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I began with the observation that American independent cinema is supposed to be more interested in character and to have more interesting characters than Hollywood films. I believe that independent cinema does have a distinctive approach, or rather several related approaches, to the creation of character. To begin, it subsumes film style to characterization, making the image and the soundtrack optimally characterrelevant. It shares this characterbased motivation of style with classical cinema to a large extent, but the greater interest in character among independent filmmakers can lead to a greater optimization of cinematic effects for “character development.” In general, independent cinema favors modest depth and complexity of character, greater on average than Hollywood’s but less than some art or festival cinema. Its approach to character change, counterintuitively, is to favor modestly static characters over Hollywood’s more fully “arcing,” dynamic ones. In its approach to characterization, independent cinema offers a menu of options: characterizations more shallow than Hollywood’s to generate curiosity or ambiguity; characterizations with great depth in unusual cases; characterizations more complex than Hollywood’s to exploit formal experimentation; and characterizations that develop dynamically to create interest in characters who might otherwise seem less compelling. Whatever the details of these parameters, it is clear that certain independent
73 film characters and characterizations fit these descriptions, such as Carol in Safe, Sydney in Hard Eight, Wilson in The Limey, Dawn in Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Chantelle and MayAlice in Passion Fish. Since I chose these films to cover a representative array of recent independent cinema, I am confident that they contain fairly representative characters and characterizations. In general, the characterization devices I have described in relation to these films and characters are interestintensifying. Thus I hope to have shown not only that independent films do have interesting characters, but also what some mechanisms are for the effect of interest in character. I have proceeded from the assumption throughout this study that filmmakers and audiences alike believe that independent films have this interest, and that reading for character salience is an underlying feature of independent cinema’s appeal. I hope I have demonstrated some of the parameters of independent cinema’s character interest, some of the formal and stylistic vehicles for its characterprominence. In doing so, I have also set out some principles whereby character and characterization may be understood to stand out as textual features. Implicit all along has been an understanding of film narrative as a cluster of appeals to the spectator, some of which are accentuated or not depending on socio historical factors. I began with the assumption that filmmakers and viewers identify an appeal as central, and that the task of the film analyst is to establish how that appeal is generated, how it functions, and what effects it might have. Character is such an appeal, a
74 reason to be interested in stories—both in telling stories and in experiencing them. In choosing to focus on a specific national cinema of a specific timeframe, and sub specifying further a mode within that national cinema configured by a common understanding shared by a community constituted of filmmakers and their audience, I believe I have been able to isolate one of those appeals of film narrative in relation to an audience that appreciates it, and demonstrate its means of accentuation. This is a perhaps roundabout way of saying that I see this project fitting within the research program of the poetics of cinema. This program “puts at the center of its concerns the problem of how art works are constructed to have certain effects and uses.”1 The question with which I began was how independent films have the effect of emphasizing character. But in order to find an answer, I needed to identify some basic principles of narrative construction as it pertains to character. It was necessary to have a more complete understanding of character as a cinematic effect before I could consider how an emphasis on character might be achieved. I was especially interested in the process whereby spectators understand characters to have an inner life. This has been a topic of interest to literary scholars for many years, but in film studies it seemed that character psychology was often described in terms of subjective narration, and this seemed to me to explain the phenomenon inadequately. So this led me into the thicket of social cognition and to the basic assumption that our means of understanding characters is the same as our means of understanding persons. This principle of narrative construction,
75 that characterization is a form of social cognition, is one of the insights I have offered, but as I suggested at the outset, it is not in itself a satisfactory endpoint of theorizing. A poetics of cinematic character, as I see it, should consider the process of constructing character to be an instance of person perception and cognition, but one that is much more focused and structured than ordinary realworld interactions among persons. The cinematic representation of persons is, we must remember, highly artificial. Unless the filmmakers have some reason to do otherwise, they stage characters for our best view, have them speak clearly, place them in instantly identifiable settings, and establish that their actions are linked to those that came before and those that will come after. Filmmakers also know that we have expectations about stories and films, some of which we share with our expectations about reality and some of which we do not. In the preceding chapters I have discussed various ways that filmmakers adapt social cognition functions to add interest to characters, exploiting our cognitive structures for aesthetic ends. For example, Passion Fish introduces multiple contradictory types rather than a few predictable ones and biases our opinion of the characters by selectively withholding knowledge about them; Welcome to the Dollhouse restrains the main character’s facial expressions and has her behave in ways that would seem to defy her situation; Hard Eight restricts our knowledge about the main character to generate curiosity about him; Safe
