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"SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF" " What do you think?


misswonderly3
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I've been thinking lately about our use of what is called "suspension of disbelief" when it comes to watching movies. We probably do it almost every time we watch a film, most of the time without thinking about it very much. If you start thinking about it, then maybe the film is not "working".

 

Suspension of disbelief is an actual official term, referring to the audience's (or readers' , if it's a novel we're talking about) willingness when watching a film to put aside considerations of what is realistic, what would be likely to happen, and to in a sense co-operate with the filmmaker ; for the sake of maximizing their engagement with the film, the viewer chooses to overlook events or behaviour that would be extremely unlikely or even impossible in real life.

 

The term is most often applied to fantasy and science fiction, stories in which things that are literally impossible happen. But I feel that " suspension of disbelief" is used when watching almost any film.

 

How often do you figure you do this, and do you consider it an essential aspect of watching a film in order to derive the most enjoyment from it? Or do you figure, if it's that unbelievable (whatever event is occurring in the film), it's too difficult to accept, and you dismiss the movie as just too unrealistic to be a satisfying film watching experience?

 

Maybe it depends on the film?

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In the past, film stories may've been accepted by audiences willing to overlook the more far-fetched elements. But I can't. I don't look at them with such an 'oh it's just a movie' mentality. I want to know why the screenwriter didn't address the holes in the story...why the director let the actors off the hook...and why the viewer was given something so incredible to swallow it would've made inhaling a golf ball more desirable.

 

I have noticed that there are things in movies I won't tolerate, even if it's a genre in which I am supposed to suspend disbelief more than usual.

 

_The minor peeves_: excessive rear screen projection; stunt men and women who look nothing like the actors they are supposed to stand in for; dubbing on songs in which the singer's voice does not at all match the actor or actress' speaking voice; and a recent one (in current movies)..too many films today are too softly lit/too warmly lit...they use soft lighting all the time on young actors and on rugged characters in genres like westerns and action movies, it was never that way before...I want scenes with hard lighting and scenes that feel cold as well as warm.

 

_The major peeves_: lack of foreshadowing when a stunning plot twist occurs (I think it's a ripoff and deprives viewers the chance to predict or figure something out in advance); scenes where supporting characters are practically chopped off on the edges of the frames because the emphasis has to be on the highly paid star (I can't stand that); and another big peeve is when gay actors are cast in straight parts and straight actors are cast in gay parts and they have zero chemistry with their onscreen lovers (if it's a love story, then there has to be chemistry, simple as that).

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The original use of suspension of belief is to justify things that are not realistic in a story whether it is literature or film.

 

I once read an essay by Tolkien that explained it perfectly. You can have a purple ocean in your story but that means you have to have a purple sky. The rules you created have to be consistent in your story even if they don't mesh with reality. That is suspension of disbelief.

 

I know people use suspension of disbelief for plot holes and so forth but personally I feel that is using the term too loosely. If there are plot holes in the movie that is an issue separate from suspension of disbelief.

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Suspension of disbelief touches on many things. It is not done in real life that a suspect is allowed to participate in police investigation but that is staple of murder mysteries. It would not be possible for James Bond to carry all the gizmos which might be useful but he always has just the one he needs. It would require many moving vans to carry all the different dresses a woman at a resort can pull out of her small suitcase.

 

To do fact-check on any movie would create list as long as its script. We must overlook coincidences and things that are not the way they are in real life if we are to enjoy movie.

