On the Tyranny of Verisimilitude

Posted: August 31, 2009 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , ,

As promised.

The theater of the late 19th and early 20th century is replete with stories of daring theater managers trying to outdo each other by creating vast technical marvels; impresarios were doing all kinds of outlandish things, like building giant treadmills onstage so that they could stage Ben-Hur’s chariot race, or whole butcher shops so that the audience could appreciate the smell of meat.

Part of this, I think, was the rise of the photograph:  every year, chemists and Kodak were coming closer and closer to a precise rendition of exactly what the eye could see.

And, naturally, this led to film.

I like to read accounts of early films, of people that flipped out about the train that was driving towards the camera, thinking that it was going to hit them.  You and I look at a film like that now, and there’s no way we’d flinch.  But you and I are conditioned to see things that look exactly like real things, but are only images of real things.  We’ve had years of experience ignoring the actual reality for the perceived reality.

In 1904, things were probably a little tighter.  More precisely, it was easier to exceed the audience’s expectations of realness–to make something more real-looking than they had ever seen before (despite having spent their entire lives looking at real things).  There’s a discrepancy, I suppose, between seeing things that seem real, and seeing things that are real, and I suspect this has to do a lot with the environment.  The reality of a train on a train track is nothing spectacular, because this is naturally where you’d expect to find a train.  The reality of a train in a dimly-lit motion picture house is altogether more remarkable.

If art is, as I suggested, the practice of putting together unexpectedness, then it stands to reason that triggering the “realness” sensors in the audience under circumstances in which the perceived object should not be real ought to be a really good kind of art.  Certainly, a really spectacular kind of art, and spectacle is as valid a purpose as any when composing.

The problem with it is that verisimilitude is what I am referring to as a “third domain” aesthetic technique, rather than a “first domain.”  The difference is this:  first domain techniques are expections created and upset specifically according to the internal elements of the play.  Third domain techniques are expectations created and upset according to a priori knowledge or experience (obviously there is some overlap; the categories are rough).

The problem with third domain techniques is acclimation.  We are not impressed with the special effects in, say, Modern Times–or, at least, not as impressed as folks in the 30s were–because we’re already conditioned to expect a higher degree of verisimilitude in our movies.  The “realness” of Modern Times isn’t surprising (except, ironically, in the cases in which we are surprised by how real it is considering that it’s from the 30s, as though our expectations have somehow made a full circle).

So, the problem with verisimilitude is that it’s doomed to failure, especially in the theater.

Here is why:  first of all, to obtain a high degree of verisimilitude, it must be universal.  That is, you can make a surrealist piece by having three or four surreal incidents, distributed through it’s length–but you cannot make a “real-seeming” piece unless all elements of the piece seem real.  So, “tyranny”–once you’ve decided on verisimilitude, you’re stuck with it.

But, worse, as technology advanced over the last hundred years, different elements were made more real-seeming, and so demanded that everything else be made more realistic in order to compensate.  You probably don’t remember this, but there was a time when films were “expressionist”–that is, they didn’t look the way real things do, they looked the way we feel about them.  It didn’t last, because verisimilitude wouldn’t permit it.

It is, in fact, even worse in the theater.  I think that, aesthetically, you can look at film as being the culmination of a process that had long been lurking in the theater:  the need to astound expectations with the unlikely appearance of complete realism.  Film soon entirely outstripped the theater’s capacity for real-ness, and left many of those old, poor managers destitute.

The problem is that, because verisimilitude is inherently tyrannical, it is also impossible to achieve in the theater.  There is no practical way to accomodate set changes, to build new floors every night, to hide the ropes and wires and rolling flats that make a play up, to keep the audience from seeing the overhead lights.

On the one hand, you’d think this would be depressing.  But on the other hand, it’s actually liberating.  Once you’ve recognize that it’s impossible to recreate reality onstage, you’re free to stop trying.  And once you’ve discarded the device of titillation-through-real-ness, you can explore what the audience gives you in terms of “conditional realness”–that is, it’s not that the audience is fooled into believing something is real, but rather that they permit themselves to address it as though it were real, within the context of the play.  The threshold for this is much lower–in some cases, in fact, astonishingly low–and consequently the power for expression far exceeds that of film, which is not permitted to portray anything that it cannot portray with utter real-ness.

