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I’ve really enjoyed this seminar and I want to take a moment to discuss my impressions of it and the various details pertaining to the syllabus and the structure of the class that I thought were most relevant to my academic experience. First of all, let me say that the general idea of the class – and its incarnation as a senior seminar instead of a regular film course – worked particularly well, and I think it is important to be familiar with these concepts and with narratology in general before we graduate as film students; although I had been exposed to some of these notions in my Screenwriting I and II courses, I feel much better prepared now and I think that my general knowledge (as opposed to just film-specific knowledge) has benefited from this class almost as much as from taking Theories of Popular Culture in the past (which I still insist was the most influential class I took at Middlebury College, and the one that has made me most hungry for cultural studies, and most clear about what I want to do in the future).

In terms of the methods of evaluation, I really like the freedom that we had in choosing the topic for our final paper according to our own interests and passions, and I appreciate Prof. Mittell’s flexibility in terms of relevant topics (which should not be taken for granted, because I feel that in other courses, in the film department and otherwise, the guidelines are rather strict and there is little room to follow your own research interests). I also liked the video editing project, not only because of the creativity involved, but also because I think it’s important that no film major graduates without at least being exposed to Final Cut Pro – even if you will never use it in the future or if you are strictly interested in a more theoretically-oriented career like film criticism, film history or even screenwriting, it is still vital to be familiar, first-hand, with the editing process, because it really enhances your comprehension of media production in general, and thus allows you to better understand the texts themselves.

Regarding the blog, I do think it is an important component that definitely works to encourage everybody – even people who are shier about voicing their opinion in class – to participate, but I also found that it somehow “competes” with the discussion component of the course. Of course, this is an absolutely personal point of view, and I realize that other people might see it differently but I much prefer to bring out my most interesting points in class discussions (I think that engaging the whole class in a live discussion is much more important and rewarding than counting on students to post virtual comments on each others’ blogs – comments that they often force themselves to come up with and post, as part of an academic requirement, rather than a heartfelt impulse to engage with the topic). Thus, after blurting my points out in class so often and so exhaustively, posing them in writing in my blog ex post facto – after they’ve been discussed “live” – seems redundant and useless. At some points, before raising my hand to speak, I even found myself thinking in my head “should I say this now, or should I shut up and save it for the blog?” Of course, there were very many fascinating insights and questions that came out of the readings and the screenings but, given the fact that this seminar is so discussion-intensive, I can’t help not bringing them up in class and I found that oftentimes I had to think really really hard about blog topics that I hadn’t already mentioned in discussions. I guess one conclusion that comes out of this is that I like talking. Yes, I really like talking. But most importantly, I like talking about cultural texts that I like with people I like. Which brings me to my next two points.

Number one: cultural texts that I like.

I cannot emphasize enough how well both the readings and the screenings were chosen for this class. The readings (perhaps surprisingly, given the advanced theoretical level of this seminar) were quite accessible and they didn’t feel heavy or as heavy as I had expected them to be. Rather, instead of representing just another academic chore I had to do on a weekly basis instead of hanging out with my friends or watching Project Runway in bed on my laptop, I felt I was doing the readings for my own knowledge and for my own good. In general, these were things I would have liked to read anyway, for pleasure and personal interest. I think they were very well chosen, and I especially liked Murphy’s Me and You and Memento and Fargo, Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (which had a kind of “a-ha” feeling, as these were concepts and narrative techniques we were all familiar with as cinephiles, but it was nice to see them categorized and explained so eloquently) and Foucault’s essay, which was inspirational and which remains a classic in the field.

The same goes for the screenings. There wasn’t a single film or episode that I didn’t enjoy (even the Glen Gould movie, which gradually grew on me, as I discussed in my previous post) and I appreciated the fact that, while some of them were definitely classics that most of us were familiar with or had seen before (The Sixth Sense, Memento, La Jetee, Annie Hall, Lost, etc), there were many that were more obscure or less mainstream, but equally relevant and qualitatively impressive. There are many examples I can cite for this second category, starting from Fooly Cooly – which was so interesting and innovative that it completely dispelled my self-fueled conviction that I would never find anime appealing – to The Singing Detective, which, in spite of the relative disappointment that grew in us as the series went, I really appreciated as a highly original and interesting show that has definitely broadened my exposure to global television. I also really enjoyed Stranger than Paradise, perhaps due to my own immigrant condition in the United States, and I was deeply affected by the soft, heartfelt portrayal of its protagonists and the relationships between them. Really, in general, I think that the screenings could not have been better chosen, because they were both pleasurable to watch (Wednesday night was a midweek treat) and highly illuminative of the concepts we were discussing in class.

