Generic verisimilitude

“Generic verisimilitude” is a nice big word! It means the accepted visual language that conveys reality in genre movies. In other words, cinematic cliches.

I’ve always been bemused by the sideways figure-of-eight black frame that tells us when a movie character is looking through binoculars. Have movie makers ever actually used binoculars? You don’t get the sideways “8”, instead you just see a nice black circle. But it’s not the worst example.

I saw “Rachel getting married” a year or two ago, and thought it was pretty good except for the madly excessive handycam wobble. And I got thinking about that and realised what a terrible artifice it is. Ironically, handicam wobble has become the leading sign of generic verisimilitude in ‘gritty’ moviemaking, yet the wobble is entirely fictional.

One of the marvels of the human brain is the way it produces a steady image as we move around. We can walk, run, jump up and down even on a trampoline, and our steadfast perception of the world is that it stands still. This complicated feat of cognition is thought to involve feedback mechanisms that allow the brain to compensate for the visual field shifting around on our retinas as the skull moves, sorting out which movements are apparent because we’re moving, and which movements are really out there. It’s a really vital survival tool; you couldn’t chase down a gazelle on the savanna if your cognition was confused by your own mad dashing about.

So, if the world doesn’t actually look to me like it shifts when I move, then what is the point of a film maker foisting this jerkiness upon us? If I was really in the place of the cinematographer, no matter how much I dance about, I wouldn’t see any wobble.

Moreover, motion pictures are the most voyeuristic artform. The whole cinemagraphic conceit is that you couldn’t possibly be in the same room as the people you’re privileged to be spying on. So again, why the “realism” of the handicam wobble which is intended to make us feel like actually we’re part of the action?

It’s odd that in the face of suspension-of-disbelief, when the audience is already putty in their hands, filmmakers inject these falsehoods into the visual language of otherwise hyper-realistic movies.

UPDATED 10 Sep 2012

Another example. I was watching a mockumentary on TV, set in the present, featuring gen Yers, and the protagonists made a home movie. And when we see their movie, it is sepia-coloured and has vertical scratch lines. Now, when was the last time anyone used film and not digital video to make a home movie? I wonder what young people even make of this tricked-up home movie look?

Another example. NASA posts mosaic pictures from the Mars rover – like this one – with the patchwork edges preserved, and where the colour matching is worse than what you can get with free panaorama software on a mobile phone these days. With all their image processing powers, why wouldn’t NASA smooth out the component pics? Are they inviting us to imagine standing on Mars like a tourist with our own point-and-click camera?