One thing we touched on briefly in class last time was the issue of narrative across a major franchise. In class, we were discussing the Matrix series, but I think the same issues come up when considering the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the Star Wars trilogies. I think that it’s safe to say that most people view the later films in these series as let-downs, or at best good, but problematic.

So what’s the problem? I think a big issue here is expectations, a pretty crucial element of a film’s paratext. People grew up with Star Wars, or loved the original Matrix and Pirates, and go into the new movies with certain assumptions about what sort of a film they’ll be seeing. If the film isn’t what they expected, because the level of quality has fallen off, or even just if the director’s taken it in a different direction, it might invite (unfair) comparisons to the original.

And sometimes, these films can look much better in hindsight. I have heard from several people that the Matrix sequels are much better once you know what to expect.

Another obvious problem these films can face is the lag-time between the making of the beloved original and the sequels. In two of these instances, Star Wars and The Matrix, the creators claim that they had had the ideas for the sequels for years. Whether or not I really believe Lucas or the Wachowski brothers is another matter. However, it would have been pretty much entirely impossible for the success of the originals not to affect the making of the sequels. The Wachowski brothers may have had ideas for what they wanted to do in later movies, but the Matrix had become a very hot commodity by the time they could make more movies, and they certainly had to adjust some of their ideas, either to appease fans who want a particular kind of film from the Matrix series, or corporate concerns that have specific visions of how the Matrix should be branded.

Then there’s something like Pirates of the Caribbean, which started out as a stand-alone film. Then, when it became a smash hit, the creators had to turn it into a franchise. The most obvious complaint one could level against the second film is that it spends too much time setting up for the third. It is a problem, because the entire film’s narrative gets subverted to sell the sequel. Another similar situation would be the Back to the Future movies. Both series started with an initially stand-alone film that became a success, spawning a pair of sequels that were released back-to-back.

Another big problem, particularly for the Star Wars film, is the creator’s ego. I wholeheartedly believe that the worst part of the prequel trilogy is that George Lucas was given too much creative freedom. After the original Star Wars films, Lucas could do pretty much anything he wanted, and wasn’t going to be questioned. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the weakest of the original trilogy is Episode 4; perhaps, not coincidentally, this is the only one of the originals that Lucas wrote and directed. The later films benefitted from creative input from other individuals. Considering how unpopular the prequels are with many (at times former) Star Wars fans, it’s clear that Lucas’ conception of what Star Wars should be does not gel with everyone else’s. Perhaps if there had been more people questioning his decisions and making their own suggestions while the prequel films were being made, they would have been better.

Of course, I’m pretty much just speculating on the creative process involved in the making of the prequel trilogy, and making assumptions that Lucas is a crazy-man who shouldn’t be trusted with his own franchise anymore. To be perfectly honest, I’m looking forward to the day Lucas dies, or at least gives up creative control of the Star Wars franchise. Maybe then, we can get something like what happened in the Star Trek franchise, where the best series, Deep Space 9, was made once Roddenberry was no longer the guiding force of the franchise.

Of course, it all went to hell with Voyager and Enterprise. God, I hope J.J. Abrams can revive Star Trek.

So, on the whole, I was happy with what Jason and I came up with. I think my biggest concern about what we did was the sound. We were taking bits and pieces from the whole episode, and there were definitely times when the music went a little crazy from all the cutting. Thankfully, I don’t think it was as noticeable as I had feared it might be.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was, quite obviously, that we were trying to create a radically different text, one which the show really did not support. Most everyone else was able to pluck out rather long passages of their works, and present them more or less as is. While we were certainly able to do that in some sections, there were also points where we had to edit much more extensively, in order to create our ridiculous little scenario of Ned-as-necrophiliac-murder. Probably the most obvious example is the scene near the end, where we tried to edit together several different shots to make it seem like Ned tried to murder Lily, who then shoots Ned. Whether or not it succeeded, I can’t quite say. If you’re really scrutinizing the shots, it’s quite obvious that the man suffocating lily is wearing a ski mask, which Ned isn’t, but I hope it worked alright.

Another concern I have is that the editing pace might seem pretty erratic. We kept alternating between long periods of using scenes more or less as is, and then having to start cutting scenes together rapidly to create the effects we wanted. Hopefully, it’s not too jarring.

Perhaps my biggest regret is forgetting to use Ned’s line “That’s how I roll.” Or maybe he said “That’s not how I roll,” I can’t exactly remember. If so, I’d cut out the “not.” If I could go back and change one thing, I would take that scene where Ned watches Chuck’s hearse drive away, and we added in Ned saying “Necrophilia,” and put “That’s how I roll” after that.

