Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage), the jittery protagonist of Ridley Scott’s 2003 crime comedy Matchstick Men, doesn’t like to think of himself as a common crook. “I’m a con artist,” he insists, and—in a frenzy of self-justification—further explains: “They give me their money. I never took anybody who didn’t let me, out of greed or weakness.” William Douglas Street (Wendell B. Harris Jr.), a real-life con man whose serial impostures are dramatized in Harris’s wry picaresque Chameleon Street (1989), holds a similar view of his calling. “I give people what they want. When I meet somebody I know within the first two minutes who they want me to be.” In the cold light of day, this sort of rationalization doesn’t bear much scrutiny: the ability to read people’s weaknesses and turn them into profit is a pretty dubious sort of talent. In the darkness of the movie theater, though, these demonically skilled operators are often portrayed as charming rogues. It’s as if the filmmakers felt some strange affinity with them. The movies—Hollywood movies, especially—pride themselves on knowing what we want, too, and persuading us to pay for it.
All art does that, in a sense. A couple of hundred years ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of his desire to induce through his language “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” And that’s also the aim of the con game, though poetry is rarely the result. Audiences settling into their seats at the movie theater aren’t just ready to suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours; they practically demand it, and the film medium is mighty effective at compelling belief in the illusions it makes. Herman Melville, in his darkly comic philosophical novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), characterizes his ideal reader as one “not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different”; a more exact description of the habitual moviegoer—or movie streamer—would be hard to find.
Room Tone 2023
Look back on the collaborations that defined our year, captured in this compilation of moments that our crew shared with the artists, critics, and scholars who talked with us about the movies.
Don’t Fence Her In: On Women of the West
A string of important midcentury westerns, including Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious, elevated women from their traditionally marginal role in the genre to more potent and central positions.
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