Number two: people I like.

One of the most pleasant and fortunate outcomes of taking this seminar was just how well I got to know the other members of the class – including Prof. Mittell, whose open and personable nature made discussions flow easily and encouraged us to feel really relaxed and friendly towards him, in a way that is very rare with other professors. As I mentioned before, I always thought that the film students in the department were very cliquey (yes, myself included, with my posse of international students who didn’t grow up with Sesame Street and don’t understand the whole fuss about The O.C.). In view of this social fragmentation, it was great to notice how close we got as a group of senior film majors, how we say hello to each other in the dining halls, exchange DVDs amongst ourselves, and even buy each other drinks at Two Brothers on Thursdays. I know this sounds corny, and yes I do feel a little hypocritical after religiously objecting in class to any trace of corniness in the movies we watched, but I have to end by saying how happy I am to have gotten to know these people in the context of the seminar, because I really think I made new friends. 🙂

Fine. After giving it some more thought (a week’s thought, to be exact), I’m taking back my harsh comments on 32 Short Films about Glen Gould. I definitely still think it’s a very pretentious film – which, instead of making classical music and its performers more accessible to the mainstream public, enlarges the divide that is already in place. I mean, the movie is so obviously a high brow cultural product that, just like the music itself, is only comprehensible to a small majority that is already familiar with this type of musical enjoyment. Of course, one could argue that classical music is, by nature, a type of high-end culture, and that the likely viewers of 32 Short Films would probably be classical music aficionados anyway. But my question is: why? Why should it be like that? That was my main criticism of the film: that it had the chance to make classical music more accessible and its performers more comprehensible, but that it kind of missed that opportunity by taking a very elitist and ultra-artsy approach to its subject.

That being said, I realized, after taking some time away from it, that I did appreciate the unconventional approach to the biopic that Girard took with this project. Thus, strictly in terms of the generic paradigms of the biopic, I must admit that his vision is laudable and that from a narrative perspective, it is really interesting how he painted a full-fledged portrait of Gould from such dichotomous and incongruous fragments. Also, it is extremely revealing to think of these fragments in the context of the new video aesthetic that characterizes the contemporary age of digital convergence and to appreciate, as we discussed in class, the mutability of the fragments and their ability to be rearranged within the larger narrative and produce whole new meanings and decodings.

Of all the 32 clips, I especially liked the earlier one, where Gould plays his recording in the hotel room for the German maid, and I think that it was particularly well crafted in that it showcased so well the extreme beauty and force of his music, expressed so powerfully in the maid’s simple and heartfelt “thank you” at the end of the listening session. What is interesting about my enjoyment of this fragment in particular is that it is extremely similar to a scene you might find in a conventional biopic (perhaps, after the childhood scene showing the origins of his involvement with music, the German maid scene is most closely aligned to the genre of the biopic), and I have just emphasized how I really appreciated the fact that the film was NOT a conventional biopic – therefore, if it contained only scenes similar to the one I liked best, it would probably lose its generic originality that I so respected. I guess the answer to maintaining its innovative approach lies in combining such conventional scenes with the more uncommon ones – like the animation or the Gould-Gould interview – but then again, in my opinion, it’s walking a very thin line between elitism and originality. And I don’t know if I appreciate that. But I do appreciate the fact that it was powerful enough to generate such contradictions in my mind, and to make me think about it – and I’m not exaggerating – every single day since I saw it. And finally, I really really really appreciate the continuous musical score, and I don’t appreciate the fact that piracy has not yet made Gould available for downloading, and I do appreciate that I can call films like this elitist without remorse, because I’m smart enough but hippie enough to do it. There.

