Aaron Smith’s Response Journal

Dec4th

Run Lola Run as a Videogame

I really enjoyed Run Lola Run last night. It incorporated everything I like about movies with everything I like about games. On one level, I was able to “passively” (in the sense that I didn’t have a direct influence on the film) experience action, suspense, and excitement. But on another level, I felt as though I was watching someone else play a game, as if Lola were Lara Croft or something. This works well with the Soccer analogy at the beginning of the film. We are spectators of this game, not active participants in it. In this regard, I’d like to quickly point out just a few of the ways that Run Lola Run borrows from the conventions of videogames:

1.) Navigation of a space. This film was not based off compelling character development. Rather, it seemed to be driven by exploring an urban area of Germany. Heavy camera movement sometimes followed random bystanders in the street before returning to Lola. We were also first introduced to Lola and Manni by diving into what looks like Google Maps, reinforcing this theme.
2.) Cause and Effect logic. Whether Lola interacts with people on the street or not seems to have an effect on their overall life. Sometimes the future is bright, other times it is fatal, but it did seem to be loosely caused by Lola’s actions. Every action has a implicit or explicit consequence.
3.) Sensory Overload. I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride with the various types of camera styles, techno music, and fast paced edits. Some shots were less than a second long.
4.) Replayability. When Lola doesn’t like a particular ending (i.e. she dies), she decides to restart the game. The viewer gets to replay the story along with her too. I found myself guessing how different events would result in different consequences.
5.) Mastery. Lola is able to adjust to dangers and obstacles based on past experience. For example, she remembers how to turn off the safety on her gun from the scenario before. Thus, she gets better at navigating the space the more time she “plays.”
6.) Establishment of Rules and Goals. From very early on, we know the mission is to get 100,000$ and we know we only have 20 minutes to accomplish it. Interestingly, whenever Lola or Manni broke the law (more or less), one of them died. Just like in a game, if you don’t follow the rules, you lose. When Lola wins $100,000 off gambling on a ridiculous bet however, it’s almost as if she was rewarded for playing by the rules (or following the laws).

These are just a few of the elements that make Run Lola Run game-like. (There could also be analogies to levels and cut scenes) But the film understands the limits of cinema and does not try to overstep its boundaries by completely stepping into the game world. The filmmakers could have put a health bar above Lola and Manni, included a numeric score, or even a ‘game over’ message. However, at its core, Run Lola Run is still a movie with a beginning, middle, and end. It is a narrative with the interactivity of a videogame.

Nov12th

Mulholland Drive and Art Cinema

When I watched Mulholland Drive on my own the other day, I noticed that the DVD came with a viewer’s guide:

David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
4. An accident is a terrible event… notice the location of the accident.
5. Who gives a key, and why?
6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

Because I had never seen Mulholland Drive before, I was immediately cued for interpretation and investigation. Knowing David Lynch, that was not surprising. But I wonder: Does Lynch’s 10 cues contradict or reinforce the film’s art cinema tendencies?

On the one hand, this is perhaps the most explicit form of authorial address. Some of  the questions (where is Aunt Ruth?) point to certain ambiguities and ask the viewer to hypothesize about them. On the other hand, the author is literally telling us what to think about. Art cinema, while soliciting a higher interpretation, is often not made to be figured out, solved, or “unlocked.” As Bordwell writes, “narration is more complex than art can ever be, the only way to respect this complexity is to leave dangling and unanswered questions.” So what is the usefulness of these questions when many of the answers remain ambiguous? Art cinema is supposed to be about unfocused gaps and less stringent hypotheses. Do we really need to find answers to these questions or can we allow them to be unanswered and dangling? It is possible that directing the viewer how to unlock the film may render certain interpretations while limiting others.

Thus, while Mulholland Drive deals with dream logic, loose causal relations, a self conscious style, and heavy interpretation, it still calls on the viewer to, as Murphy says, “piece together the various strands of what has been deliberately constructed to be a mystery.”  But does playing detective fit with the mode of art cinema, where narrative comprehension is not the primary concern?

Nov11th

The Intersection between Film and New Media: Narrative Databases

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich introduces the concept of a database as a term normally antithetical to that of narrative. A database involves many trajectories through many possibilities of a text. A narrative has one trajectory-a beginning, middle, and end. Yet Manovich says films can be both a database and a narrative, noting the machine-like structure of The Man with the Movie Camera. I’d like to explore films which are based on a database logic and compare them to the databases/narrative structure of hypertexts.

Jim Bizzocchi  discusses Run Lola Run as adopting a narrative database since it is “a highly structured set of parallel plot events…[compelling] the viewer to examine the relationship between the consistency of event iteration and variation in event outcome.” Ultimately Bizzocchi decides of Run Lola Run: “if cinema does not afford explicit physical interaction, it can and does support implicit psychological interaction.” Certainly all films generate a degree of interactivity (in the most general sense) But I aim to research ‘higher level interaction,’ where films more closely resemble hypernarration than traditioanl film narration in the way they present time, space, and causal relations. Besides Run Lola Run, other examples include Short Cuts, Time Code, The Norman Conquests, and Rashomon. (all briefly mentioned by Bizzocchi, but not thoroughly examined) (Perhaps Mulholland Drive and Slacker would be interesting to look at as well) These films involve the construction of a complex narrative database requiring viewers to work harder to make plot connections. What can we learn from these films in relation to new media narration? How does their form and style tailor the story and to what effect? I wish to research how the films relate to Salen and Zimmerman’s four levels of interactivity in Rules of Play and how they compare to various hypertextual works such as Afternoon, Hot Norman, and Patchwork Girl.

Preliminary Thesis: Films containing narrative databases are useful tools in understanding the potential for new media narration since they provide a framework for introducing a higher degree of interactivity without compromising narrativity.

Sources:
Bizzocchi, Jim. “Run, Lola, Run: Film as Narrative Database.” MIT Paper.

