Monday, February 28, 2011

"The Great Picture Takes You Out Of The Picture"

Recently, I was talking about the “suspension of disbelief”, wherein an audience member goes, “I’m aware that it’s a movie-play-TV show, but I’m letting go that awareness, and allowing myself to be transported by the production.  It’s fake, but, for the moment, I  am pretending that it’s real.”

That’s “suspension of disbelief”, or more completely, a “willing suspension of disbelief”, “willing” because it’s not that you’ve lost your mind and you suddenly believe that moving shadows on a screen or actors on the stage are the real thing, but because you’re temporarily surrendering your disbelief to the production, or at least meeting it half way.

It’s not easy relinquishing your feelings of disbelief to an entity that is demonstrably unreal.  Unless you’re a child.  Or incredibly child-like.  Part of growing up involves developing the ability to distinguish the actual from the made up.  (Though when it comes to political partisanship, all bets seem to be off.)

You have your cynicism, you’re skepticism, the “big with the kids these days” ironic slant.  With entertainment professionals like myself, there’s the additional problem of “I’ve been behind the curtain.”  You know it’s not real because you’re aware that somebody made it up, that “somebody”, once upon a time, having been you. 

The shows themselves can deliver obstacles to the suspension of disbelief – exaggerated characterizations, stilted dialogue, distractingly crappy production values, improbable storytelling, overall stupidity.  These elements, among others, can literally take you right out of picture, as in,

“Sorry, I’m not buying this.”

Now, as if relinquishing your disbelief weren’t difficult enough, a brand new obstacle has arrived on the scene.  At least, it’s an obstacle for me.  That obstacle is,


Here’s what happened.  A television we’ve had for over twenty years finally cashed in its chips.  Being over twenty years old, the TV was the traditional, boxy-shaped, tubey kind.  Nowadays, you don’t fix those kinds of TVs when they break.  I believe you just shoot them.

The thing worked beautifully for two decades.  But then one day, though the sound remained robust, the picture suddenly pinched down to a narrow, illuminated strip across the center of the screen, becoming viewable only to felines with squinty eyes.  And how much TV do they watch?  Lady and the Tramp, and that’s it.

“Hey, Ming, it’s our show!”

We are Siamee-eeze if you plee-eeze

“What do you think?”

“The picture fits my eyes perfectly.”

Okay, enough of that.  The point is, it was definitely time for a new TV.

Now I hate to be whiney and complainy – Look out!  Someone’s about to be whiney and complainy – I mean, I know I am fortunate to be able to afford a brand new top-of-the-line HDTV, but I have to tell you, for at least right now,

I don’t chlike it.  (For the “ch”, clear your throat, like you’re saying “Chanukah.”)

It’s the picture.

“It’s really clear, isn’t it.”

That’s the problem.  It’s too clear.  The shows look like surveillance videos. 

I know there’s been a continual push to make what’s on the screen appear more and more real.  They even do it with animated stuff, though “real-looking animation”, I have no idea what that means.  Animation is, by definition, not real.  What exactly are they trying to accomplish?

But let’s stick with live-action programming.  Here’s the deal.  With the new, HD technology, everything looks like what it is.  This is absolutely miraculous when  “what it is” is real.  Ballgames are electrifying in HD, because the HD technology is transmitting “what it is”, and “what it is” is a ballgame actually being played somewhere at that very moment.  You can prove it.  You can go there, and they’re playing it. 

And it looks exactly the same!

It’s just spectacular. The picture projected on HDTV is so, I don’t know, complete, it’s like you’re sitting right there at the game.  But without the drunks.  Unless you’re watching it with drunks.

Ditto for documentary footage of flamingoes on the Serengeti.  You can almost feel yourself standing by a lake in Africa, watching thousands of giant, pink birds, flapping their wings and snapping up fish.  It like you’re totally there.  Feeling the hair-raising sensation of alligators slithering up behind you. 

The problem arises when HD technology is applied to something unreal, like a movie or TV show.  Only able to do one thing, HD is still transmitting “what it is”, but unlike a ballgame or a flamingo playground, this time, the “what it is” that HD is transmitting

Is fake.

What we then get is a conflict.  The movie or TV show tries its best to fabricate “reality”, while at the same time, the penetrating HD picture is shining a revealing light on the fabrication.

Suddenly, you’re aware of layered-on make-up, the neatly pressed “wardrobe”, the “outdoor locations” now easily outed as “shot on a soundstage.”  The HD picture is so sharp and vivid, it exposes all the artifices underneath.   Not to mention the flaws.  My visiting brother-in-law reports, “You can not only see the pores in this picture, you can see inside the pores.”  Not all that useful, unless you’re a dermatologist’s television.  Or an inner-pore voyeur.

This is my problem with HDTV.  It’s so real it looks fake.  And in cases where maximum suspension of disbelief is required, the more HDTV pulls you in the opposite direction.

Just to see how it would look, I stopped to check out this science fiction movie.  When I tuned in, a human-sized grasshopper was piloting a helicopter.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a generally difficult sell.  But with the unforgiving clarity of HDTV?

“Sorry, I’m not buying this.”

By a lot.

Why not?  Because it feels like I’m watching documentary-looking footage of something that can’t possibly be true.  The “grasshopper’s” wearing a Halloween costume, and the helicopter is indisputably a toy.

I know I’ll probably get used to it.  But right now, HDTV is just another impediment to my suspension of disbelief.

And I have enough trouble with that already.  

1 comment:

Mac said...

Good, I thought it was just me. HDTV is excellent for sport and nature docs - you are right in there with the action and it feels 'real.' But movies? I watched Public Enemies on HD (or Blu-Ray, can't remember which) and all I could think was "that's Johnny Depp caked in make-up and wearing a costume." Just as with sport/nature shows you're sitting right there in the stadium or the desert (or wherever), with HD movies you're sitting on the film set. You can see the individual hairs on the actor's head, which means you can also see the make-up, the edge of the lace on the wig etc. I once made a show in HD and it was 'degraded' so that these things wouldn't show up in the broadcast. I asked why not just shoot in it in non-HD in the first place? But it was a requirement for overseas sales, which it did none of anyway.
So I'm sticking with my old tube telly until it dies. If I watch a film I want to choose to be in the fictional world that the script creates, not checking out the wigs and the make-up.