Would You Believe?

From Raspberry World – Volume 1, Issue 5 (February / March 2007)


   I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t care – and neither should you; because it’s important.

   There’s this thing, in art (or Art, if you prefer) called “the willing suspension of disbelief”. Some people call it verisimilitude – the quality of truth without actual fact, that sometimes-indefinable content that suggests that what you’re reading/seeing/hearing is absolute gospel. Not even necessarily an eye for detail that extends to the microscopic level, though that can help.

   But verisimilitude, and a number of other tools, are at the hands of the artist, be a writer, filmmaker, director, producer or in some instances an actor. Those are his or her responsibility. What I’m talking about is that willingness in the audience or readership to play along. The Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It can turn a story into an experience. The absence of it results in what we call, among other things, “camp”, and all the art and artifice of the storyteller, whatever his medium, can not save a story if the audience chooses to receive it as camp.

   It’s really most annoying. I can provide no better example than one of my personal experiences: some years ago (my heart misgives at the thought of how many), Universal Studios re-released their entire line of classic horror films to theaters for some anniversary. No, I don’t know what anniversary, they can cobble up anything to justify cashing in on something, and it has no bearing on my story. They re-released them, one and all, and as luck would have it, I was able to attend several screenings. The one that sticks in my mind firmest is seeing the 1931 classic, Frankenstein, starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke and, your friend and mine, Boris Karloff. I settled in with my vat of Diet Coke and inflatable-pool of popcorn, ready for a real experience – and I got it. But I didn’t get it without a fight. I knew the moment Edward van Sloan stepped out, prior to the opening credits, that there was going to be trouble. Grumblings. Snickers. Sotto voce smart remarks about old fashioned techniques. Other suppositions and tomfool suggestions that I will not dignify with repetition. This was at the Castro Theater in San Francisco and I’m sure that will tell you all you wish to know about the tenor of these comments. And these persisted, to greater or lesser degree, throughout the movie.

   Clive’s mania during the creation scene; Karloff’s entrance, with its three close-ups, each tighter than the one before, until that… that face fills the screen; Dwight Frye tormenting the poor creature with a whip, then a torch; Karloff, throttling Clive with a reptilian, almost sexual glee; the Creature’s tragic meeting with the little girl, at lakeside; the Creature’s appearance in Elizabeth’s (Mae Clarke) bridal chamber, and Karloff’s growl in close-up; the Creature hefting his unconscious maker over his shoulder and carrying him away – I seem to recall the term hillbilly weddin’ applied to that sequence.

   I managed, in the face of all that, to come away with an even greater respect and enjoyment of this classic, a new appreciation for its cinematic achievement. I can’t begin to imagine what the experience was like for others in the audience, those vocal folks who couldn’t resist the impulse to snigger. I suspect, sadly, that their sophistication and superiority deprived them of the ability to see the magic on that screen.

   In a way, I suppose, familiarity has bred a level of contempt. For over 75 years, now, the image of the Frankenstein Monster has been a part of our culture – not just America, but across the globe. Walk up to some kid in Painesville, Ohio or Inverness, Scotland or Manila, the Philippines or Sao Paolo, Brazil or Geneva, Switzerland; hand them a piece of paper and a pencil, and ask them to quickly draw a picture of Frankenstein’s Monster (or simply “Frankenstein”, as the creature has come to be known), and 8 out of 10 times, if not more, you’ll get: tall, stocky body, flat head, bolts sticking out of the neck, a heavy ridge above the eyes, and thick, heavy boots. You’ll get Boris Karloff, in character and essence.

