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alternative to Hollywood. According to one commonplace shared by critics and filmmakers, whereas Hollywood films emphasize plot, independent films are more likely to be characterdriven.1 Thus one key feature differentiating independent films from the mainstream is that they are perceived to have a distinct approach to storytelling, which is part of the aura of aesthetic and cultural legitimacy they enjoy.2 Compared with the classical narration of the Hollywood mode, independent cinema is supposed to be more interested in character and to have more interesting characters. Miguel Arteta, director of Chuck and Buck, declares: “When I go see an independent movie, I want to see something totally different. I want to see characters who don't walk that predictable line."3 There are various other features differentiating independent cinema from Hollywood, from industrial structures to social and cultural functions, but on the level of textual features, character is salient. According to its detractors, contemporary Hollywood cinema is often content to have characters who are onedimensional types functioning as vehicles for other appeals, such as visual spectacle and the promotion of
2 ancillary consumer products. By contrast, the champions of indie cinema argue that its characters have more depth and complexity, are better developed, are truer to life, and are more vivid and compelling than Hollywood characters.5 But what does it mean for a film, or a corpus of films, to be interested in character? What do critics really mean when they say that independent films tend to be characterdriven? What devices of storytelling do independent filmmakers exploit to generate this effect of character salience? Simply put, what makes these characters so interesting? In order to answer these questions in a way that is satisfying theoretically as well as descriptively, we need to know more about the phenomenon of cinematic character and about our engagement with it, which is a task of narrative theory. Many aspects of narrative theory have been explored in relation to cinema, such as narration, narrative comprehension, and narrative structures, but many dimensions of the interface of spectator and character are still ripe for exploration.6 While significant work has been done on the relation of character emotion to spectator emotion, I am especially interested in the process by which spectators understand character psychology more broadly, and my discussion of character in independent cinema is intended to be part of a growing interest in this area among film scholars and other narrative theorists.7 In order to make sense of what makes a particular approach to the creation of character distinctive,
3 we must first understand how characters are created by filmmakers and understood by spectators. Thus in addition to being about American independent cinema, this dissertation is also about the construction of cinematic characters, especially their inner lives. It follows that I am concerned with two related questions, one general and theoretical, the other specific and analytical. First, how do spectators understand cinematic characters? And second, what is distinctive about the way we understand characters in American independent films? Rather than tackle these questions one at a time, I will endeavor to answer them together, by weaving independent film examples through my discussion of character per se, and by testing my ideas about character against characterizations in independent films by John Sayles, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, and the Coen brothers, that illustrate, complicate, or clarify the general theory. In each chapter, I address some aspect of character and I identify some ways in which independent cinema, as a distinct mode of storytelling, represents characters. The idea of bundling these two investigations together arose out of a desire to support my questions about independent film with a sturdy armature of ideas about how character functions as a system within narrative, and to challenge my thoughts about character by putting them in tension with a body of films
4 that demands a sophisticated critical approach. This discussion is organized according to theoretical rather than analytical topics, but it is my wish that it will not consequently be seen as a statement principally of theory rather than criticism, but rather as a combination of the two that is mutually enriching. One basic premise of this study is that a community of filmmakers, critics, and spectators find American independent cinema to be distinctive, and identify character as a central feature of this distinctiveness. I assume that they are correct, at least in some respects, that independent films have interesting characters. The questions that I pose are aimed at ascertaining the specific dimensions of independent film’s characterizations that allow for the appeal they generate. Thus the findings to follow from this premise will be (at least) twofold: some will be principles of characterconstruction that lend themselves to generating certain kinds of characterfocused interest; some will be specific features of American independent films that function according to these principles. I have chosen films for analysis that seem to me to be both representative and exemplary of character driven independent cinema, such as John Sayles’s Passion Fish, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, and Todd Haynes’s Safe. In the remainder of this introduction, I discuss the background assumptions of my conceptual approach, I introduce some key terms and ideas structuring my study, and I
5 signal the framework of topics to follow in the body of the dissertation. I also raise the issue of one process of character construction, subjective narration, which is not formally treated elsewhere, and defend this omission. Following that, I address the central appeals of American independent films by identifying some general viewing strategies that spectators use in understanding them.
Character, Person, and Self Since Aristotle, narrative theory has tended to favor action over character.8 This tendency was especially marked in the two major 20th Century schools of narrative theory, formalism and structuralism, which rejected the notion that narratives create representations of persons, whether on aesthetic grounds (viewing narrative form, rather than the interaction of narrative and audience, as the prime object of interest), or on ideological grounds (viewing “lifelike” characters, such as those in 19th Century novels, as a vehicle of modern, Western ideology). Formalist and structuralist narrative theories thus tend to view characters as functions of narrative structures such as plot.9 Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is defined by being mistaken for a spy, framed for murder, set up by Eve, shot at by the cropduster, etc. This approach is neatly summarized by Boris Tomashevsky: The protagonist is by no means an essential part of the story. The story, as
6 a system of motifs, may dispense entirely with him and his characteristics. The protagonist, rather, is the result of the formation of the story material into a plot. On the one hand, he is a means of stringing motifs together; and on the other, he embodies the motivation which connects the motifs.10 Thus the way character is understood in literature, according to plotdominant theories, is as a bundle of traits subordinate to a proper name. 11 By “traits” theorists mean not only stable personality traits, such as introversion or intelligence, but all manner of descriptive data about behavior and mental states. This concept doesn’t work as well in narrative forms such as film, in which characters are visual as well as verbal representations, but the basic idea is still in evidence in film theory influenced by the plotdominant schools. For example, Kristin Thompson asserts in terms borrowed from Barthes that “characters are not real people, but collections of semes, or character traits.”12 According to this perspective, Roger Thornhill is not a person, but a mere agglomeration of descriptive and visual details functioning within a textual system. However, there is no logical reason why we should not turn Tomashevsky’s idea 180 degrees around, to say: “the plot is merely the result of the formulation of character material into a characterization.” This would echo Henry James’s famous statement, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the determination of character?”13 Unlike the theorists who see characters as mere functions of plot events, and also unlike those who reduce character to a bundle of traits, I am more
7 inclined to see character as the narrative representation of a person or personlike agent. This understanding follows that of the narrative theorists Uri Margolin, Alan Palmer, Marisa Bortolussi, and Peter Dixon, all of whom argue that readers understand characters as persons.14 Murray Smith argues that this understanding is a product of the application of a person schema to a narrative representation, constructing the data of the narrative to constitute “an analogue of a human agent.”15 A character is the sum of his represented parts and then some, since one of the features of characters that we typically supply unless cued to do otherwise—a kind of narrative default setting—is that they are maximally personlike. Unless a characterization indicates otherwise, whether explicitly or by conventions of genre or character type, characters are assumed to share all of the same qualities as persons 16 In independent and Hollywood films a character is most typically a fictional person, and less often a nonfictional person such as Jackson Pollock in Pollock or Robert Crumb in Crumb, or a personlike agent who may in theory be either fictional or nonfictional, such as Buzz Lightyear. Understanding a character to be a person puts the issues of plot and traits aside, acknowledging that they are means of describing characters, but insisting that they do not define them. Characters exist not as marks on the page or as projected images but as constructs of the mind. By identifying characters as persons, I certainly do not mean to
8 imply that spectators believe that characters are illusions of real persons, or that narratives create such a vivid facsimile of reality that spectators forget that they are watching a representation. Rather, I mean to assert that our encounters with cinematic characters demand the same cognitive abilities that we use in our encounters with real persons, and that we approach characters as persons rather than as some other category of being.17 The way we make sense of characters is by applying social cognition to the task. Social cognition is made up of a cluster of capacities that allow human beings to predict and explain the behavior of others.18 It is also sometimes called social intelligence, and many of its features are shared with our closest relations in the animal kingdom, the primates.19 Ordinarily we understand other people’s behavior by making inferences about the contents of their minds, including their intentional states, 20 such as beliefs and desires, and their affect states, such as emotions and moods. We also make inferences and judgments about traits other people are likely to have and categories, or types, to which they might belong. These inferences and judgments are based on a combination of prior knowledge, including both specific information about the person and schemas of varying specificity, and observed actions, including goaldirected behavior, facial and vocal expressions, and reactions to situations in the social environment. They are all interrelated, such that desire inferences, trait and type judgments, and emotion
9 recognitions feed into each other. I discuss them separately in the chapters to follow because they are studied separately by psychologists and the products of these parallel research programs have not to my knowledge been effectively synthesized. In practice, however, the processes function all together. Like real people, characters are assumed to think and feel. This assumption is the basis of our encounters with them: we seek information on a momentbymoment basis about their knowledge, beliefs, desires, goals, plans, moods, and emotions. These are all descriptive data, of course, but we do not think of them in the abstract as a list of terms. This is one aspect of the failure of the “bundleoftraits” approach to defining character. Traits added up amount to a list. A character is a dynamic construct, more like a complex computer program than it is like a list to which items may be added and subtracted. Characterization is a process of data acquisition, but as with social cognition, the data are acquired in complex and patterned ways. Every new bit of data is interpreted in the context of all the ones that came before it, and may potentially modify many other bits, whether through confirmation, complication, or revision of existing knowledge and inference. The interface of text and spectator also functions to focus and direct attention and to create expectations, which in turn affects future characterization, i.e., it guides cognition. Emphasizing accumulating details over the rich patterns of social intelligence
10 activated by characterization discounts the dynamic nature of the process. If we don’t merely accumulate information in additive fashion in our everyday encounters with others, we wouldn’t when we watch a film, either. The alternative model emphasizes context, attentionfocusing, and more sophisticated information processing. Characterization is social cognition, in the sense that it is a process wherein spectators interpret human behavior and its underlying psychological causes using the same cognitive tools the spectators apply in understanding their real social worlds. We, the spectators, read other people, the characters. But characterization is also a product of social cognition, in the sense that filmmakers internalize principles of reasoning about mental states in constructing characterizations. In this second sense, characterization is a set of storytelling procedures that exploits social cognition. The challenge of theorizing is to understand the tension and fit between these two senses of characterization, for if the process of watching a film were just the same as the process of experiencing real life, we would have no need for film theory—we could just read the social cognition literature, which would explain cinema no less than it does the real world. The point of analyzing characterization is to see how filmmakers, tacitly taking up principles of human psychology that they and their audience share, utilize aspects of those principles in crafting design features of narrative construction. In doing so, they are able to amplify
11 characterization’s clarity, vividness, depth, complexity, or expressiveness. David Bordwell’s discussion of aspects of visual style applies no less to this point about characterization and social cognition: Historically, filmmakers have taken as their material ordinary behaviors, often of transculturally readable sorts. But the filmmakers have processed those behaviors, usually for the sake of greater clarity and force. Cinematic style often streamlines ordinary human activity, smoothing the rough edges away, reweighting it for the purposes of creating representations which are densely and redundantly informative, as well as emotionally arousing.21 The task of the film theorist trying to understand characterization, then, is to understand which aspects of ordinary human activity are typically streamlined when persons are represented as characters, which cognitive propensities are recruited by the filmmaker. It is to determine how filmmakers emphasize, amplify, or frustrate realworld processes to enhance cinematic storytelling, which in turn differentiates the cinematic experience from reality even as films demand reality’s cognitive skill set for their comprehension. We construct film characters as persons, but the representation of persons in films tends to follow a certain logic of construction that intensifies their appeal. In the 1970s film theorists argued that we love to watch movies because of the pleasure we get from looking at people. Without denying this appeal, I would suggest that a complementary pleasure is typically derived from looking into people. This
12 dissertation is only indirectly concerned with the pleasure or displeasure offered by movies, but it is thoroughly caught up in the question of how movies invite—or forbid— us to explore the inside of people’s heads, their thoughts and feelings and a sense of their personalities. I assume that when we talk about interesting characters in independent films, this is a large part of what we are talking about. Characters are representations of selves; ordinary people find selves interesting and so do the scholars in a variety of academic fields who have taken an interest in the self as a concept and in particular in the self as it is figured in narrative. A cognitive approach to character and characterization places human experience, the experience of selfhood, at the center of narrative. Everything that happens in a narrative either happens to the characters or because of them, or has implications for them which are understood on some level as the justification or explanation of the events’ significance. Narrative itself is coming to be understood by some theorists as a means of understanding human experience, as a cognitive instrument for making sense of ourselves and others.22 As Edward Branigan defines it, narrative is “a perceptual activity that organizes data into a special pattern which represents and explains experience” (my emphasis).23 Storytelling certainly has multiple functions, and in commercial cinema aesthetic appreciation and entertainment value compete with selfconception and understanding for our attention.