In spite of the subject and function of this blog, let me for once leave narrative aside and indulge in my homesickness by talking about the representation of Romanians on celluloid. I have been meaning to write about the appearances of my country-mates on screen for a long time now, ever since we saw Hartley’s Simple Men where one of the main female characters was Romanian. Then came the screening for Buffy, where – I don’t know if people realized this; probably not – the main vampire family that the old man with the accent is talking to Cordelia about is actually a famous Romanian clan (that has nothing to do with vampires, might I add). Also, since I’m not an avid fan of Buffy and have only seen a few episodes here and there, I cannot talk about other mentions of Romanian culture within the show, but given that it revolves so quintessentially around vampires, probably there are quite a few. Then there’s South Park of course, with its unforgettable episode about the Romanian quintuplet contortionists, whose portrayal obviously references the country’s extensive tradition of excellent performance in the field of gymnastics.

In general, I would say that the representation of Romanians on film wavers between two opposite poles: on one side, there are the superficial representations that overtly rely on cultural stereotypes (vampires and gymnastic ability are by far the two most explored topics, followed closely by communism and/or Russian allegiance), while on the other side, there is that equally superficial depiction of Romania and Romanians as an utterly arbitrary nationality or provenance. For some reason, in the eyes of Hollywood filmmakers, Romania seems just random enough to signify that “foreignness” that is at once exotic and un-American. To cite an example: in Marie and Bruce, a 2004 film starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick, which is still one of my favorite underrated movies, someone asks Broderick where he got his typewriter from. His answer: “Romania. They’re very cheap over there.” End of discussion.

And end of post.

My essay will analyze the narrative intentions and storytelling traits of R. Kelly’s fascinating opus magnum Trapped in the Closet (2005-), discussing how the artist’s chosen narrative strategy has shaped both the production and the reception of the series. My (tentative) thesis posits that, beyond the saga’s narrative content and musical qualities, it was in fact R. Kelly’s conscious and deliberate amalgamation of genre conventions that has determined the surprising popularity and cult status Trapped in the Closet has received. The fact that he mixed genre expectations and crafted an entirely innovative and original narrative format not only made the series appealing to an audience much wider than R. Kelly’s usual fan base, but also guaranteed its success in spite of its unimpressive musical qualities and ridiculously melodramatic storyline.

Towards my conclusion, I am also thinking of hypothesizing that, in the context of today’s media-saturated environment and taxonomical view of narrative formats, the principal way to come up with a completely original creative product is by challenging popular conventions of genre and format, and employing a transmedial approach to narrative that would ensure the versatility of the text in our contemporary (some say postmodern) age of cultural convergence.

Trapped in the Closet borrows specific conventions from so many different genres and narrative formats that it is hard enough just to narrow it down to the principal ones and not get caught in a web of cultural legacies. So far, I plan on discussing how Trapped uses the conventions of the soap opera, the music video, the opera and the even the sports commentary. Without a doubt, the chief narrative influence of Kelly’s series is the soap opera – due to its domestic subject matter, overly emotional scenes, heavy reliance on dialogue and structural format (i.e. serial narration, enriched by recurring characters, unresolved conflicts and suspenseful cliffhangers), Trapped in the Closet clearly emulates the principal generic conventions of the soap opera. I was planning to talk about its connection to melodrama as well, but after reading some academic classifications of soap opera and melodrama, I feel that the two genres are too closely connected, and there is too much scholarly disagreement concerning their relationship, so I think I will just discuss the melodramatic features of Trapped in the Closet within the context of its appropriation of soap-opera conventions. I have a similar dilemma in regard to likening it to musical theatre versus opera, and although both these influences would make for an interesting discussion, I believe that the narrative conventions of opera are slightly more relevant and better suited to R. Kelly’s creation than the conventions of the musical. I will then discuss its relationship to the tradition of the music video, and how the serialization of the plot challenges – but does not necessarily undermine – the typical characteristics of the music video. An intriguing detail in this respect (which I will probably not use in my paper, but which has definitely made me think) emerged just by talking to my friends about Trapped in the Closet, as I was telling them about this paper: I came to the interesting conclusion that the people who had never seen it were comparing it to a music video, while the ones that had seen it before were more likely to consider it a television series. And finally, I will also attempt to discuss – wisely or not, I don’t know – the influence of sports commentary on Trapped in the Closet, because the way narration works in the series, by explicitly describing every action that we see on screen (“and he looks towards the closet/ and now he’s going to the closet/ and he’s opening the closet”, etc) is quite similar to the play-by-play commentary that characterizes sports broadcasting.