  1. katastic says:

    Huh. Interesting.

  2. Dave says:

    Reminds me, I must try and watch Dogville some day…

  3. Moff says:

    You know what’s a real tyrannical force in theater, though? Cathy the stage manager. God, she is 100 percent bitch.

  4. braak says:

    Well, it’s nice that you say that.

  5. Hsiang says:

    Is this why those Julie Taymor puppety things are so popular? Or is it because Disney says so? Me, I like puppet things.

  6. Tad says:

    Good news, Hsiang, internet rumors predict a heavy dose of puppets in Threat Quality Press Secret Initiative #3 (or #4, forget how many have been unveiled). Holland has been sewing puppet-sized clothes for weeks.

  7. braak says:

    Yeuch. Would it have hurt me to take ten minutes to proofread? No, it would not have.

  8. braak says:

    Also, Hsiang: now I’m really interested, because I feel like my vocabulary is running up against a wall.

    What I’m saying has everything to do with why puppets are awesome, but I don’t know the words I want. It’s not that puppets aren’t real, because they are real–they’re really puppets, and the reality of their presentation is every bit as fascinating as anything else. But at the same time, the apparent reality of their presentation, that is, when we look at it and say, “Isn’t it remarkable how real it looks?” while we know that they are not real, is also interesting.

    What is the word for when something is obviously meant to be something else, how closely it resembles that thing? A marionette’s resemblance to a person is interesting precisely because the marionette is plainly not a person. Pinocchio isn’t a real boy, but he is still real–and the interest in him is derived from the unreality of his resemblance to a real something else.

  9. Moff says:

    @braak: The term you are looking for is “realishness.”

  10. Braak says:

    I knew you–famous journalist and copyeditor–would know.

  11. Hsiang says:

    Okay I’m stumped, what about “verisimilitude”? “Realishness” sounds right too. Or “spooky”.

  12. Mary Jones says:

    Meanwhile film strives even harder to make the fantastic real. And if you’re George Lucas you suck at it; if you’re Peter Jackson, you’re brilliant (at least for hiring the right people). But try that on stage, and it just looks ridiculous to me. On stage, puppets are great–I saw an almost-all-marionette production of Don Giovanni, the only exception being the statue, played by a human, who then looked huge and monstrous in comparison to the puppets we’d grown accustomed to watching. On film, puppets can work if done right (or I just really like The Muppet Movie); but if your CGI is crap, why even bother using it?

    In conclusion, Yoda was better as a puppet.

  13. braak says:

    @Hsiang: Well, yes, verisimilitude. But what I mean is, how much does the thing not look like what it seems like it should look like. I think verisimilitude would be confusing under those circumstances, because is it implicitly posits absolute identification as the standard condition.

    I keep wanting to say “irreality,” but I’m fairly certain I’ve made that up.

  14. Hsiang says:

    No, “irreality” is an established if clunky word, but it has the connotation of how removed from the real a thing is. There has to be something that fits…

  15. braak says:

    Screw it. I’m taking “counterreality.”

  16. V.I.P. Referee says:

    You try and watch “Safety Last!” without flinching once! The building- scaling scene is still effective to this day.

    One of the saddest things to happen to film was a total shift away from expressionistic productions; those films that “behaved” like paintings. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Sunrise” come to mind. Even in the 30’s into the late 40’s, sets were designed on more of an impressionistic bent; oversized rooms, fairytale/Klimt and Maxfield Parrish-esque arrangements. By the late 60’s, most of that was killed off. Hitchcock actually kept a hint of expressionism in his films until later in his career; if you’re able to catch a film called “Rich and Strange”, you’ll know what I mean. At least we still have Tim Burton and Guillermo del Torro, who both push their expressionistic luck as far as audiences will let them.

  17. […] in ideas or story, but it is a pretty great movie if you want to see an excellent example of the Tyranny of Verisimilitude. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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