On the Viewer’s Role in Constructing Story
September 18th 2008 @ 1:48 pm Uncategorized

In class today we seemed to come to a consensus concerning how the viewer actively interacts with the plot and narration to construct story. Professor Mittell stated it the most simply: the viewer will assume the simplest answer and only ask the questions posed by the narration. This is how we can be fooled by our assumptions about Locke in “Walkabout.”

I tend to agree with this analysis in the case of certain film and television genres. In (romantic) comedies, we believe what we see, and what we see tends to be true. Whenever someone is deceived, it is usually for comic effect, and the viewer is “in” on the joke. Similarly, in dramas, characters deceive one other, but not the audience.  Only in specific cases, like Closer, does the process of narration intentionally withhold information from the viewer. Science fiction and fantasy also tend to be straightforward in this way, allowing the viewer complete access to the mythology of the storyworld. 

But Lost doesn’t fit so easily into any of these categories. While I acknowledge that early in the series intrinsic norms might not have been firmly established, from episode one, Lost set itself up as a mystery/thriller show with fantastical elements. The viewer in this genre is suspicious and informed. I suspect that the conspiracy claims collectively constructed on the internet by fans do not follow Occam’s Razor. Perhaps while in the act of viewing the text, these fans subconsciously assume the simplest answer to cinematically posed questions. However, in digesting the material and examining the mystery post-exposure, I believe that the viewer actively looks for the trick.

What I am trying to say is best illustrated through the example of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. We were all fooled by The Sixth Sense, but once we understood the rules of his genre, we as viewers began watching with the intent to know the twist before it happened. In this way, the informed audience circumvented usual viewing practices so as not to be fooled. And many weren’t. 

I guess my whole point, which is rather small compared to the length of this blog, is that we might do well to consider the suspicious viewer to be the norm in today’s audience, conditioned to critically examine any filmic “truth,” which makes obscuring the true storyworld more difficult. 

-Leslie Stonebraker
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  1. September 18th, 2008 | 9:09 pm

    Leslie – I think you’re right, especially in the Shyamalan example, as viewers learned the norms of his films that shaped how we watch future ones. However, while we might be skeptical about how simply to answer questions in genres like thrillers, mysteries, etc., we still need to be cued as to what questions to ask. I doubt many viewers, even viewing Lost with skepticism, would think to wonder whether Locke was paralyzed before the island until that final scene. Sixth Sense is trickier, as we’re shown enough to inspire us to ask the relevant questions, but the film makes us avoid them… but that’s a conversation for later in the month!

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