13 Yet narrative and the construction of selves are closely—some would say inextricably— connected. “Selfmaking is a narrative art,” writes psychologist Jerome Bruner in Making Stories, arguing that selfhood itself is a product of storytelling. 24 In Acts of Meaning, Bruner also argues that “narrative is…a natural vehicle for folk psychology,” since narrative necessarily represents “human intentionality.”25 Unlike the formalist structuralist conception of character as a function of plot, Bruner sees plotmaking as a function of selfmaking, whether in fictional or nonfictional narratives. The neurologist Oliver Sacks, in “A Matter of Identity,” a story about a man unable to tell his own story to himself—and thus unable to constitute his own identity—writes: We have, each of us, a lifestory, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, “a narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities… [E]ach of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us— through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations… To be ourselves we must have ourselves—possess, if need be repossess, our lifestories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.26 Sacks’ idea is that each individual has a unique story, an idealization of himself or herself
14 that is a product of inward reflection, of active thought and conscious design. Note the progression in his list of sources productive of the selfasnarrative: perceptions, feelings, thoughts, actions, and then discourse. Sacks implies that the creation of story begins with the senses, moves through various cognitive states (intentional, affective), is then made manifest in behavior, and only after all of that is realized as such in an instance of storytelling. In narrative cinema, the process by which stories are generated is obviously quite different, but the basis of narrative in selfmaking is not and neither is the significance of all of those dimensions of perception and cognition. Narratives are intelligible insofar as they represent human experience and offer their audience the possibility of relating their experience to that of the characters. The plot, the temporal dimension of the narrative, is the means of representing the life of a person or persons in the fullest fourdimensionality of spacetime. Thus the details of the plot, the setting, the themes, and the narrative structure are assumed, tacitly, to offer information about the people who populate the narrative world. As I shall argue in Chapter 5, no narrative worth reading or seeing describes and represents its settings and events without indexing them to the characters whose experiences are the context for the representations. This may be true of narratives generally, but it is especially germane in considering American independent film, which is generally understood to have a greater
15 interest in character than in other storytelling values. In contrast with Hollywood cinema, independent film is considered to privilege character above plot, and it would follow that the significance of character to narrative would be even greater in a mode that often focuses more on the exploration of identity than on more conventional genre material. Even in formally innovative independent films such as The Limey, 21 Grams, and Memento, in which the intricate workings of experimental plotting claim our attention, we are still encouraged to see character as the key to unraveling the convoluted events. The point of The Limey’s exercise in fragmentary storytelling is to work toward a sense of what originally made Wilson so singularly focused on Valentine, to understand him better by searching his character for explanations for the plot events. In independent cinema character is typically the dominant feature of narrative design. But even in more orthodox classicism, character and especially character psychology are of paramount significance. Although the characters of this mode tend to have fewer, simpler traits, they are no less central as foci of narrative interest than the characters of independent cinema. Their traits typically attach clearly to welldefined goals, and their goals motivate the forward progress of plot events—more so than in other modes of cinema.27 The claim that independent cinema is more characterfocused must really mean that independent films have more interesting characters—or more interest in
16 character than plot as an element of narrative—but it cannot mean that independent films make character more integral to plot than classical films do, as this integration is in the essence of classicism. The main narrative events and their outcomes in a tightly plotted, tightly causal, classical Hollywood narrative such as The Maltese Falcon are often caused by the protagonist as a product of his basic character traits, as in the ultimate scene in which the incorruptible Sam Spade turns Brigid O’Shaughnessy in to the police. In other instances, the main events happen to the hero, rather than because of him, such that his experiences, which are consistent with his traits, are most relevant to their representation. For example, North by Northwest is full of incidents that befall Roger Thornhill rather than being caused by him: he is mistaken for George Kaplan, forcibly intoxicated and almost killed, framed for a murder, seduced by an agent of his enemies, and led by her to a cornfield where his is almost killed again. In this film, the character is still the central focus of events even though he does not cause them; indeed the events are only comprehensible as those befalling Roger Thornhill, seen through his eyes (figuratively and, often, literally). There may even be events in the classical film from which the hero is absent which are understood in the context of his experience (e.g., are judged visàvis the character). When in The Maltese Falcon we see Joel Cairo going toward Kaspar Gutman’s room, an event that Spade does not see or know about, we evaluate this
17 development per Spade, understand and judge it in relation to Spade’s beliefs, desires, plans, and goals, and react emotionally in a fashion sympathetic to Spade. Similarly in North by Northwest, when Eve sends the “What shall I do with him in the morning?” note while aboard the train to Chicago, we understand the event—the revelation that Eve is Vandam’s agent—in reference to Roger, with all that that entails. Some classical films, however, have looser causal structures or less structured motivation than The Maltese Falcon and North by Northwest. Even in instances in which plotadvancement seems to be insufficient motivation for a sequence in a film, such as a musical number in a 1930s Busby Berkeley film, there can still be character motivation that explains at least some of the interest we take beyond the sequence’s appeal as spectacle. Because the grand finale numbers in Footlight Parade and 42nd St. are so lengthy and elaborate, it is easy to forget that in the fictional worlds of those films, the performances are products of the characters’ long, hard efforts, the happy culmination and satisfaction of narrative desires. This isn’t to deny Berkeley’s visual prowess, or even that his production numbers may be instances in which the sensory pleasures of a film sequence are greater than those generated by narrative. It is only to insist that not all events in a film must perpetually advance the plot for them to have a narrative function. When the conception of narrative is collapsed into plot, the concepts of narrative
18 motivation and dominance are impoverished to the point of irrelevance. To take a much different example, the hotel restaurant scene in the Coen brothers’ Fargo in which Marge (Frances McDormand) gets together with her emotionally unstable, socially awkward high school acquaintance, Mike, has no relation to the kidnapping, murders and their investigation, which make up the basic plot of the film. Mike has seen Marge on the news, and asked to meet with her in hopes that she will reciprocate his romantic interest. The situation is comical not only because Mike is clearly neither an attractive nor an appropriate mate, but also because Marge is very visibly pregnant as well as happily married, and so not likely to be interested in a fling with him. Seen from the perspective of plotadvancement, the scene is extraneous and unmotivated. As an encounter between a man and a woman, it provides a parallel and counterpoint to the scenes between Jerry and his wife, Marge and her husband, and especially Marge and Jerry, who like Mike is socially maladroit. Mike meeting Marge emphasizes the parallel between Jerry and Marge that structures the progression of the narrative events, but the events of this scene itself have no significant causal link to earlier or later scenes. As far as the plot is concerned, this scene could have been deleted and it would have made little difference. Seen from the perspective of character, it is one of the film’s most touching,
19 revelatory, and fully realized moments, because it shows a different dimension of Marge than we see in either her home or work settings. Marge functions as the moral compass of Fargo, the character whose good humor, honesty, professionalism, and keen intelligence are in marked contrast to the venality, violence, arrogance, obnoxiousness, and cowardice of the other characters. But by showing us a scene in which she has to handle a difficult social situation with delicacy and grace, the Coens open up another view on her, adding not only to her complexity but also to her likeability. We sympathize with her being put in an awkward situation and admire the way she carefully lets Mike down. The scene actually is stronger for not having a connection to the main line of plot action, as there is nothing at stake in the encounter but the characters’ feelings—it is not like the scenes between Marge and Jerry Lundegaard, which while being likewise awkward are also nervewracking because of Jerry’s shifty, anxious demeanor, a function of plot as well as character, and which are scenes of Marge at work, in her capacity as a police officer, which demands that we judge her against expectations of her role as a detective. Those scenes between Marge and Jerry also consume our attention differently, as they hold more potential of affecting the direction of the plot by closing or opening links in the causal chain of events. The Marge and Jerry scenes pose clear questions about the characters in relation to the plot, whereas the scene of Marge and Mike does
20 not. The scene of Marge and Mike also shows us something about Marge’s background and formative years, further fleshing out and humanizing her, a marked contrast to some of the other characters who are satirized more than humanized. Fargo is an example of an independent film that is keenly interested in the specificity of a cultural experience and identity (the northern Midwest), and this scene keys in on that interest. Finally, by loosening the causal chain for Marge rather than for any other character, the film signals her primacy among them, promoting her for our allegiance despite her absence from the first twenty minutes of the film, which is part of the film’s larger transfer of alignment from Jerry to Marge.28 The Coen brothers take an interest in character and make interesting characters, and none exceeds Marge in warmth and goodness. When critics identify independent cinema with depth of characterization, it is scenes and characters like these that they have in mind, scenes that would be unlikely to find their way into a Hollywood film.
A Cognitive Theory of Characterization: Intuitive and Counterintuitive Some of the features of cinematic characterization may seem obvious or simply intuitive, and one objection sometimes leveled at cognitive film theories is that they amount to little
21 more than commonsense explanations dressed up with terminology borrowed from cognitive science. This criticism, as I understand it, is that cognitive theories are not interesting or useful because they merely reproduce knowledge that is already available to film scholars. It should not be news to anyone who studies film, for example, that when we watch a movie we fasten on the main character’s eyes. It should not be news that main characters are the ones we know the most about, or that we slot characters into categories (or types), which function to open up and close off expectations about them. All of these are ideas to be found in the chapters to follow. They are all crucial features of characterization and, with many other points, are the basis for much of film comprehension, engagement, and appreciation. Yet they demand discussion, analysis, and theorizing, and sometimes such basic points also demand disputing and revising. Some intuitive points demand consideration because there is substantial research that film studies should not ignore about how social cognition functions. Since engaging with a film is a process of making sense of people, we would be illadvised to disregard the findings of psychologists who study this phenomenon. For example, the activation of inferences linking events in the social world to agents within it, such as an inference that a person who helped you is a helpful sort of person, is a crucial strategy of narrative construction. The better we understand how people attribute traits to one another the
22 better we will understand how people attribute traits to characters in a movie, and how filmmakers guide us toward or away from such attributions. So there are intuitive points to be raised in the pages to follow which film studies has barely considered, if at all. Whether or not individual scholars will find them interesting is impossible to say, but I submit that they describe and explain central facets of the process of watching a film, and that film theory needs to understand them if it is to understand narrative comprehension and engagement. We may not appreciate the significance of some aspects of common sense which are generally valid, and may undervalue their implications, which we have not considered very carefully. We think of character typing as something basic and automatic, but at the same time we often consider good characters to defy typing. To assert that all characters —wellmade and badlymade alike—are types, as I shall in Chapter 2, may seem intuitive but controversial. This much is true of many such claims to be considered in the pages to follow. Considering how characterization functions demands that some intuitive but nonetheless problematic ideas be considered. Some points may seem intuitive and simplistic, such as the observation in Chapter 4 that we read characters’ facial and vocal expressions of emotion in largely same way as we recognize other people’s expressions in reality. Since this sounds like a claim of
23 “naive realism,” it is an intuitive point that requires explanation and defense. Many of my points may seem intuitive to the nonspecialist but controversial or wrongheaded to the film and media specialist, steeped in decades of antirealist rhetoric. I may fairly be termed a realist, but I defend this position with substantial evidence from social psychology, and I am eager to clarify and qualify my position so that I will not be mistaken for a “naive” realist, but rather be seen as a careful, considered, theoretically informed realist. There is nothing simplistic about the way we read emotion expressions or about the way filmmakers harness this skill to craft aesthetically satisfying narratives, as I shall discuss. Finally, some of the points I shall discuss are actually counterintuitive. Common sense should never be left unexamined, because it frequently contains inaccuracies or flat out falsehoods that we would be better off correcting. Sometimes our intuitions are wrong. For example, many people probably think that independent films have dynamic characters with great depth and complexity who undergo significant development. I shall argue in Chapter 6, however, that this is often not the case, that many independent films have flat characters whose psychology is closed off rather than opened up and whose “arc” involves little significant change. Moreover, this does not make them less interesting as characters—indeed, it is a strategy of increasing our interest in them. To
24 take another example, it may seem like common sense that most films contain conventionally expressive faces in which clear basic emotions, such as anger or disgust, are conveyed. As I argue in Chapter 4, however, faces in films are often quite inexpressive and some films display these basic facial expressions of emotion rather infrequently. This is not to say that these films necessarily fail to establish character emotions, but to argue that establishing character emotions can function in various ways, only one of which is the conventionally expressive face. Some of the points to follow are thus challenges to received wisdom or common sense. To summarize, then, I have identified three layers of points to be considered in Chapters 2 through 6. The first layer contains the points which are intuitive but which demand consideration and explanation, such as the link between characters’ actions and our attribution to them of personality traits. The second contains the points which are intuitive but controversial, such as my assertion that all characters, good and bad, are types. And the third layer is made up of counterintuitive points, such as the notion that films with interesting characters sometimes have flat, unchanging, shallow characterizations. It would be inaccurate to claim, therefore, that my discussion of characterization is “mere” common sense or that my points are obvious. Those aspects of this dissertation which are common sense are arrived at only after careful consideration
25 of evidence—of films in relation to theories—and many topics which might have seemed candidates for a commonsense treatment will be shown to be more complicated than one might think at first, or just invalid.
