Leaving Solomon: Reading Patsey in the Context of bell hooks’ “Oppositional Gaze”

There are only two scenes in the entirety of 12 Years a Slave for which we leave Solomon’s perspective—one immediately after the first count of how much cotton each slave picked, when we see Patsey making cornhusk dolls while Solomon is beaten (58:14), and the second during her rape (1:13:00).  Solomon is “present” for both these scenes, being beaten in the background in the first one and awake inside during the second, but there is no way that he could have actually witnessed these events as we see them.  These scenes are particularly interesting in the context of bell hook’s chapter on black female spectatorship, since the only two deviations from Solomon’s point of view are for Patsey’s sake, and very distinctly involve “women’s” issues, the domestic and sexual assault.


The rape scene especially made me question why it was necessary to show Patsey’s torment in detail, when it is not directly part of Solomon’s experience.  To be clear, I am not questioning the scene’s necessity because it was graphic—graphic scenes certainly have a place and a purpose in a film of this nature.  I am questioning why this particular trauma, which Solomon did not witness first-hand, was necessary in a film intended to be shot from Solomon’s perspective (and based on a first-hand account which by necessity could not deviate from his perspective in such a way) and what purpose the scene serves, intentionally or unintentionally.  We certainly already had the impression that Patsey was being sexually abused prior to that scene, and we could have heard about the rape second-hand, or focused on watching Solomon while he listened to it, if he could hear them outside.  But instead we deviated from our protagonist to witness a graphic and brutal rape, even pausing a moment to focus on Patsey after Epps has left her alone.  I think this raises fascinating questions about where we are intended to place ourselves as viewers, and what power Solomon has to gaze in the film—and if Patsey has any power to gaze back.


If we are intended to identify with Solomon, and taking into account his feelings of personal responsibility for Patsey after refusing to assist her suicide, this could read as one of many rape scenes where we are intended to feel almost more or at least equal sympathy for Solomon as Patsey, a man forced to silently witness the sexual abuse of a woman for whom he is responsible.  We see these scenes in many different forms of media, incredibly problematic in their suggestion that men’s suffering trumps that of the women being abused.  This is in line with, I believe, hooks’ writing on the phallogocentric gaze of black men, which replicates racism even as it tries to rebel against it—but also privileges black men with the ability to gaze, which is withheld from or complicated for black women (683).  I wonder how we are meant to feel for Patsey, then.  Is she only the object of Solomon’s gaze?  Do we only feel Solomon’s responsibility for her and nothing else?  Do we only sympathize with her as far as Solomon does, as he refuses to assist her suicide, is forced to beat her, listens to (or is at least aware of) her rape, and is forced to leave her behind?  Or are we allowed to identify with her as a character in her own right, which seems only fair if we deviate from Solomon’s perspective for her sake?  In other words, do these scenes of deviation actually work towards understanding of or identification with Patsey, because we are given scenes of her independent from Solomon, or do they only work towards increasing sympathy/empathy for Solomon?  If we side with the latter, what does it mean that the purpose of Patsey’s rape, as one of only two scenes that separate us from Solomon, only serves to increase our connection to Solomon?


Also of note is the moment in which Solomon makes direct eye contact with the camera (1:59:35).  It is interesting because it is a moment where we lose the narrative temporarily.  We aren’t sure where exactly he is in time or space, and because it is a transition we lose any markers for how much time has passed.  Are we invited to see this as a “look back,” as per hooks’ act of resistance (682)?  If Solomon is looking at us, is he resisting our gaze as viewers?  His eyes fix on the camera almost incidentally, after staring off in several other directions first, and his expression is, in my opinion, one of desperation.  Clearly, breaking the fourth wall is purposeful, but the nature of the scene suggests a sort of helplessness or hopelessness in his gaze.  Can an act of resistance be hopeless?

hooks’ Critical Spectatorship

In her 1992 essay “The Oppositional Gaze,” bell hooks examines classical cinema’s “negation” of the black female subject (686), arguing that intersections of racial and gender oppression set the black female spectator’s experience apart from the black male spectator, who can assume the “phallocentric gaze” and (within the context of the theater) resist a system of white supremacy[1] invested in guarding “White womanhood” (683).

Foucault’s theory of discipline and Mulvey’s work on the gaze are instrumental to this portion of her argument, as she begins her analysis of black spectatorship by noting the white slaveholder’s injunction against the black gaze – the recognition that looking constitutes an act of resistance. In his discussion of the panopticon and spectatorship, Foucault locates power both externally and within the subject, arguing that “in all relations of power ‘there is necessarily the possibility of resistance,’” and enjoining the reader to “search those margins, gaps, locations on and through the body, where agency can be found” (682). Thus, the act of gazing confers power, as it allows the viewer to exercise agency and engages the viewed in a process of self-surveillance. For hooks, the act of “look[ing] back” – of reversing the direction of the gaze – provides this “possibility of resistance” (682).