Harries, Dan. The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

King, Geoff, and Tanya Kryzywinska. ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997.

Rieser, Martin, and Andrea Zapp. New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design and Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.

Scholder, Amy, and Eric Zimmerman. Game Design and Game Culture. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Nov6th

Video Essay Reflection

One essay that I think is extremely relevant to film and media students, this narration class, and the video essay assignment in particular is Greg M. Smith’s “It’s just a movie.” Smith writes a compelling response to film students who wonder, “Are we reading too much into films? After all, it’s just a movie!” Admittedly, I’ve asked this very question myself when thinking about Bordwell’s arguments. I’ll paraphrase a few of Smith’s points because I think they’re important as we close the ‘film unit’ of narration.

  1. Everything in a film is a choice.
  2. Films are not messages that we ‘get’ or ‘don’t get.’ They are more complicated than the sender-message-receiver model.
  3. Audiences already read into films based on intrinsic norms, extrinsic norms, and extratextual knowledge. Narration is an active process that demands interpretation.
  4. Films hold valuable cultural and historical meanings.
  5. Analyzing a film while simultaneously being entertained by it results in a richer, more complex experience.

I would argue that the average film class at Middlebury does not adequately reinforce all of these five reasons for studying film (and there are more) Why? Because often written analytical essays are the only way a student can convey their engagement with the material. Yes, academic papers are absolutely essential to studying film and media and in gaining a liberal arts education in general. Papers should be the primary contributor to a grade, at least in the Film Department, but I don’t think they should be the only type of required assignment.

In creating this video essay, I know I gained a greater appreciation for Smith’s 1, 2, and 3. Instead of merely observing an author’s choices, I made my own. And by understanding the infinite possibilities that could have changed everything, I was able to recognize the skill in the choices that were made. Instead of analyzing the message of the text, I thought about how a message can be manipulated through editing. Instead of concentrating on analyzing the author and the text, I focused on their effect on the active role of the viewer. These are all learning experiences that a paper simply could not have done justice.

I probably could go on and on about the importance of integrating media literacy into a liberal arts education but that might be for another post. The point is this: the video essay provided valuable insights about the construction of movies that I could not have obtained any other way. Ultimately, it was a great tool in developing number 5, learning how to have a deeper, more complex viewing experience.

Video Essay Reflection 2
This video essay provided a learning experience that I could not have gotten from an analytical paper. Completing the assignment involved four steps. First, I needed to analyze how the original text’s narration was operating. How was it cuing and constraining the viewer’s fabula construction and how was this process heightened by style? A written essay would have ended after a satisfactory discussion over this question. But then I needed to think creatively about how I was going to manipulate the narration and create my own cues to alter the viewer’s response. This required a fundamental understanding about how the formal and stylistic features of a film guide a spectator’s story construction and comprehension.

Once I came up with an idea, I problem solved about how I was going to effectively convey my desired message and how I was going to overcome any potential technical difficulties. Utilizing these three skills—critical analysis, creative thinking, and problem solving—I gained a greater appreciation for the constructedness of narration and the careful decision-making that goes into it. I can imagine how this would be important to an aspiring film writer/director/producer who must access and apply all three skills simultaneously.

Finally, the fourth step involved a re-analysis of my re-edit. After looking at the piece days after producing it and after discussing it in class, I discovered insights about it that were unintentional yet interesting nonetheless. This demonstrated to me how a viewer can interpret a text in a completely different way than the author’s original intent, but that doesn’t mean the interpretation is wrong.

In response to Snap Z Pro, as a digital media tutor I understand how it can be frustrating, time consuming, and unhelpful. There are only four computers that carry the program and sometimes there’s a bug that requires you to delete a corrupt preference file before you can record audio.
However, the main issue with SnapZ is that it is made for capturing up to 5 minute clips. Any more than that and it becomes a tedious process to maintain the quality of the video while keeping the file size down. For this assignment, you want to be able to play with a lot of footage and experiment a little, not force together short captured clips. It takes awhile to capture a long clip. It takes awhile to encode and export it. And it takes awhile to import it or render it in a video editing software. Because editing is so time consuming, it is especially aggravating when there are problems just acquiring the footage.

Nov4th

The Singing Detective Video Essay

During the first week of class, we talked about how in time based media, the beginning of a project teaches the audience how to read it. My video essay attempts to re-cut the first five minutes of The Singing Detective so that we are taught how to read the series in a different way.

In the first five minutes of the original text, the dark city setting, the stylized emphasis on shadows, the ominous music, and the introduction of clues (the Skinskapes coin) all cue the audience to expect a film noir detective genre. By cutting between the Singing Detective and Marlowe in the hospital, the film asks us to apply the genre conventions of the film noir detective story to Marlowe’s experiences. We must examine (as Marlowe does) the clues from Marlowe’s past to discover their significance. It is an introspective, psychoanalytic detective story.

My re-cut attempts to present this idea in a faster and more explicit manner. The first musical number introduces Marlowe’s subjectivity and the text’s genre play. Musical outbursts are not wishful expressions of desire, but unwanted, terrifying hallucinations, later involving suppressed memories. Like the musical numbers, much of Marlowe’s childhood memories cannot be controlled. The only way to stop them is to think about the Singing Detective, but even that story incorporates the characters and feelings of the past.

In my video, I’ve attempted to introduce the various levels of narrative from the very beginning. The viewer may have no idea what is going on, but one thing is clear: it’s all coming from Marlowe. Marlowe is as confused as we are, but he has made his decision to figure all the clues out (as evident by calling himself the Singing Detective) and accept his unconscious hallucinations as part of the process. Thus, I would say my re-cut informs us how to read the text much sooner. It quickly shows us that there will be scattered clues throughout this work, from various narrative levels, and that we must collect, aggregate, and signify them to find any answers.

