[realism in film]
It was common knowledge in my high school that Mrs. Taylor was a bit of an eccentric. It didn’t help that she looked – and sounded – like a cross between Julia Child and Dame Edna. She taught 10th grade American Literature which meant every year she had to wade through THE SCARLET LETTER with a bunch of high school sophomores that could hardly get worked up about a clergyman committing adultery in an era where you are just happy the clergyman wasn’t a pedophile.
To make class “exciting,” Mrs. Taylor donned a scarlet “A” on her blouse while she read passages from the book aloud. As if any of us would believe that a clergyman would want to bed her down even if she were single.
But she did have a way of etching herself into our brains with ridiculously long, literary words that we were told would fascinate the learned professors in the Ivy League schools that our parents all expected us to apply to… or else.
Mrs. Taylor would say the term aloud (remember the bit about Julia Child and Dame Edna? – it comes in handy here), letting the syllables slowly slide out her jutting jaw with a syrupy leisure. Then she would make the class say it in unison two or three times, and finally she would make each of us – every single one of us individually – repeat it as well. Some of us would attempt to imitate her jaw motions; some would try more for her warbling vocal pitch. The specific word didn’t even enter into it. This was performance art, pure and simple.
“Say it class…” she would begin with her patrician s’s sounding like a Scottish brogue.
“Say it class… verisimilitude.”
Only when she spoke it, the word sounded more like “veri-sh’mill-i-toooooode”
And we would all chime back “Veri-sh’mill-i-tooooooode”
“Yessh… very goooood, classshhh. Now, Carolyn, shay it…”
“Ex-sshellent. Eric? Veri-sh’mill-i-tooooooode.”
And so on and so forth, until each of us had our crack at it. Some of us tried to drag out the syllables to preposterous extremes hoping to burn off even more class time.
Still and all, something about the technique worked because that word is one of the few things I remember from 10th grade American Lit. (Another is the word, “enjambment,” which, frankly, you’d be excused if you thought I had made up for comic effect. But it is, in fact, a real word. Only Mrs. Taylor would sneak in an extra syllable: “Shay it, classhhhh… en-jaaaahhhhhmmmm-buh-monnnnnt.”)
The dictionary defines verisimilitude as:
Verisimilitude (or truthlikeness) is the quality of realism in something (such as film, literature, the arts, etc).
Or as Stephen Colbert would say: truthiness.
So why is this word on my mind? Well, I just finished writing how the Coen Bros’ version of TRUE GRIT was truer and grittier than the original 1969 film version. No varnished wood in the courtrooms, no spick-and-span liveries, no rich Elmer Bernstein-cum-Aaron Copland musical score.
We like to think of ourselves as a more demanding and sophisticated audience these days. We claim an eye for detail. There’s even a whole section in the Internet Movie Database devoted to “film goofs” like some t-shirt sporting a Coca-Cola logo that was designed 18 months after the movie supposedly took place. I actually know people who want THE WIZARD OF OZ to be remade because the Oz effects aren’t that “real.” Well, Oz isn’t real! It’s just a construct in Dorothy’s dream. Why aren’t those same people bothered by a talking scarecrow or flying monkeys? Or a girl who would prefer to live in black and white over Technicolor?
But TRUE GRIT is set in a real place at a real time. And so, in 2010, there is a loving attention to detail. I can hear Mrs. Taylor telling us how the Coens brought veri-sh’mill-i-tooooooode to the film.
And then making each of you say it.
Only the Coens didn’t get some very simple things correct.
For example, when Mattie Ross, on horseback, fords a river that is so deep you can barely see any of the horse’s head, I expect her (and the horse) to be soaking wet when they get to the other bank. I kind of expect that physics worked in the 19th century pretty similarly to how it does today. But in the Coen Bros film (and the 1969 original), she doesn’t emerge wet at all. We all know the reasons why: movies aren’t shot in sequence, it’s impractical to keep an actor wet for take after take, and the horse wouldn’t stand for it.