Character and Characterization The most important distinction structuring the chapters to follow is between two aspects of the cinematic representation of persons. On one hand is the thing we call a character, which I have defined as a narrative representation of a person (or personlike agent). In The Big Lebowski, the main character is a fictional person, The Dude (Jeff Bridges). The Dude has many attributes and predicates, a considerable quantity of narrative details that together constitute him as a representation, including many that are not explicit in The Big Lebowski but which the spectator must supply on the basis of suggestions in the film, or by applying cognitive structures used in understanding persons and situations. For example, in his first scene of the film, The Dude stands in the refrigerated dairy aisle of an empty Los Angeles supermarket wearing sunglasses and dressed in a bathrobe and shorts. He looks around to see if anyone is paying attention, opens a pint carton of half andhalf, and sniffs its contents. Then, with a white stripe visible on his mustache hairs, he stands at the checkout counter and makes his purchase by writing out a check for 69
26 cents. The details of this scene establish many aspects of the character: he dresses like a slob, wants halfandhalf at an odd hour (we soon learn that it goes in his signature drink, the White Russian), and he pays with a check. This bit of comic business reminds us of The Dude’s real name, Jeffrey Lebowski, which is printed on his Ralph’s supermarket value club card and in the top left corner of his personalized checks. Then The Dude looks up over his shades and we follow his glance across a cut to the first President Bush on a television monitor saying, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” We make many inferences and judgments about The Dude on the basis of these details: we categorize or type him in various ways, infer aspects of his beliefs, desires, goals, and other psychological states, and identify a kind of endearing eccentricity in his personality. Real people have many dimensions, not all of which can even be known by observers. A vivid, multidimensional character such as The Dude is thus a rich field of narrative data combining explicitly represented details with the spectator’s contribution of inferences, judgments, and interpretations based on expectations we have about persons, real and fictional. As Noël Carroll argues, “It is in the nature of narrative to be essentially incomplete.”29 We may apply this observation to character as well: the text presents enough information for us to work with, and we complete the job of constructing the person.
27 On the other hand is the process by which The Dude is represented onscreen as part of the unfolding of the events in the narrative world, and in the minds of the people in the audience taking them in and making sense of them. This is what I am calling characterization. Although we often think of characters in retrospect as stable, having already experienced the whole narrative and knowing everything we are going to know, they are presented to us in a dynamic temporal form And whereas we think of characters as human or humanlike, characterization is a textual system, a dynamic interaction between the spectator and cinematic and narrative structures. The following are some aspects of the supermarket scene in The Big Lebowski that make it an example of characterization: It functions as exposition, being placed early in the film to acquaint us with the character and encouraging a specific first impression of what kind of person The Dude is, which influences our expectations for the rest of the film. As an introduction that precedes the initial instigation of plot events, rather than plunging us into them in medias res, this scene has an iterative function suggesting that The Dude ordinarily shops alone and at odd hours, runs out of cash and has to pay with a check, wears sunglasses at night, wears a bathrobe outside of the house, wants halfandhalf, etc. Introductions often characterize by
28 establishing implicit routines. This scene also introduces one of the film’s main motifs, the doublenaming of the main character. The voiceover narrator, a cowboy speaking in a folksy drawl, calls the character both “Dude” and “Lebowski,” and describes him as “the man for his time and place” and “possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles county.” The scene’s visual and aural style emphasize the emptiness of the supermarket, with its bright lights, boldly receding depth, and pipedin music, and establishes The Dude within a specific time and place, a latetwentieth century consumer society, more specifically L.A. before the first Gulf War. The camera and blocking both emphasize the scene’s expository role by slowly pushing in on The Dude’s face as he steps forward in the space of the frame. Jeff Bridges’s performance conveys The Dude’s laidback demeanor. This scene relates in various ways to other scenes of the film, such as those when The Dude drinks a White Russian, when he wears similar clothes, when he has a similar demeanor, or when he is involved in transactions. There are also more explicit parallels between this scene and two others later on. After being assaulted, The Dude repeats Bush’s words, “this will not stand.” Finally, the introductory scene is echoed much later on in the film after the death of The
29 Dude’s friend Donnie (Steve Buscemi). The film implies that The Dude and Walter go to Ralph’s to get the coffee can in which they bring Donnie’s ashes to the seaside, where they scatter them, and this symmetry of Ralph’s as a motif introduced at the beginning and the end subtly structures the presentation of the story and characters and reminds us of what The Dude was like before the main events of the plot began, ushering us back to the initial state of equilibrium. All of these devices are significant aspects of our encounter with The Dude, but none is part of his character except, perhaps, for Bridges’s performance, which functions both as character and as characterization. These are processes by which we become acquainted with the character. They also structure our encounter with the character over the course of the narrative by creating expectations and meanings, and by developing them as the story progresses. It follows from the distinction between the kinds of information that constitute character and the kinds that constitute characterization that the former is to the latter as narrative is to narration: one can be observed as a finished structure but the other must be appreciated in its unfolding temporality.30 Or to put it slightly differently, character is one aspect of narrative, while characterization is one aspect of narration. Both a character and a narrative may be contemplated as a whole, while a characterization or narration can
30 only be considered as a process in flux. It may appear that this distinction between character and characterization is congruent with another distinction narrative theorists make between two planes of narrative, one a surface structure of represented events (discourse, plot, syuzhet), the other a deep structure of those events as they “really happened,” reconstructed in the mind of the reader or spectator (diegesis, story, fabula).31 However, if one did map directly onto the other, we would have to say that in the plot, The Dude is a characterization while in the story, he is a character. This does not make sense, since it requires that we deny that The Dude is a character in the plot. Furthermore, the characterization consists among other things of temporal ordering, camera movement, motifs, and parallelisms, but these things are not parts of the plot, they are parts of style and of narration. Most importantly, it makes little sense to overlay the story/plot distinction with that between character, a person concept, and characterization, a process concept. Rather than mapping character and characterization onto this distinction, then, I consider character to operate on both narrative levels and characterization, like narration, to be the means by which the spectator accesses plot character so as to be able to construct the story. As an interaction between character and spectator, characterization’s form is a temporal unfolding, and to analyze characterization demands that we slow the film down
31 and consider each part in relation to the one that preceded it, the one that succeeded it, and the ones that relate to it elsewhere in the text. Character also has a temporal form, since people’s lives are structured by time, but as a theoretical concept character is abstracted from time, seen as it were from above. Character is a sum of narrative information, some of it explicit and some of it filled in by the spectator; characterization is an ongoing experience. We shall see that character and characterization tend to work in concert, but that in some cases they may be at odds with one another, with the characterization generating tension against the construction of character by withholding information or by providing inconsistent or confusing data about the character. This is the case, for example, in films whose characters are difficult to understand, such as Safe, Hard Eight, and The Limey. In The Big Lebowski, the tone of the voiceover that introduces The Dude, delivered by a narrator who isn’t sure what he wants to say (“Oh, now I’ve lost my train of thought...”), suggests that the characterization is mocking the device of voiceover narration as a cliché. In this way, the characterization has a function separate from the clear introduction of the character and complicates rather than clarifies the construction of character. In The Big Lebowski this ironic device is a source of comedy, but in other films, characterization that clashes with character may serve many other functions, such
32 as increasing interest in character or appealing on the level of formal play. The chapters following this introduction are organized into two parts. The first is about character processes, and is concerned with the psychological dimensions of character construction rooted in social cognition. It assumes a quasidirect interface between spectator and character, mostly saving up the question of how the medium of film and the form of narrative shape the process of character construction while at times, in analyses of specific films, spending some of this capital. The cinematic character processes discussed in Part I are typing, or person categorization (Chapter 2); mindreading, or making inferences about characters’ intentionality (their beliefs, desires, plans, goals, and the like) and traits (Chapter 3); and the recognition of characters’ emotion expressions, especially in their voices and faces (Chapter 4). Taken together, these three components of social cognition account for our ability to understand persons and characters on the outside (their behavior) and on the inside (their psychology). The second part is about characterization processes, and is concerned with the textual system through which characters are represented and comprehended. Unlike the first part, it foregrounds the ways that audiovisual techniques and narrative design principles shape the spectator’s interaction with character profoundly and pervasively. The second part is not a whole separate set of processes in parallel with character
33 processes, but is overlaid upon the character processes and is the means through which they are made operative. Thus in many sections of part II, I return to concepts and examples raised in Part I to revisit their functioning within the narrativecinematic textual system. The characterization processes discussed in Part II are film style (Chapter 5), and variables of characterization such as depth, complexity, and character change, which may or may not support character construction (Chapter 6).
What About Subjective Narration? There is one aspect of characterization which to some observers might seem to be the most central process representing character psychology, but which I do not discuss very much in the chapters to follow. I am referring to the direct representation of characters’ experience through the various devices film theory calls subjective narration. These fall into several categories, some of which are central and some of which are more questionable cases. In Film Art, Bordwell and Thompson distinguish between perceptual and mental subjectivity. Perceptual subjective narration includes visual representations of a character’s perceptual experience such as POV shots. Mental subjective narration includes the cinematic dramatization of dreams, memories, and fantasies.32 Bordwell and Thompson do not include character narration in the category of subjective narration,
34 whether it be using a voiceover as in Blade Runner or the device of a character beginning to narrate a story and the film taking over from her by dramatizing her words, as in Brief Encounter. These related techniques have a tenuous connection to subjective narration: while in some rare cases they may really cause spectators to see the film’s narration as temporarily being relayed through the character’s mind, most often character narration is an alibi for motivating timeshifting into flashbacks (the characterstoryteller instance) or for helping clarify exposition (the voiceover instance). These devices may produce an effect of sympathy for the character but not the sense that the images and sounds that illustrate her words really issue from her subjectivity. More peripheral yet is the concept of focalization. This is sometimes imported from literary theory to describe a character whose experience—sometimes merely perceptual, sometimes mental—the narration of a film seems to access, privilege, or suggest. Murray Smith has effectively argued that this confusing concept should be jettisoned and in its place we should talk about the narration emphasizing character experiences through the combination of objective spatiotemporal attachment to a character and subjective access.33 The characters whose experiences, external and internal, are dramatized the most are the ones with whom we align. Smith distinguishes as well between single and multiple attachment, the latter being a standard feature of
35 ensemble films There are three reasons why I have chosen to discuss this topic only briefly now, seldom to return to it again. First, I don’t think that subjective narration has many advantages in constructing character psychology when compared with social cognition processes, as I shall explain. Second, whether or not I am right about this, subjective narration has been addressed at considerable length elsewhere and my contribution to this discussion amounts merely to a few points about some of the technique’s limitations and its modest use in American independent films.34 This leads into my final reason, which is that subjective narration is not a very typical independent film technique, especially not when considering by comparison its prevalent use in European avantgarde cinema of the 1920s and art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Recent American cinema makes use of subjective narration of various sorts, but rarely to the systematic extent of these modes of the past, which made the techniques central to their aesthetic programs. American independent cinema generally makes less use of these techniques and is not characterized by much reliance on psychological narration devices such as charactermotivated flashbacks and dream sequences. Indeed, the tendency among some independent directors to scramble temporal order is marked by its avoidance of motivating this narrative experimentation as character subjectivity.
