Monday, January 21, 2019

Out Of One's Head...Together - Suspending Belief

On Martin Luther King day, it's amazing where we are today. We need to think outside of the box, to climb ourselves out of this hole we have put ourselves in. A regressive administration, a president who is a pathological liar, a despot, a follower of the teachings of Adolph Hitler, a billionaire who has duped an entire GOP and a minority electorate abusing and managing America. King is turning over in his grave and looking at all of us to fix this. If this were a film, it would be a horror movie. A political thriller with Russian enemies on the side of an America GOP political and economic party.

We can do better. Easily. Moving on....

I have long had the ability to think around what I already know about, without it overly affecting me. More of us should be trained on that as children.

While still knowing what I'm trying to not know, though I clearly know it, I will still react as if I don't know. Though I never knew it would be, it's a handy skillset I picked up as a kid that has served me well and long into adulthood. It's beneficial to use for seeing your side up against another point of view.

It's also been useful in watching films. We've all heard or experienced when watching a film and you find already know what the ending will be. We've all heard people say, "When I watch a film I find way before the ending, that I know what is going to happen." Or, "I know right away where the film is headed."

Yeah, me too. So? Many I hear say that are actually just boasting how smart they are. Some are just genuinely annoyed. But I seldom hear a resolution. Suspend belief. Something not that easy for most of us. Because we think one of two things. Either we can't do it. Or, if we do it, it will dumb us down, make us stupid in practicing "stupidity".

I beg to differ. It's harder than it seems. It does not dull you, but builds mental muscles many simply do not have. Otherwise, it wouldn't be so hard for one to do. The thing is, it has much to do with emotional strength or maturity, then intellectual considerations.

I was that way too many years ago. I was proud and actively tried to solve the move I was watching before the midway point. Until I started college and began to study cinema. My university degree is in psychology. But I also studied cinema, fiction writing, script and screenwriting and also in a team environment. During my first year when I heard the term, "suspending belief", my life changed.


I was told when you make a film, you do not want to break the audience's suspension of belief and there are more than several ways to do that. Write or produce a bad film. Show the director's hand (or for a writer, show the writer's hand in a story in a book or screenplay. Which is where the term "killing one's children" came from for writers. That is, one must delete not only the bad, but also the excessively good sentences or paragraphs, if it breaks the reader out of the story.

In the film prognostication realm, who's the loser then? You, because you feel you're so smart, you ruin for yourself most of the movies out there? Or me, because I can take that ride and enjoy it, all the way to the end. Unless it's really bad. I'll figure out things on the way but I keep, that is, I maintain my suspension of belief. As long as the filmmaker allows me to.

I work with them to enjoy the film. IF you find you have to consciously suspend belief all through the film, it does indeed ruin the film. But if you can begin with it, maintain it, you may find a new experience from it. It becomes muscle memory. You note when something happens almost subconsciously, and then move on, mostly undeterred, without losing your stride.

One has to be careful. It's like pausing a movie today, which so many of us do, then going to the kitchen, or bathroom, or answering the phone, or whatever. A filmmaker builds your metabolism to a certain point, and changes it on purpose. Manipulating you for your benefit, to experience the film, to be submerged into the story, the characters, the emotions and hopefully, the intelligence of the work. When we break that, we do the filmmaker and ourselves a disservice.

I could go on in depth with the psychophysical considerations here, but I think you get the point.

I cannot, however, avoid gleaning the ending from the middle or sooner, when it's an overall intentional clue. When you're supposed to figure something out, do feel free. For instance, take David Mamet's 1987 film, House of Games, one of my favorite films. I loved that film the first time I saw it and I've seen it several times since. I like Mamet's works overall. Though he's not for everybody, he is still one of our most celebrated writers.

Yes, I try to not think about it all too much in watching a film. But for example, 42:38 minutes into David Mamet's 1997 film, The Spanish Prisoner (Steve Martin), it hit me like a loaded gun. I knew what was going on. That gives you two markers for one. Can you beat my figuring it at by that time in the film? Or is it just when Mamet expected viewers to figure it out? And what exactly was it you figured out? How valuable is that information in the end?

The first of his films I saw was during my college days. I got to study him a bit there in cinema classes. Films like The Postman Always Rings Twice (with Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange, a remake of the 1946 Lana Turner, John Garfield film from the James M. Cain novel). The Verdict (Paul Newman). I also loved The Untouchables. Some of my favorite films are Mamet's. Like Spartan (Val Kilmer), Ronin (Robert De Niro), and others.

