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Closing Thoughts

Here are a few closing thoughts on the course.  I’ll try not to make it sound too much like a course evaluation form…

I like the way this course has probed into things that we take for granted in most classes, like the intricate processes of viewer comprehension.   At the same time it has clarified a number of distinctions that I was surprised not to have learned by my fourth year in the major—like the distinctions between classical Hollywood, art cinema, and parametric modes of narration (we discussed classical Hollywood cinema to death in film history, but I had never heard of “parametric” in the context of film studies).  Because of this, I feel like this would make a good course outside of the senior seminar format if the work load was scaled back a bit.

I liked most of the reading, but particularly enjoyed the J.J. Murphy book.  I think he offers interesting insight on a variety of kind of non-traditional movies, and the book inspired me to watch most of the movies in it that we didn’t see in class (I skipped Safe, for obvious reasons).  Murphy does a great job of explaining how narration operates in each of the films he discusses, but it left me wanting some more general theory of narration in independent film… I guess what I’m getting at is that Bordwell is a little to general, and Murphy is a bit too specific, so something in the middle would be a nice addition.

Rarely do I enjoy screenings as consistently as I enjoyed what we watched in this class.  Though the double features that lasted into the eleven o’clock hour sometimes tested my attention span, the movies and TV shows were great.  Even The Singing Detective, which didn’t pay off as I hoped it might (and which I’d consider my least favorite text of the semester) had enough humor and suspense to basically keep my interest.  Annie Hall and The Prestige are among my favorite films, and Arrested Development is probably my favorite TV show, so my Wednesday evenings tended to be pretty enjoyable.

I can’t think of much more to say (I think my brain turns to mush as soon as I get home…), so I guess this is the end.

Thanks, everyone, for a great course.  Have an excellent break.

Pondering Paratexts

My final paper was about DVD bonus features and I did a lot of research about paratexts, but I ended up summarizing it without a whole lot of discussion in the paper.  So, I thought I’d raise a question here:  where is the line between text and paratext for movies?  This question comes from a specific list of paratexts for books offered by Jonathan Gray, summarizing Gerard Genette that includes covers, title pages, typesetting, paper, and goes on to name many, many more.  What is the cinematic equivalent for these elements within a movie? The cover and title page neatly correspond with the title sequence or perhaps the movie poster, but typesetting and paper are very much within the book.  The cinematic equivalents that I’m coming up with—film stock or maybe color palate—cannot be paratexts, these are formal choices.  I guess typesetting is sort of a formal choice for a writer, but it affects the meaning of the words as a paratext, whereas the look of a film is all the film itself.  This relates back to issues we discussed with regard to Mittell’s article in the Cambridge Companion book, about how visual media must fix things in ways that books do not, so written texts are experienced more variably.  I don’t have an answer to my own question, I’m just wondering…

Run Lola Run

Last night was my first time seeing Run Lola Run, and I really liked it.  After hearing that it somehow resembled or related to videogames, I was apprehensive—it doesn’t get much more boring than watching someone else play a videogame, so I was not looking forward to a film that mimicked that experience.  Luckily my blind assumptions turned out to be way off.

The most striking thing about Run Lola Run is how satisfying the story is, even though it operates within this game-like structure of “replaying” a period of time in a consistent space.  In large part, I attribute this to its traditional structure.  I think four acts work best for breaking it down—the opening segment (I guess you could call that a prologue…) and initial phone call set up the problem, Lola’s first run through the story world is complicating action as we get a sense of the obstacles to solving this problem, the second time through has more development as the film shows us how things can change based on Lola’s action, and the last try includes a resolution of the problem that leaves Lola and Manni better off than they were at the beginning.  The happy ending is especially satisfying after seeing the same situation end badly every other time.

The spatial treatment of Run Lola Run is the most significant video game parallel I noticed when watching the movie.  All of the sequences that showed Lola running, particularly the ones shot from her side, reminded me of classic scroll games like Jenkins describes—think Mario Brothers on gameboy.  As Lola repeatedly navigates the same space with a few different variations, the shot composition emphasizes the consistency of the world.  Lola always runs around the same corner in a shot framed the same way, by the same buildings, and among the same characters—the people become elements of the landscape to navigate rather than characters with which to interact.  The third time through the world the spatial and compositional rules set up before are slightly more flexible, with Manni chasing the bum and Lola riding in the ambulance, but there is enough similarity to make it a satisfying variation on a theme.

