March 09, 2006

Lost in Plato's Cave

We’re coughing away at breakfast time under the influence of our colds and talking about what makes horror movies scary -- is it the building of suspense by the writer and director and editor, is it special effects, is it the audience’s preconceptions about what scares them – when Agent 97 makes a turn in the conversation:

“Did you ever notice that the actor who plays Jack on Lost looks just like Jack?”

“Huh? What do you mean? He is Jack. There’s no one else who is Jack. He looks like himself.”

We tried to think of times when that isn’t true: when the actor is playing an alien, such as a Klingon, or when the actor is playing a historical person. We can say that Henry Fonda does and doesn’t look like Lincoln, that Spencer Tracy does and doesn’t look like Edison. But can there be a case when the character is a fictitious human being and the actor doesn’t look like the character?

That’s where casting comes in, I told them. The actor who plays Jack is perfectly cast as that type of person: a regular guy, a skilled doctor with human flaws and doubts, handsome enough but scruffy and not a matinee idol type, strong but a little soft-looking. He looks like a man who has too wear a suit professionally but always looks a little shlumpy in it. The actor who plays the snivelly British rock star is perfect too. Some of the others on that show aren’t as perfect: they’re too goodlooking. Sawyer and Sayid would be perfect if they were a bit less handsome.

This problem affects the casting of female roles especially. The actress who plays Kate is too beautiful for what Kate would be in real life. The real one would be sexy, of course, in order to pull her cons on men; she might be a facsimile of a girl next door, convincing to the easily gulled; but there’s an element of tawdriness missing from the actress’ persona. The real Erin Brockovich, who plays a waitress in the movie Erin Brockovich, is perfectly cast for the role of Erin Brockovich, while Julia Roberts is just the Hollywood version.

Can we be imperfect versions of ourselves? Are there Platonic ideals of ourselves, whom we in real life fail to realize fully? Am I perfectly cast to be Richard, and what could I do to fit the role better — or should the reverse be true, should the ideal be adjusted to match the reality? What would the world look like in which we were all the Platonic ideals of ourselves?

Most important: does the ideal me have to sit here all day typing his brains out?