First I’ll discuss the movie, which takes place entirely at one location. It also demonstrates the power of a good script regardless of the budget and quality of cinematography. The movie in question is Man from Earth, which poses a philosophical argument that tests the psyche of all of the characters involved as well as the audience. One can’t help but notice the similarity this movie has to some episodes from the original Star Trek and Twilight Zone. This is not surprising since the script can be credited to Jerome Bixby who once wrote episodes of both series.
The movie begins with the main character, whose name is John Oldman, being surprised by a small group of friends who show up to give him a farewell party. It is clear that he is well respected within that circle. They are very concerned about why he is leaving his position and getting out of town so abruptly. After being evasive for a while, he finally breaks down and tells them he has a secret that he hasn’t shared with anyone before.
He initially reveals what appears to be a hypothetical concept of a Cro-Magnon man who has managed to live until the present time. After a brief discussion on what this person might be like and what he might know, the conversation gets a little strange for the guests. They continue to play along while assuming that he is working on a science fiction novel. What is strange is that he constantly talks about the character in his “story” in the first person. They really find it hard to swallow when he reveals that he is actually a prehistoric caveman who has survived for over 14,000 years.
The reactions from his friends range from total disbelief to actually entertaining the possibility. Some of the non-believers simply think that he is crazy. The conversation that ensues mainly consists of most of the people in the room trying to poke holes in his story without success. After a while it is obvious that there is no real way for him to absolutely prove what he has said, while at the same time they can’t disprove it. What makes it interesting is that each person is practically an expert in his or her own discipline, which include biology, psychology, and even theology.
The tension in the room rises when he starts talking about religion and his personal experiences thousands of years ago. The conversation gets more heated when the discussion shifts to Jesus Christ; some of the people even become visibly upset and confused. Eventually, one of the guests tells him to stop the charade. In order to calm the natives, he finally tells them that he’s not really crazy and that he had been preparing to write a work of fiction. Everyone finally breathes a sigh of relief, to a point, but still let him know that the whole thing was not the least bit humorous. In the end, it is still left up to the viewer to decide what is or isn’t true, although a final revelation points more in one direction than the other.
This got me thinking about the typical reaction people have in the real world when faced with knowledge that calls into question strong beliefs. The reaction is even more profound when the knowledge results in the shattering of the image of a person whom they have honored and admired. For example, there is the possibility that Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate children with one of his slaves with whom he was apparently in love. Christopher Columbus eventually became a brutal tyrant as governor of one of his colonies. While it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of these people, it does help people realize that these figures are just as human and fallible as any one of us. This truth can sometimes be difficult for others to deal with.
This finally brings me to a recent incident that involves the aforementioned phenomenon, but this time directly involving the audience in a bit of cinema. The incident took about two years to unfold and involved the actor Joaquin Phoenix. There is no point in outlining the play-by-play details because if you haven’t heard of this by now, then you must have been buried somewhere in his beard all that time. I should point out that, like the character in Man from Earth, Phoenix announces an abrupt departure from his life-long career.
When Phoenix allowed his appearance to rival that of a Cro-Magnon (more like the Unabomber) and announced that he was quitting acting to start a rap career, his fans were thoroughly disappointed and even horrified. They saw what had been a good actor with a promising career quickly spiraling incoherently to an end that could possibly be similar to that of his deceased brother River. Eventually, it was his appearance on Letterman that seemed to send folks into a serious tizzy.
It was finally announced that the whole thing was a hoax, and the reactions from his fans ranged from, “I knew it all along” to “Whew, thank God” to “Absolute genius.” Of course, the resulting mockumentary, which was directed by Casey Affleck, wasn’t much to show for 2 years of work, so the “genius” comments might be a bit much. If you get a chance to watch I’m Still Here, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Kaufman he is not.
During production of this film, the audience was an important part of this experiment. Their actions and reactions on and off camera were every bit a part of its making. Of course, one thing still remains true. Only a couple of people really know how much of the hoax was really a hoax, and whether or not it started with true disillusionment with his craft. It is possible that Joaquin really did need a break from his career at the start of the act. Two years of a Jackass style frat party caught on film couldn’t have been anywhere near as stressful as his usual work. We’ve seen a number of entertainers have brief meltdowns only to claim later that they were preparing for some role. While that wasn’t the case here, at least a bearded Joaquin would have been more believable saying that than a bald-headed Britney Spears.
At any rate, there was a sigh of relief from some of his fans, accompanied by a, “What the fuck?” from the rest. Even if it was all an act, I still say the dude was high as a kite on Letterman, as well as a few other appearances. I’m sure if he was really losing it and had crashed like his brother, people would have dealt with it like many of the other recent celebrity deaths. It would eventually devolve into acceptance as numerous tributes played out on various networks. People would have gotten over it quickly, considering the overly long appearance of a public meltdown.
This, along with a number of other incidents, helps one realize just how strong belief is amongst the masses. Sometimes this belief in someone ends up creating a persona that even the real person can’t live up to. This was probably one of the points made in Man from Earth, when several revelations were made about a few historic figures. Most of these people we uphold are just people like the rest of us. Joaquin may have unintentionally tapped into this and consequently pissed off a handful of his fans in the end.
I have no intention of delving into this type of interactive art since it is basically a form of reality television. However, I do like the idea of a storyline where the audience begins to doubt their beliefs or even themselves, only to be pulled deeper into a dynamic plot. I certainly would need to put more time and effort into a finished product than Phoenix and Affleck did. The more a writer toys with the psychological aspects of an interactive story, the more captivated the audience will be. That happens to be an important a concept in most storytelling.