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Adaptation blurs the line between implied author and fictional character in complex ways that I’m not going to detail in this post, but I still constructed a separate implied author as I watched the film.  I imagined a “real” Kaufman, above the discourse of the fictional Kaufman, carefully constructing this film about himself and the writing process.  I loved the first half to two-thirds of the movie, where the character/author challenges the principles of screenwriting and conventional narration—I found it funny and original.  But then it de-generates into ridiculous action as Kaufman embraces McKee’s ideas about what constitutes worthwhile stories (as he literally embraces the fictional McKee in a bar, clinging to his hopefully message that a good ending can save an otherwise problematic script). 

Anyhow, it makes me wonder what Kaufman (the actual human, I suppose) is trying to say about the screenwriting manual approach, which the character of Donald clearly embodies.  Obviously he resents it, Donald is a fumbling idiot, but as Kaufman looses his way with his attempt at innovative storytelling, he changes his mind and turns to Donald for help.  The film’s style changes here, too.  The swamp chase sequence plays out in a more conventionally, we no longer hear Charlie’s inner monologue. Is this a concession that ultimately every story does have some common ground and benefits from certain structural elements?  What about the ending, where the audience goes back into Charlie’s head as he wraps things up and decides upon the end that we see? 

Perhaps Kaufman finds a middle ground.  By the time Donald dies, Charlie has embraced him.  This death functions in the film almost like Charlie (perhaps the real Charlie here) killing off his own demon—the principle-based approach to screenwriting is no longer an antagonistic “other,” but a legitimized tool that Charlie can use in his work, along with his own innovation and ideas.  I don’t like the ending, though.  I admire the struggle of Charlie to do something completely different, and enjoy the humor that comes from his interactions with the bland corporate system that gives rise to authors like McKee.  The third act of Adaptation is a cop out from a fascinating premise—fitting but frustrating. 

The obvious candidates for protagonist of The Prestige are Borden and Angier.  I’m going to have to side with Andrew and Jared and choose Borden, largely because of the sympathy factor.  While Angier drives the story forward at least as much as Borden, he does so in as an antagonist.  Aaron argues that Borden is not very sympathetic because he is responsible for the feud between the two men, by way of killing Angier’s wife and then not giving him the conciliatory satisfaction of at least “admitting” which knot he tied.  I see a couple flaws in this argument.  First of all, Borden didn’t really kill Julia.  Even if we are to assume that he tied the controversial Langford Double, Julia claimed to be able to slip that knot confidently in the argument with cutter in the beginning.  Additionally, much of Angier’s agitation is with Borden’s inability to describe the fated not, which is best attributed to the idea that there are two Bordens, and one of them really doesn’t know—of course, it does seem rather odd that they would never have discussed the knot among themselves…

I think the fact that two people comprise what we think of as Borden is a bigger problem in considering him the protagonist than the issue of Julia’s death.  Jared and I were chatting earlier about the consistency with which Christian Bale portrays different versions of Borden.  In most cases, we can pretty well guess whether it’s Borden 1 or Borden 2 onscreen.  If Borden 1 is defined as the more aggressive one, the one who loves Olivia, we can see behavioral trends throughout that cue us to recognize him as opposed to the more mellow/thoughtful Borden 2.  For instance, the Borden backstage at the beginning, loudly ranting about knots and whatnot before downing a glass of liquor is probably Borden 1.  By contrast, we can guess that it’s Borden 2 that discusses complete dedication with Angier while he watches the Asian goldfish magician waddle outside the theater.  More obvious examples of the Borden 1/Borden 2 contrast are with respect to their wife, Sarah, who only Borden 2 really loves.  So, if “Borden” is the protagonist, we have to question whether we can really call “Borden” a single character.


