Let me begin this blog with a warning: spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen the movie The Tourist, and you don’t want the surprise in the end of the movie to be ruined, you should stop reading this blog now. Go see the movie, and then come back and read it. If, on the other hand, you have seen the movie, you already know what the surprise is, and you also know that the best thing about the movie is the scenery in Venice and Angelina Jolie’s wardrobe. So you can keep reading.
As you know, the character played by Johnny Depp has spent 20 million dollars to totally change his appearance. Everything from cranial remolding to changes in his larynx, such that his lover, Angelina, doesn’t even know that it’s him. But, it’s time once again to see if there is any truth to Hollywood’s view of plastic surgery.
The first question is easy: $20 million? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that he could have gotten all this done for one, or half of a million, easy. Next question: can you really totally change someone’s appearance with plastic surgery. Here, again, I have to say I don’t think so. Certainly we can change the shape of different parts of the body. I do this all the time. We can remove skin, add implants, reshape other areas — within reason, of course.
But can a face be so changed that it is unrecognizable? Certainly, elements (as in criminal elements) of our society would really love for this to be true –and in fact may have tried this (more on this in a later blog post) — but the type or radical change in question, is really not possible. Again, we can change the shape of the face to a degree, but skeletal architecture of the face is rarely radically changed. While this makes great cinema, it ain’t great reality.
Remember the movie Face Off? Another intriguing riff on plastic surgery. The characters played by John Travolta and Nicholas Cage had their faces switched and transplanted onto one another. This movie came out in 1997. At that time there was certainly research on facial transplantation, and even some animal work in the lab. But the first, real (partial) face transplant only took place in 2005. And it takes more than a year for the swelling to subside enough for the face to begin to look “normal,” and even longer for the nerves to regrow to allow the muscles to begin to work.
How Do You Know I’m Me? But the most interesting point of the whole changing one’s appearance thing is: what makes us look like ourselves? Think about this. Long before you can recognize the facial appearance of someone you know from a distance, you recognize them. What are you seeing? You are really noticing what might be called “body rhythms.” The way their body moves, the way they walk, the way they hold their bodies, their stances — these are the things that define our “appearance” almost more than our physical features. And what about facial expressions? The way one smiles, the smirks and giggles, and when and why one has facial expressions is also highly personal and individualized. And, to top it off for poor unaware Angelina, don’t you recognize your lover’s scent? Whenever I get out of bed in the morning, my wife always moves over on to my pillow because she says it smells like me. Medicine has not come up with a way to change this. And, it is very distinctive to us all (even if I’ve showered).
The bottom line here, is that we are who we are. The physical appearances of our bodies can be altered to a degree, but those things that make us distinctly who we are, are pretty much out of reach from plastic surgery. Here’s looking at you. I mean it, really. David B.