36 Memento, Pulp Fiction, Go, and 21 Grams are presented out of order for no particular reason given in the narration. An exception is The Limey, which suggests that some of its hardtoplace images are memories or other thoughts, echoing Resnais’s La Guerre est finie, but which also manipulates temporality without so motivating it, as in the scene introducing Terry Valentine, during which brief clips of scenes later in the film are interspersed among shots representing the narrative “now.” These images of Valentine are not character flashforwards or fantasies, but rather playful objective narration. A more outlandish exception is Being John Malkovich, which is not a exactly a time scrambling narrative but which does exploit subjectivity as a means of exploring character, though not in any conventional fashion. As with the films of David Lynch, I consider Being John Malkovich to be sui generis, hard to assimilate into the general tendencies of independent film. (Perhaps this is an instance of discounting data that contradicts established types rather than modifying the types to accommodate contradictory data, a phenomenon I describe in Chapter 2. If this is so, I imagine that I share this sense of Being John Malkovich being exceptional with many others.) If American independent cinema favors any particular subjective device it is the character voiceover, which does suggest an emphasis on a particular character that tints the film’s narration, as in The Opposite of Sex. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. uses
37 occasional character narration in directaddress sequences, underlining the fact that the narration takes the main character, Chantal’s, perspective. The characterization in these films is rigorously aligned with the main characters, however, and most of the effect of allegiance to them is a product of spatiotemporal attachment and moral evaluation rather than subjectivity devices. Partly this avoidance of mental subjectivity is attributable to independent cinema’s investment in a kind of realism, as we shall see in the latter portion of this chapter. Many independent filmmakers see part of their aesthetic mission to be an effort at social analysis, i.e., at understanding contemporary social institutions, issues, and identities. This is certainly true of Just Another Girl: the point is to establish how Chantal stands for a certain experience of social identity, and our sympathy with her is clearly supposed to lead to sympathy for young black women as a group. Many American independent filmmakers see individuals in terms of their social bonds rather, as in other film movements of the past, than as puzzles to be probed psychologically. This isn’t to say that they are not interested in character psychology. But it is to insist on a conception of the individual that makes the subjective realm less relevant as a topic to explore than the objective, external, social realm. This is especially true of directors such as Spike Lee, Todd Solondz, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, and Kevin Smith, all of whom are quite
38 different in their thematic and stylistic approach to filmmaking, but all of whom still aim to capture the everydayness of various specific social spheres. Another way of putting this would be that realism is a mode of storytelling less likely to take up the explicit techniques of subjectivity for the representation of character psychology. All of those earlier movements and styles in film history were, by contrast, to some extent invested in different conception of artistic representation, such as expressionism. But such conceptions do not guarantee an interest in character per se or an increased degree of knowledge—from the perspective of the spectator—concerning character psychology. This is because objective characterization is no less generative of psychological insights, and indeed may be more so since it requires certain kinds of inferential activity that subjective means of characterization might limit by, for example, keeping the character’s eyes off screen. The eyes, as I argue in Chapters 3 and 4, are a crucial device for character construction, and in the classic POV structure they may be less available to the spectator than in a style that emphasizes them. Moreover, as Murray Smith points out, one function of POV shots is to limit the field of vision and withhold information pertinent to the character, a device horror films often exploit by obscuring both the monster and its potential victim—our hero or heroine—from our view.35 Another limitation on perceptual and mental subjectivity is narrative context. In
39 narrative feature films, representations of a character’s perceptual and mental experiences are very rarely seen absent a context of objective narration in which to place the character. Characterization is a virtually perpetual process for the duration of a film, but subjective narration typically offers information about character psychology only in circumscribed passages. The information gained during a subjective sequence must be made to square with the information gained during the rest of the film. Typically, most character traits, actions and reactions are established objectively and subjective sequences offer small shreds, rather than large swathes, of additional characterizing detail, much of it redundant with the sort of information we already know, or at least noncontradictory to it. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, as Marion Crane drives away from Phoenix, having stolen the money from her boss, an imaginary conversation in her head reveals her anxiety about what is likely to happen after the theft is discovered. This tells us about her mental state: she is anxious about the consequences of her actions. But we already knew that from the events themselves (because anyone in her place would feel the same anxiety) and from her anxious facial expressions and body language. The voiceover fills in details and ups the emotional impact of the narrative, but it does not really provide significant new information. In many instances, subjective sequences are opportunities not for deep
40 psychological investigations but for stylization and experimentation (e.g., French Impressionism, Hitchcock’s dream sequences). In such instances, the “literalness” of the mental representation is a stretch just as great as the cinematic dramatization of character narration. In other words, we don’t necessarily take mental subjectivity any more literally than we take the cinematic representation of a character’s words. As The Big Lebowski demonstrates in its outrageous hallucinatory fantasy sequences, which include a POV shot from inside a bowling ball and a Berkeleyesque musical number, subjective narration is not necessarily a credible representation of anyone’s mental state. In such cases, it is clear that subjective narration is a device that exploits character as a pretext for generating other appeals. Our comprehension of films is modeled on our comprehension of real people in real situations. All narrative films activate our processes of social cognition, but only some represent the mind directly. Those that do still do most of their characterizing indirectly and demand that whatever insights we gain during subjective sequences be understood within a context of objective characterization. Many films manage to create interesting characters without relying on subjective techniques, and it is possible to convey a world of information about a character without ever representing the character’s vision or thoughts directly. We evolved to read other people’s minds, not to enter them.
Making Sense of American Independent Cinema Since the 1980s, American independent cinema has been a fixture of international film culture, comprising films distinguished from the mainstream of American cinema by their modest means and personal artistic ambition. Independent cinema has produced not only films, but also a network of institutions that sustain them including Sundance, the Independent Film Channel, magazines such as Filmmaker and The Independent, producers and distributors such as Good Machine and Miramax, and the Landmark and Angelika theaters. Its antecedents are the American auteurs of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, such as Cassavetes, Altman, and Scorsese, who are the most important influences on many of independent cinema’s directors.36 But although the New American Cinema directors of earlier decades are sometimes labeled independent, American independent cinema has the typical generational cast of a film movement, with most of its key figures releasing their first features sometime between the mid1980s and the mid1990s. This section is an attempt to understand independent cinema not just as a movement but as a mode of film practice, a category parallel to mainstream cinema and avantgarde cinema, and closely related to international art/festival cinema. I will do so not by claiming that independent films have a shared core of formal or thematic
42 conventions, but by identifying a set of viewing strategies that are suggested by the films and institutionalized in film culture.37 These are ways for spectators to engage with independent cinema and to differentiate it from other categories, such as Hollywood cinema. Some of these strategies are of particular relevance to characterization, since one of the distinguishing features of independent cinema is that the discourse differentiating it from Hollywood considers character to be one of its prime concerns. So part of the task of this section is to explain this general understanding and probe its descriptive and explanatory value. The other task of this section will be more implicit but is no less important. It is to assert the significance of independent cinema in several respects: as a coherent phenomenon demanding careful critical and theoretical attention as such rather, as is more customary, than as an ad hoc collection of heterogeneous auteurs, styles, and sub genres; as an example of a parallel cinema to the mainstream that is distinct from it without challenging the basic contours of canonical narrative form and conventional visual style; and as a germane case study for the larger project of outlining a cognitivist model for understanding characterization. If the last of these points occasionally seems to hide in the shadows over the course of the discussion, it is only because the larger task, of asserting the significance and coherence of independent film as such, demands that
43 characterization be understood in the context of a larger system of viewing strategies. Before describing these in more detail, though, I will address several complementary approaches to understanding independent film.
Auteurs, Spirits, etc. The first problem that independent films present is their heterogeneity. We are talking about hundreds of films made over more than two decades in a wide variety of genres, from gangster films (Miller’s Crossing) to Westerns (Dead Man) to musicals (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) to romantic comedies (Before Sunrise) to family melodramas (Far From Heaven) to horror films (The Blair Witch Project) to documentaries (Crumb). Some were made on the ultracheap with unknown talent (El Mariachi), while others had budgets in the millions of dollars and casts of iconic movie stars (Pulp Fiction). Many filmmakers, film reviewers and academics have taken stabs at encapsulating American independent cinema, though few have managed to avoid some degree of contradiction. For starters, defining independent films as those and only those made outside of the studio system just seems wrong, as it includes some films (Terminator 2) that clearly don’t belong and excludes others (films by the Coen brothers and Spike Lee) that clearly do.38 For more than a decade, the major media corporations (e.g., News Corp., Disney) have been starting up or acquiring classics divisions that specialize in
44 independent film, making the idea of separation from the mainstream industry practically untenable. Moreover, industrial approaches risk assuming that “independent” means absolute autonomy from the mainstream of commercial media, and often presuppose a utopian vision of the filmmaker beholden to no one but his muses. More measured approaches have demonstrated that independent cinema functions as a part of the culture industry, a lowerbudget, prestigedriven parallel cinema to the mainstream of studio blockbuster releases.39 A focus on the films’ content risks overgeneralizing. Independent films are a varied lot; they are not a genre with a common setting, plot patterns, fullblown character types or emotional responses. They do, however, seem to have a star system of their own, made up of often young actors who may not have the conventionally glamorous movie star looks, many of whom also appear in nonhero roles in studio pictures. These actors include Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Parker Posey, Patricia Clarkson, Julianne Moore, Chloë Sevigny, David Strathairn, Martin Donovan, Lily Taylor, Campbell Scott, Laura Dern, and Eric Stoltz. Some attach to directors as part of a stock company in the tradition of Renoir, Bergman, and Altman, such as Strathairn with Sayles and Donovan with Hal Hartley. Even if independent films are not a genre, they might still be shown to have
45 thematic or stylistic consistency. One way in which independent cinema might be shown to have thematic coherence is by considering the raw, troubling subjects it takes up: serial killing (Monster), incest (Spanking the Monkey), rape (Leaving Las Vegas), pedophilia (Happiness), drug addiction (High Art), gaybashing (Boys Don’t Cry), misogyny (In the Company of Men), and what decades ago would have been called juvenile delinquency (Kids). This is a valid observation, though it accounts for only a fraction of independent films, many of which are more conventional lowbudget genre entries such as The Impostors and Swingers. There is certainly more possibility of a careful consideration of disturbing behavior and dark themes in independent cinema. But Hollywood films also address troubling social problems, though they tend to do so with a more upbeat tone, and they can also be very disturbing, as in the bigbudget films of David Fincher. To borrow the title of one book on the topic, we might say that independent films collectively constitute a “cinema of outsiders.”40 The outsiders might be the characters, and to some degree the characters we associate with the “stars” of indie films are typically nonconformists, oddballs, or eccentrics. Part of what makes characters interesting is novelty, and outsiders are by definition different. Of course, the outsiders might also be the auteurs, and one overarching interpretive assumption in regard to indie films is the salience of authorship.
46 This feeds into the idea of an independent “spirit,” a term sure to stick around for at least as long as the Independent Feature Project’s annual awards are named for it. The independent spirit refers to a quality that many films which don’t on first blush seem to belong together share, but which is attributed to them on the basis of a collective ambition of their creators to do honest, personal, genuine, heartfelt, urgent, meaningful, and artistic work..41 It picks up on the idea of independent film being free from the commercial imperative of the major studios without specifying what a personal, free cinema should look like. In providing an easy shorthand justification for the enterprise of independent cinema, it may obscure the relations among films rather than illuminating them, but it does tell us something important about the filmmakers’ ambitions and the audience’s frame of reference. When we watch independent films, we are primed by these notions of opposition and independence to focus on textual qualities that instantiate them concretely, most often in the form of characters who are outsiders or who have the same independent spirit attributed to indie directors and films, such as those of John Sayles.42 As for stylistic consistency, some suggest that independent cinema tends to be “gritty,” to have a low budget look and feel.43 We might associate this with techniques such as handheld camera, location shooting, and technically crude lighting and sound in films such as Clerks. But while some independent films certainly fit this description,
47 others do not. There is nothing crude about the style of Safe, Barton Fink, Passion Fish, or Eat Drink Man Woman. Furthermore, there has been an increasingly prevalent tendency in Hollywood cinema and television of the past decade to use these same “gritty” techniques. Moreover, as many observers have noted, the form and style of independent cinema is not avantgarde. Contemporary independent films pick up on the tradition of New American Cinema narrative features in the mode of Cassavetes, Altman, and Scorsese, not the underground and avantgarde traditions associated with Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol. In spite of his evident admiration for them, Emmanuel Levy argues that “Indie films, as a whole, are not artistically ground breaking.” The only aesthetic value he affirms in considering their approach to storytelling is “offbeat characterizations.” Otherwise, he argues, “Indie cinema has been more innovative in subject matter than in style.”44 If there is something about independent cinema that makes it cohere as a category, I suggest that we look beyond its place in the film industry and beyond its generic, thematic, and stylistic content. It makes sense to begin this discussion by comparing independent cinema with a closely related mode, art cinema.
Hollywood/OffHollywood, Art Cinema/Independent Cinema In his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” David Bordwell contrasts the
48 functions of art cinema narration against those of classical cinema. In some ways, independent cinema and art cinema share narrational functions, yet in many ways they are different. Furthermore, the classical cinema of the period 19171960 has not been maintained unchanged through the years, though many of its norms remain in contemporary Hollywood.46 These are all historical modes of narration, and each one is fairly specific to a particular era. The art cinema Bordwell discusses is best conceived as a series of European movements and directors stretching from postwar Italy through to the various new waves and new cinemas. It has transformed itself into festival cinema, a truly global phenomenon that would seem to include some American independent directors (Jim Jarmusch) but not others (Kevin Smith). In essence, festival cinema is addressed first of all to an international audience of cinephiles who attend film festivals, and some of its best examples are to be found in Iranian and Taiwanese films that hardly see the light of the projector beam at all in their native lands. By contrast, most American indie films are addressed first of all to a domestic, theatrical (arthouse) audience. For Bordwell, the key distinction between Hollywood and OffHollywood, whatever we call its specific categories, is to be found in the contrast between dominant narrative causality in Hollywood cinema and other functions in art, festival, or
49 independent cinema. In mainstream film, the representation of time and space, cinematic technique, and thematic meanings are all subordinated to the clear representation of a chain of events linked by causeeffect relations, wherein a clearly identified protagonist with consistent, redundant traits overcomes a series of obstacles towards the achievement of a goal. By contrast, in art cinema the causal links are loosened or attenuated, the representation of time and space is ambiguated, cinematic style is given greater prominence, the main character seems aimless or unmotivated, and the narrative ends without the satisfaction of a goal being achieved. This describes the more experimental, challenging narration of 1960s art films especially well (e.g., Persona). The functions of these narrational elements in art cinema, according to Bordwell, are threefold. They are described as viewing strategies employed in making sense and meaning of a confusing or challenging narration. The first strategy is realism: to see loosened causality or aimlessness as objective realism, as in Neorealism, or to see spatio temporal disorderliness as subjective (psychological) realism, as in the films of Resnais. The second strategy is authorship. If realism is not a suitable explanation, the spectator motivates the narration as the expression of the director’s vision. The tracking shots in Hiroshima, mon amour, the jump cuts in Breathless, or the closeups of faces in Cries and Whispers, can be explained by reference to the oeuvre of Resnais, Godard, or
50 Bergman. Finally, the third viewing strategy is ambiguity. If the other explanations cannot suffice to motivate the narration, the spectator can always see it as deliberately ambiguous, and read into it interpretively. Bordwell coins a slogan for the art cinema: “When in doubt, read for maximum ambiguity.”47 In all three strategies, but especially in the latter two, art cinema solicits and rewards active interpretation. And of course, some devices can be read in more than one way; the editing of Breathless may be interpreted in all of them. It should be immediately obvious that one distinction between art and independent cinema is that the latter is hardly ambiguous in the same fashion or degree as the exemplars of cinematic modernism like Rashomon, Red Desert, and Last Year at Marienbad. In general, its style is not nearly as challenging. Independent cinema often seems quite classical in its narrational approach. Characters typically have clear goals and events are represented clearly and are causally connected. Many independent films end without satisfying closure (Do the Right Thing, Stranger than Paradise) but the radically frustrating endings of the likes of Persona are seldom duplicated in recent American feature films. The viewing strategies of American independent cinema, like those of art cinema, go beyond the plot and characters to other concerns. Some are shared with art cinema.
