Sometimes when I’m watching movies or television shows, I find myself wondering what the stories of the extras are. One of my favorite shows is Community. There’s this one episode of Community from Season 2 where pop-culture-obsessed Abed tells universal-cool-guy Jeff Winger about when he got to be an extra in his favorite television show Cougartown. All Abed had to do was walk down the street in the background of this scene, but to do so, he constructed a whole back-story in his head and got so far into character that when the director yelled cut, he had an existential crisis.
I love this scene. I love it because it shows us the absurdity of story-telling. Now don’t get me wrong, I love stories, but stories can never really give a full picture of an event or feeling. Nothing can, really. And the trouble with great story-telling is that when we love a character we often forget about all of the seemingly unimportant people that help the story along. In books, authors can limit the number of characters. There aren’t really extras in books. There are crowds. But these crowds are more amorphous blobs than individuals. But in movies, there are extras. Movies would feel empty without them.
What’s the story behind Army Guy #2 who gets shot and dies? Does he have a family? Did they know that he loves them? Did he know that they loved him? Was he in the army because he needed to support his sickly mother? Was he planning on going to school after his service? We don’t know. We don’t ask. We don’t care.
Everyone has a story, and we do ourselves a disservice when we marginalize all of those everyones to extras. Because if we foster a world where there are extras, then we easily become extras to other people, too.
We have to remember when we consume stories, that no matter how clear we think the lines of right and wrong, or good and evil, or Jedi and Sith are drawn, there exist other stories that will inevitably skew those lines. Darth Vader’s generals probably have similarly heart-wrenching stories of how they came to the dark side. But we don’t care. We cheer when Han Solo kills one or two.
Who have you been treating as an “extra” lately?