Andrew posted some interesting thoughts on the Labyrinth Project and Marsha Kinder’s presentation from last week.  I also went to the presentation, which I found to be interesting but not amazing. Andrew hits on an important point when he mentions that generational factors play a large role in how the project is received, in that its level of interactivity might be more impressive to older people who grew up in an environment less saturated with interactive media.  Though Kinder offered anecdotal evidence of how different demographics approached the “database documentaries,” I didn’t immediately make this connection.  Kinder did make an analogy between the project and a museum, so that gives you a sense of the degree of choice in terms of what material you experience when.  I think the what and when choice is actually pretty significant because there is a lot of stuff crammed on to those discs and a virtually infinite number of possible orders/combinations, but where I got bored was the lack of choice in how to experience the material.  That is, unlike a video game where the player has agency within the content, the Labyrinth project viewer just has a wealth of content.

Kinder emphasized the idea that the Labyrinth project is an experiment in narrative, but I never quite understood what she meant.  What does she want the viewer’s narrative experience to be, ideally?  I think she would take a very hands-off approach to that question, saying something like, “it’s up to the individual viewer (participant?).”  That didn’t really satisfy me.  Professor Grindon asked a question along these lines after the presentation, wondering whether Kinder would be supportive of people taking content from the project and editing them into their own stories.  She seemed lukewarm on the idea, diverting attention to issues of copyright, but isn’t that what she wants—for viewers to construct their own stories?  Maybe I need to take a step back and separate narrative (the process of telling) from story (chronological events in a story world).  Each of Kinder’s projects seem to have a central story element; for example, the character of John Rechy is the basis for Mysteries and Desire, and the place/setting of the Hotel Ambassador is central to Tracing the Decay of Fiction.  Yet, I feel like they are missing something; they do not really have a plot—little to nothing is told.  Maybe the point is to explore the meticulously crafted story worlds of the DVDs, rather than to craft a traditionally structured story, but I’m rather impatient with that idea.  Kinder noted that it takes about six hours to get through one of the discs.  In those six hours I could watch three feature films, and potentially experience three complete and satisfying stories—a much more appealing option. 

I did some research to narrow down the rather broad para-text topic I posted a few days ago, but I didn’t have much luck finding sources.  I haven’t looked too far, so I’m not dismissing it, but I have been pondering a couple other possibilities:

1.         Music as a narrative device in film.  Most horror movies and thrillers (often a fuzzy distinction) aren’t very scary without the score, which serves to build tension and emphasize moments of surprise.  Score music like this is obviously of direct relevance to the unfolding story.  Then there are movies that seem to define themselves by their use of popular music.  The Graduate is an important example of pop music as a fundamental aspect of film, standing in contrast to the way most every contemporary new release uses at least a few pop songs, most of which aren’t terribly important to the plot.  Movies like The Graduate, Rushmore, Garden State, Juno, and others have soundtracks that take on lives of their own and set the tone for the films, but may or may not operate as a significant force in the narrative.  Obviously, soundtrack music for movies about music takes on an additional importance—I’m thinking about High Fidelity and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (yes, I’m ashamed), though there are many others.  Another consideration is soundtrack music helps characterize time within a film, like the way Forest Gump moves through rock and roll history.

            So, I might narrow this down to one of the soundtrack pop music use categories above, or look at score music within a genre over a few films.  My main concern with this approach is that I’m not a particularly musical person.  I listen to music, but I definitely can’t dissect music and comment on notes or patterns within a piece the way I am comfortable picking apart a series of shots.  Maybe good research would allow me to work around this, but I’m a bit apprehensive.

Charlie in Shoot the Piano Player

2.         The issue of adaptation from literature to film.  This is a huge topic, but I’d like to look at it with respect to the french new wave.  This question of adaptation was something Cahier critics and company thought a lot about, considering the analogy between filmmaking and writing, beginning with Astruc’s camera-pen manifesto.  Directors of the new wave regected the literary adaptations of the “tradition of quality” cinema because they just took the story and put it into conventional film form, rather than creatively adapting the form of the novel.  This often took the tedious form of vioceovers, frequently excerpts from a novel, with images that simply illustrate what the narration says.  Turffaut tries his hand at adaptation with Shoot the Piano Player, where he experiments with tension between voiceover and image to play with the idea of cinematic “writing.”  I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this, but it’s fascinating and seems relevant to the course.



