Suspension (and Revision) of Disbelief

Originally I intended to discuss the irresponsible ways in which artists ask us to suspend our disbelief, not necessarily by creating an alternate universe, but in leaving out or fudging narrative information.

The idea came to me recently when my roommates and I watched The Fellowship of the Ring. In one scene, after Gandalf discovers the true nature of the ring and the Nazgul torture its whereabouts out of Gollum, Gandalf shows up at Frodo’s front door all in a dither. The wizard reveals crucial information about the ring and the approaching Nazgul.

“How does Gandalf even know that Gollum gave Frodo up and the Nazgul are coming?” my roommate asked. This is assumed possible because the movie said so and represents a major gap in the film’s logic.

The fact is that Gandalf, for all of his moth chatter and demon fighting, isn’t prescient. We only see him perform research in a library at Minas Tirith. His ability to track the alienated and reclusive Gollum isn’t presented and is also improbable. How could Gandalf possibly travel to Mount Doom to find out such information, considering its stringent security and Sauron’s panoptic eye that would certainly feel and see the wizard’s presence? The film, for the sake of time (and this is the
300-hour extended version, mind you), forces us to blindly
accept this irrationality.

If you’re willing to take this as an inoffensive casualty of adaptation, consider this: A friend of mine recently went to see a poetry slam. “It was fun,” she said, “I just wish people would stop talking about, like, ‘yo, meanwhile I’m dealin’ with this war in the Middle East,’ like it’s really a part of their middle-class pseudo-bohemian lives.” Try not to get weird about the Middle East reference. I’m not making a political statement. The example just illustrates that these often unfounded, clichéd buzz phrases no longer feel like part of the artist’s perspective but fool us into thinking that the poet is courageously political and thus important.

See, I fear that as audience members we allow artists to cut corners. We seem to prefer this, because it gets the damn consumption part over with so we can more quickly be cultured and knowledgeable. We’re confusing culture with simulations that haven’t been fully realized, leaving potentially dangerous gaps in our understanding. What if we try to use this unfounded dramatic opinion to the same effect and get called on it?

Anyway, that was going to be my original argument, and I still think there needs to be more follow through from the audience as an effort to hone our discerning eye and avoid consuming blindly. However, a friend told me about a movie that he thought was great but absolutely preposterous. Perfect, I thought, and so I bought an exorbitantly priced ticket, slid on my ludicrous 3D glasses and experienced Gravity.

If you haven’t seen it yet, avert your eyes and get a clue. I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to elude spoilers for this fantastic film—but back to business.

Gravity is, in some ways, preposterous. Aside from heroine Dr. Ryan Stone’s highly unlikely survival after being flung through space, surviving minutes without oxygen, escaping two explosive space stations, using a precarious capsule to jump the atmosphere back to Earth, then landing in a lake, apparently there are also some scientific inaccuracies. Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson points out that this all, unbelievably, occurs on the same plane of orbit, and Stone’s hair maintains its shape even though zero gravity should have Don King-ed that situation.

However, when we share Stone’s POV during her swing out of control, I nearly had an anxiety attack. When she runs out of oxygen a solid minute or two before reaching a space station, I keenly felt my own sense of hopeless perseverance. When she finally touches down on Earth, after she has decided to engage in life again instead of drowning out the sound of humanity, I knew there could be no other way. Our heroine needed to succeed—to get another chance. It’s a hard pill to swallow with a film that blends myth and realism the way Gravity does, but catharsis supplanted my need for explanation.

So now I have a two-part conclusion. The first calls for
recognizing the methods creators use to achieve suspension of disbelief, if only to distinguish when the end outweighs the means and when we’re being duped. The second, reinforced by this revisionary experience, coincides with the collegiate lifestyle, in which one gets accustomed to bolstering his or her brilliant thoughts all day. It’s best expressed by a phrase my friend uses when he’s called out for changing his opinion.

“But you just stood behind the opposite idea 10 minutes ago!” someone will challenge, to which he’ll reply, “Well, I was younger then.”