Mulvey’s work in addressing the gender dynamics of the disciplinary gaze gestures toward this “possibility of resistance,” but like much other feminist criticism, it does not recognize race as integral to representations of gender in cinema. For hooks, Mulvey charts a viewing experience ending at the point of “disaffectation” that the black female spectator assumes from the beginning (689).

hooks answers Foucault’s invitation and conventional feminism’s failure to recognize the black female subject with “critical spectatorship,” an analytical framework interrogating cinema that occludes the black female spectator (684). In this way, “critical spectatorship” not only opposes the “White male gaze that seeks to reinscribe the Black female body in a narrative of voyeuristic pleasure” (692), but also resists a mainstream feminist narrative that only recognizes the female subject as white. Thus, the critical spectator resists both the “phallocentric gaze” and “the construction of White womanhood as lack” (689-90), imagining “alternative[s]” to this conventional cinematic model (691). hooks’ alternative is a hermeneutic that “[creates] space for the construction of radical Black female subjectivity” (692), and her examples of this subject formation focus upon pairs of women engaging in acts of “mirrored recognition” and “affirmation” (692-93).[2]

Since these examples emphasize subject formation in the context of pair relationships, Tangerine’s final scene seems especially relevant to the hermeneutic outlined in “The Oppositional Gaze.” (We might therefore consider whether hooks’ essay addresses the cisgender subject or whether it also addresses the transgender subject.) This scene (1:24:16) highlights the film’s main pair relationship, excluding the passers-by that occupy many of the earlier street shots. Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s mutual gaze seems to constitute an instance of “mirrored recognition” and “affirmation” – the audience momentarily distanced from the scene with a brief shot from outside the coin laundry. Their gazes, as well as the exchange of the wig, not only signal the primacy of their friendship within the film, but also represent “recognition of their common struggle for subjectivity” (292).




[1] In the 1992 version of this article, hooks capitalizes the terms “Black” and “White,” but later versions of this essay render these terms in lowercase. I follow the later convention within my own analysis of the 1992 version, but the difference warrants further discussion.

[2] She draws her examples from Julie Dash’s Illusions and Sankofa’s A Passion of Remembrance.

Making sense of Week end



The final shot of Week end is a close-up of Corinne (begins at 1:38:55). She is snacking on a bone with meat while chatting with the leader of the Seine and Oisem, a group of “hippie revolutionaries”:

“Not bad,” comments Corinne after having tasted a piece of meat.

“A mixture of pork and leftovers of the English tourists,” he informs her.

“Those from the Rolls? ” she asks casually.

“There must be a bit of your husband, too” he responds with a neural tone.

“I’ll have a bit more later, Ernest” she states with nonchalance addressing an off-screen cook.

The shot ends with a gradual fade to black.

The shot is an example of how in art cinema, the linear and rational cause-effect logic of the classical narrative cinema is irremediably shattered. In this shot, cannibalism and even feeding on one’s spouse corpse are presented as unexceptional, ordinary actions. When informed about the nature of her meal, instead of being horrified, Corinne asks for more. How should her behavior be interpreted? How does this final shot help the spectator to make sense of the film?

In trying to understand Corinne’s behavior, I find useful to follow Bordwell: “[w]henever confronted with a problem in causation, temporality, or spatiality, we first seek for motivation” (654). Is there a plausible reason why Corinne consumes the corpse of her husband Roland without batting an eyelid. In a previous scene, a homeless rapes Corrine while she is sleeping in a ditch. Despite she screams and asks for help, her husband remains indifferent and continues to smoke a cigarette. This previous scene might suggest that the final shot portrays Corinne taking revenge. However, the tone of her voice and her attitude clarify that this is not the case. She is absolutely indifferent about her cannibalistic act. In addition, she seems to wear two wedding rings on her left ring finger. One of the two rings is smaller than the other one, and it is likely that it is her deceased husband wedding ring. She might be wearing her husband’s ring because it is made of gold, and this would underline her greediness. Still, she might also fondly preserve the ring as a token of their life together. The use of two wedding rings is purposefully ambiguous. It seems clear that Corinne does not see a contradiction on keeping Roland’s ring and eating his corpse mixed up with other meat. Another way to rationally justify Corinne’s action is to consider whether she has gone mad. This hypothesis does not find sufficient supportive ground in the film. For roughly ninety minutes Corinne and Roland have been the protagonists of mischievous cruelties without showing any qualm of conscience. Therefore, I find legitimate to assume that Corinne’s personality has not gone through any sort of significant transformation. She is perfectly lucid.

