Posts

Meeks Crossing as Neo-Western

I’m interested in the narrative beats and the characters of the Western genre and how the Neo-Western or Postmodern Western play with those narrative beats and characters to keep the genre interesting. I have not read too much about Neo-Westerns, but I’d like to try to analyze Meeks Cutoff as such to see what fits.

The setting fits the Western genre and the cinematography compliments it. The film uses countless long shots of the barren land during the day and then closes the frame in during the scenes taking place at night. Classic Westerns popularized using establishing shots of the terrain in the beginning of the film to characterize the setting. Neo-Westerns like Fargo (the TV show and the film) and films like No Country For Old Men (all Coen brothers related to my knowledge) also used this move to center the landscape. The juxtaposition of far-reaching open land during the day and dark, unknown land at night in Meeks Cutoff conveys a looming sense of existential terror and loneliness in the vast emptiness of the terrain. Similar to conversations we’ve had previously in this class, I would argue that the terrain acts as a character that amps up the tension throughout the film. The central conflict of the film, trying to get to a settlement or get to a place with water, is mediated by the terrain.

The two key characters in the film, Meek and the Native American man, are centered by their ability to access the land and resolve the conflict. Meek is presented as a sort of huckster/grifter/cowboy stereotype who tells tall tales and shouldn’t be trusted, but he was the one hired to guide them through the terrain. Meeks claims to have a spiritual connection to the land, saying that he does not just go through it but he is actually a part of it. Elements like the title and the early conversation about whether he should be hanged lead the audience to doubt his credibility. On the other hand, the Native American man is initially seen as a threatening character that the colonists do not understand. They see him as a liability and even an enemy once they believe he is leaving markers for other Native Americans to come save him from the colonists. In actuality, the Native American man is the one that actually has knowledge of the land and is able to presumably save the colonists. The Native American man’s redemption is represented cinematically in the last shot of the movie which holds on him for a while as he slowly walks into the horizon. This move calls to mind the generic ending to the classic Western where the good cowboy usually wearing a white hat, after having resolved the conflict, rides off into the sunset as we admire him from afar. The film subverts this narrative by centering the Native American man doing this move and earning the rightful praise as the hero instead of Meeks who deflects and says that it was all predetermined and that God is the one that should be praised since their story was all written before by God. Audiences (hopefully) will call Meeks on his bullshit, which can hopefully lead them to read the anti-colonial elements of the film that act against the colonial lean of traditional Westerns that valorize white settlers and cowboys. For example, the characters dehumanize the Native American man by comparing how “civilized” they are, despite the fact that they would not have survived without him. The main technological innovation that they brag about and use are guns. However, guns are mentioned when Meeks brags about shooting Native Americans after chasing them into the river, which, after he realizes that he is bragging about it, tries to deflect it as something that had to be done. The only time guns are shot is when the women come across the Native American man and fire two warning shots to signal the men to come back. However, the cinematography conveys their frailty and the primitiveness of the gun as the shot holds on the entire long time it takes her to fire, load, and fire again. Later, Meeks comments on how the Native American man could have easily killed them, which should’ve signified that he is not hostile, but instead is used to spark more fear.

Similar to Hanzee in Fargo season 2, the Native American man is grossly misunderstood and Othered by the white racist characters that are similar to those in traditional Westerns and is shown through the film to actually be capable through his methods even though they are not accessible to us. This inversion and critique of traditional Western tropes frames the film as a Neo Western with productive postcolonial readings.

I also think another reading of the film could be to argue that the film is not as progressive and operates mainly on white guilt to frame a Native American man in a redemptive way without fully characterizing him. The audience never knows his name and we do not have much access to his character, which maybe could lead to stereotyping / fetishizing. I don’t know.

Great Literary Pauses

Ever since I first read Goon Squad, I have conjured the smell of rotting fish when I sink into a leather chair, I have lingered over pauses in songs, and I have hoped to avoid speaking about an obscure dissertation topic in “breathless tones” that will embarrass me years later.

***

I decided to write the above sentence in exactly 280 characters (typing it into my Twitter account to be sure) in order to see and feel the way the confines of a defined space make us rethink and rework the presentation of our ideas. I had to pause, cut, and rewrite to express an idea that, in a first draft, took me 105 additional characters. I point this out because I believe it is formatted pausing and slowing–on the part of both writer and reader—that, at least in part, has made Good Squad stick with me and work its way into my consciousness in the way that I mention.

In this post, I want to focus on pauses and form. It makes sense to begin with a discussion of “Black Box,” since it is the most obvious embodiment of a confined form that we read for this week. Although “Black Box” is not actually part of Goon Squad, I will treat it as an extension of the collection–it can be easily argued that they share the same story world if we think of “Black Box’s” narrator as Lulu from Goon Squad’s last episode/chapter. The morning before Egan began publishing “Black Box”–on the New Yorker Twitter account, 140 characters and a minute at a time–Wired published an article titled Let’s Hope Jennifer Egan’s Twitter Story Heralds the Return of Serial Fiction. In the context of our class, it seems useful to think of “Black Box’s” form in relation to seriality. The author of the Wired article writes that the serial form “enforces quick pacing, dramatic plot twists and economy of language.” I’m not sure I agree with this. In the case of “Black Box,” I think seriality leads to slow reading rather than quick pacing. After each of 606 tweets, readers on publication day would have to pause for a minute between each sentence. Even for me reading the story after the fact, the completeness of each thought–the way each sentence is an entity (and paragraph) of its own–caused me to slow down and comprehend each one before moving to the next.