Thinking on it now, I probably would have included more images from Marlowe’s past (not just mostly audio from it), such as Marlowe in the classroom and in the forest, to be shown during the musical and film noir scenes. This would further illustrate the interconnectedness of these three mental narratives going on in Marlowe’s head and accentuate the idea that Marlowe (and the viewer) must sort it all out.

Why does it matter how soon you understand how to read the text? Because in television, the viewer must know what to expect or they will quick change the channel. Think about Pushing Daisies, from very early on we know it’s a fairy tale story. The more a show puts off revealing what genre or type of narrative it is, the more a viewer will lose patience. In this way, I’ve designed my re-cut to fit a more traditional television model (despite deviating from it with its subject matter). By the opening credits, the viewer understands that this is going to be a puzzle involving genres and narrative devices that they have never seen before. Hopefully, after these first five minutes, diving into the mind of Phillip Marlowe might seem like an appealing investment.

Oct30th

Bordwell vs. Chatman: Can there be only one?

I have a tough time deciding whether I agree more with Bordwell or Chatman on the issue of the implied author. The problem is this: I can think of times when I consider narration to be constructed by a real author and times when I consider narration to be a product of the text’s intentions, the implied author. As you will see, I can’t come to a concrete conclusion that adequately explains why. The purpose of this post is to express my confusion on the concept of implied author, not to offer a sound analysis. In any case, I’d like to present three factors which may contribute to whether I understand a film as having an implied author or not.

1.) Familiarity with the Real Author
I went into The Singing Detective with quite a bit of extratextual knowledge. I had seen Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, I knew he was diagnosed with psoriasis, and I knew this was supposed to be the greatest masterpiece on television. So naturally I had Dennis Potter in the back of my head. During the mini series, I often compared The Singing Detective with Pennies from Heaven in terms of Potter’s mise en scene, dialogue, and genre play. I thought about how the plot related to Potter’s own life. And I wondered how Potter was going to tie the whole mini series up in the most mind blowing manner.

Let’s say I went into The Singing Detective knowing nothing about Dennis Potter but having seen Pennies from Heaven. Undoubtedly, I’d know the texts would be related. In addition to a downbeat tone and a slow pace, both involve musical numbers which alter the typical musical conventions, usually representing some Freudian psychological desire. In this case, if a friend said to me, “I really liked The Singing Detective,” I’d say, go check out Pennies from Heaven. I wouldn’t say “you should look at other works by the director.” Would my recommendation be based off Chatman’s concept of a career author, suggesting the film based on similarities shared by the implied authors, or based on the narration’s similarities, independent of any author at all (implied or real)? It’s hard to know.

2.) Level of Engagement
I found myself focusing on Potter’s role in creating the narration only at times when I was either confused or bored. Sometimes I wasn’t feeling very receptive to cues in the fabula construction and sometimes I just had no idea how to interpret those cues, no idea how to form a plausible hypothesis. In either case, I stopped hypothesizing…and drifted off. I thought about Potter’s overall goals in telling the story and why this was supposed to be so brilliant. I started to wonder why Potter was making certain choices (which admittedly, were disengaging me).

Conversely, when the narration offered interesting and thrilling scenes, I blocked out any concept of a “real person” prompting the narration. My favorite sequence in The Singing Detective was the scene where Marlowe’s teacher interrogates the class. Because I was so invested in what would happen, I wondered, why did the text include this? What is it trying to tell me here? In this way, when I was deeply involved in the story, I felt as though the text was communicating to me, not the real author. Or was I so engaged in the process of narration that I forgot about any author at all, implied or real? Again, it’s hard to know.

3.) Film Major vs. Regular Moviegoer
Not to seem elitist, but studying film allows us to view movies differently than other people. In my experience, when I watch a film for class, I usually have the real author in the back of my head. I know there is someone “behind the curtain” making choices, cuing the narration. I recognize how much time, money, and effort goes into making the film. But is the regular moviegoer as aware of this? I would assume they go to the movies to see whether the text will deliver an enthralling experience, not the real author. I don’t know though, does this matter at all?

There are other factors that may affect our understanding of who is the author, such as the level of ambiguity and self consciousness of the narration, the medium of the narration, and other general extratextual knowledge. But where I get caught going in circles is when I try to distinguish between the implied author and the narration. In much of what I’ve said so far, I could replace my use of text, implied author, and text’s intent with Bordwell’s narration. I can’t decide whether the real author makes choices which cue me to construct the narration or whether the cinematic narrator makes choices and sends me a message, which I then reconstruct and encode to form a narrative.

I guess one main question that I am grappling with is this: does narration exist from the viewer’s mind, the real author’s mind, or from the text itself? You might say there is an interaction between all three. But does the text fit into the equation? Can it “invent?” Bordwell would say no way. Perhaps then, because I am so indecisive, it’s best to side with Bordwell. I can’t assign a trait to the implied author that I can’t assign to narration, so it doesn’t really improve our understanding of narrative fiction at all. Yet something “feels right” about an implied author too. Maybe because that’s the way I think about literary fiction. I honestly have no idea.

Oct25th

The Prestige’s Protagonist: Borden vs. Angier

Jared and Andrew agree that The Prestige’s protagonist is Borden, since he is a more sympathetic character and since his actions drive much of the story forward. (Triggering the feud with Angier, witnessing his death and being charged for it, and then reading his journal) However, I don’t believe we can call Borden the sole protagonist. Here’s why:

First, in terms of sympathy, it’s hard to get over the fact that Borden was responsible for Julia’s death. I mean Angier unfairly loses his lover, doesn’t get an explanation for it, then seeks revenge and justice—what’s more sympathetic than that? In addition, throughout the flashbacks, we know Angier’s attempts to kill Borden won’t work. For in the present, Borden is alive and Angier is dead. This knowledge certainly affects our emotions as Borden and Angier trade off sabotages.