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The fewer of these SOB moments, the better...generally. But it does depend on the movie. The lack of foreshadowing of an important event (already mentioned) is the worst kind. It can kill a film. Yet with a James Bond movie (already mentioned) the suspension of belief is not only tolerable but necessary. James is a sort of modern, Romantic hero who can just about do anything and those fantastical events that occur are a part of the scheme and enjoyment. And there are films where these moments occur but can be tolerated because other aspects of the movie have appeal. Like a stunning performance or other factors. But overall, I like movies that maintain a certain integrity to verisimilitude. BBC television dramas tend to do that although they are not to everyone's taste. I think genre pieces in old Hollywood, e.g., Westerns and noirs, are full of these moments but they are relatively tolerable, for me anyway, because it seems ridiculous to trash the whole movie (always depending, of course) for a few bad scenes, especially if these scenes are part of the convention of that particular genre. It would be interesting to think of specific movies that apply to these cases. Generally, I do believe it depends on the film, some instances will play tolerably well in this movie but will be totally exasperating in that one.

 

Edited by: laffite on Nov 10, 2010 10:26 PM

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kinokima, your're right, part of what is involved in "the suspension of disbelief" is the need for consistency within the story itself. Tolkien's "purple sky with a purple ocean" is a perfect example.

 

It's often considered a requirement when reading literature, especially fantasy, but I consider it to be just as relevant when watching film. And not only fantasy. Here is one definition I picked up on the net:

 

"Suspension of disbelief

The temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.

Origin

 

samuel taylor coleridgeThis term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 with the publication of his Biographia literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions:

...

 

The state is arguably an essential element when experiencing any drama or work of fiction. We may know very well that we are watching an actor or looking at marks on paper, but we wilfully accept them as real in order to fully experience what the artist is attempting to convey.

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There have been lots of interesting suggestions and examples of the suspension of disbelief and movie watching on this thread.

I realized the other day that I almost always have no problem with accepting all kinds of things in film. For instance, technical gaffes or just shoddiness resulting from cheap technical shortcuts don't bother me at all. When a couple in a car is having an argument or making a plan, I'm focussed on what they're saying, and not on the obvious rear-view projection behind them. I don't care if they're really driving a car, or if they're sitting in a car on a set with rear-view projection . If I'm engaged in the story and the characters are interesting to me, I hardly notice it.

 

James Bond and his array of gadgets, always the right one at the right time? Hey, it's James Bond. I agree with SansFin and laffite that that sort of thing is essential to a Bond type film in order for it to work.

 

The only time I usually have trouble with the Suspension of Disbelief" concept is when the characters themselves behave in a way that I don't think they ever would, just to further the story. This seems to happen most often in comedy, particularly screwball comedy. I recognize that part of what comedy is about is disorder, the reversing of the norm, miscommunication. Up is down, etc. And often I love that, it absolutely connects with me when it comes to some comedy, such as the Marx Brothers. The celebration of chaos.

 

But with rom/com or screwball comedies, I can't seem to "go with it". People behave in such an idiotic fashion, they're not just creating disorder, they're abandoning all human common sense. There are a few exceptions, but usually I have no patience with the degree of stupidity in terms of both character and plot that's playing in these films.

 

I know that sounds harsh, "stupidity" is an extreme word. But people go to great lengths in these films to do things that are absolutely unnecessary, they lie when they don't have to, they hide when they don't have to, they pretend to be someone else when it would be so much easier to admit their true identity. I fully realize these things have to happen to contribute to the miss-communication and

disorder essential to this kind of comedy, but most of the time it just annoys me. "They wouldn't do that !" I say out loud when watching this kind of film. "He wouldn't believe that story !" I think.

 

That is my main suspension of disbelief issue. Having said that, I'm fully aware that these kinds of exaggerated situations, disguise, miss-communication, hiding in people's closets, etc. go all the way back to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and beyond , probably to ancient Greek comedy. Maybe they did it better - I don't experience the same kind of impatience, trouble with my suspension of disbelief, with those writers.

 

Edited by: misswonderly on Nov 11, 2010 12:54 PM

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The rear-screen projection involving automobiles or buses and boats or people on bicycles does not bother me so much (though it does look noticeably fake). It's when actors are on horses and supposed to be riding in the great outdoors but they are in front of a pre-filmed background. That is what I can't buy. Sometimes this is necessary because of a stunt, but many times there is no stunt work involved. And the actors are in front of these beautiful backdrops inside a studio. Why do a western if you aren't going to take the cast outside? You might as well do a drawing room comedy or a haunted house picture where it's mostly interior.