I may in fact be a sick bastard.

I’ve been rewatching the rest of Pushing Daisies with my friends, who got their first taste of it when it was shown in the TV and American Culture class, and every so often I see a scene that really would have helped flesh out the Ned-as-murderer concept. However, considering the crunch for time I was under last week, I’m glad we didn’t spend time going through other episodes for potentially viable scenes. Considering we used just the pilot, I think we managed to do a pretty alright job, even if perhaps there might be some better scenes later in the series.

Another idea I had, which definitely would have involved a whole huge time investment, going through mining for scenes to use, was turning The Singing Detective into Highlander. My idea was this: it might have been possible to re-edit together all the different time frames and subjectivities to make it seem like all the characters are immortals, feuding across time. There was even an absolutely perfect moment in the last episode, where Niccoletta says to Marlowe (in a fantasy sequence) “There’s not many of us left.” Although I think the idea could have worked, the amount of work it would’ve taken would have been a bit much.

One thing that really surprised me about other people’s projects was (and I mean no disrespect) that it seemed like a lot of people didn’t necessarily capitalize on the full potential of the project. As I envisioned the assignment, we were all going to take things we’d watched, and create entirely new narratives from the existing footage. I was surprised to see how many of the assignments were more new perspectives on the original’s narrative.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this project. Being able to do a creative assignment was definitely a nice change of pace from the frequently rather dense theory we read.

So, I’ve come up with a couple more barebones ideas for my research topic, but I can’t really decide whether to flesh them out, whether they’re really all that worth exploring. None of them are necessarily my idea proposals, but maybe writing them down, I’ll be able to figure out which ones have some potential.

  1. Perhaps the most interesting part of Bordwell’s book for me were the sections where he got into the psychological basis for how we interpret a narrative. I found myself, whenever thinking about the issues we were dealing with in class, constantly returning to the issues of the fundamental assumptions we were making going into a narrative. I don’t have much to work with right now, but the idea of exploring the psychological elements of narrative does appeal to me.
  2. One medium I would really like to work with some more is comic books. I took a fantastic course on graphic novels during my sophomore J-term, and I’ve really wanted to do more with that since then. I don’t have any concrete ideas, but possible jumping off points would be to compare and contrast film theory (perhaps focusing on Bordwell’s book) with Scott McCloud’s and Will Eisner’s contributions to the still nascent field of comics studies. Taking a graphic novel, perhaps even one by either McCloud or Eisner, I could see whether the two authors’ theories are adequate to explain how graphic novels function narratively, or if it is best to bring in elements of the literary and film theory we are studying. Alternatively, I could perhaps compare Eisner and McCloud’s work, which would obviously bear many of the hallmarks of their theories on how the medium functions, with various directors that were also prominent film theorists, to see how being both a creator and critic affects the work.

This idea is a callback to my post earlier on the scene in Annie Hall with the subtitles. I would like to go further into that concept, of narratively motivated subtitles. As we saw in Annie Hall, subtitles do not just have to be for translating foreign languages or establishing place and time. In Annie Hall, they’re used for making explicit the subtext between Alvie and Annie, but presumably they could serve many other functions.

Alongside subtitles, intertitles are also a possible subject to consider. Obviously, intertitles are fairly rare in modern film, so it might be hard to find examples of them, used narratively or not. However, back in the silent film era, intertitles frequently were used narratively, to explain the characters’ inner states or to provide parenthetical asides. It would be interesting to consider why cinema abandoned this perfectly viable narrative technique when sound came around.

It might also be possible to draw in some art history, drawing a parallel to the development and segregation of the word and the image in more traditional arts: many older paintings feature substantial text, which later fell out of a vogue. For some reason, the intermingling of text and image is frequently treated as infantile (see children’s picture books, or most people’s attitude toward comics). Why is this, and why has this trend seemingly infected cinema as well?

My one concern is just how much research material I can drum up. I would definitely need to find several more films with narratively-significant subtitles or intertitles, and I’m not sure how much has been written on the subject. A quick search of books on subtitles only seemed to get stuff on translation in film, so it might be difficult to find much work to draw from.

On Friday night, I watched Memento. Afterwards, I started exploring the DVD, which incidentally has probably the most involved design I’ve ever seen. After consulting the internet for tips on how to navigate the menus, I found my way to an easter egg I’d be interested in for some time: a recut of Memento, restructured into chronological order. At first I was just planning on checking it out of curiosity, but before long, I found myself sucked back into the film.

