Friday, September 10, 2010

suspend THIS!

So I've been discussing with various people the challenges of bringing a Irish pub alive onstage -- coping with laws that don't allow smoking in theatres and dealing with ways to fake beer so that (a) it looks real and (b) it has low-or-no alcohol content, so the actors can actually get through the play without falling over.

I've gotten lots of great advice. But -- inevitably -- I've also gotten this:

"The audience knows they're at a play. There's some suspension of disbelief there already. I know you want to make it as realistic as possible, but give your audience a little credit. No one's going to stand up and yell, 'Hey! He's not really drinking/smoking that!' any more than someone is going to stand up and yell, 'Hey! We're not really at a bar in Ireland, are we?!'"

My least favorite phrase int he English language is "suspension of disbelief." Please people STOP using it. It's usually an excuse for shoddy work. "Oh, we don't need to go to all that trouble, because the audience will suspend their disbelief..."

When I hear that, I have an overwhelming desire strap the person who says it to a chair and refuse to release him until he answers some questions: "Explain to me EXACTLY what you mean by 'suspension of disbelief.' Explain the mental state of the person before he suspends his disbelief, explain to me exactly HOW he does suspends his disbelief, and explain his mental state ONCE he's suspended his disbelief... Go on. I'm waiting...

"And do you mean that, after he suspends his disbelief, he actually BELIEVES the fake-looking beer really IS Guinness, or do you mean he thinks, 'Oh, well, it's just a play. That's obviously fake, but I don't blame the director for that.'?

"Because I don't care if the audience 'blames' me or 'understands why I can't use real cigarettes.' I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm not trying to get the audience to understand the challenges I'm up against. In fact, I would much prefer it if they didn't think about that.

I'm trying to tell a story here. If they're thinking, 'Well, I don't blame the director... what else could he do?' then they're thinking about me and not the story. My goal is for them to actually believe that what their watching is real -- as much as is humanly possible.

"I'm not doing The School Play. I know that when you go see little Johnny perform in 'Oklahoma!' you don't really care that he has a mustache drawn on with magic marker. You even think that's cute. That's because you don't really care about 'Oklahoma!' You just care about supporting your kid.

"If I asked you to suspend your disbelief and actually BELIEVE that the mustache is real, could you do that? What if I offered you $1,000 if you could do it?"

I think you're reading the phrase too doesn't mean you actually believe. It just means you've temporarily silenced the skeptic inside your mind and dont care. Or even notice.

It's fine if you don't care, but my question is "Why don't you care?" I totally get it if you don't notice. Of course you don't care about stuff you don't notice. But if you do notice the beer looks fake, there are only two possible responses as far as I can see:

1. you notice and you care.
2. you notice and you don't care.

If you NOTICE a flaw -- a telephone pole in a movie set in 1343 -- and you don't care, what does that mean?

I think it can only mean, again, one of two things:

1. When you noticed the flaw, you weren't in a dream-like state of belief. If you were, you'd experience cognitive dissonance. Huh? How can there be a phone pole in medieval France? Rather, you were watching the movie completely (or partly) aware of the fact that it was a fabrication. Being awoken from a dream isn't painful if you're not dreaming to begin with.

2. You WERE in a dream state, and the flaw did wake you up, but you don't mind that experience. Maybe the dream was a bad dream, so you're actually happy something snapped you out of it. Or maybe you enjoy meta-dream stuff, so while you liked the dream, you enjoy thinking of the mechanics behind the dream just as much.

Those are fine ways to experience stories, but they aren't MY way. Most people who view stories that way are either academics (or were trained, in school, to think like academics) or folks who don't take stories all that seriously to begin with. Stories, to them, are just bits of fun to pass the time.

I have no problem with those people, and I don't think I'm superior to them, but I'm not like them. I watch movies, read books and see plays to BELIEVE. To DREAM. And if you wake me out of a dream, I can't just will myself back into it. That takes time and trust.

It's not a conscious decision, so don't notice is more accurate than don't care.

Clearly sometimes audience-members are aware of errors and sometimes they aren't. I know that they sometimes aren't, because I've pointed out errors in movie...s and heard people says, "Really? I didn't notice that." On the other hand, obviously sometimes people DO notice.

So if the guy is claiming people will suspend their disbelief and you're saying that means they won't notice certain things, you're right -- sometimes. It's obviously a gamble.

Which is why I don't get my director friends who say, "Oh, it's okay if the gunshot doesn't sound right. The audience will suspend their disbelief." If, as you suggest, they mean, "the audience won't notice," how do they know? It's much more likely that some audience members will notice and others won't.

Also, if you mean "We can get away with X because the audience won't notice," why not say that? "Suspend their disbelief" is much less clear -- if that's in fact what it means.

It's hard to nail down. It's like finding something to be funny. You can't always explain why joke 1 makes you laugh but joke 2 doesn't.

I agree it's hard to nail down. I think that's because there are so many variables involved. Bob, Jane, Mike, Mary, Ed, Amy, Phil and Marcus all see the same movie. It's set in World War II, and yet at some point you see a cell phone in one... of the actors' pockets.

Bob isn't bothered because he doesn't notice.

Jane isn't bothered because, though she doesn't notice, she at the movie more to hang out with her friends than to take it seriously.

Mike notices, but he likes seeing mistakes like this. He imagines the guys on "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" poking fun at it and that gives him pleasure.

Mary notices, but she likes to think about the director while she's watching movies. She sort of rates him and she goes. She praises him for some things and blames him for others. She finds minor gaffs excusable. Since her pleasure is mostly about a relationship, she isn't bothered by small, excusable human errors, the same way you wouldn't be bothered if you went to a party and noticed the hostess had forgotten to dust a tiny spot on the table.

Ed is thrown by the cellphone, but the next ten minutes of the movie are awesome. He generally has an easy time falling into dream states, so he quickly forgets all about that moment when he was jerked out of the dream.

Amy is an academic. She's used to thinking about symbolism, themes, comparative studies, etc. She isn't bothered by the cell phone, because she doesn't much care about being caught up in plots or caring about characters. In fact, she can justify the phone as some sort of post-modern effect.

Phil is a mixture of all the above types, depending on his mood at the moment, and depending on the movie.

Marcus watches for plot and character. He wants to believe. If he's lucky, he just won't notice the cellphone. If he notices it, he's going to be troubled by it. In which case, someone might tell him to suspend his disbelief (people have told me this many times!). How is he supposed to do that, exactly?

Thats why I think humor is analogous. You can't choose to laugh at a joke you don't find funny.

So perhaps the real problem is when people add 'willing' in front of 'suspension'

Yeah, I think you've nailed the problem. Of course people DO wind up believing all sorts of unrealistic things while watching movies -- that's part of the fun. But it either happens or it doesn't. You can't force it.

You CAN, perhaps, influence it in certain ways. If you go in all grumpy, you'll probably find more problems than if you are in a good mood. So maybe there's some way you can go in with an open, positive mind. But that's affecting your reaction in a gross way. You can't -- or at least I can't -- affect it moment-by-moment, especially when I don't know what's going to happen next.

It's not like I can say, "I know that cell phone is coming, so I'll put myself in the right frame of mind for it..." At least I can't do that the first time I see the movie.

If we're going to take "willing" out of play, then "suspension of disbelief" is a useless term, except as a description of what sometimes happens to people. If you can't will it, it's pointless to tell people to do it. It's also pointless for storytellers to expect people to do it -- or to assume they will.

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