76 uses techniques of cinematic style in combination with frustrating trait attributions to keep us at a distance from the character literally and figuratively, forbidding us the penetration into her inner life that we desire. All of these films at once strategically maximize and close off avenues of social cognition inference and judgment to make the characters more interesting. But other films achieve other characterrelevant effects through other means, especially by playing on our narrative, rather than social, expectations. I have not had much to say about narrativespecific expectations, as I have chosen to emphasize those structures we bring to characters from realworld interactions. (I did, however, identify salient genre types in Reservoir Dogs, Safe and Passion Fish.) To end this discussion of what makes a character interesting, I would like to look at how a formal schema distinct from our ordinary socialcognition structures can guide our understanding of a character. This is by way of considering a path not taken, a question about character yet to be answered. Consider this scene from Todd Solondz’s Happiness: The main character of the scene is an adult male pedophile. He has a preadolescent son whose friend comes to sleep over. The pedophile is attracted to his son’s friend and wants to molest him, and in order to carry out this goal, he places a drug in the child’s sandwich and encourages him to eat it. But the child does not feel hungry and so he doesn’t touch his food. The scene progresses as a backandforth negotiation between the imploring pedophile and the
77 uncooperative child refusing to go along with the adult’s entreaties. My question is: what inferences and judgments are generated out of this scenario and what are its character effects? Essentially, we have a case of conflicting desires and intentions: the little boy doesn’t want to eat; the adult wants him to. For the adult, this is a subgoal; for the child, there is no larger goal—he’s just not hungry. He doesn’t know that the adult wants to exploit him, so he is not trying to avoid being victimized. The adult feels anxiety relevant to his goal, but the child’s emotions are not as well defined. All along in this dissertation I have scrupulously avoided mentioning spectator “participatory responses” to fictional scenarios, such as desires for specific outcomes of events and moral evaluations, because I was taking as my area of inquiry comprehension rather than other modes of engagement. 2 But now I would like to introduce such a response and with it a confession: when I saw Happiness, I was rooting for the pedophile. I wanted the kid to eat the sandwich. More than that, however, I fully expected the pedophile to have his way with the boy, because the narrative had already set up expectations that it would present outlandish sexually exploitative acts. In an earlier scene, a man masturbates while talking on the phone with a woman he hardly knows, getting off on listening to her talk. The film also has set up the pedophile as potentially violent by establishing that he fantasizes about killing people. I am not concerned really with the appropriateness of my desire except to the extent that it explains a social cognition inference: I wanted the pedophile to succeed partly because I predicted that he
78 would, and a prediction about behavior is a folk psychology inference that influences attention and judgment: we are biased in favor of recognizing data that confirms rather than contradicts positive hypotheses.3 I am more likely to notice the information that fits my prediction. If filmmakers have some reliable way of predicting spectator’s predictions, it should give them the ability to exploit this feature of social cognition in structuring storytelling. I believe that Todd Solondz did just that. Part of my prediction that the pedophile would succeed was because his actions initiated a formal pattern of A pursuing B, and formal patterning creates desires for continuation and completion, especially when similar patterning has occurred earlier in the same story. This is a narrative desire: I desire to know what will happen next, I desire that an action initiated in scene X will be completed in scene Y. Dangling motifs are frustrating, but recurring and developing ones are satisfying. Perhaps my desire is a function of my prediction: I desire that I will be proven correct by the narration. This may all sound rather speculative (which is why I have saved it for the conclusion!), but I believe that my prediction that the pedophile would have his way was based on a narrative desire to see an event initiated come to fruition, to see a pattern develop.4 Now it is true that we also desire for events initiated in the real world to come to fruition, but there’s a big difference here: we evaluate events in the real world differently from events in a narrative. I might find it frustrating if you were to sing the first two bars of “America the Beautiful” and then stop, because there is no moral content to your
79 actions and I want you to finish the pattern you started. I might even complete the pattern for you, in my head or aloud. But if I were to observe a real scene of a pedophile plotting to molest a young boy, I hope I would intervene to stop him rather than munch popcorn and hope he succeeds. In this case, then, my realworld structures of social cognition may not have been as useful to me in engaging with some aspects of the character as other structures, such as expectations about form. Of course, the scene was only intelligible in the first place because of its ease of comprehension using the cognitive structures I have described in the preceding chapters. But predictions and desires do have an important function structuring the encounter between spectator and film. As it happens, the pedophile does rape the boy, and this is made a bit easier to swallow by the spectator having planned this action alongside the violent character. We gain a bit of understanding by having plotted along with him at the same time that we were condemning him morally. This is not the way we ordinarily respond to reality, but it certainly adds a layer of complexity to our interaction with character, a kind of charactercomplexity that I did not address in Chapter 6 that arises out of the intricacy of the spectator’s attitudes and feelings about the character’s actions. This kind of complexity is of a kind with the devices in Hitchcock that invite sympathy for the devil. I have introduced this feature of characterization not to undermine the argument of my dissertation but to complement it with some questions about another dimension of
80 characterization: What is the effect of such participatory responses on our interest in character? What devices do filmmakers use to encourage or inhibit our predictions and desires? How do the spectator’s emotions influence inferences and judgments about characters? What is the history of these participatory effects and how are they used by specific filmmakers and genres? These are some of the questions to be addressed by future research into the poetics of character and characterization.
Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988), 51.
The notion of participatory response is from Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993).
Kunda, 112 ff.
On the psychology of artistic patternconstruction, see E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979).
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