I think it is fair to say that seriality is a form that relies on pauses and one in which meaning occurs during those pauses. In the opening of Fictional Minds, Palmer describes the phenomenon of returning to a text you’ve thought a lot about and finding that the original text is sparser than you remembered. It is therefore in the pauses between readings that we fill in gaps that go beyond the original text and begin to comprehend the minds of characters. “Black Box” is entirely a look into a fictional mind–literally a string of recorded mental notes–and its presentation of consciousness requires readers to piece together a character from short, didactic thoughts. I’d like to pose a question for discussion before moving into the rest of Goon Squad: How does the serial form influence our interpretation of fictional minds?

Goon Squad is not a serial in the same way as “Black Box” or Fargo, but its form and episodic nature make us slow down and perhaps also focus on character interiority. Goon Squad is more episodic than serial, creating individual episodes that could stand alone but are most effective when presented alongside the other episodes. In class last week we talked about the confusion many of us had trying to understand how the plot and characters related from episode to episode. I realize it is the spaces between chapters/episodes–the pauses, perhaps–in which we construct the story world. When we must figure out the time and connections and construct a cohesive character from, for example, the Sasha who steals, the Sasha whose friend dies in college, and the Sasha who is the mother of Lincoln, we pause to think and make meaning.

Of course the most literal example of pauses in Goon Squad–as well as the most obvious example of experimental form–is the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter/episode, written in a 75-slide PowerPoint created and narrated by Sasha’s daughter Ally. The PowerPoint form itself is one with built in pauses, as the reader/presenter flips between each slide. Like the tweets and the episodes in the novel, each slide stands alone as an entity. It is also one of space–as Sasha points out to Ally when she critiques her slides, saying “I see a lot of white.” Again, there is space that creates meaning because it is unfilled. Perhaps more importantly, this chapter thematically embodies the point I am trying to make about pauses. Lincoln and Ally explain that musical pauses are spaces of anticipation and thought. They are spaces in which the listener wonders what will come next, if anything at all. In Sasha’s words, “The pauses make you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” In other words, pauses make us predict and speculate about what will happen next. They also mimic a stop and make us think about endings–like songs, all narratives also come to an end.

I think it’s important that we not just talk about the pauses but experience them. I recommend checking out The Mighty Sword by The Frames, the song Lincoln points out for its one minute and 14 second pause. The pause mimics what would be a full stop in most songs–with a fade out into pure silence. Then the full instrumentation returns triumphantly over a minute later. The song’s opening lyrics, appropriately, are ones that deal with distance and endings:

“I may not hold you/ For as long as forever exists/ I may not know you/ For as long as the heavens permit/ There will be distance/ And we’ll both have to come to expect/ The wild ending of our dark and feathered friends.”

This extra-textual script mimics the feeling of melancholy and perhaps dread that Ally has while walking home from the desert with her father. It also reminds us of endings, as Sasha did earlier in the chapter, and this in turn might remind readers that the novel is also almost coming to a close.

In short, what I am trying to say through these various examples is pretty simple: Pauses contain meaning–meaning about narrative structure and meaning about character interiority. Further, pauses are part of form, and form is essential to both narrative structure and the creation of fictional minds.

 

A to B: Relationships Across Time and Space in Goon Squad 

Okay, wow. So much happened in the primary texts this week that I had a hard time deciding where to dig in. UFOs, the random introduction of a narrator in Fargo, the consumption of gold, shooting lions because of tourist stupidity, a Suicide Tour, etc.  With all of the exciting events within the primary texts, I decided to focus on something a little less flashy, but that still seemed representative of threads that run through Goon Squad: Scotty and Bennie’s reunion. Below I describe Scotty and Bennie’s reunion and the thread of “inbetweenness” that runs through the first 8 chapters, and will conclude with a brief thought about the networked character portals that weave the episodic chapters together.

Chapter 6, “X’s and O’s” is focalized through the perspective of Scotty, to whom we were introduced earlier in the novel. He was described by Rhea in chapter 52 as being “the truly angry one” and has scar spots in his vision from staring into the sun after he learned his mom died (52). The chapter begins with a type of coincidence, as described by Dennenberg in Chapter 4, “The Coincidence Plot.” Scotty is reading a stolen copy of Spin, where he learns that his old friend Bennie is a record producer (92). This leads to Scotty reach out to Bennie through a letter, to which Bennie responds, and eventually leads to an in-person reunion. The coincidence of Scotty stealing this particular issue of Spin where he recognizes his friend from the past, which then leads to their exchange of letters, and an awkward meeting in Bennie’s office functions as a coincidence. Dennenberg describes the traditional coincidence plot as:

the paths of characters with a previous connection intersect in the space and time of the narrative world in apparently random and remarkable circumstances and through no causal intent of their own. This plot consists of three main phases in terms of the story sequence: 

  • (A) The previous relationship (prehistory).
  • (B) The coincidental encounter (intersection) of the characters in the time and space of the narrative world.
  • (C) A cognitive process involving the characters’ recognition (discovery) of each other’s identity” (94).

Part C of Dennenberg’s traditional coincidence definition is particularly interesting when considering how Scotty’s and Bennie’s recognition of one another is skewed from previous ideas of one another’s identities. After Scotty and Bennie exchange a total of three short letters, Scotty decides to visit Bennie in his office and to bring with him a fish-filled paper bag, as a gift (of course). The fish gift seems significant in the distance that has grown between the two men, and their altered recognitions of each other’s identity. When Bennie asks Scotty why he really came to visit him, Scotty replies, “I came for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B.” He elaborates:

“A is when we were both in the band, chasing the same girl. B is now.”
I knew instantly that it had been the right move to bring up Alice. I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once an asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me (103).

This moment complicates their recognition or discovery of each other’s identities. It is clear their paths have diverged and they have both changed considerably. Their recognition of one another is both rooted in the past and informed by the present. There is both a continuity of identity and relationship as well as a dissonance, between A and B.