The thing about someone like Mamet is once you do figure it out, you most likely were supposed to. Then, it's all about the ride to the finish. As with The Spanish Prisoner con. You're trapped in believing you know something. You're in on it. To some, this is a disappointment. But not to worry. You're on the ride. Enjoy it.

What I'm referring to in all this is not taking the individual clues in a film or story, and adding them up to the ending before the ending. IF I'm experiencing a high-quality piece of work then, I can feel comfortable and free to apply any potential analytical skills I may possess and have fun running the full circuit, the full power, peddle to the metal, enjoying whatever skills I may have. Part of the fun of detective and espionage films, for instance.

It's been a useful talent as a screenwriter. As a writer in general, really.

Once I started writing fiction regularly, this was during and after college, no one was much interested in reading what I was writing. First time I learned about that. If you play, say guitar, you just say to someone, "hey, how's this sound to you?" And you play a few bars. People say, "No", or "Yeah, that's good."

However, if you're a writer how do you say to someone, "Here, please invest half an hour or day or a week of your time and read this, then tell me what you think and be descriptive." Another difference between music and writing. Someone's critique saying, "I don't like it," or, "I like it", doesn't help much.

And it never happens. Seldom anyway. And if you DO find someone, damn. Keep them happy!

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I wanted to learn how to play chess.

No one knew how in my family. My older brother did, but he wasn't interested. He had a friend who was a close friend of our family and myself for many years to come. He became another older brother to me. He did take the interest and time in me for some reason. Overall, he was just a nice guy. He's gone now. Another who died too young.

After he taught me chess, I had no one to play with. So I started playing against myself. Yes, I've been asked as an adult at times if I didn't spend much time alone as a child. It's kind of obvious at times. But then, I can also be quite entertaining.

I remember in my parent's living room, playing an album, To Sir With Love, by Lulu, who was a huge star at the time, somewhat off the film of the same name as her album. It starred Sidney Poitier but she was in it and sang the title song. A really emotional scene, of troubled students showing their appreciation for one of the only people, their teacher, who showed then compassion and a path to adulthood and being a decent person. One of the first of those types of films.

It was hard to play chess against myself at first. Frustrating.  But I always rebelled against my frustrations, which is far more useful than giving up or being angry. I realized pretty quickly I had to learn to compartmentalize. I remember asking my friend how one does that. He offered a suggestion, whatever it may have been and I ran with it, took me months to master, but eventually, I got it down.

The frustrating (and comical) thing was, and I noticed this through most of my life playing chess alone, that I kept myself. I mean, I would take a color, white or black, and play against someone (myself). I didn't want to just beat my opponent, that got old quick. Like gambling for fun and never losing.

I guess, thinking back on it I was simply overcompensating in trying not to cheat by knowing my "opponent's" moves ahead of time. But then I had to do the opposite, not let me "opponent" know what I was thinking. It was a study in schizophrenia. And maybe, considering my background, my family, my mother most in particular, that was extremely helpful for me in my maturing emotional health. Not that it made me more emotionally mature. That's another story, entirely.

I just hadn't expected for the outcome to be, to lose to myself. Ironic, and pretty funny, really. In the end, after years of playing chess alone, I started to play against others. I was turned down for the junior high school chess club. They just didn't want me. I ran into that a lot. My demeanor made people expect me to be dumber than I was.

They forced me to play against their best player to enter the club. Of course, I lost. I remember asking, "But isn't this a club for people who love chess? I love chess and want to learn more." Thanks a lot Michael W.

I went on to play whoever would play me. One time I remember doing something I saw somewhere. I played against three people without looking at the chessboard and won all three games. When I got into the Air Force, I would play my friend Dan in the parachute shop and he always beat me. Even though I thought I should easily be able to beat him. He was an admirable if annoying opponent.

Then one day, I beat him! He tossed the game board, through a fit. I was so demoralized by that. My sense had always been to praise people for beating you at something, an attitude I learned in Karate in grade school. I was so annoyed, I refused to play humans after that, for years. I bought a Tandy Radio Shack tiny portable electronic chessboard for $50 and had that for decades. It wasn't until years later I started again to play against people and eventually, taught it to my children.

Getting back to my point and sorry about all the historical stuff... don't just whine about how smart you are that you always know where a movie is going before it gets there. Because you are just showing people your ego, and missing out on some very great and fun experiences.

IF you find it isn't easy to do, rather than puff up an already over-inflated ego, practice it. Build that skill, build those unused pampered mental and emotional muscles. Because in the end, it will serve you well.

People around you won't be thinking things about you, they'll never say to your face.

And you may find there are a lot more fun films out there than you ever thought possible.

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