Since the realistic motivation does not bring to any satisfactory result, let’s follow Bordwell and try to consider the “authorial motivation.” What is the claim that Godard’s makes through this film? Endless interpretations can be made on the meaning(s) of this film. In my opinion, however, the film is primarily a portrait of how humanity has reached a point of not return and it is apathetically engaged in self-destruction. Corinne and Roland are moved by greed: every week they attempt to poison her father in order to inherit his wealth. At the same time, they are both cheating on each other with no apparent sense of guilt. Two opposing tension are at play simultaneously: one constructive (attempting to illegitimately improve their financial situation) and one destructive (mining their relation as a couple with extra-marital affairs). The motivation behind the couple’s actions is inconsistent and fluctuating. When their plans do not turn out as expected, they have no discernable reaction. They simply continue on their way without knowing where they are heading. This is exactly one of the distinguishing features of this cinematic mode of narration: “the character of the art cinema lacks defined desires and goals” (651). In a similar fashion, the final shot provides no resolution at all. What will happen to Corinne? Literally everything.

Time, Space, and Tension in Weekend

Time Stamp in Weekend: 1:21:56 – 1:23:52

In “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d’Est,” Peter Wollen cites Godard’s preference for enacting “multiple diegesis” within his films as one example of the oppositional quality of his “counter-cinema” in relation to classical Hollywood filmmaking (369). Though Wollen’s article primarily addresses a later period of Godard’s work, the principle of multiple diegesis is already at play throughout Weekend (1967) in a very literal sense. As Wollen himself mentions, the sort-of-but-not-really protagonists freely encounter and interact with characters from a multiplicity of otherwise unrelated “worlds,” including the author Emily Brontë, the historical figure Saint-Just, and Dumas’s (semi)fictional creation, Joseph Balsamo.

While the “interlocking and interweaving of a plurality of worlds” (369) undeniably plays a crucial role in the film’s composition, it is by no means the only diegetic manipulation with which Godard engages his work. In the brief scene beginning at 1:21:56, which occurs shortly after Corinne and Roland have been kidnapped by wood-dwelling cannibals bent on the destruction of bourgeois society, Godard suspends the forced heterogeneity of the multiple diegesis in favor of a momentary emphasis on the affective implications of a single, unified world. Throughout the scene, the camera maintains a fixed distance, holding a long shot for its entire duration. After focusing for several seconds on the entering troop of bandits and their hostages, the beat of a drumset playing alongside and over the visuals, the view pans right to expose a pile of tires and another member of the outlaw band; a few seconds later, the camera repeats the movement, this time revealing that the percussion has, in fact, been diegetic all along as another bandit is shown playing a drumset, which he subsequently relinquishes to a compatriot. Another slight pan right occurs before the camera abandons that particular view altogether, slowing moving right and down to display a blood-spattered butcher preparing the cannibals’ meal. Finally, the camera reverses directions, following the movement of one of the outlaws to the left, and suddenly, we’ve been thrown back into our previous positioned perspective, watching the drummer play before the scene quickly fades to black and cuts to an intertitle.

Far from displaying the fragmentation and disassociation that characterizes the temporal and spatial topography of Weekend in general, this particular sequence instead commits itself to David Bordwell’s notion of an “encyclopedic survey of the film’s world” (582) — or, at least, a survey of the film’s rather spasmodic world at it exists in this single, isolated moment. Bordwell highlights this particular mode of cinematic relationship to the diegetic space as a defining feature of the art cinema film, and indeed, the aforementioned scene features a number of the technical devices Bordwell (à la Bazin) notes as commonly employed in art cinema to represent “a realistic continuum of space and time” (583), such as deep space and the moving camera. Characters enter, exit, reenter, and reexit the frame of reference, temporarily designating the physical world of the film as an autonomous, unified space, fully inhabited and firmly located in continuous time. Despite the surrealist use of a composite diegesis and the self-conscious narrative evocation of the work’s own medium (the characters frequently acknowledge that they exist in a film), the physical space in which Weekend unfolds, at least, is capable of reality.

While the stylistic techniques used in the formation of this sequence result in a reification of the diegetic world on a temporal and spatial level, it’s also evident that Godard intends them to serve a cinematic purpose beyond simple “objective… verisimilitude” (583). Like the works of the art cinema whose formal and thematic attributes Bordwell sketches, Weekend relies in part upon an inherent tension between “realism” and “authorial expressivity” (585). In this scene and others like it, however, the film never attempts to mediate this tension with the art cinema solution of “ambiguity” (585); rather, it glories in the friction, underscoring the uneasy encounter between diegetic and non-diegetic influences within the matrix of the text and elevating it to a needling confrontation in which the spectator ultimately becomes the victim. Each time the camera moves, it reveals the film-world to be more comprehensive and defined than we initially thought, but nonetheless, it’s a world to which we have limited access. The camera’s careful control of perspective (and Godard’s presumed authorial expression of which it is a reflection) allows the viewer to see only what it wants, when and how it chooses. We have the sense that wider life is continuing to unfold around and behind the limited window of action to which we are privy; the drummer has been, is still, and will continue to be drumming once the camera drags us away, the butcher is still butchering, but it all seems to occur just beyond our periphery of sight, leaving us craning for an impossible view of the unseen until such time as the camera grants us permission. As Godard palpably escalates the realism of the diegetic space, he simultaneously foregrounds the artificiality and limitations of the cinematic form, forcing his viewer into the role of unwitting captive at the mercy of the camera’s gaze.

