Wherefore Art Thou, oh Narrator?
October 25th 2008 @ 7:35 pm Bordwell,Uncategorized

Chatman argues persuasively (at least, once it got translated into human-speak in class–hats off to Professor Mittell for that one) that the viewer constructs a cinematic narrator and implied author while watching a film text. At the time, it made sense. Anyone “reading” a film will create a prime mover behind every choice in the text and infer their thematic/ideological message based upon the sum of those choices, when in real life, a cadre of professionals and artisans with innumerable outlooks contribute to the narrative processes of the film. During our blargument, Aaron wrote that he looked to his construct of the Coen brothers for answers to the perplexing subjectivity of Barton Fink. Clearly, here is concrete evidence for Chatman’s argument. 

But Bordwell is not satisfied. I can’t tell if Chatman and Bordwell are locked in mortal combat for all eternity (a text is forever after all) just so they each have an excuse to keep publishing the same theories over and over, or if they really do feel this strongly about a narrator. Seems like a silly fuss over the signification of eight letters, but that’s just me. Anyway, Bordwell counters,

A filmmaker or group of filmmakers created the system of cues we are to follow, and as real agents ourselves we engage with those cues. End of story. 

It seems to me that Bordwell’s primary argument against Chatman’s concepts of the cinematic narrator and implied author is Occam’s Razor. If we don’t need Chatman’s concepts to bundle Bordwell’s stand-alone concepts, then we shouldn’t use them.

Other than naming a cinematic narrator or implied author, it doesn’t seem like Chatman and Bordwell have much of a feud. Bordwell doesn’t deny the existence of unreliability, overarching principles and a governing design in films. He just doesn’t want to add another belle to the terminology ball. And, really, who can blame him? My head is spinning as it is.

In other Bordwell news, I found his explanation of character narrators and flashbacks very helpful to articulate my feelings about Leland’s bit of Citizen Kane and the alternating narrators of The Prestige

Bordwell argues,

One way to justify and clarify the breakup of chronology is to assign a character to tell another about what led up to the current state of affairs. A scene showing the character launching on the tale prompts your understanding that what follows is a flashback. It doesn’t matter that nobody could tell an event with the sort of detail we find in the images shown in the flashback. Nor is there any scandal in the fact hat the narrating character didn’t witness the events that we’re going to see. All that matters is that a scene calls forth in us a mental schema, people tell one another about an event that has occurred, and that triggers only one relevant inference: A time shift is coming up.

In my film history discussion of Citizen Kane last Friday, my peers were incredibly attached to the idea that the characters frame narrating the flashbacks were affecting that flashback’s representation in terms of their subjectivity. Basically, that was a wordy way of saying that they thought Leland’s subjective view of Kane was directly represented in the breakfast sequence. I disagreed at the time, and now I have a Bordwell in my pocket to explain why. Leland never saw the breakfasts. Even if he had, he couldn’t have related it in depth, perspective and surround sound, as we experience it. As I read Bordwell, I found myself agreeing that, in the case of Citizen Kane, the six narrators primarily serve as triggers for the flashbacks and nothing more. I am not saying that there are no moments of subjectivity, because there are (for example, the doubled opera opening). Only that if a character book-ends the flashback, if doesn’t necessarily follow that the character is relating events from their perspective. It is the film that relates information to build our perception of Kane in a specific fashion. 

In the case of The Prestige, I think this concept also holds true. Many of the embedded flashbacks were not motivated by the journals or the court case. We can attempt to slot them into one of these character narrator’s stories, or we can posit the film as relating these incidents (be it cinematic narrator or formal devices). I can envision an argument where the omissions of the journals are actually omissions of the film to create a more powerful reveal of twin brothers and clones. Am I reading this wrong? What do you all think?

-Leslie Stonebraker
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