I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on Saturday, the latest Hirschfield offering.  I found it to be quite powerful, but the first 10 minutes or so were absolutely excruciating to watch because the film’s narrative was restricted to the (visual and informational) point-of-view of the main character—a man waking from a stroke-induced coma to find himself entirely paralyzed.  I use the term “point of view” deliberately, because every shot is a POV shot through the eyes of Jean-Dominique, the protagonist.  Through his eyes the audience sees doctors, nurses and therapists move in and out of his field of vision as they explain the condition and the treatment, and we hear his internal monologue, where sarcastic responses add a little bit of humor that helps make the visually disorienting style bearable.  Here, a character seems to be single-handedly narrating the story from within the storyworld.  The focus goes in and out and fades to black and red and shades between as Jean-Do drifts in and out of consciousness, sometimes moving out of the hospital with quick flashes of what we take to be Jean’s memory—still restricted to his visual point-of-view.  It’s tough to watch—literally hard on the eyes in that there is not a comfortable center of attention within the shot that shifts comfortably between shots.  Rather, there’s a constant sense of disorientation.  Around the point that I began thinking I couldn’t take it much longer, the film expanded its narrative point-of-view to a more typically (visually) omniscient one,

Chapman claims that “the logic of narrative prevents him from inhabiting the story world at the moment that he narrates it” (146), but I think this is an effective counterexample.  The problem for my argument is that the film does not persist with its technique of completely confining the narrative to Jean-Do’s perspective.  As the film opens up, this opening sequence becomes just one instance of filtering, what Chapman at one point distinguishes as a “choice made by the implied author about which among the characters imaginable experiences would best enhance the narration” (144, original emphasis).  It is an effective artistic choice, and the horrific disorientation is stylized to emphasize the sense of being trapped—the audience in this confined point-of-view, Jean-Do in his body, which comes with the point of view.  This beginning sequence is therefore very important to establishing an emotional bond between the audience and Jean-Do that heightens the impact of the film as a whole.  Nonetheless, I struggle with the idea that a character can’t be a narrator.  If The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a short film that ended after 10-15 minutes, Jean-Do would be the narrator—is this not enough?  Must it become nothing more than a choice of the implied author in the context of the rest of the film?

I’m fascinated by the wide range of ways that movies are promoted these days.  It’s almost impossible to walk into a movie theater without extensive expectations for what you’re about to see, and in many cases a pretty intimate understanding of the plot.  Trailers obviously play a big role in these expectations, but there is so much more that shapes our expectations.  There seem to be more and more cases where the director opens up to their fans and describes aspects of the production process through online features ranging from blog posts to “webisodes” to interactive features.  I’m thinking specifically about Zach and Miri Make a Porno, the latest from director Kevin Smith, set to come out on October 31st.  At the movie’s website, fans can read Smith’s blog about the production, create their own “Porn ID” or link to another site to watch “money shots”—short web videos featuring on set-interviews and shenanigans.  Smith had similar web features prior to the release of Clerks II.


This online content is reminiscent of DVD bonus features, but—very importantly—it comes out before the movie, thereby informing our understanding of the film.  How does this content influence our understanding of the narrative or construction of the fabula? Could be an interesting paper topic.

While exploring the Zack and Miri website, I couldn’t help but notice the poster, which got me thinking about how posters try to convey a sense of the story in a single frame—also a potentially fascinating topic… assuming no one else is already planning on tackling the subject (?).


Alternative Gaming

I was hoping to play some videogames over fall break, but I didn’t have any luck tracking down a gaming system.  So, instead, I thought I’d reflect on one of my childhood substitutes for video games: Adventure Quest.  AQ is “an active, outdoor, renaissance-themed theater game”—not to be confused with a video game by the same name.  Think live-action Dungeons and Dragons.  I’ll borrow a description from the Renaissance Adventures website:  “Children and teens create and playact the heroes of an incredibly fun and dynamic quest, working together, in a mythical and magical world, to overcome interesting challenges, solve mystifying riddles, brainstorm unique solutions to puzzling dilemmas, and swashbuckle with foes. Each child and teen creates a unique fantasy character to playact in the adventure by choosing from hundreds of special powers, over fifty races (such as Elf, Faerie, Goblin, Dwarf, Catlord, Centaur, Giant, or Monkeroo), and one or more archetypal careers (such as Wizard, Warrior, Spy, Healer, Nature Mage, Jester, Beastmaster, and Shapeshifter).” 

