Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"The Other, Less Recognized, 'Suspension'"

Theoretically, in a movie, anyone can die.

There are, of course, cases where the provisional “can” is not a consideration.  They have to die.  Why?  Because they died in actual life.  I mean, a Nathan Hale movie, the guy proclaims,

“I regret I have but one life to give for my country.”

His captors go, “Nah, we’ll let you go.”

You can’t do that.  The man has to die.  As does everyone at the Alamo. 

ALAMO DEFENDER:  “You mind if I just slip out?”


That’s not going to happen.

A woman dying of cancer finds redemption in the waning moments of her life.

“There was a spot on the x-ray.  You’re fine.”


Those are all guaranteed goners.  That’s why I assiduously avoid such movies.  I prefer films where the protagonists – and I – have at least a chance of escaping their harrowing experience “death-free.”  The thing about movies is, there is always the possibility

… they won’t make it. 

That doesn’t happen in television.  With the startling exception of M*A*S*H, in which a departing Henry Blake’s helicopter is shot down, eliciting the only astonished gasp in my numerous decades of television viewership, a gasp I never experienced watching television, before or since. 

And that was a comedy!

In TV, you do not “dispatch” series “regulars.”  Including “regulars”, leaving the series.  They did not kill off the first “Darren” in Bewitched; they simply replaced him the following season.  (Unless he actually died during the summer hiatus and “Samantha” married another guy named Darren and they proceeded with the series as if nothing otherwise was different.  I do not believe that was what happened.)  

(Writer’s Note:  As I am not sure which way to go here, being lazy and indecisive, I have decided to go both ways.  Trust a professional.  The blogatorial “hodge-podge” is egregiously underrated.)

I am talking, as a canopying “umbrella”, about predictability.  In the context of “character death expectations”, I prefer predictability the same way I prefer – and appreciate – boundaries.  (See:  Yesterday’s post.)  Anything that makes me feel safe, I’m for it, living in a world I believe to be demonstrably the opposite.  The world is, in fact, in my view, so unsafe we need to continually lie to ourselves so we won’t feel too frightened.  “The constitution will protect us from tyrants.”  Time will tell about that one, won’t it.

Up till the mid-sixties – with the exception of the characters who perished on real life, including passengers on the Titanic – “We got them all back.” – No, you didn’t – movies, from the perspective of the survival of the lead character, were as reliably predictable as television.

How reliably predictable is that?

In the long-running series Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon was shot numerous times, but when he lay on the operating table, and an anxiety-filled Chester inquired, “Will he pull through, Doc?” and the chin-rubbing Doc replied, “I don’t know, Chester” – I knew.  Of course he would pull through; there was no chance they’d rename the series Chester Goode and continue from there.  As the show’s pivotal character, Matt Dillon would recover so swiftly and totally you’d be hard-pressed to believe he’d been shot four times in the episode before.

More recently, in Blue Bloods, in which the backstory includes the murder of a Reagan-family police detective in the line of duty, there is no chance of any other Reagan family member getting bumped off.  It was like the first dead Reagan was an inoculation, immunizing the others from a similar terminal outcome.  They can get wounded – like Matt Dillon – but one “dead Reagan” is the fully allotted Blue Bloods quota.  Leaving everyone else conspicuously in the clear.  

What this means is that anyone can watch series like Blue Bloods with the comforting certainty of, yes, harrowing jeopardy, but no chance whatsoever of a heartbreaking funeral.  A Reagan youngster’s in a coma – forget the “Prayer Circle” – he’s fine.

Ping-ponging back now to movies, up till the sixties, the hero, although threatened with extinction, never ever got killed.  In a reliable template, not once was the “Good Guy” dead at the end of the picture.  Which, since the hero was also an unwavering “Champion of Justice”, taught the bolstering lesson that if I assiduously did the right thing I was never going to die. 

Didn’t it?

Forget it.  I felt that connection, and that’s all that matters.

What is today’s quasi-nonsense ultimately about?

It’s about this.

We have all heard, in the arena of entertainment, about “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  Jason Bourne leaps from a building, experiencing less physical damage than I receive, climbing down from a stepladder (and painfully turning my ankle.) 

The magician sawing his lovely “assistant” in half?  That too is “suspension of disbelief.”  (Otherwise, “That’s murder, isn’t it?”)  In this recognized process, we realistically don’t buy it, but we deliberately switch off our “No way! 

There is also, however, the unjustly less publicized (and less mellifluous) “Suspension of Belief.”

Which functions successfully thusly.

We are aware the lead characters in (network) TV shows and old movies are safely protected from “termination.”  But, while we are watching, we pretend complicitly that they aren’t.  In that way, we enjoy the “thrill ride” of danger with the secret certainty that there actually isn’t any.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy television more than I like movies.  Nobody you’re rooting for dies on a TV series.  (Not counting the “streaming” series I don’t watch.)  But there is an ingrained ambiguity as to whether they will in the movies.  A predicament sure to elevate my already borderline-high blood pressure.

In films, the character walks down a dark alley and, at least figuratively, the frightened ticket buyer stands perilously by their side.

What if they kill me by mistake?

Some people enjoy the bracing relief of Disneyland’s “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” ride after its over. 

Others judiciously pass on the “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” experience, preferring the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” ride instead.

In the end, it’s about what you can handle.

Which, frankly for some of us, includes…



Anonymous said...

Two things. Aren't they killing off the wife of that guy in that sitcom and replacing the actress with Leah Remini, the male actor's old spouse in a former series, to boost ratings and interest? (You can tell that I'm not that interested, personally, since I can't be bothered to look up the details which would make this a more accurate question....but, as one 'oldie' to know what I mean, right?)
Another thing. Do you remember back when, in that terrific series, "Homicide:Life on (in?) the Streets", they decided to try to boost their ratings by wiping out half the stellar cast in one fell swoop in a formerly unheard of event of violence, in an otherwise, basically chatty show?
I forget what you were talking about exactly, but I think this pertains, somehow.......

Pidge said...

Oh..Earl...that was me. I forgot to put in my name, I was so fascinated by picking which boxes had apartment buildings in the Captcha!

Alan said...

Your musings on actor-switching reminded me of this most audacious example.
On the Burns and Allen show, Fred C. Clark, the actor playing Harry Morton, Burns’ neighbour, was released from his contract with the TV show to do a Broadway play in New York.
In the middle of the show, in a scene featuring Gracie and “Harry”, George interrupted the proceedings to explain to the audience that Clark would be leaving the show, and that from now on, Larry Keating will be playing the part of Harry Morton.
Clark left the Stage, Keating entered, George left and the scene continued.
Perhaps I should explain, that one of the conventions of the Burns and Allen show was that George often addressed the audience to comment on what was going on in the story, but this was really out of the box.
Like I said.

Craig L. said...

Then there's the "Superhero Comics" practice of routinely bringing key characters back from the dead, transferred to Superhero Movies when the first Avengers movie killed off non-super Agent Coulson but reincarnated him for the TV spin-off "Agents of SHIELD".

But Ken Levine (not the video game guy but who wrote sitcoms, did sportscasting and everything else) has addressed this issue since he was there when MASH killed off Henry Blake and scrupulously avoided any other casualties among departing cast. And he was working on Cheers when they killed off Jay Thomas' character, an ex-hockey player, in a freak Zamboni accident. Which raises the other Most Famous Death on a Sitcom, the Mary Tyler Moore killing of Chuckles the Clown which ended up focusing on "inappropriate laughter". If a sitcom is going to kill off a regular character, they'd better do it in a funny way.