Sunday, September 21, 2008

As through a lens ... that needs cleaning

This post was supposed to go up late yesterday, but things came up and I lost the opportunity to post again. (No, not computer headaches, or Invasion of the Rellies; I think I swallowed a Thai chili. My upper digestive tract may never be the same again.)

So here is the post, maybe fourteen hours late. I'm up to my eyeballs with politics for the time being, so I'm going to talk about something else this time.

They way we view the world is interesting in so many ways, not least of which is how the world is presented to us for viewing. That statement might seem to have the qualities of a palindrome, but think about this.

What do you really know about ... oh, say, the Battle of Britain? I use this as an example because the anniversary just went by: September 15 ... 915, if you will ... the date when Britain could reasonably be said to have won its freedom from Nazi Germany in an air war, and like 911, it's never likely to be forgotten ... so long as you're British or have the connections).

Now, about one in a million people will say, "I know everything about it, son, I bloody fought in it, you grew up in a free country because kids like me were up there in the Spitfires and Hurricanes, giving our lives to keep Hitler out of this country." An unfortunate percentage of people will say, "What battle, of where?" They can find Britain on a map (or, I hope they can!), but they're just as likely to think of the Spanish Armada as World War II, when pressed on the subject --

And by far the majority of people will say, "I saw the movie."

And a very good movie it is. Michael Caine (The Dark Knight), Christopher Plummer (National Treasure; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), Robert Shaw (Swashbuckler) Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson , Ian McShane, and a stellar cast all elbowing for screen-time, because everyone wanted to be in this movie. Okay, it's true that Hollywood "did a number" on it: the facts had to be folded, spindled and mutilated to fit the timing, pacing and length of a motion picture -- if movie makers didn't do this, the audience would fall asleep or walk out and say, "What a rotten movie." So, sure, you can criticize the film for having been "Hollywoodized" ... but I can guarantee to you, the audience stayed awake!

The gist of this post is actually in the above paragraph. Our own history, the world, foreign cultures, other people's lives and loves, religions and traditions, are caught on film (or tape, or flash cards. Makes no difference), and then the whole "raw" capture goes through the editing process. It's digitized, color graded, edited into a sensible sequence according to a script (even documentaries have scripts; and they're often incredible complex. It can be harder to script a doco than a feature film -- ask me why, if you're interested). Parts are cut out; other parts are dramatized; old film is colorized; the sound is re-recorded; voice-over narration is added, Foley and ADL are performed...

Every part of this process is necessary to make any film -- documentary or fiction -- watchable to an audience. You can't afford to be boring; and you can't (often) afford to serve up material that's too gross, too explicit, too radically outspoken on sensitive themes, because you don't want your movie to be rated right off the screen and into the realm of under-the-counter disks sold at dark, sleazy little stores with backstreet entrances.

So the lens through which we perceive everything beyond the range of our own physical eyes (and that's 99.999% of everything) has been cut and polished by teams of professionals. The world as we see and know it is ... a presentation.

You ever notice how characters in the massive historicals have good teeth? The truth is, the heroes of Gladiator and Troy, Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven would have had teeth like the scurvy scum in Pirates of the Caribbean ... but who's going to come over all wobbly-kneed and romantic over a hero with bad teeth?

That's a really, seriously, horrifically callow case to make, isn't it? Teeth. But it makes the point fast: reality has been skewed. Of necessity.

And the same is true when you get out of the callow examples and start looking at "meaningful" presentations of the world.

What do you know about the Chinese occupation of Tibet? The movie, right? Bradley ... yum. How about your mental images of Apollo 13? Tom Hanks was great in that one. The Vietnam War? Oh, I never missed an episode of Tour of Duty ... Terrence Knox was such a hunk. (Wasn't he, though?!) Or did you see First Blood 14 times? (Woah, Sly had great pecs...) What do you know about New Zealand? Seriously! Well, for a start, you know what it looks like: Middle Earth (you saw the movies). But one would hope and pray you don't think Ancient Greece looked like a cold rainforest full of Maoris! (Though Xena and Hercules were loads of fun, with muscles, great teeth and fabulous hair galore, trust me, Greece don't look nuthin' like New Zealand.) Your take on Vikings? Antonio Banderas was terrific in that one ... or can you remember back to Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis? (And if you're saying, Kirk and Tony who? Well ... phooey.)

It's as if your windshield is so smeared by bugs, you're seeing little snippets of the world, history, culture. A Chinese movie came out recently (a foreign language film; it might not have played theaters in the States, but it did here). Mongol purports to be a bio of Genghis Khan ... and (honest) they found a way to portray him as a hero, a loving husband, devoted father, and all around staunch character. They simply left our the millions of people who were slaughtered, the enemies boiled alive, the legion of wives and concubines, and the rape victims who were so numerous and commonplace, virtually everyone whose roots are back in Europe is descended from these guys!

Creative editing puts a new and interesting face on history. Here's the problem: what you can do for Genghis Khan in 2008, you can do for Adolph Hitler in 2308 ... and in the public mind, the presentation looms large. Larger than reality, which has been lost in time. Asked, in 2315, "What's your take on Hitler?" Someone is going to say, "Oh, Manfred Schroediger was fantastic in that, I saw it eight times."

Uh huh.

So many Hollywood shows were made in British Columbia in the last 20 years, today's kids can be forgiven for thinking Peru and Turkey both look like the wooded hills right outside Vancouver ... but we'll forgive that one, cuz Richard Dean Anderson was so cute, with the long blond hair and the shy grins, right?

Now, it's perfectly true that documentary filmmakers knock themselves out to achieve Truth, and for this, I applaud them. Personally, I love documentaries; I just don't get the chance to watch very many, because few other people can watch dodos and call it a night's entertainment. (That was a barfing sound I heard from your direction, wasn't it? Admit it!)

So: how many documentary films have you seen in the last month? One? None? Right. You watch the monster feature films, as do we all, and the snazzy TV shows.

You know what the Himalayas look like: you saw Vertical Limit three times. (Chris O'Donnell was superb in it. So cute. And incidentally, it was shot on a glacier in New Zeland!!) You know much about Mahatma Gandhi? (Well, you know Ben Kingsley must wear dentures, because he took some of them out to play the part of the older Gandhi, who was missing a tooth or two. Yeh. we're back to teeth.)

What's your take on Ned Kelly? (Heath Ledger. Right? Or did you prefer Mick Jagger?) Let's stay in Australia for a second ... you know much about Australian colonial history? (You know all you need to: Magnum PI shot it with a Very Big Rifle. Seriously, Tom Selleck was great, and Quigley Downunder is one of my favorites too. But you should have watched Against The Wind instead, or as well, if you wanted to know a bit about Aussie history.)

Okay, Keegan, cut to the chase for godsakes!

The chase scene: at least as far as the vast, VAST majority of the population of this planet is concerned, we're rewriting history with good teeth and great hair; we're redrawing the map with scenic locations; we depict the religions and traditions of other regions and people in presentation form, adapted and polished to be acceptable to modern audiences ... because movies have to make money, and the censorship ghoul is breathing down the director's neck.

But, who wants to see Christian Bale as Robin Hood, with a set of rotting teeth? And Geronimo scratching his fleas? Come on, get real! Heroes have terrific teeth and no fleas, everybody knows that. Just like the the Andes and the Anatolian Plateau look like British Columbia, and Genghis Khan was as wholesome as George of the Jungle. (Woah, Brendan was sweet eyecandy there...)

Pardon me while I go watch a documentary or two.

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