Sunday!

Yesterday, our own Mike Schilling tweeted the following:

This really, really, really started to bug me. Three Amigos came out in 1986. Bug’s Life came out in 1998. Galaxy Quest came out in 1999. While that doesn’t qualify as exactly *RECENT*, it doesn’t strike me as particularly likely that The Three Amigos is the Ur-story of actors going to a place thinking they’ve got a gig, discovering that they have been mistaken for Real Heroes, letting everyone down because they’re merely actors, then deciding to act like heroes and heroically saving the day.

I mean, this is a great story, right?

So we went through our databases on the twitters and came up with stuff that was close… stuff that was vaguely adjacent… but nothing that hit the mark.

And so we thunk and we thunk.

I thought about Ender’s Game, but that was a case where a guy thought he was playing a game when he was, instead, fighting a war. I thought about Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday but that was about cops joining a secret society of anarchists and becoming anarchist (well, kinda) themselves. Someone pretending to be something and then deciding to continue running with that is close… but it’s not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about a group of actors getting hired to be heroes, getting there, realizing that they’re in a real situation, and then going on to act like heroes.

(We talked about it at the gaming group and friends suggested films like The Court Jester because of Danny Kaye’s character… but that doesn’t really count… and films like Fright Night because of Roddy McDowell’s character… but that doesn’t really count…)

And so I (we!) ask for your help with this. It’s been driving me (us?) nuts.

So… what are you reading and/or watching?


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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39 thoughts on “Sunday!

  1. All props to Mike, but The Count… ain’t it. The Revengers Tragedy was first performed in 1606. And I am sure the idea goes back further.

    In any case, reading some early Vernor Vinge, Across Realtime. Also just found out that there was a film of Dicks Radio Free Albemuth and it is on Prime! Not supposed to be that great, but I think I will check it out.

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  2. Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in some ways fits this mold. An actor is used to impersonate the daimyo when he dies. He in some ways fills the dead daimyo’s shoes, even though the inner circle all know he isn’t. It isn’t remotely played for laughs, though.

    This is based on a true story.

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  3. To look for the ur-story, we need to find the oldest story with these elements:

    1. Main character is an entertainer of some sort that is most famous for playing a particular type of role.

    2. Other people mistake the character as being the real thing.

    3. The character willingly or unwillingly goes along with it.

    4. At this point the rouse could go on until the very end of the story or get revealed at crucial part to make it look like the bad guys are going to win.

    5. The main characters live up to their role and save the day.

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    • I think perhaps we’re needlessly tripping over #1. I wonder if we can perhaps remove #1 and locate the origin.

      I can easily imagine a story where someone is mistaken for a hero or type of hero for completely random reasons. Like they wear the sort of clothes, or come from a city where heros come from.

      And the ‘actor’ stuff maybe gets added later as a more reasonable explanation of why someone should be mistaken in that manner. It’s not part of the trope, at least not originally, it’s just there to justify the trope.

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      • No, the actor-ness is key to the trope, because the blurred lines between acting a part and being the part are key to the story.

        That said, I think you are on to something about the ancestry of the trope, in that there are plenty of ‘fool stumbles into heroism’ folktales.

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        • Exactly. I think we’re just looking at a modification of the ‘Someone is assumed to be a hero’ trope, a modification that stuck.

          It stuck because not only does that actually give a good justification of how that happened (Instead of weirdly unlikely scenarios), but it also allows a lot of exploration of the difference between words (Which the actor has always had) and actions.

          I was just saying that the entire thing didn’t happen out of thin air…#2-#5 seems like an entirely plausible story by itself. So #1 probably got added at a specific point.

          But, now, thinking about it, this means that even if there is some example previous to ‘The Three Amigos’ that #1 was added to justify the trope…I’m not sure that would actually indicate the start of the new trope.

          It’s possible, that even if there was something before, The Three Amigos _independently_ stumbled upon adding #1, and it worked very well, and people took it from there.

          Although it really does seem absurd this trope was invented only 32 years ago. It almost seems like Shakespeare should have a plot like this, considering his fondness for people mistaken for other people _and_ for his having plays within plays.

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          • That’s what I’m saying – I mean, every trope is a modification of an existing trope, or probably of a double heaping handful of them – but it beggars imagination that this particular branch should’ve only started so recently.

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        • What about con-men? Thieves and rogues and orphans fooling people into thinking they are merchants, soldiers, princes, or heroes?

          And then being forced to embody the role?

          That seems very much on point.

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        • Okey doke. Let’s dig into this. (I’m writing this in real time because I’m not familiar with Scaramouche beyond Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.)

          Alright. There was a movie. 1952. Based on a novel. Oooooh. 1921.

          From the latter:

          In the course of his adventures he becomes an actor portraying “Scaramouche” (a roguish buffoon character in the commedia dell’arte). He also becomes a revolutionary, politician, and fencing-master, confounding his enemies with his powerful orations and swordsmanship. He is forced by circumstances to change sides several times. The book also depicts his transformation from cynic to idealist.

          Hrm.

          To hide from the law, Moreau joins a troupe of travelling Commedia dell’Arte actors under M. Binet. He takes on the role of Scaramouche, the scheming rogue. He discovers an aptitude for acting and writing, which propels the troupe from near-poverty to success which eventually takes them to the Feydau theatre in Nantes.