Hitchcock and Beethoven: Privileging Greatness

At the beginning of his article, Bordwell distinguishes between art and classical narrative cinema; art cinema opposes classical narrative in that it loosens cause-effect sequence of events (“characters in the art cinema lack defined desires and goals” (582)), emphasizes reaction over action and the individual over group/society, and the narrative is driven by realism and authorial expressivity (“what is essential is that the art film be read as the work of an expressive individual” (584)). To this latter point, Bordwell states that the author is “a formal component, the overriding intelligence organizing the film for our comprehension” and that “deviations from the classical canon—an unusual angle, a stressed bit of cutting, a prohibited camera movement, an unrealistic shift in lighting or setting—in short any breakdown of the motivation of cinematic space and time by cause-effect logic—can be read as ‘authorial commentary’” (584–5). Furthermore, Bordwell concludes his article with a discussion of Hollywood’s inclusion of art cinema techniques.

“Just as the Hollywood silent cinema borrowed avant-garde devices but assimilated them to narrative ends, so recent American filmmaking has appropriated art-film devices . . . More interestingly, we have seen an art cinema emerge in Hollywood . . . Yet if Hollywood is adopting traits of the art cinema, that process must be seen as not simply copying but complex transformation. In particular, American film genres intervene to warp art-cinema conventions in new directions (as the work of Altman and Coppola shows). It is also possible to see that certain classical filmmakers have had something of the art cinema about them. Sirk, Ford, and Lang all come to mind here but the preeminent instance is Alfred Hitchcock” (587–8).

While Bordwell’s article illuminates the distinction between art and classical cinema, I can’t help but read his comments as primarily a reinforcement of the distinction between “art” and “popular” or “good” and “bad.” Of course, this division does not belong solely to Bordwell or even to film.

In music there is privileging of the composer as a “tortured artist” who must turn to music convey their inner soul. Beginning with Beethoven, the composer becomes a Romantic hero who overcomes adversity through their art and, as a result, haunts the next generations of composers. There is then an emphasis placed on innovation and uniqueness that must be found throughout the composer’s oeuvre, a way of distinguishing the “good” composers from the ordinary composers, whose music might make enjoyable listening but not be “worthy of study.” Through this privileging, one can retrospectively make an esteemed lineage of great composers and, subsequently, great genres and musical nations—Mozart over Dittersdorf, opera over musicals, Germany over the United States. However, the determining factors of “greatness” are arbitrary, used equivocally to justify valuing one thing over another or to raise a “popular” thing to the level of “art.” Similar to the way the classical filmmakers cited by Bordwell incorporated art cinema techniques into their films thus reinforcing their privileged status, certain composers of popular genres are deemed more worthy of recognition for their incorporation of art techniques.[1]

Returning to this week’s readings, we find the concept of the “tortured artist baring their soul through their work” in the profile of David Milch. Does the knowledge of Milch’s relationship with his father, drug abuse, and self-destructive behavior make us watch Deadwood with greater fervor? Do we now view Deadwood as the work of an “expressive individual”? Maybe. But I’m not sure that means we should view other shows or films as less significant. While Hitchcock, Beethoven, and the like may be worthy of study, the importance Bordwell places on the overriding intelligence and organizational prowess of the author appears to be an unnecessary justification for valuing certain works over others.

[1] For example, Stephen Sondheim is a music theater composer who writes in an operatic style and is, therefore, considered better than other music theater composers while not quite achieving the elevated status of opera composer.

“Shadow of a Doubt”: Be Careful What You Read

Shadow of a Doubt: Be Careful What You Read

[Really cool image that I failed to upload]

(Shadow of a Doubt, 9 min. 47seconds)



Within the first ten minutes of Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock delivers a warning about the very real possibility of personal, physical harm that can come from reading. Of course, it is only a joking aside from a father (Joseph Newton, played by Henry Travers) to his daughter Ann (Edna May Wonacott). But, this hilarious joke takes a different shape as the film continues. Prior to this comment, Ann is criticizing her father for reading mystery novels.  Prior to that, Ann is on the receiving end of a telephone call notifying the family of a telegram they received. In a joking manor Hitchcock has quickly established communication, reading, and discovery as threads that inform the entire movie. Books communicate to their readers; Telephones communicate across the community; telegrams communicate across the nation; telepathy communicates between people at any distance. Each character involves themselves in communication, reading, and discovery. Within the small town this communication is uninterrupted and valued (“That’s Daddy’s newspaper!”) except when it comes to talking to one another. The communication between characters is constantly interrupted and overlapping. The result is that the suspicions some of the family members have about Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) never get communicated to one another. For instance, the father is clearly suspicious when Uncle Charlie deposits $40,000 at the bank (using a random and probably reliable inflation converter that is around $600,000 today). The mother (Patricia Collinge) seems suspicious when Charlie (Teresa Wright) asks her to ride with her to the lecture. Charlie is suspicious almost from the moment she sees the ring’s engraving. These characters are independently suspicious but because they do not communicate to one another they never can connect the dots. Uncle Charlie, of course, covers things nicely and is able to withhold information and maintain a communication breakdown within the family.