Other issues I want to explore – but I still have to see how they will fit in with my thesis – is the authorship, the pop culture status and the reception of the show. Given R. Kelly’s Orson-Welles-like involvement in all aspect of the show’s writing and production, and considering his multiple function as author, narrator and character (even autobiographical connotations, since R. Kelly’s middle name is Sylvester), it is interesting to analyze issues of narrative voice and the implied author, as discussed by Chatman and Bordwell. Also, Kelly’s multiple roles as author-narrator-character complicate the evolution of the narrative voice in Trapped in the Closet: while the series started with Kelly’s first-person narration, he had assumed the supplementary role of the cigar-smoking narrator by Chapter 8, and by Chapter 10, the story’s mode changes radically to third-person narration (“Sylvester said” instead of “I said”). While these narrative switches are interesting to analyze, I am having problems accounting for their rationale and evolution, because of the utterly erratic and goofball nature of Kelly’s writing and vision.

I will also discuss the reception of the series, which is not unrelated to the question of authorship. Specifically, what were Kelly’s intentions in designing the storyline and the narrative format of Trapped in the Closet? Drawing on parallels with such pop culture phenomena as Showgirls and the work of Ed Wood, I will discuss the concepts of camp and cult texts, in the context of the series’ reception. Another variable that influenced the reception of the show was its distribution, and I will attempt to prove that its multimedia distribution – on radio, television and the internet – maximized its cultural impact and testifies to the fact that, as mentioned before, a cross-media strategy (or “transmedial” approach, in the words of David Herman) is becoming more and more necessary in the age of cultural convergence.

PRELIMINARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

(excluding the sources we read for this course)

Allen, Robert Clyde. Speaking of soap operas. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1985

Anderson, Joseph D., and Barbara Fisher Anderson, ed. Narration and spectatorship in moving images. Newcastle : Cambridge Scholars, 2007.

Bal, Mieke. Narratology : introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Beebe, Roger, and Jason Middleton, ed. Medium Cool : music videos from soundies to cellphones. Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2007.

Bignell, Jonathan. Postmodern media culture. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Brunsdon, Charlotte. The feminist, the housewife, and the soap opera. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000.

Dent, Gina, ed. Black popular culture. Seattle : Bay Press, 1992.

Eco, Umberto. On ugliness. New York : Rizzoli, 2007.

Goodwin, Andrew. Dancing in the distraction factory : music television and popular culture. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers : television fans & participatory culture. New York : Routledge, 1992.

Johnson, Steven. Everything bad is good for you : how today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

Landy, Marcia, ed. Imitations of life : a reader on film & television melodrama. Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1991.

MacCabe, Colin. The eloquence of the vulgar : language, cinema and the politics of culture. London : BFI Publishing, 1999.

Milner, Andrew. Contemporary cultural theory. London : UCL Press, 1994.

Mumford, Laura Stempel. Love and ideology in the afternoon : soap opera, women, and television genre. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1995.

Mundy, John. Popular music on screen : from the Hollywood musical to music video. Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1999.

Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul babies : black popular culture and the post-soul aesthetic. New York : Routledge, 2002.

Rieser, Martin, and Andrea Zapp, ed. New screen media : cinema/art/narrative. London : BFI Pub., 2002.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, ed. Narrative across media : the languages of storytelling. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, c2004.

Storey, John. Cultural consumption and everyday life. London : Arnold ; New York : Co-published in the US by Oxford University Press, 1999.

——-. Cultural theory and popular culture : an introduction. Harlow, England ; New York : Prentice Hall, 2001.

Tulloch, John. Television drama : agency, audience, and myth. New York : Routledge, 1990.

Vernalis, Carol. Experiencing music video : aesthetics and cultural context. New York : Columbia University Press, 2004.

Washburne, Christopher, and Maiken Derno. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge, 2004.

For this video editing project, Luisa and I decided to attempt the impossible: turn Stranger Than Paradise into an exciting (!) and more mainstream film, while emphasizing those kind of storylines that are typical of conventional Hollywood movies. Specifically, we insisted on a burgeouning romance between Willy and Eva, and we suggested some dubious affairs regarding money and shady individuals. This way, we thought that the fabula could be understood to follow a very typical story arc that is completely at odds with the film’s uneventful, vignette-type presentation: the two lovers meet, everything is great at first, they have fun and fall in love, but then he gets into shady business (in order to provide for her financially?), they start fighting, she leaves, and now this is all a memory as he sits heartbroken in the car and watches out the window. We liked the idea of framing their pseudo-romance as a memory or flashback, so – inspired by Orson Welles’ style – we used dissolves and fade in/fade outs to create the illusion of flashback.