Jared posted a link to an interesting article about the state of storytelling in Hollywood (here it is again).  I found the article rather unproductive, since all of the trends it dwells upon are widely acknowledged and it doesn’t go into enough detail to say anything new about them.  The article suffers from a lack of specificity in terms of what is happening to story in modern films and why it poses a problem.  Bobby Farrelly misses movies like The Graduate, while Peter Guber laments that nothing can compete with Transformers, but this seems like a simplistic preference toward more high-brow, or “intellectual” fare.  The article claims that recently “big films with relatively small stories have been hurried into production to meet release dates.  Meanwhile, hundreds of pictures with classic narrative have been eclipsed by other media…or suppressed by louder, less story-driven brethren.”  First of all, what the heck does it mean to be story-driven?  This is imprecise language that undercuts the point of the article.  Surely Transformers has story—infact, story in the colloquial sense of being closely allied with action-packed plot advancement might be a stronger force in action flicks like Transformers, whereas we might call The Graduate more character-driven.
David Kirkpatrick, the founder of this MIT story lab thing, fears “a world without story,” but I agree with the Sundance film festival folks—story is thriving, and the proliferation of new media is opening things up.  The article sets up an opposition between big studio movies seeking the largest possible opening weekend and lower budget films that accept a more limited audience, but they say it like this is a new trend, when the blockbuster clearly emerged as an industry-shaping force in the 1980s.  No form of storytelling has died, though its place in the industry may have shifted.  The article barely discusses new media forms, except to vaguely insinuate that text messaging is associated with the popularity of blockbuster action flicks (?).  The New York Times usually does better…

Passage

Today I set out to do some gaming and think more about how narrative functions in video games, since I don’t have much experience with this stuff.  I don’t have easy access to elaborate game systems, so I stuck to stuff I can find for free on the internet.  On a tip from professor Mittell, my first search was for Passage.  I found something that looked about right, downloaded it, and dove right in.  The only thing I knew, per a prominent notice on the webpage, was that it lasts only five minutes.  “Cool,” I thought, since I’m not too interested in getting absorbed in a game that’s going to suck away hours and hours of my life.  I started up the program, and began a clueless survey of the keyboard for something that would control the action onscreen.  Sure enough the arrow keys moved a human-looking little figure around a simple, pixilated landscape.  I aimlessly wandered forward (left to right) for a long time, wondering what would happen and whether I would need to fight off monsters or something.
I kept going forward, anticipating something more, and I was a little confused by the lack of action being imposed on me.  Eventually I collided with something that turned into another person whose movement was linked to my original character.  Shortly after that I noticed that the little person looked a little different.  I think it was the graying hair that tipped me off to the point of the game, the “passage” is a lifetime—I had met a spouse and reached late middle age before figuring out the premise of the game, and I still had no idea what the point was.  I started wandering up and down the screen a little more, but still proceeded forward relatively quickly without finding much more.  Soon enough I reached the end and let the point of the game sink in.  As I thought about it, I actually found it quite powerful.  Most of us wander around planning things and looking forward to the future, rarely stopping to really take in the present moment.  Then we die.  It’s kind of depressing.


Luckily some more questions popped into my mind and kept me from having an existential crisis of some sort.  First: is this a successful video game?  To the extent that it makes you think and ask important questions that directly apply to real life, certainly, but I don’t think most gamers would find it satisfying to play.  As far as I could tell, the only controls were for basic movement, and there wasn’t any external conflict outside of the passage of time.  Surely it isn’t a particularly exciting game.
In class we have frequently asked questions about the relationship between style and story in film.  Often it has come down to thematic issues—there are infinitely many ways to effectively convey story information, but some choices make more sense for the thematic content of the story.  I think the same thing applies games.  The look of Passage is extremely low-tech, the figures barely discernable.  This encourages the player not to pay much attention to the story world, to move around in search of something more, different, or better.  It’s quite appropriate, for a confined gaming experience meant to convey how quickly and easily life can pass you by.  The game seems to be saying that the present usually seems mundane, but it’s all you have.  (The whole thing reminds me of the immortal words of Ferris Buellar: “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”)
After playing the game, I went back to the website and read a statement by the creator, Jason Rohrer.  It largely confirmed my interpretation.  I experienced the game and reflected on my gaming choices much the way he intended, though I didn’t think about all of the implications he had in mind for the spouse character (once you couple up, you must move together and are less agile…the sacrifices we make for love…).  It’s pretty amazing, really, that 5 minutes of pixels, with only the simplest hint of a narrative can so pointedly cause someone to reflect on the nature of life.  Part of me scoffed at the idea of gaming for class, but with so much to think about with regard to this one little game, I’ve glimpsed the wide world of narrative gaming.

