Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Is this real?

In a movie, does it matter which world is "real"? I kept coming back to this question as I watched Existenz and found myself wondering, again and again, "Is this the real world or the game? Is he really dead?" The obvious answer, from an extremely cynical point of view, is that it was not the real world, and that the characters were not really dead, because all of the events only occurred with the context of a movie. The director yelled cut, the actors went home, and that was the end of that. But this pragmatic perspective jars with the experience of watching the movie, where I really cared, in each moment, whether the events were just the game, or were actually occurring in the movie's reality.

The typical explanation of this would be "suspension of disbelief." I was absorbed into the movie's world, was tricked into believing, at least on an emotional level, that the events were real, and so cared about the characters and their fates. However, although I think this explanation is good in general, it cannot explain my own reaction to Existenz, as my disbelief was not suspended for even a second. I found the dialogue unconvincing, the accents painful, and the two protagonists endlessly irritating. I never believed in any of the characters in their own right, and consistently thought of them as "Jude Law with a bad accent," "The Doctor" and "Bilbo Baggins." I felt no emotional connection to the story (and was frequently repulsed by it), and so shouldn't really have cared whether any one of them died "in the game" or "in reality."

I therefore think that movies like Existenz succeed in making us ask "Is this real?" partly because it constitute a challenge to the viewer's intelligence, and partly because it plays off viewer insecurities about their own perceptions of the world. I am the sort of person who cannot help trying to guess what the "twist" of the movie will be. I declared "all of this is a game" a minute into the movie, and enjoyed the puzzle of "Is this the game? Is this reality?" throughout the course of the film. Although I would enjoy the film more if it outsmarted me and gave me a twist I truly didn't expect (as indeed I was more impressed by this movie when it turned out that the protagonists were actually the "realists"), there is a sense of great satisfaction and security in knowing that you "outsmarted" the movie, and that you weren't taken in by the tricks that it played.

Yet I think it also plays upon the terrifying fact that none of us can always tell the difference between dream and reality. Have you ever had a dream that was such a perfect copy of real life that you thought it was real? Have you ever woken up from a dream and questioned whether it was something that actually happened, or remembered something and been unable to tell whether it happened in real life, or in a dream? Perhaps I am just particularly susceptible to such things, but I have been so unsettled by bad dreams that I have called my family to check that they were OK, and have yet to forget nightmares I had as a child where I "woke up," only to find the monster in my room. Even outside the context of dreams, people sometimes become disconnected from reality after traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, or world changing moments like 9/11. People ask, "Was that real? Did it really happen?" not only because they don't want it to have been true, but because everything begins to feel like it must have been a dream. When watching movies like Existenz, we therefore ask "Is this real?" and attempt to outsmart the movie because we want the reassurance that we can tell the difference, that we are smart enough to figure out when something is a dream or a game, and when something is actually happening to us.


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