Friday, March 25, 2011

Horror in the Grocery Store

First, a disclaimer: Yes, this is technically another post about Scream, superficially, anyway. But it’s also about me. I’m not sure that generates any more incentive to read this post, but that’s what I can give you.

Let me set the scene. The grocery store — the one nearest my house and the one that has been the setting for my oddest interactions since I moved to Los Angeles. I’m in line for check out when people come queue up behind me. I casually look to see who’s there, and in the instant I glance at the girl standing closest to me, I feel a twinge of recognition. I turn away, and that’s when I realize it’s a combination of “I know her!” and “The last time I saw her, she was dead.” The reaction hits me hard enough that I look back at her, mostly because I’ve never had to process the strangeness of seeing a person who I’ve previously seen die. It’s a pretty awkward double take. Had I been acting in a movie, the director would have accused me of overplaying the scene. I’m lingering. She notices. “Hi,” she says, annoyed and on the offense. I realize how weird I must seem and force a smile. “Hi,” I say, surely sounding like a creep. I turn around, this time for good, but I imagine that her disdain for me burns a hole into the back of my head.

I reacted in the way I did because I saw this actress die in Scream 4 just a few days ago. Though she’s acted in other projects, they’re mostly teen and tween fodder, and I’ve never watched them. Consequently, her performance in Scream 4 — in which the most memorable thing she does is get stabbed to death — is all I really know of her. And yet here she is, alive and buying food, just like me. It feels strange having to so quickly reconcile a real-life actress with her fate as a character on a screen, and I’d never experienced it this way before. Moving to Los Angeles, I figured that I’d occasionally see actors, and I have and it’s never been a problem. But at the grocery store, it was a problem, because it aggressively conflicted with the way I watch movies. When I walk into a theater and the lights go down, I wholeheartedly buy into the universe presented before me. I’m not a crazy person who thinks that what happens in movies and TV actually happens in real life, but the only way I know how to experience these stories is to surrender my reality to the one on the screen, at least until plot holes or bad acting or some technical fault render that world too implausible. And that’s what I did at and throughout the Scream 4 preview, even though the movie presented a few obstacles to that kind of viewing. Regardless, it felt jarring to have that illusion broken so suddenly.

It’s tough for me to put in words, I guess. I’m not traumatized and I’m not in disbelief, but I think I might appreciate more separation between my fiction and my fact. To use the Scream movies as an example, there are two actors who have died in the series who I’ve later seen in real life: Drew Barrymore (at Coachella a few years ago) and Elise Neal (at a party in LA a few months ago). Didn’t bother me. I’m familiar with both as actors outside of the Scream movies, and a comforting amount of time went by between seeing the movies and seeing the actors. Tonight was different.

Can I use an example? Great. I will. In searching for something to compare it to, I arrive at that scene in Mulholland Drive when Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring venture into the closed-up apartment, see the corpse and then go running out, images of them fragmenting off and spinning around their bodies for a few moments before converging back on the actresses. It’s an exaggerated example, I know, and yes, using a movie to explain the weirdness of reconciling a movie with real life might indicate that I’m an individual who has issues grasping reality. Whatever. The point is that the characters Watts and Harring play in that scene aren’t real, and that fake, Hollywoody reality eventually gives way to something harsher and grittier. Someone analyzing the symbolic language of film might interpret the scene with the visibly fragmented characters as foreshadowing for the beginning of the end of the fake reality. And that, in a muted, I-swear-I’m-not-crazy sense, is what I felt today. (Speaking of David Lynch weirdness, I at this point should probably mentioned that this morning I saw Laura Dern in my office parking lot. I recognized her and said hello. Yeah, Los Angeles is weird.)

What else can I draw into this mess of thoughts and movies and perception and myself? Only that I watched this week’s Community after the grocery store incident, and was taken aback by the Abed plotline, about him visiting the set of Cougar Town and experiencing a similar disconnect between “stories” and reality. He talks about seeing Courteney Cox and her being the trigger for his realization about fictional characters being false. And it was strange, given that I saw this very woman just a few days ago at the press conference for Scream 4. In fact, it was at that press conference that Hayden Panettiere, of all people, did a good job of summing up my feelings about the difference between real life and these fictional worlds we tend to invest ourselves in. Panettiere mentioned how strange it felt to her to grow up liking the Scream movies and then to be in this new one rather than just experiencing it by watching it. Granted, this sort of experience hits actors a whole lot harder, I’m sure, but I have to hand it to little Maddie Harrington for putting into words an uncanny, hard-to-describe sensation that I’d later experience — as a result of one of her costars, no less.

In the end, I learned nothing. Movies are fake, and I continue to know this. But that doesn’t mean that the way I watch movies and TV and any other staged fakeness might happen differently now.

I promise the next thing I post here won’t be Scream-related. But I think there’s a few more waiting to happen in the not-too-distant future. Apologies, non-fans. But hey — it’s just a movie.

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