Tuesday, March 7, 2017

"The Willing Suspension Of Disbelief - An Expanded Understanding"

We think we know what “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief” means.  But do we really?


Bear with me, Blue Italics Writing Person.

I have to.  I’m you.”

Thank you. 

We know that a human being can’t fly.  But when we see Peter Pan, we all… (GESTURING TO EVERYONE)…

(READERS AROUND THE WORLD, IN UNISON)  “… willingly suspend our disbelief.”

Exactly.  Ditto for a place where you never grow up.  We have to grow up.  (Unless you’re speaking “emotionally”, in which case we don’t.)

So that’s the most literal sense of “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.”  (Unless “most literal” is like saying, “That’s the most accurate answer to a math problem.”  Aren’t the less accurate answers to a math problem just wrong?) 

You’re at a “Jason Bourne” movie.  You hear his pursuers reporting, “He fell off a building.”  You accept that he gets up and walks away.  (With a barely perceptible limp and a tiny “boo-boo” on his forehead.)  Why?  Because you’re at a Jason Bourne movie!  You hear, “He’s dead!” – you’re in the wrong theater.

Then there’s the “Etch-O-Sketch” version of “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief,” which is primarily a TV phenomenon.

In “Etch-O-Sketch WSOD” – “Willing Suspension Of Disbelief”, to save time – episodes are regularly compartmentalized and distinct, proceeding as if the events in the previous episodes never took place.

In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary attends Rhoda’s sister’s wedding.  In the “spin-off” Rhoda, the married sister had entirely disappeared.

More lethally, in the 635-episode history of Gunsmoke, marshal Matt Dillon gunned down, conservatively,  maybe two hundred people, and was wounded, easily, seventy-five times himself.  (More recently, the character Danny Reagan of Blue Bloods has personally dispatched the equivalent of an entire baseball team.  And that meter is still running.)

Why didn’t Matt Dillon rattle noticeably walking down the streets of Dodge City?  Why doesn’t Danny Reagan self-reflectively go, “Wow.  I’m spending my entire time here shooting people and going to inquiries to decide whether those shootings were okay.”

It never happens.  Matt Dillon never says, “You know, when it rains, I get twinges in seventy-five places.”  Why not?  “Etch-O-Sketch SOD.”  It’s not Groundhog Day – otherwise, he’d have been shot six hundred and thirty-five times.  But it is Fifty First Dates.  The characters take no account whatsoever of what transpired before.  And the audience happily goes along for the ride.

Then there’s the selective “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” – the kind not applying universally to everyone.   

My wife is a psychologist.  She can’t watch anything whose storyline depicts what she does for a living, her most ubiquitous complaints being, “The ‘mentally ill’ do not behave that way”, and “Nobody gets better that fast.”

Whatever your job or career, popular entertainment portrays that line of endeavor dramatically?  You’ll laugh your head off at how inaccurately stupid it is.

POLICE OFFICER:  “I shot one person – they took away my gun for a year.” * (* Actual police officers may have to willingly suspend their disbelief on that one.  But they know that the DNA test results do not arrive on their desks the following day.) 

Lastly – and this one’s subtle bordering on uninteresting, except to nitpickers such as myself:

Law & Order

(You knew we would get there eventually.)

The defendant is on the stand.  It is the climactic moment of the episode.  The jury is “on the fence.”  It’s up to (Assistant D.A.) McCoy to “seal the deal” for the prosecution.

The defendant performs impressively, cleverly rationalizing his actions.  The man he murdered demonized his puppy.  Or any other justification sure to win sympathy from the jury.

There is a blistering “back and forth”, ending with the defendant turning directly to the jury and with all the sincerity he can muster saying, “Would you have done any differently if you were in my place?”

To which McCoy bitingly responds before returning to his seat,

“Trust me, Mr. (Place Defendant’s Surname Here).  If they had done what you did, they would be on trial for murder like you are.”

The scene ends with the defendant confined to the Witness Stand, tongue-tied.  Could he not have come up with a powerful rebuttal?  Of course he could have.  So why didn’t he? 

The show’s writers would not let him.

Writers are empowered to terminate a scene wherever they want to.  And at two minutes before the end of the show, they gave who they wanted the final word.  Would the defendant sit there mute and mumbling in actual life?  Unlikely.  What makes such shenanigans acceptable on Law & Order?

“The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.”  It is an arguably indispensible element in our commercial entertainment.  I just wish sometimes that the “creatives” made a little more effort to… I don’t know, I mean, Shakespeare required “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”, and he’s the best of the bunch.

I guess we just have to live with it. 

And judiciously “Mark on the curve.” 

Although I am not sure anyone cares about this stuff.

I mean, the guy fell off a building.

And the movie broke records.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

My difficulty with this posting is suspending my (correct) belief that Etch-a-Sketch is incorrectly spelled.


Ted Kilvington said...

I like superhero movies, where you need WSOD by the truckload, but I can't get past "Daredevil". Gods, monsters, super-scientists, vigilante billionaires, aliens -- those I can handle. But blind super-ninjas? No, that's where I draw the line!