51 There is an emphasis on realism in OffHollywood cinema that goes back at least to the 1920s (Bazin identified it with Stroheim and Murnau48) and that is an important aspect of independent film. Others are contextspecific. Art cinema was a product of a modern, bourgeois conception of art and society, in which the individual stands as a central figure whose psychological depths can never be fully explored. It is animated by the ideas and artistic currents of the time, such as Freudian psychology, existentialist philosophy, and modernist literature and drama. Ambiguity in art cinema is typically ambiguity about an individual, and as in contemporaneous literature and drama, it is driven by a modernist conception of the individual (or, as its critics put it, of “man”). In contrast, independent cinema is animated by the ideas prevalent in its era, especially multiculturalism and postmodernism. This is not to say that independent directors thematize these “isms” consciously or systematically, only that these ideas are in the air, and that they filter through to inform some of the basic assumptions about storytelling that are widely shared by American filmmakers and spectators of the past two decades. It is these assumptions, I argue, that distinguish independent film as a mode of cinema.
Viewing Strategies Like art cinema, independent film brings with it expectations of objective realism and authorial expressivity, but without the more radical forms of subjectivity and ambiguity
52 that characterized 1960s European cinema. Described thus, independent film might be seen as artcinemalite, taking the less challenging conventions of art films but leaving behind the really interesting ones. I reject this notion because it suggests that independent film directors seek to emulate Bergman, Godard, and Fellini but fail. Independent cinema has its own conventions, and creates its own expectations. However, independent filmmakers did not invent them ex nihilo. Some aspects do come from European art cinema, but through the mediating influence of the New American directors of the 1960s and 1970s. Some aspects are contextually specific. I summarize these expectations by the following three slogans, each of which signals a distinct conception of OffHollywood cinema, and which I will address one by one: 1. Characters are emblems 2. Form is a game 3. When in doubt, read as antiHollywood. These slogans make up a system of protocols in the sense that they operate sequentially and in a hierarchy of generality and significance. The first slogan is the most specific and easiest to apply. We look for characters (in situations) to be representative of realworld types in a way that is distinct from our engagement with characters in other modes of cinema. The second slogan is more general and calls on operations that are cognitively more sophisticated because they require a more active kind of problemsolving or
53 puzzling. This step comes into play only in the presence of challenging form, and since some independent films are formally highly conventional, it is not necessarily activated in all cases. The last slogan is the most general and versatile. It is both a blanket assumption that guides global expectations about independent cinema and a precise tool for interpreting devices that cannot otherwise be assimilated under the preceding two slogans. Only some films invite us to activate all three of these strategies.
1. Characters are emblems The first viewing strategy assumes a larger degree of social engagement in independent cinema than in Hollywood cinema, and this is the strategy clearly influenced by multiculturalism. However, it is not merely a matter of identifying that some independent films thematize issues of cultural identity. It is, rather, an implicit solicitation of audience awareness of the specificity of represented situations, and especially people, in a historical and cultural reality. With this awareness, characters become emblems of their social identities. This is the version of realism, coming from the art cinema tradition, that is of particular salience to independent film, but unlike the individual’s unique interior reality in art cinema, independent film offers an engagement with social reality, in the sense used by Marxists to refer to relations of power among social groups such as classes.49 Identity in this conception is based not in a transcendent self but in group
54 memberships and affiliations. This strategy fits best with the strain of independent film geared toward social commentary and criticism. Independent films as a whole cannot be said to be driven by leftwing politics—though some are—yet there is certainly more socially engaged filmmaking in OffHollywood than in Hollywood cinema. My point is not that independent films are generally vehicles for particular ideas about social reality or that they generally have a rhetorical agenda of encouraging social change. It is, rather, to insist that independent cinema’s characters are identified so strongly with social types that they come to represent them much more significantly than in other modes of cinema. This is as true of many independent films that are not overtly political (Dazed and Confused, Clerks) as it is of films that clearly are political in the sense of explicitly engaging with structures of social power and advocating for a critical perspective (City of Hope, Do The Right Thing). There are also many examples that fall somewhere in the middle, incisively satirical films whose advocacy is at best indirect, combining an ironic sensibility with a keen sense of social observation (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Your Friends and Neighbors, Trust, Ghost World). To an extent, there is value placed merely on the existence—independent of narrative content—of representations of socially marginalized identities, especially of
55 racial minorities and gays and lesbians. At a time when few feature films of any kind were released that had AfricanAmerican, Asian, Latino or queer main characters, the release of a film that did was considered highly significant. There is also value placed on representations produced by filmmakers of these identities. The 1980s and 1990s saw a series of “firsts,” seized upon for publicity purposes, such as first feature film to gain distribution directed by an AfricanAmerican woman (Daughters of the Dust) and first feature made by Native Americans (Smoke Signals).50 As one critic of independent film writes, “Many cameras are being turned on American life for the first time, or with a fresh urgency: those in the hands of women, AfricanAmerican women, African American men, Hispanics, Asians, openly gay and lesbian filmmakers.”51 This fits tongueingroove with the viewing strategy that sees characters as emblems because it sees directors as emblematizers. For example, Go Fish, a film by a young American lesbian about the experience of young American lesbians, was given authority and authenticity by Rose Troche, the film’s director.52 We tend to think of socially engaged filmmakers as oppositional and identify them with the tradition and mode of documentary cinema (indeed, independent documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore fit this bill). Independent cinema’s social engagement is animated by multiculturalism, but while multiculturalism is a progressive social agenda,
56 in independent fiction films it is often depoliticized to the point that the goal of socially specific representation becomes reflexive rather than critical. The filmmaker is content to describe a social reality, especially its representative types, as a means of capturing a slice of life in its vividness and specificity. If not naturalizing reality, this approach does tend to see it as stable and selfsufficient. One gets the sense that the filmmaker just wants his or her world, or a particular contemporary subculture he or she finds interesting, to be thrown up on the big screen. This gesture in itself can be read as a socially significant act, especially when this world is rarely represented in the mass media. Yet regardless of whether a representation is laden with such a sense of importance or not, a similar viewing strategy sustains it. It can be observed in films as diverse as Smoke Signals, Chan is Missing, Sling Blade, The Apostle, Clockwatchers, The Unbelievable Truth, Buffalo ’66, Basquiat, My Family, Killer of Sheep, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Fargo, Safe, Desperately Seeking Susan, Kids, Return of the Secaucus 7, Citizen Ruth, Mystery Train, Last Summer in the Hamptons, Kissing Jessica Stein, Spanking the Monkey, Boys Don’t Cry, Daughters of the Dust, Metropolitan, Mr. Jealousy, Drugstore Cowboy, Go Fish, Slacker, She’s Gotta Have It, Swingers, Poison, Thirteen, and The Brothers McMullen. All are social studies, microscopes on a milieu, dissections of the personalities that populate a patch of cultural turf. The subjects could
57 as easily be alienated white kids in the New Jersey suburbs, clever Manhattan debutantes, or hipster Japanese tourists in Memphis as they could be Gullah islanders, a Chinese cab driver in San Francisco, or gay adolescents. Paradoxically, it is within the elite culture of independent film that the socially marginalized are affirmed or celebrated. This is because the social progressivism animating multiculturalism is identified closely with an educated, politically aware, generally affluent audience. A similar dynamic has propelled the minority identity explosion in American television representations. This is exemplified in the rapid rise to prominence of gay characters on primetime television comedies and dramas in the 1990s, which occurs concurrently with the rising visibility and popularity of American independent cinema.53 Such representations stroke a socially liberal audience’s multicultural sensibilities at the same time that they insist on the importance of giving voice to historically silenced identities. They are thus a canny combination of capitalist marketing savvy exploiting a “quality” audience and progressive politics implicitly critical of the mainstream media’s mode of representation. The extent to which the latter is undermined by the former in the case of independent cinema is an open question and should be the subject of greater debate. Of course there have been Hollywood films with minorities in leading roles,
58 mainstream films that pay attention to marginal social identities, such as Philadelphia, and Hollywood films made by women, gays and lesbians, and people of color. Intuitively, it would seem that something differentiates such films from independent cinema that addresses the same topics. The distinction is to be found in an implicit conception of the individual in relation to his or her social identity; this conception underlies the distinction between audiences’ expectations of Hollywood and OffHollywood film. If the multicultural OffHollywood individual is defined by cultural difference, specificity, distinctness, the Hollywood version is defined by liberal humanism, by the transcending of difference in demonstration that we are all, at our core, the same, by the universal value of the autonomous self. This is why Philadelphia establishes such strong parallelism between the two main characters, Andrew and Joe, not only by making them similar (highpower lawyers with the same mannerisms, attire, etc.), but also by framing, staging, and editing them in such as way as to make each one seem like the other’s double. In doing so the film asserts their common humanity and makes both Andrew’s homosexuality and Joe’s blackness seem less significant in understanding each man more fundamentally as an individual. This is the inheritance of the Hollywood tradition of social problem films, dating from the 1930s, in which the common humanity of the audience in the theater and the
59 downtrodden characters on the screen is the essential thematic material. In The Grapes of Wrath we do not appreciate Okie identity in its specificity as a means of appreciating the distinctness of the Okie milieu; rather, we are invited to appreciate how the Joads are human beings first of all deserving of dignity and respect. Similarly in art films of a socialrealist bent, such as Bicycle Thieves and Pather Panchali, the poor characters struggling to survive in their miserable conditions are humanized such that we come to see their unbreakable familial bonds and their hope in spite of pain and suffering as universals of human experience. Films such as these are addressed especially at establishing a notion of emotional universality, so that the grief and fear felt by the characters transcends the details of environment, so painstakingly rendered, and speaks to a profound sense of a common emotional core. The art cinema’s characters may differ from Hollywood’s in their depth and complexity, but not in their conception as individuals. As Bordwell discusses, its central preoccupation was “the human condition”; rather than analyzing structures of power, in art cinema “social forces become significant insofar as they impinge upon the psychologically sensitive individual.”54 To cultural critics, this kind of humanism is a means of eliding difference, of hiding structural imbalances of social and cultural power by asserting that everyone is in the same boat. Hence the heroes of Glory, Born on the Fourth of July, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich,
60 and A Beautiful Mind are humanized as folks just like you and me rather than being emblematized as representatives of a world you and I could not really know without having lived in it. Their heroism comes from within, not from their social bonds but from their “character.” The independent film doesn’t really have heroes, because heroes are larger than life. By contrast, emblems are exactly lifesize because they are plucked from the fabric of the everyday, as realism and social engagement demand. As Thomas Schatz has argued, popular film characters are typically figured in relationship to a community.55 In genres of integration, the main characters, often a romantic couple, resolve their differences and adopt the values of the community. These genres include comedies and musicals. In genres of order, the main character, often a lone hero, stabilizes a community’s structure either by taming its anarchic forces (e.g., in westerns and detective films) or by being removed as a threat to it (e.g., in gangster films). Either way, films serve to affirm the values of a community, which is seen by the audience to be of a piece with its own community. In other words, according to this conception of the social effects of mainstream narrative cinema, the function of representation of the social realm is to assert the audience’s place within it. Although Schatz is interested in the studio era of filmmaking, we might extend the notion of the audience’s relationship to the community represented onscreen to the present. In
61 contemporary action films the stability of the community threatened by massive violence is at stake no less than in Warners gangster films of the 1930s, and in contemporary romantic comedies the integration of the couple into the community is likewise parallel to the screwball films of Hawks, McCarey, Sturges, and Cukor. Independent cinema does something rather different. Rather than appealing to us on the basis of a community that we share with that of the representation, it demands that our notions of community be redefined, reconfigured, in some cases radically reconceived. Under the sign of multiculturalism, independent cinema insists on the distinctness of cultures and subcultures within the American community, and insists on communities, plural, rather than community, singular. Rather than positing that the poor and downtrodden, the oppressed racial and ethnic minorities, and other cinematically underrepresented groups are just like “the rest of us,” it demands that their difference be recognized and affirmed. Thus the aptness of the label “cinema of outsiders”: if we are all in some respects outsiders, as independent films suggest, there isn’t really any “inside.” And if there isn’t any “inside,” than the community posited by Hollywood is mere myth, or ideology. By emblematizing characters in their full specificity and distinctness, the uniqueness of identity positions is affirmed while the Hollywood version of transcendent human connectedness is called into question, if not demolished.
