A sort of cautionary tale, if you will:
The other day, after collecting my daughter from school, I ran across an archetype: A young, well-dressed and bespectacled man crossing the neighborhood street. One so plugged into his phone he wouldn’t have noticed a 747 touching down on the road. (Twenty bucks says he can’t remember seeing my red minivan at all.) He carried on his way, blissfully ignorant of everything.
No Distractions For Old Men
This was not always the case. In what you might call a moment of art imitating life, there’s an unforgettable scene at the end of the Coen brothers’ 2007 award-winner No Country For Old Men. Hit-man Anton Chigurh (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem) is making his casual getaway (after tying up loose ends) when he’s involved in a car accident. Alas, author Cormac McCarthy denies the audience a cathartic comeuppance for the most famous villain since Darth Vader. The wounded Chigurh bribes two witnesses into silence (and for a shirt for his mangled arm) and limps off into West Texas anonymity.
Set in 1980, of course, there was no cell phone or Clash of Clans to distract Chigurh. He simply didn’t see the other car barreling through the red light.
(I haven’t yet read the book, as it’s on my list, and may have missed a passage of deep thought on his part.) Still, this moment seems a little tough to sell.
Hollywood, being Hollywood, loves to play small tricks on audience members. (Most of the time, the subtle details are so subtle that we fail to notice their absence.) How many times has the camera been focused tight on the hero’s eyes, deep in thought, only to cut to a wider shot to show that something–often in broad daylight–appears and takes both hero and audience by utter surprise? The quick look up, the musical jolt and heart-rate spike, meant to set people on edge with tension. Even when the surprising thing/beast/enemy has come into view at molasses speed. How often is this, well, unrealistic?
Does life imitate art? The young cell-phone man I saw the other day had one foot (and both brain hemispheres) in the digital ether. A ubiquitous sight, to be sure. Call it his excuse. For the rest of us, when our eyes aren’t on a small pixellated screen, how much would you fail to notice?
As a decent driver (around kids all the time) my eyes have become attuned to any quick movement. Rather than some super-human ability, it’s more the knowledge of what does happen when a car meets a living thing. The idea that some 4-year-old is certainly running down the sidewalk with his face in Mom’s iPhone raises this fear to the next integer. I move with modern caution, nothing more.
In my first book, Watching the World Fall, kidnapping victim MacReynolds Galtier is 7’1″ tall. People can’t help but notice when he walks into a room. It’s a primal draw of the eyes–our lizard brain reacting (and assessing) any presence which occupies that much volume.
Years ago, my wife and I were hiking in snowy mountains when a jumbo jet passed by, low enough and close enough to read the registration numbers. Seconds later, the loud whoosh of an avalanche we couldn’t see made us look wildly about (to make sure we were on safe ground). In a previous blog, I noted how Steven Spielberg apparently got lazy with some of his film-making. Who wouldn’t notice 20 tons of T-Rex stomping through a neighborhood? With an animal that size, you’d probably feel a change in air pressure.
So, back to Old Country: On a tree-lined street in mid-day, a professional killer (senses obviously attuned to subtle changes in shadow and smell) doesn’t notice a car approaching at 30 m.p.h. from his left? Not futzing with the radio. Not playing with his cell phone (a quarter-century too early for that). He just doesn’t notice?
I’ve had a few soccer balls cross my vision at a blur. (Yup, they would’ve hurt.) While pencils may roll off desks inexplicably (or, from the wind) huge starships don’t ‘suddenly appear’ in the sky, unless your narrator is woozy from been whacked over the head. Us humans are aware of much more than many-a-cliche-peddler needs a reader to believe.
I, for one, would notice if some huge beast lurked beneath the dark surface of that lake. A lizard certainly would.