Sunday, January 25, 2009

When Faces Inadvertently Destroy My Movie-Going Experience

suspension of disbelief

Last night I finally sat down and watched Gone Baby Gone (at one point in the past, it sat for two whole weeks in an unopened Netflix envelope on my desk, and, frustrated both that I was in some sort of weird funk that made me not interested in watching movies and that I was losing money by holding on to the disc for so long, I sent it back without ever having watched it). The movie was pretty good (carried, as I expected, by Casey Affleck's superb acting; his portrayal of Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is one of my favorite on-screen performances of all time), but what struck me more than the plot or production of the film itself is a strange realization that occurred to me in the shower this morning. It's the phenomenon where simply seeing a big-time actor's face is enough to dissolve one's suspension of disbelief.

In this instance, all it took was seeing Morgan Freeman's face to send me crashing back to reality. It became difficult to accept the premises of the movie's fictional world when faced with Freeman's mug. Something about seeing his face immediately prompted my brain to switch from "that's the police chief of Boston" to "that's Morgan Freeman. Oh yeah, this isn't real." Now, I'm not arguing that a willful suspension of disbelief results in me (or anyone else) becoming convinced that, at least during its duration, the movie I'm watching is actually real, just that in the best works of film, your brain doesn't feel the need to constantly remind you that it isn't real. Some actors have a way of shattering that delicate arrangement just by being...themselves.

So what's the reason for this? Is it the inevitable result of a certain level of popularity? Not necessarily, but I think that plays a big hand in it. Brad Pitt is one of the biggest names in the business, but he also happens to be skilled enough to play utterly convincing characters. In movies like The Assassination of Jesse James or Burn After Reading (to pick two recent examples), that fact that he's actually Brad Pitt doesn't distract from the fiction that he's Jesse James or Chad Feldheimer. Johnny Depp and Edward Norton, among countless others, exemplify this, too. On the other hand, though, someone like Gary Busey, who's only ever achieved a cult-level of celebrity, is another person who totally decimates my suspension of disbelief. He makes it difficult to take a movie world seriously (an effect he shockingly almost achieves in the actual world).

Acting skill also plays a role in this, but not in the way you'd expect. Obviously bad acting is going to create tension in the movie/viewer relationship, but generally the worst acting comes from people whose face you don't immediately recognize. What I'm referring to doesn't even require the individual to begin acting when the phenomenon occurs; just seeing them is enough to cause a breakdown in belief. I think what I'm describing is most likely to occur when two elements combine:

1. The person is a decent or even a great actor. Someone that is consistently terrible isn't going to make it high enough up the showbiz ladder to ever have the effect I'm describing. (Brenden Fraiser came to mind as a counter to this point as I was typing it out, but he's not a bad actor: as was pointed out in a review of Inkheart I read this morning, he just doesn't do anything at all. He takes absolutely no risks in his roles. His movies may suck, but it's usually due to forces outside of his acting.)

2. The person has been in a large number of so-so movies. Their acting may have been great in many of these, but the overall impression the films gave was that of "meh."

When both of these elements are in place and that actor then goes on to play a role in a movie that isn't a piece of crap, the moment they appear on screen is likely to jar the viewer, launching them out of the comfort of the movie world. It's almost as though some unconscious portion of you becomes afraid that this particular movie is going to collapse into a mediocre showing like so many others in which that face appeared. Sometimes actors can work their way out of the effect and by the end of the movie you're satisfied, and other times, it becomes the first tear in the fictional fabric of the film. By the end, there's little left to do beyond tossing its tattered remains out.

Maybe all of this is only the case for me. I have a hard time with a lot of movies. I've mostly lost my taste for fantastic premises, and I've developed a cruel and unflinching eye for rooting out inconsistencies in internal logic and plotting. But I can't really blame someone for having a face that becomes a road-bump in my movie-going experience. Still: face-as-a-road-bump is never a good thing.

Photo "Suspension of Disbelief" by Mathieu Struck

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