   We’ve seen it for so long; we’ve stopped taking it seriously. This attitude completely disregards the fact that some people fled the theater screaming, when Karloff first appeared on screen, back in 1931; that others fainted dead away at the sight of him. That, if suddenly confronted with a being approximately seven feet tall, with such facial characteristics, their own reaction might be a bit less than laughable. And yes, I said seven feet tall – though Karloff, at 5’11” – 6’0″, was fairly slight, his successors, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bela Lugosi, were both 6’3″, and Glenn Strange was a towering 6’6″! When you add the 6″ to 8″ boots and the extra height of the flat head that brings the total to at least 7′, and in Strange’s case, even taller. Hardly a dainty creature. And if there had never been a movie, and Jack P. Pierce had never created such make-up transformations that defy the viewer to tell where the make-up stopped and the actor began, I challenge anyone to face such a being and casually ask it the time or offer it a cigarette.

   Somewhere, realism ruined us. Advances in make-up and special effects have robbed us of the ability – no, not the ability, but the inclination to employ the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, most of the time.

   Remember when you were a kid (though there are plenty of perfectly good adults who do the same), and the new issue of your favorite comic hit the stands? Nothing short of extraordinary poverty or direct parental intervention could prevent you pouncing on it greedily, whisking it away to your lair, and reading it so avidly your lips moved along with the dialogue as you read it, with a flashlight under the covers, if necessary. Then you’d join your friends, next day, and discuss the adventure, speculating how Your Hero would escape such a dastardly problem. Now really, you worldly and sophisticated thing, you – people who flew around wearing capes? Masked men in tights, carrying an arsenal in their handy utility belts, swinging through the city, taking the fight to evil, criminal clowns and dapper, pointy-nosed monocle-wearing masterminds? A quartet of persons capable of, respectively, stretching themselves, becoming invisible, setting themselves aflame at will and bouncing bullets off their rocky skin? A guy who can climb walls and weave webs? Good mutants fighting bad mutants? I ask you…

   But it wasn’t – and for many, still isn’t – camp. The same can be said for the mostly better comic strips of older days (I know rather dignified old gentlemen who absolutely sweated, waiting to see how Dick Tracy was going to defeat Flat Top or the Brow), the movie serials and the classic radio shows, serial or series. Of course, we never for a moment really thought that what we were reading, hearing or seeing was truly going on somewhere. We didn’t understand the distinction, but we didn’t need to. For that moment, we were aslop with the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Even in more recent days, we’d hit a two-parter (sometimes, at the season finale, the devils!), and moan all week over what was going to happen to Captain Picard or Buffy, or whether the Daleks had the Doctor licked this time…

   So how dare any of us look back at anything that was meant seriously in its day? Whether it’s Lon Chaney exposing what Robert Bloch called “the naked face of horror” in The Phantom of the Opera, or Errol Flynn swinging to an enormous tree branch and welcoming people to Sherwood, or even Tor Johnson struggling his way out of a hole-in-a-soundstage grave, these stories were and are told in good faith. It might require a deal of effort – sometimes a great deal. I don’t have nightmares about a gorilla in a diving helmet taking over the Earth with his bubble machine. But, if I’m willing to enter into the spirit of the story… I might.

   The current cure-all explanation is that audiences are too sophisticated, now. This is a euphemism for their becoming too lazy to imagine. In fact, I wonder whether people in general haven’t suffered a serious atrophy of their ability to identify with others, whether those others live next door or in their favorite movie/TV show/novel/comic book. Sophistication seems to mean losing (or willfully denying) the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to consider the circumstances from their perspective – the ability to identify with others, real or imaginary. This is called “alienation”. Advanced cases are called “sociopathy”. Neither is a good thing.

   And neither is necessary. All it takes is cultivating or reinstating that ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Who cares what’s going on in Kimball Kinison’s trousers? You can travel through time and space. You can fly, you can fly, you can fly. Science can create a man; a Transylvanian Count does prolong his life by feeding on the blood of mortal men and women. Martians do exist and are coming to take over the Earth. Guys with titanium bones or all the powers of a spider do walk the Earth and keep it safe. Mr. Laurel can inadvertently cause Mr. Hardy a great deal of discomfort without actually hurting or killing him. All of these things can happen without the necessity of the parties in question going to the potty or nailing every third blonde they run into.

   All things are possible.

   If you believe…


– K.C. Locke

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