Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: But can you possibly believe this?

It's a given that when we watch theater or film, we must bring with us "the willing suspension of disbelief;" that is, we agree to believe that what we're seeing and hearing is "true."

It doesn't matter that the stage is often empty or that the sets are only a suggestive representation of a real place; it doesn't matter that those "cats" singing and writhing in front of us are actually dancers; or that a young man bitten by a radioactive spider develops web-making powers and the ability to "leap tall buildings in a single bound" and so becomes that altruistic defender of "good" known as Spiderman (with apologies to Superman).

But once viewers suspend their disbelief and accept the work's premise, behavior that is illogical for the world we agreed to accept is rarely tolerated by viewers and can lead to eye-rolling and even laughter.  Imagine if that "cat" on the stage were suddenly and without reason to begin flying and chirping like a bird! 

There are, of course, less abrupt ways in which the viewer's trust can be broken.

Because it begins with one absurdity after another, the new film, SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, prepares the audience for a comedy.  

First, we watch people listen to an upbeat radio announcer say that "The final mission to save mankind has failed," and that an asteroid will hit and destroy the world in three weeks; the announcer continues (in a radio voice that we can all recognize) by saying that, "We'll be bringing you the countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites." This is funny!

Also funny are employers extending 'casual Fridays' to the entire week; people arranging blind dates; policemen giving speeding tickets; homeowners mowing lawns and having garage sales; and looters stealing TV's and such -- all in the context of three weeks left to live!

This is funny stuff!  Viewers agree to believe this premise and as expected, they laugh.

Then suddenly, the movie shifts -- almost completely! -- into sadness, tragedy, and the desperate need of people to connect and to find a meaning for their lives.  There are suicides; there is romance and new love; there are heartbreaking efforts to find closure for past hurts; there is longing to reunite with family and to reconcile with God....

Viewers are not prepared for this; they become silent; some even leave the theater:  we are no longer willing partners to the drama of this film.

Another common way in which the audiences trust can be broken is through a preponderance of unbelievable coincidences, some of which appear "just in time." This can definitely bring on the eye rolls, as we think, "Do you really expect me to believe that?" 

But perhaps were too harsh in thinking so, as there's that other commonly held belief that "truth is stranger than fiction." And often enough, it is:  it just happened to me.

I went to my son Adam's graduation ceremonies at Stanford on June 16th. 

After the ceremonies and celebrations, I fell and broke my wrist. Badly.  I was rushed to the ER where, of course, we spent many, many hours -- some of them with me in traction in a Chinese Finger Trap like the ones I played with as a child! 

Low tech for a change!

 Of course, I felt awful about spoiling his occasion, but Adam was nice enough to say that he'd been worried about how to entertain us for the rest of the day and that I'd solved that problem for him!

Me in my Stanford souvenir hospital gown.
Would you believe that my timing would be so good that my injury did not interfere with Adams graduation ceremonies?

My healing did not go well, and when I got back to Arizona, my friend Jo insisted on taking me to the ER.  I've had reason to go to the ER before (not for me) and always went to the Mayo Clinic -- might I have a thing for "brand" names? -- so I assumed that we'd be going there; but my friend preferred a new hospital in north Scottsdale, and as she was the driver, I agreed.

My splint was too tight and had to be redone.  Steve, my PA,  asked where I was from and did a double-take when I said the Berkshires.  "What's wrong?" Jo asked, whereupon he told us that he'd accepted a position at the Berkshire Medical Center and would be starting there at the end of July!

Would you believe that I would go to a hospital that I'd never have thought to go to, and there meet someone who will be a Berkshire neighbor?  Would you believe that Steve would happen to be on duty on that particular day; and that with the very many people working in the ER, he would be my doctor?

Steve said that he was looking for somewhere to live while he went house-hunting, and Jo said, Helen knows everybody in the Berkshires including all of the realtors." (This is not quite true, but close enough.) She also told him that I had a space adjacent to the bookstore that I was thinking of renting as a sort-of seasonal B&B -- make that a seasonal B:  get your own muffins! -- and that it would be the perfect place for him.  Steve agreed that it seemed a good solution.  Soon, people kept coming into my room -- the doctor, the receptionist, the admitting nurse, the splint-maker, and so on -- just to tell me how wonderful Steve is and how much I'd like having him as a tenant.

Would you believe that I first told Jo my thoughts about renting the space during our drive to the hospital?  Would you believe that I would have Jo -- my ultimate booster! -- with me when Steve came into the room?  Would you believe that I had a potential renter almost as soon as I had the thought of renting?  And would you believe that I, still a bit uncertain about renting space furnished with so many beautiful things that I love, would "bump into" a potential renter who came with such a bevy of enthusiastic recommendations?


I had wrist surgery yesterday and I won't be able to return to the Berkshires until the middle of the month; so, I'm hoping for one more happy coincidence:  that my customers and friends just happened to be 'away' or 'busy' during the beginning of July, and that they'll be ready and waiting to come to my bookstore upon my return.

And why can't that be true?  After all, "truth is stranger than fiction...!"


P. J. Grath said...

"And now for the good news." Now that I've heard "the rest of the story," Helen, I'm feeling better about your return East. Steve sounds like the ideal renter, indeed! That Jo would feature in the working-out of an unbelievably happy conclusion does not surprise me at all. (Say hello to her from me, will you?)

As for the movie, did it remind you at all of "On the Beach?" And were those opening scenes really funny, or was the audience laughter nervous? Should we definitely give this film a miss?

Marash Girl said...

I believe that you will soon be well with a wonderful new tenant and lots of wonderful customers for your beautiful, handpicked books and antiques. said...

I never saw ON THE BEACH, Pamela, but I will say that there's room -- perhaps even need -- for a sort-of gallows humor in an end of world flick. Here, though, the humor fails at that and sets us up for something different. And the end of world aspect seems just a backdrop or new twist to a typical romantic comedy -- which is fine, if that's what you're prepared for, set up for. but I really needed a comedy and didn't get one... said...

Love your enthusiasm and well-wishes, Pamela and Bethel: but Steve is only a potential renter and not a renter...