Yet, this moment is more complex than that; Hitchcock implicates himself in the joke and the message. He draws our attention to the mystery genre, his constructed world, and the laying out of clues for us to read. We can collect more information than any of the single characters; we are afforded the communication that the characters cannot achieve. He uses Joseph and Herbie (Hume Cronyn) to make the point even clearer. It’s as if he says, “this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes novel—this is a movie, and I’m going to lay this across multiple characters… but be careful what you read”. In some ways this movie is a meditation on the mystery genre. It simultaneously includes us in the very first warning and excludes us. It lets us play along and find the clues; it excludes us from the material harm that is nearly brought on the chief detective—Young Charlie.

In this way the original warning “don’t read too much. You’ll ruin your eyes” alerts us to the dangers that may come to those individuals in the film that are searching for the truth about Uncle Charlie. Truly, material harm will come to those that read too much. And yet, I can’t help but feel like this is a message to us too. The difference is that we willingly and joyfully subject ourselves to feelings of suspense and horror. Still, it cannot be ignored that all of this happens in a playful, but loaded line. Harm is unlikely to come to us, but it playfully raises the stakes for us as readers while connecting us to the readers in the film.

“Auteur, Schmauteur,” and Other Such Eloquent Musings on the Different Critical Frameworks Offered by Pauline Kael and Peter Wollen

About midway through her rebuttal to Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Pauline Kael articulates the gripe I’d already scribbled in the margins of my textbook: “auteur critics tend to downgrade writer-directors—who are in the best position to use the film medium for personal expression” (18). Here, Kael is responding to Sarris’s claim that “a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material” (516)[i], basically dismissing the screenwriter and script as hurdles an auteur must overcome or somehow manipulate to achieve his[ii] overall artistic vision.

Kael’s not having any of Sarris’s nonsense—and neither am I. Perhaps it’s because I’m a fiction-writer myself—a sucker for language, and a believer in what Kael calls “unified…expression” (24), where form and content are inextricably linked, and seemingly the product of a single creative mind—but my favorite movies almost unanimously come from writer-directors: Annie Hall (Woody Allen), Broadcast News (James L. Brooks), Say Anything (Cameron Crowe). My favorite films of the ones we’ve watched so far in class—4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Lost in Translation—are also the brain-children of writer-directors (Cristin Mungiu and Sofia Coppola, respectively). A popular habit of late is to call prestige television “novelistic,” but this is largely in reference to TV’s scope and serialized nature; to me, though, filmmakers like Mungiu and Coppola are the greater “literary” artists, on-par with the finest short-story writers.[iii] Such writer-directors are able to compress the whole of human experience into a package digestible in a single sitting; they are craftsmen who have perfected the art of personal expression on the level of spoken language (dialogue, story) and filmic language (mise-en-scène).[iv]

Of course, I can’t speak for Mungiu and Coppola as auteurs, since I’m not familiar with the whole of their oeuvres. Kael sees the auteur theory’s critical emphasis on a director’s holistic body of work as a way to avoid grappling with that director’s lesser films—hand-waving his missteps as the product of a bad script that the auteur is still somehow able to salvage by his “personality,” his “familiar touches” (15). She seems to prefer taking movies on a case-by-case basis, rejecting the notion that a particular director’s name on a film will make or break its success: “we judge the man from his films and learn to predict a little about his next films,” says Kael, “but we don’t judge the films from the man” (23).

Enter Peter Wollen and “The Auteur Theory”—a treatise that does not directly reference Kael’s piece, but demonstrates the flaws she perceives in the auteur theory to an almost-comedic ‘T.’ Wollen takes as one of his subjects John Ford, arguing that the director “finds transcendent values in the historic vocation of America as a nation….[and also] begins to question the movement of American history itself” (521). Wollen clearly wishes to situate the director as one of the ur-auteurs[v] (Sarris also evinces a fondness for Ford, including him on his “list of auteurs” on p. 517), but is only able to do so by examining “the whole corpus[,] which permits the moment of synthesis when the critic returns to the individual film” (529).