 

The best use of outdoor photography, and thus the most believable and realistic, I have seen is in THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE. They wanted to do a Technicolor film outdoors. And it was done purely on location. CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, another lush Technicolor western that boasts scenery from Glacier National Park, continues the tradition. You don't have to suspend disbelief when the story is filmed where it is set.

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> {quote:title=misswonderly wrote:}{quote}

> But with rom/com or screwball comedies, I can't seem to "go with it". People behave in such an idiotic fashion, they're not just creating disorder, they're abandoning all human common sense. There are a few exceptions, but usually I have no patience with the degree of stupidity in terms of both character and plot that's playing in these films.

>

> >

 

Obviously you didn't go to Ohio University. I personally witnessed quite a few screwball moments (and may have participated in 1 or 2 :) ) during my college years...

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Inconsistencies that get me...

 

My pet problem is one I've mentioned before: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It's a story of a woman (Mrs. Muir) romanced by a ghost. _Mrs. Muir is a widow_. So, why can't she be romanced by her dead husband? (Story done better: Truly-Madly-Deeply ) And if she's in love with a dead man, doesn't that seem a bit disloyal to her dead guy?

 

In fantasy, they say anything is possible. But I do think this movie is giving me Purple water/Blue sky.

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"Suspension of disbelief" is absolutely essential to engage with and appreciate any performing art. And in film, there are times when the story is so compellingly told that one easily suspends ones disbelief. There are three films that I would consider "litmus tests" - Random Harvest, La Belle et la bete and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. All of these films just carry the viewer along - any thought of judgment by logic is forgotten because of the splendid performances, beautiful writing, and just the art of filmmaking. The score in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is another aspect that contributes to that film's success- one of Bernard Herrmann's best scores.

 

The latter two are outright fantasies which really require some imagination. It is unimaginable to be so locked into the concept of logical realism that these films are beyond appreciation. They are all great classics! In terms of your point on the story line of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Muir was dutiful but never really loved her husband- the story would not exist with the milquetoast Mr. Muir... the Captain, a dynamic man in life, as in death, is essential!

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I find it very interesting that suspension of disbelief can let you accept ghost romancing living woman but it is which ghost which makes it over-the-top. A story can pile one thing on top of another and every person has their own limit of what topples the pile.

 

Editor John Campbell said you can only have one thing requiring suspension of disbelief. Example given was that a story could have men landing on the moon or most people in America watching the same thing on television at one time. To have most people watching moon landing was thought to be too fantastic for science fiction stories in the 1950s.

 

I believe we are more forgiving now of fantasy and science fiction movies because many things are now considered normal. The Star Trek transporters required suspension of disbelief in the 1960s but we now accept them as standard equipment for any spaceship.

 

The thing like James Bond always having gizmo he needs appears in many ways. It is obvious no one can know all things but Sherlock Holmes always had knowledge of arcane or esoteric things which led him to solve mysteries. It does not matter how ancient or rare a language may be there is always an expert a detective can quickly reach to translate it accurately.

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*Filmguy24:* At the beginning of La Belle et La Bete there is a ?disclaimer? that says something like ?This is a fantasy for a child,? or something like that. That precludes any issue of suspension of belief. It simply would not come up for me. And even without that opening preamble the movie itself is so obviously a fantasy that I would not anticipate any strictures regarding realism. I don?t expect it to be realistic. You wrote, correctly (in general), that ?splendid performances, beautiful writing, and just the art of filmmaking? make this movie watchable? that's true and those things have saved many movies from the usual criticism regarding suspension of belief. But with Belle, IMO. even if the performances were mediocre, the writing shoddy, and the film making below average, I wouldn't expect having suspension of belief issues because it is an unabashed fantasy in any case. I may want to criticize the mediocre aspects but I don't believe I would have SOB issues.

