I was talking with some colleagues today about the misconceptions people have about what they see on TV, movies, and other media, and I suddenly remembered an odd moment I had when I saw the first run of the 1997 film “Wag the Dog”.
It was during a scene in which Dustin Hoffman, as the Hollywood producer, is using the techniques of film magic to manufacture the video illusion of a war between the U.S. and Armenia. He’s in the post-production studio with his CIA client, played by Robert DeNiro.
In this particular scene, the young Kirsten Dunst is a young actress hired to pretend to be a traumatized child in a war zone. Hoffman shows DeNiro the magic of special effects by giving the young girl a box of cereal and then having her run across a bare blue-screen set. He then uses a digital console to replace the bare stage behind her with an Armenian village under fire — a scene of war and terror.
DeNiro, rather sensibly, questions the fact that she is running through this ersatz village with a box of cereal under her arm. Dustin Hoffman’s character the proceeds to twiddle some dials on the console, and in the video feed the cereal box is magically replaced by a kitten.
So far so good. We’re watching a fantasy of Hollywood special effects in action. Of course special effects don’t really work that way, but it’s perfectly legitimate for a movie to spin such a fantasy. It’s all part of the same “willing suspension of disbelief” that allows us to accept a movie star as a great physicist or a distinguished politician.
Except that on this particular day, in this particular movie theatre, something rather odd happened. Just as Dustin Hoffman’s character twiddled those dials to turn the cereal box into a kitten, the woman in the row just in front of us turned to her companion and said — in a rather loud voice — “That’s amazing!”
Frankly, her comment made a bigger impression on me than anything I was watching on-screen. Clearly she thought that the instant transformation from cereal box to kitten was real. But why?? Did she believe we were watching some sort of documentary? Suddenly I started to worry that all across America, moviegoers might be unable to distinguish reality from movie fantasy.
Do people actually believe that the house in “Up” could really float in the air from the buoyancy of a bunch of party balloons?
Do people really come away from Oliver Stone’s “JFK” believing that our 35th president was done in by a secret homosexual cabal led by Tommy Lee Jones?
And did people really leave “The Matrix” believing that we are all living in a fantasy dreamscape created by evil robots who are only keeping us alive to be used as spare Energizer batteries?
I had always assumed, before this incident, that audiences would knew how to draw a firm line between the tall tales on the silver screen and the reality of their actual lives. After all, basing your ideas of how reality works upon what you see in a Hollywood movie would be — for want of a better phrase — the tail wagging the dog.