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The Suture Effect (or, “wait, what?”)

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

13 Responses The Suture Effect (or, “wait, what?”)
Posted By generasputinhole : March 8, 2014 9:47 am

I wonder how true the assertion is that films like “Lady if the Lake” that shot in a way that put the audience in the lead role were unsuccessful at maintaining audience attention. At least, I wonder how much of the audience disengagement can be blamed on the camera perspective used. After all, similar techniques have proven hugely popular in other mediums, particularly video games, where the first person perspective has become one of the standard formats for game designs.
On a slightly tongue-in-cheek side note, in 1981 The Muppet Caper used a similar premise of identity and appearance as Suture in a recurring gag where Kermit and Fozzie are supposed to be identical twin brother(unless Fozzie take off his hat). Did Suture get the idea from there? probably not, but it sounds like they’ve done something quite interesting with the idea. I shall have to check the film out sometime…

Posted By Tom S : March 8, 2014 10:25 am

I think first person shooters work for putting you into the shoes of your character in a way first person movies don’t because you actually _control_ the character- you can look around, move in whatever direction you please, and get a feeling for the weight and speed of your body based on that movement. I would guess that first person view in movies (and I’ve seen lady in the lady, and it’s not a total failure but it certainly doesn’t allow total identification) doesn’t work because it just reminds you that you’re not in control of this person’s decisions- especially because there’s endless voiceover, reminding you of their presence.

Oddly, perhaps because of Halloween, it’s become a specific marker for murderer-view, and it’s quite successful at that. I’m not sure of why that is.

Posted By LD : March 8, 2014 11:22 am

Have not seen SUTURE yet but I have seen LADY IN THE LAKE and what is hard for me is to separate the visual from the audio. When Montgomery addresses the camera in full view his voice sounds normal but in first person his voice changes and becomes tough and harsh. He is still playing Marlowe. Perhaps this is an illusion on my part.

In DARK PASSAGE the voice again comes into play. No problem to imagine a bandaged Bogart after surgery because it is Bogart. But Frank Wilcox as Vincent Parry with Bogart’s voice? Difficult.

Posted By generasputinhole : March 8, 2014 11:35 am

Tom S – I think you’ve highlighted the difference quite well, and it is perhaps that aspect of control over the action that may be part of why those sorts of films don’t work as well as the games do.
one example of a film that I think *does* work well in using the camera to place the audience inside the character is the 1931 Jekyll and Hyde, in the opening sequence, but maybe because the objective of the choice of perspective is different. This seems to be done in that film in order to communicate the message of the story, of the dual nature of humans– the filmmaker seems not to be casting the audience as the lead, so much as visually reminding the audience, “this could be you; you too have this dual nature that must be kept in check.”

Posted By Cool Bev : March 8, 2014 2:51 pm

Didn’t Bunuel have 2 actresses, a blonde and a brunette, playing the same role? I guess the most extreme example of this was when Heath Ledger died during the filming of Imaginarium, and his character is played by several actors thereafter.

Posted By Bruce : March 8, 2014 3:42 pm

This reminds me of a similar choice made by writer, director, star Louis C.K. on “Louis”. His character has two white children with an ex-wife. The ex-wife is played by a black actress but there is no indication that the character “is” black (or white).

Posted By Doug : March 8, 2014 4:01 pm

I’ve only seen bits of “Lady In The Lake” which highlighted the ‘first person’ experience in it’s clumsy attempt to involve us in the movie.
Suture is a fine way of explaining what is involving viewers in the film, but I would put it like this:
When Cary Grant is kissing Ingrid Bergman, Grant is our stand-in, our avatar. As our avatar, we are emotionally ‘with’ him, seeing the world of the film through his eyes.
We couldn’t identify with Marlowe in “Lady In The Lake” as he was absent (mostly) from the screen in a visual piece.
No problem in a radio play, but for film…we NEED that avatar.
As for the fourth wall, Chaplin and Oliver Hardy and Groucho and many others break that fourth wall with no damage to our sutured experience because when they broke it, it was to communicate with US. To relate to us a private feeling or expression that the other actors in the scene were not privy to.
Regarding different actors playing the same role-we accept this all the time when a child and then an adult play the same character at different ages.
David Lynch in “Lost Highway” had one actor, Patricia Arquette, playing two characters. And two actors (Bill Pullman, Balthazar Getty)playing one character who is actually TWO different characters(!).
Which was a precursor of Lynch’s “Inland Empire” where everybody is nobody else except sometimes. ‘Half of it was filmed when the cameras weren’t rolling’ is the best way I can describe it.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 9, 2014 12:13 am

my personal favorite is Jack Carson in Arsenic And Old Lace declaring that Raymond Massey’s Johnathan looks like Boris Karloff,which i guess was an in joke since Karloff originated the role ,and precipitates the epic brawl at the end of the film…i watch it for that moment as much as i do for the looney double takes by Grant…yeah,it’s a stage play,and kind of cartoonish,but it still makes me laugh out loud

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 9, 2014 12:19 am

Seconds had a similar premise in the beginning at least,you saw actor John Randolph,then his “transformation” POV…voila! he’s Rock Hudson,his best and bravest role

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 9, 2014 5:37 am

I caught SUTURE when it was shown on IFC (back when IFC was really worth watching), with an introduction by producer-after-the-fact Steven Soderbergh. As he says, it’ll either drive you absolutely nuts or you’ll think it’s pretty cool.

LADY IN THE LAKE may not be entirely successful, but it did have one of the coolest opening title sequences ever.

Posted By CitizenKing : March 10, 2014 1:50 pm

DevlinCarnate, the Arsenic and Old Lace gag was in the play as well. So you can imagine how funny it was on stage when the character WAS Karloff.

Posted By kingrat : March 10, 2014 11:41 pm

The Ralph Bellamy and Archie Leach references in HIS GIRL FRIDAY amuse me, but the Julia Roberts gimmick in OCEAN’S 12 is pretty lame–like everything else in OCEAN’S 12, come to think of it. Perhaps it’s the difference between a script perfectly worked out (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) vs. one so lazy and inept it might as well have been thrown together during a coke-fueled weekend. OCEAN’S seems to find the Roberts gimmick hilarious–you know, the way your friend on drugs finds something funny when you don’t.

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 4:12 pm

Suture is a very cool movie. It’s so weird at first, but it totally works. I need to watch that again. It’s more than 15 years since I saw it.

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