          Yeah, I don’t think that this qualifies (though, now, I’m interested in seeing the movie) because it’s about a hero who becomes an actor rather than as an actor who becomes a hero.

          One thing I’m wondering is whether this particular story is only one that could have been written in an age of mass media where actors were held in something close to esteem rather than seeing actors as being in the same class of people as carnies.

          That is to say, it was only recently that people thought that actors could possibly have heroic people among their number rather than that actors would be the perfect disguise for heroic people because there’s no way that actors could possibly be heroic.

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          • Don’t see the movie; its not good.

            Yeah, its not a prefect fit… but the wikipedia synopsis doesn’t tell the tale of how Moreau (Scaramouche) is a castaway of fate who takes-up many guises and disguises only to be thrown repeatedly into the path of revolution… always mistaken for something else until he fulfills his destiny(s).

            It is more (19th century Dumas-ish) Commedia than Farce, and is probably following some older form… but probably that older form is more like Scaramouche than the Three Amigos.

            But then, maybe that’s the metaphysical answer to your question… what if the Three Amigos *is* the origin, or the dawning, of the idea that three fools can save the day… there’s something modern and absurdist that makes it even possible. There are hundreds of Ur-stories where Fate, Fortuna, or Providence reveal the hidden gifts in the Protagonist(s)… but in a world with Fate, Fortuna, and Providence… can you have three idiots who are anything other than cautionary tales? First you have to kill Fate; which, if I’m on to something, means that your likely candidates can’t really exist much before 1900, when Fate was killed.

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            • One of the first things that occurred to me was the whole “Holy Fool” thing. The best recent example is probably Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little (I recommend it, if you’re in the mood for a light comedy starring Bill Murray playing Bill Murray… rotten tomatoes gives it a 41% and they’re full of it). It’s about a guy who thinks he’s doing one of those “Interactive Improv Theater” things where he’s running around London thinking that he’s an actor but, really, he’s involved in some international spy ring kinda thing. He manages to save the day, foil the bad guys, and he never once stops thinking that he’s still in the improv thing.

              But then, maybe that’s the metaphysical answer to your question… what if the Three Amigos *is* the origin, or the dawning, of the idea that three fools can save the day… there’s something modern and absurdist that makes it even possible.

              Slate Star Codex recently wrote an essay about “Moral Narrative” boggling at an Aeon article that talks about how it looks like the whole Good Guy/Bad Guy thing appears to be relatively recent. Like, a *LOT* more recent than you’d think. (Like, the Aeon article dates it to after Shakespeare and puts it as kicking off around 1700.)

              Scott Alexander doesn’t agree with the central thesis of the Aeon article but does notice that, well, the whole good/evil thing does appear to have taken a lot time to get the formula to work.

              The essays are worth reading in their own right (and I’m not doing them justice here) but maybe it took us all of civilization to get us to the point where we finally finished the stories we had to tell before we could tell this one.

              But it still feels like Three Amigos cannot be the first time this story was told.

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              • Interesting SSC article… I’m not sure the “concept of good guy/bad guy” isn’t entirely novel; but there’s something there in that we’ve lost the original notion of Tragedy wherein a good person has a (perhaps fatal) moral flaw that leads to disastrous events. The point in that moral/ethical framework is that we’re dealing with good people failing at making good moral judgments for various reasons; and the reasons are the point of the story.

                Now? We’re more like to just call that person a bad guy. I’d say that’s a great diminution of our ethical reasoning, but that’s kinda our thing.

                Regarding Holy Fools, that’s an interesting notion; but I’m not sure that’s really what the Amgios are (in fact, I’m rather sure they are not)… but leaving the door open for a secular reinterpretation of Holy Fools (pdf), who am I to judge? Though I should note that Forrest Gump as a Secular Holy Fool has the better feel of it.

                Possibly another stone in the balance for novelty: maybe the idea that Actors are some unique category of Fool requires the event of modern technology, modern special effects, mass consumption and mass stardom… maybe you need something like Starwars to kick-off the idea that Actors themselves might start to believe the nonsense.

                Here’s hoping that Josh Brolin has a good head on his shoulders.

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  4. I’m just trying to think of any story in the Western cannon between Shakespeare and the advent of film where a character in the story is also an actor. And I’m drawing a blank.

    But I know pretty much jack squat about opera; is there something in there?

    Likewise, did Chaplin or any other bigs of the silent era do the ‘play within a play’ meta-thing? It does seem Chaplin would have used this trope if he had thought of it.

    Wait, is the Great Dictator this trope we’re looking for, but in dark comedy form?

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    • I feel the Great Dictator deserves an honorable mention somewhere, although technically speaking the Barber is never mistaken for a hero by the good guys, or by anyone else, and isn’t really hired by anyone…he is posing as Hynkel just one speech, which is the end of the movie.

      But it _does_ have ‘random guy who is not a hero is mistaken for someone else (Just not a hero) and steps up and becomes a hero’, so it does seem relevant.

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  5. Another hilarious and recent homage: My Name Is Bruce

    Wherein Bruce Campbell, the B-movie actor, gets mistaken for Bruce Campbell, the sort of monster-fighting hero he plays in said B-movies, and is totally out of his depth fighting off an actual monster.

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