Reading the Specular Text; Synthesis of The Spectator in the Text by Nick Browne

Professor Nick Browne describes a fundamental problem with the analysis of cinematic narration through existing paradigms; the motivation behind the composition of a sequence based on the action and the gaze of the character does not consider the authority of the narrator. Instead, he proposes a reevaluation of the “center” through “reading” the film and assessing rational through an implied narrator placed by the spectator (126). His case is explored through a sequence 28 minutes into the movie Stagecoach which defies previous analytic structures, but is clarified when the text is interpreted through “implied position of the spectator” (125).

Traditional explanations for camera position and framing rationalize placement as “following the action” (126); the camera follows the gaze of a spectator who would be watching the events on a stage, and the content is edited to highlight the attention of the audience. An important characteristic noted in the traditional paradigm is in the authority of gaze, which is guided by the action. A second theory referenced is Oudart’s suture theory, which places the authority for the shot in an offscreen viewer dubbed the “absent one”; shot/countershot sequences are interpreted as depictions of the gaze of an off camera character within the scene. The suture system addresses the character, but neither theory addresses the “authority of narrative”. Browne proposes interpretation of imagery as motivated through a combination of the judgment of an “implied narrator” and the “imaginative action” caused by his placement (126).


(The camera is placed for the vantage of the antagonist, but the audience identifies with the protagonist.)

Attempting to analyze the opening and closing shots of the sequence through the traditional or suture systems yields a problem attaching the point of view to character or action. Browne argues that the failure arises because the shots function to present the complex psychological state of the group, rather than a single character. He supports his assertion with the fact that the opening and closing shots cannot be attached to anyone’s glance, and also sites supporting examples when the spectator is placed in one character’s location, but identifying with another (135). These exceptions make the interpretation of the figurative placement or “center” of the spectator complicated because the viewer can disagree with the opinions of the character represented through the geographic position and angle of the camera. This act of defiance with the physical perspective places the narrative authority in the possession of the spectator (132-133).

The switching of modes, alternating contrasting elements, is read as a as a coherent statement to the spectator, conveying a sense of meaning over time. Key to the process of reading is forgetting the elements that composed the dramatic impact, brought about by the placement of a new occluding significant event for the spectator to read, an effect Browne calls “fading” (135). A spectator reads emphasis implied through temporal variation in cycles of retrospection, fading, delay, and anticipation, an act that further involves the spectator (136).

Identification with a character on screen, without a sense of displacement as the shots change, relieves the spectator’s point of view from a “given spatial location” (134 and 137). The text the spectator inhabits is, as Browne puts it, “the product of the narrator’s disposition toward the tale” (136). Within the presentation of this structure the author transfers the appearance of authority onto the characters.  To the reader, the “center”, in the context of the specular text, is a function that is adopted as the one who makes the form intelligible, and for the spectator the center is the impression of being able to occupy the space of the narrative (137).

Relation to the image on screen is literal, but the relation to the space implied can be recognized through different terms. The audience is outside the action; actor’s and spectator’s glances cannot meet, the result is a “prohibition boundary” that separates the spectator from the action, but this boundary is the defining element of the narrative system, segregating the film as  “different from dream in being the product of another” (137 – 138). The result is a form which “conveys a point of view and define(s) the course of the reading” (139), “assist(ing) in the construction of attitudes”. The act of reading the scene becomes a performance that “recreates the point of view enacted in a scene” (140).

Works Cited:

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

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