62 2. Form is a game If the first slogan signals the potential for independent cinema to have a cultural politics, the second signals its potential for aesthetic—especially narrative—experimentation and innovation. There are several ways in which the formal features of independent cinema are figured as elements of play, in which the spectator is encouraged to conceive of the filmviewing experience as gamelike. This may sound slightly odd, as the metaphor of play is most often introduced in casual descriptions of how a director or film engages with some aspect of conventional storytelling.56 We say that we like the way the Coen brothers play with genre, or the way Pulp Fiction plays with narrative structure. But I propose that what we really mean when we use this figure of speech is that spectators are prompted to regard specific aspects of films as components of a game and to see themselves as the players. The kind of game I have in mind is not rigidly rulebound, like chess or baseball, but looser and more improvisatory, like charades. Furthermore, I am arguing not that film viewing is literally a game, but that it is conceived as gamelike by viewers, i.e., that it has some of the same procedural characteristics as a game such as solving problems, guessing answers, matching attributes, and having fun. This offers a pleasure in film viewing that is distinct from pleasures offered by mainstream cinema, though this is not
63 to say that independent cinema cannot offer those pleasures too, from the voyeuristic pleasures discussed in psychoanalytic film theory to the pleasures associated with specific genres and emotions discussed in cognitive film theory.57 Form is foregrounded when filmviewing becomes a game. Bordwell distinguishes between the classical Hollywood spectator asking plotbased questions such as “Who did it?” and the art cinema spectator asking storybased questions such as “Why is this story being told this way?”58 The independent film spectator asks this latter question too, but has different expectations about the answer. Rather than seeing challenging form as a cue to reading for subjective realism, authorial expressivity, or maximum ambiguity—rather than construing it as an invitation to interpretation—the independent film spectator sees challenging form as a conceptual structure, such as a plot schema or character type, that diverges from a conventional expectation. This tendency has antecedents in films of the 1960s and 1970s, such as A Woman is a Woman, Last Year at Marienbad, and Point Blank, as well of course in avantgarde cinema by Hollis Frampton, Robert Nelson, and many others. It also has many parallels in contemporary festival cinema, and seems especially prominent in American independent films. As with much modern and postmodern visual art, and much avantgarde cinema, the object of comprehension is not only the representation but also the artifact in its status as
64 representation. The motivation for this divergence is located in play rather than in meanings, in a field of signifiers rather than in an authorial signified, in fun that can be had by mixing and matching conventional narrative and cinematic elements. The payoff of narrative experimentation in films such as Go, The Limey, 21 Grams, and Memento is not in heightened emotions, in maximized suspense or stronger character engagement. If such films were told in a conventional linear fashion, after all, these conventional appeals could be strengthened. For instance, in Memento there would be suspense over whether Leonard will kill Terry rather than confusion about his motives. Indeed, often such experimentation affords the opportunity of play only at the price of exploiting fewer conventional narrative pleasures. The ultimate payoff is in the spectator’s appreciation of a formal, cinematic achievement, while the momentby moment appeals depend on the game and its parameters. So what sort of play is involved? What is the object of the game? There are actually several aspects to the game that independent films ask us to play; we might call these separate games or separate processes within the larger game. Their components include conventions such as plot patterns and character types, allusions and references to films and other cultural products, and aspects of narrative design such as temporal ordering and exposition. The fun of playing is a product of engaging with these game
65 elements and is the pleasure taken in resolving incongruities in conventions, recognizing obscure meanings in intertexts, and puzzlesolving in aspects of narrative experimentation. I will discuss two aspects of independent cinema that encourage this viewing strategy: films that encourage play by engaging unconventional genre elements and films that encourage play by disentangling unconventional temporal structures. Plot and character conventions are figured into a game structure most clearly in films that work both within and against genre expectations. In the spirit of Robert Altman’s films of the 1970s, independent filmmakers have taken genre to be a locus of experimentation and an opportunity for critical, metacinematic commentary. Unlike much art cinema, with its avoidance of any massculture stigmatization, independent cinema is very fond of popular forms. This is an inheritance from a minority art cinema tradition represented by Godard and Fassbinder, whose love/hate relationships with classical Hollywood cinema produced films such as Pierrot le fou and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and from selfreflexive American art films such as The Last Movie.59 It is a commonplace of postmodernist criticism that high and low culture have collapsed on each other, that the conception of art as divided into these categories is flawed.60 In the spirit of celebrating this collapse, artists in many media and forms have embraced the iconography and structures of popular culture. But in many cases,
66 including independent cinema, this embrace is not played out in terms of practitioners of “high art” entering the mainstream of the culture industry or in terms of demolishing all forms of distinction between mass and elite culture. One common practice is of an elite art form integrating elements of mass culture while still protecting its status. 61 In independent cinema as in other art forms, there is a tendency against the full adoption of the pop culture form, an effort to comment on it (however explicitly or implicitly), or a contradictory mix of forms. In independent films these forms are conventional popular film genres, and the spectator’s strategy is to identify the forms, resolve their incongruities, and construct a commentary on them. This might sound as though I am calling independent cinema postmodernist, which some critics have done.62 But I am merely identifying an influence of postmodernism on the strategies audiences bring to understanding independent films. This emphasis on play through recognition of conventional forms signals that one distinction between contemporary American indies and the European art cinema is that a much higher degree of connoisseurship is expected of American audiences, and that it must be applied to catch all the references as they flash by, like jokes in an episode of The Simpsons. Noël Carroll described American cinema of the 1970s as the “cinema of allusion,” citing numerous instances in which the filmschool generation of directors
67 such as Paul Schrader would selfconsciously rework the John Ford and Robert Bresson films that made them into cinéastes.63 In this traditioncrazed tradition, Tarantino makes films that demand a wide sweep of worldcinemahistory knowledge, albeit of a certain sort. The audience follows along in a kind of connectthedots fashion, recognizing the antecedents of the briefcase with glowing contents in Pulp Fiction (Kiss Me Deadly) the “Mexican standoff” in Reservoir Dogs (City on Fire), and numerous action, anime, and martial arts films in the two Kill Bill volumes without necessarily applying any interpretive schema to Tarantino’s visual quotations. Soderbergh borrows shots from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow and demands that we recognize the younger Terence Stamp in the memories of Wilson as a character from a different film. Todd Haynes outSirks Sirk in Far From Heaven by keeping the 1950s setting and duplicating the visual style down to the typeface of the opening credits, but pushing the representation of minority identities much farther than any mainstream director of the 1950s could have. Many of the Coen brothers’ films, including Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn’t There are at once homages to classic American toughguy, hardboiled literature and film noir and brilliant exaggerations of the conventions of this genre. They work on several levels: as suspenseful storytelling, as allusive recreations of classic forms, and as commentary on their appeals and on
68 Hollywood representation. Their stories come wrapped in a tone of ironic cleverness, with a wink acknowledging a heightened consciousness of formal convention. This tone becomes more pronounced as their career progresses, so that the broad supporting characters of their earlier films (played by M. Emmett Walsh and Dan Hedaya in Blood Simple, by John Turturro and Steve Buscemi in Miller's Crossing and by John Goodman in Barton Fink) become the broad main characters of later ones (William H. Macy in Fargo and Jeff Bridges in Lebowski). There is a strong dose of dark comedy mixed into the drama. The game is played by recognizing that the Coen brothers’ films are not only toughguy stories, they are about toughguy stories. Two cues for reading this way are exaggeration and incongruity. In Miller's Crossing, one device of exaggeration is the motif of the fedora, the icon of urban, modern masculinity and a staple of gangster and film noir hero costuming. By returning to it so obsessively, by investing it with such importance, the Coens signal a fascination with the iconography of the toughguy genre, constantly turning it around to appreciate its intricacies. In many of their films, exaggeration manifests itself in other extremes of mise en scène, from overly mannered performances, as I mentioned above, overemphasized diction and pronunciation, and comically dark lighting (especially in The Man Who Wasn’t There). The game is played
69 by recognizing that the conventional elements are being quoted and turned comical. In itself this exaggeration is incongruous, but another incongruity arises in cases in which an opposite device is employed: the insertion into a generic framework of something that clearly doesn’t belong. In Altman’s early films, a war movie climaxes in a football game instead of a battle (M*A*S*H), a musical builds up to an assassination (Nashville), and a western hero is a cowardly pimp (McCabe and Mrs. Miller). In Fargo, as many critics have noted, the landscape and mise en scène is the opposite of that of noir: it is the expansive white of the Minnesota winter rather than the shadowy black of the Los Angeles night. The Man Who Wasn’t There decides to become a sciencefiction film in the last five minutes. Barton Fink abandons hardboiled realism for fullblown paranoid fantasy. And The Big Lebowski, most audaciously, takes a Chandleresque scenario but replaces the typical private eye with an ageing hippy and has the story narrated onscreen by a middleaged cowboy. This, of course, is only the beginning of its myriad incongruities. We admire many of the Coen brothers’ characters for their eccentricity and quirkiness at the same time that we recognize their incompatibility with the narratives into which they have been mischievously dropped. I have used the Coen brothers as an example of this tendency as they are its quintessential practitioners, but it is actually quite widespread. The semiironic tone of
70 their films, at once respectful of their cinematic predecessors and irreverent toward them, is also found among independent filmmakers ranging from Hal Hartley to Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino to Wes Anderson to Todd Haynes. All of them, and many others, combine exaggerated conventions with incongruous admixtures to similar results. The other main way in which independent cinema figures form as a game is through narrative structure. The exemplar in this case in Pulp Fiction, though it is neither the most original nor the most sophisticated example of a film using temporal disordering. Daughters of the Dust and The Limey are more challenging in their fluid movement among past, present, and future, while Memento is more thorough in its formal design and more demanding on the spectator. Independent films sometimes take an abstract formal pattern as a global design principle, as in Flirt, Go, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, and Slacker. Many include significant temporal rearrangement through flashbacks or other devices, such as 21 Grams, 13 Conversations About One Thing, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Lone Star, The Usual Suspects, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Realtime narratives such as Before Sunset, and Timecode also foreground narrative form; Timecode is also experimental in its use of a simultaneous fourimage frame. As well, David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are formally disjunctive both temporally and spatially and to a significant extent inscrutable.
71 This makes him the independent film figure most amenable to the reading strategies of art cinema. Of course, Hollywood films also use flashbacks and other forms of temporal reordering. The distinction here is that in independent films form becomes a game when the motivation for unconventional narrative structure is play. Mainstream films like Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty begin at the end for a clear narrative purpose: to cast the events of the story in a dark, deterministic light. Mainstream films like Minority Report use flashbacks or flashforwards to explain important details of the narrative, to reveal key information to create a stronger emotional resonance. The point of the narrative structure of Citizen Kane is to show that Charlie Kane had many sides to him, that each person in his life saw him differently. Temporal reordering in art cinema is also typically motivated as explorations of character, as in Wild Strawberries and 8 1/2. Lone Star is clearly in this tradition, several times integrating past and present in a single shot to show continuities between them, to show the significance of history—both the events of the past, and their figuration in storytelling—to the formation of people’s identities. In many independent films that have challenging narrative structures, there often is a weak characterbased or thematic motivation carried by a stronger playbased one. It is true that viewing Memento is a bit like being put in Leonard’s place in terms of
72 knowledge and memory. But soon after the film is underway, we are able to remember much more than he can. The stronger motivation for Memento’s form is that figuring out how the film is telling its story is a fascinating activity in its own right. The means of Memento’s convoluted editing is so far in excess of the function of heightening our sense of Leonard’s experience that we must look elsewhere for the film’s formal motivation. Similarly, Go uses its temporally parallel format to create parallelism between characters who would seem to have little in common: all of them, from the drug dealers to the gay actors, end up surprising themselves and us in some way. But this motivation is balanced by the interest generated by piecing together which events are happening simultaneously to which other events. The idea that life is full of nice surprises, which might be the film’s theme in a nutshell, is hardly more prominent in our minds than the idea that the events all hang together in the end in a neat pattern of temporal overlap. At first glance, The Limey seems to motivate its temporal narrative design as subjective narration, putting us in the head of the protagonist, Wilson. But looking more closely, we find that it is more complex than that. While many images are flashbacks to childhood scenes of Wilson’s daughter, and others are flashforwards to scenes only imagined by Wilson (e.g., his fantasies of shooting Valentine at the party), many images are flashforwards that clearly cannot be ascribed to Wilson’s imagination (e.g., some
73 proleptic images of Valentine, as during the “King Midas in Reverse” sequence, are from scenes from which Wilson will be absent and of which he will have no knowledge). Other scenes are conversations that inexplicably take place at several locations at once. On the DVD commentary track, the filmmakers suggest that these scenes play out the way people remember conversations, as composites of many encounters. But this isn’t at all clear from the narration of the film, which in its flamboyant temporal and spatial shifts invites the spectator to appreciate and admire how a coherent narrative can emerge from such a jangle of images and sounds. Soderbergh encourages a playbased reading by frustrating the coherence of other approaches. It is also motivated as allusion to temporally disjunctive films of the 1960s, such as Petulia. Slacker does not seem to attempt to motivate its formal principles on the level of character or story. It makes clear in its opening sequence that its design is motivated by an abstract philosophical notion of how choice and chance structure human affairs. As each sequence leads into another, you are conscious that it could have followed a different path. This is play held in balance with a thematic purpose. Similarly, in Pulp Fiction, the formal play of the disordered narrative sequence is held in balance with the character motivation underlying its ending with the second half of the diner scene. By ending with an emphasis on Jules’s religious transformation, it might seem to amplify a character’s
74 development through its temporal manipulation. But this appeal is balanced by the novelty of the structure and the arbitrariness of Vincent’s (John Travolta) “resurrection,” which has no such motivation. Thus play may be balanced with other appeals, however, the dominant reading strategy encouraged by such films is to follow the formal game.
