Aaron Smith’s Response Journal


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.


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.




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.”


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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