The inbetweenness of A and B, and inbetweenness in general is a significant thread that seems to guide readers across the relational networks and into the portals (episodes/chapters) of various characters’ lives. We see other examples of inbetweenness, both subtle and less so. More obvious examples are Sasha’s “yes/no smile” (13); “Stop/Go Sisters” (27); “sweet-bitter smell” (31). More subtle examples are themes of desire and reality, destruction and repair, young and old, past/present, as in Scotty and Bennie’s reunion.

There is something significant about what happens in from “A to B” that Goon Squad appears to be grappling with. We see in through the design of the book, moving backwards and forwards in time and across characters. I am interested to hear others thoughts about the design of the book, its chapters/episodes/portals, as well as the other examples of inbetweenness the stories are exploring.

Before I wrap things up here, I wanted to share a character map/flow chart I found for the Goon Squad. After chapter 3 I started thinking, I need a map to remember all the connections between characters! Thankfully, there was one already created:

For a bigger image, go here: http://tessiedesigncompany.blogspot.com/2012/01/visit-from-goon-squad-in-flowchart-form.html 

Coincidence in Narrative

In Coincidence and Counterfactuality, Hilary P. Dannenberg lingers over several (now-typical) uses of coincidence in narrative fiction. The first and greatest of these is the traditional coincidence plot, which is constructed of three parts: the prehistory of the characters in question, the coincidental intersection of the “characters in the time and space of the narrative world”, and the recognition of one character to another (94). This type of coincidence can lead to either positive or negative effects to the characters involved, but it nearly always produces a kind of closure (90). This type is the most typical historically, and it drives stories as diverse as Oedipus Rex and Moll Flanders.

Both Dannenberg and Ryan refer to Aristotle’s concept of anagnorisis, which Ryan describes as “scenes of recognition, through which characters pass from ignorance into knowledge” (57). This turn or renewing of connections between old friends or separated family members is perhaps the most important narrative work done by the traditional coincidence plot, and leads to the quintessential “family reunion”. In Western, culturally-Christian narratives, providence can be used as an explanation for the series of coincidences leading to such a reunion, but the audience’s “mileage may vary” in terms of how much coincidence they are willing to accept.

More recent authors have done work to deconstruct or repurpose the traditional coincidence plot, which, according to Dannenberg, has been done in several ways. In the modernist coincidence, “analogous relationships link characters and objects on the same spatial and temporal level” (106). Here, the connections take place in the mind of the individual characters, not between people. The postmodernist coincidence, on the other hand, “create[es] networks of uncanny correspondences between characters who are distributed across more than one temporal or ontological level” (106). These can exist as parallel narrative patterns which are not acknowledged in the text, but which the reader much surmise extradiegetically. Both of these kinds of storytelling rely on the concept of analogical coincidence. These are “indirect or figurative systems of connection” which are “only cognitively constructed through the perception of correspondence” (Dannenberg 105). Dannenberg points out that this kind of correspondence “is a correlate of the change in focus. . .[in] scientific coincidence research” which was discussed popularly at the time (105).

It is clear that what coincidences readers will or will not accept has changed over time, possibly due to a lack of reliance on or belief in the concept of divine providence as a driving factor in daily life. As Ryan asserts, an audience’s “most significant criterion of acceptability for a plotting device is its thematic adequacy and symbolic value” (73). This is to say that if an audience finds a story significantly meaningful or moving, the density of the plot’s coincidences or “plot tricks” can be ignored for the sake of aesthetic or other kinds of meaningful experiences. If a reader is moved by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it does not matter why its protagonist has been turned into a cockroach.

Narrative coincidence, at least of the kind Dannenberg describes (consisting of prehistory, intersection, and discovery), is more challenging to identify in stories that are built on truth, or which are meant to represent historical truth. After all, a reader is much more likely to accept coincidences of all kinds in a narrative that is “based on a true story,” among other plot contrivances. Other examples of what a reader might accept include characters who behave in outrageous ways (such as the odd juror from The Journalist and the Murderer) or decisions made by characters which have ambiguous motivations or intentions for which readers might otherwise demand an explanation (such as Bechdel’s fathers alleged suicide in Funhome).

In Grizzly Man, Herzog lingers over what might otherwise be an otherwise-innocuous moment, when Spirit the fox and her kits join Treadwell in the frame after he finishes his monologue about the bear he included intentionally in his background. This could function as a microscopic version of Dannenberg’s three-step coincidence plot. That is, Treadwell knows the fox already and had a name for her; they came together by seeming chance while the camera is rolling; and he recognizes the fox as his “friend” (though whether or not the fox can recognize him is debatable). While I am not trying to suggest that this series of “true” events does the same “work” as a coincidence in a novel, particularly one that leads to the resolution of the story (e.g., the family reunites), but that Dannenberg’s three steps can be overlaid on sequences that are not typically subject to traditional narrative expectations.

On the other hand, Herzog seems to try to create a situation of narrative coincidence toward the end of the film. As Herzog describes the particular circumstances leading to Treadwell’s death, he lists a number of unusual situations which he tacitly uses to suggest reasons for his ultimate demise (i.e., Treadwell and Amie were present later in the year than usual, the bears who were left in the area were those who were more unfamiliar with Treadwell, etc.). While showing some of Treadwell’s latest footage, Herzog discusses the bear sharing the frame with Treadwell, suggesting that it, as one of the few left in the area, may very well have been Treadwell’s killer. While I would not deny that  (especially if there were truly fewer bears in the area than usual) it is statistically possible (or even likely) that the bear in question could have been the killer, it is still a deliberate narrative move on Herzog’s part to try to set up a “prehistory” for Treadwell and the bear in question, which may (off screen) have lead to a tragic intersection and discovery at the time of Treadwell’s death.

