Monday, May 10, 2010

The visibly invisible

My friend, Eddie Hunter, who does the blog Chicken Fat, claims to be invisible. He's obviously not--this is him trying to bribe a terra cotta soldier outside a museum--but I know what he means.

Being invisible is when you walk into a store and try to ask a question of an employee; he doesn't see you, just the 5' 8" big-booby blonde who walks up to him just as you open your mouth. I have found myself to be invisible in that sense many times in my life and it has perturbed me, but invisibility was desirable when I was in the army and they needed "volunteers" for a detail.

Invisibility, like Eddie and I have found out, can be as simple as not standing out in a crowd. In a science fiction sense, invisibility is a plot device which seems to strike a chord with people. I guess at one time or another everyone has wished for invisibility, either not be seen by someone they don't want to talk to, or to spy on someone else. Too bad it doesn't work that way. There is work being done in invisibility--hey, I saw it on National Geographic channel!--but it has more to do with elaborate camouflage. In one example, work is being done on a body suit with millions of tiny reflectors that pick up video, then reflect a real time video of what's going on behind the person in the suit. Someone glancing at him would see some scenery and he'd be "invisible" to the observer.

Or so the theory goes. Most humans have kind of a sixth sense about the presence of others, even if not immediately seen, like getting the feeling someone is looking at you; if you were in a room with someone, even if they were completely invisible, I think you'd know.

In Hollow Man, a science fiction thriller from 2000, the theme of invisibility is explored. Like H. G. Wells' 1898 novel, The Invisible Man, invisibility drives the invisible man insane. Kevin Bacon as Sebastian, the boss of the research team, is already a narcissist and ego maniac, which is just amplified when he becomes invisible.

"I've got you under my skin...I've got you, deep in the hide of me..."

Sebastian is going...



When, completely invisible, he later molests sleeping team member Sarah (played by Kim Dickens, who currently has a recurring role in HBO's Tremé). He would not have done it had he not been invisible.

She wakes up and catches on real fast she's been unbuttoned and fondled. (She should have filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, but it would have been hard to explain: "I was groped by my invisible boss.") Later in the movie Sebastian, who has shed his mask and clothes, commits rape on a neighbor because, as he tells himself, "Who's going to know?"

Special effects in Hollow Man are great. The movie doesn't try to explain how Sebastian can become invisible; we get some hokum about a chemical/radiation mix, injected into the bloodstream. The team can make something invisible, but bringing it back is harder, which is what happens to Sebastian.

Unless we're blind, much of our interaction with others comes from visual clues, like body language, for instance. That would be impossible with an invisible person, like being blind in reverse. You can see, you just can't see that person. It would make conversation pretty hard. But for the invisible person, being in a room full of people, none of them seeing him, would give the feeling of being isolated. That's after he's gone around the room groping all the women, that is.

In the movie, finding the invisible man is simple: they use thermal imaging glasses. They sometimes use the glasses when they know Sebastian is in the room (but, in a dumb plot move, not enough times to avoid danger when he finally goes over the edge into murderous rage). It's how, in this clever scene early in the movie, the audience sees the invisible gorilla, Isabelle.

I don't believe we'll ever have to worry about invisibility in fact. Like time travel, invisibility in the sense that Hollow Man presents it is one of those science fiction concepts that's fun to think about but impossible to achieve. The movie, thanks to some very skilled movie making, makes us suspend our disbelief, at least for the time we're watching.

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