Herein lies my (and, ultimately, Kael’s) biggest problem with the auteur theory: It can only be applied retrospectively, once a director has amassed a significant body of work—and suggests that the critical vocabulary available to a film critic is limited by how many of a particular director’s films he or she has seen. In other words, you are not qualified to discuss one film by a director if you have not seen all films by that director. For example, the only Ford film I’ve ever seen is Stagecoach—and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite its problematic aspects, because it had interesting characters with surprising arcs (particularly Doc Boone, who heroically achieves sobriety to deliver Lucy’s baby before promptly falling off the wagon[vi]—thus suggesting that a person can be both good and flawed, capable of great accomplishments and great blunders both). In class last week, we claimed that Doc Boone, Dallas, and Ringo—a drunk, a prostitute, and an outlaw—are situated as heroes in the film, a subversive act on Ford’s part in Production Code-era Hollywood; perhaps this feeds into Wollen’s conception of Ford as a rewriter of American history, but more likely it is an example of a director kowtowing to what Kael calls “a system of production that places a hammerlock on American directors” (23). In any event, such a reading of the film would not pass snuff with Wollen, because it contextualizes the individual film in the sociopolitical climate of 1930s Hollywood as opposed to placing it on a chronology of Ford’s other films and comparing and contrasting it with those.

The auteur theory renders impossible contemporaneous film reviewing, and in that way is antithetical to Kael’s (and my) conception of art criticism: for “the critic to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others” (21). Kael says that, in criticism, “you must use everything you are and everything you know that is relevant” (21); Wollen, though, takes exception to the claim that “the mark of a good film is that it conveys a rich meaning, an important truth, in a way which can be grasped immediately” (533). Kael sees film criticism as equal parts heart and head, while Wollen views it as a systematic, cerebral task. And perhaps, ultimately, both types of criticism are valuable—but Kael’s version is certainly more artful.

[i] Let it be known that I am using the fifth edition of Film Theory and Criticism, meaning my page numbers (let alone my critical musings themselves) will be of little use to anyone else. So it goes.

[ii] And it is, without a doubt, almost always a “his.” Some of this is surely the result of when Sarris, Kael, and Wollen were writing, but female filmmakers are not referenced in any of the three articles. Perhaps auteur status is inherently male, which contributes to its flawed nature; Kael dances around this idea when she takes issue with Sarris’s notion of the “essentially feminine” and says that “it is amusing that a critic can both support these clichés of the male world and be so happy when they are violated” (13). Here, she attacks the logical fallacy rather than the gender bias, but still draws our attention to the tendency of a Sarris-style auteur to co-opt female-coded behaviors and experiences without actually telling women’s stories on-screen. In any case, I choose to read barely-contained feminist rage in some of Kael’s more pointed strikes against Sarris—and (spoiler alert) would reject the auteur theory myself for its de-emphasis on the role of the screenwriter and the role of female filmmakers both.

[iii] Kael amusingly notes that an auteur critic would dismiss Dostoyevsky’s work for demonstrating “incredible unity of personality and material” (14), which is a no-no for Sarris, who champions “the tension between a director’s personality and his material” (516).

[iv] Later, Kael expressly says “that mise-en-scène and subject material—form and content—can be judged separately only in bad movies or trivial ones” (24), implying that the auteur theorist’s tendency to evaluate films solely for their visual elements while ignoring their stories, characters, and dialogue is an implicit recognition that the films themselves are not unified works of art (in the way a novel might be, for instance).

[v] To mix the Germanic with the Latinate, just a smidge.

[vi] Pun intended, of course.

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.

Classical Narration


Classical narration refers to one dominant mode of narration in fictional filmmaking. It is defined as “a particular configuration of normalized options for representing the fabula and for manipulating the possibilities of syuzhet and style” (156). In classical Hollywood cinema, the narration follows paradigmatic building blocks as events, actors and agents, linear chains of cause and effect, primary and secondary story lines. Bordwell’s analysis is framed on Russian formalism; the concepts of fabula (the chronological order of the events contained in the story), and syuzhet (the narrative order of the events contained in the story) are in fact key to his analysis. In addition, Bordwell heavily relies on narrative theory. Film considered in the chapter arch from 1917 to 1960, the time span when “classical narration” was the standard in Hollywood. The classical narration mode has a significant impact on the viewer who is driven to focus on understanding the fabul (rather than questioning how the fabula is constructed as in the art-cinema narration).

Classical narration makes use of two distinguished segments. First of all, the montage sequence, a series of shots that compress different actions in time and space into a short sequence. The other one, the scene is instead a part of the story and it portrays a specific action occurring at a specific time in a specific place. The end of a scene is often made explicit in the unfolding of the syuzhet — by variations in time, space and action – and through editorial intervention — by standardized technical punctuations as use of the fade, sound bridge etc. Scenes tend to display distinct phases. At the beginning the scene presents the context (time, space and characters); then it portrays the characters operating toward their goal; and finally it either closes off or it leaves a space open for further development of the story. For this reason, classical Hollywood is often described as “linear.” The same trifold structure is at play at the level of the fabula. The narrative is indeed structured with a discernable beginning, middle, and end. However, linearity is not absolute. This becomes apparent when the epilogue shows some sort of tension between the preceding causality and the happy resolution or when the fate of secondary characters are left opened or only hinted at.

