The Fourth Wall: The name is familiar; the face, not so much
The other night as I was eating some peas and carrots and (redundancy alert) mindlessly watching TV, I saw an unexpectedly terrifying sight flicker across the screen.
No, it was not Antonio Brown’s feet. (Let me stop here and say that if you are not a fan of the NFL or “The Masked Singer” and don’t know anything about Antonio Brown — not to mention his feet — I implore you not to seek out a relevant photo. Honest.)
Rather, the terrifying sight was the face of Robert DeNiro, as seen in a trailer for the upcoming film “The Irishman.”
The movie is a mob flick (redundancy alert) directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and just about every other actor you’d expect in a mob flick directed by Martin Scorsese ... along with Ray Romano.
Of course, everybody loves a mob flick directed by Martin Scorsese — even something as middling as “The Departed” — but there was something particularly jarring about “The Irishman” trailer.
It wasn’t the violence; Scorsese hasn’t made his oeuvre without breaking a few legs. It was that the movie is employing a “de-aging” technique that will allow us to see the characters played by DeNiro, Pacino and company in scenes set decades before the film’s actual timeline.
Unlike, say, DeNiro and Marlon Brando portraying Don Vito Corleone at various stages of “The Godfather” trilogy, in “The Irishman” the 75-year-old DeNiro plays the same character in his 40s through the use of special effects wizardry.
And, just based on the snippet of the technique released to the public ... it’s creepy. Not as creepy as Don Knotts turning into a dolphin in “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” but it’s off-putting in a way that likely will suspend the suspension of disbelief of the audience.
One of the requirements for a film to work is that, while we know we’re being treated to toy-sized spaceships and computerized creatures, those are accepted and forgotten once you become involved in the storytelling.
Seeing the “younger” DeNiro et al. in a sort of amber glow as part of the film just makes you sit there and notice the artifice. I watched and wondered whether the face would start melting and falling apart like those of the villains did in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
And this was just a movie trailer on a TV screen; imagine it enlarged exponentially on a movie screen and it takes what should be a stylized depiction of the events leading to the infamous disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa into surreal territory.
There are examples — through makeup, traditional special effects, and even the casting of two actors in the role — where this type of thing has been handled successfully in the past.
In “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Brad Pitt ages backward, as those around him get older. The concept of the story is emotionally satisfying to allow the viewer to accept the physical changes Pitt goes through, until he ultimately has to be seen by a younger actor.
One of the more brilliant conceits in recent movie history was in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” – which was filmed yearly from 2001 to 2013 as followed a boy played by Ellar Coltrane as he goes from age 6 to age 18. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette portray his parents through the length of the film’s journey — a successful experiment that grounds the film into a narrative structure we can accept as reality.
Bruce Willis (of course) might be in a category of his own — having visited a younger version of himself in three films ... including “Looper,” where the younger Bruce is played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is assigned by his bosses to kill his future self.
Heck, even Scorsese and DeNiro have played with the aging quandary successfully before in the classic “Raging Bull” — when the actor famously gained 60 pounds go play Jake LaMotta during separate stages of the boxer’s life.
But what’s going on in “The Irishman” looks — as well as feels — different.
And it makes you wonder why it had to be done at all. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted the high-profile actors in the film and, one you have DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel ... along with Romano ... at your disposal, you don’t want to spend half the movie looking at other actors trying to portray younger versions of legends.
But older actors approach lines of dialogue and physical reactions differently than “de-aged” versions can represent. And the process has the potential not only to take the audience out of the moment, but the performer as well.
It’s a threat to the film that Scorsese himself addressed in a recent interview.
“Why I’m concerned, we’re all concerned, is that we’re so used to watching them as the older faces,” Scorsese told “A Bigger Canvas” podcast. “When we put them all together, it cuts back and forth. ... Now, certain shots need more work on the eyes, need more work on why these exactly the same eyes from the plate shot, but the wrinkles and things have changed.
“Does it change the eyes at all? If that’s the case, what was in the eyes that I liked? Was it intensity? Was it gravitas? Was it threat?”
In these days of FaceApp, where we can see what we’d look like as an older version of ourselves, and video editing technology that can distort the appearance and behavior of pop stars and politicians, being deliberately confronted by a false reality carries with it a subconscious fear.
You can make the case that the de-aging process in “The Irishman” is more of an unsettling mystery than what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Right before our eyes, the reality of the possible should be enough to make us squirm in our seats.
And, like Antonio Brown’s feet, once you see it, it’s pretty much impossible to un-see it.
Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, where de-aging technicians are fast at work on his mugshot.