A lot of this boils down to a bunch of 10-year-olds beating one another with foam swords, but what interests me for the purpose of this class is how all the participants shape the story world.  The quest leader (a camp-counselor type) controls most of the syuzhet, deciding what obstacles the adventurers will encounter and when.  However, the participants have a great deal of control over all the characters, which can influence the quest leader in formulating the details of any given situation.  In one ongoing quest (after school twice a week for about 6 weeks), I was a cow knight (it’s magic, just go with it).  Since the physical appearances of the characters were mostly imaginary, they didn’t usually impact the game, but sometimes the quest master took it into account.  For instance, one of the characters (played by the quest master, as with most of the key figures the group encounters) that we needed to interact with turned out to be a butcher.  We all thought that this portion of the game would be a riddle, since there was a relatively predictable pattern of alternating battles with traveling and problem-solving, but this guy kept eyeing me and acting strange until he eventually pulled out an axe and tried to slaughter my character.  So, instead of riddling we had to fight off an army of angry butchers—all because my friend and I thought it would be cool to be cow people.  I recall this being a surprising and satisfying twist, directly influenced by my bizarre conception of my character.

cow man

Writing about literature and film Chatman claims that, “the logic of narrative prevents [the narrator] from inhabiting the story world at the moment that he narrates it.”  I agree with him for these traditional modes of narrative, but this seems to be an important point of departure for certain other narrative experiences—video games, “theater games,” etc.  With a narrative game, the act of playing IS the act of narrating, to a significant extent.  Of course, you are narrating within relatively strict limits.  While I could choose to be a bovine half-breed knight, I couldn’t alter the eventual course of the game.  Surely we (the child participants) would ultimately be allowed to win every battle and achieve the goal of the quest.  If we died or were seriously wounded in battle, the leader would add some plot point about finding the magical cure and the game would go on; we weren’t allowed to let our fellow adventurers die (their parents were paying for the program, too).  I imagine many videogames have similar restrictions on player input—you can do whatever you want within a given world, or set of limits. 

I saw Elephant a while ago, and didn’t know what to make of it.  I think I was annoyed by its ambiguity, or more precisely its refusal to offer explanations of any character behavior, which just seemed pretentious and too deliberately “arty” at the time.  However, after reading J.J. Murphy’s analysis and thinking about it more, I can appreciate Van Sant’s creative but understated treatment of subject matter that more often lends itself to sensationalism. 

Murphy contends that the temporal complexity of Elephant works to engage the audience in a simple story with an essentially predictable outcome.  I agree that it engages the viewer, but less in opposition to a predictable outcome than a lack of traditional narrative based on a clear, goal-oriented protagonist.  Murphy describes the temporality by saying, “real time becomes extended into cinematic time through the depiction of the simultaneity of events, which has been created by repeating the same event from the perspective of multiple characters.”  

The “repeated events” are small temporal overlaps—repeated sounds, reactions shots, etc—that act as transitions between character vignettes and signal their simultaneity.  In a sense, this is a rather straightforward example of expansion by insertion because there is discontinuity between each character build-up segment, and between these pieces and flashbacks to the killers the day before, each of which add syuzhet material and screen time.  However, if you think of it just in terms of the film’s depiction of the central events at the school, it doesn’t seem to fit either of Bordwell’s models for expansion.  The screen time exceeds the fabula time and the syuzhet time in a sense, since the same events are sometimes narrated multiple times… or is syuzhet duration the sum of these instances?  Where do the bits that are narrated multiple times fit into his model? 