My primary question for class discussion would then be: should we, as those familiar with the tools of narrative theory, use the same tools to discuss the use or function of coincidence in purportedly-factual narratives, considering in particular the role of the curator in the production of the object?

Engaged

The Bill Nichols piece titled, Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies, introduces the reader to some concepts about documentary films in chapter three. What is the purpose of documentary films? How do they work? What are the various modes and how are they different?

Documentary films are not works of fiction. They address the real world. And real-world issues. Nichol states that, “Many documentaries make frequent use of poetic and narrative storytelling techniques as well as rhetorical ones” (Nichols 99). Narrative storytelling is exactly what it sounds like. It is driven by narration either without or outside of the documentary. The poetic is pieced together differently and will be discussed later. In Nichols’ view, there are elements of a rhetorical emphasis in most documentaries. According to Nichols, “rhetorical film discourse serves to move or affect, persuade, or convince the audience.” (Nichols 100) With this in mind, I wonder if there is a rhetorical element in Herzog’s, Grizzly Man? There is the element of a documentary inside another documentary in Grizzly Man. How does this shape the type and mode of this documentary film? These are questions to consider in class. There are two ways, at least, that documentaries function. We engage emotionally or intellectually and sometimes both ways with documentaries. The modes of engagement will be discussed later.

To persuade your audience it is important to understand who your target audience is. As Nichols points out, we are all different, shaped by our experiences. What may have a desired affect of one person may have the opposite on another (this may be your intent). So how can one sway another’s opinion or viewpoint. One way to do this is to use syllogisms. Nichols define them as ways to state premises and draw conclusion; some valid but some only appear valid. This is a come rhetorical tool in politics. Nichols give us the dog example of valid and faulty syllogisms. Decisions to leave out or focus on certain aspects in the documentary can help sway the viewer in the desired direction of the filmmaker. One example given is the documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, by Pare Lorentz. This documentary focusses on the dust bowl in the West and Midwest in the 1930s. The way that it is filmed makes it a very pro-government film and thus pro democrat. The government is the hero of the film saving lives with innovation. It uses a narrator to push its agenda and sway the viewers in a particular way. A film by Spike Lee, When the Levees broke does just the opposite and paints the government as an institution that failed the people of Louisiana. This documentary used a different strategy. Instead of a narrator it captured, sync sound, the words or the people effected directly from their own mouths. Sync sound is when filming and the sound or voice is recorded at the same time. This is what Timothy Treadwell does while documenting his life with the bears. Herzog uses this footage masterfully to give a true sense of Treadwell’s life, as he sees it. Sync sound used in conjunction with certain filming techniques can be very powerful! Lee’s closed-framed portraits of his interviewees opposed to the wide- open framed shots of then President Bush and Vice President Cheney paint two very different powerful picture. Like, Treadwell’s synched sound of the rushing water, the bears, the sound of the insects and Treadwell’s voice, the framing of the interviewees telling their stories provide an affect that moves the viewer. Another example can be seen in footage used by Michael Moore and many other documentarians of President Bush’s response when he was told about the 911 attacks at the 4:55 mark  ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suB5wNSNBjs ). I can explain more in class but the short story is that it outraged many people. I think this was in part due to the distance of the filming, synch sound and detachment from the situation. One question to consider in class is on page 106. Concerning The Plow that Broke the planes and When the Levees Broke, Nichols states, “neither film finds a community-based or indigenous organization to channel this suffering into a collective action…neither film can be said to exhibit a radical political perspective.” Do you agree with this? Does Grizzly Man, exhibit a radical political perspective? Is Nichols forgetting what he said earlier about a persons background and experience having a determining factor in how the film is viewed?

Six Modes of Documentary film

  1. Expository – Uses a narrator to speak to the audience. This voice can be an outside announcer that guides the viewer through the film or in inside the film that takes the viewer through the film. Many times this narrator represents the voice of the filmmaker and can thus express the filmmakers views. This is not always the case. Sometimes they can help the viewer navigate difficult terrain of the film. The choice of narrator can influence the viewer in many different ways. Imaging a children’s story being narrated by Samuel L. Jackson as opposed to Morgan freeman.
  2. Poetic- This mode “stresses form or pattern over explicit argument. (Nichols, 116) It looks to give a poetic rendering of the world not the logical, rhetorical method. There is a focus on the artistic. There is a use of patterns and continuity editing, “that stimulate the look and feel of real- world activities and processes. This type of film doesn’t rely of the verbal but more on the visual.
  3. Observational- This is exactly what it sounds like. A direct cut. There is a continuity that captures the image and the sounds at the same time. one example is seen in, The Bear Man when Treadwell is talking about the bear in the background and finishes his shot. He lingers a while and the fox comes by with its pup right behind. They seek the authenticity of events as they unfold in real time
  4. Participatory- This is the “interactive”(Nichols, 118) documentary. This style uses direct questioning. This style also uses synch sound. The filmmaker is directly involved more in front of the camera. She can influence the film with this direct interaction. No Narrator is needed but can be used. In Grizzly Man, Herzog can push any agenda he has by directly interviewing people in the film. Again, I as, is he seeking to influence the viewer?
  5. Reflexive- This mode is considered more “abstract” (Nichols, 122) that the other modes. The film maker challenges the viewer to consider the fact that this is a documentary that is controlled by the director and others and can be altered according to their whims. The warm sunny day that you perceive on film may in fact simply be a close-up of a painting. The authenticity of what is viewed come into question. The film may not be the desired focus on the director. It could be the chaos surrounding the filming representing the chaos in a riot for example.
  6. Performative- The emotional opposite of the Reflexive intellectual mode. The viewer is directed towards an emotional involvement. The goal is the experience of an affectual performance. There is more than an intellectual approach and this type of film is there to provide it. It could be the visceral display of the carnage of war or the violent responses to civil rights peaceful protest. It is meant to be felt not to simple inform or teach

Documentary of a documentarian?