 

*Sanfins:* ?and similarly with Star Trek. I was actually there for those original Star Trek episodes. Suspension of belief was not an issue for me because when you have a setting that far in the future I can easily believe that there would be technological advances far, far beyond my own time. It was easy to believe that Captain Kirk could say, ?Beam me up, Scottie,? and seeing Scottie do just that. It was easy to accept. I don?t see how it would be any easier to accept now than in 1966, because we are still eons away from anything approaching that kind of technology, either now or 40 years ago.

 

Suspension of belief issues can probably turn up in any type of genre of movie but I would say that the ones most vulnerable are those that assume to be of our time and reflects the realistic world we live in. Because we actually occupy that world (and not a fantasy world, for instance) we are acutely sensitive to anything that might seem far fetched. The treatment of the story becomes circumscribed to a degree and events (or things, whatever) that occur can be jarring if they don?t adhere to that world?unless, of course, you have a brilliant filmmaker, for instance, who can make some outlandish occurrence actually work, if he can make it play well on screen. Or some other factor in the movie making process that can, in effect, make us take something seriously that we might otherwise tend to dismiss as phony, or whatever.

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> {quote:title=laffite wrote:}{quote}

> *Filmguy24:* At the beginning of La Belle et La Bete there is a ?disclaimer? that says something like ?This is a fantasy for a child,? or something like that. That precludes any issue of suspension of belief. It simply would not come up for me. And even without that opening preamble the movie itself is so obviously a fantasy that I would not anticipate any strictures regarding realism. I don?t expect it to be realistic. You wrote, correctly (in general), that ?splendid performances, beautiful writing, and just the art of filmmaking? make this movie watchable? that's true and those things have saved many movies from the usual criticism regarding suspension of belief. But with Belle, IMO. even if the performances were mediocre, the writing shoddy, and the film making below average, I wouldn't expect having suspension of belief issues because it is an unabashed fantasy in any case. I may want to criticize the mediocre aspects but I don't believe I would have SOB issues.

> ...

> Suspension of belief issues can probably turn up in any type of genre of movie but I would say that the ones most vulnerable are those that assume to be of our time and reflects the realistic world we live in. Because we actually occupy that world (and not a fantasy world, for instance) we are acutely sensitive to anything that might seem far fetched. The treatment of the story becomes circumscribed to a degree and events (or things, whatever) that occur can be jarring if they don?t adhere to that world?unless, of course, you have a brilliant filmmaker, for instance, who can make some outlandish occurrence actually work, if he can make it play well on screen. Or some other factor in the movie making process that can, in effect, make us take something seriously that we might otherwise tend to dismiss as phony, or whatever.

 

Well said, laffite ! I have never had problems with "Suspension of Disbelief" when it comes to fantasy, for the very reason you give. It's a fantasy, it is a given that you don't expect it to reflect real life. (By the way, *La Belle et la Bete* is absolutely magical, one of my favourite films in any genre).

Same goes for "Star Trek" - of course you don't question the "incredible " things that happen, because it is set far off in the future. This gives us permission, so to speak, to just relax and enjoy the story.

 

As I said before, the main occasions when I have difficulty with SOB (an unfortunate, acronym, that) is when the characters behave in an unrealistic way in order to set up requirements concerning the plot. In other words, their silly behaviour is nothing more than a plot contrivance. "If character A doesn't hide in the closet and get caught, then character B won't think A is having an affair (which they're not) and want to divorce them" or whatever.

 

As laffite said, there are times when the excellence of the production, the actors, direction, dialogue etc. is so good that I forgive the idiotic and unrealistic behaviour of the characters. But most of the time I have great difficulty suspending my disbelief to accept the goofy things people do in this kind of film. I guess that means I don't like screwball comedies. I didn't realize this before I initiated this thread, but it was a screwball comedy , a very bad one in my opinion, that got me started thinking about the unrealistic behaviour of characters in films, and the larger issue of disbelief.

