Errol Morris on belief, disbelief, and so on.

Errol Morris has now published part two of his blog post on the role of re-enactments in documentaries such as his — and the broader questions they raise in other kinds of film, and in real life as well. As always, his ruminations are quite interesting, but one section in particular leaps out at me:

The relationship between images in the mind and motion picture and still photography has been of interest since the beginnings of photography – even before motion pictures and photography. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a much-quoted passage from his “Biographica Literaria” speaks of the effort of creating “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith [that] can bribe us into a voluntary submission of our better knowledge, into suspension of all our judgment derived from constant experience, and enable us to peruse with the liveliest interest the wildest tales of ghosts, wizards, genii, and secret talismans.”

Regardless of what Coleridge originally intended – particularly when he was in the middle of some wildly extended opiated doggerel – the “willing suspension of disbelief” has been used as a catchall phrase to describe how we are to look at movies. Inappropriately, it seems to me.

The difficulty with images is not suspending disbelief but rather the opposite – suspending our natural tendency to believe in their veracity. The seeing-is-believing principle. The kind of re-enactments I have in mind are not based on trying to fool you into believing that something is real that is not. Nor are they based on the suspension of disbelief. They are not asking us to suspend your disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for their entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us – to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world. They involve the suspension of belief – not disbelief. The audience is being asked the question: did it happen this way? The kind of re-enactments I have in mind makes us question what we believe and brings us deeper into the mystery of what happened.

Continuity errors are a compilation of all those errors that we don’t usually see. But there are different kinds of continuity errors. Our interest in the continuity of the movie narrative prevents us from seeing the mistakes in how a movie is put together. Another example of a continuity error is how we fail to see how our mental narratives prevent us from seeing evidence – that there may be a discrepancy between how we see the world and the evidence we have at hand. This is, of course, what happened in the Randall Dale Adams case [in The Thin Blue Line]. Usually, the errors are in a faulty simulacrum of reality, a movie. But can’t a movie point out that we have in our minds a faulty simulacrum of the world? Aren’t they all examples of how narrative trumps evidence? Someone once argued to me that it is perverse to correct visual mistakes using a visual medium, but is it any stranger to correct verbal mistakes in a verbal medium? I don’t think so, as long as the visual medium – like movies – contains language.

There’s a lot to chew on here. But one reason this particular excerpt leaps out at me is because I have been quite skeptical of the phrase “suspension of disbelief” for at least the past five years. It was then that I came across this passage in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories‘:

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

Around that time, I also came across a similar concept in Sarah E. Worth’s essay ‘The Paradox of Real Response to Neo-Fiction’ in The Matrix and Philosophy:

When we enter into a fictional world, or let the fictional world enter into our imaginations, we do not “willingly suspend our disbelief.” Coleridge aside, we cannot willingly decide to believe or disbelieve anything, any more than we can willingly believe it is snowing outside if all visual or sensory cues tell us otherwise. When engaging with fiction we do not suspend a critical faculty, but rather exercise a creative faculty. We do not actively suspend disbelief — we actively create belief. As we learn to enter into fictional spaces (and I do believe this is something that we have to learn and that requires skills we must practice and develop) we desire more and more to experience the new space more fully. We want to immerse ourselves in the new world, just as Neo begins to immerse himself in the real world outside the Matrix. To do this we can focus our attention on the enveloping world and use our creative faculties to reinforce the reality of the experience, rather than to question it.

I quote more from the latter essay here. But the point here is, it is interesting to me how Tolkien, as a writer of fiction, and Worth, as a reader of fiction, both stress the notion that we create belief when experiencing works of fiction, whereas Morris, as a filmer of non-fiction, stresses the notion that the staged re-enactments in his documentaries should cause us to suspend belief in works of non-fiction. It’s all a matter of context, isn’t it?

Oh, and I love the final thought at the end of Morris’s blog post. It was a real “whoa” moment for me — and it dovetails with what Worth says in the longer excerpt that I linked to above:

Re-enactment is not so much a visual activity, as it is a conscious activity. It is the process through which we imagine and re-imagine the world around us. The important thing to remember is that everything we consciously experience is a re-enactment. Consciousness, itself, is a re-enactment of reality inside our heads.

Come to think of it, this all fits rather nicely with those lectures I have given on the nature of memory, and how St. Augustine described memory as “the belly of the mind” because it is the place where our experiences go after we have digested them and we no longer have the experiences themselves to chew on.

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