Michael Newman’s article about television narration asserts that the formal and commercial constraints of the medium are not merely restrictive, but rather they “have been adapted to narrative functions that can deepen and enrich the experience of viewers” (17).  I think Arrested Development is a great example of this, using the redundancy necessary to cohere all the characters and plotlines to create humor.

Arrested Development is highly redundant, deriving much of its humor from the narrator’s comments, frequently pointing out the contrast between what the characters say to each other and the reality of various situations.  We basically know about these contrasts, but the narrator’s remarks serve as pointed reminders.  The show also uses more expressly filmic techniques to do the same thing, cutting between dialog and contradictory action. When Lindsay comes home, having secured a role in the commercial Tobias auditioned for, and brags to Michael.  He points out that she has not yet done any work, noting that “anyone can get a job offer.”  The laugh comes with the immediate cut to Tobias weeping in the shower.  We know that Tobias is a loser who can’t get a job, but the show reminds us with this humorous juxtaposition.

The narrator also describes events that we see happening on screen (extremely redundant!), but adds insight that makes the onscreen antics even funnier.  For example, as Gob tries to throw the letter into the ocean, the narrator points out that he is doing so out of spite, but that it “proved a more difficult dramatic gesture than he anticipated.”

The narrator often uses overstatement and understatement for humor.  For example, when Michael finds T-Bone working at the banana stand he starts to leave, but goes back.  The narrator says Michael “still had some unanswered questions, so he did a little detective work.” Michael then asks T-Bone, “You burn down the storage unit?” T-Bone replies, “Oh, most definitely.”  Obtaining this kind of information usually should involve what we think of as detective work—accumulating clues, etc—but the simple question and answer resolution heightens the sense of absurdity in a world where such things have become mundane to Michael.  Less overtly humorous is the introductory sequence, where the narrator sums up the premise of the show in an understated way: “Now the story of a wealthy family that lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.”

 

Today Professor Mittell described the “next on” feature of Arrested Development as depicting alternate reality possibilities, or events that never really happen, but I see it as just another device for depicting events in the storyworld.  At the end of “Top Banana,” Michael and George Michael rebuild the banana stand.  The way I see it, this did happen in the world of the story, because the banana stand is present in future episodes.  It is not as though this event interferes with future plot information the way a truly alternate reality might.  The same goes for Gob throwing the dove—then dropping a rabbit—into the ocean.  These “next on” features are absolutely consistent with the story world, building on the eccentricity of the characters and packing a few extra jokes into the episodes. 

The “next on” scenes for the pilot are an exception in that they are simultaneously straightforward in indicating future events, and seem like an alternate reality to familiar viewers.  One such scene shows George-Michael uncomfortably listening to Maeby singing in the shower, a scene that appears in the next episode in a slightly different form.  Similarly, it shows George indicating a playful enjoyment of prison and friendship with an inmate named T-Bone.  A reworking of this moment appears as first scene of “Top Banana,” except that a noticeably different actor plays T-Bone.  The most enjoyable of the pilot’s preview scenes, however, is the one with Gob interviewing at the housing firm that was recruiting Michael, asserting a magic trick as a job reference.  As the show progresses, it does include some “next on” scenes that indicate future plot lines as well as just offering extras.  For example, after “Visiting Ours” George confesses to Michael that he may have committed “some light treason,” looking ahead to the arc about model homes in Iraq.

