By Joshua De Fleuriet, St John’s College Cambridge 2019
Today I’m going to talk about the willing suspension of disbelief – the experience we have when we watch a film or read a book and are lifted out of our everyday lives, but in so doing, we experience a deeper truth about our reality.
This phrase – the willing suspension of disbelief – just so happens to have come from two Cambridge graduates. William Wordsworth, of my very own St Johns college, and Samuel Coleridge.
In 1798, they co-wrote a collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads. They had a division of labour. Coleridge would take supernatural themes and imbue them with something true about human experience. Wordsworth would take the other side. He took everyday themes and gave them deeper meaning. He says, “To give the charm of novelty to things every day”.
In these two different ways they set themselves an amazing task – to bring about for their readers the willing suspension of disbelief. They wanted to awaken their readers from what Coleridge describes as the “lethargy of custom” – the way in which our tedious everyday lives blind us to “the wonders of the world before us.” They called this “the film of familiarity”. Literally a lens in front of our eyes, which prevents us from seeing truth.
The willing suspension of disbelief is our freedom from this, from the “film of familiarity”. Wordsworth and Coleridge sought this through poetry. I have found it in film.
Jim and Andy
As most of you know I am a huge film nerd, and one of my favourite films in recent times was the documentary, “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond”. It’s a documentary which follows Jim Carey on the set of the film Man On the Moon, in which he portrayed the late American comedian, Andy Kaufmann. Kaufman was a surrealist, who was totally misunderstood in his own time, but is remembered as one of the most important and iconic comedians. He was totally erratic. It was never clear when he was in character and he had his audiences confused as much as they were laughing.
Carey adopted a total ‘method acting’ approach to the film. In his every waking moment he was Andy Kaufmann. Through behind-the-scenes footage, the documentary brilliantly captures the on and off-set interactions Carey has as Kaufmann. The situation gets increasingly out of control. People lose sense of what’s real and what isn’t. Andy’s real-life family begin embracing him as their own son. There are altercations with the director, Milos Foreman on set, who was pleading to “speak to Jim”. But he only got Andy.
My favourite scene in the film, set in the actors’ make-up trailer, encapsulates Wordsworth and Coleridge’s idea of the willing suspension of disbelief and breaking through the film of familiarity. In this scene, the actor playing Andy Kaufmann’s father comes into the make-up trailer and starts arguing with Jim Carey, who is in character as Andy Kaufmann. They seem to be having a genuine father-son interaction. He is unloading real parental frustration.
Andy says to his father, “I just want to be supported. I mean, if I want to choose to do something, you should support me.” They argue back and forth.
Andy’s father says, “I’m angry because I love you. I want to try to support you.”
“Too late,” Andy screams. Or was it Jim? Everyone in the trailer is stunned into silence. The father turns and walks out the trailer. David Bowie’s “Starman” is playing.
What is so moving about this scene is that everyone in the trailer has suspended their disbelief. They are so invested in the argument; they have forgotten that they are not really father and son. As the father leaves the trailer, the camera pans round to the make-up artist who is crying. She confesses: “That reminds me of my dad”.
Jim Carey here is our Wordsworth.
The mundane world of the trailer, where people are blow-drying hair, has been raised to the level of art. This behind the scenes shot of a trailer, in a documentary, about a film, about a comedian, who played different characters, somehow gives us an emotional truth that we struggle to find in real life sometimes.
Jim Carey dissolves our film of familiarity. Our disbelief is suspended. But, we chose to have this experience. We chose to watch this film. For the make-up artist, whose trauma with her own father is suddenly ripped to the surface, it’s a different thing. She is being forced to confront her trauma. Her disbelief is suspended unwillingly. This experience is a form of freedom.
The big question this raises, however, which is a political question best put by Rousseau, is can we willingly free ourselves, or are we forced to be free? If we are forced to be free, is it still freedom? This scene is a powerful moment, but it has been thrust upon the make-up artist. Having the film of familiarity removed can be painful.
In a way, the scene is a moment of therapy. It’s cathartic. The make-up artist experiences her trauma about her own father through the fictional argument in the trailer.
Therapy is supposed to free the patient from their trauma. But the therapist cannot simply thrust this upon the patient. They cannot say “this is what happened , it was not your fault, get better”. The patient has to go through an experience to come to that conclusion by themselves. However, the role of the therapist is to, perhaps by a sleight of hand, induce that experience in the patient… perhaps to force them to be free.
On the topic of therapy, as Freud said, “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother”.
My mum, who is a psychoanalyst, and a good Jewish mother, explored this in a really interesting way in her research on her practice as a film therapist. She did clinical research with a group of severely traumatised patients who were struggling to free themselves from the horrors of their past. She hypothesised that allowing them to transfer their pain onto aspects of films, might help trigger identificatory processes that could be utilised in therapy to enhance their ability to reflect, but without being too overwhelmed.
A group of patients with severe trauma sit to watch the film the Bicycle Thief. The scene is of a man who goes to work every day and is totally dependent on a bicycle for his livelihood. One day he leaves the bicycle unlocked and the bike is stolen. His life goes into crisis.
The patients are asked to express their emotions about the scene. Initially, the vast majority attack the protagonist for having been so careless and lost his bike. They blame him solely for his misfortune. In reality this interpretation is a reflection of their own trauma. Despite the clear responsibility of the bike thief, or, for the patients, their abuser, they are unable to free themselves of guilt and shame.
However, by transferring their emotions into something unreal, allowing them to suspend their disbelief, they are able to work through the analysis of the film and come to a different interpretation of the causes of suffering in the film, which in turn allows them to come to a deeper realisation about themselves.
What ties this all together? Wordsworth, Coleridge, Carey, Kaufmann, Freud, Ruth Manasseh?
To quote Coleridge, our challenge is that in our selfish isolation “we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”
Through art, perhaps we can all shed that film of familiarity in our lives, one way or another.