Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bang. Bang. You're Gullible.

I've seen a few movies recently where, as usual, I've been expected to suspend my disbelief. I've seen a man float his house away using nothing but balloons in Up. I've seen twelve feet tall cat smurfs riding six legged horse-thingies while mountains float overhead in Avatar. I've seen civilisation as we know it come tumbling down in Zombieland and 2012. I've even seen Ricky Gervais playing the romantic lead in The Invention of Lying. We don't mind the film makers pulling a veil of unreality over our eyes because it means we can enjoy the spectacle and the drama and the thrill of experiencing things that we'd never otherwise see.

But just recently I was struck by the number of tiny, almost incidental, suspensions of disbelief that we're required to perform almost daily. For instance, unless the plot absolutely demands it, characters in films and TV never have any bodily functions. Just the other night, Tremors or Tremors 2 was on TV and a mixed group of people - chaps and chapettes - spent much of a day and a whole night stranded on a rock as the graboids hungrily circled around them. I found myself wondering ... 'That's a jolly small rock. How did they all have a wee without things getting really personal or messy?' Of course, the director was hoping that their skill in maintaining the tension would stop oiks like me from thinking that way. Nope, didn't work. Sorry.

Then there was the season opening episode of the new 24 where a man escapes from an assassination attempt, smashes a car window with his arm, starts the car by rubbing two wires together under the dashboard and drives off. What? Have you ever tried breaking a car window? I can assure you, having attended hundreds of car accidents during my previous career as a cop, that the glass is very, very tough and will usually only break if you apply pressure at one small area using something like a centrepunch or a 'life hammer'. Hell, a 12 stone person not wearing a seat belt can hit the windscreen at 70mph and only just crack it. But even if you did get the window smashed, you probably wouldn't be able to open the door as locking with a key deadlocks most cars. You'd have to climb in the broken window and, even then, the alarm will be sounding and many car alarms are partnered with an immobiliser which means that (a) it won't start without a proper key and (b) you won't even get the steering lock off. And as for this ignition wires business ... why are there only ever two wires and why are they always conveniently stripped at the ends so that a quick rub and spark will start the car? I worry too that these bare, easy to reach and dangerously live wires are just hanging around under the steering column where my legs go. Sorry Hollywood but that's just silly. That kind of technology may have existed in a 1975 Ford Cortina but you're not going to find it on any car made in the past 20 years. Am I being unduly picky and spoilsporty? Possibly. But I can't help feeling it's lazy writing. Surely we'd gain more insight into our heroes' and villains' capabilities if they did something more clever ... like rewire the car's internal computer or juggle some fuses or something?
Another handy lie that Hollywood throws at us daily is the silencer. There's simply no such thing and there never has been. No, that's not quite true. What I mean is that there is no device that will completely silence a gun. What you see in films - that almost silent 'phut' sound - is a complete fiction. There are noise suppressors and baffles available to reduce the sound of a gun firing. Some even look like the one in Hitman (above) and other films; a long thin tube that screws into the end of the gun barrel. However, these devices cannot silence a shot because when a gun is fired, the noise emits from several areas. A hammer strikes the firing pin which causes a spark that ignites the gunpowder inside the shell casing. There is a sudden rapid expansion of gases within the casing that then explodes out of the shell, pushing the slug - the bullet - through the gun and out of the barrel. That explosion happens deep inside the body of the gun, not at the end of the barrel so some noise will radiate from the gun itself. There is also some noise when the bullet exits the barrel and attains supersonic speed. And, if the gun is self-reloading, there will be some more clicking and clunking as the spent round is ejected and a new one enters the chamber. Even in properly conducted tests, the best silencers that exist can only reduce the noise of a gunshot to between 117 and 145 decibels. That's about as noisy as a chainsaw (110db) or a pneumatic drill (120db). Saying that, there are specially designed guns, such as the Stechkin OTs-38 Silent Revolver, that are designed to be exceptionally quiet but these are never what the Hollywood gunman uses. The reason being, of course, that we are all so familiar with the cliche of screwing a silencer into place that it's become a lazy shortcut; we know what to expect in the next scene. Phut. Phut. You're dead.

