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Film Essays

EXTRA! EXTRA! A Transvestite, a Zombie, and a Lawyer Walk into a Bar

It is an iconic scene.

When Dustin Hoffman’s character, Michael, cannot land an acting role and he does what any creative mind would do: he dresses in drag. In one of the most memorable scenes of Tootsie, we watch Michael Dorsey parade through New York as his new persona:  Dorothy Michaels. Though not an attractive woman (a flaw highlighted later in the film by a camera operator) during this scene Dorothy radiates from the screen. Due to the impressive directing and cinematography, viewers subconsciously ignore the other people surrounding Dorothy. They are people as mere scenery. The extras used in Tootsie reveal a unique phenomenon in film: the utilization of people as equipment.

Tootsie (1982)

Martin Heidegger was a prominent post-modern German thinker, whose theories influenced thinkers as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and other existential philosophers. Many addressed him as the father of existentialism, although he rejected this title. Dehumanization plays a strong role in many of his theories, and references are riddled throughout his works. This focus on dehumanization branches from his core concept of dasein, which literally translated from the German means “being there,” but for Heidegger, dasein embodied the essence of humanity: the ability to comprehend one’s own demise. If something did not know this fact, it could not possess dasein by definition, and therefore was considered to be equipment. For Heidegger, equipment was merely anything that possessed no dasein, but in craft, the artist molds the form of their equipment to conceal or reveal dasein. Dasein may be concealed or revealed in other ways, but for the purpose of film, craft seems the most appropriate. In Tootsie, the director and cinematographer concealed the extras dasein so that they may use the extras as equipment, in this case as scenery to frame Dustin Hoffman.

Tootsie is not the only film to employ techniques to deny dasein to extras and render them equipment. Most creators of zombie films remove the human element of extras to use them as props. In films such as Night of Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland or any number of zombie films, the extras are in full view, but we still can only perceive the outer shell devoid of human essence. This is indeed the goal of zombie films! Particularly telling is the scene in Shaun of the Dead where it is discovered that Shaun’s mother has been bitten by a zombie. At the exact moment of transformation, the other characters were willing to shoot her. This demonstrates that they no longer saw her as human.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Although plenty of films use extras as equipment, Gandhi used over 30,000 extras, a feat that still has not been exceeded. Even though so many extras were used, they still possessed dasein, but only collectively: the extras are one character altogether. The inherent dasein of the extras reveals itself when one begins to notice the vast number of extras that have speaking lines, and the fact that they not only comprehend death, but are willing to succumb to it for a greater cause – even when their leader Gandhi has been imprisoned. This use of extras differs from the women that share the street with Dorothy in Tootsie, for those women never portrayed their knowledge of demise on screen. Similarly, determining whether zombies understand death at all seems impossible.

Films depend on extras to provide a more realistic view of the world – just like an on-location shoot provides authenticity, so do extras. Because of this, extras become essential to most films: essential as props, scenery, and characters. But one must be careful while depriving others of dasein: the denial of dasien can lead to oppression in many real world ways, including the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany applied Heidegger’s teachings to justify their actions. If a person was thought to not possess dasein, it was considered morally permissible to exterminate them, like zombies.

Ghandi (1982)

By Guy Stridsigne  7/20/2011

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  1. Pingback: Zombie equipment | Kerilaborntera - July 26, 2011

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