Kiley 1 Christian Kiley Michael Selig – Instructor VM 651 Narrative Studies October 7, 2011

Ironic Devices in Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life Irony is employed liberally throughout Peter Capaldi's 1993 short, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life. This paper will observe and comment on a handful of the ironic devices Capaldi uses as he constructs his narrative; and it will ground these observations using David Bordwell's theories about perceptual and cognitive aspects of film viewing. This paper will also observe the structure of the film's narrative in light of Rick Altman's A Theory of Narrative, specifically, what he refers to as a “singlefocus narrative,” and discuss how both theories may be helpful in developing a more thorough understanding of Capaldi's intentions as a storyteller, and more specifically, his liberal use of dramatic and situational ironies in the piece.

Thinking about the instances of irony in Capaldi's film requires first that we have a basic understanding of the story he tells. At the beginning of the film , Capaldi leads the viewer through a series of images that he chooses to include as primers, or necessary information, ostensibly for the purpose of understanding the narrative. Why is this necessary? Bordwell argues that our understanding of any visual narrative is based largely on inferences we draw from existing knowledge. He describes them as schemata, or “organized clusters of knowledge,” which “guide our hypothesis making”(31). The opening shot, where the camera settles on one book in particular– Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis– gives the spectator adequate schemata so as not to be lost at the outset of the film. Capaldi doesn't make a wholesale assumption about his audience; he does not expect that everyone has read Kafka's works.

conveniently. the filmmaker goes one step further. both George Bailey and Franz Kafka seek a kind of self-validation that is characteristic of protagonists in a “single-focus” narrative (Altman 120121). In order to grasp to the fullest extent the many levels of irony present in and around the film. While Capra's . Indeed. especially in light of his choice to use Kafka as its central character. and follows the first line of the text of Metamorphosis across the page. a man who could not be more unlike George Bailey. is a reference to Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. and the problematic societal customs from which they arise. Capra's film is considered a seminal work and it's place in the canon of western film is well established. no matter. happens to be the premise of Kafka's original fiction. Capaldi chooses a central character. whose stories are characteristically unsettling. for example. the spectator would have to bring additional schemata to the viewing experience. The film's very title. This line of text. and whose artistic life is defined by moral ambiguities. In creating a parody of Capra's story in which centers around George Bailey. Both characters initially find themselves is a chaotic world where they have difficulty conforming to societal norms. For example. The structure of its plot takes many cues from the Capra film. an introverted writer. a man whose life is defined by his willingness to sacrifice his individual desires for a greater societal good. Capaldi's decision to name his film after Capra's is ironic. A spectator who has seen Capra's version has better access to the ironies borne out of the similarities between the two stories.Kiley 2 His narrative will only work if he has a spectator who can correctly hypothesize that Franz Kafka was the author of a novella called Metamorphosis. for the viewer to read. Capaldi has provided most of the schemata required to competently follow what comes next. If the viewer has not read Metamorphosis.

. There is an inherent dramatic irony that must be addressed: the bourgeois spectator knows that Kafka will choose to write about an insect– he or she probably even knows how prominently the story has entered the lexicon since it was written. Capaldi's Kafka requires a different and more complex kind of resolution– his writing is the crux of his desire to be an artist. a certain type of spectator can be assumed: one who brings an informed schema. the intentions of the narratives structured around them are bound to reflect this. the bourgeois spectator watches as Kafka attempts to write. and so the narrative follows his indecision. This is another structural aspect of Capaldi's narrative that is illustrative of typical single-focus narrative which “.” Capaldi's narrative is structured to closely follow Franz Kafka's struggle to find the inspiration he needs to write a story about sudden. but is distracted by the world around him. but they prevent him from finding focus and. The character dynamics of Capra and Capaldi's subjects are so dissimilar. regularly begin(s) with an incursion into the chaotic world of nonvalue. the only place where individuality can be discovered and defined. . This is textbook dramatic irony. For the purposed of this argument. fantastic estrangement. so he can only find resolution in succeeding at being the most perfect version of himself– the author who accomplishes a transcendental story. But Kafka can't know his future. In the film.” (Altman 125) The author's distractions are mundane obstacles. The stage is set for ironic juxtaposition. ostensibly. To facilitate exploration of the textual ironies in the film.Kiley 3 George Bailey finds resolution in a deus ex machina. including knowledge of all the works referenced by the film. we'll call that person our “bourgeois spectator. . as a heavenly angel convinces him of his selfworth.

