The “willing suspension of disbelief,” is a phrase I have always associated with movie going. And I have been a moviegoer and a movie watcher, since I can barely remember. Like Binx Bolling, the protagonist in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, I found re-enforcement by identifying with movie characters. In fact, they helped me to create the ability for inner dialogue and self awareness, and I would ask myself: is this what I would do…would I let Rick (Casablanca) tell me who to love and that I should spend the rest of my life with Victor and not him --- things like that…
But mostly it was about the act of believing, trusting for ninety minutes or more that what was happening to me had truth because of course how else could I accept it so willingly. And then there was the feeling; the longing, the despair, the mystery, the illusion, the hope, the happy ending, the shattered dream. Movies reminded me that I was alive on the inside, and I could surrender without sacrifice and suffer with dignity.
There is a fine line between perception and reality and between truth and illusion. When I feel the exquisite interaction between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea (The More The Merrier) as they come together on the steps outside her apartment one night, or the simmering evil just waiting to be seen in Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt) as he collides with his innocent family, or the heartbreaking fragility of Charlie Chaplin (City Lights) as he looks into the seeing eyes of the flower girl, I wonder, is this a moment of existence, or am I just overwhelmed with essence, or is it the alchemy of both pressing in at once.
If existence precedes essence as Sartre believed, than our first movement is always in the force of becoming. And if we have no pre-existing essence, does essence always come on the heels of reality. When I’m watching a film, what is the first to inform me? Then I think about the ability to receive, for without that we have nothing but missed opportunity, void of the personal. So I ask this question and answer with this thought; perhaps we must always stand in a posture willing to be mystified, and at least for a microsecond, we must engage ourselves in the unknown, not just with our mind but also with our whole body. It is both a phenomenological moment and a relationship moment. Merleau Ponty says, “ we must not therefore wonder whether we perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive…and for insofar as we talk about illusion, it is because we have identified illusions, and done so solely in the light of some perception which at the same time gives assurance of it’s own truth.”
A movie theatre tricks us into a state of illusion with the curtain rising, the lights dimming, the sound barreling down from nowhere, and we are transported before the film even begins. But the cynicism of today, the complacency that allows people to chatter and dine and multi-task and relegate the watching to a background happening, with movies reduced to a television box projected at less than half their pixelated genius, has robbed the moviegoer of something unique.
The movie house and the art of watching a film is becoming a relic; a left-over from a bygone era when people paid not just for the content and the popcorn, but for the experience, for the wonder, of being held in that willing suspension of disbelief. And that singular event, or as Francois Truffaut said, “ an event sociological” (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), still has the ability to propel moviegoers into an intensified existential moment, where reality and illusion become one and everything is possible just because we exist in a time and a space.
-- Bonnie Fitz-Gibbon