The Sopranos - The Test Dream (Dir. Allen Coulter)
Inception (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
The Game (Dir. David Fincher)
Synedoche, New York (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Extras As The Subconscious
Traditionally, extras populate the periphery of film and television scenes to fill out the story world and create believable spaces for action to take place. Recently, filmmakers have been using them very effectively as extensions of a character’s subconscious. To set this up, here’s David Bordwell, discussing films as dreams:
“Throughout the history of film theory and criticism, movies have been compared to dreams, but the critics of the 1940s pursued this metaphor more avidly than earlier writers. Barbara Deming suggested that American films revealed a dream-portrait of their public at the period.
It is not as mirrors reflect us but, rather, as our dreams do, that movies most truly reveal the times.… Through them we can read with a peculiar accuracy the fears and confusions that assail us.… The heroes and heroines who are most popular at any particular period are precisely those who, with a certain added style, with a certain distinction, act out the predicament in which we all find ourselves (Deming 1969, p. 1).”
Let’s look at ‘The Sopranos’ first. In ‘The Test Dream’, the titular dream sequence has Tony emerging from a crowd that has just witnessed a violent murder in the middle of the street. As the scene progresses, we can see how intentionally surreal and contrived the blocking of this crowd is, yet their presence feels real and true to dream milieus of our own experience. Later, this crowd will become an angry mob that pursues Tony – they aren’t just extras; they are projections, judging and acting on his lack of foresight and repressed guilt. “Why didn’t you stop him?” somebody asks.
‘Inception’s story almost completely takes place within dreams, so its cinematic reality is decidedly more grounded. In one scene, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) puts himself in danger when he has a mini-freak out within someone else’s dream that he’s visiting, which catches the attention of that dreamer’s subconscious. In the bar where Cobb sits, the extras simply glance up; their sudden awareness of Cobb’s presence is chilling. Just like ‘The Sopranos’, these extras can also become aggressive, threatening mobs.
The story world of ‘The Game’ is not a dream in a literal sense, but it presents similar questions that a dream would for the protagonist, who is forced to question and catalogue who is ‘in’ on an elaborate trick being played against him. As an audience, we do the same thing – the film is designed to bring nearly everything that unfolds onscreen into question. The extras in ‘The Game’ aren’t expressly malicious, instead their presence is more fluid and ambiguous, preying on the main character’s fear and insecurity retroactively. In an underground hospital parking lot scene, an entire hospital staff vanishes with theatrical precision. Later, the film brings back its most distinctive extras in a cafeteria scene as Van Orten pulls back the curtain on the game’s mechanics. Here’s David Fincher:
“[The scene is conceived] with the idea that you’re walking into the school cafeteria and everybody that you just humiliated yourself in front is talking about you.”
Finally, in ‘Synecdoche, New York’, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) creates nested realities that are host to a small city of extras. As the film progresses, their presence becomes intentionally contrived and thematically connected. In one scene, Caden addresses their significance directly:
“There are millions of people in the world. None of these people is an extra. They’re all leads in their own stories. They have to be given their due.”
Caden’s intentions are noble, but the entire film is proof of his shortcomings as a writer – it would be shortsighted to transpose his intended message to the film’s. So what’s the point of all these extras? They seem to serve as projections of Caden’s perceived awareness of his mortality and insignificance. His grossly overpopulated story world withers away as he ages, eventually becoming completely uninhabited, leaving Caden to die (almost) alone.
Kaufman uses extras in another way: Sammy, who eventually Caden casts to play himself, can be seen throughout the film half of the film shadowing him. Sammy is photographed like any normal extra, but something about the way he’s blocked and the amount of time we hold on him makes us single out his presence quite consistently before we officially ‘meet’ him. In regards to his own presence in the story world, Sammy offers only this:
“I've been following you for twenty years. So I knew about this audition because I follow you. And I’ve learned everything about you by following you. So hire me, and you'll see who you truly are.”
Sammy is a total enigma; he’s not Caden, and yet he can be no one else – the two of them together are mirrors that endlessly reflect and distort their own image of one another. Sammy creeps into Caden’s reality as an extra, and as we drown in Caden’s nesting fictional worlds, they switch places. Caden arrives where Sammy started, and we realize his purpose is to become an extra in his own story.