The 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog, plays between a couple of the modes proposed by Bill Nichols in the “Documentary Film” of his 2010 book Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies. In my opinion, I believe Grizzly Man fits into at least three of the six modes that Nichols proposes: the expository, participatory and poetic modes. This blending between modes might be due to the fact that this is technically a documentary that talks about a documentarian and uses footage from a potential documentary, but it could also just be that this film was not meant to fit any one category.

For the purposes of this assignment, I will focus on two specific scenes and point out how they fit (or don’t fit) with the modes I proposed above.

First, I want to focus on the scene at minute 25. The scene where the fox appears as Treadwell is wrapping up talking about a bear in the background. Herznog gives the viewer the clip with no preface. Just as Treadwell is wrapping up the scene, Herznog’s voice interrupts it and he gives us a hint of what will happen, saying: “Now the scene seems to be over, but as a filmmaker sometimes things fall into your lap which you couldn’t expect, never even dream of…There is something like an inexplicable magic of cinema.” In this sense, because his voice is narrating the scene and is separate from the actual footage presented, this part is an example of the expository mode that Nichols offers. Nichols defines the expository mode as “direct address [that] involves the use of a voice that speaks to the viewer directly” (114). However, I think this scene is a little more nuanced than this, since it is more of an expository mode of the observational mode that Treadwell delivers because, to use Nichols’s definition, Treadwell “capture[s] the unfolding duration of what took place in front of the camera” (117). Why did Herznog decide to use this particular scene to show “the inexplicable magic of cinema”? And why did he choose to interrupt the scene in the middle instead of narrating it from the beginning? I think that this scene complicates how we interpret what an “expository mode” might look like in actual documentaries.

The next scene I want to take a closer look at is the scene at minute 52:20. This is the scene where he listens (and Jewel watches him listen) to the tape that was recorded at the time of the bear incident. At this moment, Herznog breaks out of the expository and instead shifts to the participatory mode—where the “filmmaker becomes an openly integral part of what happens in front of the camera” (118). I believe this is the only scene where we actually see his body in the frame (someone can let me know if this isn’t the case), which breaks the norm of the documentary. He is literally participating in this scene by being in the frame of the camera, performing an action (listening to the tape and relaying what it says), and explicitly telling her “Jewel, you must never listen to this”. Though a very staged scene, this moment is meant to dramatize the emotional aspects of Treadwell’s death. But again, how and why did Herznog decide to physically interrupt the general mode of the documentary? Why show this scene at all? Compared to the fox scene, how is a visible interruption affecting how we read the general narrative Herznog is developing about Treadwell?

For me, these two scenes were two impactful moments of the documentary and let on a lot of what Herznog thought about Treadwell. They also seemed good examples of the modes Nichols covered in the reading. I also think that this documentary had some aspects of the poetic modes, since Herznog often let the camera linger a lot on nature (I’m thinking about the scene with the seagull diving into the sea) . So in many ways this film overlaps with most of the modes that Nichols covers, especially considering that footage of Treadwell’s would-be documentary are also used. What does everyone think?

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Narratee in Grizzly Man

In Gerald Prince’s text, he laments the invisibility of the narratee, wondering why this particular narrative figure remains questionably unexplored. Per his definition, though the concept itself might be considered abstract, the reality of his observation is undeniable, making for fascinating consideration. Prince’s understanding of the narratee, or the porous multi-faced sometimes-character between the narrator and the reader, welds a staggering about of narrative influence as he writes, “The narratee can, thus, exercise an entire series of functions in a narrative: he constitutes a relay between the narrator and the reader, he helps establishes the narrative framework, he serves to characterize the narrator, he emphasizes certain themes, he contributes to the development of the plot, [and] he becomes fit Busiessthe spokesman for the moral of work” (23.) But how can an oft-invisible fictive character accomplish so much without even appearing in a work? For Prince, it’s usually in the way the story itself is written.

To start, a narratee is not the intended reader, or the audience who is buying the story to entertain or educate themselves. Usually they come in between such planes, as the medium for whom a story is being told to, or instead, serves as the audience that is being indirectly addressed. Prince most clearly illustrates this through his continuous example of the storyteller Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, explaining that as the narrator, it is the narratee within her tale who holds the most power, as without his influence (and/or interest), she will be executed and thus her tales, and the stories within the book come to an end. But against the reader of a story (who Prince argues would understand the author’s intent and interpretation against other stories and styles of the same type), the perfect narratee (referred to often as a zero-degree narratee) has no such thoughts. A narratee knows instead, the language employed by the narrator without explanation, and understands causality through reasoning, while keeping a sure memory or one that allows a relatively straight forward telling of a story with minimal issues.

Curiously however, Prince also suggests that zero degree narratees come as almost blank slates to a story. They have no previous understanding of a text before the story told to them, and won’t theorize narratives through tropes or codes as “without the assistance of the narrator, without his explanations and information supplied by him, the narratee is able neither to interpret the value of an action nor grasp its repercussions” (10-11.) Consider for example, the narratees for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which change depending on who is doing the talking and where. Looking specifically at the tapes showcased where nature enthusiast Timothy Treadwell is speaking to the camera, we know it’s in relation to an audience. Later, toward the end we see him specifically addressing the supporters through his nonprofit organization Grizzly People, who would be unaware of Treadwell’s upbringing, his drug addiction, or of the reaction of his work to others in the field of animal study, who seemed through the film, to consider his work highly inappropriate. He addresses the watchers of his documentary (not to be confused with Herzog’s) as though they are people who are equally as curious and fiercely passionate about his love of bears as he is, and who will effectively take all the pain, love, joy, and frustration he will give them.

