Cinematic Narrators and Galilean Relativity
September 15th 2008 @ 4:24 pm Uncategorized

Physics and film. Together, in one post. I’ll be the first to admit that I never saw my two academic pursuits coinciding. Ever. But here I am, about to draw tenuous connections between the two that will probably make all my professors cringe.

Robert Stam explains in the second half of our reading from New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics that one of the central debates in narrative theory as applied to film is whether “film posses the equivalent of the narrator of literature …”  (104). Stam writes an extensive laundry list of the different historical approaches to this question (structural linguistics, enunciation theory, cognitive theory and literary narratology), but seems to have it all ways at once. He points out the strengths of each theory and then proceeds to explain how each ultimately fails as a universal approach. Stam seems to come to little conclusion concerning how best we humble film students can fundamentally approach the issue of the cinematic narrator.

And now for the physics. Those of you who scrupulously avoid BiHall, bear with me. There is a point to all of this. I promise.

Galilean relativity is one of the first attempts to reconcile the issue of the varying speeds of light. Lots of physics and calculus later (and ignoring the fact that well intentioned Galileo was dead wrong because the speed of light is a universal constant), the basic concept is this:

A guy on a moving train is holding a card that expresses his undying love to his fiance. His girl stands alone at the station as the train pulls away. She observes her guy and the card both moving at the speed of the train as he tosses the card towards her. The guy, however, observes the card in his hand, not moving at all, until he releases it and watches it waft towards his love. Obviously this ends tragically, as the card is whipped away by a passing wind. But no matter. The real issue is, does the card begin at rest, or is it moving at the speed of the train? The answer, according to Galilean relativity, is both. It depends on which reference frame you choose. Which is to say, do you identify with the guy or the girl?

It seems to me that this is the same issue being wrestled with by Stam and his cinematic narrator buddies. As interpreters of the filmic text, whose reference frame do we privilege? It is easy to identify a point of view shot, or a voice-over narrator and be done with it. But is this narrator to be privileged over Gaudreault’s narrator, who operates through editing to tell a specific story?

I have to ask, do we really have to choose? Isn’t it as useful to examine all narrators and their function in the text equally? It’s about choosing a frame of reference, but realizing that infinite reference frames still exist. In this way of looking at things, the personal narrator in Stam’s final theory tells a distorted report only when compared with the impersonal narrator’s reference frame. Each is valid. Perhaps the personal narrator’s frame can tell us more about that narrator’s motives in the storytelling process. But it is only in comparing all reference frames that these insights can be gleaned.

Then again, I could be wrong. I am, after all, only a humble film student.

-Leslie Stonebraker