The sympathy argument gets even trickier when you consider the instance of death in the film. Borden unintentionally provokes two other people’s deaths (Julia and Sarah) and intentionally murders another. (Angier). Conversely, Angier either intentionally kills one person (Borden) or 101 people (depending on whether you consider killing a clone to be murder). My point is that we can’t sympathize with solely Angier or Borden. They are so self obsessive that they completely disregard the lives of everyone else.

Second, in terms of driving the story forward, I was much more interested in Angier’s story than Borden’s. Much of what we see with Borden is his relationships with Sarah/Olivia and we don’t know the significance of these conversations and events until end. So we basically attribute these scenes as a means to show us that Borden’s love of magic inhibits his ability to love anything else. Meanwhile, Angier is on a quest for a machine that involves mysterious, fantastic science.  On first viewing, while Borden’s transporting man trick is intriguing, I think we mainly focus on Angier’s attempt to match the trick and come up with something even more spectacular.

That’s not to say that Angier is the protagonist because I think you can make a strong case for Borden as well. But ultimately, the film does not want us to play sides; the rivalry between Borden and Angier is not about good and evil. It is about the interplay between differing styles of commitment and obsessiveness. The film wants us to focus on the heated rivalry itself, not either of the characters. This effect is served by the narrators. Usually, homodiegetic voice-over narration wins the understanding and identification of the viewer since it cues us to concentrate on their perspective and feelings. Thus, it makes sense that we’d hear both Borden and Angier as narrators. We simultaneously experience them as protagonists as well as antagonists.

Perhaps, if anyone, we most easily relate to Cutter, who is also tangled up in the violent feud. I wouldn’t call Cutter the protagonist, but his role in the film is important because, again, it prevents us from taking sides. We have a sympathetic character we can emotionally latch onto so we don’t need to choose between Borden or Angier. Cutter grounds us in this way; we can identify with him since he is the most communicative of the narrators and the least knowledgeable.

Oct20th

Barton Fink Follow Up

Leslie wrote a great response to my previous entry so I’ll post my comment here:

Perhaps the beauty of Barton Fink is that it counts on our natural and involuntary tendency to read the film like we read The Singing Detective–to separate the objective fabula from the subjective. But in Barton Fink, such a task is impossible. Ultimately, because we can’t distinguish between reality and the fantasy, we may consider the entire film to be subjective. Perhaps the message, if there is any, is that all filmmaking is subjective and that it is the role of the viewer to construct objectivity from it. Even though there are always filters and slants in film, we still consider impersonal shots to be truth. (unless we know for sure that the character is dreaming, thinking, or hallucinating)

Distinguishing between the real and the not real is important to me, no matter how fruitless, because it changes how I construct the objective truth and the fabula at large. And I need to find some shred of objective truth. I can’t consider the whole thing to be imagined because I’d feel cheated. (like discovering it was all a dream)  So I find it very intriguing to make a hypothesis about the film and then find proof to support it. (like the process of viewing any film) The film’s meaning may be indecipherable, but I refuse to write it off as such. Frustrated that I can’t get all the answers from Barton’s mind, I’m forced to speculate about the minds of the Coen brothers. I depend on the author (and my perception of their intentions) to help me find meaning in a text; I simply cannot rely on the text alone.  Thus, for me, it is virtually impossible to enjoy the film without making some effort to figure it out.

Oct19th

Research Paper Idea 2: Hypertexts

We won’t spend a whole lot of time talking about new media narratives in this class, so I’d like to take an in-depth look at hypertext fiction. Hypertext fiction may have more in common with literature than film, but I’d like to analyze what narrative possibilities the Internet-based medium holds. Possible research questions include:

  • What stories lend themselves to hypertext?
  • How are hypertext narratives organized?
  • What is the role of user? What does it mean to click on a link–how does it change the way we read the text?

In this research paper, I will explore these issues by reading Lev Manovich, Marie-Laure Ryan, and Janet H. Murray in addition to examining a number of hypertext narratives.

Oct19th

Objective vs. Subjective Reality in Barton Fink

Barton Fink’s unique style and texture certainly made it aesthetically pleasing. I particularly loved the Shinning-esque hallway, the slow pan following Charlie when he first bangs on Barton’s door, the whoosh every time the door opens or closes, and of course, the character Lipnick. But beyond admiring some fantastic mise en scene, acting, and sound design, I couldn’t help but wonder:  What was that movie about?

To help me with the question, I found an article called “Barton Fink, Intertextuality, and the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing” by Michael Dunne. The article mentions a number of theories on how to interpret the film; Barton Fink could be an allegory on creativity, a satire of Hollywood, or a piece about a man who sells his soul and goes to hell (aka the Earle Hotel).

Ultimately, Dunne concludes that reducing Barton Fink to a single interpretation does the film an injustice. For it is a film that blends the aforementioned theories in interesting ways, never completely confirming or disconfirming any of them. Thus, Barton Fink is a film less about the intentions of the author and more about the perceived meanings by the viewer. Dunne writes:

In keeping with these critical insights, we may understand that to encounter a film like Barton Fink, to feel conscious of parallels and contrasts to our prior aesthetic encounters, to feel uncertain just how it all fits tidily together, and to accept this uncertainty happily as part of this cinematic encounter-is to experience the (almost) unbearable richness of viewing.

The main uncertainty in Barton Fink is the question of what is real and what is not. So I’d like to run with this a little bit. George Wilson talks about the impersonal subjectivity in his essay, “Transparency and Twist in the Narrative Fiction Film.” He defines impersonal subjectivity as “non-POV shots that are subjectively inflected but do not share their vantage point with the visual perspective of any character in the film.” Sometimes, as is the case with Fight Club, the viewer may consider such subjective impersonal shots to be objective, especially when there are no explicit narrative cues to tell us otherwise. These impersonal shots are a subjective representation motivated by some psychological significance, like a character’s thoughts or emotions.

