Aaron Smith’s Response Journal


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”)


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.)


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.


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.

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