There are other examples. Like the fact that all the principals in the Coens’ film (just as in the 1969 original) have decent teeth. Pearly and white and straight. In an era before mass-produced toothbrushes. Or Listerine.
Uh, huh. Sure.
But, again, we all know the reason for the orthodontics: ugly teeth are gnarly! Hollywood would prefer to forsake the whole “verisimilitude thing” when it comes to smiles. They want you to buy more concessions, not puke up the ones you are eating.
(I almost uploaded an image of bad teeth for this blog. Be happy I didn’t. Be very happy. If you don’t believe me, feel free to search the Internet for “bad teeth” or “gum disease” and check out a few photos. Or just click here. But you don’t want to. Trust me.)
So I get it. Some things can provide too much verisimilitude and bog down the story. I can suspend disbelief for things like how every movie from LOVE STORY to GOOD WILL HUNTING to THE SOCIAL NETWORK would let you believe it’s possible to find parking in Harvard Square. And convenient parking at that. Truth is, there are only 7 legal parking places in Harvard Square and they are always filled – even during snow emergencies – but I can eschew that sort of hyperrealism in service to the story. Verisimilitude is only valuable when it furthers the artist’s intent. The Coens’ weren’t filming a documentary on the west, after all.
Sometimes, though, films become logically problematic without an appropriate use of verisimilitude. Easy example: Modern movies have to contend with the fact that cell phones are now ubiquitous. In today’s world, if you want one character to be out of contact with another, you better explain that they lost or broke their cell phone. Or have AT&T as a service provider. No problem believing no reception in that case.
But there’s a classic film that could do with some verisimilitude: THE AFRICAN QUEEN which stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. THE AFRICAN QUEEN is sort of Bogart’s version of TRUE GRIT. It’s one of his last pictures. He won his only Oscar for it. He played a character that was a teensy bit comical and soft parody of his movie star image. And it stars Katherine Hepburn. (Okay, TRUE GRIT didn’t star Hepburn, but the sequel, ROOSTER COGBURN, did.)
THE AFRICAN QUEEN is easily summarized. It’s a tale where two people whose backgrounds couldn’t be further apart – Bogart as the dirty, drunk and Hepburn as the pious, priss – go down the Ulanga River on the African Queen to sabotage World War I Germans as any good patriots of the British Commonwealth would. Of course, when you have a man and a woman stuck on a boat, it doesn’t matter how different their backgrounds, they will find a way to get the hots for each other. No exception here.
However, Bogart, who is quite good in this film, plays a man who is a total mess. His clothes are held together by grime, his hair is matted down with dried sweat, he sports a scruffy beard, and, most amazingly, his teeth are stained some sort of brownish color. (Coen Bros could learn a thing or two here, except Bogart’s teeth may have truly been permanently stained from his cigarette habit. Now that is some verisimilitude!)
The point is one look at Bogart and you know he reeks something awful. You would want to be upwind of him on the boat, let alone hugging and kissing him. My reaction when the two stars lunged at each other in passion was not “ahhhhhh!” but “ewwwwww!” Hepburn should have given him a sponge bath or something. Still sensual… but realistic. Instead, she, the ever so proper one, is drawn to him despite his grungy, manly stink.
I’m not buying it.
And once that happens, the movie’s spell is broken, just broken. I mean, now I’m also supposed to believe that Bogart is the only Canadian in the world with a Brooklyn accent? Or that Bogart watches Hepburn dump all his gin into the river without lifting a finger? Or that their trip seems no more fraught with actual danger than the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland? Or even Splash Mountain? See how the entire plot drifts without the anchor of verisimilitude?
So, THE AFRICAN QUEEN is in need of a remake. Are you listening, Coen Bros? Could you please give this film some true grit? Just make sure that people stay soaked when they emerge from the river. And maybe cast someone in the female lead who looks hot in wet clothes. You know: verisimilitude. Mrs. Taylor will thank you for it.
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