Viewing the film in chronological order creates an extremely different experience. For one, the entire arc of the film is completely changed, as the climax of the original is more of an act break in the chronological cut. It’s undeniably an inferior experience, though. As Christopher Nolan himself rightfully points out in Murphy’s book, the structure of the original cut plays perfectly into Leonard’s problem. Without the preceding scene, the audience is in the exact same situation as Leonard, not knowing where he is or what is going on. Scenes that are tense and suspenceful in the original become malicious and sadistic. The best example is the trio of scenes involving Natalie near the middle of the movie. In the original, we are stunned to see how manipulative she is, but seeing it chronologically, we see the manipulation from the beginning, and Leonard’s later ignorance is all the more hard to watch.

Perhaps the biggest change, however, was how I viewed the character of Teddy. For one thing, watching him in chronological order you get a much better sense of just how shrewd he is. Every scene with Leonard, he plays extremely close to his chest, more or less refusing to reveal that he knows any more than Leonard does unless absolutely necessary. One scene in particular sticks out in my mind. In the original cut, it is probably the third or fourth color sequence, but it comes near the end of the chronological film. Teddy and Leonard are in a diner, discussing killing John G. Teddy the nonchalantly asks Leonard “Where you staying these days?” Viewed in the original cut, this seems like a completely reasonable question, as the audience has little information of the motel Leonard stays, and establishing it as a major location of the film is important. But when you hear him ask that question, in light of all the stuff that comes before it in the fabula, it is suddenly an extremely strange question. Teddy knows where Leonard is staying. He even recommended the place to him earlier (although Leonard was already staying there). For whatever reason, Teddy refuses to divulge too much of his knowledge about Leonard, and it’s a detail that is easily lost when viewed in the original cut.

However, probably the biggest change in my perception of Teddy was his explanation of what Leonard has done. In the original, this comes at the end of the film, while in the chronological cut, this is about 1/3 of the way through the film. For some reason, Teddy has much more credibility in the original. I’ve noticed this in other works as well. Usually, it’s very easy to accept an explanation at the end of the film, particularly a puzzle film like Memento, while anywhere else in the film you might take the same information with a grain of salt. I suspect that this ties into the audience assumptions we’ve been discussing the last couple classes. An explanation given at the end of a film (or any other work) is assumed to be the correct one, and unless the given explanation completely stretches the limits of believably, it will be accepted. There is pretty much absolutely no reason to accept a single word that Teddy says, and yet, when he lays it all out at the end of original, you probably accept all or most of what he says, particularly as the film has been priming you to be looking for a solution due to its convoluted syuzhet.

I must admit, before I started this course, I was not entirely convinced that films had narrators. Obviously, they have a narrative, but I wasn’t convinced that a narration requires a narrator. It seemed like a literary concept that was being tacked onto a medium where it didn’t necessarily apply. Of course, there were times when a film had a very definite narrator, with a character talking in voice over or to the camera. But was the way that a film shot and arranged also the work of a narrator. I would have said no.

The further we go in this course, however, the more I find that notion challenged. I must concede that there is a narrator. Like most books, the average film narrator is unobtrusive, operating through conventional mise en scene and editing styles to express the story as simply and clearly as possible. What we have in The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, seems to be one of the best examples of an unreliable film-as-narrator I can think of.

This is obviously what Lavik is talking about in his article, although I do not believe he ever goes so far as to evoke the idea of an unreliable narrator. As he sees it, it is a well-crafted movie designed to conceal it’s twist. But I wonder if it’s necessarily narrating from the perspective of someone trying to play-up the twist. I think a strong argument could be made that the film’s narration strongly allies itself with Malcolm, and that the parts we don’t notice are because he doesn’t notice them. I might be overanalyzing things though.

Incidentally, I noticed that Lavik points out that in certain respects the fabula does not hold up, because when you really think about it, how could Malcolm have not noticed no one was talking to him, or that he couldn’t move chairs. I feel like that is addressed, somewhat cryptically. I noticed that during the dinner scene, which I suspect everyone who’s ever seen the movie more than once focuses intently on, Malcolm begins by saying that lately he can’t keep track of time. I think this might be a clue that Malcolm is not necessarily there all the time. Given his rather fantastical nature as a ghost, it doesn’t seem so preposterous to suppose that Lavik is making a mistake in assuming that Malcolm exists when we see don’t see him. I feel like that sort of explanation covers up a good number of potential plotholes (for example: how does he get to the basement, if he can’t even open the door? Maybe he just ends up down there.)