In Barton Fink, it is hard to pick out the impersonal subjective shots (that aren’t POVs) as there is no clear distinction between reality and fantasy. Upon first viewing, all events seem to be objective because they make logical sense within the story: Barton is given the assignment to write a screenplay and he works on it in his hotel. But how real is the hotel, really? It seems to be more like an artificial hell than a realistic place. The entire atmosphere is eerie and ominous. The seemingly friendly neighbor turns out to be a serial killer. The slogan of the Hotel Earle is “For a day, a lifetime.” And the fire doesn’t burn anything nor does it concern anyone in the hotel. But we don’t question the authenticity of any of these things because we attribute them to the “as if logic” of an eccentric place. That is, until the perplexing ending.

The pleasure of this film, as Dunne noted, is indeed hypothesizing (on subsequent viewings) which scenes, events, or characters are real or not real. If I were to pick out instances of impersonal subjectivity in Barton Fink, I would probably choose almost all of the hotel scenes. Why? Because every conversation, object, and character in the hotel could have some psychological significance to Barton’s feelings or thoughts as they exist outside of the hotel.

For example, Charlie’s deceptiveness-his transition from someone who wants to help Barton to someone who ruins his life- parallels Barton’s experience with Lipnick. Audrey’s confession to Barton may represent a hidden desire of Barton’s: he doesn’t want to admit that the author he respects is actually a drunk. The mosquito on Audrey may represent W.P. Mayhew’s parasitic relationship to her.  As for the painting on the wall, Dunne projects that it “is probably intended to represent everything Fink lacks-sex, beauty, social acceptance, innocence, the healthy outdoors, the appeal of the West Coast.” So I think it’s reasonable to suggest that everything in the hotel is a manifestation of Barton’s consciousness or unconsciousness; all of it is subjective.

I don’t know what any of this means, (and I won’t attempt to analyze it in light of Dunne’s analysis) but I do think that in order to clear up the relationship between the subjective and objective, we must draw on our understanding of Barton’s psychology and personality. I guess what I liked so much about this film, and I usually hate feeling confused, is that the viewer must add subjectivity in the way they feel most appropriate (as oppose to Fight Club which reveals the objective truth in the end). This film would be a great candidate for the video essay. I’d like to alter how we perceive subjectivity in the film-what if the last scene in the movie came first? If you’re interested in working with me on this, let me know.

Oct15th

Narrative Closure in Puzzle Films

I am one of those people who, in writing films, contemplates the major narrative twist before thinking about a single character or event. Whether it is manipulating narrator, order of events, point of view, or character knowledge, I’m constantly on the look out for how I can create the next great formal scheme. I’m also told that’s not the best way to begin writing a film.

But I’ve begun to wonder, why am I so enthused with twist films and not art films when both genres contain a high degree of ambiguity, self-consciousness, mystery, and formal play? The answer has everything to do with narrative comprehension. As Bordwell points out in “Subjective Stories and Network Narratives,” “screenwriting manuals that encourage the new “nonlinear” trends in plotting still demand intelligible exposition, unified strings of events, and vivid turning points.”
Here we have the “same yet different” approach to screenwriting: have all the formal play you want, just make sure there’s a causal framework and coherence so that the mass audiences can understand it.

Bordwell also lays out the Hollywood principle that “the more complex the devices, the more redundant the storytelling needs to be.” Indeed, Memento reminds us over and over again that there’s a pattern unfolding. When we see a physical token, we expect to understand its cause and effect. When we see the beginning of one scene, we expect the next scene to end in exactly the same fashion. When we see the black and white, we expect the story to move forwards. Indeed, Memento is both incredibly “daring and obvious.” But that’s also why it is such an amazing film. The viewer never gets bored of the predictable narrative structure nor does the viewer wonder if an important token or event will go unexplained. Thus, the redundancy of Memento assures us that the film will end in a comprehensible, tight package and it (arguably) delivers just that. That’s not to say nothing is left open ended, but there is a clear, dominant interpretation of the story that answers many of the film’s burning questions.

When we watch Memento, we consistently are in flux between confusion and clarity, chaos and order, until finally, the film gives us enough information to tie up the loose ends in a plausible way. While much is left up to interpretation, there is enough narrative closure to give us peace of mind. It’s  this process, going from a state of uncertainty (or pseudo-certainty) to a state of clarity after a particular event or realization, that I love in puzzle films. It’s like working your way through a complex algebraic problem with messy fractions, until you discover that the solution is x=3. Very satisfying. Sometimes I think that leaving too much interpretation up to the viewer is a cop out, a way to end the story without actually having to figure it out. But then again, not all stories should end in a neat, easily digestible way; it’s  realistic and necessary for them to be more complex than that. In that regard, much of what I’ve said about Memento breaks down when you consider puzzle films like Donnie Darko, which intentionally refrains from narrative closure.

It seems many people are OK with not knowing all the answers. That can be the fun in re-watching a film over and over. But what about the puzzle show LOST? If by the end of the sixth season many questions were left unanswered, fans would be furious. There would be riots in the streets. Audiences make such a huge time and emotional investment in a TV show that we need closure. We need to know that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, that there will be a completed jigsaw puzzle after the final piece is put in place.  Some people have abandoned LOST because they fear that won’t happen.

I guess it all comes down to what a particular text implicitly promises. When you watch art cinema, the abrupt editing and lack of causality lets us know that we need to interpret, not understand. We don’t expect a major breakthrough in the end. But when we watch Memento, the redundancy in plot information and narrative structure lets us know that there will be a final breakthrough; it will come together in the end. I hope LOST goes down a similar path. It is awfully disappointing when a puzzle film promises semi-tight closure through its narration, yet fails to deliver. It will be interesting to see how the Singing Detective concludes…
(P.S. My favorite twist ending? A Twilight Zone episode called “To Serve Man.”)