Similarly, like Prince mentions in the article, Treadwell often employs language for his narratees in his documentary by including them as “we” in his work. Sometimes he’ll be out giving updates on his summer rounds through the wildlife sanctuaries and talk about the work he did by himself as the solitary guardian of the bears as it were, but other times particularly when he’s vulnerable or emotional, he’ll switch to referring to the collective group as part of the network that made his work possible; but this of course is not what Herzog refers to when he’s showcasing Treadwell’s historical videos. Instead as an indirect narratee, Herzog’s audience acts as the primary narratee as he moves through Treadwell’s timeline with pseudo-questions in an effort to entice the watcher to learn more about Treadwell. But Treadwell’s fluctuation between the personal and the professional give his narrator persona a fluid unreliable quality, and Prince also talks about how rapport between narrators and narratees create a significant distance that can change the course of a story.

Watching Grizzly Man from Herzog’s documentary apart from Treadwell’s, creates a cooler detachment to the subject matter Treadwell works on passionately; but I would imagine, being one of Timothy’s supporters, watching the videos as a weekly update, would create a different atmosphere altogether. In many ways, that’s what makes him so unstable as a narrator. With nature documentaries, the typical audience has an expectation of polished professionalism and practiced oratory which we enjoy and have come to rely on. In effect, this seems to give nature an even more dramatic, theatrical quality more geared toward entertainment than a confessional expose. But Treadwell’s narratorial distance shifts dramatically throughout the film, giving the story much of its interest and dramatic irony as Herzog explains who he was and how he came to meet his demise. For instance, when he slips into rants about his sex life, or when a fox steals his treasured baseball cap, or when he unloads expletives against the National Park Service, we can see the side of Treadwell that came before his love of documentary peaking through, as such things are aren’t typically expected of a wildlife host. But it was part of his charm, and ultimately his undoing.

Ultimately, these varying distances between both Herzog and Treadwell are what create a set of narrative windows within the film. Herzog works with a certain kind of understanding, as an investigative journalist while simultaneously showcasing a homemade documentary about the bears, and the result is a combination of various lenses all highlighting different audiences. Likewise, Prince’s article demands that we step back and take into account who a story is being told to, before it reaches out beyond the page, which offers a wholly different kind of understanding of the text. As one of the key parts of a story, narratees operate as a primary function dictating how a story is told, and this difference is something both Herzog and Prince are acutely aware of.

 

 

 

 

 

Embodiment, Feminism, and Autobiography

Hilary Chute’s The Space of Graphic Narrative: Mapping Bodies, Feminism, and Form investigates the intersection between graphic narrative and feminist thought, with a particular focus on the nonfiction autobiographical graphic narrative. According to Chute, key feminist issues, namely “positionality, location, and embodiment” are central to the construction and form of the autobiographical graphic narrative. Below I lay out the main building blocks of Chute’s  argument and then pose a few questions and points for discussion relating Chute’s theories to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. 

The Importance of Form–In order to identify elements of feminism in the form of the graphic narrative, we must first understand the unique importance that the genre affords to form. The form of the graphic narrative is always making itself known to the reader–the boxes, images, margins, and captions dictate the pacing of the narrative and make it non-replicable. The form itself creates a dialogue between pictures and images, one that requires reader participation. 

So, what makes the form feminist in nature? 

Embodiment: The writer of the autobiographical graphic novel narrates her own body–she creates a “corporeal inhabitation” of herself on the page through the images she draws. Even more so than a text of written words, the images embody the author on her terms by presenting an author-created visual image of the body. Chute claims that the author can represent or testify to the site of her own trauma in a space in which the reader is always aware of the presence of the narrative’s creator. 

Location: Adrienne Rich’s concept of the “politics of location” deals with “making the hidden visible,” and in relation to embodiment, the author of the graphic narrative is drawing and making visible aspects of her own story. Chute adds that the comic’s visual form allows a space for the author to reclaim the visual as a sight for female empowerment and representation.

Time and Space: The images of a graphic autobiography not only take up embodied space but also map out time, making a timeline of the author’s life. Spatially plotted data, Chute argues “construct different kinds of knowledge” (Atkinson) about the self. This shaping of time through boxes on the page allows authors to represent layered, complex “subjectivities” for the self. These depictions, Chute argues, can lead to critical feminist reading practices. 

Fun Home 

Bechdel certainly does what Chute refers to in her article–she creates an autobiography in which the pacing, the words, the visual images,and the timeline are controlled and dictated by her–more than they could ever be in a strictly prose work. The elements of her identity that are most likely to be misunderstood by others–her gender expression, her sexuality, her struggle with mental illness, her abuse–all appear on the page in a space fully controlled by Bechdel that lives little up to the reader’s imagination. In Fun Home, Bechdel represents not only herself but countless other objects–she replicates family letters, pages from the dictionary, newspaper articles, and family photos. The adherence to reproducing true/real objects might perhaps deepen the strength of Chute’s concept of embodiment and representation on the page. 

Some further points/questions for possible discussion:

  • Chute discusses the autobiographical narrative as a space where an author can represent her trauma in an embodied form, but I was struck while reading Fun Home by what I perceived to be the moral precarity of representing the stories of others–Bechdel’s father and other family members–in such an embodied form in which they had no opportunity to refute Bechdel’s depiction or present their own side of their narrative. Specifically, the representation of parental conflict after the death of that parent seems to be a common phenomenon in autobiography, and I think it is one worth discussing when thinking about representation. Does the very act of representing the bodies of others go against some of the feminist notions discussed in Chute’s piece?
  • Chute writes about the distinctness of the form of the graphic narrative. Yet, today, many people know Fun Home through its adaptation as a Broadway musical. How might we apply our discussion from earlier in the semester about adaptation theory to the way we think about a very form-specific narrative (that Chute said was non-replicable) being adapted into another form?
  • Continuing on the topic of form, I’m interested in thinking more broadly about nonfiction and form, and form in relation to “truth” in nonfiction. All three of the nonfiction writers we have read so far in this class have experimented with form and been self-conscious about the ways they play with form–from Wallace’s boxes and footnotes to Malcolm’s use of the journalistic form in a critique of journalism, to Bechdel’s graphic narrative. I’m not sure what parallels to draw between the three but think the topic might be worth discussing in class if others are interested. 

