1000 Words: Phony Realism and a Funny Organ

Two for the price of one today.

First, actor and film producer Alec Baldwin will be charged with involuntary manslaughter, acc’d’g to Santa Fe, New Mexico’s First Judicial District Attorney, Mary Carmack-Altwies. On October 21, 2021, while filming a scene for a cowboy movie on a ranch in Santa Fe, a prop gun Baldwin was holding discharged, resulting in the death of the film’s cinematographer and the serious injury of its director.

Baldwin on the set of “Rust.”

Considering that Baldwin is a Hollywood A-Lister and there’s big dough behind any picture he appears in, it stands to reason his and the movie’s well-paid defense attorneys and prosecutors’ll be thumb-wrestling for weeks — even months — over who’s really responsible for the tragic accident. The film’s armorer is also charged with involuntary manslaughter.

One thing we learned in the aftermath of the incident is movies that feature gunplay have to have an expert called an armorer on the set during shooting (you’ll pardon the pun). “Armorers are responsible for the transport, storage, and safe use of all weaponry and firearms on film sets,” says the official job description issued by the International Alliance of Stage Employees. That’s the labor union representing many of the behind the scenes workers on a film.

Any number of film actors who actually use prop guns have come out to say they insist on testing their weapons for safety with the armorer before actually pulling any triggers.

I’ll leave that arm wrestling match to the lawyers. That’s what they get paid huge scratch for. Some individual or set of individuals, at the end of the upcoming trial, will bear the blame for the tragedy.

Me? I blame Hollywood. Period.

There is absolutely no reason on this Earth why guns that actually fire projectiles should be used while shooting a film.

Let’s go back to one of my favorite movies of all time, 1947’s “Kiss of Death.” In the movie’s final, climactic scene, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), an ex-con trying to go straight, gets shot up by the lunatic killer, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Bianco takes three or four slugs to the belly and tumbles to the pavement outside Louie’s Italian restaurant, where he’d been goading Udo. Bianco is seriously injured but survives the shooting. Udo tries to run from the cops, who are just arriving on the scene. The cops shoot Udo but he, too, survives. Udo will go to prison for the rest of his life because he’s already a two-time loser using a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The Assistant DA with Tommy Udo (center) and Nick Bianco (right).

Now, the viewer is shocked and saddened, initially, by the shooting of Bianco. Then, when it’s revealed he has survived and Udo has been apprehended, we feel a sense of triumph. It’s a textbook Hollywood ending.

The filmmaker, director Henry Hathaway, has given us precisely what we wanted of a crime film.  We’re scared, we’re hopeful, we’re pulling for Bianco, we get thrills, we get satisfaction. We get catharsis.

It was only after I’d seen “Kiss of Death” a dozen times or so that I realized I never see a drop of blood on Nick Bianco. No gunshot wounds. No gore. No crimson spray. In fact, if I recall correctly, I never even saw flashes emanating from Udo’s handgun. I only heard pow! pow! pow! and then watched Bianco collapse.

And that’s all I needed. Hathaway, as every other director of his era did, forced us to use our imaginations. Do we really need to see gaping holes in the protagonist’s body? The splash of human blood and bits of flesh on the wall and sidewalk behind him?

The obsession with “realism,” as illustrated, for instance, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” in contemporary filmmaking has turned us into brain-dead viewers. When “Dexter” chops up another victim, does some forensic expert on the set really need to get spray and splatter patterns precisely right?

Richard Widmark clearly used a prop pistol that only looked like a gun. It didn’t fire anything. We get it; he’s shooting a gun and when Bianco gets shot, he may be killed, or at least seriously wounded. We’re not stupid.

But today’s obsession with “reality” demands film actors use guns that fire — if not real bullets — dangerous blanks that produce fire and smoke and shards of metal that can fly through the bodies of cinematographers and directors.

What’s the point?

We get this faux reality in our movies and television programs, yet we’re fast losing our capability to discern bullshit from reality when we watch the news.

One of Bloomington’s most notable scientists is neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, an adjunct lecturer at Indiana University’s medical school. At the age of 37, she suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Within hours after the onset of the event, she lost the ability to walk, talk, read, write, and remember things.

Ironically, because of her academic training, she knew precisely what was going on in her head as it was happening. She was even able to foresee what motor or cognitive functions would go awry next as the minutes passed.

Happily, Bolte Taylor not only survived but has completely recovered from her stroke. She recounts the ordeal in her book, My Stroke of Insight. She’s also written the book, Whole Brain Living.

Jill Bolte Taylor Toys with a Human Brain.

In a review of My Stroke of Insight, Lorna Collier writes in Brain & Living magazine that Bolte Taylor “regards her stroke as a positive event that left her with a sense of peace, a less-driven personality, and a new insight into the meaning of life…. Perhaps most surprisingly, she recalls feeling an intense sense of inner harmony and deep connection during the stroke that has remained with her.”

Isn’t the brain a funny organ? It can be devastated by perhaps the worst thing to befall it and then, after a time, it can rewire itself in the most positive way imaginable.

Case in point: I know a guy who, when I first met him, was a miserable cur, eternally unhappy, mean, glum, radiating negativity.

Then, a couple of years ago, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Other people who know him told me I’d be amazed at the transformation in him since the event. I ran into him yesterday. He was sweet and joyful, chatty, a joy to be around.

Yep, the brain is a funny organ.

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