Oct14th

Research Paper Idea: Web Shows

With the proliferation of the Internet and the rise of digital video emerged a new trend in Hollywood, original web shows. I am not talking about TV shows that are available on the Internet or webisodes which supplement an existing TV show like The Office or Heroes (although that could be a different paper). Rather, I’m interested in serial web shows with original narratives which are distributed by Hollywood movie studios and TV networks.

Hollywood web series are very much in experimental form; there hasn’t been a proven narrative model to follow yet. The generally accepted rule is that a web series should be released as a quick installment, designed for a web surfer with a limited attention span or for a commuter traveling to work with their iPod. How can a web show achieve an engaging serial narrative with such a restricting duration limit? I’d like to examine how a web shows’ narrative operates, focusing on the sci-fi genre in particular.

For example, Electric Farm Entertainment has produced Afterworld and Gemini Division for Sony Entertainment and NBC Digital, respectively. (Afterworld finished after 130 five minute episodes; Gemini Division will end the first season after 70) These web shows are unique because they involve not only a narrative complexity, but also a plethora of extratextual content which expands the story further. While Afterworld and Gemini Division certainly have their flaws, they do serve as prime examples for how web shows can function not just as a daily short video clip, but also as an immersive experience. The Sci-Fi channel’s Sanctuary (which is now a TV show) also aimed to create an engaging, interactive world. (its web show life totals 45 minutes)

My paper will attempt to analyze these sci-fi web shows, compare and contrast them, and examine how they achieve a unique, compelling experience for the viewer. The three shows seem to blend old media with new media, mixing narrative ingredients already proven to be effective (such as the beats and arcs of TV) and new Internet-based elements yet to be mastered (such as ARGs and social networks). Right now, my tentative thesis would be, and I have not seen all the episodes of the shows, that Afterworld, Gemini Division, and Sanctuary utilize an amalgamation of narrative devices from a variety of media, including comics, video games, novels, and TV Shows, all of which allow the show to potentially branch out into any of those platforms. Thus, web shows have potential to become the perfect incubator for transmedia franchises.

Of course, that thesis may/will change as I examine the three web shows further, but it’s nice to have a theory to work with anyway. As I mentioned, my paper will involve researching narrative in a variety of media, but one of the major influences for sci fi web shows clearly comes from comic books. Afterworld’s form is a motion comic book and both Gemini Division and Sanctuary incorporate stylized comic-bookie CGI. It is also a possibility that my paper discusses the parallels between comic books and web shows. (especially since Stephen King launched a terrifying motion-comic-book-web-series called N to promote his new book.)

Oct3rd

Style and Sjuzhet in The Sixth Sense

I’d like to continue the discussion of style from Scott’s post:

As Scott discusses, The Sixth Sense achieves a sense of self-awareness not only through the careful presentation of the sjuzhet, but also through its distinct style—the prevalence of the red motif.

On our first viewing, we don’t notice the red motif at all. Red seems to be just a scary color in a scary movie. (the red tent is especially freaky). Then on subsequent viewings, it’s semi-clear that the film surrounds red around the presence of ghosts and around Malcolm, inviting us to put those pieces of information together. But just as we don’t question the unexplained gaps in The Sixth Sense the first time, we also don’t wonder, “Why is there red everywhere?” Indeed, following the red clues simply would have taken too much cognitive energy.

Here is where the self consciousness of the style compliments, even exceeds, the self consciousness of the sjuzhet. The red motif is unbeknownst to the characters; they don’t recognize it as a clue. To them, red has no significance or value within the diegesis (unless somehow ghosts impact the color of things around them). The red motif thus functions as a means for the filmmaker to communicate to the viewer. The filmmaker implies, “here is another thing you missed because of your assumptions.” That is, the first time we watch, we assume that if the red color was directly relevant to the construction of the sjuzhet, its purpose would be revealed explicitly by the story or by the characters’ own detective work. If there is no indication that the style might be crucial to our comprehension of the film, we cognitively give it a back seat to narration. (at least I do) Yet in The Sixth Sense, style is not just a supplement to the sjuzhet, but an element that explains its construction. It heightens the experience of the second viewing as we monitor how we could have figured out the ending.

Thus, resembling the authorial expressivity of art cinema, the red motif illuminates the subjectivity of the narrational process because its significance and interpretation is intended solely for the viewer on subsequent viewings. In this way, style, in addition to the controlled presentation of the sjuzhet (and a cameo from the filmmaker himself), contributes to a sense of artificiality and self consciousness in the narration.

Oct1st

The Double Fabula in Twist Movies

I’ll start with a video. In this awareness test, see if you can guess how many passes the team in white makes.

Now this video may or may not have fooled you, but it does illustrate a few of the main points from David Bordwell and Erlend Lavik.

In “Narrative Structure in The Sixth Sense,” Lavik describes a double sjuzhet scheme that effectively follows a straightforward fabula, and then, after a twist, reveals a beneath the surface fabula running parallel to it. He writes:

“Once we become aware of [the hidden fabula], everything in the sjuzhet takes on new meaning. We are instantly compelled to return to the outset of the story and…follow the correct fabula this time, the one that was invisible to us at first, even though it was present all along.” (56)

Because we are so focused on the team in white’s passing, we miss something that we could have noticed if we were told to pay attention to it. The same holds true for narratives in twist movies like The Sixth Sense-the clues are there, we just aren’t looking for them.

Of course, requiring audiences to reconstruct the fabula and their understanding of a story is incredibly risky. It is a startling and often frustrating narrative device (especially the “it was all a dream” technique). And after all the cognitive energy that goes into viewing a film, I can see why flipping all assumptions, inferences and hypotheses on their head might be thought of as manipulative and contrived.

But the beauty of The Sixth Sense is that it forces the viewer to think about where they went wrong in constructing an incorrect fabula. At the same time, Lavik argues, the film’s artificiality becomes transparent, illuminating the constructedness of the sjuzhet. So there’s a self-conciousness present in both the viewer and the film.