We used music from the film at key moments (in the beginning, introducing her dance as his memory/fantasy/daydream – up to “Willy, are you awake?”) and at the end, in order to create a mood that is both melancholic and consistent with the rest of the film. In choosing the shots and making the cuts, we also tried to speed up the pace of the movie, which was rather difficult because of the long take style and the slow, awkward interacting between its protagonists.

We look forward to talking more about this in class and we hope you enjoy the video!

I’ve been thinking about this research topic since the beginning of the semester so I’ve accumulated quite a lot of ideas, and this is why it hurts me terribly that all these amazing ideas that I was so excited about are basically completely unfeasible because of the lack of scholarship in the field. I am mostly interested in television, so I wanted to investigate the narrative of certain television series or even television genres, because I think that there is a lot more to talk about when you are analyzing a TV show than when you are analyzing a certain movie alone. Specifically, I find it very interesting how in the case of television, just like we read in Prof. Mittell’s article in the Cambridge Companion a while ago, there are all these industry-specific factors (like scheduling choices, commercial breaks, the weekly character of series, and so on) that are external to the show itself, but nevertheless impact its narrative structure and its storytelling mode.

In terms of the series I wanted to look at, my first choice was Trapped in the Closet, R Kelly’s famous “hip-hopera”, which is not a TV show per se, but nevertheless follows the same serial pattern. Trapped in the Closet was, in my opinion, a groundbreaking production, both in terms of format and style, and I am sad to say that its immense ingenuity and resourcefulness has been terribly overlooked: rather, amidst pedophile charges and R Kelly’s superficial achievements in the music industry up to that point, Trapped in the Closet has been regarded as merely an epitome of “campy”-ness (which, I think, it consciously is) and a favorite youtube clip watched by college students when they’re stoned. I think it’s much more than that, I think that the narrative style and the series format were completely original and efficient, and that R Kelly knows very well what he is doing and he does it well. Tongue-in-cheek and all, the series is an amazing and unique achievement from an unlikely auteur. However, I cannot find any, and I mean any, scholarly sources that could back up my essay and since this is a research paper, I think this is a big problem. There definitely are newspaper and magazine reviews of the show, but I definitely don’t consider that to be enough to embark on this research topic.

Then I looked at another highly significant but overlooked milestone in pop culture history: the great, marvelous, astonishing MacGyver!!! I think it would be very interesting to analyze narration in MacGyver because the protagonist himself provides the voice-over narration (and his discourse as a narrator touches everything from bomb recipes to wanting to have a pony when he grows up!), the episodes set up a clear “reading pattern” (they teach you how to watch them, just like we talked about in class), and the series, by virtue of having been aired on television for seven entire seasons, has to obey the programming and scheduling rules that condition its narrative structure. And oh well, to make the story short, a half day’s search for MacGyver materials on Google Books, Google Scholar, ProQuest, WorldCat etc returned exactly 1 result, which was actually about the MacGyver book.

I mean, of course, I could try to research a more well-known or older TV show (for which finding scholarly sources would not be a problem) like Bonanza or Charlie’s Angels or I Love Lucy, to name just a few examples, but these shows do no exhibit, as far as I know, such an interesting application of narrative techniques and, moreover, I am not personally drawn to them in any special way – and I think that for an extensive research paper such as this one, it is important to be personally passionate about your subject of choice. Can anybody help me out and think of a TV show, old or new that can spark an original investigation of narration but that has been sufficiently already analyzed by the media scholars? (And in general, as I look at more and more research topics for this semester and for future academic work, I think that this conundrum is especially frustrating in the case of contemporary television, because naturally you want to do something original, but in the same time it must be “unoriginal” enough – if you will – in order to be able to find enough sources to sustain your research.)

