Wagging the dog

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.
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Wouldn’t it?

7 Responses to “Wagging the dog”

  1. Li-Yi Wei says:

    Well, according to this Economist article (http://www.economist.com/node/16219301?story_id=16219301&fsrc=scn/tw/te/rss/pe), a non-trivial number of people, including a certain presidential candidate, actually believed what happened in “24” is real.

    The cereal box to kitten transformation looks innocent in comparison; one has to has certain basic knowledge about blue screen matting to appreciate the difficulty of doing so.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, I know.

    It just makes me sad. It’s a canary in a coal mine.

  3. sally says:

    Um, well, they *do* believe it.

    This is frightening.

  4. Dagmar says:

    Some time ago, I showed a music video to a friend, that I like quite a lot. In the video an artist, Vahe Berberian is featured. The video shows him painting a picture according to the rhythm of the music.
    My friend was thrilled, but stopped at the moment I said, that the director and the cutter did great work, because it was only at that moment I told her about a cutter and a director, that she realised that this couldn’t be done in real time like this.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXeq0gaxDIM

    But that is quite unoffending, as long as some people for example believe that the characters in Sex and the City are for real and that life works like this.

    I am totally with Li-Yi Wei here, we need some education here, that leads to something like media competence.

    But we need to think about why people want to believe in stuff like this also.

  5. admin says:

    Dagmar, that makes a lot of sense. A basic level media competence — how to understand what you are seeing when you see something in a movie, or TV, or the Web, or a product advert — should be a skill we teach in schools.

    It is clearly not sufficient to just assume people will intuitively understand these things.

  6. Dean says:

    I’ve read that economist article over and over and I don’t read it as the candidate actually believing that Jack Bauer is real. Or have I misunderstood what Li-Yi Wei was saying?

  7. Michael says:

    @Dean: I think you’ve misunderstood to a degree.
    Everybody knows that Jack Bauer is fictional – of course.
    But – and that’s the main problem – many seem to be believe that the circumstances aren’t.
    In this case it’s torturing as a viable means to gather information.

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