 

The rapid rise of DVD has changed the landscape of domestic movie viewing, with the proliferation of “special edition” DVDs offering audiences a wealth of “bonus” material.  Interviews, commentaries, documentaries about the production, gag reels and more all provide additional context for understanding the feature film itself.  Brookey and Westerfelhaus describe many of these features as blurring the line between “secondary texts” (like promotional material and interviews) and the primary text by manipulating the film itself in the bonus features, and simply by having everything on one disc.  Since it is all the same physical object, DVDs collapse these “promotional”-style elements into the product, assuring that it meets its target audience and increasing its rhetorical power.  The material also tends to fit with the auteurist ideology that Hollywood has embraced for commercial purposes, which gives a special authority to those involved in producing the film—typically directors and actors—in order to discuss the movies on talk shows or what have you.  On DVDs, these authorities more directly offer a preferred reading of the text, but the interactivity of the disc disguises the careful crafting of these meanings, allowing audiences to feel like they have “found” a special new insight. Brookey and Westerfelhaus  examine the Fight Club DVD, noting the significant ways in which the features work together to change the popular opinion of the film.  Jonathan Gray, drawing upon Brookey and Westerfelhaus, summarizes DVD bonus features’ function as offering “aura, author, [and] authenticity,” using Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers DVD as an example.

I am going to draw upon these ideas about DVD features to examine the DVDs of Kevin Smith’s films.  Smith has been aggressive in his inclusion of bonus features, beginning before the DVD boom.  On the Mallrats DVD commentary, originally created for laserdisc, he famously says, “fuck DVD.”  He takes it back on the Dogma commentary, officially embracing the new format.  This is consistent with a more general trend of Smith as a sort of entrepreneurial self-promoter, capitalizing on his unique and loyal—if rather lowbrow—fan base (his Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comic book store being an extreme example).  I will examine how DVDs for Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma construct Kevin Smith as an author and position a prototypical fan, and inform the meanings of the films themselves.  Ultimately I’d like to compare my conclusions in this analysis with the web-based promotion of Zach and Miri Make a Porno, his latest flick.  It seems like Smith has come full circle in the way he has expanded his bonus offerings that draw upon promotional-style material into a more developed form, which he then reconfigures for a more strictly promotional purpose later.

Here are some sources I’ve been looking at:

Brookey, Robert Alan and Rober Westerfelhaus.  “Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View: The Fight Club DVD as Digital Closet.”  Critical Studies in Media Communication 2002 (19): 21-43.

Caldwell, John.  “Welcome to the Virtual Future of Cinema (Television).”  Cinema Journal 2005 (45): 90-97.

Gray, Jonathan.  Show Sold Separately.  Unpublished Manuscript, 2008.

Gray, Jonathan.  “The Extratextuals” blog. Access: http://www.extratextual.tv/

Parker, Deborah and Mark Parker.  “Directors and DVD Commentary: The Specifics of Intention.”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2004 (62): 13-22.

Taylor, Jim.  DVD Demystified.  New York: McGraw Hill Professional, 2001.

 

And I’ll use some websites:

DVD Review.  http://www.dvdreview.com/ 

Kevin Smith’s online presence:  http://www.viewaskew.com/main.html,  http://silentbobspeaks.com/,  http://www.zackandmiri.com/

 

I have been rather absorbed by a variety of election coverage this afternoon, and I spent WAY too much time surfing various blogs that eventually landed me on David Bordwell’s site.  He has an interesting, if somewhat long-winded, post about campaign narratives, where he examines the stories Obama and McCain have constructed in the media, particularly through each of their autobiographies.  I recommend checking it out. (Just what everyone wants—more Bordwell reading!)

Bordwell points out differences in overall narrative structure of each man’s biography, describing McCain’s writing as more “straightforward” and “chronological,” while Obama’s story is “far less linear.”  Bordwell reprints a passage from Obama’s Faith of My Fathers that deals with the complex subjectivity of memory, positioning this sense of contemplative reflection opposite McCain’s blow-by-blow action.  In light of this week’s reading assignment, I immediately thought of John McCain as classical Hollywood cinema and Barak Obama as art cinema.  I thought this was a silly and exaggerated over-simplification of things, falling back on the Obama-as-intellectual/McCain-as-action-hero sensibility that the media has cultivated over the course of the campaign, but a few paragraphs down Bordwell rather explicitly made this connection as well, imagining the kind of movie that each autobiography would be.