 

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but Pictorial Truth: Non-fiction Narrative and Comics

Allison’s Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic narrative Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic bridges two different narrative forms, nonfiction and graphic narrative, in a manner that reveals how the combination creates something unique. As H. Porter Abbot discusses in Chapter Eleven of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, most readers expect nonfiction narratives to be completely, or at least mostly, truthful, but is this same standard applied to non-fiction and/or autobiographical graphic narratives? According to some critics like Jared Gardner, autobiographical comics are not held to the same standards of complete truthfulness. Bechdel comments on the flexibility of autobiographical graphic narratives in comparison to their solely written counterparts mainly through her reflections on the evolution of her diary.

In Fun Home, Bechdel discusses how writing in her journal became a daily activity from when she was a small child until her teenage years. Her father teaches her to “Just write down what’s happening,” leading her to aim for factual accounts of the day’s activities (140). But as time goes on, “the minutely-lettered phrase I think begins to crop up” before Bechdel’s commentary of the events (141). The image that follows shows the small “I thinks” added into cramped spaces, seemingly as an afterthought, yet their constant presence demonstrates young Bechdel’s self-doubt and need for truth (141). Bechdel’s written observations cannot capture the “objective truth” she searches for, as they can only depict her “own perceptions, and perhaps not even those” (141). Eventually, Bechdel develops a symbol for these “I thinks” and feels compelled to add more and more until they completely cover the page and conceal her observations, a change that occurs after Bechdel loses even more confidence in herself for failing a imagined “initiation rite” during a family camping trip (143). As Bechdel moves from her childhood into the liminal space of being a teenager, her written diary feels further restrictive and becomes an inadequate means to capture her experiences.

As Bechdel ages, gains more self-awareness, and further questions everything, her writing style in her journals reflects these changes. Although Bechdel overcomes her compulsive inclusion of “I thinks,” a new form of punctuation, ellipses, has replaced them. An image of one diary entry shows how ellipses appear in every sentence, “to indicate not so much omission as hesitation” (162). Bechdel still doubts her ability to convey an objective truth through written words, so she hesitates between comments perhaps to replay events in her mind and emphasize her uncertainty. The ellipses also enable young Bechdel to skip from topic to topic, with the same image skipping from events such as her friend driving her around to watching a play with her father (162). Whenever Bechdel reaches a topic that makes her uncomfortable or that she does not want to dwell on or record, such as how “odd” she and Tammy looked, she uses an ellipsis to change the topic. As Bechdel ages, her feelings about events become more prevalent than that strict facts, but a need for objectivity in written accounts of her life continues restricting her until she finds an alternative means of expressing herself.

Bechdel’s struggle with journaling continues as she further realizes the limitations of presenting her own perception as “the truth.” Gradually, the “hard facts” ten-year old Bechdel sought to record “gave way to vagaries of emotion and opinion,” with images of these entries showing an increased number of comments dedicated to Bechdel’s thoughts on various events (169). These changes culminate in a diary entry about Bechdel’s first menstrual cycle pictured as “I think I started Ning or something. (HAHA)? How HORRID!” (168). Revealingly, this textual reproduction of Bechdel’s image fails to capture the emotion behind her penmanship, the feelings of frustration that permeate this “truth” and hide it “behind a hedge of qualifies, encryption, and stray punctuation” (169). Because the written medium cannot completely convey Bechdel’s perception of her life without straying from required conventions about “truthfulness” that even ten-year Bechdel knew to adhere to, she decides to instead conceal this truth. She substitutes the word “menstruating” with “Ning,” a practice she took from algebra, to record the end of her childhood without completely recognizing or accepting it. Writing alone is no longer a means for Bechdel to record and understand her life and so, she stops writing in her journal later that year (186). Bechdel’s focus on her journal writing and her gradual disinterest in it is mundane and relatable enough for most readers to not give it more consideration. But the focus she gives her journaling in her graphic narrative opens the possibility for it to be a metacommentary about writing versus comics. Writing alone fails to convey Bechdel’s life experiences because it constricted her to tell only the truth, a problem that did not occur as she wrote and drew her autobiography in Fun Home.

Bechdel’s frustrations with writing her diary are integral to understanding why she chose to tell her autobiography in graphic form and the differences between written and graphic narratives. While young Bechdel struggled with the need for truthfulness in her written accounts, her comic does not suffer from the same shortcomings because readers allow this medium more creative freedom and do not hold comics to the same standards of truthfulness even when they are nonfiction. Jared Gardner comments on the difference between lexical and graphic nonfiction representations in “First-Person Graphic, 1959-2010,” explaining, “The split between autographer and subject is etched on every page, the handcrafted nature of the images and the ‘autobifictional’…nature of the narrative is undeniable” (Gardner 131). Written autobiographies represent the author lexically, the same and only medium through which the story is told, making it easier for readers completely combine the narrator and author and assume they must always be one and the same. But in graphic narratives, the graphic symbol stands in for the human author and the story they tell which allows for more separation. Everything the reader sees, the author imagined and drew, reminding readers they are seeing someone else’s perception instead of the “objective truth” they expect from solely written narratives. Graphic narratives make visible “the compressions and gaps of its narrative (represented graphically by the gutterspace between the panels)” to foreground “the losses and glosses of memory and subjectivity” that permeate daily life but that most readers forget about when reading written autobiographies (Gardner 145). The restrictions Bechdel felt when journaling disappear when she instead presents her life in comic form because the medium replicates the imperfections of memory and the way perception impacts objective truth.

