Sunday, November 7, 2010

When Must Art Reflect Reality?

You got me? Who's got you?

I was living in San Jose when Worldcon, the World Science Fiction Convention, was in town. I was at one of the many panels (the primary occupation of SF convention goers) about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I got annoyed over a discussion about Xander leaving Anyna at the alter and asked "why do people always talk about someone acting 'in character' when no one in real life has to. If I don't go around telling people they're acting out of character."

The response, from Jef Lobe, was "because fiction has to make sense."

And he's right.

But how far does that go? Commentators ranging from anonymous posters to paid movie critics talk about suspension of disbelief like it's there's a hard line or some kind of magici formula. As if, on the grate map of movie plots there's a space labeled "here there be disbelief."

A tale of two movies

There's a movie I saw back when it was in the theaters called Radio Flyer directed by Richard Donner. I hate to ruin a movie, but the plot boils down to this: a young boy escapes abuse by converting his Radio Flyer into an airplane. The escape comes at the climax of the movie. The movie is otherwise quite realistic with the exception of two scenes that might be thought of as "dream sequences."

I first saw the movie when it was in the theaters, back when I was 15. I'm 34 now. At the time, I liked it. I thought it was a good movie and it made a good impression on me. I took it at face value.

But not everyone did. Roger Ebert, for example, did not.

I was so appalled, watching this kid hurtling down the hill in his pathetic contraption, that I didn't know which ending would be worse. If he fell to his death, that would be unthinkable, but if he soared up to the moon, it would be unforgiveable - because you can't escape from child abuse in little red wagons, and even the people who made this picture should have been ashamed to suggest otherwise.

To be honest, until I read this review, years later, the idea that the ending was somehow unforgivable because it's imposible never entered my mind.

So why do I have the opposite reaction? I like to chalk it up to my love of superhero comics. My favorite superhero, Superman, regularly does things that save people from fates they could not otherwise escape. In the 1978 movie also directed by Donner, Superman save Lois Lane from falling to her death. Of course, you can't save people who are falling from high buildings by flying up under your own power and catching them before the they hit the ground. (There are number of problems with this, flying is just one of them.)

Roger Ebert gave Superman 4 stars when it came out. He mentioned the rescue on in a list of things that could have gone wrong had they cast the wrong actor in the title role. Just recently he wrote a Great Movie article about Superman.

This isn't to pick on Ebert. He's not a hypocrite for accepting one scenario, but not another. What I find interesting is the fact that this situation isn't anomalous. Lots of people have no trouble accepting that Superman can fly, an impossibility. But sugest that kid might escape child abuse by building an airplane out of wagon, and that's it, you've gone to far.

I hear it all the time, particularly when people want to explain why they don't like a movie, book, or tv show. But of course, where someone draws the line is a matter of personal taste. But that's not helpful. Why do people draw the line where they do? Well, one is the impossible/improbable line. Superman is impossible, so he gets a pass. Escaping child abuse in a homemade aircraft is simply unlikely (o.k., very unlikely) so it doesn't.

Frankly, that's not very satisfying to me. For one thing, people accept a lot of unlikely things in fiction. On top of that, it doesn't reflect an underlying uneasiness in Ebert's review. Sometimes, people don't like a genere, so they label it unbelievable and don't bother with it. Musicals come to mind.

Here's another movie, Juno. I was reading a column in the San Jose Mercury News about how some people were criticizing the movie because of it's inaccurate portrayal of teenage pregnancy. Apparently most teenage mom's don't strum guitar with the father of the baby after giving the kid up for adoption. Who knew?

So here's my hypothesis, people will now suspend disbelief under the following circumstances:

  1. When the conceits of the genere are unappealing to the person.
  2. When plot elements are antithetical to the person's understanding, based on experience, of how people behave.
  3. When the film depicts social problem the person cares about in a manner not consistant with the person's understanding of the problem.

So under this structor, some people find musical's unbelievable, and thus don't watch them. Musical's are still popular, but it also breaks many people's willing suspension of disbelief. Essentially, I'm chalking number one up to personal taste.

But what about when a person accepts the conceits of the genere, but is unwilling to accept a specific plot point not necessarily part of the genere? What explains that? Not everyone agrees how people make decisions. Actors are taught that a person's motivation dictates their actions. Experimental psychology teaches that people act contrary to their interests. Some religions teach that people are basically evil, while others teach the people are basically good. Economists say that lower taxes will cause people to create jobs, while others sugest that it simply encourages people to hoard money.

So, if you believe that people always act based on their "motivation" then you're going to have a hard time accepting actions that seem be without motivation.

Lastly, we have social problems. This is the problem Radio Flyer and Juno have. Radio Flyer tackles child abuse and, rather than have the step-father be jailed or otherwise get their come-upance, we have a literal escapist fantasy. In Juno we have reasonable parents, a smart teenager, and a teenage father that's simply in over his head. Compair this to the threats, violence, and recrimination most unwed teenage mothers get, and it's easy to understand the complaint.

So why was Juno so successful? What did Richard Donner see in Radio Flyer? Easy, escapist fantasy.

You know what Superman's first case was? Stoping a lynching. There were 4,743 lynchings in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. That's about 1 a week, though they're clustered around the turn of the century mostly. When people talk about Superman's popularity, they rarely talk about the fact that he can solve real world problems we can't by virtue of his powers. Those kinds of stories are somewhat depreciated in favor of the more larger than life stories we get in the comics and on TV.

But wouldn't it be great if you or I had the power save people from falling? What if we could prevent injustice because we were stronger that other people? What if teenage girls didn't become social pariahs when they got pregnant? What if a child could, of their own volition, escape child abuse? Wouldn't that be great?

I like heroics. I can't be the only one, given the popularity of such stories.

I think that suspension of disbelief discussions can be helpful when discussing the limits of fantasy, even "realistic" fantasy like a cop show. But I think the discussion breaks down when the opinion is presented as a hard and fast rule like "X breaks my willing suspension of disbelief, therefor it's bad."

I'm not convinced a willing suspension of disbelief is a necessary component for enjoyment of movies anyways. This is something I would be interested in studying more in depth later though.

You will believe a man can fly.

1 comment:

  1. I clicked on the name link for your blog at Ebert’s thread on loneliness. Almost a year ago he did a post on me and my website. Once or twice a week I check out his threads.

    A depressing thread, but your blog made me think you might want to experience more of art and interact with intelligent folk more. If interested, contact me and I can introduce you to some people with intelligence and drive in the arts. I have readers all over the world- from the UK to Canada to Japan to Tibet.
    If interested, contact me.