By Bob Litton
The poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable impossibilities.
— Aristotle, Poetics
It’s kinda fun to do the impossible.
— Walt Disney
I feel slightly handicapped as I write this essay, because I started out under a false assumption: I had thought Walt Disney was the first to broach the subject of “probable impossibilities”, yet I just learned that many famous people at least mentioned the concept before Disney, beginning, I suppose, with Aristotle. And I had wanted to hold off on mentioning Aristotle’s Poetics until I begin writing a future post essay on poetic theories.
My first hearing of the phrase occurred while I was watching one of Disney’s early television shows; it was, I believe, one of those ABC network specials just prior to the opening of Disneyland. I was in my early teens at the time and much enamored of all the Disney productions to that date. The scene I am recollecting is of Walt, his backside leaning against a desk in what apparently was his office, speaking directly to his TV audience: It was an educative moment.
The topic was our human ability to suspend, for the moment, rational thinking and accept — just for pure entertainment’s sake — the depiction of illogical events. Walt mentioned by way of example the instances where cartoon characters are seen running so rapidly and blindly that they venture several yards beyond a cliff’s edge until, finally realizing their predicament, they fall to the ground far below. To our open-minded imaginations it does seem plausible that we could continue a few yards — or feet at least — before we lose our buoyancy. The ever popular Roadrunner cartoons, where Wile E. Coyote continually encounters what would normally be considered death-dealing mishaps while chasing his eternal prey, Roadrunner, are prime examples of how we can find enjoyment in episodes depicting nothing but “probable impossibilities”. Those films push the concept’s envelope to such an extreme degree, in fact, as to practically render them “improbable impossibilities” — the very mode Aristotle disdained.
Now, to get to the real substance of what this essay is supposed to be about. I have had several informal discussions with an artist friend in which our critiquing of movies and TV dramas involved frequent mention of implausible sequences. The most common of these, certainly, are those interminable special effects renderings of the heroes diving through glass window panes (without incurring even a scratch) just before a structure blows up, or running ahead of automatic weapons fire (the bullets causing a series of dirt puffs behind them), usually without being wounded. I would like to think that most of my countrymen are weary of that kind of redundant plotting, but the continual production of such shows warns me that is a pipe dream.
A much more subtle test of our credulity resides in two films by Nora Ephron: Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Now, don’t get me wrong; I love both of these films; I credit them with alleviating my depression for several months. And, as for the implausibility issue, my main interest here is the question: Why doesn’t it bother me? How can I imagine that real people might have progressed through these story lines?
At risk of insulting my readers’ intelligence, I believe I should outline the implausible elements, some of them at least, in each of the Ephron films.
Let’s take Sleepless first, since it was in fact the first produced. If you have never believed in fairy tales or even in “love at first sight”, then you will struggle to sit through the entirety of this movie. Imagine a woman falling in love with a man whom she has never seen, only heard on a radio talk show. Imagine a man, a grieving widower with an eight-year-old son to raise, falling in love the old-fashioned “at first sight” way while he sees the heroine walking through an airport terminal. Imagine the son and an eleven-year-old girl playmate finagling an airline ticket, getting the boy to the Seattle airport and on a New York-bound plane without anyone noticing. (Actually, something similar to that happened just recently, only the boy was nine and the route, Minneapolis to Las Vegas.) But, there’s more to it: mystical dialogue. At regular points during the story, two phrases get repeated by various characters; the phrases are “It is (or “was”) magic!” and “It’s a sign!”
New Yorker magazine movie critic Anthony Lane semi-panned the film partly because of the implausibility factor and because, consequently, it gave too little opportunity for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to bounce their chemistry off each other.
In You’ve Got Mail , Ryan and Hanks have plenty of opportunity to play off each other’s personalities, but the implausibilty factor assumes a more comical and, at the same time, sinister face. The story line is this: Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is the youngest of a three-generation male line who open a large chain bookstore in New York that threatens the survival of a much smaller (children’s) bookstore owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan). A media war between them develops. As contrast, a backstory line has the two business foes involved in an email relationship, one in which they preclude personal identity information but which gets so personal otherwise that they agree to meet. The rest of the story is too long even to summarize here, but I have given enough, I believe, to picture its convolution.
However, there are a few relatively minor elements in the film which I need to mention, for they all bear much on my topic. One is the obvious, huge improbability of a bookstore owner who has lost her cherished store not only forgiving her destructive competitor but falling in love with him. A related but even huger improbability is the likelihood of their being, at the same time, confidants through email exchanges. The funniest line in the film, to me, was Joe saying to Kathleen, near the film’s climax, “How can you forgive that guy for standing you up and not forgive me for this tiny little thing of putting you out of business?” That is Nora Ephron’s way of saying to her audience, “Look, I know this movie is absurd, just accept it as such and enjoy it anyway!”
A third, more comical, improbability is the Fox family makeup and their suitability as Kathleen’s in-laws. Firstly, Joe, who has just recently turned thirty, has an “aunt” (the daughter of his octagenarian grandfather) about six or seven years old, and a “brother” three to four years old: a highly unlikely makeup, although not impossible. But the subterranean improbability is Kathleen’s being able to accept her future father-in-law — a man who is the most hard-nosed competitor among the three generations and a cynic when it comes to business and relationships with women. The grandfather’s profile is not so harsh, especially when he relates that he had known, even exchanged letters with and possibly dated, Kathleen’s mother.
Now, the basic question is: How much of these improbabilities are we willing to tolerate in order to enjoy the cartoons and the romantic comedies?
I don’t feel qualified to assert that the infractions on our credulity should not impede our enjoyment or even to claim that most people will be able to enjoy all of them. However, as for the Roadrunner cartoons, I believe it is acknowledged that children and most adults will tolerate them enough if for no other reason than that the audience fully anticipated such absurdities from the beginning. It is, in fact, the absurdities themselves that are entertaining. It is only when we have seen such cartoons repeatedly that the continual mishaps, like chewing gum, lose their flavor.
The romantic comedies are a more difficult matter. We anticipate at the start of them that the representations of characters and events will closely resemble those in our everyday world, even though the description “romantic comedy” should have clued us that the story is going to be a step above reality, will be funny and will have a happy ending. Still, we can emotionally accommodate that stretch, even happily welcome it as a bit of relief from our own either humdrum or tragic lives. Also, there were the key phrases in Sleepless mentioned above (“It’s magic!” and “It’s a sign!”) that tell us we are watching a modern fairy tale and we should accept it as such. Of course, not everybody will be able or willing to do that much accepting, and we all have our limits for accepting; we have semi-conscious parameters for allowance; and it is usually only when those parameters have been breached that we realize what our limits are.
As for the suitability of the in-laws in You’ve Got Mail, that is something I could not have accepted had the movie progressed to the “meet-the-in-laws” stage; but it didn’t, so my anticipation of what the future holds for the lovers is as thin as gossamer and just as impermanent.