Speaking of assumptions, I’d also like to discuss the paratext a little. I would say that probably among most movies released in the last few years, this is probably the most notorious for its twist. At this point, it would probably be nigh impossible to see this movie without knowing the critical detail that Malcolm is dead. I was watching this with my friend Stefan, who had never seen the film before, but knew about the twist. He was in fact rather obnoxious about pointing out all the ways it is obvious that Malcolm is a ghost.

While discussing the film with him, I asked him about other twists he knew about, particularly ones he had seen coming. The most stunning to me was that he claimed he had seen the ending of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd coming. For anyone unfamiliar with that book, it contains perhaps the biggest use (abuse?) of the unreliable narrator: in the final chapters, the narrator who has been chronicling the murder investigation is revealed to be the actual murderer, having elided a couple important details while remaining truthful. The idea of the narrator being the perp seems so out of the realm of possibility that I am amazed that Stefan was able to even suspect him. There are certain assumptions one takes into a film (or a book), and although Stefan insists he probably would’ve seen it coming, I suspect that assuming that the main character is alive is deeply ingrained enough that the twist would’ve worked for him.

Which brings me back to him watching the film. He just could not get past the fact that Malcolm is dead. And although that information was obviously in my mind, and colored my reviewing of the movie, I was also able to watch the movie and appreciate the inaccurate fabula on its own terms. I never forgot that he was dead, but there were still certain baseline assumptions I couldn’t override. For example, when I saw the scene where Malcolm breaks a window at his wife’s store, I remember scoffing a little at how extremely unsubtle he was in his retreat. It was only a couple hours lately, while mulling the movie over, that I realized that, even though I knew he was a ghost, I was not treating him as such, and went on assuming that people would have seen him, even though obviously they did not.

Possibly the most interesting part of the reading from Bordwell’s book was where he laid out many of the assumptions that go into viewing. Most of them were the sort of learned passive things we use to make sense of stories, but he also went more in depth, bringing up post-sensory things like processing a flickering series of frames as continuous motion. These sorts of assumptions generally go unquestioned, and generally that’s completely fine, because so few works really play with these assumptions that they can usually be taken as a given and move on. However, from an analytic stand-point, it’s useful to ennumerate these sorts of things, if only to make the readers aware of things that they passively, even subconsciously, do as viewers.

One of the things I found strange about our discussion last week about The Singing Detective was how explicit we were about the assumptions we were making while watching it. Personally, when I was watching the film, I didn’t find it particularly ambiguous about what was happening. Aside from the initial period where the various elements of the series were being introduced, there was no real need to spend much time pondering the relationship between the scenes. It was perfectly obvious that Philip Marlow was a writer in a hospital, writing a book in his head; all the WW2-era footage was clearly from his book, although Marlow’s circumstances did occasionally encroach on his fictive world, such as when the character became hot at the same time as Marlow. When we were discussing the episode in class afterwards, though, Professor Mittell seemed to be carefully phrasing how we summed up what we had saw, making explicit that the relationships we had made between scenes were at best guesses.

This, I feel, is prime evidence for just how deeply engrained that these sorts of assumptions are in our viewing process. By most standards, the episode we saw was extremely ambiguous about what was happening. Compared to the first episode of pretty much every other television series I’ve ever seen, this episode contained very little in the way of information to orient the viewer. Even with this paucity of information, it was completely natural to cobble together what little we had into a narrative that conformed to certain expectations.

Although I would be surprised if many of the assumptions I had made during the first episode turn out to be incorrect, it’s still probably important to be able to parse out just how much we’re interpretting what we’re seeing through some sort of set assumptions. Most of the time, questioning those assumptions probably won’t yield much, but it certainly can be useful for certain works. My first thought is to Mulholland Drive, which is probably the most abusive film I’ve ever seen, in terms of Lynch’s toying with the audience’s natural urge to assume they understand what is happening, only to pull the rug out from under them when they least suspect it.

First off, I’m sorry for not posting into this more. I’m extremely bad at using these sorts of class blogs. I’ve got another post in the pipe, that I’ll try to get up as soon as possible, but I may not get it up before class tomorrow. If not, I’ll have it up by Friday. Anyway, on to the post:

Although the reading we did on the editing of Annie Hall was absolutely fascinating, and great fodder for discussion about the movie and the crafting of a narrative, what I would like to single out is one particular scene: shortly after meeting for the first time, Alvy and Annie are on the balcony at her apartment, chatting. While discussing photography as an emerging art form, subtitles express the thoughts of both characters, neither of whom is at all concerned with photography and much more focused on the impression they are making on the other.