1. + 2. : The Form of Character These first two strategies can play into and feed off one another in various ways, as the chapters to follow will argue. The second strategy is a characterizing strategy too, since characters are an element of form. The allusive strain of formal play often borrows characters, as The Big Lebowski does, from old movies, but transforms them into hybrids of the new and the old. In many independent films, identity is a puzzle and solving it requires that both of the strategies be applied. In Lone Star, the constant backandforth between the past and the present demands an appreciation of the game of form but also an engagement with the historical and social differences that separate characters. In Far From Heaven, the difference between Haynes’s characters and Sirk’s demands a cinema ofallusion reading, but at the same time, the racial and sexual dimensions of the characters foreground social identities. The formal approach to character is one way of intensifying their significance, of emphasizing that we should take interest in them. One
75 important way of doing that is by making characters themselves puzzling, by obscuring their motivations or their backstories. These devices create complexity, which is a positive value for both formal and social reading strategies. In Hard Eight, delayed exposition makes Sydney into an enigma, while in Safe, Carol’s interiority is to a large extent inscrutable. In turn, by studying them so intensively, we gain a greater appreciation of them in their specificity as characters.
3. When in doubt, read as antiHollywood. The first two strategies suggest two prototypes of independent film, one realist and the other formalist. But the third strategy is much more general and applies to many different kinds of cinema. The practice of reading as antiHollywood is probably as old as Hollywood, though only in recent decades has a parallel mode come into existence in the U.S. to make this strategy relevant to understanding a significant body of American feature filmmaking. In his study of American avantgarde cinema, James Peterson introduces the “brute avantgarde principle,” a reading strategy of last resort that allows spectators to make sense of the most confounding avantgarde films by reasoning that they sometimes reject cinematic conventions as a way “to shock viewers out of their complacency.”64 Independent cinema obviously isn’t challenging to the same extent as the avantgarde, but
76 it does often reject conventions. Rather than shocking viewers, we might say that independent cinema aims to introduce them to different kinds of experiences within the parameters of the feature film, to denaturalize aspects of conventional cinematic practice. The strategy of reading as antiHollywood functions as a global assumption about independent film and also as a local heuristic for making sense of specific details and devices. As Emmanuel Levy asserts, the key to understanding indies is Hollywood. Commercial cinema is so pervasive in the American movie consciousness that even when filmmakers develop alternative forms Hollywood’s dominant cinema is implicit in those alternatives. 65 Reading as antiHollywood also functions as a warrant for the preceding two reading strategies: emblematizing and formal play can both be seen as functions of an anti Hollywood stance, since representations of individuals and formal structures in independent cinema are viewed against mainstream norms. Unlike the avantgarde, which is much more distinctly different from Hollywood cinema not only formally but also in the context in which it is made and experienced, independent cinema is regularly contrasted with and related to Hollywood both industrially and aesthetically. The two modes share personnel and many aspects of industrial practice (e.g., script formats, cameras, etc.) and they compete for many of the same awards. But while it is one thing to differ from Hollywood, it is another to oppose
77 it. It is clear that some directors view independent filmmaking as antithetical to Hollywood66; others see it as a Hollywood careerlaunching step. But spectators’ expectations are not ordinarily dependent upon divining a director’s career ambitions. If the explanation for some aspect of a film is that it departs from a Hollywood convention, it is logical that the function of that departure might be seen as an implicit critique.67 It is by sharing so much in common with Hollywood practice that Off Hollywood’s distinctness is thrown into relief. This is clearest in instances of generic play. In Passion Fish, the antiHollywood stance is a function of the characters and situations being so typical of conventional femalefriendship melodramas, then of defying our expectations. In Bound, the classic film noir couple—the hero and the femme fatale —is a pair of women, subverting the mainstream’s norms of gender roles and sexual orientation while playing out a formulaic plot. The Blair Witch Project presents a horror film almost completely stripped of its stylistic norms of camera placement and movement, lighting, and sound, yet completely within the audience’s genrebound expectations of affective experience. But reading as antiHollywood can function on a level of much greater or lesser specificity. It can explain the pace of Stranger Than Paradise and Buffalo ’66, the technically crude mise en scène and cinematography of Clerks and Gummo, the quirky
78 protagonists of The Station Agent and Ghost World, and the hyperintellectual dialogue of Metropolitan and Waking Life. The bleak endings of many independent films, such as Safe and Hard Eight, can be understood as undercutting the Hollywood norm of leaving the audience feeling good. Welcome to the Dollhouse and Kids can be seen as anti Hollywood in their approach to troubled adolescents, neither moralizing nor sentimentalizing them, and certainly not showing the way to transform them into well adjusted young citizens. The identity politics promoted by AfricanAmerican, queer, and other subaltern cinemas is antiHollywood as is the miniaturist approach of Jim Jarmusch, who declares that his films “concern characters who consciously locate themselves outside the zombie mainstream.”68 Citizen Ruth and Dead Man Walking are anti Hollywood in their unabashed advocacy of liberal stances on controversial sociopolitical issues. Many movies considered “small films,” typically quirky comedies or chamber dramas, from The Opposite of Sex, Next Stop Wonderland, and Big Night to You Can Count On Me, Monster’s Ball, and In The Bedroom, can even be read as antiHollywood by virtue of their modesty of scale and their interest in exploring character. The notion of independent cinema as personal cinema is fundamentally anti Hollywood, contrasting the independent artist against the soulless studio committee. The authorial reading strategy plays into this directly, as auteurism itself is historically anti
79 Hollywood insofar as it locates in the studio auteur (Ford, Hawks, et al.) a figure capable of communicating his vision in spite of the constraints of a studio system that by definition depersonalizes. Translated into the presentday studio vs. independent dichotomy, it can even account for the directors like Linklater and Soderbergh who migrate back and forth between the modes, making their personal films as indies while paying their way taking studio projects, and for John Sayles, who supports his independent features with income earned as a Hollywood script doctor.69 School of Rock and Ocean’s Eleven are more likely to be read as commercial entertainments, made for fun and profit, while Before Sunset and Schizopolis are understood to express something significant about their directors’ experiences and worldviews. Any independent film that can be read as personal can be read as antiHollywood, since according to this scheme, Hollywood is assumed to temper personal filmmaking by putting commerce ahead of art.70 This last reading strategy is the ultimate justification for independent cinema as a category. It defines it against the other of the mainstream, commercial industry to show it off to its best advantage—as more honest, artistic, political, realistic, personal, intelligent, or whatever its audience wishes it to be. As a strategy of both first and last resort, it always allows for the tradition of independent cinema to be maintained, for the
80 independent film to be understood within the context of a mode of film practice. For as long as Hollywood exists, so will the desire to oppose it.
Conclusion The viewing strategies I have described are part of the audience’s means of making sense of American independent cinema. I have argued that this mode of film practice coheres around a set of conventions, and although I have spoken of films and directors encouraging certain reading strategies, the conventions are best thought of as belonging not to films or directors, but to spectators. The films offer evidence of these conventions and are part of our education in them, along with cinematic institutions and reading strategies imported from other art forms and media. Indeed, much of what I have said about independent cinema could be applied as well to recent American literature by authors as various as Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Jumpha Lahiri, Nicholson Baker, Dan Chaon, and David Foster Wallace. Literary storytelling is no less concerned with social engagement and formal play than cinema, though the antiHollywood part of the equation would need some modification. Prime-time television is also often read in similar ways, especially in the mode of “quality” dramas such as 24, My So-Called Life, Lost, thirtysomthing, The Sopranos, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. European cinema, of course, also shares many of these viewing strategies as well as the cultural and institutional distinction from the popular mainstream that independent film enjoys in the United States. It is also typically contrasted with Hollywood on the basis of
81 a greater interest in character. Taken together, I argue, these three slogans cover the lion’s share of American independent cinema. They should not be taken as a definition of what makes something an independent film, though, or as a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, because this approach to understanding cultural categories is generally untenable. These slogans reference ways of understanding certain exemplars of independent cinema which stand as central cases. Some films are closer to the exemplars than other, and some films are exemplary of more than one slogan. Some independent films are more peripheral according to this scheme, fitting Hollywood viewing strategies more than may be typical of independent cinema. Others, such as the films of David Lynch, are limit cases that function as antiHollywood by being challenging in unusual ways, but which also seem to demand their own unique means of interpretation. But while the periphery of the category may be a fuzzy area, the center is where we find films such Daughters of the Dust, Do The Right Thing, Slacker, Passion Fish, Fargo, and The Limey, which encourage the modes of engagement that are central conventions of American independent cinema. In all of these films, character is a prominent appeal, and this is a product of all three viewing strategies: the characters are interesting as emblems, as formal puzzles, and as distinct alternatives to their equivalents in mainstream cinema. How these effects of prominence and interest are generated is the topic of the chapters that follow.
Sofia Coppola boasts of her film Lost in Translation, “The story has no plot.” Anthony Kaufman, “The Indie Edge,” Daily Variety 12/18/03, Special Section 1, A1. John Pierson, a representative for independent filmmakers, notes, “Many of the trendsetting independent films, including some I've been involved in myself, have championed the idea of the character-driven movie.” Graham Fuller, “Summer Movies: Indies” New York Times 5/2/99, sec. 2A, 44. John Sayles observes that his films “tend to be about characters.” Claudia Dreyfus, “John Sayles,” Progressive 55.11 (1991), 30-33. Mark Gill, who was director of marketing at independent distributor Miramax in the 1990s declared, “Miramax films tend to be more stimulating, more character-driven.” Edward Helmore, “Fast Forward From Art House to Your House,” The Observer 9/7/97, p. 12. Jim Hillier discusses American independent films as the re-emergence of an American film aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s, exemplified in films such as Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Two-Lane Blacktop, and M*A*S*H which “are frequently led more by character than plot.” “Introduction,” Jim Hillier (ed.), American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader(London: BFI, 2001), viii-xvii, viii. See also Jeff Sipe, “Indie Vets Mull State of the Biz, Then and Now,” Daily Variety 8/18/03, Special Section 1, p. A56.
One emblematic statement of this position is Owen Glieberman, “A Terrible Twist Ending,” Entertainment Weekly 3 December 2004, 25-26. Glieberman condemns contemporary Hollywood blockbusters such as Van Hesling for being plot-driven and admires Sideways in contrast as being character-driven.
Loren King, “ The Troubled Inner Child,” Boston Globe 7/16/00, Arts . 1.
On Hollywood characters as one-dimensional, see Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood” in Jim Collins, Hillary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins (Eds.), Film Theory Goes to the Movies (New York: Routledge,1993), 8-36; on the ancillary-product-promotion function of American movies, see Robert C. Allen, “Home Alone Together: Hollywood and the ‘family film’” in Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (Eds.), Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences: Cultural Identity and the Movies (London: BFI, 1999), 109-131.
For example, Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 19, writes: “Hollywood favored spectacle, action, and special effects, while indies worked on a more intimate scale, privileging script and emphasizing character and mise-en-scène.” (He uses the past tense to contrast the “purist” past conception of this opposition with a more recent one that sees the rise of Miramax and Sundance as a sign of the independent cinema’s demise.)
