Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused always had a major effect on me as a young film viewer. Not just because it was emotionally honest and hilariously funny but because at the end of the film the main protagonist Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) goes into his room at the end of one very long day, puts on some music, and prepares for sleep. Since the entire movie takes place in one day, it is implied that Mitch will wake up the next day and his experiences will affect how he moves forward from that point forward.
When the credits rolls, I had become so invested in the life of Mitch that I started to wonder what would happen to him as his fictional life went on. What would he do the next day after having had his first kiss, been to his first party, etc.? Linklater’s dedication to realism gave the character life. A life that could potentially still go on when the DVD player was turned off and the television went black.
Fictional cinematic entertainment essentially has a life all its own even if it doesn’t meet the definition of the term “alive”. Characters and established worlds endure with us as an audience allowing us to expand their histories and environments through fan fiction, art, tattoos, music, conventions, and role-playing. It exists beyond a screen and enters our small talk, our patterns of behavior, our ideological tastes, even our sex lives. Because creating life is not relegated to just the birth of a literal, human child. Imaginative people give birth to entire universes daily. And they endure.
The Twilight Zone was never averse to expressing this reality. The concept of the Twilight Zone itself was that of the viewer, as heard in the opening narration, “traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination”. The show’s essence was of looking beyond the physical forms in front of our faces and seeing what is beyond.
The first-season Twilight Zone episode “A World of Difference” captures this idea in its purest form, showing a businessman named Arthur Curtis (Howard Duff, who appeared in The Naked City) entering his place of business and going about his day as any businessman would.
The opening narration, as we are introduced to Arthur:
You’re looking at a tableau of reality, things of substance, of physical material: a desk, a window, a light. These things exist and have dimension. Now this is Arthur Curtis, age thirty-six, who also is real. He has flesh and blood, muscle and mind. But in just a moment we will see how thin a line separates that which we assume to be real with that manufactured inside of a mind.
Arthur enters his private office to make a call to his wife but doesn’t hear a signal on the other end. Suddenly, loud shuffling can be heard from afar, a man yells “cut”, a wall disappears, and Arthur is surrounded by a smattering of film crew setting up lights and getting props ready. Everyone keeps calling him Gerry, including the gobsmacked director, who is wondering why Gerry’s not acting anymore.
Confused, Arthur goes back into the front office where his loyal secretary Sally (Gail Kobe) sits and looks out the window only to see a few men standing outside amongst the skyscrapers that are in Arthur’s view. Sally isn’t really Sally but a very confused actress wondering if Gerry is improvising or losing his mind. And the director is wondering if his star actor is drunk or taking method acting to a new extreme.
Arthur/Gerry tries to find his home aided by an angry woman named Nora (Eileen Ryan) who says she is Gerry’s wife. Gerry clearly owes Nora some money but Arthur/Gerry has no idea who she is. She thinks he’s just faking not knowing who he is anymore so he can get out of paying her but his continued confusion about his occupation, his “fictional” address, and his continued duress has almost everyone convinced, even her, that something is truly wrong.
Gerry’s agent Brinkley (David White) tries to show Gerry/Arthur that he is starring in a film called The Private World of Arthur Curtis in which his address and character details, including a wife and child, are just made up details in the cast of character descriptions. Arthur refuses to believe this and drives back to the studio and what he knows as his office. Stagehands are breaking the set down (since the film has been canceled) and any vestiges of what Arthur knows is disappearing. Arthur closes his eyes and tries to will his former life into existence.
It works. He is suddenly back in his “real” office, joined now by his “real” wife Marian (Susan Dorn), who had come to visit him. As he hears the crew on the fringes of reality discussing demolishing the set, Arthur begs his wife to get on a flight for their vacation right away, as opposed to when they later planned, so he can escape what is happening. He and his wife soon board a plane and push forward outside the bounds of the scripted story, presumably escaping obliteration at the hands of the crew that looks to make Arthur’s world non-existent.
The closing narration:
The modus operandi for the departure from life is usually a pine box of such and such dimensions, and this is the ultimate in reality. But there are other ways for a man to exit from life. Take the case of Arthur Curtis, age thirty-six. His departure was along a highway with an exit sign that reads, “This Way To Escape”. Arthur Curtis, en route to the Twilight Zone.
The writer of “A World of Difference” was the legendary science-fiction author Richard Matheson, who not only contributed to various Twilight Zone episodes but wrote classic “what if” type scenarios in books and screenplays like I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. I Am Legend looked at what would happen if there was only one survivor lived in an empty world. “A World of Difference” offers a similar scenario in which a man from fiction enters a world full of strangers telling him he is someone else. It is a last-man-on-earth type of scenario but between dimensions; a man lost not only from his home but from his reality.
Or is he? The brilliance of “A World of Difference” is that there is ambiguity allowing both scenarios, one in which a fictional character escapes a fictional world or the other, a delusional man simply believes he is the character he portrays, as feasible. The “mental breakdown” angle, if explained as such, would be simply too easy and Matheson, plus director Ted Post, wisely decide to leave that option up to the viewer. It makes sense in almost every case except where it doesn’t. For instance, who is Miriam if not Arthur’s wife? She doesn’t appear to be an actress the crew knows and, if she was, why would she jump on a plane with Arthur and feed the delusion?
But the same can be said the other way. Nora is definitely a piece of work (Brinkley even calls her a harpy at one point) and the film’s director seems to indicate Gerry has a history of alcohol abuse. Has the stress finally gotten to him? It certainly can be seen that way. But Matheson’s script never defines it one way or the other. And this allows the imagination of the viewer to flourish outside what we are seeing on the screen.
And that brings us back to the concept of fictional characters being “alive”, even outside the boundaries of understanding. Much like I wanted to see what Mitch would get up to after Dazed and Confused, my mind marvels at the possibilities of an imaginary Arthur escaping oblivion, trying to outrun the world that is at the mercy of other minds. It is the essence of keeping a fictional universe alive and what makes entertainment so powerful, even if we are separated from it by physical boundaries.
This concept has been done, for better or worse, in other films and TV shows. A notorious one from my childhood was Last Action Hero, a big-budget bomb that showed a young boy entering the world of his movie hero Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who had a life outside of the movies shown on the big screen. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took a brilliant approach to the subject matter in an episode entitled “Whispers” which I won’t spoil for you here. But none of them can match the tightness and ambiguity of “A World of Difference” which benefits from the limited screen time demanded by television and the brilliant minds of Matheson and Twilight Zone showrunner Rod Serling.