On second viewing, the audience may discover misleading cues that lead them astray or they may seek logical errors in the new fabula. But either way, they are effectively contemplating their own cognitive processes involved in viewing a film while simultaneously observing how the film cues and constrains those processes.

Thus, double fabula films do more than call attention to narrational processes; they also reveal an important truth in life. How many times do we attribute someone’s unpleasantness to their personality rather than a possible situation? And how many times do we make judgments about a person based on their appearance?  Double fabula films show us how we use schemata to incorrectly fill gaps and make false assumptions. When done successfully, they demonstrate our refusal to consider alternative scenarios and force us to more closely examine information that is there, it’s just not consistent with our cognitive short cuts. It’s that old cliche: when you see just what’s on the surface, you might miss the moonwalking bear.

Sep23rd

Celebrities and Characters

In accordance with Leslie’s post, Margolin’s definitions of character become problematic when applied to the cinema because, as she points out, there are many “authors” (actors, screenwriters, and directors) involved in constructing a viewer’s mental representation of a character. In this post however, I’d like to focus on the acting aspect of character creation, specifically celebrity acting.

Just as “cinematic representations of setting are more complete but less highlighted  than literary narration” (Mittell, 161) so too are cinematic representations of character. A film can’t leave out a character’s appearance, mannerisms, and tone of voice; these are all concrete, physical qualities which are rarely left up to the imagination. It’s not surprising, then, that audiences have preferences as to which people they like to see on the big screen.

So Margolin’s concepts of a character’s individuation and singularity become especially tricky in Hollywood when often times, audiences go to the movies solely to see a certain movie star.  Celebrities can thus be seen as having a uniqueness of their own; they are themselves characters.  Just as narration often involves a real author and an implied author, blockbuster films typically utilize a “real” character (the celebrity) and an implied character (the celebrity’s role). In this sense,  audiences will go to the movies to see the “real” character (such as Will Smith), the implied character (such as James Bond), or both (such as Heath Ledger and the Joker).

Often viewers cognitively drift back and forth between watching the real character and the implied character. For instance, in Swordfish, when Halle Berry suddenly reveals her breasts, she exposes herself as Halle Berry, distancing herself from her character. (Men see Halle Berry in the nude, not her character). Or when Samuel L Jackson exclaims his popular line from Snakes on a Plane, there’s no doubt the audience sees Samuel L. Jackson.

Margolin says about Don Quixote:

“They [the conclusions we make about Don] are just a set of data which needs to be critically evaluated. It is only through a complex process of computation that the reader can decide which of these claims he/she will endorse and use in his/her own character construction. (77)

The same holds true when a viewer compares a celebrity’s persona against their particular character in a film. We are constantly evaluating two different kinds of characters–the celebirty character and the storyworld character.  As we watch a Hollywood film,  sometimes we separate them (like when the actor/actress calls attention to themself)and sometimes we merge them together (like when they are particularly convincing). Often it’s not one or the other, but a mixture of the two. Anyway, it’s all just another cognitive process involved in viewing (Hollywood) narratives.

Sep21st

Sincerity in Fantasy Narratives

JJ had an interesting response to last week’s screening, raising the question, “what makes a successful fantasy story?” In terms of fantasies, Lost and Simple Men are at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Lost is about ordinary people who are placed in extraordinary circumstances, Simple Men is about extraordinary people within a painfully ordinary world. Put another way, Lost’s fantasy stems from external forces (a mysterious island) whereas Simple Men’s fantastical elements lie in the characters’ exaggerated expressions of their internal struggles, their over the top existentialism and wacky interactions.

The viewer’s emotional and cognitive involvement is much different in each of these cases. As JJ points out, Lost ‘craves the ‘what if’ scenario,’ primarily focusing on the secrets of the mythology. Certainly, the show is quite manipulative in how it tells the story, utilizing formal play and cliffhangers. But what I find so appealing is how many times I must re-conceptualize the storyworld. The question suddenly goes from “what if I were stranded on an island” to “what if I was stranded on an island where a paralyzed person could now walk?” In Lost, after learning new story information, the audience must reevaluate their mental construction of the world and consequently form a new one. As a result, because the rules of Lost change so drastically and frequently, the world is always in flux; we never fully understand it.

Conversely, the world of Simple Men is well defined from the very beginning with its strange characters and purposely bad dialogue. (granted Lost is a TV show) The narrative of Simple Men seems to be less concerned with “what will happen next?” as it is with “what will the character do/say next?” And here’s where the film disengages me: In a fantasy story, I don’t want to be merely an observer who examines odd characters; I want that sensation of being taken to another place.

In Delicatessen, I could accept the eccentric characters because I attributed their oddities as a product of the fantastical external forces. That is, the world was so different from the one I knew that I was able to justify any strange or abnormal activity. Simple Men provided me no explanation as to why the characters were so bizarre. (I’m guessing that’s why many people like it) So once I recognized what made each character weird, there was nothing left for me to do except just watch them.

Anyway, JJ makes a great point when she says, “I’m just into the concept of constructing a storyworld and owning its insincerity. That’s the only way it ultimately becomes sincere.” This is an important issue because narrative is, by definition, an insincere process. An author organizes the plot in a certain way, manipulating the story for a desired effect. Simple Men deals with this deception by calling attention to the constructed storyworld. (favoring diegesis.) Conversely, Lost seems to embrace narrative trickery as a means to increase immersion, or at least engagement. Either way, I think what matters most is the desired effect, what you get out of the narrative. And if I’m satisfied with that answer, I guess I don’t mind insincerity at all.

 

 

Sep18th

Lost and Manipulating Assumptions

In his essay “Film and Narrative Television”, Mittell writes “narrative deceptions use viewer tendencies to fill in narrative gaps with the most likely assumptions and follow typical schemata.” What’s amazing about Lost is that we never learn how to make a valid assumption.  The show understands how we insert missing story information with seemingly reasonable and obvious situations and then plays off that, toying with our assumptions for a desired effect.

