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What happens when the barrier between our ‘real’ world and the fantasy world of film starts to crumble? Our man in the front row with the popcorn Thomas Wartenberg watches Nurse Betty succumb to madness.
One of the pleasures afforded by films is the voyeuristic one of looking unseen into a world. Even though we know, at some level, that that world is no more than a cinematic construct, we enjoy the feeling of being unobserved spectators, eavesdropping on a world that we pretend is real. Theorists have talked of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in an attempt to characterize the sort of attitude that viewers bring to the experience of watching a film. Although we know that we are only watching actors pretending to be characters – even this is more than we often get these days, when sometimes there aren’t even real actors behind the images we see on the screen – when we watch a film we are supposed to will ourselves into ignoring this, as we pretend we are looking through a window into a world of actually existing people, places, and things.
Whatever such disbelief might amount to, it can’t be the total denial of any awareness that we are watching a fiction, for we don’t react to the events portrayed on the screen as we do to real events. Indeed, one of the features of art that has puzzled philosophers, from Aristotle onwards, is how we can take pleasure in certain events when they occur in an artistic context by which we would be horrified were their occurrence real. When the blinded Oepidus returns to the stage, the emotions we feel differ vastly from what we would feel were we to encounter an actual person who had just gouged out his eyes.
So, one of the conventions of our usual filmgoing must be our pretending that the events we witness on the screen are real in some peculiar way that also requires our simultaneous acknowledgement of their fictionality. This means that we have to admit that the characters we see on the screen are not real human beings, even as we imagine that, in some sense, they are real. Mr Smith may never really have gone to Washington – indeed, he never even existed – but his being there still seems real to me as I watch Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s famous film.
The peculiarities of our ontological situation as viewers of films as well as other narrative works such as plays is brought out by the clichéd story of the hick who, caught up in the fictional world of the drama, rushes the stage to stop Othello from strangling Desdemona, thereby disrupting the very fiction he was so captivated by. One of the hick’s problems is that he can’t actually throttle Othello, but only the actor playing him. An ontological peculiarity of such dramatic works of art is that the characters to whom we relate don’t exist in the same spatiotemporal world that we inhabit.
But all boundaries are made to be broken, even the one between our own world and the fictional ones depicted in narratives. It is one of Buster Keaton’s great accomplishments as a filmmaker to have dreamt up the possibility of a human being entering into the fictional world of the film he is watching, and thus transgressing this boundary. In his great 1924 silent classic, Sherlock Jr., Keaton plays a projectionist who actually dreams himself into the film he is projecting on the theater screen. Once in the film, he acts with the self-assurance he lacks in real life, taking on the character of his idol, Sherlock Holmes. No other film has ever made clearer the relationship between our enjoyment in watching films and their vicarious fulfillment of our desires than this Keaton masterpiece.
Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo is often cited for its innovative violation of the distance between screen and real world, but generally the film’s only innovation is that its characters leave the screen and parade around the real world. Otherwise, the film simply borrows Keaton’s idea. This is not to denigrate Allen’s accomplishment in this film – also about Hollywood cinema as vicarious wish fulfillment – but only to acknowledge the achievement of its great predecessor. In Purple Rose, the protagonist fills her empty life by assiduously going to the movies. What she learns, however, is that movie stars are glamorous only on the screen.
Neil LaBute’s recent comedy, Nurse Betty, deserves a place in this interesting series of films whose narratives conflate the fictional and real worlds, except that in Nurse Betty it is soap operas rather than films that transgress upon everyday reality. The conceit of the film is that Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger) is in a state of shock as a result of witnessing her husband’s brutal murder by two hired thugs (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). (The film’s first scene is very brutal and uncharacteristic of the rest of the film. Even though this is a light-hearted comedy, it first tests its audience’s endurance before allowing them its pleasures.) Believing herself to be engaged to Dr David Ravell, a character on a TV soap-opera played by the actor George McCord (Greg Kinnear), Betty heads out to LA to meet him. (Note the complications of describing the layered reality of this film!) After a series of humorous adventures, Betty actually manages to go to a party where McCord will be and, in a very funny scene, winds up intriguing him when she treats him as if he were Ravell, his onscreen character.
Much of the pleasure of this film comes from watching McCord and Betty interact. Because she really believes that McCord is Ravell, she appears to McCord to be an excellent actress, one so driven to succeed that she won’t drop her part and acknowledge that Ravell is but a character. We, however, are in a position of superior knowledge and enjoy the irony of many of the situations Betty and McCord encounter as a result of their different understandings of what is real. Only when McCord gets her a part on the soap and she is expected to actually act a part does the fantasy implode, leaving McCord with the recognition that he has been dealing with a seriously disturbed person. As in Purple Rose, this turn of events reveals the heart throb to be less than he appears on the screen. However, in this good natured film – uncharacteristic for LaBute, whose earlier ventures were anything but – Betty becomes a soap star herself, reaping the rewards for her faith in the reality of fictions.
Nurse Betty thus takes its place in this select group of film comedies that play with the boundary between film and reality. In each case, a character’s transgression of the distinction opens a space for wonderful comic routines. But the films are not content to simply exploit this humorous potential: Each also investigates our fascination with film and, in the case of Nurse Betty, television, pushing us to acknowledge how deeply invested we are in stories we know to be unreal.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2001
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.