Little White Lies, Man On Wire Issue
There is a scene in //Ed Wood// where the Wood is questioned by a producer about his attention to detail. "How 'bout that the policemen arrive in the daylight, but now it's suddenly night?" the producer asks. "What do you know? Haven't you ever heard of 'suspension of disbelief'?", Wood replies.
The ‘suspension of disbelief’, the willing seduction of an audience by unreality, is a concept that still inspires argument somewhere at the point where literature, film, psychology and philosophy meet.
The arguments principally centre on the extent to which such ‘suspension’ is conscious. Professor Carl Plantinga, an America philosopher who has written extensively on cognitive theory in relation to film, argues it is largely unconscious:
//If it’s a fiction film, I think people pretty much assume that what they are seeing is not actually occurring and they have responses that are automatic. All those responses are tempered by this ‘mental set’ which is ‘fiction’ – ‘I’m watching a movie’. Otherwise you really couldn’t account for the way people take a serious interest in danger, or why they would go to see a film that has a protagonist that they sympathise with who is put in great danger, or who feels great pain.//
This conception of the suspension of disbelief presumes a sort of subconscious bond of trust between audience and film that while the audience accepts the film is not ’real’, it should not have to work too hard to make it real. With the advent of CGI, it can be argued, this bond is increasingly tenuous.
CGI is most sharply thrown into relief by franchise extensions or re-makes which consciously choose CGI over the traditional arts of costume or stop-frame animation –//King Kong//, //Spiderman//, //Hulk// or the digi-ridden //Star Wars// prequels. CGI’s unreal smoothness, its strange fluidity of movement, may only be the result of short-term technological limitation but it remains essentilly intrusive filmic showboating. This not only changes the way reality is depicted but in flaunting artificiality, negates the need for the ‘real’ at all. In this context, why should an audience bother to sympathise with ‘great danger’, or ‘great pain’ at all?
‘Suspension of disbelief’ was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his book of autobiographical and literary musings, //Biographia Literaria//. Coleridge wrote that his work published in //Lyrical Ballads// had striven towards:
//a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.//
While Coleridge sweated, with pen and opium pipe, to evoke the transcendent power of the supernatural, the means at his disposal were minimal considering the sheer range of mind-bending stimuli available to the filmmaker. This, according to Plantinga, gives the visual arts a uniquely powerful route to the subconscious:
//I think one of the reasons that film and television and any audiovisual media are so good at conveying a sense of danger is that they don’t communicate linguistically but they communicate with images and sounds. They tap into a lot of spectator’s real world perceptual processes, which are hardwired to give certain types of responses.//
//For example, the startled response. Darwin talked about going to a zoo. He knew that there was a glass between the adder in the zoo but when the adder struck at the glass he couldn’t help but flinch. Films play into or take advantage of those natural perceptive processes the way that literature can’t.//
Early narrative cinema having achieved shock-value through presenting the everyday as realistically as possible, quickly evolved to seeking visceral thrills – Keaton narrowly avoiding being flattened by a falling gable, Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock, or //The Great Train Robbery’s// final shot directly at the audience – through just such cinematic adder-strikes.
It has been argued that this need for cinematic danger, satisfied, and continues to satisfy, an inherent primordial desire of the human subconscious, as Plantinga explains:
//Many psychologists and philosophers have thought that every since we have become ‘civilised’ a lot of the danger and the inherent excitement of everyday life has been taken away from us and movies are one way that people can experience this sense of excitement in a very same environment – by curious living in a way.//
For stunt co-ordinators such as Andy Armstrong, the act of securing the ‘poetic faith’ of the audience that the danger is ‘real’ is an art in itself. Armstrong was stunt co-ordinator for films such as//I Robot, Universal Soldier, Stargate//, and //Total Recall//, while his brother Vic was stuntman for, amongst many others, the first three //Indian Jones// films. They both pride themselves on not just delivering thrills but integrating their work into the narrative.
//My brother and I both have tried to make it a bit of a calling card that we try to work out what the character is, who he is, and how much they are capable of. It’s nice when the stunt that they perform is completely in keeping with that character. That’s why films like //Bullitt// are completely believable, because you buy into the character. Personally I am a little bit bored with superhero movies where, if in doubt, they give them another skill.//
However, while the Armstrong brothers fight the good fight for ‘motivated’ stunt action that breaks the ‘fourth wall’ of believability, CGI has added an extra level of difficulty.
//A problem now is that people are so well educated, if not in the exact technicalities then in the possibilities of things that can be achieved with computer assisted effects. It’s very hard to wow an audience with ‘holy shit that was cool’. The immediate window that opens in their mind is ‘yeah that was cool but it was obviously a trick’.//
Perhaps one of the unintended beneficiaries of this loss of faith has been the documentary movement. For James Marsh, director of //Man on Wire//, the power of documentary filmmaking is partly in that that they offer realism in an age where narrative filmmaking is more concerned with shaking its technological tail feathers.
//When I see a big, splashy film, I know that it’s all virtual, do you know what I mean? And when I see a Michel Gondry film, you know that it’s all real. //Man on Wire// is the same kind of idea: it’s all real. There’s one or two visual effects in the film but they’re only trying to get you into the reality of what you’re trying to experience.//
//I think there’s quite a few really powerful documentaries that are going to come out over the course of the next year and perhaps that’s in some way either a backlash or a response to that lack of belief in CGI – real stories and real emotions that you can’t argue with because you’re seeing them unfold.//
Plantinga, for his part, while admitting to his own cinematic enjoyment being frequently spoiled by CGI, and noting the rise of documentaries with a strong narrative arc, stresses that the ‘mental set’ for the appreciation of fiction and non-fiction are fundamentally distinct. As CGI improves, and new generations become used to its particularities, its power to provide our fiction-craving ‘mental set’ with believable narrative kicks will be immense, even if it is never completely realistic.
//To me it’s a question of perceptual realism. By that, I would differentiate between perceptual realism and, I guess you could call it ontological (regarding being or existence) realism. Perceptual realism only requires that what is seen or mimicked causes the spectator to see or hear things in ways that are very close to how they see or hear things outside the movie theatre. It doesn’t require that it be realistic in any other sense than that it seems real. I think CGI is going to become quite powerful in that sense as it’s perfected.//
There is a certain irony, not to mention snobbery, in decrying CGI as an unwelcome guest, defiling the sacred arts of costume, special effects and stunt acting when so many films have set their stall on stunts and effects that have been as distracting and unmotivated as Ed Wood’s cops suddenly moving from day to night.
And yet, watch //Hulk//, or //Spiderman// or any other feast of CGI onanism, and it remains a legitimate criticism that there is little interest, little empathy, in the dangers faced by a digitally rendered, three-dimensional representation of geometric data.
In the paragraph following Coleridge’s definition of ‘poetic faith’ and the ‘suspension of disbelief’, he wrote in praise of his friend and collaborator William Wordsworth that he sought to achieve a heightened appreciation of what might otherwise appear the mundane. Doesn’t cinema’s at its best pursue the very same?:
//Awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.//