Graphic narrative enables Bechdel to tell her life story in a manner that emphasizes rather than reduces her perceptions, allowing her to depict events more symbolically rather than strictly as they occurred. Readers do not question how Bechdel could remember specific conversations from her childhood or what a person was wearing years ago because they understand her drawings as representations seen through Bechdel’s eyes. For the same reasons, readers also will not question how Bechdel can depict events she was never at, such as her father picking up and drinking with one of the teenaged brothers, thus giving her more creative freedom to show things integral to her story that she did not experience first-hand (Bechdel 161). One of the more illuminating instances of this freedom occurs when Bechdel questions if she would have also hidden her sexuality in the 1950s. As she contrasts her and her father’s lifestyles, Bechdel wonders, “Would I have had the guts to be one of those Eisenhower-era butches? / Or would I have married and sought succor from my high school students?” (108). Underneath the first sentence is an image of a young couple from behind, a presumably butch lesbian walking towards them, and the illustrious bar that 86’d Bechdel and her friends in the background between them. The next image shows the young couple entering the bar while the butch woman continues walking past. The young man is Bechdel’s father and he stares at the butch woman, likely contemplating her out lifestyle in contrast to his decision to hide his sexuality. The butch woman bears a striking resemblance to older Bechdel but with enough differences to keep things ambiguous. The combination of words and images unique to graphic narratives enables Bechdel to break away from reality, depicting an event that probably did not happen and that might be temporally impossible yet still ambiguous, to further characterize her complex relationship to her father. The written equivalent, something like “I could imagine myself(?) walking past them…”, arguably cannot achieve the same effects and would take readers out of the narrative given its deviations from the truth and plot. But in graphic form, this depiction is seamless. While neither form is superior to the other, they do different things with their narratives, with nonfiction graphic narratives being afforded more creative freedom. Fun Home is Bechdel’s autobiography meaning readers still expect it to be somewhat true and yet, its graphic form means they will allow it a different level of truth than if it was solely written down like the diary entries Bechdel gave up writing long ago.

Fargo2

Fargo2

(Setting the Scene)

 

I am going to riff a little about written narrative settings and the problems of analyzing “settings” as proposed by James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz. How do the rules change/translate to film/tv? I am specifically going to look at a scene from Fargo’s Rhinoceros episode and a scene from the movie. I will insert questions that can be discussed in class.

The first scene starts at about the 8:23 mark and ends around 9:51. This is the conversation between Simone Gerhardt and Mike Milligan. Simone calls mike at the hotel from her house. The scene opens with him being handed a ringing phone. The “setting” here that I am focusing on is how the shots of the characters framed and what does it add if anything to the storyline. The conversation starts with 2 separate shots of each person talking. The sound is also instrumental here as it changes. As soon as Simone says it’s my body, the screen and the audio split. Mike is on the left as is his audio and Simone is on the right. He is the only one in his side of the screen however she shares some of her screen time with the maid/cook. The camera also changes angle at key points. For example, the camera angle changes when the name Luverne is mentioned, we go from a profile shot of Mike to a straight shot. I believe this is to punctuate the name and place importance on what is now being said. Immediately after Simone says, “and I want… You’re gonna…” the split screen goes away and in a single shot she tells the maid/cook to, “get the hell outta here.” The maid leaves. Mike asks, “did I lose you there sweetheart?”   then with a ¾ shot on here she says, “You’re gonna kill him for me!” Mike asks, “your dad?” “He’s not… Ozzie was a dad, on the tv, shit, Mr. French is more of a….” she responds. The screen splits once again and the conversation continues until the end of the scene which once again focusses on her with a last message for her dad, “Tell him… kiss my grits!” The scene then ends with Mike hanging up and immediately reciting Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll. The scene is filled with subtle audio that helps to frame the setting.

The second scene is from the movie, Fargo. This is the conversation between Officer Olson and Mr. Mohra. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-XEHwUBubk

This conversation takes place outside in the cold but could have taken place on the phone. Phelan and Rabinowitz quotes Evelyn May saying, “Function of the setting is to furnish, in the best possible way for any given story, the conditions of time and place and characters which shall make the story possible and actual.” (85) Does this scene accomplish this goal? I believe it does. It does so in a way opposite written text. If Mr. Mohra and officer Olson stood there minus the dialogue, I think we would still get a feeling of the importance of the conversation, a direction pointed out, the weather, time of day… and more. What do you all think? I think it moves the story along but in a different matter. Some questions to consider are:

  1. “How do we determine the range of setting and the nature of it’s borders?” (84)
  2. “Setting is often conflated with “description” and hence serves as the portal through which a number of vexed issues enter the field.” (85) In trying to translate “setting” from the written pages to the screen am I “Blurring” the line between setting and description?
  3. Please consider the synthetic, memetic, and thematic components of setting as used in my examples above

 

One last thing about Narrative that I would like to explore with me is the Idea of Narrative Cinema. We may have discussed this in a class that I missed but if we have not, I think it warrants consideration. Martin Scorsese recently said at the BFI London Film Festival concerning Marvel and superhero films, It’s not cinema, it’s something else. We shouldn’t be invaded by it. We need cinemas to step up and show films that are narrative films.” -From, The Hollywood Reporter.

What are your thoughts on this? I think this is a conversation about what make a film, Narrative and can only narrative films be considered cinema? Just something to think about.

For those unfamiliar:

Jabberwocky

By Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

 

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

 

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

 

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

 

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.