I watched the Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious” last night. The Girl said it was amazing so I had to see it. Plus that “Note- Note-, Notorious” clip in the trailer gave me goosebumps every time I saw it so of course the movie must be amazing am I right or am I right? Trailer producers are quite possibly the most gifted and fortunate filmmakers past or present. What amazing power to be able to take non-sequitur or even non-existent clips and create for potential viewers a soul-shuddering minute and a half of suspense, an ninety-second emotional rollercoaster… It is godlike this power. I never did see the Note- Note, Notorious scene in the movie.
But I digress. I really mean to talk about the moment in the movie when everything went sour, when Biggie and Tupac’s relationship took a 180-degree turn for the worse. One minute they were BFF, and then suddenly, from out of nowhere, Tupac gets shot in the lobby of a Times Square recording studio and blames Biggie. Biggie’s voice-over attributes this shift to paranoia (one that the viewer was not previously keyed in to), and that may or may not have been true, but so suddenly? For whatever reason, the director chose to gloss over this pivotal moment, the moment that effectively created the east coast west coast rivalry that shaped the rest of the movie. And because that moment of weakness was located so close to the spine of the plot, everything that followed rang false.
The trickiest trick in fiction is delivering believability. Nine writers out of ten prefer to sacrifice credibility to a streamlined plot or some fantastic dialogue. And then nine out of ten crazy Hollywood people convince other crazy Hollywood people to spend thirty million dollars without giving serious weight to the question could this happen in real life. Could Tupac go from Biggie’s homie to his arch-enemy in 17 seconds? No. Did the director ask us to believe that he did? Yes. And there’s the grub, as my friend Cookie says.
Not to say that uber-realism is the way to go. Because even fantasy works this way. If you can’t convince the audience that the aliens stayed in the detainee camp for twenty years then you’ve got a major hemorrhage in the plot and all your fictive energy is leaking out of it.
We all have complaints about this world: trick knees, the necessity of shaving, too-short days, etc, but what you can always appreciate is that it is utterly real. That the dialogue is felt, that the physics work, that the motives line up, that the timing is right.
We say the timing is wrong but we mean wrong for us. We say that so-and-so’s stupidity is inconceivable, but really, of all the features of this life, the one that has become so workaday and expected and able to be imagined is stupidity. We say, when the dialogue is not felt, that the speaker has been watching too much bad TV. We say the pain is unreal but there is nothing more real than the sensation of pain. We say that someone’s perversity knows no bounds, that it is infinite, but this is hyperbole. These characteristics are as limited as we are and we may be legion but we are finite as hell. There is nothing of this world that is not of this world, except for our lame attempts to represent it.
And then there’s nothing more real and more human than our subsequent testing of this representation. It’s everywhere this test, it can be applied to every little thing: it’s what makes a good actor, if they seem to be speaking their lines from somewhere inside their chests; what makes a good company, that will at least attempt to add value alongside scraping the meat from our bones; good advertising, that entertains as well as demands brand fealty; good folks, that can reign in id for a little bit of superego; good life, with a little slog through the mud before an ascent to the top; good metaphysics, that suggests that there may possibly be some critter at the controls tweaking my storyline but stops short of promising that the lambs will lay down with the lions.
It’s a discipline this believability, and it’s much harder to pull off than it at first seems. But we wouldn’t buy any of it if it didn’t pass the test.