Bordwell argues that classical narration mode tends to be omniscient because the narration has almost complete knowledge about the events; highly communicative because most of what is necessary for reconstructing the fabula is explicitly shown; and only moderately self-conscious, because very rarely the film acknowledges directly its audience. Of course, these features are not absolute. For example, certain genres — as detective films — tend to conceal more details. In addition, the level of self-consciousness fluctuates within the same film, generally being at its apex in the opening and in the final scene. Furthermore, throughout the entire film, the spectator’s level of omniscience progressively grows until the end when he/she can finally grasp the entire fabula. The “happy ending” is a common form of resolution but it is not structurally necessary. In certain cases, the protagonist does not achieve his goal and the film ends with a defeat.

The world presented in the narration is inherently consistent. As consequence, characters — especially the protagonist(s) — are psychologically defined and they have a stable worldview. Not surprisingly, in the classic Hollywood stars system actors become roughly identified with a prototype character. In classical Hollywood film, the goal of the characters appears to be psychologically rather than socially motivated. Since both the filmic world and the characters’ essence do not go through any sort of transformation, the spectator is asked to interpret the fabula in a certain way. This is indeed the almost monolithic constant: the narrative provides a resolution that is limited to a single “legitimate” interpretation.

Causality is the glue of the story. A great majority of films have a “double causal structure.” On the one side the heterosexual romance, on the other side another sphere of personal relationships. These two lines are distinct and at the same time interdependent.
 The plot can be further complicated by adding lines and subplots. One of the lines can be brought to end before, but more often they end together. In the narration, temporal and information gaps are rarely permanent. The viewer is generally spoon-fed all the necessary details through dialogues or a montage sequence. Often times, details are purposely redundant to make sure that the viewer can easily follow the syuzhet. Even when information gaps are imposed by the genre (as in detective film), soon or later the facts or the motivations are disclosed. In classic Hollywood film, the viewer is conceived as “ideal invisible observer” who always holds the optimal point of view.

In order to understand why the style of the classical Hollywood film appears to be self-concealing, Bordwell brings into the discussion the role of the spectator. He identifies three propositions. First of all, film technique serves as a vehicle for the unfolding of the story. Second, time and space are consistently presented through stylistic choices. For example, the camera makes abundant use of anticipatory movements to guide the spectator; generally, each shot follows logically the previous one. Exceptions, like discontinuous editing or hallucinatory sequences, are admissible only if they conform to a disorienting situation provided in the story. Third, a limited number of specific technical devices are deployed for specific communicative purposes. The result is that for each shoot there is a more likely set of “rules” that can be applied. The consistent use of these rules and the explicit orientation of the spectator in time and space make the style invisible to a general viewer.


Stagecoah (1939) offers, in many respects, an example of classical narration. It should be noted that narration modes are not absolute. Exceptions to the paradigm are indeed not infrequent. Browne examines a sequence from Stagecoach and challenges the conventional critical definition of classic film. Still, Stagecoach presents many features of the classical narration mode. In this section I discuss some elements at play in the film that are prominent in the classic narration mode. In order to highlight some features of the classical narration mode, I will bring into the discussion 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a film that belongs to a definitely different mode of narration. In Stagecoach, characters — even the secondary ones — are psychologically defined and their personality remains unvaried throughout the whole film. I find interesting how at the beginning of the film Dallas, the prostitute, is depicted in a sympathetic way. The narration achieves its intent by representing the members of “Law and Order League” who have driven Dallas out of town as unpleasant and overly conservatory. In the film, the cause-effect relations are straightforward and the narrative is clearly structured around a linear development: initially obstacles and difficulties are presented; then the situation evolves until a final (happy) resolution. Let’s take Ringo Kid, the protagonist, by way of illustration. Ringo breaks out of prison to avenge the murder of his brother and of his father. In the course of the action, Ringo runs into the east-bound stagecoach. There he meets Dallas and then asks for her hand in marriage. In the end, Ringo succeeds in killing the three Plummers and he “escapes” with Dallas on a calash. The couple is expected to get married and live a happy life. Clearly, the “double causal structure is at play in Stagecoach. The fabula interweaves a story of revenge with a story of heterosexual romanceDetails are not concealed; the narration tends to be omniscient and highly communicative. For example, while riding in the stagecoach, it is Ringo to inform why he evaded from prison. The narration is also not very self-conscious: the audience is never directly acknowledged. The prominence of classic narration in Stagecoach becomes even more obvious when one compares other types of narration modes. For example, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days the importance given to the characters is overturn. Ottilia who is aiding her friend Gabriela to have an abortion is the central focus of the narration. A number of details are purposefully hidden. The film directly acknowledges the spectator at the end of the film when Otilia looks directly at the camera (does she?) letting the audience guess what will happen between the two friends.

