Courtesy of Hulu

January 29, 2024

Lost Borders

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Titanic would be much less dramatic if right as the ship was going down, DiCaprio looked into the camera and assured the audience that what was happening was entirely performance and he was not in any real danger. There are certain expectations we have about film and art that we do not want to be questioned. One of which is we don’t want the fake characters to acknowledge they are a fake person in a make-believe reality. But what happens when real people are unsure if they are playing a character or themselves? What happens when we lose track of the border that separates real from fake?

In Nathan Fielder’s TV series The Rehearsal, some actors play themselves, some play other actors in the show and some are not actors but regular people. This genreless documentary/reality show conglomeration is an attempt to see how rehearsed real life can be. It is more of a psychological experiment than entertainment. So it is no surprise when the people involved in the production are confused about their roles. This comes to fruition when Remy, the young child actor (who is fatherless in real life) playing Fielder’s son begins to develop an attachment to Fielder. When Remy’s time as an actor on the show ends, he cannot let go of the fantasy he was paid to be a part of. In trying to see how close fiction and reality can intertwine, the show significantly warps the reality of one of its participants. 

Fielder narrates episode three, “Gold Digger,” saying, “Every now and then there are these glimmers. These moments you forget and you just feel like a family. That’s when you know the rehearsal is working.” On the surface, Fielder is saying that with each day of rehearsal, he feels less like an actor and more that his scene partners are his real wife and child — an artistic pushing of boundaries that eventually gets people harmed in the process. 

But if the “you” Fielder is referring to is the audience, then it becomes even more nuanced. He is saying that when the performance is good enough, we the audience forget it is fake despite his attempts to remind us. Essentially, if art can blend itself seamlessly into reality and neither the audience nor the performers recognize the stage, then what’s the difference? 

Some works rely on that barrier between performance and reality to dissolve. 

In & Of Itself, by Derek DelGaudio, is a one-man theatrical performance that was performed 552 times. But the film is different from the actual performance in the theater, as DelGaudio is also the narrator. In one scene he narrates, “You think this is a performance. You see a man in a theater. There’s an audience. His lines are memorized. His actions are rehearsed. It is difficult to see past what this looks like. Hell, it’s easy to lie on a stage. It’s even easier to lie in a film.” He is acknowledging the illusion that we all ignore when watching a show. To have an emotional interest in a piece of fiction, most creators attempt to bring the audience into their made-up world and hope they will believe it. Yet DelGaudio does the opposite. 

In further narration, he says, “I do not expect you to believe anything you’re seeing or hearing. And knowing you won’t believe me, that’s the only reason I’m going to tell you the truth.” DelGaudio can hide in the veil of performance because we have separately categorized truth and fictional entertainment in our minds. And quite a good hiding spot, for where is the last place you would look for someone being truthful? Is the stage not made for deceit, with its costumes and curtains, its sets and manufactured sounds? 

DelGaudio’s idea echoes what the author Tim O’Brien once said in a lecture: “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” 

Something both Fielder’s and DelGaudio’s pieces have in common is their recognition of the limitations of art. A third work that not only recognizes its limitations but centers around them is the film Inside by Bo Burnham.   

The musical, comedic, single-set, sole-performer film, analyzes its own importance in a world of looming concerns. In the song “Comedy,” Burnham sings, “If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke don’t panic — call me and I’ll tell you a joke.” This line is questioning just how useful art is. Often art is described as “life-saving,” but in situations where lives are in immediate danger, it seems that little can be done by art to help someone. Instead, it seems art can only be “life-saving” when our physiological and personal safety is secure. This brings an inherent limitation to art, as no matter how much it attempts to replicate life, it will never sustain us in the way other things do. 

However, as the film progresses and Burnham’s mental stability begins to crumble, he shows that working on the film is the only thing that can keep him functioning. In a way it does sustain him, yet is also quite parasitic as it slowly drains him of energy and purpose. In the song “Don’t Wanna Know” he sings, “Am I on in the background? Are you on your phone? I’d ask you what you’re watching but I don’t wanna know. Is there anyone out there? Or am I all alone?” Burnham’s breaking of the fourth wall puts the audience under the spotlight. He challenges the idea that his work will be passively consumed and calls out anyone doing so. Our expectation for art is that of a one-way relationship: It presents something to us and there is no obligation for us to present something back. 

This brings the blurriness between performance and reality to a heightened intensity. What happens when the actors harshly criticize the audience? At what point is it no longer performance but the actual person who is speaking to you? In “Goodbye,” Burnham sings, “Hey, here’s a fun idea. How about I sit on the couch and I watch you next time?” The argument can be made that he is no longer playing a character. He is genuinely trying to reach the audience as himself; the cruel irony is that he is on a screen, in front of a camera, digitized into a million pixels, the furthest thing from being human. 

We spend so much time trying to replicate reality in a myriad of ways. When artists attempt to find where the separation between reality and fiction lies, they realize they can only do so by merging the two — often with themselves and others caught in the disorienting crossfire. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the border between real and imaginary. Or maybe the border was something we imagined in the first place.

Luke Dennis is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].