Willing Retention of Disbelief

I love Hamlet. This is not a controversial statement, really. “I have a fondness for one of the greatest works of literature in the English language.” is not a hot take. The reason this is noteworthy is because in general I hate drama in my media. I watch movies or TV shows as a form of escapism, not catharsis. When there is conflict on screen I feel it and I don't like it. So why do I like Hamlet?

Tom Stoppard answered the question for me, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. There is a character in that play who is aware of the narrative structure, who is seemingly aware that he is in a play, and that it will all repeat. It will all happen again because it's not real, it's drama. And I realized the other day that this disconnection is why I can enjoy Hamlet. I'm watching David Tennant and Patrick Stewart play roles, I'm not watching an actual person named Hamlet kill another actual person named Claudius. I separate the actors from the roles in my mind.1 When I watch Hamlet I'm watching for the artistry of the performances, I'm reveling anew in the beauty of the writing. My sadness over Ophelia being driven to madness and suicide is still there, but tempered by the fact that I'm observing how Mariah Gale is choosing to convey “Ophelia” (This whole production is sublime, every single person in it is amazing).

The title of this article is based on the implied contract between creators and consumers of fiction. When you partake in a fictive world you are expected to participate in a state of “Willing suspension of disbelief”. We know that sitcoms aren't reality, we know that novels aren't histories. Things will happen in fiction that don't quite work in the real world, and our contract with the creators is that we will gloss over those things so that we can be immersed in the fictive world that is being created. We ignore logic so that emotion can take over.

But when the emotions are “stress” or “awkwardness” I don't want that emotion to take over. I've never been able to watch The Office (US or UK) because I've worked in offices my whole adult life and it's too real, man. I feel the stress, not the humor.

So I'm trying something: I'm seeking a willing retention of disbelief. I'm choosing to engage with all fiction the way I engage with Hamlet. I'm choosing to watch the actors and their choices in addition to watching the story they are portraying. This level of abstraction helps me. An example:

In the third season of Brooklyn 99 a new captain is brought into the precinct and is terrible to our cadre of detectives. Engaging with the story is, for me, not fun. He's a mean, abrasive, over-promoted idiot, and if I am identifying with Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta I'm uncomfortable watching this story. Amy and Jake are in a bad spot, and they are my “friends” in this universe, so I'm feeling empathy for them! I feel like I'm in a bad spot as well!

But if I choose to watch Bill Hader play a role alongside his SNL buddy Andy Samburg, the whole thing is funny. Now I'm watching Melissa, Bill, and Andy do this silly scene where “Jake” and “Amy” kissing is enough to literally kill “Captain Dozerman”. The scene is freed of the weight of believing that an actual death occurred. I can enjoy it as a farce.

So maybe this is just me. Maybe everyone else has always engaged with media this way. Maybe I'm a little weird in the brain (well, I know I'm a little weird in the brain) but it's just possible that someone else out there also has a hard time with cringe comedy because they feel the cringe more than the comedy. And maybe they too will find things funnier if they retain just a little bit of disbelief.

⤴️: Although in this specific case it's kinda fun to imagine that the Tenth Doctor and Captain Picard are doing a crossover episode where they put on Hamlet together for timey-wimey reasons.

Thoughts? Tell me about them!
on Mastodon | on Twitter| on Remark.as Discuss...