Ordinary Moments in Extraordinary Situations
This is a favorite theme of mine. People doing normal things when involved in extraordinary events.
My favorite example is the dinner scene in Star Wars. Luke has just discovered that the new droids they bought are not as they seem, leading his uncle to remind Luke that he is nothing like his father. This important conversation happens over a meal, complete with the now famous blue milk in Tupperware cups. I like this scene because we have a young man who does not yet know his destiny - in fact the audience does not yet know what is in store either - yet still he is surrounded by robots, Jawas, Tusken Raiders, landspeeders, sandcrawlers, moisture vaporators and treadwells - and the filmmaker took the time to show us that this character is human. He eats, he sleeps, he has chores and he doesn't get along with his parents - just like the average teenage boy in 1977.
In fact, later in his adventures, after he crash lands his ship in a swamp, Luke takes the time to eat some rations, not knowing how long he will be there. But nevertheless, he is a human with basic needs of food, shelter and sleep. No doubt after enjoying a bowl of rootleaf stew he and Yoda both got some rest before the big day of Padawan training.
Switching gears to Avatar. My favorite scene was something a bit different. At the beginning of the third act when Michelle Rodriguez and Norm steal a helicopter to go help their friends, Norm reaches up and removes the covers from the engine air intakes - both of them. This is a detail that could easily be skipped, but it shows me that these are real people operating in a believable world. It is akin to the sequence in Star Wars when the flight deck personnel are removing fuel hoses and ladders from the X and Y Wing fighters before the climactic battle. So again, we come back to A New Hope. Was Cameron paying homage to the real moments in the fantastical world of Star Wars? Did Jim Cameron read one of my previous blog posts about my love of "blue milk" scenes in movies? Is this simply an indication that these two filmmakers respect the audience and understand that suspension of disbelief should be somewhat grounded in reality.
Deckard washing dishes. Kirk cooking eggs. Peter, Mary Jane and Harry celebrating Thanksgiving. Indy eating dates.
Mike Cohen eating a granola bar and drinking coffee while surfing the COW.
2001 has a couple of these kind of things. Exercising, napping, eating that gross looking space paste with the flat popsicle stick-like utensils. But I guess that may have been more directly about what normal life on a spaceship was supposed to be like than say, Star Wars.
I think the direct opposite of this kind of thing would be something like the show 24. Don't these people ever need to use the bathroom? Maybe enjoy a 5 minute lunch break? Perhaps at 3 in the morning someone could say, "Yak know, we have done a lot in the last 12 hours. Everyone is getting paid for a lot of overtime. Let's stop right now, get a few hours of shut eye, and get back to work at 8 AM sharp."
And I always thought that blue milk looked extremely healthy. Like it was full of rich Tatooine vitamins us Earthlings will never get to enjoy.
Except you have to milk the bantha to get the blue milk...:-)
Ordinary moments are put there for the same reason so many aliens are humaniform in general appearance: to give the audience understandable points to relate to as waypoints or orientation. Psychologically, as well, when faced with things we don't understand, characters will also seek out reassurance in something familiar and grounding.
What becomes really effective is when you leverage that need and expectation, and put just enough spin on it, as in the case with the blue milk. Sure, the scene is otherwise not hard to accept, as Mike says, UNTIL the little detail of the milk being freaking BLUE yanks your expectations to a new direction.
In the x-wing situation, normally, you'd have airplanes in a war movie with propellers spinning up, HUGE dramatic visual... but spaceships have no props, and they didn't have a budget to animate good-looking jet/rocket engine flames back then either. You needed the bits of human "business" activity to signify a change of state from inert to ready to fly. And so very much of the original Star Wars was helped along by.... Ben Burtt's AUDIO effects.
Without his engine noises spooling up, those x-wings would seem fake.
As far as 24, which ends forever this week (except for possible movies), I always lost my suspension of disbelief because the script wanted to have things both ways: set us up in a limited "box" of events unfoling in one 24 hour period, but then stretching time to accomodate LA traffic, cars that never run out of gas, guns that have infinite ammo, cell phones that have infinite battery power, people that never eat, drink, sleep or poop. Okay, we don't need to SEE them poop, I can take "pooping" as a given, offscreen. But all those other "limitations", they are the same thing that make haiku a great art form: fitting within the restrictions unleashes creativity.
I got really disgusted with 24 and gave up, the day they had a scene where terrorsts hijack a missile in transit by truck. The CTU is tracking them by satellite as they move from Illinois to Missouri, and then... the truck is suddenly just... gone. The script *needs* the bad guys to steal the truck, but what did the writer have the actors *say* to get that done?
"We lost the truck in the mountains, they must have ambushed it".
In Western Illinois, along the Mississippi river.
That there is very VERY bad writing, indeed. I don't ask them to live in Illinois all their life as I have. But would it have killed them to look at google maps for ten seconds? And seen this, not as a limitation, but an opportunity? You're a bad guy and you have to steal the missile truck as it crosses the border... how? Maybe, you have a dummy truck substitute at some point along the road, like at an overpass, and deliberately drive off the middle of the bridge into the Mississippi freaking river. Huge diversion, would take hours to sort out, tie up lots of good guy resources, as the real truck with a quick paint job or decal covering, drives right on by on the detour route, unquestioned...
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