 

That recent Eleanor Parker/Fred MacMurray vehicle, *Christy Needs a Millionaire* or whatever it was called, got me thinking about all this.

 

Edited by: misswonderly on Nov 12, 2010 9:37 AM

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I just looked up the film A Millionaire for Christy it's made in 1951. I always see Screwball Comedies as a 1930's/Pre-War phenomena. I only say this because Screwball Comedies are one of my favorite genres and I just feel that movie should not be held against the genre. :)

 

But as far as suspension belief and comedy goes I don't think you can or should always take comedy literally. Even though comedy usually takes place in the real world it is often so out there that it's not meant to be reality but more like a strange mirror to reality where sometimes extreme things can happen.

 

However again just like plot holes I don't think a contrived plot has anything to do with suspension of disbelief. That's just bad writing. For suspension of disbelief to work it has to be *good writing*. It has to be believable in the context of the story (not necessarily reality).

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Comedy is, to varying degrees, the satire of human life. It may be very droll and subtle, or it may be very farcical and exaggerated. In all such cases, there is going to be plot contrivance, in order for the writer to make a point.

 

Plot holes can (and do) happen in all genres. I don't think a viewer wants to feel cheated...even if the storyline is somewhat far-fetched, it has to seem like a logical progression for a character to get from point A to point B and back again.

 

I remember reading an interview done on two of the writers for I Love Lucy. They mentioned the Superman episode. If they had just put Lucy on a ledge, it would have been very unbelievable. But having her get stuck in an unrented apartment, then having to go out the window to crawl along the ledge and get caught in a rainstorm was something the audience could buy. It was the idea of taking a simple premise (being locked out) and building it almost to the point of absurdity...yet, it still had some grounding in reality. The audience will go along for the ride if they can see the 'logical' phases of a character's lunatic circumstances. But if you just throw it on them without some sort of common sense or depiction of a general sequence of events, they won't believe it.

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Kinokima, you're right, *A Millionaire for Christy* is not typical of the screwball genre, and was made 20 years or so after its heyday. It's not a good example.

 

Take a film like *The Major and the Minor*. I like this little comedy, mainly because I like Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. They are both inherently likable somehow, and because of that, I accept the film. But it's quite possible that if their characters were played by different actors, I'd find it annoying. It's a perfect example of a well-made film rising above the SOB issue. Nobody would think Ginger Rogers was 13 (around that?) just because she wears her hair in pigtails and talks in a higher register. But she and Milland take that premise and make it somehow funny, so I choose to forget the unbelievability of the situation.

 

I don't want you or anyone to think that I don't like comedies -quite the opposite. It' s just that one aspect of some comedies, expecting the audience to accept idiotic behaviour on the part of the characters for the sake of the plot, that gets in the way for me. I've also just realized that I don't like most of television's "situation comedies" for the same reason. I know I'm in the minority here, that a great many people love those situation comedies from the 50s and 60s. Now I've finally figured out why they never make me laugh very much. They are the inheritors of 30s screwball comedy.

 

(No offense to all the people who love them, and I know their numbers are legion.)

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We suspend our disbelief to accept an improbable premise, like meeting someone who's your double, but then expect a certain logic of events to unfold. We want people to behave in recognizable ways. The "drive-in movie critic" Joe Bob Briggs coined the term "Stupid White People movie," inspired by THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. Whew, we just escaped our house where the devil has taken control. No, wait, we have to go back. We forgot the dog! According to Joe Bob, no one would behave this way except Stupid White People.

 

MissW has a point, in that some comedies do indeed proceed in this way. In MY FAVORITE WIFE Irene Dunne returns home after being on a desert island for several years. She sees her children--but doesn't tell them she's their mother. No one would behave this way, and I've just disconnected from the movie.

