Peter Jackson’s realization of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was amazing in the attention given to realistic detail (and yes, I realize how strange that sounds when applied to a set of blockbuster movies based on the epic literary fantasy that is the benchmark for the genre). I remembered literally tearing up when I saw that Frodo’s fingernails were short and stubby, almost as if he had bitten them down to the quick. And hobbits’ hands were dirty! And faces got smoke smudged and dirty! Gandalf’s hair was stringy and dirty! Clothes were frayed and torn! When it rained, the hems of their cloaks got muddy! Lips were parched and peeling! Middle-earth wasn’t just greenery and mountains and rivers that rose up to churn like charging horses – it also was the reality of the tolls taken, and the homespun feel of it. (Well, except for the elves, who were always beautiful, but then… they’re elves. That’s how they roll.)
Yet all this brings me back to one unassailable conclusion: reading trumps all. And no, that’s not a huge jump of logic.
When we watch a movie or a television show, or something on the internet, when we are presented with moving images that tell the story, we are looking through someone else’s eyes. We are seeing the world of the story as they see it. If we do not agree with their vision, our enjoyment of the tale is diminished, or even becomes unsalvageable. Even if their sensibilities are akin to ours, it is still the realization of their concept that we end up having to accept, for better or worse.
This is why reading is will always have a huge advantage over other forms of media when telling a story: the reader is, in effect, co-creator with the author. No matter how detailed an author is, no matter how meticulous she crafts her world, her characters, no matter how much time he may take fleshing out the look and the feel of the environment of his story, it is still the reader’s imagination that makes it come alive.
And the imagination is very intuitive. In my reading of The Fellowship of the Rings, I didn’t need to “see” that Samwise had dirt under his fingernails. Of course he did! He was a gardener! I wouldn’t need to fixate on the colors and cut and weave of hobbit waistcoats or be told that the cheeks of the members of the Fellowship were red and their lips chapped when attempting the Pass of Caradhras, for I know what it’s like to be out in the cold. I wouldn’t need to “see” smoke rising from Strider’s pipe in The Prancing Pony; the simple mention of him smoking “a long stemmed pipe curiously carved” would already give me that understanding. A movie has to create such moments, and in doing so, is always threatened with stumbling. There is no such stumbling in our own intimate imaginations.
I guess it’s a wonder that any visual adaptation of a written work is successful, or that any story brought to life in a realistic, media-driven fashion is successful, given how many variables, how many layers of understanding and how many sensibilities will be brought into play once the production is a “wrap”. But I don’t think that should excuse poor judgment when our stories are being told. Books set a might high bar, indeed, but visual media must put the story at the center of the effort, and be true to it. That is the burden of the visual storyteller, I guess. In the end, if we can’t believe our eyes, we aren’t going to fall for the story, either, no matter how well it’s written or how fantastically it’s realized.
If you are going to have a cigarette, then it’s going to have to burn, man. It’s going to have to burn.