Then I tried a wider approach to researching television topics, and thought of analyzing so-called “stunt episodes” : uncharacteristic, atypical episodes within a certain series, where writers take extreme liberties with the format and even the “feel” or genre of the show once audiences are familiar enough with its usual narrative structure. Examples of this are, for instance, the Scrubs episode that emulated a sitcom, the backwards Seinfeld episode, the live ER episode, and an impressive number of X Files episodes. Jeffrey Sconce, in his article “What If: Charting Television’s New Boundaries”, calls this type of experimentation “conjectural” episodes, and identifies it as an emerging trend in contemporary television. It would be really interesting to try to look at as many such instances as I can and come up with an argument about the generic and stylistic features of such narrative diversions in modern television, how they can afford to depart from the conventional narrative structure of the series, and how that impacts the medium’s current and future development. My only problem here relates to nomenclature. I just don’t know how to search for scholarly sources on this topic, because I don’t know what to call these experiments as a blanket term. I tried “stunt episodes”, “stunt television”, “spectacle episodes”, “experimental/ atypical/ unconventional episodes” and some others, but I haven’t come across much and I’m sure this is because I don’t know exactly what to search for. One useful article I found was actually written by Prof. Mittell (Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television) and it is very useful but he talks about narrative experimentation in television in general, and I think my topic should be less broad (or should it?). Sconce uses the term “metareflexive” to talk about new shows that comment on the process of narration itself, and this could also be interesting to explore, but again I don’t know how to limit my research scope, and if I should write about just about stunt episodes or about metareflexive television in general.

And, if none of these topics focusing on the realm of television prove to be feasible, I was also thinking of another possible option that is applicable to cinema as well: the narrative presentation of dreams on film. This idea came to me because I am currently reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (which is an absolutely fascinating book, by the way) and it amazed me to realize that dream sequences in movies actually do follow the mechanics of dreaming, that is, they often evidence a well-grounded scientific understanding of the phenomenon of dreaming – and the unconscious repression, substitution, combination and reinterpretation of real elements in dreams – while simultaneously crafting a dream sequence that works well within the established narrative parameters of the film. Therefore, I think it would be really interesting to explore the representation of dreams on celluloid, as they are necessarily conditioned both by the psychosomatic characteristics of dreaming, and by the practical and effective integration of these dream sequences within the larger narrative.

Our discussion in class about first and second viewings made me think about the different experiences that we get from watching movies for the first time as compared to rewatching a movie you have already seen. Of course, the topic gets a little bit trickier when we consider twist movies, like the ones we have seen for the past two weeks for this course, but I think that this conundrum can also be applied to cinema in general.

An important variable in this respect is how much time has passed since you’ve last seen the film. For instance, I had seen The Sixth Sense a very long time ago (I think, if I remember correctly, that I saw it as soon as it came out on DVD, so this means more than 5 or 6 years ago) and this undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of the film when I saw it again two weeks ago. Therefore, even though I knew the key twist – since that is the aspect of The Sixth Sense viewers are most likely to remember – I still took pleasure in reanalyzing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and, knowing the big secret of the fabula, I was also able to be more critical in my consumption of the syuzhet.

Memento, on the other hand, proved to be a less enjoyable experience when I saw it again last week because I had seen it very recently and, moreover, I thought that being familiar with the twist ending destroyed the viewing pleasure much more so than in the case of The Sixth Sense. I am wondering if this is because of the reverse chronology of Memento – could it be that the main appeal of the film resides in the narrative ingenuity of its plot and once that novelty wears off, the fabula just doesn’t offer enough to keep your attention? I think this is definitely a big part of the problem. To be completely frank, as much as I appreciate the fantastic originality of Memento, once you take away that little narrative trick of the reverse chronology, I don’t think the story in itself is strong enough to qualify it as a memorable movie (pun totally intended). Following our discussion in class, it seems that several people share my opinion, and I especially value Nick’s input, who has said that he watched it in normal chronology and it didn’t really sustain his attention or elicit his appreciation very much.

Of course, other important factors have to do with how many times you have seen a movie before seeing it again (it matters if you have just seen it once or 8 times) and how long ago you have last watched it (if it was last weekend or 7 years ago), so I don’t want to imply that my feelings were strictly based on the films themselves; it would be foolish to disregard these important logistical variables. Nevertheless, I must say that, once you strip it off its narrative ingenuity, Memento remains a pretty conventional “vengeance flick” hinging on a highly problematic and increasingly implausible psychological disorder that just seems to work too well in the context of the story. The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, seems to have much more to offer even upon repeated viewings, although it is clear that its fabula is not problem-free either. And perhaps that in the end, it literally all comes down to the twist: and I am much more intrigued to find out if a character I’ve been seeing onscreen for the past 2 hours is dead or alive (Malcolm), rather than if he is honest or deceitful (Teddy, Lenny, Natalie).