When I first saw Walkabout, I was of course fooled by Locke’s “condition”. But the episode cued me to make another assumption, one that I struggled to validate as a viable solution to one particular story gap.

The assumption begins when Kate hears a strange noise and ruffling through the trees; the monster is heading right for Locke. Indeed, the monster appears to be face to face with him. We even get a point of view from the monster as Locke looks directly at it. But this is all we see. So the assumption before the commercial break is that Locke is going to have a confrontation with the monster.

Of course, that never happens. All we get is Kate telling Jack that the monster was heading in Locke’s direction and that it probably got to him. But we know Locke isn’t dead; after all, he hasn’t finished his flashback yet.

This assumption is confirmed when Locke comes out of the forest dragging a boar. And here is where I inserted my own reasonable scenario. I thought: “That wasn’t a monster Locke saw, it was probably just a herd of boars, one of which he killed.” For if it was actually the monster that he saw, we would have either seen it or Locke would have talked about it immediately when he got back.

Other cues set me up to make that assumption. Subconsciously, I must have remembered the first sequence. In the episode’s opening, the castaways hear strange noises coming from the fuselage. They approach it slowly, when suddenly they see two eyes. Jack yells “Run!” and then there’s chaos as everyone flees frantically. We see the terror in Charlie as the beasts zoom past him. After the dust clears and Charlie asks, “What was that?” Locke responds, “Boars.”

When I first saw the episode, the sequenced functioned as a “head fake.”  I thought there would be something important or startling in the fuselage, perhaps the monster or a survivor, but alas, it was only some boars. So later when Locke drags a boar out of the forest, I thought: “they did it to me again…what I thought was something really terrible was actually a group of boars.”

There were other signals that cued me to believe Locke saw a boar(s), not a monster. In the episode, (and throughout the show) the characters within the diegesis rethink what happens to them. They challenge their assumptions as we do. Jack thinks he sees someone following him but there’s actually no one there. Charlie thinks Shannon is interested in friendship but she’s actually using him for fish. There are countless examples of this as the show progresses. Thus, I think on some level I was trained by the characters’ experiences to rethink what I thought was true. Not to rethink the big twist of  Locke’s condition, that would go completely against my sensibilities, but rather to rethink something more obvious and simple-whether Locke actually saw the monster. Thus, my cognitive energy was spent uncovering what happened in the forest, not looking for clues about why Locke kept looking at his feet.

Furthermore, Lost’s flashbacks always have some thematic significance to their corresponding episodes. In Walkabout, Locke is finally able to find himself, do what everyone thought he couldn’t, and fulfill his destiny. It would make sense, then, that the point of the episode is not him confronting the monster, but killing the boar and finding his purpose on the island. So another factor contributing to my assumption that Locke didn’t actually see the monster was that such a confrontation would not fit with my thematic expectations for the episode.

Thus, while many clues told me Locke had seen the monster, (its signature noise, Kate’s dialogue, a high camera angle POV from it, and Locke’s resounding look of wonder) other narrative cues led me to think differently (the opening scene, the other characters’ experiences, Locke’s lack of a reaction when he returned, and my expectations of what would be consistent with the theme)

After learning Locke withheld information as a narrator, I questioned his response to Michael about not seeing the monster. Could he be withholding information again? Why? By the end, I didn’t know what to think anymore.

Admittedly, this may all be very confusing. Some people may have never doubted whether Locke saw the monster or not.  The point is this though: just when you think you know how the show is operating and just when you think you’ve made the right assumption, Lost turns in a much different direction. The writers do this, not by presenting false information, but by letting the viewers fool themselves. For me, I have stopped trying to do detective work in the episodes. Now I just let the storytelling manipulate my assumptions as I sit back and see where the narrative takes me. As I attempt to mentally fill in story gaps, I often rule out seemingly implausible scenarios, thinking “that can’t happen because I saw this.” It’s as if the show responds by saying: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

Sep9th

Style and Narrativity in Delicatessen and Stranger than Paradise

In her essay, “Toward a Definition of Narrative,” Marie-Laure Ryan highlights the importance of distinguishing literal narrative from metaphorical narrative, given the term’s inflation and misuse. She maintains that assessing a text’s narrativity is not a matter of yes or no, but rather, to what degree? Accordingly, Ryan outlines four dimensions useful in defining narrative – spatial, temporal, mental, and formal and pragmatic.

There is no question that Delicatessen and Stranger than Paradise are strong narratives.

But while both films do satisfy all of Ryan’s eight criteria, making them high in narrativity (how many dimensions they fulfill), where they really differ is in their typology (the prominence of each).

Delicatessen emphasizes the spatial dimension; it is mostly about a post-apocalyptic world and a small, closed community within it. Stranger than Paradise insists on the mental dimension, focusing primarily on the characters’ internal motivations and emotions (or lack there of). Whereas Stranger than Paradise accentuates the characters’ isolation and separation, Delicatessen’s characters are connected and intertwined, as parts of a machine. Delicatessen thus mainly accentuates setting while Stranger than Paradise examines character.

Which brings me to another one of Ryan’s points: “As a mental representation, story is not tied to any particular medium…” (26) This is an interesting statement since both films utilize a style that is unique to film in order to enhance their preferred dimension: fast, rhythmic editing to evoke parts of a machine in Delicatessen and black, interrupting gaps in Stranger than Paradise to evoke the characters’ loneliness and blandness. I wonder, had the two films been without any of this, would we have comprehended these themes as easily? Would we have been as quick to designate Stranger than Paradise as favoring the mental dimension if it included establishing shots of big New York skyscrapers? We might think the film had more of a spatial component, a piece about  America and living in the city.

In other words, the style of the films help us understand them and extract meaning from them, but what would happen to the narratives if you took that style away? Could the stories of Delicatessen and Stranger than Paradise work in a medium other than film?

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