Art and the importance of suspending belief, even for Shakespeare

2 Jan

theater-disney

On my own, I’ve been studying filmmaking. I have even made a few short films, including this one. From my studies I know the craft is in turmoil due to vast changes in technology. Critical decisions have to be made on what new technology to use, how to use it and what from the old to keep. With high-definition digital cameras, a film can be as realistic as life, but most filmmakers see this as bad.

Audiences, they say, are used to the imperfections and inexactness of 35 mm film shot at 24 frames per second. For feature films, this “old look” brings the viewer into a world that is not his own, a world where he can suspend belief and enjoy the fiction being created on the screen. If a film is viewed in high-definition, all one may see is a bunch of actors walking around.

In such a case, the real world treads on the world of fantasy.

And so movies are shot with digital cameras but the images are converted later to a format that looks much like 35 mm film.

ShakespearI had a taste of this necessity to suspend belief during the Christmas holidays. It was not at the movies but rather at the gorgeous Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Ballet was performing George Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.”

This was a first-class production. I was enjoying myself when suddenly, while watching costumed dancers swirl, jump and create visual poetry, I saw on the stage a painted sheet. Then I saw painted boards. Belief was no longer suspended; the magic had disappeared.

It was just for an instant and it occurred for no apparent reason. While outside the spell of the stage, my mind entertained a passing thought of using digital effects to duplicate a Russian winter. That thought quickly left. I returned once again to an illusion that I was willing and able to accept as real.

In the golden age of radio, that medium was referred to as “the theater of the mind.” But no less a personage than William Shakespeare has pointed out that even theater needs the cooperation of the mind.

I know little of this man and would not dare to interpret him. Still, it seems clear that in the prologue to “Henry V” he finds it necessary to ask his audience to suspend belief.

He seeks pardon for “the flat, unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object,” and ask rhetorically if the stage can “hold the vasty fields of France?” He explains, through his chorus, that one crooked figure will have to take the place of a million, and actors of no world standing will pretend to be historic figures, and that the imagination of the audience is required to dress the king.

He pleads, “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.”

This from a man who, with a few words, can induce hypnotic visions.

Had some muse or god given him the power to actually bring all of France to the stage and allow a thousand horses to romp across it, would he have accepted the gift? I think not, nor would the best of our filmmakers, nor would the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The power and force of fantasy is, after all, fantasy itself.

In the theater or at the multiplex, please do not watch too closely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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3 Responses to “Art and the importance of suspending belief, even for Shakespeare”

  1. 3riverrunner February 20, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Lanny, you use the phrase “suspend belief”. I prefer this to suspension of disbelief myself, it’s too hackneyed for my taste. Also,to me, suspend belief has a broader more philosophical meaning than suspend disbelief. Did you debate over which phrase to use? Thanks, Bryn Gilkey

    Like

  2. 3riverrunner February 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    Lanny, you use the phrase “suspend belief”. I prefer this to suspension of disbelief myself, it’s too hackneyed for my taste. Also,to me, suspend belief has a broader more philosophical meaning than suspend disbelief. Did you debate over which phrase to use? Thanks, Bryn Gilkey

    Like

    • NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi February 22, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      Bryn, When I wrote, I got the term wrong. As you suggest, the accepted term is “suspend disbelief.” I was embarrassed at first, then realized my version can actually work, as you also suggested. It’s like using negative space vs. positive space, half full or half empty. Still, I went against convention, but not on purpose. In my mind, as I saw through the illusion, I tried not to believe I was seeing it. I suspended my true belief in order to believe in something I knew was false. Thanks for bringing this us and for letting me know that it worked for you.

      Like

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