Bordwell claims that key moments in McCain’s book seem as though they “might have come out of a John Ford film,” whereas Obama’s opening passage calls to mind a “1970s urban movie.”  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what a “1970s urban movie” is, but it calls to my mind a period when film as art was flourishing in the United States with the demise of the classical studio system and an industry willing to experiment with importing certain elements of art cinema while still telling clear, engaging stories—the “New Hollywood” period.  I find this idea of imagining what kind of movie a candidate would be amusing, though equating John McCain with classical Hollywood is a bit to flattering—maybe I’ll think of him as a B-feature. 

Editing Project

There was a fair bit of debate in the class blogs about who is the protagonist of The Prestige.  People made good arguments for both Angier and Borden, but we never really dove into the fact that there were two, very distinct Bordens.  Christian Bale’s performance is different depending on which Borden is on screen, to the point that you can make a pretty strong guess as to which one is in every scene.  Upon subsequent viewings of the film, it becomes obvious that the Borden who is in love with Sarah is depicted in a more sympathetic light.  We see their courtship from the beginning, and we’re privy to the endearing moments that built their affection—the awkwardly cute goodbye after their first date, their genuine joy around their baby, the moments when Borden means his statement of love, etc.  By contrast, the other Borden’s courtship of Olivia is summarized briefly, always with the undercurrent of her relationship to Angier and suggestions of his infidelity (before you know there are two Bordens) to undermine its charm.  Additionally, it is Sarah’s Borden that survives to raise his daughter.  Olivia’s Borden issues a heartfelt goodbye before he is ushered off to his execution, apologizing for his tumultuous interactions with Sarah and urging the surviving twin to live for both of them.  The situation isn’t really the dying Borden’s fault—what if he had met and married a woman first, would the other Borden have been able to handle an imposed wife any better?  However, the fact that Olivia’s Borden accepts blame makes it easy for the audience to go along with it and absolve the surviving Borden of any guilt.

Our video re-edit seeks to highlight the difference between the two Bordens and develop them as separate characters.  In constructing our project, Sarah really came to the center of things—she becomes the context in which we distinguish the two Bordens, and our piece is structured around her tragic demise.  In looking at our final video, you could make a pretty strong argument that Sarah is the protagonist, at least from a sympathy point of view—by no fault of her own, she ends up the victim of both men’s lying manipulation.  It’ll be interesting to hear what you all think.

Here it is.

Bordwell’s acknowledgement of an author function in the special case of art cinema definitely rubs me the wrong way in the context of our discussion of his ongoing disagreement with Chatman on the subject of personifying narrative agency.  Bordwell claims that, “within the art cinema’s mode of production and reception, the concept of an author has a formal function it did not possess in the Hollywood studio system” (211).  He is referring to the tendency to ask “who” communicates or expresses in instances of self-conscious narration, but he writes as though moments of self-consciousness or authorial presence occur only in this limited conception of “art cinema.”  We frequently ask “who” outside of this situation.  As our class discussion of Barton Fink demonstrated, we all had specific ideas of the Cohen brothers as distinctive authors, but Bordwell has insisted the question should be “what” or “how.”

Bordwell cites extra-textual elements that emphasize the “filmmaker as source”—things like film journalism and criticism.  Isn’t this the same stuff we discussed as informing our construction of the implied author?  Bordwell predictably alludes to auteur theory, noting that a distinctive style across a body of films is important to his idea of authorship, but he refers only to examples from European art cinema.  This neglects one of the fundamental arguments for auteur theory, the fact that it applies outside of European art cinema.  The Cahier critics adored Howard Hawks because—even though he worked in the classical Hollywood system, where the labor of filmmaking was industrially divided among specialized experts, and made films in vastly different genres—his work had a consistent stylistic and thematic sensibility.

I basically understand what Bordwell is getting at.  Surely authorship is more often discussed with respect to art cinema, but it seems inconsistent to bracket off one type of film that can have this narrative function.  Also, art cinema still lacks an absolute author in the sense that exists for literature.  Even Fellini and Bergman got some help, some input from others.  When we think of a Bergman film, we are constructing a “Bergman” from what we have read and his other films, so it seems like Bordwell should be talking about an implied author here.  But then we might not have the same pleasure dissecting Chatman’s disagreement.  Part of the problem might also come from Bordwell’s definition of art cinema in opposition to classical hollywood—placing the two distinctly apart, when lots of mainstream films now seem to freely and smoothly combine elements of both.

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