I had been trying to delay writing about The Singing Detective for a while now, because I really can’t make my mind up about this show – it’s a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs, moments of television brilliance and moments of extreme monotony. I was very much impressed by the first episode, I thought it intertwined the three storylines in a very clever fashion and I liked the fact that it required the viewer’s active participation in order to make sense of its narrative style. It certainly felt like an innovative format, especially for a television program (and – no offence – especially for a British television program, because BBC shows, at least in my experience, tend to be on the dull side).

Once that novelty wore off, however, and once the thrill of deciphering its narrative strategy faded, I must confess I was rather bored. The second episode, as Leslie observed as well, did not offer anything new (perhaps with the exception of Marlow’s ex-wife visiting him in the hospital) and the writing seemed much worse than in the first episode. The third and fourth episodes managed to spark my interest again, but they didn’t seem as brilliant as the pilot.

One reason I’ve been enjoying these last couple of episodes is, no doubt, the increasing role of the storyline centered on Marlow as a child. First of all, the young boy who plays him offers a remarkable performance – seeing The Singing Detective in the same screening with The Sixth Sense really made me think about the performances of this kid and, respectively, Haley Joel Osment, and they are indeed two of the most outstanding child actors I have ever seen!

Second, the storyline of Marlow’s childhood seems to me as the most interesting, poignant and well-made of the three parallel storylines that are being narrated to us. The fictional detective story that he is writing in his head is impressive due to its visual style and classy mise-en-scene, but somehow I feel that it lacks substance and moves way too slow, especially for a mystery story. The fact that it is regularly interrupted by the other two storylines, plus the fact that it is meant to be seen one episode at a time, on a weekly basis, negatively affects its continuity – at least in my opinion – and dampens my investment in the mystery. It is just not exciting enough, and continuous enough, to sustain my interest from week to week.

The storyline centered on Marlow’s life in the hospital is, just like the fictional detective story, exquisitely well made yet somehow also falls short of the expectations that the first episode set forth for me. On the plus side, these scenes are embedded with a remarkable sense of realism and the performances are, again, outstanding (and here I’m referring both to Marlow himself and to the supporting cast of doctors, nurses and patients). Moreover, the way the musical numbers are integrated into the plot is highly original and efficient; undoubtedly, these are the scenes I have enjoyed and appreciated the most (the “Bones” song from the first episode has been stuck in my head for almost a month now, and I’ve been making my friends watch it on youtube, but nobody seems to think it’s as funny as I do!). However, on the down side, I must say that these hospital scenes are uncomfortable to watch – which is not always a bad thing when it comes to film and media, but in this case they are too uncomfortable to watch. The greasing procedure?!? Marlow watching that adorable old man dying in front of him and waiting until he’s dead to call the nurse?!? His skin in extreme close ups?!? These are all very poignant scenes, and they are indeed efficient in jolting the viewers, but I would have kept such scenes for strategic moments in the series, and not have them as the main setting and principal storyline of the show because ultimately they do take their toll on the audience.

The childhood storyline, and its increasing prominence within the narrative structure of the series, has therefore been like a breath of fresh air for me – I think the characters are very well portrayed and the intrigue is interesting. I also really appreciate the Freudian connotations of his relationship with his mother; the psychological motivations of the characters are intelligently crafted and it is obvious that their interactions have a sound theoretical basis in psychoanalysis and Freudian dream theory (especially the way in which, based on Marlow’s mental trauma and memory tricks, identities are displaced and interchanged between characters: the ex-wife appearing as the mother, the evil man as her lover, etc). These childhood scenes are brilliantly filmed and acted – just think of the classroom scene! – and they do a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere of England at the end of the war, without falling into stereotypical imagery. Moreover, the childhood storyline has captured my interest more than the other two, because there is that thrill of understanding what happened in Marlow’s early life that led to his present condition, his obvious psychological traumas, and his caustic and cynical nature. And to return to my initial point, I do think it is a problem that I am more invested in the mystery of Marlow’s childhood in rural England than in the mystery of who killed Sonia and who are those dark trench-coat-clad men sneaking through dark alleys.