On narration, see David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988), and Noël Carroll, Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia UP, 1988). On narrative comprehension, see Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film (London: Routledge, 1992). On narrative structures, see Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988) and Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999);
The most wide-ranging and detailed discussion of cinematic psychology as such is to be found in Per Persson, Understanding Cinema: A Psychological Theory of Moving Images (Cambidge: Cambridge
UP, 2003), especially the chapter “Character Psychology and Mental Attribution,” 143-246. Persson’s description of the spectator-character interface is supported by considerable evidence from psychology and related fields and is an exhaustive description of specific aspects of human psychology that are significant in the attribution of mental states to characters. Although he is most interested in the “structure of sympathy” by which spectators come empathize with characters, Murray Smith’s study of character in cinema is also richly informative about how character psychology is represented. Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995). See also Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Eds.), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999); Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003); and Ed S Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996), all of which are concerned, among other things, with spectators’ emotions in relation to character emotions. Theories of the construction of character psychology in literature include Alan Palmer, Fictional Minds (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2004); Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon, Psychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003); Richard J. Gerrig and David W. Allbritton, “The Construction of Literary Character: A View from Cognitive Psychology” Style 24.3 (Fall 1990), 380-391; Ralf Schneider, “Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literary Character: The Dynamics of Mental-Model Construction” Style 35.4 (Winter 2001), 607-640; and Lisa Zunshine, “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness” Narrative 11.3 (October 2003), 270-291.
Aristotle, Poetics Trans. W. Rhys Roberts (New York: Modern Library, 1954).
This tendency is found in Aristotle’s emphasis on action over agent and in the 20th Century is picked up by formalists such as Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austsin: U of Texas P, 1968), and structuralists such as A.J. Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory Trans. and Ed. Paul J. Perron and Frank H. Collins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1987).
Boris Tomashevsky, “Thematics” in Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (trans.), Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1965) 61-98, 90.
The idea of character as subordinate to plot is found in Aristotle’s Poetics, as well as in Russian formalism, e.g., Propp. One example of the approach to characters as a “paradigm of traits” is Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978); cf. Mieke Bal, Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985); and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Routledge, 1983).
Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor, 40.
Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” in Leon Edel (ed.), The Future of the Novel (New York: Vintage, 1965),15.
Uri Margolin, “Introducing and Sustaining Characters in Literary Narrative: A Set of Conditions” Style 21.1, 107-24; Margolin, “Structural Approaches to Characters in Narrative: The State of the Art” Semiotica 75 .1-2, 1-24; Margolin, “Individuals in Narrative Worlds: An Ontological Perspective” Poetics Today 11.4, 843-871; Margolin, “The What, the When, and the How of Being a Character in
Literary Narrative,” Style 24.3 (Fall 1990), 453-468. Other literary theorists who take the same approach to understanding character are Palmer and Bortolussi and Dixon.
Smith, 20-24, derives the idea of the person schema from David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989). Smith buttresses his discussion with reference to the anthropological notion of“primary theory,” which human beings cross-culturally use to distinguish human from non-human and self from other. The understanding of a character as a person, then, is accomplished by fitting the data of characterization to the expectation that they will form a person, and by applying primary theory to determine that this person will be human rather than non-human and other rather than self. Smith, 31, also argues that a character is “the fictional analogue of the human agent.”
This is akin to the “principle of minimum departure,” whereby “we project upon [narrative worlds] everything we know about reality, and…make only the adjustments dictated by the text.” Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991).
These assumptions about how readers or spectators approach characters is widely shared in contemporary narrative theory, both literary and cinematic. For literary theories, see Palmer; Ryan; Margolin; Bortulussi and Dixon; Schneider; Zunshine; Richard J. Gerrig and David W. Allbritton, “The Construction of Literary Character: A View from Cognitive Psychology” Style 24.3 (Fall 1990), 380391. For film theories see Murray Smith; Greg M. Smith; Carroll; Persson; Tan; Joseph D. Anderson, The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996); David Bordwell, “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision,” in Bordwell and Carroll (Eds.), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996), 87107; and Bordwell, “Who Blinked First? How Film Style Streamlines Nonverbal Interaction” in Lennard Hojbjerg and Peter Schepelern, Film Style and Story: A Tribute to Torben Grodal (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum P, 2003), 45-57, . Even the structuralist Seymour Chatman acknowledges that a characters are autonomous beings, discusses them using psychological terms, and treats them as analogues of persons. Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978), 107-138.
Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, Social Cognition (New York: Random House, 1984);. Martha Augustinos and Iain Walker, Social Cognition: An Integrated Introduction (London: Sage, 1995); Leslie A. Zebrowitz, Social Perception (Pacifica Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1990); Perry R. Hinton, The Psychology of Interpersonal Perception (London: Routledge, 1993); Ziva Kunda, Social Cognition: Making Sense of People (Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1999). See also Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 329-351.
On non-human social intelligence, see Nicholas Humphrey, The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002); and Richard W. Byrne and Andrew Whiten (Eds.), Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989).
I discuss intentionality at greater length and offer a definition of it in Chapter 3. Bordwell, “Who Blinked First?” 56.
For both a narratological argument for this position and a discussion of linguistic and other cognitivescience dimensions of it, see Monika Fludernik, Towards a “Natural” Narratology (London: Routledge, 1996). Her conception of narrative as defined by “experientiality” makes human agency, and particularly the representation of human consciousness, a primary narrative concern. See also H. Porter Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 123-137; and Paul Cobley, Narrative (London: Routledge, 2001), 37-41.
Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film (London: Routledge, 1992), 3. Bruner, Making Stores: Law, Literature, Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 65. Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990), 52. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (London: Duckworth, 1985), 110-111. Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson The concepts of character attachment and allegiance come from Smith, Engaging Characters.
The reader’s or spectator’s share in constructing representations is discussed as “filling in” in Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1998), 320-342.
My conception of narration comes from Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film . Ibid, 48-62.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 73-74.
Smith, Engaging Characters, 144-152.
Subjective narration is discussed in depth in Smith, Engaging Characters, 156-165; Edward Branigan, Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film. (Berlin: Mouton, 1984); Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film; and Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film.
Smith, Engaging Characters, 164.
For example, Paul Thomas Anderson cites Scorsese’s influence on his tracking shot that opens Boogie Nights (Boogie Nights DVD, director’s commentary) and Steven Soderbergh acknowledges the influence of Richard Lester in Soderbergh and Lester, Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw (London: Faber and Faber, 2000). Emmanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (New York: New York UP, 1999), 102151, cites the influence of Cassavetes on Sean Penn, John Turturro, Alexandre Rockwell, Steve Buscemi, and his son Nick Cassavetes, and the influence of Scorsese on Abel Ferrara, Quentin
Tarantino, Nick Gomez, Robert Rodriguez, and Anderson. Donald Lyons, Independent Visions: A Critical Introduction to Recent Independent American Film (New York: Ballantine, 1994), 3-35, introduces Cassavetes, Warhol, and Paul Morrissey as antecedents of the New York-based filmmakers John Sayles, Abel Ferrara and Nancy Savoca. Jim Hillier (Ed.), American Independent Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader (London: BFI, 2001), 3-31, begins with a section on “Pioneers,” including Cassavetes, Brakhage, and Warhol. John Pierson, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 8-10, identifies the same general dramatis personae but clarifies that Scorsese was also influenced by Cassavetes.
This approach follows David Bordwell’s in “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism 6th ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 774-782, and James Peterson, Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avantgarde Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1994). Bordwell identifies viewing strategies of art cinema, while Peterson applies the idea of viewing strategies to a cognitive theory of the avant-garde.
In what follows I discuss as independent films any films that are designated as such in popular, scholarly, or trade discourse. I would not draw clear lines around the category “independent.” I prefer to keep directors of the older generations (Altman, Scorsese) in a “New American Cinema” category, though I recognize that this is, to some extent, arbitrary, as they are located somewhere in those fuzzy boundaries. On a similar note, I have included the Coen brothers and Spike Lee, even though most of their films are produced and distributed by the major studios, because they are often central examples in discussions of independent cinema.
Chuck Kleinhans, “Independent Features: Hopes and Dreams” in Jon Lewis (ed.), The New American Cinema (Durham: Duke UP, 1998), 307-327; Justin Wyatt, “The Formation of the ‘Major Independent’: Miramax, New Line and the New Hollywood” in Steve Neale and Murray Smith (eds.), Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (London: Routledge, 1998), 74-90; Kim Newman, “Independents Daze” in Hillier, 268-272; and the introduction to Jason Wood, 100 American Independent Films (London: BFI, 2004). See also Biskind, which is a history of independent cinema built around the personalities of film producers and distributors. Biskind goes in the exact opposite direction of romantic auteurism, seeing independent cinema more as a phenomenon driven by shrewd businessmen than as an artistic movement driven by visionary artists. Finally, Pierson, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, is a digressive history of independent cinema from the perspective of a representative for independent filmmakers who sympathizes with their struggle to maintain artistic integrity and advocates for their independence.
For example, Levy, 86, writes that “it is the fresh perspective, innovative spirit, and personal vision that are the determining factor” of this conception of independent film. Levy, 3. Elsewhere he affirms his adoption of this position: “What makes Sayles’ movies personal is their perspective—in his words, ‘How you see the world’: ‘The way I see the world is by making connections between things.’”
For Levy, 82-93, Sayles’s films offer the quintessential effect of transferring the notion of the personal vision of a director-as-outsider onto characters, identifying in them a corollary status as outsiders with an independent spirit.
Ibid, 2. Ibid, 55.
Bordwell, “The Art Cinema”; These ideas are further developed in Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film.
On narrative continuities between classical and contemporary Hollywood, see Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999). On stylistic developments, see David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film” Film Quarterly 55.3 (Spring 2002), 16-28.
Bordwell, “The Art Cinema,” 779.
André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” In Bazin, What is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: U of California P, 1971), 23-40.
These groups are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in classical Marxism; in contemporary cultural politics the categories are most often identified as race/class/gender, though sexual orientation, nationality, physical ability, age, and distinctions such as Western/non-Western, urban/rural, and global/local are also highly significant.
The idea of “firsts” is discussed in Karen Alexander, “’Daughters of the Dust’ (interview with Julie Dash), in Hillier, 40-43.
Lyons, 284. Go Fish is a central example discussed in Pierson.
Ron Becker, “PrimeTime Television in the Gay Nineties: Network Television, Quality Audiences, and Gay Politics” The Velvet Light Trap 42 (Fall 1998), 3647.
Bordwell, “The Art Cinema,” 777,
Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System (New York: McGrawHill, 1981), 2436; Schatz, Old Hollywood/New Hollywood: Ritual, Art, and Industry (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), 67167. Schatz discusses this in relation to genre films, but we may extrapolate from genre theory to a conception of Hollywood characters more generally.
For example, Todd Haynes said of his film Safe that “it had to do with…playing with narrative expectations” that a sick main character will be led down the path to recovery. Larry Gross, “Antibodies: Larry Gross Talks to Safe’s Todd Haynes.” Filmmaker (Summer 1995) 3.4, available URL: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/summer1995/antibodies.php. In a different interview, Haynes said that the film “plays with your leftist expectations” that the recovery community the character joins will heal her because of the presence there of minority characters, including an AIDS
victim. Amy Taubin, “Nowhere to Hide,” in Hillier, 100-107; 104.
Psychoanalytic theory is well represented in Philip Rosen (Ed.), Narrative Apparatus Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (New York: Columbia, 1986); for cognitive theories of cinematic pleasure, see Noël Carroll, Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996); The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990); and Engaging the Moving Image (New York: Oxford, 2004).
Bordwell, “The Art Cinema,” 779,
David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989), 297303.
One oft-cited source for this notion is Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986).
I am using “mass” and “elite,” “high” and “low” as relative terms. Independent cinema is elite/high in relation to Hollywood cinema, but by stating this I don’t mean to suggest that it serves exactly the same cultural functions as traditional elite/high art such as classical music, opera, ballet, and literary fiction.
Levy, 55-57, discusses ways in which independent cinema is both modernist and postmodernist. For the latter, he cites “collapse of traditional artistic hierarchies,” “pastiche,” and “emphasis of style over substance, a consumption of images for their own sake rather than for their usefulness or the values they symbolize, a preoccupation with playfulness and in-jokes at the expense of meaning.”
Carroll, “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond)” October 20 (Spring 1982), 51-81.
Peterson, 28. Levy, 498.
For example, director James Mangold describes the independent film scene as having “a good, healthy, anti-Hollywood sentiment.” Quoted in Levy, 3.
I am not arguing that difference from Hollywood automatically amounts to a critique of Hollywood, only that it is often seen that way. No one would say that foreign-language films are implicitly critical of Hollywood because their dialogue is not in English, which is different from the norm of Hollywood filmmaking. The differences must be seen as salient and relevant to determining the identity of each category for them to amount to an implicit critique.
Luc Sante, “Mystery Man,” in Ludvik Hertzberg (ed.), Jim Jarmusch Interviews (Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2001), 87-98, 97.
Gavin Smith (Ed.), Sayles on Sayles (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1998), 44-49.
This may seem to contradict some points I make earlier about authorial readings permeating the mainstream. However, I am not reversing that claim here; I am merely asserting that spectators of independent films are primed to read for authorial expressivity and to construe it, in context, as antiHollywood. Even as auteurism has gone mainstream, it still maintains the old connotations of individual artists struggling against constraints of an impersonal commercial studio system.
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