Monday, August 18, 2008

On audience sophistication

In light of the recent spate of Super Hero movies I have seen numerous Internet conversations which go something like this:

Joe: "Iron Man had a huge plot hole. Why would Stark have the day's paper even though he had not been to the office in a month or so."

Schmoe:"You are watching a movie where a guy uses jerry-rigged parts to keep his heart going that provides more power than an airplane engine, he flies in iron, crashes from a thousand feet in the air without damaged, and you are worried about plot holes?"

The point is pretty clear. As viewers we pick and choose which plot holes matter and which ones don't. In any superhero movie we suspend large chunks of understanding of physics, just as in any Bruce Willis flick we suspend our comprehension of how the world works. But we expect that. We expect Bruce to be able to withstand super-human amounts of punishment and make the world work in unbelievable ways to accomplish his goals.

After the Die Hard series his fans came to expect that so he continued the super-human roles in flicks as diverse as The Last Boy Scout, Sin City and Unbreakable. As a viewer, you intuitively know that Bruce Willis is able to do things "normal" people can't. However, even Willis is able to sometimes break the mold as he did in the Look Who is Talking franchise and even to a large extent in The Whole Nine Yards and its less successful sequel whose name shall not sully this current editorial, Bandits, and so forth.

In other words, the movie audience is willing to wait and see which Willis they are going to see: the one who shrugs off bullets, shoots down helicopters with cabs and outruns collapsing bridges or the one who is always wise-cracking yet ultimately "one of us", a person bound by the laws of nature. He can play both and we will arrive at the theatre in droves to see him in either role.

Yet there are some in Hollywood who apparently believe fans cannot distinguish these types of things. Characters are typecast, put in boxes, and even their real-life personas are expected to conform. There are several examples, but just 2 will exemplify the point perfectly.

Earlier this year there was a huge uproar because Miley Cyrus posed in photos that some found offensive. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't...but the effect they had on her career has been fascinating. See, the problem was not that she posed for them. The problem was someone, somewhere, thought audiences could not distinguish the actions of Miley Cyrus the person from those of Hannah Montana, a fictional character she portrays.

Really? Someone is that naive? This is not the 1960s anymore. Unlike the peccadilloes surrounding George Reeves, people these days certainly have access to plenteous quantities of information about the personal lives of these people. And yes, that applies even to the kids. It is not unusual to see 5 year olds building up Webkins empires, for example. Within a couple of years they certainly are able to, and do, frequent sites that discuss the private lives of super stars and are often contributors to forums.They know the premise of the Hannah Montana show. Yet they are somehow supposed to not be able to differentiate the actions of Miley in her personal life from Miley in her acting life? Is that not the very conceit of the show?

In the same vein, we have the rather shocking rumor that perhaps the reason the next Harry Potter movie has been moved back may have less to do with holes in the schedule from the recent writer's strike and more to do with his role on Broadway where he performs naked?

We as an audience are assumed to be able to comprehend match cuts, dissolves, picture in picture, the meaning of entering a scene via complex dolly pans as opposed to more conventional long shot-medium shot-medium close up-close up sequences, but cannot distinguish the theoretical innocence of Harry Potter, a magic wielding teen, and the rather obvious sexual awareness of Daniel Radcliffe of the real world? Really?

We can easily comprehend complex technical vocabulary that relates states of power or vulnerability by low-angle or high angle shots, we can derive key information regarding character based on amount of focus in a shot, we can subconsciously pick up subtle themes based on how a character's entrances are framed or subtle shadings of color and the soundtrack behind them yet we cannot distinguish an actor's personal life from the characters they portray on the scene?

Isn't that the very point of acting? To make us believe that a rotund midget is extremely dangerous in one role and a lovable uncle type in another such as Danny DeVito has done, Joe Pesci has done, and so forth? In fact, this playing against type has been an art form and career rejuvenating genre at times for guys like Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.

Being stereotyped into just one type of role is a terrifying thing for most actors. How much worse would it be to be removed from some of those roles because of other roles they had performed or even for things in their personal life?

But back to the point. To be sure I skew slightly older than the primary audience for Harry Potter but that does not alter the fact that even the target audience is old enough and smart enough to easily distinguish the naivete of Harry Potter from the worldliness of Daniel Radcliffe just as easily as they are able to figure out that meeting Daniel Craig on the street does not mean they have met an MI6 agent who is licensed to kill.

I am arguing the movie-going audience is smarter than the studios give us credit for. We can distinguish between the character being played on screen and the person playing that character. We have advanced in sophistication past the point where Roy Rogers had to be Roy Rogers off screen as well as on, where George Reeeves WAS Superman.

I would even argue that we are sophisticated enough to accept someone else as Joker despite the way Heath Ledger owned the role. We have accepted different Batmans, Rachel Dawes, and so forth...we will accept anyone WHO ENTERTAINS US and will reject anyone who fails to do so for whatever reason.

In short, the audience is quite sophisticated enough to watch Harry Potter without prejudice because Daniel Radcliffe did an edgy Broadway show whether the movie is released this Thanksgiving or nexy July. Thanks for nothing, those who made the decision.

(Please note: Regardless of when it is released, I will not be seeing the movie)


Riot Kitty said...

Bruce Willis was in the Look Who's Talking movies? Don't you mean Travolta?

Darth Weasel said...

he was the voice of Mikey