To finish this week's portion of witter, I want to mention something that happened on this week's new episode of Midsomer Murders. It was the first time I'd ever watched the show as I'm not a great fan of crime dramas (as you might expect after 30 years in helmet and boots) and, generally, the more twee a programme is, the more I want to avoid it or thrash it with a big stick. Plus, I'm surprisingly rubbish at guessing who the baddie is; something that's always deeply amused my kids. I refuse to play Cluedo ever again. However, several of my close friends insisted that I give it a go because, they claimed, Midsomer is 'like sitting in a big comfy sofa' or, more bizarrely, is 'cake for your eyes'. Having now watched an episode, I can see what they meant. There is something fluffy and comfy about the proliferation of very English stereotypes and the utter predictability of it all. This particular episode revolved around the murder of a muck-raking author played by Rik Mayall who was smothered with a pillow while asleep. It happens all of the time in films and TV dramas doesn't it? But it got me wondering ... is this another of those lazy cinematic cliches like the silencer and hot-wiring a car? Can you actually smother someone with a pillow? And, if so, will it kill them or merely render them unconscious?

Of course, I needed to find out. So the next time I popped upstairs for a wee (because people do need to go now and again, graboids or no graboids), I grabbed a pillow off my bed and held it as hard as I could against my face. It was restricting but it was still quite easy to breathe, especially if - as I would do in real life - I simply turned my head sideways. The next stage of this highly scientific experiment was getting someone else to do the deed. With a manic glare in her eye and thoughts of her inheritance one of my daughters and her boyfriend had a go. Even then I could still breathe, although it was uncomfortable and fairly disturbing (especially the cries of 'Die fat boy! Die!'). But the worst that happened to me was that I bit my lip and my nostrils were squashed closed. So is it possible? The jury is out. I imagine that it would be feasible if the person were semi-conscious through drink or drugs (as Rik Mayall's character was) or frail or weakened in some way. I'm a fairly hefty bloke and I'd take some holding down, let alone smothering.

I guess that the point of this blog post is to highlight the fact that cinema and TV abounds with these kinds of 'shortcuts' and there is a danger that they could become so firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness that writers become so lazy that they use them all of the time. I'd like to see a little more creativity and ingenuity in new scripts. I'd like to see someone escape the bad guys by more unconventional means than simply flicking two wires together. I'd like to see someone devise a way to silently kill someone rather than just sticking a silencer on their gun. I'm tired of seeing every car explode on impact (they don't) and if I see too much more of this nonsense, I may be forced to break someone's neck by twisting it sharply to one side.

Except I can't because it's impossible, despite what happens in the movies.


Andrew Kerr said...

I annoy my wife by commenting during a show or film the things that would and wouldn't happen.

The main problem is that they could so easily tweak scripts to get rid of this problem but never do.

I stopped watching "24" because of this several years ago.

I think British writers are better at going against this trend than US ones.

Although I did Media Studies at university in Sheffield and there were many who followed the US style of Script writing.

chris hale said...

There now! Told you you'd like Midsomer Murders! It's comforting tosh, isn't it? And most of it is made in and around your neck of the woods.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of things on TV that irritate me. Have you noticed that no-one ever coughs? Sorry, that's not strictly true. If someone coughs, it's intrinsic to the plot, and usually means they have consumption. Then there's spectacles. If you see a young-ish woman wearing glasses in a commercial, then it's an ad for glasses. In TV ad-land, no-one can wear glasses unless they're a stereotypical granny or grandad. And why do all those people in the TV ads for beds just lie there on the mattress, without any bedding at all? I could go on...

Jon M said...

Interesting stuff. Reminded me of the line in Macbeth: "Who'd have thought the old man would have so much blood in him?" or something like that. Shakespeare knew the difference between stage death and reality.

Persephone said...

The Resident Fan Boy and I are giggling ourselves silly over the scenario of your loving daughter and boyfriend attempting to smother you. ("Die, fat boy"???? I trust the boyfriend wasn't responsible for that insult, because who would be stupid enough to diss his girlfriend's dad?)

For myself, I'm always distracted by how easy it is to hail a cab in the movies. Also, people phone and never have to leave messages...

The RFB flatly refuses to watch anything about the Titanic with me. I've been a Titanic nut since I was ten and always end up shouting at the screen. And don't get us started on the ridiculous throw-away things about Canada in American television series. It's not difficult to look this stuff up; they clearly don't care.

Anonymous said...

Have a good weekend!

Winifred said...

Spot on! I've been fed up of most US action films and programmes for years.

I do like TV detectives though. My favourite was Harry O. It was more realistic than most. Loved the clever scripts and the fact he wasn't a Superman style detective. No daft car chases, he used the bus a lot! Very green.

CynicismCubed said...

Yeah you're totally right. I've been re-reading all my famous five books and they never go to the loo.

Also I watched this really unrealistic porno last night.