Suspension of disbelief – a term coined in 1817 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Now that I’ve finished plagiarizing Wikipedia, I can go on and say that what I’m really trying to define here are those certain instances when a work of art shatters the limitations of its medium.
So let’s proceed, shall we?
I’ve come up with the idea for this post after one of the rare instances in which a work of art (a TV episode) managed to defeat my rational mind, and I ended up so involved in the story that I lost all sense of reality and actually felt something. I’m not easy to impress, but there are certain occasions when I surrender to whatever the author of a story has planned for me.
Some people are strong believers in the fact that movies offer a much more visual experience, thus rendering books useless. My opinion is that movies and books offer two different experiences altogether – movies make it easy for a viewer to get invested in the story, but it also limits imagination, which can be a pretty big deal if you ask me. Because it offers everything the viewer needs, all the information is there, on the screen, and there’s nothing more that he has to do. It’s easier, but to me it also feels like having someone chew your food for you. Or if that analogy is too disgusting for you, it’s like over-boiling some vegetables – you lose all the nutrients and vitamins, all the good stuff.
Books, on the other hand, offer you enough freedom – depending, of course, on the writing style of the respective author. But it allows the reader to tap into his own resources, to compare situations and scenes with his own experiences. It’s a highly imaginative process and it requires, I’m afraid, a little bit more work.
Sometimes a story manages to transform its medium, to eliminate the middle man entirely, so to speak. And to me that’s almost like magic. To make a reader forget, maybe just for a moment, that he’s reading a story, to have him so invested in the situations and characters that he’s willing to consider them as real, to discard that it’s all just a convention between the author and the reader, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
There are scenes which have managed to affect me long after I finished reading the novel itself. And there are scenes in movies that affected me just as much. Passages that I’ve read over and over again, and scenes in movies that I had to see repeatedly until the DVD would break down. For instance I’ve watched the trailer for The Artist at least three hundred times.
“Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight and turning my head to watch it I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
This scene has haunted me ever since I first read it a couple of years ago. And I’ve read it dozens of times after that, and it never fails to make me shudder. It’s brilliantly executed. Of course, taken out of context it might not offer the same experience, but it’s great writing nonetheless. My point with adding this scene to my post is that it doesn’t have to be a scene of epic proportions. Most times less is actually more.