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.

Somebody up there … is throwing rocks at me?

I have always been profoundly aware of how tenuous our continued existence on this planet is, and how abruptly it could be called off, ever since I came across a photo in a children’s magazine — possibly National Geographic World — of a girl standing next to a dent in the ground where a teeny, tiny meteorite had just missed her. So I have a special interest in stories like this one, which appeared in the Daily Mail today:

A Bosnian man whose home has been hit an incredible five times by meteorites believes he is being targeted by aliens.

Experts at Belgrade University have confirmed that all the rocks Radivoje Lajic has handed over were meteorites.

They are now investigating local magnetic fields to try and work out what makes the property so attractive to the heavenly bodies.

But Mr Lajic, who has had a steel girder reinforced roof put on the house he owns in the northern village of Gornja Lamovite, has an alternative explanation.

He said: “I am obviously being targeted by extraterrestrials. I don’t know what I have done to annoy them but there is no other explanation that makes sense.

“The chance of being hit by a meteorite is so small that getting hit five times has to be deliberate.” . . .

For some reason this is reminding me of the brouhaha over the upcoming film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and the question of whether the evolution of life on Earth can be “best” explained by an “intelligent designer” rather than random chance, as well as the corollary question of whether this intelligent designer might be an alien rather than God. Certainly, in an earlier era at least, Lajic might have been inclined to assume that he had “annoyed” someone other than extra-terrestrials.

Two other stories of meteorite near-misses come to mind, both of them from four years ago. This one concerns a “grapefruit-sized black space rock” that “crashed through the living-room ceiling” of a home in New Zealand and “plunged on to a leather sofa . . . before bouncing back up to the ceiling and rolling under a computer table.” And this one concerns an elderly British woman who may have got “a one-inch gash along her forearm” from “a walnut-shaped metallic rock”. No doubt there are others, too.

Yet another movie not screened for critics.


Prom Night is a horror movie. To be more precise, it is a horror movie remake. It is produced by Screen Gems. And, with only a few hours to go before the film’s release, there are still virtually no reviews listed at Rotten Tomatoes, and none whatsoever at Metacritic. That says it all, I think.

Did Charlton Heston inspire Indiana Jones!?


Was the late Charlton Heston one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones? Dave Kehr, via Cinematical, says yes, indeed, he was:

One of Heston’s most influential roles remains one of his least known: that of Harry Steele, a dashing though cynical adventurer, who wears a fedora and a leather jacket, as he searches for Incan treasure in a manner that distinctly suggets a certain later day hero created by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The film is Jerry Hopper’s 1954’s “Secret of the Incas,” and Paramount has been strangely reluctant to release it to television or DVD. Reportedly, Spielberg and Lucas screened it for members of the production team during the planning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is very easy to believe given the many narrative and visual parallels.

TheRaider.net also counts this film among Lucas and Spielberg’s influences, and it turns out a few clips are up at YouTube:

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Just for the record, Secret of the Incas came out at the exact mid-point between Heston’s two films for Cecil B. DeMille — two years after The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and two years before The Ten Commandments (1956). All of Heston’s other, more famous movies lay even further in the future.

Lucas and Spielberg were certainly inspired by some of Heston’s other films, too. Spielberg explicitly references The Ten Commandments in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and it was he who pitched The Prince of Egypt (1998) as an animated version of DeMille’s Moses movie. As for Lucas, the pod race in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999; my review) is straight out of Ben-Hur (1959). Are there any other examples?

Newsbites: Silent! Errol! Disney! W! Caspian! Satire!

The news, it keeps sprouting, like weeds.

1. Vancouverites, mark your calendars. Silent Light, the Carlos Reygadas film about a love triangle among Mexican Mennonites, is coming to the VanCity Theatre June 5-12.

2. Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris tells the Hollywood Reporter he wants to make a comedy next — a scripted comedy. Morris has been making documentaries for decades, ever since Gates of Heaven (1978), but this would be only his second dramatic film, following The Dark Wind (1991). Meanwhile, Paul Arthur and Kyle Smith have posted responses to Morris’s newest film, Standard Operating Procedure, that critique it from different angles.

3. Disney and Pixar have revealed their slate of animated films coming out between now and 2012. Among the bigger surprises: Pixar is making a sequel to Cars (2006), their lowest-grossing film since A Bug’s Life (1998) — does anybody really want this? — and Disney is adapting King of the Elves, a fairy tale written by Philip K. Dick, of all people. Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew comments on the slate as a whole:

It’s interesting to note that all of the Pixar films have one individual with top billing as director, while the Disney features are structured to have two directors per film. That certainly can’t be coincidence. As Disney regains its footing, hopefully they’ll discover individuals within the organization whose personal vision is strong enough to carry a film by itself.

4. Slate and the Hollywood Reporter have taken their own sneak peeks at the script for Oliver Stone’s W, with the latter inviting responses from four George W. Bush biographers.

5. CT Movies editor Mark Moring has interviewed Douglas Gresham in anticipation of next month’s release of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and suffice it to say that Gresham does not do much to instill any sort of confidence in fans of the book. Meanwhile, Walden Media president Michael Flaherty talks to TheHighCalling.org about the Narnia movies — and also about the in-development film version of The Screwtape Letters.

6. Ron Reed passes on the news that Murray Stiller’s documentary Nailin’ it to the Church: Religious Satire and the Gospel According to the Wittenburg Door — presumably the same project that was once known as Jesus Makes Me Laugh — will be showing at the Regent College chapel in Vancouver April 21.

Ben-Hur to become a mini-series.


First, The Ten Commandments was a silent film produced in 1923. Then, it was a blockbuster starring Charlton Heston produced in 1956. And then, it became a TV mini-series produced in 2006.

Now Ben-Hur looks set to repeat the pattern. First, it was a silent film produced in 1925. Then, it was a blockbuster starring Charlton Heston in 1959. And now, according to Variety, it is about to become a TV mini-series — produced by David Wyler, whose father William was an assistant director on the 1925 film and won an Oscar for directing the 1959 film.

Here’s another trajectory the mini-series will follow: The 1925 film was pretty explicitly Christian, and the 1959 film toned down those elements in favour of a more generically pacifist, humanist message. Now, says Variety, the mini-series “will be based more specifically on the 1907 Lew Wallace source novel than either the 1959 version or earlier 1925 adaptation,” but it “will also likely downplay the religious aspects of the source material.”

Says Wyler: “We want to look at the spirituality within the piece rather than directly relating it to a specific religion. . . . It’s a very complex story. It’s been 50 years since my father’s version and we think we can bring something new and contemporary to it in the same way that ‘Gladiator’ did for that genre.”

So, what, Judah Ben-Hur will now be a generic pagan who dies dreaming of a vague afterlife with his leprous mother and sister?

Oh, and fact-check: Lew Wallace’s novel was published in 1880, not in 1907. However, the year 1907 is significant because that is when an even earlier version of Ben-Hur was produced — albeit a version that didn’t amount to much more than a glorified chariot race. That version is also historically significant because it prompted a precedent-setting copyright-infringement lawsuit.

UPDATE: It turns out someone has posted the surviving footage from the 1907 film on YouTube, in two parts. So here it is:

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X