Summing up, Bordwell offers a compelling overview of the narrative at play in classical Hollywood film. From the limited research I have done on the subject, I assume that the adjective “classic” as an attribute to early Hollywood film is to be credited to Bordwell. This adjective confers to early Hollywood film a layer of aura. On the one hand, Bordwell claims that classical narration mode is only one of the narrative modes possible for realizing a film. On the other hand, he labels it “classic” and in so doing he confers a special value to mode. Many of the narrative features at play in classical film are style widely used in filmmaking not only in the US but all around the world. Beside the socio-economic influence of the U.S is there some inherent property about “classical narrative mode” that makes it so prominent? In addition, as we have glimpsed at, when narrative modes emerge they are not paradigmatic. How long does it take before a narrative mode gets crystalized? Where does the necessity to innovate or reject a mode and come up with a new one stems from?


Into the West: Landscape Rhetoric in Stagecoach

Our readings on classical narration this week seem focused on character, particularly in Browne. Bordwell makes a strong case for character as the central cause of action in classical Hollywood, but I see a gap, perhaps one particularly important for Westerns: what is the rhetoric of the landscape or location? Thus the rabbit hole I want to go down is minimally related to the themes Bordwell and Browne focus on, but might illuminate some gaps in their essays.


I’m thinking particularly of the scene in Stagecoach that begins at about 0:15:00 (at least in this YouTube version of the film)—the long shot/take of the western landscape as the stagecoach departs, followed by the column of cavalry. It’s remarkable (IMO) for the length of the take, which extends well after the cavalry has passed as the coach and soldiers diminish into the landscape, and for the stationary camera. Most other long takes in the film seem to be tracking shots (as in several cases of people walking and talking) or possibly-faked tracking shots (like those of the coach traveling).

The landscape shot is also notable for its depiction of space. There are also shots during the chase scene that emphasize the expansive landscape, but none quite like this one. The depth of landscape is striking, recalling the Hudson River School of painting, which places humans in the “middle landscape” and is tied to exploration and expansionism in 19th-century American culture.


Asher Durand, “Progress” – note the title and the wagon train in the middle landscape


Much could be said about the cultural connotations of such a shot in an American movie, and I’m sure someone better informed than I would have even more comments on the landscape shot and the western genre. But I want to touch on two things: the rhetoric of this bit of landscape in Stagecoach, and (at least briefly) the contrast between it and the way space is depicted in Deadwood.

Bordwell looks at narration as the meeting of fabula, syuzhet, and style* (156). In classical film narration, he writes, syuzhet is generally linear and fabulae are character-driven. Narration tends to be covert once the situation is set up, particularly when the action is driven or information conveyed by characters (something Browne also dwells on). However, the “communicativeness of classical narration is evident in the way that the syuzhet handles gaps” (160). The primary gap-handling strategy he’s interested in is the montage and its ability to facilitate a skip in time.

But what are we to make of this landscape shot? As a simple statement of plot—the coach has left town—it’s too long. There’s a sense of digression from the main course of events, as in a montage. But it’s the opposite of a montage in a technical sense, even though it also facilitates a skip in space and time, by transitioning to scenes in/on the coach and implying that a great deal of space has been traversed. At the same time, the implied observer is stationary at the edge of town. We take the position of civilization at the edge of the wilderness, our attention split between the column of riders and the seemingly limitless landscape.

I’d argue that the film is using the viewer not so much to re-enact the work of the narrator (as Browne suggests, 140), but to reconstruct/narrate Stagecoach’s ethos—nostalgia, American exceptionalism and the frontier, a particular vision of heroic-but-untamed masculinity (e.g. Ringo). This isn’t far off what Browne’s arguing, but transposed to the level of ideological identification rather than character identification.

Deadwood diverges from Stagecoach (and presumably other classic westerns) ideologically as well, in addition to obvious aesthetic differences. Deadwood rarely features these sorts of wide landscapes, favoring grit, as we’ve discussed before, and close spaces that conceal all manner of sins. (This week’s episode contained an exception: Jane’s view down the hill of Wild Bill’s burial.) The difference is so noticeable as to seem a repudiation of both the aesthetics and ideology of the classic western. The landscape has been dramatically constrained, and within four episodes the western frontier hero—Wild Bill—is dead. It would be incorrect to say that this is a farewell to American exceptionalism, but it’s hardly a story driven by the nostalgic optimism of the endless landscape.


* Where fabula is the events of the story and syuzhet is the way they’re arranged in the storytelling.