Books, films, games and pretending.

June 29, 2010

Yes, yes, but on the other hand, think about how films fail in so many spectacular ways. Films try so hard to be about abstract ideas – but never quite can be, because the actors keep getting in the way. They rely on us blinding ourselves to the glaring, insultingly obvious fiction. They want to teach us things, but attempt to do so in the most roundabout way imaginable. A film says, “First imagine these people are really experiencing these things – pretend they’re really saying these words at this time FORGET THEY’RE ACTORS. What? Hm? No I didn’t say anything. OK, next imagine the things that happen are somehow responsive to something that’s important, in some way. FORGET ABOUT THE CAMERAS. Huh? Not me, no Sir! *whistles* Ok, next you – ” etc.

Although none of it’s going on very consciously. The process of watching a film is subconsciously demanding. You’re being asked to buy into a fiction, to learn its visual language, even. And for what? The rewards are almost visceral and often genuinely emotional, yet at many curious removes from our subjective lives. There are rewards, obviously, or we wouldn’t do it so compulsively. But ultimately it’s still a fiction isn’t it? Isn’t it a bit ridiculous that this is what we choose to do with our time? That, on the whole, we like nothing better than to settle down of an evening and watch people pretend to be other people? Or am I going out of my mind?

Films are crap at conveying ideas and ideals. I’m sorry, but they are. They’re written and directed to highlight certain behaviours and themes, but they’re so… so… so… SO PRETEND. Their empathetic communication is always base. Always. When I watch films touted as ‘spectacularly moving’ I feel like an anosmic in a world of the nosmic, everyone seems to be enjoying a mass hallucination, but this is as much a testament to the power of the human brain to imagine and project as it is to the film.

Films are good at certain things, certain atmospheres, certain situations that happen to correspond to ones that I recognise from my own experience (i.e. coincidence, so you’re not having that). But as soon as they begin to attempt a moral point, films abandon their own language and look for the language of literature. A slow pan across a tear-stained cheek can be ambiguous, but a voice-over brings in the moral. Ah, the voice-over. The voice that floats like the boom of God himself over the scene, cracking the verisimilitude, bypassing meagre images to speak to us brain-to-brain like Mew 2. It’s disconcertingly direct and it’s an appropriation that is, most obviously, written.

Writing imposes a truth on images, then. Books have the advantage of blindness, a freedom to let the subjective in. But – aha! – isn’t what we’re talking about here actually sort the power of reading, not of writing. Reading is the mental match-making of sounds and images with the subjective memories of the reader. Reading is a voice speaking in the same language that we think in, in our own voice even. Reading is a mutual hail in the neutral airspace between our brains and a fixed program of ideas. And while reading and writing may be vain in this respect, echoing our own voice, watching films is almost perverse.

It’s difficult to think of anything more vain than the idea one is such a superb actor/director that one can communicate ambiguous nuances through a visual language without roping in the actually much more familiar and comforting literary tropes. Books are pretentious in their ambiguities too, but at least they are known to be, (and boy is it frustrating when a fiction author can’t seem to bring himself to come down on one side or the other. When books cower in poetic descriptions they end up aping the worst of films, which is very bad indeed. A verbal pan across a floating carrier bag in an alleyway costs a novel its singular impressiveness as a clear, speaking-my-language-in-my-head, idea delivery mechanism. It was crap in the film, but in the book you have no excuse. What’s actually going on? Have you decided, yourself? You have words. Use them.) No – books have settled into a consensual space between our voice and our ears, but films are still something very weird indeed. Films masquerade as normal and intuitive, but they’re not. They’re an addiction that makes you forget everything you know – they want you to pretend facture never happened! And they want you to pretend it all on their own terms! I don’t understand them, and I don’t like it.

Of course, pretending isn’t always the soul of evil. A lot of games involve a degree of pretending – especially when you’re a kid. The difference is, I’d hazard, that pretending games played by children are all about themselves. A fun route to finding a new part of your personality to try out. Sounds obvious, but of course watching a film is not about pretending at all, it’s about processing pretending. Playing a dress-up game is to do with getting in character and showing off. It’s about YOU doing WHATEVER YOU LIKE. How do you play a video game? You marvel at the craftsmanship, notice which things seem realistic, enjoy the escapism and address any threat. You do what you have to, and you do as you’re told, because video games – whisper it quietly – don’t have an awful lot to do with pretending at all. It may be that the bar to entry is already too high; even requiring you be looking a particular direction or putting your fingers in a particular place means there are just too many rules. To pretend properly you need all of yourself to be present; the dress-up box gives you that, and so does the book. Games and films just want you to forget your individualism for a moment. Put it to one side. Don’t pretend, forget there’s a pretense! Don’t be yourself! Be someone better, stronger, smarter. You won’t feel a thing.

And that’s the trouble.

But look, I’d better go to bed. It’s one of those warm nights when you have the balcony doors open. The worst part is when you can hear the insects but can’t see them yet.

No actually, the worst part is when you can see them.

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