It struck me as rather strange to see Lavik categorizing The Sixth Sense as a detective film, because I really don’t think that this film – twist ending or no twist ending – satisfies the requirements of the detective genre. Yes, it involves a mystery, but that doesn’t seem enough to include it in this category. I happened to write my research essay on the detective film genre for my American Film Genres class with Prof. Grindon – an essay that was dependent on Bordwell’s discussion of the detective film in his Narration in the Fiction Film – and I remember that the scholarly categorization of detective films depended on two conditions: for a movie to be classified as a detective film, 1. its plot had to follow an investigation, and 2. its protagonist must function as a detective. While it is true that the protagonist need not necessarily be a detective by profession – so either a private eye or a police detective – I still do not think that Malcolm, in his role as a child psychologist, comes close enough to fulfilling the function of a detective in this film. Moreover, the plot does not really center on an investigation, but rather on the relationship between Malcolm and Cole, which, although it does have certain mysterious aspects, has nothing to do with the structure of a traditional or non-traditional whodunit.

Furthermore, if we are to apply the rule of “fair play” – stipulating that the syuzhet must contain enough information for the viewer to be able to piece together the information by himself, in parallel to the sleuth protagonist – then it means that The Sixth Sense is not a very successful film, because the solution to the “mystery” is so outlandish that I don’t think any viewer would have been able to come up with it independently. And I don’t think that it can be denied that The Sixth Sense was indeed a successful movie; I can only contend that it is not a successful detective film, and therefore I don’t think that including it in this category is the best taxonomical choice.

Also, from a screenwriting perspective – I cannot escape the legacy of Don Mitchell’s screenwriting workshops! – I tend to resist the final-montage-ties-it-all-together strategy, and I do think it is quite a “cheap” storytelling device, but it makes me wonder if it is not in fact necessary for such a complex and unusual premise like that of The Sixth Sense. Lavik frames the retrospective piecing together of events from a temporal point of view, i.e. how much time has passed between the dissemination of the clues and the revelation of the solution, and I think that is a good approach. That is to say, in a 2-hour movie, a montage “reminding” the spectator of the relevant information that has already been revealed and that is necessary in order to understand the solution might seem contrived and therefore “cheap”, but it might also be extremely necessary, and might actually make the difference between the audience understanding the fabula… or not.

After watching the Sixth Sense for the second time and reading Lavik’s article on it, what struck me as an interesting point of discussion was the relationship between the syuzhet plausibility and fabula plausibility. Specifically, the conclusion that emerges upon retrospective analysis of The Sixth Sense is that a fully plausible syuzhet does not necessarily produce a fully plausible fabula, or rather, the verisimilitude of the plot does not automatically engender a verisimilar storyworld. This is particularly true of supernatural thrillers, of course, but I think it can also be applied to other genres in general.

As Lavik points out, once the major twist is revealed towards the end of the film, all the syuzhet details fit well, retrospectively with the newly-discovered fabula, but what doesn’t really make sense is the new fabula as a whole. First and foremost, “it is very hard indeed to accept that an intelligent child psychologist does not sense that something is wrong when no one—except Cole Sear, the boy who can see and communicate with ghosts—has said one word to him since the shooting” – this is an undeniable and insurmountable (at least from a screenwriting perspective) weakness of the fabula, and although it seems to be the major one, it is by no means the only logical pitfall of Shyamalan’s script.

In my opinion, all these tricky plausibility issues could have largely been avoided if Malcolm in fact knew he was a ghost, but the audience didn’t. True, this would change certain plot developments, as well as his relationship with Cole, but the final twist would still work well and the desired effect would be achieved, I think, with fewer logical stretches. That is why I think that, in comparison, a twist ending such as that of The Usual Suspects is much more efficient, because it is based on the cleverness of a character (Keyser Soze/Kevin Spacey) inside the storyworld, rather than on the custom rules of the storyworld itself (dead people don’t know they’re dead, they only see what they want to see, etc), as it is in The Sixth Sense.

P.S. And if we think of M. Night Shyamalan’s other films, I think we can safely conclude that this syuzhet/fabula plausibility problem is certainly not unique to The Sixth Sense. In fact, I just remembered reading a review of his later movie, Signs, a while ago and being very amused by the reviewer’s sharp observation about the aliens lethal adversity to water: [ and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the artcile on the web:] “Shyamalan expects us to believe that these super intelligent beings would choose to visit the exact planet that is 80% made of the one thing that could kill them?!?”. Touche’.

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