Monday, March 31, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Suspends Disbelief

A breezy comedy set in pre-World War Two London, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day follows a straight-laced and sartorially challenged nanny for 24 very-busy hours. Dismissed by her employment agency after three disastrous jobs, Miss Pettigrew finds herself a step away from starvation on the streets. But a swiped business card and an unannounced appearance at a posh flat net her the position of social secretary for aspiring actress and singer Delysia Lafosse. Delysia has troubles of her own, among them the task of juggling three men vying for her affections. One who offers her a starring role on the stage, another a place in his nightclub as a sultry chanteuse, the third only his undying love. In between air-raid sirens and champagne-swilling parties, Miss Pettigrew runs romantic interference for her young employer, dodges a conniving rival who knows about her squalid past and searches for love herself -- and a bite or two of food.

While critics
generally liked the film, a couple latched on to what they perceived as continuity issues. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern found the film’s glosses on poverty and armed conflict “bizarre” and said it “has the good grace to go wrong quickly.” J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader claimed that director Bharat Nalluri “seems willfully ignorant of British class codes” in granting the heroine flirtations with a famous designer.

Anyone who has penned a story has run into similar criticisms. They’re suspension of disbelief complaints, claims that niggles in the narrative pull the audience out of the story’s flow. Maybe it’s confusion in the timeline. (A character steps into a building at high noon and comes out minutes later into pitch darkness.) Perhaps it’s simple factual errors. (Setting a scene in south Florida basement would qualify, since the water table won’t let you dig down more than a few feet). Or it could be an utterly unbelievable plot development. (One writer during the golden age of pulp fiction allegedly freed his hero Captain Galaxy from imprisonment in a block of steel by writing, “Somehow he got out.”) True howlers deserve to be caught and soundly walloped.

But some people -- and you know them -- relish the tiniest inaccuracies, either real or perceived. They scoff at mispronunciations in the Aramaic of The Passion of the Christ. They count how many bullets the action hero has left in his revolver and sneer when he fires the seventh shot. They roll their eyes when the pretty heiress rebuffs the good-hearted servant because she’ll fall in love with him later, of course. These are the know-it-alls, the nit pickers, the people with no patience for the conventions of genre. They forget that receiving a story requires us to check a measure of our disbelief at the door, to submit ourselves to the author and his way of ordering the proceedings. They might not like a comedy straying into tragic territory or a man of great station stooping to find love. But these aren’t suspension of disbelief issues. They’re authority issues, and that’s something else altogether.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Gaetan Lee)

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