Posted by David Kalat on March 8, 2014
One of my favorite bits from His Girl Friday is when Cary Grant’s character explains to a minion how to recognize Ralph Bellamy’s character: “He looks like that fella, you know, Ralph Bellamy.”
It was a somewhat controversial gag. Columbia boss Harry Cohn objected that it undermined the integrity of the film by violating the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
A similar joke appears in Ocean’s 12, when a plot point hinges on the fact that Julia Roberts’ character looks like Julia Roberts (because she’s played by Julia Roberts) but nobody remarks on how much her companions look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt.
Clearly the popular success of these films demonstrate that these metatextual gags didn’t compromise audiences’ abilities to enjoy them. Perhaps the suspension of disbelief is more robust than Cohn feared…
To best understand this phenomenon, we need to start with what makes movies work in the first place. I’ve written before about the myth of “persistence of vision.” To recap—the original explanation proffered for the optical illusion behind motion pictures was that the technology exploited a defect of the human eye. Scientists who study vision have since proven that is emphatically not true—there is an optical illusion at play, but it’s got nothing to do with the human eye and it isn’t a defect.
Instead, our brains are conditioned to make coherence out of chaos. Presented with any jumble of discontinuous or incomplete information we find, or enforce, patterns on it. This is part of why we are so prone to conspiracy theories and superstition—we can see patterns in literally anything. It’s also why human beings are incapable of generating random numbers.
And it’s why we believe we have a complete field of view in front of us when by all logic we should have a gaping blank hole on both the right and left sides, just below our center of vision. That’s where the nerves attach to the back of the eye, and we are literally blind there. But we don’t see the blind spot, because the brain furiously paints in what it figures is most probably there. Evolution has decided that a coherent field of view, even if it is partially fictional, is superior to an incomplete one.
Which brings us to movies. We see the illusion of motion pictures because on an evolutionary level, we want to. Seeing coherent sensible motion is preferable—even if it means ignoring all the blank gaps between frames. By the same logic, investing ourselves emotionally in stories and cohering onscreen events into stories is preferable, even if it means ignoring instances where the storytelling seemingly violates its own rules.
Laughing at the idea that Julia Roberts looks like Julia Roberts but George Clooney doesn’t look like George Clooney is nothing compared to the mental effort needed to ignore, for every single waking second of your entire life, that you are in fact blind just below the center of your vision.
And so directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol can show up within their own films without destroying the suspense they’re created, because the suspension of disbelief is no fragile contract.
During the 1940s there were a few experiments with POV-based filmmaking, predicated on the idea that audiences would be more invested in a film if they could project themselves into the film as its protagonist. The idea was that the presence of an actor onscreen blocks your complete investment in the story because he or she is occupying that space. If the camera roamed around as if it were the protagonist’s eyes, and you only ever saw their hands as if they were your hands, then you’d feel as if the movie were happening to you.
Experiments like Lady in the Lake proved this theory wrong. Audiences weren’t more engaged by this technique, they were less engaged. Apparently the same process that allows viewers to accept fourth-wall-breaking jokes without losing their investment in the film’s reality extends to our ability to project ourselves into and onto the many impossibly beautiful and idealized examples of personhood that constitute our supply of movie stars.
Film theorists have a name for this—they call it “suture.” Simply put, effective filmmaking sutures a viewer into the fabric of a film. WE do not have to be sutured to a specific character, mind you, but we do become engrossed in the world of the film.
In 1993, filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel set out to put this concept to the test. Their film is titled Suture, appropriately enough, and it goes out of its way to challenge what you can ask the audience to accept before they revolt and refuse to allow themselves to be sutured.
Suture concerns two half-brothers, played by Dennis Haysbert and Michael Harris. It may be a tad unlikely that this tall, muscular black man and this reedy white twerp would be related, but it’s not so implausible as to yet threaten the suture. However, the film then keeps telling us that not only are these two related, they are physically indistinguishable.
At first, these remarks on their physical similarity simply come across as odd, provocative statements that maybe aren’t meant to be taken 100% seriously. But they start to pile up, making them harder to dismiss. And then…
Well, I’m reluctant to say too much about what happens next. This movie may be 20 years old, but it’s not very well known and I’m hoping this post will help encourage new viewers to seek it out. Treading as carefully as I can around any spoilers, I’ll say this: circumstances remove Michael Harris from the story and in his absence, everyone assumes Dennis Haysbert is the same character Harris was playing. The acceptance is absolute. At no point in the film does anyone remark on the racial difference.
In fact, the script is written with the expectation that a single actor would play both roles, with some split-screen effects as needed. They just went and cast Harris and Haysbert to yank the audiences’ collective chain.
I’ve seen Suture on several occasions with different audiences and I can attest that the experiment works. Viewers protest (“But, but… ?!!?”) but are nonetheless swept up in the suspense as thoroughly as if McGehee and Siegel had just used one actor for both roles like the script assumed.
If you haven’t seen Suture, just try to imagine Vertigo if Kim Novak only played Madeleine and Eartha Kitt played Judy, but the rest of the movie was exactly the same.
Better yet, if you haven’t seen Suture, why not go watch it now?
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