 

Preston Sturges has a clever solution in THE PALM BEACH STORY. Wife wants to divorce husband so he can marry a rich woman to fund his inventions. Not too plausible, but the film starts with the hilarious scene with the Wienie King, so we're in a good mood by the time we come to the sticky part, and then the film keeps plunging us from one funny event to another.

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"In MY FAVORITE WIFE Irene Dunne returns home after being on a desert island for several years. She sees her children--but doesn't tell them she's their mother. No one would behave this way, and I've just disconnected from the movie."

 

 

Right, kingrat, that's the sort of thing that drives me crazy in this kind of comedy. I hate it when people don't behave the way they normally would, for the sake of furthering the plot. If the plot needs that kind of unrealistic action from its main characters, then, as I see it, it is "contrived" to the point where I too "disconnect " from it.

 

There are always exceptions. I know not everyone like musicals, but I love 'em, and have no difficultly whatsoever with the suspension of disbelief required to accept people bursting into song with a full orchestra in the background while strolling down a country lane ( or whatever.) I 'm a big fan of the Astaire/Rogers musicals, and they provide a double whammy of SOB problems. Not only are they musicals, but often they feature elements of screwball comedy as well - ie, mistaken identity, lying to cover something up that doesn't really need covering up in the first place, etc.

But I find these films so charming, such a sweet journey into music and dance, that I completely forgive all unrealistic features in them.

*Top Hat*, for instance, asks us to believe that the Ginger Rogers character would go through the entire film harbouring the mistaken notion that Fred Astaire is her friend's husband. In fact, this mistake would in real life be cleared up after one conversation, with either the friend or Fred. But since the entire story is based around this question of mistaken identity , we have to, at least for the duration of *Top Hat* , believe that Ginger thinks Fred is someone else. Normally this would annoy me to the degree where I'd lose interest, but the film is so charming, the songs so good, the dancing so delightful, and Fred and Ginger et al so skilled in their comedic powers, that I don't worry about the "foolish" behaviour that usually bothers me in these kinds of comedies at all.

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*I just looked up the film A Millionaire for Christy it's made in 1951. I always see Screwball Comedies as a 1930's/Pre-War phenomena. I only say this because Screwball Comedies are one of my favorite genres and I just feel that movie should not be held against the genre*

 

There was a recent discussion of Screwball Comedy on a thread re: Eleanor Parker and this film. You should take a look at it.

 

Suspension of disbelief happens every time we walk into a movie theatre, or watch a movie at home. We KNOW those are actors, and not the characters they are playing. As basic as that.

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>In MY FAVORITE WIFE Irene Dunne returns home after being on a desert island for several years. She sees her children--but doesn't tell them she's their mother. No one would behave this way, and I've just disconnected from the movie.

 

I haven't seen My favorite Wife (I know, I know :( ) so I can't speak for that, but I remember being unphased by the same scene in Doris Days' remake, Move Over, Darling. It's been awhile but I recall that she sees the children while they are taking a bath. She is so visibly moved and seems to feel her way through her emotions---reasonably, it seems to me---by asking the children some questions, all the while not quite believing that she is really there with her children. She may have even thought that the moment to reveal herself was inappropriate though I don't exactly remember if that was the case. Then, if memory serves, she seems on the verge of telling them who she is, but something happens, a noise, someone calling from the other room, or something like that, and I remember being relieved because had she told them, the scene would have been spilled over into some over-the-top sentimentality that might be hard to take. I believe the intention was just that, to make us anticipate that wonderful moment where she reveals herself, then abruptly (disappointing to some, I'm sure) not carrying through due to the interruption. In fact, she might have gone so far as to say to them, "Do you know who I am?" but did not have the chance to follow up. Do I have that right? Perhaps someone can tell me, I haven't seen the movie in years. But if that's right it appears that this mother (Doris) at least made an attempt to tell them whereas the other mother (Irene) did not. A crucial difference, perhaps.

 

Edited by: laffite on Nov 12, 2010 1:30 PM

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