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Author Topic: December 2009: On Believing in a World without Lies  (Read 227 times)
Gareth Southwell
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Posts: 192

« on: 29/12/09 @ 08:58 »

Truth, Lies and Realism in the World of Film

The main challenge in imagining an alternative reality is in making it self-consistent and believable. This is not only true of sci-fi and fantasy, but also more mundane imaginings, such as Ricky Gervais’ tale of mendacious opportunism, The Invention of Lying. Of course, there is a sense in which finding fault with fictional tales is always a bit nitpicking; the desperate act of a pedant. And yet, on the other hand, there will always be films where ‘suspending our disbelief’ actually involves lynching it from the nearest lamppost.

Curiously, though, it can be difficult to predict exactly which things will set off an audience’s believability radar. Often, once you’ve bought the initial premise of a story, it’s a case of looking out for things which jar with it. So, he’s a professor of archaeology who seems to spend most of his time in swashbuckling pursuit of obscure and mythical artefacts? Okay… He can survive a nuclear blast by being propelled for miles in a lead-lined fridge?! Aw, come on! [1]

However, sometimes things stick out as implausible or ‘not right’ for more subtle and surprising reasons. Coming back to The Invention of Lying, the filmmaker's challenge is to create a possible world which is similar enough to ours to be credible, and dissimilar enough (in certain ways) to be funny. Comedy has more room to play fast and loose with the rules of reality than other genres, but there is still a strange and slippery sense in which it must be true to itself. For instance, critics, whilst praising the film’s comic verve, seem to have rounded on its sloppy and less satisfying romantic finale. It is this which sticks out because, given the originality of the first half of the film, it is this which is disappointing and clichéd. However, it would seem to be up to the pedantic philosopher to point out that, actually, creating a world in which everyone tells the truth is not quite so straightforward in the first place.

Firstly, it should be noted that, in Gervais’ Truth World, people do not merely compulsively tell the truth, they make it their business to always tell you exactly what’s on their mind: one character blithely admits, “Sometimes, I cry in my sleep, and then I wake up in a pool of urine.” This makes it funnier and more original than, for instance, the honesty-cursed lawyer of Jim Carey’s Liar Liar, for it does not just concern those lies we tell under direct questioning, but also those opinions and beliefs we often choose not to share (and many we would never). In this sense, The Invention of Lying has more in common with the ‘Oh my God I can read people’s thoughts!’ premise (e.g. What Women Want). However, not always saying what you think or feel is not the same as lying; the first involves directing and managing your stream of consciousness, whereas the second involves deliberately hiding or changing something, and the two are not always the same (not mentioning that you think someone's new hairstyle makes them look like a parrot is not the same as telling him you think it looks great).

Lying is also different from subjective evaluation. Gervais’ character is often described (and describes himself) as fat and unattractive, but, if this is meant to be a true observation, then it assumes that such things as physical beauty or general appeal are objective qualities – which, arguably, they are not. A casual flick through a book of art history, or even the fashion magazines of thirty years ago, will show us that 'beauty' and the appropriate amount and distribution of body fat are hot topics where consensus opinion shifts over time. To always tell the truth, the characters would therefore seem to need to have access to some sort of absolute and objective aesthetic standard (which, you know, is a tricky thing!).

In a similar sense, lying is also not the same as being mistaken, and yet there are often cases in which we ‘delude ourselves’: I thought I loved her, but it was just infatuation; I thought I could eat it, but in the end it was too much for me. Being mistaken therefore sometimes involves a form of self-deceit (lying to oneself), because we let certain desires get in the way of a more objective perspective on things. But Truth World is not free of desire, or mistakes, and so how can it also be free of lies?

Of course, this is also part of the comic conceit: such a world as this could not exist, and the idea of a man suddenly ‘inventing’ falsehood is itself funny. Lying in general is just too blurry and deeply embedded a concept to be neatly snipped out from reality without taking other things with it. And this is the general problem with alternative universes: ideas and events do not exist as isolated things, but are woven into the fabric of our world. Therefore, you can say ‘frak’ if you want, but – whilst it may ensure that the show isn’t bumped to later in the TV schedule – let’s not pretend that this is genuine alternative-universe lingo. Such a change would alter the world in all sorts of minor ways – the ‘pheasant plucker’ tongue twister no longer works, for a start – and soon you have a completely different language, culture and history. [2] So, like in some time-travel movie where we alter our own past, seemingly small changes can have enormous consequences, and perhaps you shouldn’t have danced with your mother after all... [3]

And yet, all films employ convenient fictions – this is why the notion of ‘realism’ is always such a strange one in film (or any artistic medium), because the medium is itself in a sense unreal: we see events from different perspectives, we overhear private conversations, we skip through time and place at lightspeed, and so on. Being believable is therefore not about being truthful, but about selecting the right truths and the right lies. We have to accept these lies in order to appreciate a different sort of truth. That Truth World is itself impossible – a lie, in fact – is therefore quite fitting: where would film be without lies?


[1] ^ Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

[2] ^ Battlestar Galactica (the 'reimagined' new series).

[3] ^ Back to the Future, part I.


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