in a state of cathartic bliss. he smacks it with his hand. and it is worthwhile to mention some of the more noteworthy instances. the party girls downstairs bring Kafka different jarred insects as Christmas gifts. Bordwell asserts that “. and has them challenged by incoming data. The film's final shot portrays Kafka's protagonist. only to realize in that same instant that the repulsive nature of this insect makes it the perfect choice: Gregor Samson will awake after a night of uneasy dreams to find that he is a cockroach! An bourgeois spectator. Capaldi structures these distractions to successively build upon one another. of course. should perceive this as the most ironic moment of the film. She asks him if their conversation is real or imagined. killing it. . until. singing Victor Herbert's “Sweet Mystery of Life. The spectator's false assumption at the outset of the scene is undermined. only to find a nauseating cockroach resting on his paper.” which is the polar opposite of the selfless yet inescapable death Kafka describes in his novella. “Imagined.” (31) An example of this process is in Capaldi's film. as well as Capra's work. Kafka goes downstairs to ask Mrs. he sits down to write.” he replies. There are a considerable number of situational and dramatic ironies that crop up in the world of Capaldi's film. In the heat of the moment. at the climax of the film. items which are grotesque to the spectator. but a source of delight and generosity in this narrative. Cicely for quiet. and once the filmmaker's intentions are revealed. Towards the end of the film. Kafka loses emotional control. perception is often a learned/skilled activity. After a conniption fit in which he yells at his noisy neighbors. . as one constructs a wider repertoire of schemata. This requires the spectator to adjust their understanding of Kafka's first trip downstairs. the comic irony of the sequence is clear. one with pre-existing knowledge of Kafka's literature. . one's perceptual and conceptual abilities become more subtle and nuanced. tests them against varying situations.Kiley 4 inspiration. Gregor Samsa.

. encourage the bourgeois spectator to consider the works of Frank Capra and. it's clear that the style and wit of Capaldi's film draw heavily on these ironies. By employing some of the theories that Bordwell writes about diegetic processes in film narrative. which. Capaldi's characterization of Kafka is somewhat ironic. and framing them with Altman's paradigmatic understanding of narrative form. in a novel way– all while enjoying a film with a unique brand of ironic humor. so he plays heavily to those expectations. Franz Kafka. in turn. The story's movement into this traditionally comfortable and time-tested Hollywood happy ending is ironic. when the audience is given a pat resolution. the narrative structure of Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life is riddled with ironies. is a deliberate bait-andswitch tactic that has an almost visceral cathartic quality.” (wiktionary. the word “Kafkaesque” has become part of the English language. most of which are only apparent to a bourgeois spectator. Capaldi knows that these qualities are what a bourgeois spectator would expect in a story about Franz Kafka. when Kafka finds peace. His choice to change the tone and style of his narrative at the end of film. disorienting. Since Kafka's death and the subsequent popularization of his works. in that it forsakes the Kafkaesque in favor of a brighter.Kiley 5 Historically. often menacing complexity. less ominous future for our which is not unlike the Kafka character's situation in the film before he finds his resolution. In summary. most importantly. Kafkaesque is used to describe situations “marked by a senseless.

. Rick. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press “Kafkaesque. 2011. Bordwell.Kiley 6 Works Cited Altman.” Wiktionary. Narration in the Fiction Film. 1985. A Theory of Narrative. from http://http://en. New York: Columbia University Press. David. . Retrieved September 28.wiktionary.