Thursday, April 15, 2010

Maureen McHugh: The Illusion of Authenticity

It’s funny, but stories on the internet often evoke stronger emotions than stories on television and movies. That’s not to say movies and TV don’t make people feel. Field of Dreams probably made more men cry than all the funerals the year it was released. It’s my sense that people feel that interacting with a character—by email or phone, for example—makes it all feel more real. I never thought much about it, just accepted it as fact. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I think that it’s true that interaction plays a big part. But I also think that in twenty years, the effect will have worn off.

No Mimes was at a joint conference between USC and UCLA at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in March. The conference, called Transmedia Hollywood, was a long and interesting day. Many smart people. The thing that we do, tell distributed stories on multiple platforms using interactivity, has a bunch of names, transmedia being one of them. There are lots of long discussions about what we do, what the essential components of the artform are, and whether or not it is an artform, all of which are pretty interesting.

But I’m not going to talk about that because I think it’s an impossible question.

During the day of panel discussions, one of the words that kept coming up was ‘authentic.’ Comments like, ‘It works if it’s an authentic story.’ After awhile it was a little like listening to Stephen Colbert talk about ‘truthiness.’ Susan Cowan and I talked a little about it later at dinner. She has a lot of historical training and for her the word ‘authentic’ often refers to historical accuracy. And indeed, one of the panelists used the word that way. But most of the others seemed to be using ‘authentic’ to mean ‘makes an impression’ or ‘feels real’. An authentic story is almost by definition an oxymoron. Sure, there are true stories. But we were talking about fiction. About The Matrix, and the Batman movies. About Blair Witch.

As a novelist, I know techniques to create emotion in a reader. They don’t work one hundred percent of the time, but they’re pretty tried and true. Shakespeare and Homer used a lot of them. Listening to all of these people say ‘authentic’ made me think about technique and in particular about an actress, Eleanora Duse.  She was the Meryl Streep of her era (she was born in 1858 and died in 1924). She was ‘natural.’ She was ‘moral.’ She didn’t wear make-up and she didn’t use the conventional gestures of her day. She is remembered for her work in Ibsen’s plays. But of course, most of her acting jobs were in contemporary plays, most of which we would now consider melodramas.

The anecdote I read and which I now can’t find, I’m sorry to say, described Duse acting in a melodrama. She played the wife of a man who was about to abandon her and their small son. The account describes how the convention worked, that the woman, on being told by her cad of a husband that he was leaving her, would fold her arms theatrically across her chest, her head back as if she might faint. Duse was standing, the child actor against her, his back in her skirts as if leaning against her in apprehension. The ‘husband’ delivered his news, and Duse leaned down and gently folded the boys arms across his chest, instead of doing it herself. The audience gasped, many sobbed.

Obviously they were moved to strong emotion. Obviously this was ‘authentic’ as many of the Transmedia Hollywood panelists were using the word. And why was this authentic? Well, it isn’t, of course. It is possibly true that many people used the gestures of melodrama in real life, just as it is true today that we sometimes learn behaviors from sitcoms. But what made the audience react was that they knew the convention, and like most conventions (which are really clichés) they didn’t feel much when the convention is acted out. What Duse did startled them. It was close enough to the convention to be recognizable, but it was novel. It was unexpected.

Transmedia has that advantage today. Almost every project I’ve worked on has drawn on a completely new and therefore naïve audience. While there are conventions to ARGs—the countdown, for example—the stories seem most effective when the plot of them is rather conventional. Too unconventional and the novelty of form and story feels overwhelming for the audience. But if the audience has a sense of where they are in a story—oh this is the part of the story where something criminal happens, oh this is the part of the story where the hero rescues the scientist, etc—then they can follow along, just as everyone knew that crossed arms and hands flat against breast meant that the heroine had been dealt a harrowing emotional blow. But just as Duse’s doing it with the boy’s arms felt fresh, learning that the girl has been kidnapped in an email feels intimate, startling, novel.

So achieving ‘authenticity’ requires novelty in an established convention. The audience needs some level of comfort and some elements of surprise. For now, Transmedia is pretty much always surprising for the audience. I suspect that in ten or twenty years, we may have to work harder at it.

I, for one, intend to milk this moment for all it’s worth. - Maureen McHugh

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