I think Elephant provides a rather different case from the editing-based manipulations Bordwell discusses in terms of repeating action, since the repeated actions fit naturalistically into the wider narrative.  Because the film concerns itself with so many characters over such a short span of fabula time, it’s more difficult to discuss a unified story in relation to the storyworld.  It is as though a series of different stories are alternately narrated within the same story world and ultimately converge.

Over the top

The thing that struck me most about watching The Sixth Sense again was how excessive and melodramatic much of it seemed.  The music is particularly over-the-top with its dramatic swells that punctuate every significant plot point (undoubtedly contributing a lot to the mood of suspense—I think the sharp, startling sound is way scarier than the ghostly figure passing a doorway). 

Perhaps what comes off as heavy-handed on repeat viewings is just the films stylized aesthetic, which I would argue bolsters the films ability to pull off the double syuzhet Lavik discusses.  Because most of the film has swelling dramatic music, bright and contrasting colors, eerie floating camera movements or stylized angles, the audience is less apt to pick up on many of the retrospectively obvious clues the film gives us.

I’m thinking in particular of the hospital bed/ “I see dead people” scene where the kid makes a reference to the unknowing ghosts, then the music builds as the camera moves in on Bruce Willis’ face—it’s glaringly obvious the way the film cues you to question whether the therapist is dead, but the film is so full of those type of cues that virtually no one gets it the first time.  It makes sense for a suspense movie to be constantly cueing the viewer to pay especially close attention to THIS VERY SCENE, indicating that there is something more going on.  This keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat constantly waiting for the key piece of information, but the viewer gets accustomed to repeatedly being misled into expecting more that they’re going to get, to the point of tuning out some obvious hints.

Also, I think this heavy-handed style that seeks constant suspense is why M. Night Shamalan’s recent movies have been so dumb.  I’m ashamed to admit that I saw The Happening this summer, and it had the same excessive music/ overacting/ general sense of impending importance, but it didn’t pay off at all.  The Sixth Sense is a satisfying movie because it makes you re-think it but the logical framework holds up, whereas the payoff in The Happening is so small that you just wonder, why bother? 

Uri Margolin claims, “Characters are abstract in the sense that they do not exist in real space and time, an are more like concepts in this regard.  Consequently, they are not open to direct perception by us, and can be known only through the textual descriptions or inferences based on those descriptions” (68).  This fundamental assumption about the nature of character simply does not translate to the subject of film, where there is an ACTUAL PERSON representing the character, giving him or her a physical reality—and, in some cases, contributing extra-textual elements to the narrative’s character development.

Leslie (http://sites.middlebury.edu/stonebrakernarrative) aptly points to the way in which actors can have a sort of trademark character type (often developed by one “hit” character, as with Matthew Perry as Chandler on Friends) in her discussion of Margolin’s assertion that characters must have an identity that is singularly distinct from other coexisting individuals.  Surely that is one way an actor contributes to their role, but equally significant in our culture of tabloid gossip is the actor’s “real” life or celebrity personality.  This can be good or bad, perhaps most frequently detrimental to a film’s efforts to define a character, but not always. 

In Iron Man, the character of Tony Stark has some significant biographical similarities to the star, Robert Downey, Jr., which Jon Favreau uses to expedite the exposition and add a darker side to the character’s back-story.  After Stark’s military escort in the middle east comes under attack, we flash back to an award ceremony in Las Vegas and get a glimpse of Tony’s party-boy lifestyle—he gambles instead of accepting his award, has a one-night stand with an attractive young reporter, turns his jet into a dance club, etc.  All of these things are relatively harmless (definitely PG-13), but the audience brings to the film their knowledge of Downey’s personal tabloid past—drugs, arrests, attempts at rehab—which adds a darker edge to the picture of pre-attack Tony.  This type of person was probably doing more than just drinking, but the film doesn’t need to show it for us to get the idea.  Downey’s public personal history, namely how he seems to have kicked the drugs and now capitalizes on his talents as an actor (long referred to as one of the best of his generation by various critics), makes Tony’s decision to live a more meaningful life as Iron Man all the more poignant. 

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