It’s a very simple device, but it’s also ingenious. I’m not sure I can think of many films that have employed subtitles in such an inventive way. The internal thoughts of film characters are generally not expressed in the film, and when they are, they are virtually always done through voiceover, and it is even rarer to have internal monologue for multiple characters. The idea of expressing, through text and images, the subtext of a scene is quite novel. Although I’m sure it’s been employed elsewhere, the only similar example I can think of is Wayne’s World, which makes jokes about subtitling itself, and also features an extremely melodramatic scene with the words “Oscar Clip” flashing at the bottom, serving as a wink to the audience.

Such a device actually seems very rare to me. I cannot think of many novels that would employ such a device, and I certainly can’t think of many handling it particularly well. The only medium I can think of where such a thing is common is comic books, where it is pretty much standard practice to have characters speak one thing and think another. Generally, it’s not used to any great narrative ends, although I can think of a rather brilliant moment in Astonishing X-Men — I’m showing my Whedonphile colors here — where an entire conversation is in fact a red herring while characters communicate in secret via telepathy.

I’m curious to know whether others have more examples where visual media mix in words in order to comment, undercut, or augment the action that is being shown. It seems like something that could offer great possibilities, but one that is rarely used. Subtitling is an obvious means to incorporate this second layer of narrative, but one that is very rarely experimented with. Subtitles are almost always a pedestrian affair, either alerting us to locations or translating foreign languages, but used inventively, like they are in Annie Hall, they open up interesting possibilities.

Apparently some people complained that last week’s reading was rather dense and jargon-heavy. I wasn’t particularly put off by it then, but I certainly did this week. David Borwell’s book and the first essay we read in The Cambridge Companion to Narration were both extremely dense text, full of, in my opinion, language that seemed to be mainly there to make what the authors were saying seem important. Being one of the few minors in this seminar, I probably have slightly less experience trudging through this sort of thing, but it just seemed extremely pointless to me. It reminded me of when I took History of Film I back in freshman year, when we read lots of early film theorists, like Eisenstein and, later, Bazin, who were in a lot of ways trying to justify the medium as worthy of consideration, and who, again in my opinion, fell back on fancy and frankly confusing technical terminology. A lot of the groundwork that those early theorists was obviously hugely important, but I sometimes feel like certain lines of thinking in film theory don’t need to preserved, that they merely obfuscate meaning with insider jargon, where a plainer style would make the points the authors are trying to make much more accessible.

Personally, I felt the best essay we read this week — and there is absolutely no way to say this without it sounding like brazen brown-nosing, but oh well — was Professor Mittell’s essay in The Cambridge Companion to Narration. Instead of getting bogged down in sometimes spurious-seeming allusions to Plato and Aristotle or relying on lots of pretentious-sounding lingo (incidentally, could someone tell me how to pronounce sjuzhet? I have absolutely no idea. Also, I’m amazed that this spell-checker knows the word “sjuzhet.”), the analysis of The Wizard of Oz and Lost was presented in a clear and easy to understand way, offering interesting insights while remaining quite accessible.

That being said, I was a little perturbed by the essay, as it seemed to not entirely deliver on the promises it made in its thesis. As it seemed to me, the essay was supposed to analyze the ways that film and television differ narrationally, which I was extremely interested in, as I had never particularly considered it. However, it seemed to me that not that many ways that television was different were presented. The main point seemed to be that the way a television show is made, particularly an arc-based one like Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, led to different production concerns than one would encounter in making a film. And this is certainly true, and is well illustrated in the examples Mittell cites of actors suddenly dying or becoming pregnant. However, it seems to me that these same concerns can affect a film production as well. Take for instance the recent death of Heath Ledger. Although this did not affect The Dark Knight, his death came during the middle of the filming of Terry Gilliam’s next film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which neccessitated changes to the film in order to continue on without one of its central actors.

Aside from the limitations to script writing and filming made by the neccessity of commerical breaks, there did not seem to be much in the way of examples as to how television employs unique narrational strategies. The example of the reveal that John Locke was formerly handicapped seemed to not really offer any insight into how this was a uniquely televisual approach to narration, except that the viewers had had more time to assume that Locke had always been able to walk than if they had been watching a film. Looking at the examples Mittell offered as to how narration is constructed differently in television, it seemed that most of them were ways in which television was limited, mainly by the constraints of commercial broadcast and the increased chances of casting and production problems due to the extended schedule of filming. I’d be interested to explore further the ways in which television is capable of different narration, as opposed to how they adapt filmic narrational modes to the considerations and limiting factors of the medium.

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